Max Weber – 1864 – 1920
Karl Maximilian Weber was born 21st April 1864 in Erfurt, Thurniga, Germany.
Weber has been described as many things, including sociologist, political economist, historian and social scientist. For historians, his work on the history and sociology of religion has been important in shaping our understanding of capitalism, modernisation and state power.
So, who was he?
He was born into a wealthy family – his home life was incredibly engaging – both his mother and father were highly educated and their house was often visited by academics, civil servants and liberal politicians.
He enrolled at the University of Heidelburg in ‘82, where he held down a legal apprenticeship while continuing to study and write about economic history. He took a year out to complete his military service before then going to the University of Berlin.
He gained his doctorate in ’89 by writing about medieval business organisation and roman agrarian economics. Two years later, having officially becoming a doctor, he worked as part of the faculty at the Universty of Berlin, lecturing and acting as a consultant for the government.
The 1890s were the possibly the most tumultuous of Weber’s life and career. He had been forced to live in his parents’ home for much of his adult life because he could not make enough money while continuing to study. After his marriage to his distant cousin, Marianne Schnitger, he was able to leave home and take up a professorship in Freiburg. She would come to be his biographer and archivist, and became an important feminist scholar in her own right.
In ’96 he moved to Heidelburg and created what became known as the “Weber Circle” with his wife, Georg Jellinek, Ernst Troeltsch, Werner Sombart, Marc Bloch (!), Robert Michels and György Lukács. But it was in ’97 that the most traumatic event would occur. Weber had a nervous breakdown and had to cease all teaching. He spent most of the latter half of 1900 in a sanatorium, and, although he tried to come back to Heidelburg in 1902, he retired again after just a year. He would not return to academia proper until after the War.
In 1903, now free from the obligations of an academic post, he became editor of Archives for Social Science and Social Welfare, and a year later wrote his most famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
When the War broke out, Weber was not in a fit state for active service, but he was able to organise the hospital system in Heidelburg. Initially he had supported the war, believing the Russian regime to be corrupt and medieval. He preferred a liberal empire on the model of Prussia or Great Britain. His views soon changed, however, and he left his job with the army in 1915, becoming a major critic of the Kaiser’s expansionist policies.
After the War, Weber had a reputation as one of the most brilliant minds of his age. He was asked to help draft the Weimar Constitution and was a German representative at the Paris peace conference. Controversially, he defended “Article 48” which gave the president significant powers of veto in a crisis, something Adolf Hitler would later use to dismantle the Weimar government in the 1930s. Nevertheless, his international reputation as an academic remained strong.
He stood as an MP, but failed to get elected. Weber moved to Munich where he became head of the new sociology faculty. However, late in 1919 he contracted Spanish Flu, an epidemic that raged through Europe after the end of the War. He became seriously ill, contracted pneumonia, and died on 14th June 1920.
Posthumously, his wife Marianne prepared his manuscripts and other writings for publication as his great work Economy and Society, which he had been working on in his final years. Along with Protestant Ethic this is seen as one of Weber’s seminal works, although it was not fully translated into English until the late 1960s.
Weber has had a profound effect on history and the way we see power, society and modernity. His influence on men such as Marc Bloch, Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas is significant, and along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim he is seen as one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. In his philosophy we see the beginnings of Critical Theory, a critique of enlightenment and modernity which would go on to influence much left-wing post-war scholarship.
Rise of the West (http://www.riseofthewest.net/thinkers/weber03.htm)
Max Weber: an intellectual portrait by Reinhard Bendix on Google Books (http://books.google.com/books?visbn=0520031946&id=63sC9uaYqQsC