Robert Wokler: Eloquent and highly regarded scholar of Rousseau and the Enlightenment (Obituary)

Historians in the News

THE LIFE of Robert Wokler embodied the political and intellectual tragedies and controversies of the later 20th century. A Jewish survivor of Nazi-occupied Europe, he was close to the leading intellectual historians of the prewar generation and lived to contest with postmodernism the identity of the Enlightenment and its supposed responsibility for the tragedy of the Holocaust into which he was born.
Born Robert Lucien Wochiler in 1942 in Auch, France, to Polish and Hungarian Jewish refugees, Wokler began his life by saving that of his parents: his infant status gained all three of them entry to Switzerland, enabling them to escape deportation to the death camps where his maternal grandparents had been murdered. Schooling, begun in Paris, was completed in California, where the family settled. A prodigious violinist, Wokler gained a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Chicago to study under Walter Piston, but soon switched to social sciences, graduating in 1964.

He came to Europe for the MSc in the history of political thought at the LSE run by Michael Oakeshott and Maurice Cranston, before moving to Oxford, where his DPhil supervisor was Isaiah Berlin, and his college adviser John Plamenatz. To all of these, and to Ralph Leigh, with whom he later worked at Cambridge on the latter’s magisterial Correspondance Complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he remained close, contributing later to the festschrifts for all three Oxbridge mentors and co-editing Leigh’s. His early career thus gave him a unique exposure to the different anglophone schools in the history of social and political thought and, in the case of the English institutions, a very close connection to the most influential teachers of the age. Early posts followed at Magdalen College, Oxford (1967-71, in modern history), and Reading (1968-71, in politics and French studies). But it was at Manchester (1971-98) that he made his career, successively as lecturer, senior lecturer and then Reader in history of political thought in the university’s government department, which developed, during his time there, a considerable reputation in political theory.

He was always bursting with ideas and projects, and the very range and diversity of his activity precluded the completion of many of them. His loyalty to his teachers consumed much of his considerable energies. He re-edited Plamenatz’s influential three-volume Man and Society in order to replace the contextualising material that had been removed at the original publisher’s insistence, giving a misleading impression of abstraction. At his death he was editing Plamenatz’s unpublished lectures, which had influenced generations of Oxford PPE undergraduates. He was immensely fond, too, of Berlin (of whom he was a brilliant mimic), contributing to his festschrift, The Idea of Freedom (Oxford, 1979), and among his last concerns was to see a study of Berlin’s posthumous Political Ideas in the Romantic Age through the press....
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