In Memoriam: David Bathrick

A post by the New German Critique Editorial Collective


Photo by Robert Barker/Cornell University

We are saddened to learn of the death of David Bathrick, professor emeritus at Cornell University and co–founding editor of New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies. David, 84, passed away April 30 at his home in Bremen, Germany.

In 1973 David cofounded New German Critique with Andreas Huyssen, Anson Rabinbach, and Jack Zipes. The journal has played a significant role in introducing US readers to Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and it helped expand the field of German studies from its focus on literature to a broadly conceived form of cultural historical studies. It remains an important forum for debate in the humanities and social sciences. A 2005 issue of New German Critique dedicated to David is freely available through the end of August in his honor.

After a 17-year career at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, David taught theater arts, German studies, and Jewish studies at Cornell University for 20 years, retiring in 2007. He authored The Powers of Speech: The Politics of Culture in the GDR, a seminal book that stands as a classic on GDR cultural politics before and after the fall of the wall, and The Dialectic and the Early Brecht: An Interpretive Study of “Trommeln in der Nacht.” He coedited Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory and Modernity and the Text: Revisions of German Modernism.

Some of us remember meeting David at the Madison Workshop during the early 1970s. From the very beginning of his long career, he stood out. He was a strong and innovative force in the profession. His commitment to modern German literature, and especially to Brecht, Weimar, and GDR culture, was always more than a purely scholarly engagement. His enthusiasm was both personal and political. What made him so attractive as a colleague and friend was his complete disregard for institutional hierarchies. This was the spirit in which NGC was founded.

Ever one to think outside the box and beyond the canon, David spent much of his career reflecting on mass culture and visual media. The Weimar Republic and its unique designs for living generated his articles on nonsynchronous authors such as Franz Jung as well as Max Schmeling, the boxing champion, and German Americanism. Above all cinema would become a key site of his endeavors. An indefatigable cinephile, David attended the Berlinale every year and took pleasure when he did so in watching four or five features a day. He wrote significant articles on Béla Balázs and G. W. Pabst, radio culture and Nazi cinema, filmic exemplars of aesthetic resistance in the Third Reich, and representations of the Holocaust. His summer seminars devoted to German film studies would have a strong impact on the rising careers of young scholars and have served as the catalyst for two widely used collections of essays.

Editing NGC with David as unflappable guide and inspiration was always an adventure leading to new insights. Working with him on the journal, there has never been a boring moment, and his roaring laughter and good spirits even in crisis situations are legend. He was committed to expanding German studies in ways that by now have become part of the field at large. If rethinking the Frankfurt School’s critical theories of modernity in changed historical conditions was a core concern, the journal opened its pages to feminist and queer studies, to postmodernism, film, and visual culture, and most recently to eco-critical studies. Together with his own incisive work on Brecht and Müller, on the question of oppositional culture in the GDR and on 1989, on Nazi film and contemporary taboos on Holocaust images and their transgressions, David Bathrick’s scholarship, teaching, and editorial work has shaped generations of students, many of whom have themselves become leaders in the profession.

Students at Cornell, UW–Madison, and elsewhere recall his generosity and his wit. He was a remarkably gifted advisor and mentor, who throughout his decades-long career inspired countless students—both doctoral and undergraduate—to explore new avenues of research, into East German history and culture, film history, and Holocaust studies. They also remember him as an extraordinary raconteur whose encounters with student movements and secret police (both FBI and Stasi) provided them with insights that went well beyond the written page. As one of his students put it succinctly, discussions with him always seemed to be a master class in how to think.

David embodied a form of critical thought that was in love with its objects, explored their contradictions, and was attuned both to the cognitive and affective dimensions of literary and theoretical texts, films, and historical constellations of culture and politics. Generosity toward other modes of thought and impatience with narrow moralizing, ideological closure, and the mindset of victimization and ressentiment were hallmarks of his being. As Biddy Martin, one of his students and member of the journal’s editorial collective in the 1970s, wrote in NGC 95, the special issue dedicated to his 70th birthday: “Bathrick observes, probes, pierces, teases, taunts, laughs and gazes with a cutting edge and an extraordinary tenderness. He delights with his capacity for amazement and with his irreverence. Nothing is automatically sacred, but his humor, while aggressive toward closure, complacency and piety, also reveals his profound humanity, his love of quirkiness, his embrace of absurdity, and his appreciation of our various limitations.”

David Bathrick was the soul of NGC. His memory will always be with us.

The NGC Editorial Collective



    1. no way to ‘expand German studies’ in 21st century — the people speaking German, and Germany as a state, — both have been shrinking for over 100 years — I knew Bathrick well and he had many good qualities, but his love for Germany was like a love for opera – a museum case


      1. well, I will say in addition to above that David Bathrick was a Germanophile without being ‘deutschnational’ — I never heard him say the words ‘Mitteleuropa’ or ‘Central Europe’ – both terms are dog-whistle words for nationalists since the late 1980s – I knew him well from 1970 into the 1980s, and he directed me in a play and taught me in many classes – he was a professor at the U. of WI but was often absentee, on sabbatical – thus he could not be a mentor – I understood his absence, as did others who have talked to me about this – he was never comfortable in the Midwest, always longing for US northeast and Atlantic and Europe


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