Dagmar Barnouw: USC College professor whose interdisciplinary research covered many fields was “intellectually fearless,” dies at 72, of a stroke

Historians in the News

USC News Announcement May 2008

Dagmar Barnouw, a pre-eminent scholar of the intellectual and cultural history of modern Germany, has died. She was 72.

A professor of German and comparative literature in USC College since 1988, Barnouw suffered a stroke mid-April and died in the Kaiser Permanente-Hospital Zion in San Diego on May 14, without having regained consciousness.

“For me it was love at fight sight,” her husband Jeffrey Barnouw said. “For her it took some persuading.”

The couple met on a boat from New York to Bremerhaven in 1963, when she was returning home from a Fulbright teaching scholarship at Stanford University. The two married less than a year later in Tübingen, Germany. They kept their penchant for travel throughout their 44 years together.

In recent years they traveled to Turkey, Morocco, Sicily, Crete, southwestern France and Croatia, spending about three weeks in each place. They regularly visited friends in Germany and last summer went to Venice, Corfu, Rhodes, Kos and Athens. “We’d travel economically, using local buses and so on, because we felt that gave us more contact with the people and their culture,” said Jeffrey Barnouw, a professor of English and comparative literature in the University of Texas at Austin.

Barnouw wrote a dozen often cited books, two of which — Germany 1945: Views of War and Violence (Indiana University Press, 1997) and The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans (Indiana University Press, 2005) — will be reprinted in paperback in the fall.

Her book Visible Spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German-Jewish Experience (John Hopkins University Press, 1990) was nominated for the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award, and Germany 1945 received the Maine Photographic Workshop’s Award for Best Critical Photographic Study. She also wrote more than 150 published articles in English and German.

Friends and colleagues remembered Barnouw as “intellectually fearless,” a scholar whose wide-ranging, interdisciplinary work did not fit into any one conventional category. “She could have just as easily been a professor of philosophy or of history,” said Ronald Steel, professor of international relations in the College. “She was an interpreter of Western culture and society in all of its aspects, from literature to political science to philosophy and even science fiction. It was impossible to put her into an intellectual box.” Barnouw was a fiercely loyal and understanding friend who challenged people to set higher standards for themselves.

“I admired Dagmar a lot,” Steel said. “She wasn’t an easy person. She never settled for what was easy or conventional and didn’t want her friends to either.” Barnouw often wrote about the intellectual immigrant experience. “She was particularly interested in writing about people who didn’t fit comfortably in their own cultures, which is true of Dagmar herself,” Steel said. Born in Berlin-Wilmersdorf on March 22, 1936, Barnouw was the eldest of four children. Surviving the bombing of Dresden in the basement of their home, the family became refugees. After the war they made the trek to the American zone, fleeing the Russians.

They were settled in a series of small villages in northern Bavaria and stayed permanently in Ulm. Earlier this year Barnouw wrote a short autobiographical story, which she had planned to be the first in a series.

“There was that small, muddy village in Northern Bavaria where we had inexplicably landed at the end of the war,” Barnouw wrote. “Over the decades, I have sometimes remembered those years as nothing but hunger, cold, boredom and fear.”

Barnouw recalled being among the millions of refugee children uprooted by the war. “In the refugee camp we had inhabited a small square drawn on the floor, floating in our one-dimensional living space and trying not to trespass into the neighboring square,” Barnouw wrote. “Now we had a real room, mother pointed out; all to ourselves.

“Never mind that the floor was taken up completely by the three Red Cross mattresses and a small wood-burning stove whose smoke burned your throat and eyes. Wasn’t it good that we did not own anything but our small bundles?”

Barnouw, whose siblings still reside in Germany, first came to the United States in 1962 as a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University. From then on, she wanted to one day live in California.

In August 1963, while returning to Germany, she met her future husband, who was going to Tübingen to study on a German fellowship.

“Tübingen was fortunately not that far from Ulm,” Jeffrey Barnouw said. Three years after they wed, the couple had a son, Benjamin, now a deputy attorney general in California. Dagmar Barnouw earned her Ph.D. at Yale University in 1968. She has taught at the University of California, San Diego; the University of Heidelberg; Purdue University; the University of Pittsburgh; Brown University; and the University of Texas at Austin.

Research Award, two USC Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition Awards for outstanding books and a USC Associates Award for Creativity in Research and Scholarship.

In addition to her husband and son, Barnouw is survived by two grandchildren, Nicholas, 7, and Natalie, 5.

She will be cremated and her ashes scattered at the ocean in Del Mar. A memorial gathering will take place June 14 at her home in Del Mar. For more information about the memorial contact Jeffrey Barnouw at barnouw@yahoo.com.

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