Obituary: Gerard Braunthal, Professor Emeritus of Political Science

Gerard Braunthal

Gerard Braunthal, 90, of Amherst, professor emeritus of political science, died Oct. 26.

Born in Gera, Germany, he and his family came to the U.S. in 1936 as Jewish refugees from the Nazi regime. 

He served in the U.S. Army intelligence service from 1943-46. 

After graduating in 1947 from Queens College in New York City, he went on to earn an M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1948, and a Ph.D. in 1953 from Columbia University. 

He was an interviewer for the U.S. Air Force in 1950-52, a research assistant at the National Bureau of Economic Research, 1953-54. He was a lecturer at Brooklyn College in 1954 before his appointment to the political science faculty. He served as a visiting instructor at Mount Holyoke College in 1958. He was promoted to professor in 1967.

He taught comparative government, U.S. foreign policy and international organization and law. His special focus was the German political system. He retired in 1988. 

He held a Fulbright Teaching Grant in Frankfurt, Germany in 1959-60 and again in 1970, and at the University of Bonn in 1979. He was also awarded Fulbright grants to India in 1965-66 and 1967. 

In 1984, he received the Teacher of the Year Award from the campus chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honor society.

He was active in the Faculty Senate, the Graduate Council, various committees and the Five College Western European Studies Committee. 

He was a member of the executive council of the Conference Group on German Politics from 1970-84 and of the selection committee for Fulbright Student Applications to Germany of the Institute for International Education, which awarded him a Certificate of Distinguished Service in 1982. He was a member and chair of the selection committee for West Europe of the Social Science Research Council, a member of the West German Election Observation Team in 1976 and of the Area Advisory Committee (for Germany and Austria) of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars and of the National Selection Committee for NATO Scholarships.

 He also received grants from the German Academic Exchange Service American Council of Learned Societies and the American Philosophical Society. He presented many papers at academic meetings,  gave speeches on West Germany in the U.S. and abroad, and participated in seminars, workshops, and conferences, including service as an officer for the Institute for World Affairs summer sessions in Connecticut. He was a consultant to the Yale University and U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency project on Germany in 1964. 

Braunthal evaluated manuscripts for book publishers and journals, wrote sections on Germany for many books, and published numerous book reviews and articles in professional journals. The books he published included “The Federation of German Industry in Politics,” “The West German Legislative Process,” “Socialist Labor and Politics in Weimar Germany: The General Federation of German Trade Unions,” “West German Social Democrats, 1969-82: Profile of a Party in Power,” “Political Loyalty and Public Service in West Germany: the 1972 Decree Against Radicals and its Consequences,” and “Parties and Politics in Germany.”

In 1999, he was honored by the Federal Republic of Germany for being “an academic and cultural mediator between the United States and Germany.” The German consul general for the New England states presented him the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, during a ceremony at the Chancellor’s House. The decoration cited Braunthal’s “life-long academic achievements in the field of German and European studies and ... significant contributions to German-American academic cooperation over the years.” The award is the highest honor Germany gives to anyone from another country who is not a head of state.

One of Braunthal’s early articles, “The German Free Trade Unions During the Rise of Nazism,” published in January, 1956, opens “A democratic nation, especially if faced with powerful extremist forces of the political Left and Right, ought to have a free and dynamic trade union movement to help safeguard the liberties of its citizens.” Labor should participate in national and international affairs, he continued, for if the movement in an hour of political crisis withdraws from participation, there is danger it will be unable to resist totalitarianism. In Germany, he wrote, few of the leaders of democratic groups, including labor, “had the courage to oppose actively the National Socialists at the critical hour.” 

The article, according to his colleague, Lewis Mainzer, displayed Braunthal’s lifelong professional and personal political passions as a democratic socialist. More than 30 years later, as an observer of the West German elections, Braunthal reported “an Americanization of the German election process”—a slick, media-driven process, he complained. “Beginning to end, he was driven by the wish to see a free, democratic, honorable Germany,” said Mainzer.

“He was a loyal family man and a friend to many who cherished this relationship,” said Mainzer. “Underneath a quiet, cheerful, gentlemanly manner boiled heated political passions to bring about a universe closer to the ideal of which he dreamed. He reached out to others to join him in seeking a better life in a more perfect society than that to which dull reality has seemingly condemned us.”