In Memoriam: Wolfgang Helbich (1935–2021)

Professor Wolfgang Helbich

Wolfgang Helbich passed away on November 13, 2021, at the age of 86. He was a professor of North American History at Ruhr University Bochum from 1974, until his mandatory retirement in 2000. A native Berliner who witnessed the Russian occupation of Brandenburg as a ten-year old, Helbich embraced the old German tradition of Wanderstudium, with stops at the Freie Universität Berlin, Heidelberg, the Sorbonne, and last but not least, as a Fulbright Exchange Student at Princeton, where he earned a B.A. magna cum laude in 1958, meanwhile absolving five graduate seminars with mentors such as Gordon Craig and Arthur Link. By 1962, he had earned his doctorate in Berlin on the subject of German reparations. That same year, he became an assistant professor, and in 1969, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught until 1974.

Helbich’s greatest contribution was in the collecting and editing of German immigrant letters. Supported by six years of Volkswagen Foundation funding, he accumulated the largest collection of German immigrant letters anywhere, and possibly the largest from any ethnic group, the majority of them previously in private hands. With Ruhr University unwilling to continue supporting the letter collection after Helbich’s retirement, and with his wife, Ursula Lehmkuhl, taking a professorship in Erfurt, he found a new home for the collection nearby at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. Together with his wife, Helbich helped launch a follow-up project, supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, to extend the collection efforts to areas of the former GDR that were inaccessible before German reunification. This collection, now under the name DeutscheAuswandererBriefSammlung or DABS brought the tally of immigrant letters to some 11,000, with many of them transcribed and all freely accessible to scholars.

Helbich also made many of these immigrant letters available in publications, the first of which were two paperback collections of thematic excerpts from letters published in 1985 and 1988. More ambitious were two large anthologies of letters we published together, first in the original German, then translated into English with NEH support, the latter under the titles News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home (1992), and Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home (2006). Both letter editions have been drawn upon repeatedly, helping to enrich textbooks, anthologies, and subsequent academic research on both sides of the Atlantic. Scholars across various disciplines have also profited from the unpublished letters in the collection.

Helbich wore several other hats that are nearly as important. His area of teaching and research also extended north of the 49th parallel. He was a major force in Canadian Studies in Germany, especially on relations between Francophone and Anglophone Canada. On the side, he was a professional translator of some twenty-five books, mostly from English into German, among them works by Gordon Craig, David McCullough, and a couple by Arthur Schlesinger including his JFK chronicle, A Thousand Days.

Helbich served as an interpreter and translator between continents in a figurative as well as a literal sense. He strongly encouraged international exchanges on the part of his students, among others through the Erasmus program. He co-edited the “Directory of European Historians of North America,” and authored the German chapter for the 5-volume Guide to the Study of United States History Outside the U.S. (1985), pointing up the huge disparity between the several hundred professors of German history in the United States versus the handful of professors of U.S. history in Germany. Drawing upon his American experiences, Helbich was an influential force pushing for restructuring of the German university and introducing the B.A. degree. He continued to be an insightful but not uncritical observer and interpreter of American politics, occasionally in venues such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Helbich’s retirement in 2000 brought no end to his scholarly pursuits and contributions. He co-edited three books with me since then and soldiered on despite increasing infirmities on a fourth joint project involving forced and assisted migration of convicts and other unwelcome immigrants from Germany to America. His last e-mail on the subject was sent nine days before his death.

Helbich is survived by his wife, Professor Ursula Lehmkuhl, one daughter and three sons, and five grandchildren.

For more detail on Helbich’s career and contributions, see my 2017 Laudatio when he received the Society for German American Studies Distinguished Achievement Award.

Submitted by: Walter D. Kamphoefner

Posted: December 7, 2021
Tagged: In Memoriam