Henry Ashby Turner

Henry Ashby Turner

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Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. was an American historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

 of Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 who was a professor at Yale University
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

 for over forty years. He is best known for his book German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (1985) in which he challenged the common theory that industrialists in Germany were the Nazi Party’s most influential supporters.

Life and career

Turner was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and attended public schools in Maryland. He received his B.A. from Washington and Lee University
Washington and Lee University
Washington and Lee University is a private liberal arts college in Lexington, Virginia, United States.The classical school from which Washington and Lee descended was established in 1749 as Augusta Academy, about north of its present location. In 1776 it was renamed Liberty Hall in a burst of...

 in 1954 and spent the 1954-1955 academic year as a Fulbright
Fulbright Program
The Fulbright Program, including the Fulbright-Hays Program, is a program of competitive, merit-based grants for international educational exchange for students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists, founded by United States Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946. Under the...

 scholar at the University of Munich and the Free University of Berlin
Free University of Berlin
Freie Universität Berlin is one of the leading and most prestigious research universities in Germany and continental Europe. It distinguishes itself through its modern and international character. It is the largest of the four universities in Berlin. Research at the university is focused on the...

. In the fall of 1955 he began graduate study at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

. He completed his M.A. in 1957 and his Ph.D. in 1960 under the supervision of Gordon A. Craig
Gordon A. Craig
Gordon Alexander Craig was a Scottish-American historian of German history and of diplomatic history.-Early life:...

. Turner was hired by Yale University
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

 as an instructor in history in 1958. He was elevated to assistant professor in 1961, associate professor in 1964 and professor in 1971. From 1976 to 1979 he was chairman of the Yale History Department. During his career he held a number of endowed chairs in history at Yale and trained numerous graduate students in modern German history. From 1981 to 1991 Turner also served as Master of Davenport College, one of 12 residential colleges at Yale. He retired in 2002 as the Stillé Professor of History. His papers are housed in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. He died from complications from melanoma on December 17, 2008, at Yale-New Haven Hospital.


In his essay, "Fascism and Modernization" from the book Reappraisals of Fascism, following the arguments first made by David Schoenbaum
David Schoenbaum
David Schoenbaum is an American social scientist and historian.He was teaching as a professor of History at the University of Iowa until 2008. Schoenbaum received his BA at the University of Wisconsin–Madison...

, Turner argued National Socialism sought the total destruction of modern industrial society and its replacement with an agrarian society in which Germans would obtain Lebensraum
was one of the major political ideas of Adolf Hitler, and an important component of Nazi ideology. It served as the motivation for the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany, aiming to provide extra space for the growth of the German population, for a Greater Germany...

in Eastern Europe where German colonists would settle the land and reduce the Slavic peoples to slaves. However to accomplish these goals, the Nazis forced despite the anti-modernist nature of their ideology to further modernize German society. Turner called Nazi anti-modernism a "double" form of utopianism in that it was a vision that was both impractical and unachievable.

Turner is best known for his book German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, published in 1985. In it he rebutted the claim that it was German big business which primarily financed and otherwise promoted the attainment of power by Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

. He argued that the extent of business support for Hitler and his Nazi Party had been much exaggerated. On the basis of careful examination of unpublished records of major German corporations and of Hitler's party, Turner concluded that the bulk of the Nazis' funds during their rise came from their party's members and other ordinary Germans and that the principal political recipients of big business funding were the traditional right-of-center parties, the German People's Party
German People's Party
The German People's Party was a national liberal party in Weimar Germany and a successor to the National Liberal Party of the German Empire.-Ideology:...

 and the German National People's Party
German National People's Party
The German National People's Party was a national conservative party in Germany during the time of the Weimar Republic. Before the rise of the NSDAP it was the main nationalist party in Weimar Germany composed of nationalists, reactionary monarchists, völkisch, and antisemitic elements, and...

. The only election campaign in which big business contributed significant amounts of money to the Nazis was that of March 5, 1933
German election, 1933
The German federal election, March 1933 to the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic was held on 5 March 1933. The Nazis registered a large increase in votes again emerging as the largest party by far, nevertheless they failed to obtain absolute majority...

, after they were already in power

In Turner's view, the Third Reich was a possible but by no means inevitable result of German history, thus leading Turner to oppose the Sonderweg
Sonderweg is a controversial theory in German historiography that considers the German-speaking lands, or the country Germany, to have followed a unique course from aristocracy into democracy, distinct from other European countries...

thesis. He has contended that the acquisition of power by Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 was heavily influenced by contingency and that military rule was a viable alternative to the Third Reich. In his 1996 book Hitler's Thirty Days To Power: January 1933, he maintained that it was the actions of a few individuals, such as German president Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg
Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg , known universally as Paul von Hindenburg was a Prussian-German field marshal, statesman, and politician, and served as the second President of Germany from 1925 to 1934....

 and chancellors Franz von Papen
Franz von Papen
Lieutenant-Colonel Franz Joseph Hermann Michael Maria von Papen zu Köningen was a German nobleman, Roman Catholic monarchist politician, General Staff officer, and diplomat, who served as Chancellor of Germany in 1932 and as Vice-Chancellor under Adolf Hitler in 1933–1934...

 and Kurt von Schleicher
Kurt von Schleicher
Kurt von Schleicher was a German general and the last Chancellor of Germany during the era of the Weimar Republic. Seventeen months after his resignation, he was assassinated by order of his successor, Adolf Hitler, in the Night of the Long Knives....

, which enabled Hitler to come to power through semi-legal means. Political incompetence and personal rivalry between Papen and Schleicher ultimately led to Hitler's being appointed chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg on January 30, 1933, without ever having won a majority in a national election.

Turner's General Motors and the Nazis (2005) examined the history during the Third Reich of Adam Opel AG, the German subsidiary of General Motors.

David Abraham Affair

In the early 1980s, Turner was one of the critics of the book The Collapse of the Weimar Republic by David Abraham, then an assistant professor of history at Princeton University. Abraham, a Marxist who received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago
University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois, USA. It was founded by the American Baptist Education Society with a donation from oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and incorporated in 1890...

 for a dissertation that was the basis for his book, maintained that big business bore major responsibility for Hitler's rise to power. Turner, working on the same topic from a non-Marxist perspective, was familiar with the archives and documents cited by Abraham and challenged Abraham's use of evidence from those sources, which led to a controversy over erroneous citations, inaccurate quotations, and other misrepresentations in Abraham's book. In this effort Turner was seconded by Gerald D. Feldman, history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who subjected Abraham's book to thorough scrutiny in a lengthy article in a scholarly journal. They were supported by a wide array of historians, including conservative Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb , also known as Bea Kristol, is an American historian. She has written extensively on intellectual history, with a focus on Britain and the Victorian era, as well as on contemporary society and culture....

 and Marxist Timothy Mason
Timothy Mason
Timothy Wright Mason was a British Marxist historian of Nazi Germany.-Life and work:He was born in Birkenhead, the child of school-teachers and was educated at Birkenhead School and Oxford University. He taught at Oxford from 1971–1984 and was twice married. He helped to found the...

. However, historians, including Arno J. Mayer
Arno J. Mayer
Arno Joseph Mayer is a United States Marxist historian originally from Luxembourg, who specializes in modern Europe, diplomatic history, and the Holocaust, and is currently Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton University.-Early life and academic career:Mayer was born into a...

, Carl Schorske, Thomas Bender, and Natalie Zemon Davis
Natalie Zemon Davis
Natalie Zemon Davis is a Canadian and American historian of the early modern period. She is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada. Her work originally focused on France, but has since broadened to include other parts of Europe, North America, and the Caribbean...

, came to Abraham's defense. They accused Turner, Feldman, and their allies of "fetishing" facts and attacked them for emphasizing "historical fact" over "historical imagination." Abraham was denied tenure at Princeton and eventually left the historical profession, later becoming a professor of law at the University of Miami.


  • Stresemann and the Politics of the Weimar Republic, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.
  • Nazism and the Third Reich, New York: Quadrangle Books, 1972
  • Faschismus und Kapitalismus in Deutschland, Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972
  • Reappraisals of Fascism (editor), New York: New Viewpoints, 1975.
  • Hitler aus nächster Nähe: Aufzeichnungen eines Vertrauten 1929-1932 (editor), Frankfurt/M, Berlin, Wien: Ullstein, 1978.
  • German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, translated as Die Grossunternehmer und der Aufstieg Hitlers, Berlin: Siedler Verlag, 1985.
  • Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant (editor), New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • The Two Germanies since 1945, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, revised as
  • Germany from Partition to Reunification, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Geissel des Jahrhunderts: Hitler und seine Hinterlassenschaft, Berlin: Siedler Verlag, 1989.
  • Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
  • General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe's Biggest Carmaker, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

External links