On Wednesday, April 29, dozens of Harvard history professors squeezed into an already overflowing crowd of history students in Sever 11 to witness the passing of a giant, and perhaps an era, of Harvard education.
The memorable date was that of William L. Langer's last Harvard lecture.
The world famous scholar, whose legendary History 132 has disciplined two generations of Harvard students in the diplomatic detail of the 19th century, and whose European Alliances and Alignments and Diplomacy of Imperialism have recorded this history for future generations, retires this spring as Coolidge Professor of History, after 37 years on the Harvard faculty.
Generally regarded as America's leading historian of modern European history, Langer is also Harvard's last great exponent of the Ranke-Germanic school of history.
In an age and a University increasingly concerned with social, intellectual and psychological history, Langer's concentration on the documented facts of political events represented the strong voice of sanity, though not of conservatism.
It was, however, Langer's Presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1957 that gave respectability to the role of modern psychology in historical analysis.
Most recently, Langer's research on the potato as a major factor in the 18th century population explosion, and his analysis of the Black Death as a partial historical parallel to nuclear war fare, demonstrate a wide range of historical interests.
Yet, to thousands of students Langer will be remembered for the often terrifying, though never tedious. History 132 lectures, packed with Austro-Hungarian premiers, Balkan crises, and diplomatic notes.
Langer's rigorous standards of scholarship for undergraduates made History 132 and History 157 (The Ottoman Empire) the ultimate test for serious history concentrators and the ultimate disaster for the liberal arts dilettante.
On any given Monday, Wednesday or Friday the dozen or so students who arrived at Sever 11 at 9:10 instead of 9:05 could be seen sitting patiently on the floor outside the classroom taking the usual six pages of notes. The naive student who walked into the classroom late never would do it again.
History 232, Langer's graduate seminar at his home at 1 Berkeley St. was legendary as the crucible for molding history scholars. Undergraduates were welcome, if they were prepared to read primary sources in three foreign languages.
Yet, for all the rigor of his instruction, and for all the surface gruffness of his manner, no student who dared to approach the scholar with a question was ever turned away without an answer.
To the world of scholarship Langer has contributed not only his two major works in diplomatic history, but also the 20-volume series "The Rise of Modern Europe" (the Langer Series in any bookstore) and An Encyclopedia of World History, both of which he edited.
Langer will devote the first months of his retirement to completing his own volume in the Langer Series, Liberalism, Nationalism and Socialism which will cover the years 1832-1852.
A man of affairs as well as a scholar, Langer served as Chief of the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. The World War II era was the topic of two Langer works, The Challenge to isolation, 1937-1940, and The Undeclared War, 1940-1941.
Since 1961 Langer has been a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which explains his frequent Friday trips to Washington.
Langer is also a member of the editorial board of Foreign Affairs, often called the front for the American establishment.
At Harvard, in addition to teaching and writing, Langer directed the Center for Middle Eastern Studies from 1954 to 1956 and the Russian Research Center from 1954 to 1959.
Langer is a native of Boston and was educated at Harvard receiving his A.B. in 1915 and Ph.D. in 1923.
William LangerW ILLIAM L. LANGER '15, Coolidge Professor of History Emeritus, died last month, on the eve of the publication of
Soaking Up the BenniesIvy Presidents Back Langer The presidents of the colleges in the Ivy League did a very good thing this week-they
National Defense Slashes Ranks of FacultyWhen upperclassmen return to Harvard's classrooms on Wednesday and Thursday, they will find a Faculty that has been literally decimated
Langer Resumes National DutiesWilliam L. Langer '15, Coolidge Professor of History, has been summoned to Washington to resume his duties with the Intelligence
Wolff Appointed To History Seat For Balkan WorkRobert L. Wolff, '36, authority on relations between eastern and western Europe, has been appointed Coolidge Professor of History at