Man of many worlds

For the late Mexican history scholar Friedrich Katz, research “was a type of pursuit.”

By Katherine Muhlenkamp
Photography by Nina Botting Herbst

At a luncheon following the ceremony honoring Katz, colleagues and students memorialized a dogged scholar and gifted storyteller.

As violinists tuned their instruments, Friedrich Katz's family, colleagues, and former students streamed into Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on a sunny April morning to honor a man widely considered the most eminent historian of modern Mexico working in the second half of the 20th century. His October 2010 death at 83 was front-page news in newspapers throughout Mexico.

Seven speakers, all colleagues or former students, described Katz, the Morton D. Hull distinguished service professor emeritus of history, as a man of many worlds: born in Austria, he moved with his family to Berlin when he was three. Forced to leave with the rise of Nazism, they moved to France, then the United States, and eventually settled in Mexico. After attending secondary school in Mexico and Wagner College in New York, Katz earned his doctorate in Vienna. He taught in East Germany and at the University of Texas before arriving at Chicago in 1971, where he published The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1981) and The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford University Press, 1998).

Several memorial speakers focused on the impact of those two works—and the Herculean task of researching them. The Secret War in Mexico placed the Mexican Revolution in a global context, interpreting it "as an episode in the international history of anti-imperialist struggles," said Chicago history professor Emilio Kourí; in Pancho Villa, Katz did not portray his subject "as a dead outlaw," said Javier Garciadiego, AM'79, PhD'88, Katz's former student and president of El Colegio de México, "but rather as a living revolutionary with all his complexities, and also with his possibilities and contributions to Mexico's history." Both texts were sweeping in scope and massive in size.

Chicago history professor Bruce Cumings remembered how Katz combed endlessly though obscure, dusty documents, reasoning that any reader "who wanted to learn a lot would find satisfaction in the details." Instead of depending on "typical historical research, his was a type of pursuit," said Garciadiego. "He tracked Villa down, looking for information on him everywhere." That dogged searching, said Columbia anthropology professor and Katz's longtime Chicago colleague Claudio Lomnitz, was a quest for truth: he saw distortion of history as "the favorite instrument of ideologues and swindlers."

Katz, shown in 2008, was a revered historian.

Whether he was portraying the clever politician inside the drunkard exterior of Mexican president Victoriano Huerta (1913–14) or German efforts to provoke a Mexican-American conflict during World War I, Katz was "a gifted storyteller," said Kourí. He dictated the first draft of everything he wrote into a tape recorder, and "his texts were conceived with an ear for the flow of the spoken word," Kourí said. "It harks back to an ancient tradition of combining research with the art of storytelling. There was a lot of Thucydides in him, but also of Herodotus."

Katz's storytelling extended to the classroom, according to former students who spoke at the service. In an undergraduate Latin American Civilization I class, recalled Indiana University history chair Peter Guardino, AB'85, AM'86, PhD'92, Katz "drew in a group of 100 or so undergraduates—most of whom had no real interest in the subject to begin with—with tales of Aztec cannibalism and Mochica erotic art." He also shared with students his encyclopedic knowledge of modern Mexico.

Patricia Fernández de Castro, PhD'08, remembered how Katz constantly weighed "factors and possibilities, asking questions, touching on nuances, smiling when history offered irony, and often referring to events very remote in time and place to Mexican revolts and revolutions."

Over his nearly 40 years at Chicago, Katz was instrumental in making the University a hub for Mexican historical studies. Upon his 2004 retirement from teaching, the University honored those efforts by establishing the Katz Center for Mexican Studies.

"Friedrich was not just respected, he was revered here and in Mexico and indeed anywhere in the world where Mexico's revolution was studied," said John Coatsworth, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and Katz's former colleague at the University. Yet his honors and distinctions seemed to leave him "even more modest than before."

Katz would downplay his most prestigious awards, Coatsworth said, including the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor that Mexico bestows on citizens of another country. In offering a word of thanks at the service's conclusion, Katz's son, Leo Katz, AB'79, JD'82, AM'82, told the audience about a fragmentary memoir his father wrote shortly before his death, in which he mentioned only one accolade: "Le Prix de Camaraderie," awarded to him in a Parisian elementary school for being the best friend.

A scholar of great authority, Katz was anything but authoritarian, said Kourí. And he never thought his word would be the last. Two years ago, Kourí said, a beginning graduate student wrote a paper challenging some of the central arguments and conclusions in The Secret War. Katz "called the fearful student and met with him to discuss the paper—offering praise, probing questions, sage advice, and much, much encouragement."

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