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Voigt, Johannes H. (1929–2020)

by Ulrike Kirchberger

In memory of Johannes H. Voigt (1929-2020)

Those who began studying history at the University of Stuttgart in the 1980s as a rule had completed the University entrance exam a few months earlier at a Swabian grammar school and had studied German history of the 19th and 20th centuries in their senior classes. At the universities, too, modern historians were primarily concerned with topics of inner-German history. The "global turn" was still a long way off. During these years, Johannes H. Voigt was head of the Department of Overseas History at the Institute of History of the University of Stuttgart and gave lectures on the history of Australia and India. For many students this opened up interesting new worlds. Voigt was one of the few German historians to deal with the recent history of India and probably the only one to focus his research on Australian history. Although global contexts have received more attention in historical studies in recent years, the history of Australia still lies far beyond the horizon of many German historians. Methodologically Voigt stood for historiography in the traditional Anglo-Saxon style. Characteristic for his books are their good readability and vivid language. He wrote for a specialist audience, but also reached a wide readership. The careful analysis of sources formed the core of his scholarly work. He was sceptical of too much theoretical padding. He did not master the history of foreign cultures through the lens of postcolonial theory but by intensive source and archival work combined with extensive travel. Observation "on site" played an important role in his research.

Johannes H. Voigt was born on 13 October 1929 in Groß-Wittensee, Eckernförde County, Schleswig Holstein, Germany, and spent most of his school years there. After graduating from high school, he studied law, history and English at the universities of Kiel, Marburg and London, interrupted briefly by a period as an assistant teacher of German at the Bishopshalt Grammar School in Hillingdon, Middlesex, England. In 1959, he received his doctorate with a dissertation on British politics in the Schleswig-Holstein Question (1859-1864) from the University of Kiel. In the same year, he passed the state examination in the subjects History and English. As Voigt had already been interested in South Asian culture and history during his studies, he decided to take an unconventional professional step in 1959. He took up a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) lectureship for German language and literature at the Benares Hindu University in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. There, in addition to his teaching activities, he developed a wide range of cultural activities. He founded an "Indo-German Cultural Association", held lectures and organised discussion, music and film evenings. In 1961, he moved to Panjab University in Chandigarh, where he worked as a lecturer in modern European history. In Chandigarh, too, he was involved in the imparting of German culture far beyond his teaching duties, organising film screenings and the exhibition "Education in Germany". As early as 1962, the German ambassador in India acknowledged his great services to German-Indian relations. This was a leitmotif at the beginning of his academic career that was to run through his entire academic life.

In 1963, Voigt went to St. Anthony's College in Oxford for a research stay, where he worked on various topics of Indian historiography in the following years. It was also at Oxford that he wrote his first monograph. It deals with the Indologist Friedrich Max Müller, who made a name for himself with Sanskrit translations and other writings on the religion and culture of South Asia, and who influenced the British India policy of the Victorian era. In this work Voigt, among other things, took up the problematic question of the relationship between linguistic classification of non-European languages and the racial thinking of the 19th century, which has only been addressed again by the postcolonial critique of the 21st century. The book, Max Müller: The Man and his Ideas, was published in 1967 and in 1969 in a second edition. Voigt's time at Oxford came to a close in 1968 with a doctorate on the topic of "Indian Historical Writing with Special Reference to the Influence of Nationalism, 1870-1920."

After earning his doctorate at Oxford, his academic path took him further, to Australia. From 1968 to 1971, he worked as a Research Fellow in the History Department of the Australian National University in Canberra. His research topic during these years was Asia in the Second World War. In 1971, he returned to Germany, but, now in preparation for a postdoctoral thesis on the Asian area in World War II and supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation, he continued his travels to India, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. In 1973, he completed his professor’s qualification at the University of Stuttgart with a thesis on India in World War II, and after a period as a university lecturer, he was appointed to a professorship there. He taught at the University of Stuttgart until 1995. In the early 1980s and in 1990, he held a visiting professorship at the University of New South Wales.

It is not easy to reduce the thematic diversity of Johannes H. Voigt's work to a common denominator. First of all, there are the works on German-British relations in the 19th century in connection with the Schleswig-Holstein question. The starting point for this research focus was the Kiel dissertation. Although he subsequently turned to other topics, he returned again and again in different variations to the Schleswig-Holstein keynote, not least in his work on the German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller from this region. In the later years of his life, Voigt was intensively engaged in the contemporary history of Schleswig-Holstein. His last essays, which bear clear autobiographical traits, describe life in his northern German homeland during the Second World War and in the post-war period.

The second research focus includes Indian history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Following his work on Max Müller and Indian historiography in the 19th century, Voigt has, since the 1970s, been primarily concerned with the India of the 20th century. Most important in this area was the professorial dissertation published in 1978 on India in the Second World War, which was published in English translation in 1988. In the nineties, various works were written on German-Jewish emigration to India during the National Socialist era. Among other things in 1999, he published together with the Indian Germanist Anil Bhatti, a collective volume that deals with those artists and intellectuals, who sought refuge in the Indian metropoles in the thirties and forties (Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945). At this time, Voigt was already researching in the archives in Berlin and Potsdam for his highly acclaimed late work Die Indienpolitik der DDR: Von den Anfängen bis zur Anerkennung (1952-1972). The extensive monograph, published in 2008, deals with the initiatives of the East German government to persuade the young Indian nation state to recognize it as a state.

Thirdly, since the 1980s, Voigt has written the most authoritative comprehensive accounts of Australian history in the German-speaking world. His Geschichte Australiens [History of Australia], published by Kröner Verlag in 1988, is still the standard scholarly work on the subject. A UTB paperback that introduces students to the history of Australia and Oceania was published in 2011. In time for the Sydney Olympics, he wrote a travel guide for the Beck Verlag in 2000, in which he gave a concise panorama of the culture and history of the Fifth Continent, without any loss of scholarly standard in doing so. In the late eighties, two monographs followed, an anthology and a whole series of essays on the history of German-Australian relations in the 19th century. In this context are classed essays and handbook contributions on German emigration to the Pacific region in the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Fourthly, the major field of work in the nineties was the gathering of the correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller, the botanist who emigrated to Australia in 1847 and served there as government botanist of the colony of Victoria and director of the botanical gardens in Melbourne, rising to become a scientist of world rank. Away from European metropoles, Mueller built up a global communications network. A group of historians made up of Voigt, the Australian historian of science Roderick W. Home and other colleagues in Melbourne and London, reconstructed this knowledge network by researching Mueller's contacts and correspondence in archives around the world. The result was a massive collection of letters. The three volumes of Select Correspondence, published in 1998, 2002 and 2006 by Peter Lang Verlag, contain only a small part of the total number of letters recorded. They shed much new light on the global history of science in the 19th century, but they also open up new territory with regard to German-Australian social and immigration history. The correspondence between Mueller and the Gotha cartographer August Petermann was published by Voigt in 1996 with the Justus Perthes Verlag. By reference to the communication between Mueller and Petermann, this edition shows the process of cartographic-geographical development of the Fifth Continent, the interior of which was still largely unknown to Europeans in the 19th century. In addition, the correspondence opens up further new perspectives. For example, it is of significance for German colonial history that Mueller, in his letters to Petermann from the 1860s onwards, urged that a German colonial empire should be established, even though the politicians in the German Confederation at the time showed little interest in becoming involved in the non-European world. Such impulses from the German emigrant diasporas are still very much neglected by colonial historians. In connection with the "Ferdinand von Mueller" project there was also the edition of the letters and notes of the German traveller in Australia Hermann Beckler, who took part in one of the great north-south crossings of Australia in the mid-19th century. The volume was published in 2000 by Jan Thorbecke Verlag.

In addition to these thematic and regional fields of research, in the nineties, Voigt began to deal with systematic questions of historical migration research. In Australia, a country of immigration, the history of migration has always been a central topic. In Germany, on the other hand, it has only been attracting the attention of historians for a few decades. Voigt did much to establish migration research as a historical subdiscipline in Germany. Not only through his publications but also through the founding of the Stuttgart Working Group for Historical Migration Research, which regularly organized conferences on the history of migration and published a relevant series with Steiner Verlag, he did pioneering work in this field.

This brief survey of Johannes H. Voigt's extensive oeuvre could not take into account many of his works and interests. For example, his research in regional history was by no means limited to his native Schleswig-Holstein. He also felt connected to his Stuttgart location and expressed this in various publications. In the eighties, he dealt in detail with the history of the University of Stuttgart. He wrote a university history and was co-editor of a volume on the 150th anniversary of the University of Stuttgart. It was in this context, at a time when research on the role of German academics under National Socialism had hardly begun, that he published several texts about the then Technical High School and the involvement of its professors with the Nazi regime. It was only a few years ago that the history of the University of Stuttgart during the National Socialist era was reviewed in a large-scale project of the University Archives. Voigt's research in the late seventies and early eighties laid the foundation for this project. For the Stuttgart Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, he published on German-Australian relations. In 2003, he produced a volume for the Linden Museum to accompany the exhibition on the German-Jewish Indologist Betty Heimann.

Johannes H. Voigt was an extraordinarily productive historian with a sure instinct for important new topics. From his residence abroad, he brought back many suggestions that proved to be viable and, years after he had taken them up, moved to the centre of historical research in Germany. He was a traveller between worlds, never losing touch with the local grip on reality. He succeeded in linking the great relationships of international politics and transcontinental migration back to the small area. Internationally networked at a high level, he remained friendly and unpretentious in his personal interactions. On 28 February 2020, he passed away at his home in Marbach, near Stuttgart. By his death, German historical scholarship has become more provincial.

Ulrike Kirchberger, Kassel University, Germany, 2020.
Translated by Thomas A. Darragh, Museum Victoria.

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Citation details

Ulrike Kirchberger, 'Voigt, Johannes H. (1929–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 10 May 2021.

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