The Last Class of Professor Dessoir

Helmut was a student in the very first post-war class of 1946.

He was always hungry, had read little of value and loved authoritarian language. An accelerated program let him finish in three years, and he ended up writing a Master’s thesis about the U.S. stock exchange in which he makes a thin case that the stock exchange is not a conspiracy or pyramid scheme.

I read it, in 2012.

My adoptive dad was always extremely resentful about his student years, much more so than about the war.

When I started graduate school, Helmut constantly said that he would have a Ph.D., too, except that his professor had died. He brought it up every time he saw me, with resentment, as if a conspiracy had held him back. He never talked of the other students, the readings, the atmosphere at the university, or even bombed-out Frankfurt, only how his advisor died and the other “Herren Professoren” would not take him on as a student.

2012. Ten years after he died, I finally investigate Papa’s transcript (Studienbuch).

The missing required course was in Philosophy. How fitting. Papa hated philosophy and believed it had been reduced to “socialism.”

His professor, the professor who died, was the philosopher and art historian Max Dessoir.

Professor Dessoir published a memoir about surviving in Hitler’s Germany in 1946, Buch der Erinnerung.

He wrote this the very year Papa took Dessoir’s class, but did not get to finish it. I order it on Amazon.

Dessoir experienced harassment as “quarter-Jewish.” He was forbidden to teach 1935-45. He left bombed out Berlin after 1945 and taught a few semesters in Frankfurt 1946 and 1947, and in 1947 he died.

Papa took his class Philosophy 207, “Einleitung in die Philosophie,” in the Spring of 1947, but he never got credit for it. It was Professor Dessoir’s last class. Max Dessoir died in Koenigstein, a few miles from Wiesbaden, in the Taunus, some months later that same year.[ii]

In Dessoir’s Buch der Erinnerung I find a long passage about another postwar era, the time after World War I, and about the German universities in the 1920s.

Dessoir says the Weimar-era universities had to become more “American-style” and “practical” to allow veterans and workers to graduate. Dessoir even discusses the issue raised by Papa’s complaint!

The book says he tried to reform the enormous power held by the professors who were assigned as one’s Doktorvater, and that he fought to make the graduation process and the process of commenting on students’ theses more transparent![iii]

Dessoir had started his memoir in 1942 by writing down the following words, and he published them unchanged in 1946: “In the spring of this wartime year 1942…I begin with writing this book…At the moment I cannot think of a publication, as Herr Doktor Goebbels has forbidden me any professional activities…I do not know what is going to happen with our war, because I am writing a prologue, not an afterword…but I am sure my work will be a part of the whole story, certainly not a piece of deception.”[iv]

Dessoir had scores of students who were soldiers and veterans, in the 1920s and in the 1940s, but I doubt many were as resentful as Papa.

Frankfurt’s Goethe University was modern and decidedly leftist. It was founded in 1914, and it had a lively intellectual life, dominated by radical and interdisciplinary thinkers who had had the foresight to move the most important institute of the university, the School for Social Research, out of the country in 1933.

In the context of all this, Helmut. Thin. Bullied since childhood. Rejected officer candidate, someone who had tried to get into the SS and failed.

“We had to eat! what do you know?!” I can hear him say.

His sister got him a driver’s license, and in 1949, Papa started working as a tax inspector, based in Bad Homburg.

(To be continued).