Siegfried Landshut - Place of Arrival: Hamburg (by Wolfgang Knöbl)

Born in Straßburg in 1897 to an assimilated Jewish family, Siegfried Landshut fought in World War I, first in France, then in Russia. He was wounded in 1916 but was returned to the front in the same year and served as a non-commissioned officer in Aleppo. When the war was over he managed to make his way to Constantinople from where he traveled by ship to Hamburg, arriving in March 1919.

The years of Siegfried Landshut’s youth were turbulent but not untypical for the men of his generation who were sent to war. He did not foresee at the time that the involuntary adventures of his life would continue, and he did not know where his 1933 flight into exile from Nazi Germany would take him. Perhaps a review of his academic career, which began in the young Weimar Republic when he took up studying law and then national economics in Freiburg, allows us to interpret his path as one in which he sought the stability denied him in his life in the world of thought—at least until he returned to Hamburg and assumed a professorship in political science at the University of Hamburg in 1951. What characterized Landshut’s intellectual development was, from the very beginning, a recognizable and above all continuous questioning of positions in the social sciences and humanities, reflected in his fundamental and consistent critique of theorems and concepts otherwise held to be largely unproblematic. This made him an academic outsider and for this very reason his works are still interesting today for those who increasingly take a critical view of research driven often enough by third-party funding and who question its relevance. Today one reads Landshut as classic writing in the social sciences because he raised questions and stimulated the examination of issues that were relevant from a historical perspective but are still topical today.

Scholarly positions and intellectual points of friction

Landshut was an intellectual between disciplines, as familiar with sociology as with political science and economics. If we wish to characterize Landshut’s academic positions more precisely, we immediately encounter three special features of his method of argumentation.

Firstly, Landshut was a deeply political thinker and intellectual in the sense that he was never willing to pursue academic research as a kind of “glass bead game” preoccupied with solving arbitrary and therefore interchangeable problems. His best-known work, Kritik der Soziologie – Freiheit und Gleichheit als Ursprungsproblem der Soziologie [The Critique of Sociology: Freedom and Equality as Fundamental Problems of Sociology], published in 1929, began with a sharp critique of this discipline’s lack of orientation regarding its own focus, criticism that even took on the work of Max Weber, whom he accused of having an overly subjectivist understanding of scholarship and in this sense—at least as far as his methodical writings were concerned—a misunderstanding of self. According to Landshut, scholarship and especially sociology cannot be defined by methods (and theories) applied arbitrarily to a subject—an argument as important then as it is today. Landshut believed that such an approach would inevitably lead to the dissolution and fragmentation of the discipline. Therefore the search for and engagement with a central problem of sociology had to be the starting point; first and foremost it was necessary to examine historically sociology’s “factual character” and from this everything else would emerge.

As much as Landshut may have appreciated Max Weber’s empirical analyses, he also accused him of not sufficiently recognizing and purposefully applying a quality which was one of the features of Karl Marx’s work: namely, continuous work on one very specific practical question, from which Marx aimed to establish (his) new approach to political economics. Landshut himself believed that sociology from the start had been centrally concerned with the problem of the often-contradictory connection between freedom and equality (overlooked or misinterpreted by Weber and many others) and that it was precisely this which had become constitutive for the founding of the discipline. Whether or not we unreservedly agree with Landshut’s assertion, his argument raises the important point that the social sciences in general and sociology in particular must always question the (socio-political) relevance and quintessential problem of their disciplines and research.

Secondly, Landshut’s reflections on the historical character of disciplines led him to consistently contextualize and historicize concepts in the social sciences from the very beginning. With a fine instinct for the problems posed by widespread dichotomies in sociology, such as those between community and society (Ferdinand Tönnies), he referred to their historical origins and thus to the fact that they framed problems in a way that was no longer appropriate for contemporary constellations. And with an equally keen intuition, he pointed out the danger of reifying concepts. In one of his earliest works (Über einige Grundbegriffe der Politik [On Some Basic Concepts of Politics], 1925) and in his 1933 postdoctoral thesis, Historisch-systematische Analyse des Begriffs des Ökonomischen [A Historical-Systematic Analysis of the Concept of Economics], he emphasized that it made little sense to wish to define “the political” or “the economic” once and for all. He vehemently rejected the idea that political or economic action had always been understood in the same way, opening the doors wide for an analysis of historical semantics. Landshut’s capacity to perceive “the curious changes and mutability” of concepts is so enormously important again today because social scientists—informed by insights on global history—can no longer readily assume the existence of the defined value spheres and subsystems long taken for granted in the western world; assumptions derived from differentiation theory that previously remained unquestioned are now seen as failing to do justice to reality—both in the “West” and outside it. Reading Landshut’s texts enables us to ask new theoretical questions and open up the social sciences for analyses of transformations and processes.

Thirdly, Landshut is important to the social sciences because he actually lived, thought, and applied interdisciplinarity and upheld this ideal within research until the end of his academic career, like few other intellectuals of his generation. As already mentioned, Landshut was a sociologist, political scientist, and economist, but we should not forget that he was also a historian of ideas, who wrote works on Marx and Tocqueville.

It is certainly also important and noteworthy to characterize Landshut as an intellectual who never lost sight of the empirical, although his work was based on the history of theory and ideas. His writings on Palestine/Israel, completed in exile, promoted empirical research as theoretically and historically saturated work in an exemplary manner. For an institution like the Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS), Landshut’s practiced linkage of theory and empirical study can and should be a paragon.

Landshut today and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research

In the end, Siegfried Landshut’s academic career can be described as successful—taking into account his appointment to a professorship in Hamburg and his work in and influence on German political science in the 1950s and 1960s. But it could indeed be judged differently if we were to reflect on the obstacles Landshut had to overcome, the degree to which the endless difficulties of his exile kept him from doing productive work, the works that might have been written if he had enjoyed institutional success much earlier, and if persecution, expulsion, and his precarious financial situation had not cost him years of his life. Nevertheless, reflection and speculation of this kind are ultimately futile. Landshut left behind a substantial body of work, but much of it remains fragmentary due to his biographical circumstances. All the same, his life and writings are genuinely impressive enough to establish a lecture series that bears his name at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research.