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Wilhelm Spiegelberg

« His main personal resources were in the world of Goethe, whose poems and whose “Faust” drama he used to carry with him in a leather-bound pocket edition. »

Statue de Goethe entre les muses Polymnie et Melpomène (1904), en avant du Palais universitaire à Strasbourg.

Cent ans après le début de la première guerre mondiale – dont l’issue allait contraindre le Professeur Wilhelm Spiegelberg et sa famille à quitter l’Alsace, où il avait fondé l’Institut d’égyptologie autour d’une collection d’objets archéologiques acquis en Égypte –, l’Université de Strasbourg a l’honneur de publier quelques mots de son fils, Herbert Spiegelberg, grâce à l’aimable autorisation de sa petite-fille, Lynne Morgan, et avec l’aide de son petit-neveu, Richard Spiegelberg. Puisse ce petit texte biographique, rédigé dans un environnement désormais anglophone à la suite des aléas de l’histoire du XXe siècle, raviver la mémoire d’un savant allemand de stature mondiale, ardent acteur de la coopération scientifique internationale – et alsacien d’adoption qui avait fait de Strasbourg sa petite patrie.

                                                                                                                        20 octobre 2014

A memoir by his son, Herbert Spiegelberg

whose daughter, Lynne Morgan, has kindly consented to its publication on this website. She has pointed out that her father obviously wrote this biography to convey his memories to future generations of the family. It was certainly not written with any idea of it ever being seen except by his family. We must remember that this is a son's recollection of his father, not necessarily an unbiased or completely accurate account (if such a thing exists!). Nevertheless, Wilhelm Spiegelberg and his son were academics and scholars, and as the intended use of this memoir is for research and scholarly purposes, they would have understood that there may be a wider interest in its dissemination and would not have seen this as in any way a breach of confidence.


Wilhelm Spiegelberg (25 June 1870-23 December 1930)*

     My recollections of my father, who was born just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 in Hannover as the second of four brothers, go back to my early childhood  i.e. probably 1906  and stretch with only a few interruptions during his stays in Egypt and my study years until his death in his 61st year when I was returning from Italy (too late to find him still alive). While I remember him as relatively remote from me during my childhood, I was much closer to him as I grew up. But during my adolescence I felt at times somewhat rebellious towards him for reasons not always connected with his occasional authoritarianism.

     Physically, he was to the end quite healthy, walking usually with the then customary cane. But his heart, since an attack he had suffered while climbing the Dent du Midi in the Swiss Alps had weakened to the extent that he was unfit for service in the German Army. So during World War I he served only as a civilian in an army library service (for which he received a minor decoration, which he had also received for tutoring one of the Hohenzollern princes on his way to Egypt). His final illness, discovered only on the occasion of what seemed to be a minor bladder disturbance while he was teaching, proved to be an incipient cancer. He died very suddenly during an otherwise smooth recovery from his operation in his hospital bed of an embolus, perhaps because his heart was not strong enough to pull him through.

     I remember little, if any, change in his outward appearance, with his black moustache and a fringe of hair around his practically bald head, which made him always wear a hat. His voice was strong, in the upper range, loud and rather hacked (I once criticized him openly when he scolded us: “Why do you have to say it so loudly?”, especially in answering the telephone with frequent interjections of “ja…ja/ja’s” in his listening). All through his life, of which he spent nearly two thirds in the south [including his time in Strassburg], he stuck to the Hannover-Hamburg pronunciation of his last name.

     On the whole, his life belonged to his chosen field of study, Egyptology, on which he had decided already during his Gymnasium years, inspired partly by the novels of the semi-professional egyptologist Georg Ebers. His choice of Strassburg as the university where he studied almost exclusively under a minor scholar in the field (Johannes Dümichen), perhaps due to the influence of his school friend Otto Rubensohn. It was in Strassburg that he spent half of his life, until in 1918 the re-annexation of Alsace by France and the dissolution of the German university, where he had made his first major contributions to his field and founded a collection of Egyptian art (aided by the support of his banker-father), forced him to leave Strassburg, where the new house my parents had built in 1910 in the Daniel Hirtzstrasse 17, was confiscated for reparations under the Versailles Treaty.

     During the four years after his expulsion his main achievements as a visiting guest professor at the university of Heidelberg were the preparation of a short dictionary of the Coptic language, which became a classic, now replaced by a larger one prepared on the foundations laid by him, and a grammar of the Demotic language, his major specialty. His final seven years, again as full professor at the university of Munich were remarkable also for the preparation of materials for a large dictionary of the Demotic language. After his death, these materials were turned over to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago through his most qualified private student at the time, William F. Edgerton (incidentally, this gift of 1931 proved a major help to me, when in 1937 my immigration to the States was endangered by the refusal of the American consul in London). His appointment to the Munich chair in 1923 was accompanied by a public protest of the nazified student body, instigated by his predecessor, calling him a representative “jüdischen Blutes und jüdischen Geistes”, a protest which at the time – i.e. the Hitler Putsch of 1923  was still rejected by his new colleagues and by the state authorities. His teaching, mostly of small classes, while effective, […].

     Actually, while my father gave his denomination on all official documents when required as “israelitisch” and, later, as “Dissident” until after his own father had died, he no longer seems to have had any contact with the Jewish synagogue in Strassburg. Only after his father’s death in 1910 and after he had been made full professor (“Ordinarius”) in 1907 did he join the Protestant church, in which his wife and we three sons had been brought up, apparently quite informally, largely because of conversations with Albert Schweitzer, who at the time was his colleague at the University and who had presented to him Christianity as a more developed form of Judaism. (Besides, his own studies, especially of Coptic texts, included familiarity with early Christian documents.) However, I have no evidence of deep theological convictions on his part. His general outlook was humanistic and rather pessimistic, without despair. His main personal resources were in the world of Goethe, whose poems and whose “Faust” drama he used to carry with him in a leather-bound pocket edition.

     Although the center of gravity of his existence was clearly in his scholarly work, to the extent that he spent even most of his evenings after dinner at his desk and only rarely took part in family games, music (he played the violin quite well leaving me his bound sheets from Handel to Viotti) and reading. He was not, however, completely absorbed by his scholarship. He was certainly devoted to our mother (and her mother), for whom he had to put up quite a fight when Grossvater Recklinghausen tried to prevent their marriage, succeeding only in postponing it by one year, although she did not share his egyptological interests more than conventionally. He had many friends among his colleagues and gradually overcame the sceptical reserve of the Berlin school around its head, Adolf Erman, who suspected his less orthodox schooling and amazing scholarly productivity (his bibliography lists some 500 items). In his later years he relied especially on the advice and help of his brother-in-law Heinrich von Recklinghausen, who had come to live with us after the big German inflation had destroyed his small [savings…].
[…] my more experienced older brother Erwin, particularly during the inflation years, when his inherited millionaire fortune had shrunk to a barely sufficient deficit budget. He was particularly fond of his international friendships, mostly with British egyptologists, joining one of them (Newberry) on an excavation near Thebes in Egypt during one of his some ten stays there. Politically he was always a liberal, opposing during World War I the Pangermanists (Alldeutsche). He made a special point of the international character of all Wissenschaft and did his best to restore it after World War I. This did not keep him from defending the German position pointing out, for instance, the “militarism” of a French colleague, who had put under his name in a publication, which he had to review, “Ancien élève de l’école militaire de St. Cyr”. And he dedicated his “Koptisches Handwoerterbuch”, after his expulsion, to the German university of Strassburg as a “Pflegstätte wissenschaftlichen Geistes”.

     Much could be added about his role as pater familias. On the whole he was very permissive towards us sons, especially when it came to our choosing a career and backing us financially, even if it meant, as it did in my case, two stays of several months in Italy. Only once do I remember he warned us severely when brother Reinhard had return from his boarding school with an anti-semitic joke, which was also the first occasion that we learned about our Jewish ancestry. I also recall one case when we three received a mild spanking after we had not answered promptly the call to Mittagessen at the time when we still lived in the Twingerstrasse, having played at our swing in the back yard.

                                                                                                                           Herbert Spiegelberg

Copyright: Lynne Morgan

* Les caractères gras signalent des interventions éditoriales mineures, apportées avec l’aide aimable de M. Richard Spiegelberg, en coordination avec Mme Lynne Morgan. Les crochets droits […] indiquent une lacune dans le tapuscrit de l’auteur, dont la date et l’occasion de la rédaction sont inconnues de la famille.


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