Professor Dr. Dr. hc mult. Karl Dietrich Bracher (1922- 2016) was the most respected and influential political scientist and historian in the Federal Republic of Germany on the developments in the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.

He became my Doktorvateror thesis director as the Americans call it, for my 1,200-pages-dissertation The Atomic Partners. Washington – Bonn and the Modernization of Nuclear Weapons (Bonn 1985). Before I worked for him as a tutor in his famous Seminar für Politische Wissenschaften (Seminar for Political Science) at the University of Bonn in Germany. Since then I am proud to say: „Ich bin ein Bracher Schüler“ ( I am a Bracher pupil).

He was proud that more than 140 of his students wrote a thesis, one even about the many doctorates (PhD.) of Bracher. Several of them celebrated his 90th birthday in his home in Bonn (pictures) March 2012. Bracher played piano for us all, including „Sentimental Journey“. In the 1940th and 1950th he had played in student bars in Tübingen to finance his studies.

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Celebrating his 90th birthday with his pupils in his home in Bonn


What made him very special was his unique combination of a great deep thinker and a noble, moderate, and friendly man. He published a series of eminent books that had made him famous in Germany, and the global academic world.

He was a Weltbürger too, still rooted in his mentality from Schwaben as a modest, a little shy and humble man, born in Stuttgart 94 years ago.

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Karl Dietrich Bracher (right side) with his students. Author Hubertus Hoffmann in the center.

World War II has left a deep impression upon him. As a very young man he joined Erwin Rommels Afrikakorps and fought in the deserts of Libya and Tunisia. Not for Adolf Hitler, but “Für Deutschland und das Vaterland” (For Germany and the Fatherland), like millions other idealistic young German men. Captured by American troops in Tunisia in 1943, he became prisoner of war in America – good for him. His friend was Reinhard Mohn (1921-2009) from Güthersloh in Westfalen, whose family owned a small print business. Bracher told me how they both worked as POWs in the library in Camp Concordia in Kansas. There Mohn got know to the book-club idea. He later transferred it to Germany and made billions with the booming Bertelsmann Verlag.

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What has happened in Nazi Germany, and why the Weimarer Republic and democracy failed from 1919 to 1933, became the main interest and research focus of Bracher. It was the subject of discussions of his generation of young Germans. The political drama of Germany, from Beethoven and Kant to Hitler and Auschwitz. The shock of the misuse of Vaterlandsliebe for totalitarian fantasies. Germany switched from the Kaiser to a weak democracy, later to a brutal dictatorship and back to the fresh Bonner Republik headquartered at the Rhine river in his university city of Bonn.

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The totalitarian threat in Germany was still alive from 1945 until 1990 in the form of the communist GDR, backed by a strong totalitarian USSR. Bracher lived in a split Heimat of a dictatorship and a democracy. The new German drama which only ended 26 years ago.

Bracher made his Ph.D. at the University of Tübingen in 1948 and studied at Harvard from 1949 to 1950. He was as well a child of the re-education effort in America, to build up a new and fresh democratic generation in Germany. There he was infected by the ideas of freedom and democracy, which influenced his mindset.

Bracher’s dissertation and his first book, Verfall und Fortschritt im Denken der frühen römischen Kaiserzeit, described the downfall of the Roman Republic.

He started his academic career teaching at the Free University in Berlin from 1950 to 1958.

In 1951 Bracher married Dorothee Schleicher (picture on top), the niece of anti-Nazi preacher Dietrich Bonhoefer, his long-time and steady emotional foundation. They have two children.

His masterwork and habilitation Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik (The Disintegration of the Weimar Republic) from 1955 was an innovative mixture of political science and history. He described the collapse of German democracy in the 1920th and 1930th and the rise of Hitler in all details.

1960 followed a monograph (co-written with Wolfgang Sauer and Gerhard Schulz) Die nationalsozialistische Machtergreifung (The National Socialist Seizure of Power). This book described the road from freedom to un-freedom by the Gleichschaltung of German life in 1933–1934. This was the process of Nazification by which Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP party successfully established a system of totalitarian control and coordination over all aspects of society, from the economy and trade associations to the media, culture and education. All people under one man, and one ideology like a religion. Whoever disagreed or was Jewish, like 500,000 Germans, was a Volksfeind or Volksverräter, and had to be exiled or eliminated in the prisons, concentration camps and even executed, “to make Germany great again”, after the lost Great War and the unfair treaty of Versailles.

His magnum opus Die deutsche Diktatur (The German Dictatorship) was published in 1969. This book presented the picture of the National Socialist dictatorship as a totalitarian regime in many new details.

Karl Dietrich Bracher promoted his findings of totalitarianism. For him, fascism, communism or Maoism have many things in common. Something the left did not like to hear, as they still believed in the good cause of Marxism that needs sacrifices to the communist credo. Bracher believed that totalitarianism, whether from the left or right, is the leading threat to democracy all over the world. His mission was to make democracy water-proof.

Nazi Germany was the worst totalitarian regime. For Bracher the “revolutionary dynamic” was the core principle of totalitarianism and its essence, the total claim to control and remake all aspects of society, together with an all-embracing ideology, authoritarian leadership, and the pretense of the common identity of state and society. All this  distinguished the totalitarian “closed” understanding of politics from the “open” democratic setup.

As early as 1959 Karl Dietrich Bracher became a young professor and established the influential Seminar für Politische Wissenschaft (Seminar for Political Science) at the Bonner Hofgarten near the Schloss, a place of democratic thinking and teaching. He stayed there until 1987.

Bracher’s mission in the new Federal Republic of Germany, founded in 1949, was how to prevent a new anti-democratic Germany, make safe and strengthen democracy. He influenced generations of students, professors and politicians as a spirituous rector of democratic mechanisms and values.

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He was concerned with the problems of preserving and developing democracy against false demagogues and dictators.

This is something very important in Europe and America again today, where populists promote simple solutions and agitate against minorities again. In Germany the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) won several regional elections with more than 20 percent with a dubious political agenda.

His master pupil and now professor at the Bonn Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI), Ludger Kühnhardt, wrote in his obituary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “From German presidents Heuss to Weizsäcker, from Chancellors Brandt, Schmidt to Kohl, he knew them all and many asked for his advice”.

Karl Dietrich Bracher was honored by many universities, with the Bundesverdienstkreuz mit Stern of the Federal Republic of Germany, and became a member of the Pour le Mérit order.

When I was in Bonn last time in April I phoned him. He told me: “Mister Hoffmann, I cannot remember you, sorry about this.” We discussed good old times and wished well. His great mind has passed away, but not his wisdom and spirit.