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The Distinguished Visiting Austrian Chair Professorship at Stanford

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Image of an ‘Amerika-Sterne’ ('America star') that was sold at banks for a contribution of at least 50 Austrian Schilling.
Image of an ‘Amerika-Sterne’ ('America star') that was sold at banks for a contribution of at least 50 Austrian Schilling. These 'America Stars' were car stickers showing the Bicentennial emblem and worked as lottery tickets to win trips to the US, American cars, vouchers for gas, or gold coins.


The history of the Distinguished Visiting Austrian Chair Professor at Stanford begins with the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. At this time, Austria wanted to make a gift to the United States – as did many other states –  in order to demonstrate its appreciation for America’s support following the Second World War.

The proclamation by the Austrian National Committee on the American Bicentennial reads as follows:

“In 1976 the United States of America is celebrating its Bicentennial Anniversary. On the 4th of July we do not only commemorate the birthday of a great nation, but we are also reminded of the liberal principles to which the American nation owes its existence and which have since inspired so many peoples in their fight for freedom and independence.

After the Second World War it was exactly these principles that made the United States aware of its responsibility towards the rest of the world. In the time of misery and despair the American people helped the Europeans in a most generous way by giving material support, self-confidence, and the belief in a better future.

Austria has fully experienced American support. It has been an essential factor in the rapid recovery of our destroyed country; it furthermore helped to strengthen our democratic institutions, to keep our newly-found inner freedom, and finally, to achieve independence from foreign powers.

In a time in which the world at large, as well as Austria, cannot always escape a critical evaluation of American politics, we want to emphasize that we have by no means forgotten this generous support and will always retain a feeling of gratitude towards the United States. 

American generosity has never demanded anything in return. Yet we have expressed our gratitude by retaining our freedom and by fully sharing the responsibility for peace in Europe as well as the rest of the world.

Austria has also participated in numerous activities concerning the reconstruction of Europe, borne by the great spirit of co-operation. Austria was co-founder and is still a member of a number of institutions initiated by the USA and created out of this wish for co-operation, such as the OECD. According to our special position we have pursued our own way to neutrality, a policy for which we have also found American respect and understanding.

The American contribution to global stability is vital to Europe and thus also to Austrian security. Through participation in the conference for security and co-operation in Europe the USA has renewed its engagement, which has been accepted by all European countries including the Iron-Curtain-States. Of equal importance is the American influence in world economics.

Sometimes it seems as if the American people were tired of this burden. We understand this as a consequence of set-backs and failures of American international and foreign policies as well as the disappointment about a world that has countered every mistake by the United States with harsh criticism. However, as Americans themselves evaluate the actions of their government according to the high ethical principles laid down when the nation was found, it is only natural that the world measures the United States by the nation’s own standards.

Even more so should we respect the American people for not pushing problems aside but trying to overcome them by relentless self-criticism. This process is often difficult to understand for outsiders and is yet proof for the invincible determination to fulfill the ethical legacy of the American founding fathers.

The problems of this world have changed without becoming smaller. And it will not be possible to solve them without joint effort. The great tasks of the future require firm and self-confident democrats on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, determined to answer any challenge in a courageous and yet peaceful manner. An example for this course has been set by the Marshall Plan.

Therefore, we wish the American people on the occasion of their Bicentennial Anniversary that they may always retain the power to live up to their ideals and that they may be able to fulfill the great tasks of the future in the spirit of these principles.”[1]

Founded on March 2, 1976 and headed by Federal Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the Austrian National Committee on the American Bicentennial raised more than twelve million Austrian schillings between June and October 1976. According to the Austrian National Committee, “Firms, notable persons, and civic leads were asked for donations. The Austrian people were asked to contribute their share by buying the so-called ‘Amerika-Sterne’ [‘America Stars’] (car-stickers showing the Bicentennial emblem).” The “America stars” were sold at banks for a contribution of at least 50 Austrian schillings and worked as lottery tickets; participants could win trips to the U.S., American cars, vouchers for gas, or gold coins. The idea was “to appeal to the Austrian public to make donations for an Austrian contribution from people to people on the occasion of the American Bicentennial.” The aim of the fund, initially proposed by Yale historian Robin Winks, was to finance an Austrian studies center at an American university.[2]

The Austrian government matched the donations and the final endowment reached $1.5 million, which was fifty percent higher than had been anticipated. Subsequently, American universities were invited to apply for this endowment. Hertha Firnberg, the first female Social Democratic minister in an Austrian government and the first Austrian Minister for Science and Research, published guidelines for the proposals: The chair or institute was supposed to be a catalyst for Austrian Studies throughout its home university and the entire U.S. and to focus on modern Austria; its perpetuity had to be guaranteed and it had to be fully integrated into the academic program of the university; the holder of the chair or the head of the institute ought to be an American specializing in Austrian Studies; the chair or institute’s activities should focus primarily on the postgraduate level with its own program, library, staff, and publications; it was expected to foster academic exchange, e.g., through Austrian guest lectures; and its location had to be meaningful for Austrian Studies.[3]

At this time, there were two important changes occurring at Stanford University. First, Stanford was in the process of expanding International Studies at a newly established (1973) research center, which was under the directorship of political scientist Robert E. Ward.[4] Second, in 1970 the Department of German was renamed as the Department of German Studies. This second change occurred under the influence of Walter Lohnes, who would go on to chair the department from 1973 to 1979. Lohnes was interested in broader cultural studies rather than focusing exclusively on language, linguistics, and literature. At the same time, he understood German Studies as Central European Studies including Austria and Switzerland. Lohnes who was born in Frankfurt in 1925 and came to the U.S. in 1948 as one of the first German exchange students after the Second World War – in which he had served on the Eastern Front –  was a pioneer of German education in the U.S.[5] At the time, German Studies was the largest foreign language department at Stanford, teaching more than 1,500 students a year and producing more PhDs in German than any other university in the United States.

Despite these important changes at Stanford, it is clear that the University was not initially aware of the competition. In a letter from 1989, Lohnes notes that he only learned about the Austrian gift to the U.S. by chance when he travelled through Salzburg and read the newspaper. (The people connected to Stanford’s overseas studies center in Austria that was in place since the mid-1960’s thought the competition would not be interesting for Stanford.) Because Stanford’s proposal came in late (due to another misunderstanding), the whole decision-making process in Vienna was postponed.[6] (Maybe this was also the case because the Austrian federal government had difficulties in matching the funds collected by the National Committee.)

Fifteen American universities had signaled an interest, nine submitted formal applications, and three finalists were considered: Yale, Minnesota, and Stanford. All three had proposed to use the money differently: Yale wanted to create a permanent Chair for Austrian Studies, not attached to a specific department but instead rotating, depending on the field of the successful candidate. Minnesota proposed to install a permanent Chair for Austrian Studies within a Center for Austrian Studies, closely connected to the History Department. And Stanford came up with the idea of a Visiting Chair, bringing an Austrian scholar to the U.S. each year, with alternating professional backgrounds in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts.[7]

In his proposal, Lohnes made the case for Stanford on several fronts. He underscored the increasing demographic and economic weight of the West Coast. He highlighted Stanford’s consistent place among the top five universities in the U.S. and its outstanding resources, including libraries with a prominent Austriaca collection, the Hoover Institution, the Department of German Studies, the Program in Central European Studies, and the Center for Research in International Studies. He also pointed to its long-established ties with Austria, including the Stanford-in-Austria program that had been in place since 1965 and the many Austrians on the faculty.[8] In a supplement, Lohnes made clear that Stanford as a private institution with high tuition fees is not only a school for the wealthy, but that all qualified students who cannot afford the costs of a Stanford education are supported with scholarships and/or part-time employment.

In the end, the money was split between Minnesota and Stanford with Minnesota receiving $1 million for a full professorship and a Center for Austrian Studies and Stanford receiving an endowment of $450,000 for the “Distinguished Visiting Professorship of Austrian Studies.” There are only speculations as to why this decision was taken. However, there seemed to have been a sense that Austria was already well represented on the East Coast. Austrian Chancellor, the Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky, is said to have favored Yale at the beginning, but to have switched his support to Minnesota because its application was supported by Minnesota Senators Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, the latter of whom had just became Vice President under Jimmy Carter. Moreover, the fact that Minnesota is a public university may have also played a role for Kreisky, who was governing a country in which universities were exclusively run by the state. Allegedly, a majority of the committee favored Stanford– and Kreisky must have been furious about that – which is why the decision to split the endowment was taken.[9] While nervously waiting for a decision from Vienna and given the rumors he had heard, Robert Ward commented on the process that it was “very Austrian.“[10]

Kreisky informed Lohnes in a letter from February 14, 1977:

“Dear Professor Lohnes,

With reference to your letter from October 29, 1976, I have the pleasure to inform you that the Austrian National Committee for the U.S. Bicentennial has decided to sponsor Chairs in Austrian Studies at the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, as a bicentennial gift from the Austrian people to the people of the United States.

The Austrian’s public response to the National Committee’s appeal for donations “from people to people” was so generous that the funds raised surpassed the initial goal by far and enabled us to sponsor two chairs.

The two above-mentioned universities were selected from a total of fifteen leading American institutions of higher learning, which had notified their interest in the Austrian Chair. I am particularly pleased that a Professorship of Austrian Studies can be established at your eminent University.”[11]

In his thank-you letter to Kreisky, Lohnes made clear that the Distinguished Visiting Austrian Chair Professor Program will be a substantial contribution to Stanford’s focus on Central European Studies: “It will make Austria’s glorious past and vital presence more visible throughout Stanford University and on the American West coast.”[12] In the Stanford University News Service, President Richard W. Lyman expressed his wish that “[t]his distinguished professorship will, we hope, thus become an enduring symbol of friendship and shared interests between the peoples of Austria and the U.S.”[13] On March 18, 1977, the endowment was officially presented by a group of Austrian dignitaries to Stanford at the university’s Museum of Art. The delegation was led by the President of the Austro-American Society, industrialist Manfred Mautner-Markhof. He was joined by the former Minister of Finance Stephan Koren from the conservative People’s Party, the Austrian Ambassador to the U.S., a high-ranking official from the Ministry of Science and Research, the Director of the Austrian Institute in New York City, the Consul-General in Los Angeles, the honorary Consul-General in San Francisco, and an assistant to Kreisky.[14] The chancellor himself only made it to Minnesota to present the gift of the Austrian people there.

The first holder of the Distinguished Visiting Austrian Chair Professorship was Fritz Fellner, a historian from the University of Salzburg who taught courses on pre-WWII and post-WWII Austria and on Austria at the Paris Peace Conference after WWI during the winter and spring quarter 1978. The next year, Herbert Zeman from Vienna, a specialist for Austrian literature, came for the winter and spring quarters of 1979. The endowment was not enough to bring in Austrian guests for three quarters each year, but only for one or two. As originally envisioned, the chair rotated among different disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and arts, including literature, history, philosophy, linguistics, political science/international relations, economics, art, music, and drama.

In order to choose the candidates for the chair, two advisory committees were created with one in Vienna and one at Stanford. A list of possible candidates was put together in Vienna, but Stanford had the final pick and reserved the right to add names to the list to include non-Austrians if necessary:[15]

“From our standpoint we must start with the fact that Stanford must clearly retain control of all critical stages of the selection and appointment procedures. It is essential to the integrity of the University – and required by the established practices of all our Schools and Department which in the first instance must approve and recommend all appointments to their staffs – that Stanford alone determines who will become a member of our faculty. We clearly recognize, however, in the present case the need for the best possible advice on the qualifications and the potential availability of candidates for the Austrian Visiting Professorship. […] We value this Austrian Professorship highly and want to do everything possible to insure its success at Stanford. Ideally this recommend the following qualifications: great scholarly or other professional distinction without regard to age, sex, or official rank; a degree of fluency in English that will permit him or her to lecture or address effectively student, faculty, and public gatherings; and, where possible, the sort of mind and personality that adds style and flair to what would otherwise be a sound and respectable performance.”[16]

It was most important that the Austrians taking the chair “fit into the Stanford scene and needs.”

Lohnes and Ward believed that it was more lively and more interesting for Stanford faculty and students to bring over Austrians for a limited time than to permanently install an American or Austrian academic in this position “so Stanford students and faculty may obtain as broad and complete a view of Austrian society as possible”.[17] From the beginning, Stanford’s main interest was in “modern/contemporary” Austria (not necessarily the history of the Habsburg Empire, etc.). This was in line with what Vienna has envisaged. 

The establishment of the Distinguished Visiting Austrian Chair Professorship 40 years ago was closely connected to the idea of creating German and Swiss Chairs at the same time, all together completing Central European Studies. But the Germans apparently did not understand the U.S. university system as Austrian chancellor Kreisky seemingly did: The Volkswagen foundation gave a grant of only 600,000 German marks, which had been consumed after a few years and did not endow a chair, as the Austrians did. A German visiting professor at Stanford in 1978 – Gerd Wolfgang Weber – complained in a letter to Bonn about that and held the “clever Austrians” up as an example.[18]



[1] Österreichisches Nationalkomitee 200 Jahre USA, Final Report, Stanford University / Special Collections, Walter Lohnes Papers, ACCN 1996-041, SC 322, Box 7.

[2] Yale News, 04/08/2003: In Memoriam Robin Winks, <http://news.yale.edu/2003/04/08/memoriam-robin-winks> [02/04/2017].

[3] Wilhelm Schlag, Minnesota and Stanford. New Centres for Austrian Studies, in: Austria Today. Quaterly Review of Trends and Events 3 (Spring 1977), ibidem.

[4] Stanford Report, 12/18/2009: Stanford's Robert Ward, pioneer in international studies, dead at 93, <http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/december14/obit-robert-ward-121809.html> [02/04/2017].

[5] Stanford Report, 05/1/2012: Walter F. W. Lohnes, Stanford professor emeritus of German Studies, dies at 87, <http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/may/walter-lohnes-obit-050112.html> [02/04/2017].

[6] Walter F. W. Lohnes, The German, Austrian, and Swiss Chairs at Stanford. A Historical Note, 07/1989, ibidem.

[7] Schlag, Minnesota and Stanford.

[8] Letter Richard W. Lyman to Bruno Kreisky, Stanford 11/01/1976, ibidem; Proposal for a Distinguished Endowed Professorship of Austrian Studies at Stanford University, ibidem; Letter Richard W. Lyman to Bruno Kreisky, Stanford 11/11/1976, Stanford University / Special Collections, Walter Lohnes Papers, ACCN 1996-041, SC 322, Box 2; Supplementary Statement to Proposal for a Distinguished Endowed Professorship of Austrian Studies at Stanford University, Stanford 11/11/1976, ibidem; William F. Miller (Vice President and Provost), Stanford University, Statement of Intent with respect to The Administration of a Distinguished Visting Professorship of Austrian Studies, Stanford 03/23/1977, Stanford University / Special Collections, Walter Lohnes Papers, ACCN 1996-041, SC 322, Box 7.

[9] Letter Robert Ward to Richard Lyman & William Miller, Stanford 11/22/1976, ibidem.; Letter Robert Ward to list of addressees, Stanford 02/11/1977, ibidem.

[10] Letter Robert Ward to list of addressees, Stanford 01/04/1977, Stanford University / Special Collections, Walter Lohnes Papers, ACCN 1996-041, SC 322, Box 2.

[11] Letter Bruno Kreisky to Walter Lohnes, Vienna 02/14/1977, Stanford University / Special Collections, Walter Lohnes Papers, ACCN 1996-041, SC 322, Box 7.

[12] Letter Walter Lohnes to Bruno Kreisky, Stanford 02/28/1977 [my translation from the German], ibidem.

[13] Stanford University News Service, 03/18/1977, ibidem.

[14] Letter Richard W. Lyman to Bruno Kreisky, Stanford, 03/28/1977, ibidem.

[15] Letter Robert E. Ward to Wilhelm Schlag, Stanford 02/03/1978, ibidem; Letter Wilhelm Schlag to Robert E. Ward, Vienna 07/30/1977, ibidem; Letter Robert E. Ward to different departments, Stanford 12/15/1977, ibidem. 

[16] Letter Robert E. Ward to Wilhelm Schlag, Stanford 02/03/1978, ibidem.

[17] German, Austrian professors offer five new courses, in: Campus Report, 01/04/1978, ibidem; Letter Walter Lohnes to Robert E. Ward, Stanford 02/07/1977, ibidem.

[18] Letter Gerd W. Weber to MdB Karsten Voigt, Palo Alto 12/09/1978, ibidem.