Kurt Tauber, who taught political science during our years at Williams, continues to live in Williamstown in retirement. Kurt was born in 1922 in Vienna, Austria, came to Williams in 1960 as a member of the Political Science Department and was promoted to Associate Professor in 1964 when we arrived. As we remember well, he joined a department with a distinguished pedigree and national reputation with Jim Burns, Fred Greene and Fred Schuman. Kurt was a central part of the department, becoming a Full Professor in 1969, department chair, Gaudino Scholar, chair of the Gaudino Committee and the Class of 1924 Professor of Political Science before retiring in 1993 after 33 years at Williams. It is telling that Jim Burns singled out Kurt in his dedication to volume two of Workshop of Democracy, to “Kurt Tauber and my other Williams College colleagues who teach in the tradition of Mark Hopkins and Robert L. Gaudino.” In 1967, Kurt published his most notable book, Beyond Eagle and Swastika: German Nationalism Since 1945, a two-volume 1,600 page magnum opus on post-war right wing politics. I am forever grateful that he did not assign that in one of my classes.
We arrived at Williams in a period of great change, both for Williams itself and in national politics. The College was on the cusp of transformation. Fraternities were being phased out and women were about to be admitted. (Safe to admit women once we graduated?!) The national debate about civil rights and the Vietnam War intruded itself into the Purple Valley. Just ask the CIA recruiter and General William Westmorland who came to campus. Some of us demonstrated near and far. A few did community organizing in cities. In truth, our version of campus discontent was but a gentle ripple compared to the seismic clashes on other campuses.
Disruption was the order of the day, both inside and outside the classroom. In the classroom at Williams, there was the disruption of ideas. Bob Gaudino was blazing new trails in instruction—uncomfortable learning by being confronted by unsettling ideas and experiences. Kurt was part of that disruption and admired the rigor and subversiveness of this new learning method. Belying his gentlemanly manner, Kurt provoked analysis and questioning beyond conventional wisdom. Using this approach, he mixed traditional texts with new readings in political philosophy. I remember reading in the same freshman political philosophy class the foundational works of Aristotle and Socrates along with those of Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse. Disruptive, indeed.
More than just intellectual questioning, Kurt was a strong advocate of transforming ideas into personal commitments. Intellectual learning should not simply be an “academic” exercise, but also a vehicle for personal action. In an interview on activism and academia with the Williams Record in 1989, Kurt remarked, “To me, intellectual life either has consequences for you and your life and the way you structure your own reality and yourself in it, or else it’s merely a kind of adornment of an upper middle-class upbringing.”
Kurt’s formal manner was leavened by his commitment to his students and passion for intellectual engagement. He always had time to spend with students discussing their work. And even though he had his own well-known political philosophy, he was most committed to well thought-out and argued analysis. Flabby thinking was not accepted from any perspective. One conservative alum posted on the EphBlog in 2010 that Kurt was his favorite Marxist because of both Kurt’s civil discourse as well as his concern about the quality of intellectual atmosphere at Williams.
Kurt was Williamstown’s most famous gourmet Marxist. His dinners were highly prized by colleagues and friends for both for their excellence in cooking and for the array of sometimes obscure pieces of china and crystal. He cooked for benefit events, sometimes including donated bottles of Bordeaux from Fred Rudolph’s famous cellar. Kurt’s Austrian precision extended to keeping a log of what dishes he served to each person so that no dish was repeated in the future to the same person.
Kurt lived for many years, including well into retirement, at his home on Southworth Street. After a serious fall a few years ago, he moved to the Sweetwood Retirement Center south of town. It is a pleasant facility with good-size rooms, lots of light and great views, but where the food is predictably many rungs below Kurt’s standards. Regrettably, no more hosted dinners. My wife, Carol, and I have had the great pleasure of visiting with Kurt on our annual summer pilgrimages to Billsville. Our visits with him are invigorating as well as nostalgic and one of the highlights of our vacations. His wit is as sharp as ever. He still has many friends and is able to get out to shows, art exhibits, Tanglewood and dinner. Kurt lost his wonderful wife, Esther, in 1998 after 54 years of marriage. Their daughter, Gwen, who was a teenager when we were at Williams, is an accomplished art conservator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where she lives with her husband and daughter. We look forward to our continued visits.