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The Best Political Scientist in the World Goes on Half-Time, Still an Optimist

By Nicholas D. Kristof

A hush suddenly falls on a small crowd of students gathered outside the Geological Lecture Hall. The students, who are waiting for the lecture hall to open so that they can take their places for Gov. 20, "Introduction to Comparative Government," have spotted their professor, Karl W. Deutsch, walking toward them. All eyes focus on the Stanfield Professor of International Peace and all conversation stops. No one knows quite what to say or how to act in front of world-renowned professor. Deutsch himself seems a bit ill at ease with all the attention, but he sits down on the first of the concrete steps, ignoring the dust that collects on his heavy black trousers. Sensing the distance that separates him from the students, he turns to a young man at his right who is wearing a shirt reading "photographers do it in the dark." Deutsch smiles and at the same time knits his brow. "You are a photographer?" he asks, his strong German accent making even small talk somehow seem significant. The student, relieved to have something to say, he is and plunges into a discussion of photography. Soon several students are sitting on the steps around Deutsch, discussing the best makes of cameras and the best time of day to take photos.

Karl W. Deutsch knows his lenses. He spent two years studying optics in England during the 1930s, when the political climate in his native Czechoslovakia kept him from teaching law. That stay in England, however, was only a small digression in a career that has spanned...a childhood and youth in Prague, Czechoslovakia, anti-Nazi efforts there while Hitler was consolidating his power, immigration to and studies in the Unites States,, and position today as president of the international Political Science Association.

Now, at age 67, Deutsch has completed his last full year at Harvard. In accordance with the University's retirement rules, he will still teach in the fall term for the next four years; but he will spend each spring and summer in West Berlin as director of the International Institute for Comparative Social Research.

"Maybe at this stage of my life I'll get more opportunities to learn and research," he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

Deutsch will continue to hold his chair in the Government Department as Stanfield Professor of International Peace until his retirement is complete in 1981. He will present guest lectures in Gov. 20 in addition to teaching several graduate seminars.

As Deutsch describes it, Central Europe in the 1920s and '30s was an exciting, stimulating, and at times frightening place in which to grow up. Among the friends and neighbors of the Deutsch family were many Sudetan Germans who felt they had been cheated out of self-determination at the end of World War I, and who consequently heartily approved--especially after two crippling depressions--of the ascension of Chancellor Hitler and of Hitler's intention to restore order and unite German people all over the world.

The Deutsch family was also German and also lived in the Sudetan region of Czechoslovakia, but Karl and his parents disagreed with their neighbors and vigorously opposed Hitler's militarism. Mrs. Deutsch resisted Nazism in Parliament as a member of the Social Democrat coalition; Mr. Deutsch's anti-Nazi efforts later earned him a place in German newspapers as "an enemy of the Third Reich,"; and Karl served as a student organizer of the anti-Nazi movement in Prague.

Because of the political climate young Deutsch was unable to get a job in his chosen profession, teaching law. As a German and as a Social Democrat, he found all doors closed to him. "The Czech universities employed only Czechs, and the Nazi universities employed Nazis," he recalls softly.

With no other options open, Deutsch left for England to study optics. He says his study of the mathematics and physics associated with optics was partly responsible for later turning him towards the quantitative side of political science, an area that he pioneered.

He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1935 and spent the next three years organizing the opposition to the Nazis. In 1938 he and his wife came to the United States to elicit support for the anti-Nazis cause, expecting to stay four weeks and then to return home. In the meantime, however, Hitler issued his famous ultimatum demanding freedom for Sudetanland. Several weeks later, Britain capitulated at Munich, and Deutsch was advised by Czech authorities not to return home for his own safety.

He received a scholarship from Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. program in government and he finally received his Ph.D. in 1951, after delays caused by World War II and by his teaching job at MIT. By then, his parents had escaped from Czechoslovakia and joined him in Cambridge.

Deutsch leans forward in his chair and speaks with special earnestness as he reflects upon the Nazi period. "I think I can understand its terrible psychological appeal," he begins quietly. "Any people suffering from mass unemployment is vulnerable. But I also learned that it is not true that al people give in when confronted with overwhelming force. I know of too many who didn't.

His eyes wander briefly around his office as he recalls the sadness he felt when Britain gave in to Hitler at the 1938 conference in Munich. "Democracy can make terrible mistakes," he admits, "but one lesson I've learned from it is that one should never give up, no matter how bad it looks. If the forces for good in the world were not greater than the forces for evil, we would not be here."

Deutsch hit it off immediately in the United States. "Within a week of being here I was at a youth conference and met Eleanor Roosevelt. I figured that a country like that is a great one. Then I met faculty members who I admired very much. And also, I find Americans the best neighbors anywhere."

Deutsch volunteered to fight for America during World War II but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. Instead, he worked for the U.S. State Department for two years in the Office of Strategic Services, using his fluency in English. Czech, German, and French, his reading knowledge of Latin, and his general understanding of Spanish and Russian for OSS intelligence analysis.

After the war, he continued teaching at MIT, finally leaving in 1958 to go to Yale. During this time he pioneered research in nationalism and the problems it presented in world politics. "I became interested in nationalism because I grew up in a country torn apart by nationalism," he says. "Nationalism is not just a wild upsurge of feeling but a process that can be measured and influenced."

From nationalism and a related field, political integration, Deutsch moved next to a quantitative and systematized approach to political science. He found that by applying communications theory to some problems in the study of nationalism, the loose threads came together, so he turned his energies to computer modeling and mathematical analysis of governmental issues. In addition, he gathered raw statistical data from countries all over the world to allow accurate research in comparative government. He wrote a flurry of articles and books explaining his research; and other political scientists gave him their support. Interest burgeoned in the quantitative approach to social science, and soon it became a respected and integral element in the study of governments.

Deutsch came to Harvard in 1967 and he has been here ever since. He has spent the last decade refining and probing deeper into his theories, as well as publishing his findings. He has written or substantially contributed to more than 15 books, running the gamut from nationalism to comparative government to quantitative methods.

Karl Deutsch is now at the peak of his career. His spacious second floor office in Littauer Center is lined with books about subjects he pioneered, and boxes and file cabinets store his countless articles and essays. His secretary handles his correspondence, including innumerable invitations to participate in professional conferences. There are more requests for his time than he can handle in a working day, and yet he always tries to find time for everybody. He is currently completing a three-year term as president of the International Political Science Association, and he is a past president of the American Political Science Association. On top of his two earned doctorate degrees (from Harvard and Prague), Deutsch has also acquired four honorary ones. "The two earned ones were the hardest," he laughs.

Deutsch does have one regret, one thing he would have done differently. If he had it to do over. "I would make it a point not to spend quite as much time on my career at the expense of my family," he reflects. "Many young people feel they have to establish their professions immediately and they are under such pressure that their families have to bear some of the strain. I wish young people would think of this early so that they have time enough for each other and for their children."

Although he is well known for his constant optimism, Deutsch does predict that the world will face severe challenges in the years ahead. "We may soon face crises and catastrophes compared to which the depressions and wars of the first half of this century will seem minor," he warns, his German accent thickening to underscore the dangers. "The first crisis we may face is that of an arms race in a world of nuclear arsenals and weapons of mass destruction. This could start in the next 12 months if the SALT treaty fails in the Senate. The second crisis is that of the expected doubling of the world's population by the years 2015-10 and the problem of finding food for all these people. Then there are the related questions of energy, water fertilizer, capital equipment--all will be political questions of major importance.

"The third crisis relates to qualitative changes in mankind. The majority of people will be urban, non-agricultural, and illiterate. In practice this means they will have more political needs and demands, greater military skills, and will be less tolerant of frustration. It will be with this kind of people that we will have to keep the peace."

Deutsch's furrowed brow now relaxes as he offers a note of optimism: "Humanity has always survived its crises, from the ice age onward. I don't think we'll fail now."

One method of overcoming the challenges, he notes, is enlightened research and scholarship. "In my life, one of my major tasks has been to advance human knowledge a little," he muses. "The reward of scholarship is to find something you didn't know before, or to find a practical application for your work."

Harvard's tremendous resources make it an ideal home for a scholar, Deutsch says. "I think Harvard is a very good and a very wonderful university. I see this in dozens of ways. There is little fear among the students for the faculty, and there are many opportunities for interchange. You just can't sit back in a classroom and not think. I never saw anything like this at a European university."

Harvard's many good points do not make it immune from criticism, however. Deutsch has supported as a last resort divestiture by the University of its stocks in companies doing business in South Africa, and he endorses Harvard's student activist movements.

"If students were not active, things would be worse," he asserts. "I was active as a student and I would be bow if I were a student. If you care, you must try to do something. It is better to try and make a mistake than not to try at all."

Despite his experience with the tumultuous politics of inter-war Europe, Deutsch says he never was tempted to withdraw from politics or to resign himself to cynicism. "I find the world a highly imperfect place in which to live, but you can always make it a little more perfect."

The United States to him epitomizes the search for improvement, of enthusiasm tempered by pragmatism. "I have a great love and admiration for Americans," he says. "Americans are descendants of those in the old world who would not put up with evil. They preferred to break away and try again."

Because of his admiration for America and his love of Harvard, Deutsch says he is reluctant to end his year-round residence in Cambridge. In his position in Berlin each spring, however, he will have more resources than at Harvard--more computer time, more secretarial help, and more research assistants. Also, he adds, "Knowing how things have gone terribly wrong in Germany, I would like to help their social sciences."

Political scientists around the country say they will miss Karl Deutsch--as a person and as a scholar--when he begins to phase in his retirement next year. Deutsch's teaching, research, and leadership in professional organizations have left him with countless friends all over the globe, all of whom are eager to heap superlatives on him.

Jorge I. Dominguez, associate professor of Government and Deutsch's teaching partner this year in Gov. 20, studied under Deutsch at Yale College and decided to enter Harvard's graduate school of Government partly because Deutsch had just moved from Yale to Harvard.

"Karl has been a teacher, a friend, and a colleague," reflects Dominguez, "and he's been good in all these roles. He's always stimulating, and one reason why I'm a political scientist is because he can inspire thoughts even when you don't agree with him.

"To use a word that would be awkward for other people but applies to him, he's gentleman," continues Dominguez. "For example, in the Faculty discussion about investments he spoke of his belief in the fidelity of love. Now very few people are going to get up on the floor of the Faculty and say that."

Arend Lijphart, professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego muses that "If I had to say who is the best political scientist in the world, it would have to be Karl Deutsch." Lijphart, a former student of Deutsch's at Yale, adds, "He has an enormously penetrating mind and he possesses a tremendous knowledge of almost every field in political science."

Bruce M. Russet, professor of political Science at Yale and a former student and colleague of Deutsch's, recalls that, "He was just full of ideas. He had a vision of political science as a vigorous social science and an idea of how to get there. That kind of informed enthusiasm was enormously contagious to those of us who were graduate students under him.

"If you look at political science now and in the 1950s, there are enormous differences," Russett continues. "Karl doesn't get all the credit for the changes, but he is as entitled to as much or more credit than any other single individual."

When Karl Deutsch learns of the praise which his colleagues have for him, he nods his appreciation but seems a bit ill-at-ease. He self-consciously straightens his traditional black suit and quickly changes the subject. He speaks of his love for Harvard and his eagerness to help students in any way he can. His only concern lies four years away, when Harvard will tag an "Emeritus" on his title. "I hope they let Emeriti in the libraries, he smiles.

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