A biography of Max Weber, adapted from the text found on Larry Ridener's site at Radford University (Virginia, USA) for the Dead Sociologist Society (source: Coser, 1977, p.234-242). Safety copy May 00.
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Max Weber

Max Weber was born on April 21, 1864, the eldest of seven children of Max Weber and his wife Helene. Both parents descended from a line of Protestants, who had been refugees from Catholic persecution in the past but had later become successful entrepreneurs. Weber's paternal grandfather had been a prosperous linen dealer in Bielefeld, where the family had settled after being driven from Catholic Salzburg because of their Protestant convictions. While one of his sons took over and expanded the family business, another, Weber's father, worked for a while in the city government of Berlin and later as a magistrate in Erfurt (where Max was born) but then embarked upon a political career in the capital. In Berlin he was first a city councillor and late a member of the Prussian House of Deputies and of the German Reichstag. He was an important member of the National Liberal Party, the party of those liberals who had made their peace with Bismarck and now supported most of his policies. Very much a part of the political "establishment", the older Weber lived a self-satisfied, pleasure-loving, and shallow life. He was a fairly typical German bourgeois politician, at home in the wheeling and dealing of political affairs and not given to engage in any "idealistic" ventures that might undercut his solid anchoring with the established powers.

Weber's mother, Helene Fallenstein, came from a similar background but was made of wholly different cloth. Her father, who descended from a line of school teachers, had been a teacher himself, a translator, and romantic intellectual. After having fought in the war of liberation against Napoleon, he settled down to the rather prosaic life of a Prussian civil servant. When his first wife died, he married Emilie Souchay, the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Frankfurt. His financial position now assured, her retired to live in Heidelberg where he endeavored to be a kind of patron of the resident academic community. The Souchays descended from Huguenot emigrants who had been driven from their native France after Louis XIV had outlawed French Protestantism. They became very wealthy in Germany but continued the cultivation of an intense Calvinist religiosity.

The young Weber grew up in a cultured bourgeois household. Not only leading politicians but leading academic men were among its frequent house guests. Here Weber met, at an early age, historians Treitschke, Sybel, Dilthey and Mommsen. But his parents' marriage, though at first a seemingly happy one, was soon to show signs of increasing tension, which could hardly be hidden from the children. Weber's mother, with her strong religious commitments and her ingrained Calvinist sense of duty, had little in common with a husband whose personal ethic was hedonistic rather than Protestant.

Max Weber was precocious, yet sickly, shy, and withdrawn. His teachers complained about his lack of respect for their authority and his lack of discipline. But he was an avid reader. At the age of fourteen, he wrote letters studded with references to Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Livy, and he had an extended knowledge of Goethe, Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer before he entered university studies.

The parental household was ruled with a strong authoritarian hand by his father, who may perhaps have compensated for his flexibility in things political by being an inflexible disciplinarian at home. Although his mother made efforts to draw Max to her side and to cultivate in him the Christian piety she prized so highly, Max tended in his youth to identify with his father rather than with her. This identification may explain why the previously withdrawn and encapsulated young Weber suddenly became very much "one of the boys" when he went to the University of Heidelberg at eighteen. He joined his father's duelling fraternity and chose as his major study his father's field of law. He became as active in duelling as in drinking bouts, and the enormous quantities of beer consumed with his fraternity brothers soon transformed the thin and sickly looking young man into a heavy-set Germanic boozer proudly displaying his fencing scars.

These distractions did not keep Weber from his studies. Apart from his work in law, he attended Knies' lectures in economics and studied medieval history with Erdmannsdoerffer and philosophy with Kuno Fischer. Immanuel Bekker introduced him to Roman law and Roman institutions. In addition, Weber read a great deal in theology in the company of his elder cousin, the theologian Otto Baumgarten. After three terms, Weber left Heidelberg for military service in Strasbourg (then part of Germany). Here he came under the influence of his uncle, the historian Hermann Baumgarten, and his wife Ida, Helene's Weber's sister.

The Baumgartens soon became a second set of parents for Weber. Their influence on his development proved decisive. Hermann Baumgarten had been a liberal comrade-in-arms of his father, but unlike him, had never made peace with the Bismarckian Reich and still adhered to the unalloyed liberalism of his youth. He refused the compromises that had advanced the political career of Weber's father. Baumgarten was content with a maverick role as an unreconciled 1848 liberal, one who was basically at odds with the dominant tendencies of the day and preferred the role of a German Jeremiah. His wife Ida was in many ways like her sister, Weber's mother, sharing her deep Calvinist piety and a thorough devotion to religious principles. She differed from her, however, in being forceful, even dominant, rather than withdrawn.

Unlike his father, who treated young Weber with patronizing authoritarianism, the uncle regarded the nephew as an intellectual peer. From the Strasbourg days to the time of Baumgarten's death in 1893, as Weber's letters eloquently testify, the uncle was his main mentor and confidant in matters political and intellectual. The influence of his aunt was equally strong. Contrary to his mother, who had not succeeded in stirring his interests in religion, his aunt led him to immerse himself in religious reading, especially in her favorite theologian, the New England divine William Ellery Channing. More generally, Weber was greatly impressed with Ida's forceful personality, the uncompromising religious standards with which she ran her household, and her deep sense of social responsibility which led her to spend a great deal of time in charitable work. He came to appreciate the values and orientations of his mother when seeing them put into action by her sister. It is most probably in the Strasbourg period that Weber acquired his lifelong sense of awe for the Protestant virtues, even though he was unable to share the Christian belief on which they were based. He never lost respect for men who not only believed as Channing did but who actually lived his moral philosophy.

In the Strasbourg days, Weber partly freed himself from the model of a father whom he came to see as an amoral hedonist. He now tended to identify, though never fully, with the moral sternness represented in different, and even partly contradictory, ways by his uncle and aunt. He was to live with the strain created by these identifications for a long period to come.

Weber's first love was his cousin, the Baumgartens' daughter Emmy. His engagement to her lasted for six years, throughout which time the relationship was tension-ridden and brittle. Emmy was in frail health both physically and mentally. After years of agonizing doubts and guilt feelings, Weber finally broke the engagement to Emmy, who had been confined to a sanitarium for much of that time.

In the fall of 1884, his military service over, Weber returned to his parents' home to study at the University of Berlin. His parents wanted him back not only to control his rather free- wheeling ways but also to remove him from the influence of the Baumgartens. For the next eight years of his life, interrupted only by a term at the University of Goettingen and short periods of further military training, Weber stayed at his parents' house, first as a student, later as a junior barrister in Berlin courts, and finally as a Dozent at the University of Berlin. In those years Weber was financially dependent on a father he increasing disliked. He had developed a greater understanding of his mother's personality and her religious values during his stay in the household of her sister, and he came to resent his father's bullying behavior toward her.

The Early Academic Career
As a student at Berlin, Weber developed a strong antipathy for Treitschke's patriotic blustering and ranting but grew to appreciate men of sober scholarship, like his thesis advisor Jakob Goldschmidt and the historian Mommsen, with whom he studied Roman law. Weber had so close a relation with this teacher that at the defense of his Ph.D. thesis on the History of Commercial Societies in the Middle Ages, in 1889, Mommsen said to him: "When I come to die, there is no one better to whom I should like to say this: Son, the spear is too heavy for my hand, carry it on."

In the Berlin years Weber was enormously productive. His frantic work pace was perhaps a means for diverting his increasingly antagonistic feelings toward a father on whom he was still wholly dependent. His Ph.D. thesis, rated summa cum laude, was followed in 1891 by an important work on Roman Agrarian History, which served as his Habilitationsschrift, a post-doctoral thesis necessary for a university teaching position. There followed several studies on the condition of East-Elbian agricultural workers for the Verein fuer Sozialpolitik and for the Evangelisch-sozial Verein. The major one of these East-Elbian studies ran to almost nine hundred pages and was written in about a year, during which time Weber was replacing his former teacher Goldschmidt as a lecturer at the University of Berlin and also holding a full-time job at the bar. In these years Weber submitted himself to a rigid and ascetic discipline, regulating his life by the clock and dividing his daily routine into component parts with monkish rigidity.

Release from this psychic ordeal finally seemed to come in 1893, when he married Marianne Schnitger, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a physician (a cousin on his father's side), and was appointed to a chair in economics at the University of Freiburg. From then on, Marianne and Max Weber enjoyed a very intense intellectual and moral companionship – theirs was, as the Germans say, a Musterehe – yet, it appears that the marriage was never consummated. Sexual fulfillment came to Weber only in his late forties, shortly before World War I, in an extramarital affair.

Weber's inaugural address of 1895 on The National State and Economic Policy, which combined intense nationalism and superb scholarship, brought him to the attention of a wider scholarly and political world than he had been able to reach with his previous specialized studies. His new renown led to his being called to Heidelberg in 1896 to succeed his former teacher Knies as professor of economics. In Heidelberg, Weber not only reestablished contacts with his other former teachers, Bekker, Erdmannsdoerffer and Kuno Fischer, but found new friends and colleagues, such as the legal scholar Georg Jellinek and the theologian Ernst Troeltsch. The Weber home soon became a gathering ground for the flower of Heidelberg's academic intellectuals, and Weber, though still quite young, came to be seen as the central figure in an extended network of colleagues and like-minded scholars.

In addition to his scholarly concerns, Weber also pursued his political interests, playing an increasing role in Christian-Social political circles and publishing a variety of papers and memoranda on issues of the day. He was settling down to an active and creative participation in the worlds of both scholarship and politics, and he seemed destined to become a major figure in German intellectual life.

All at once, this promising career seemed to come to an end. In July 1897, his parents visited Heidelberg. His father had insisted upon accompanying his wife, who would have preferred to spend a few weeks with her children without him. On that occasion, father and son clashed violently: the son accused his father of treating his mother tyrannically and brutally, and ended by telling the old man to leave his house. The father died only about a month later. Shortly thereafter Max Weber suffered a complete breakdown and did not recover for more than five years.

Weber's unresolved difficulties of identification, his inner conflicts regarding the values of father and mother, aunt and uncle, may partly account for the breakdown. Additional sources of tension and guilt may have arisen from his broken engagement with a mentally burdened cousin and his marriage to yet another cousin, who had previously been courted by a close friend of Weber's from whom he had snatched her away. Chronic overwork, in itself probably a means of escaping inner tensions, may have played its part, as may his impotence with his new wife (which in turn may have been related to his other conflicts). A detailed self- analysis, which Weber prepared for an attending physician, has been lost, so it is unlikely that the concrete causes for Weber's breakdown will ever be fully clarified.

During the next few years, Weber found himself unable to work. Often he could not even concentrate long enough to read. He traveled a great deal, especially to Switzerland and Italy. At times he seemed to be recovering, but another relapse would soon follow. When it seemed unlikely that he would ever again be able to lecture to students, he resigned from his chair at Heidelberg. He spent some time in a sanitarium and was treated by a number of specialists, but all seemed to no avail. Then almost unexpectedly, in 1903, his intellectual forces were gradually restored. He managed in that year to join with Werner Sombart and Edgar Jaffe in the editorship of the Archiv fuer Socialwissenschaft, which became the leading German social science journal; his editorial duties allowed him to reestablish the contacts with friends and academic colleagues he had lost during the years of his illness.

In 1904, his former colleague from Goettingen, Hugo Muensterberg, now at Harvard, invited him to read a paper before a Congress of Arts and Sciences in St. Louis. The lecture he delivered there, on the social structure of Germany, was the first he had given in six and a half years. Weber subsequently traveled through America for over three months and was deeply impressed with the characteristics of American civilization. The roots of many later conceptions on the part played by the Protestant sects in the emergence of capitalism, on the organization of political machines, on bureaucracy, and even on the role of the Presidency in the American political structure can be traced to his stay in America.

The Years of Mastery
Upon his return to Heidelberg, Weber resumed a full writing career, but he returned to teaching only in the last few years of his life. His intellectual output was now again astonishing. His methodological writings, the most important of which are translated in Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences, date from these years. The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism was published in 1905. There followed in 1906 several important studies on the political developments in Russia after the revolution of 1905. In 1908 and 1909 he did a major empirical study in the social psychology of industrial work and of factory workers. In these years he also participated actively in academic conventions and spoke at political meetings. In 1910 he became the co-founder, with Toennies and Simmel, of the German Sociological Society. He remained its secretary for several years and decisively influenced its initial program of study.

Before World War I, Weber's home in Heidelberg became the center for richly stimulating and varied intellectual gatherings. The Webers for a time shared their home with Ernst Troeltsch. Sociologists Simmel, Michels, and Sombart, and among the younger generation, Paul Honigsheim and Kurt Loewenstein, were frequent visitors, as were the philosophers Emil Lask, Wilhelm Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert, the literary critic and historian Friedrich Gundolf, and the psychiatrist-philosopher Karl Jaspers. Young radical philosophers like Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukacs were to join the circle shortly before the war.

When the World War broke out, Weber, in accord with his nationalist convictions, volunteered for service. As a reserve officer, he was commissioned to establish and run nine military hospitals in the Heidelberg area. He retired from this position in the fall of 1915.

After having said initially that, "In spite of all, this is a great and wonderful war," Weber lost his illusions. He now devoted much of his time to writing memoranda and to seeking to influence government officials, as a kind of self-appointed prophet of doom. He attacked the conduct of the war and the ineptitudes of Germany's leadership. He was particularly enraged by the increasing reliance on submarine warfare, which, he prophesied, would bring America into the war and lead to eventual defeat. He was not a principled enemy of the war, yet he urged limited war aims and restraints on the industrialists and the Junker forces of the Right, whose imperialist ambitions were wide ranging. He advocated the extension of peace feelers, especially in the direction of the English.

The established powers never availed themselves of Weber's advice and he was driven to a paroxysm of loathing and despair about the current German leadership. Articles urging a change in the whole political structure of Germany, the development of responsible parliamentary government, restrictions on the powers of the Kaiser and the Chancellor led the government to consider prosecuting him for the crime of lese majeste. The reliable nationalist of yesterday seemed to come perilously close to the Vaterlandslosen Gesellen, the enemies of the fatherland, on the pacifist and "defeatist" Left.

When the sailors mutinied at Kiel on November 3, 1918, and gave the signal for the German revolution, Weber's first reaction was negative. He called the revolution a bloody carnival. But he soon rallied to it and attempted to develop the basis for a liberal German polity.

Earlier in 1918 Weber had for the first time in many years lectured for a full semester at the University of Vienna; a year later he accepted a call to the University of Munich where he began to lecture in the middle of the year. His well-known lectures, Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation, were first delivered to an audience of students at Munich in 1919, and bear all the marks of his attempt to define his major political and intellectual orientation in a time of revolutionary upheaval.

In the last three years of his life, 1918-20, Weber developed an astounding political activity. He wrote a number of major newspaper articles, memoranda, and papers on the politics of the hour. He was a founding member of and active campaigner for the newly organized Deutsche Demokratische Partei; he served as an adviser to the German delegation to the Versailles peace conference; he had an active hand in the preliminary work of writing a new German constitution; he addressed student assemblies and academic groups alike and endeavored, in the revolutionary turmoil of these days, to define a rational-democratic orientation, opposed alike to the right-wing excesses of the enemies of the Republic and the revolutionary chiliasm of some of his young friends of the Left. He attempted to establish close contacts with the Social Democratic movement, but the man who had committed the sacrilege of calling the revolution a bloody carnival never managed to overcome the opposition of most left-wing politicians. As a result, proposals to have him join the government or to make him a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic came to naught. Party bureaucrats could only be suspicious of a man who, though he had shifted from monarchist to republican loyalties, continued to be highly critical of party machines and openly hankered for some decisive charismatic breakthrough that would put an end to the reign of mediocrities.

During the war years, Weber put the finishing touches to his work on the sociology of religion. The Religion of China and The Religion of India were published in 1916, and Ancient Judaism appeared a year later. During this period, and in the immediate postwar years, Weber also worked on his magnum opus, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society). Although he was not able to complete this work, what he finished was published posthumously, as were his last series of lectures at Munich, entitled General Economic History.

An Exemplary Moralist
Early in June 1920, Weber developed a high fever, and at first it was thought that he suffered from the flu. The illness was later diagnosed as pneumonia, but it was too late. He died on June 14th.

The last fevered words of the man whose physical appearance was once compared by a contemporary to that of Albrecht Durer's gaunt knights, were: "The Truth is the Truth." Weber indeed had much in common with those Germanic cultural heroes who battled for what they considered justice and truth, unconcerned with what lesser souls might consider the demands of expediency. He was a man in the tradition of Luther's "Here I stand, I can do no other," even though at times it would almost appear to his contemporaries that he had more in common with Don Quixote.

In all circumstances Weber remained fiercely independent in his political stand, refusing to bend to any ideological line. He was the man who advocated after the lost war that the first Polish official to set foot in the city of Danzig should be shot, thus appearing to support the politics of the right; he was also the man who pressed for the execution of the right-wing assassin of Kurt Eisner, the socialist leader of Bavaria's revolutionary government. He was the man who hated Ludendorff, the detested head of the general staff, yet toyed with the idea of defending him after the war against what he considered unjust accusations and even attempted to convert him to his version of plebiscitarian democracy.

Wherever he perceived an injustice, Weber entered the arena like a wrathful prophet castigating his fellows for their moral sloth, their lack of conviction, their sluggish sense of justice. When the academic powers refused to recognize the merit of a Sombart or a Simmel or a Michels, Weber rose passionately to their defense, even risking old friendships, when he felt that certain of his colleagues were moved by expediency in refusing professorships to Jews or political radicals. When Russians, Poles, and Eastern Jewish students were shunned by respectable German professors, Weber gathered them around himself and invited them to him home. When, during the war, pacifists and political radicals like the poet Ernst Toller were being persecuted, he asked them to his famous Sunday open house. Later, when Toller was arrested, Weber testified for him in a military court and succeeded in having him releases. When anti-Semitic, right-wing students in Munich insulted a Jewish student, Weber got hold of their leader and insisted that he apologize immediately. When a friend of his, Frieda Gross, had a love affair with a Swiss anarchist and was threatened with losing the custody of her children, Weber fought in the courts for over a year to defend her maternal rights. When Ernst Troeltsch refused during the war, in his capacity as administrator of a military hospital, to permit French prisoners to be visited by Germans, Weber denounced this as a "wretched case of chauvinism" and broke off relations with his old friend.

Always and everywhere, Weber followed only the call of his own demon, refusing to be bridled by political expediency. He was first and foremost his own man. Although he repeatedly entered the political arena, he was not truly a political man - if we define such a man (as Weber himself did) as one who is able to make compromises in the pursuit of his aims. Weber has written that the true politician feels "passionate devotion to a 'cause', to the god or demon who is overlord." This passion he possessed in full measure; but the concomitant sense of "distant to things and men" did not characterize his political actions, although it is very much in evidence in his scholarly work. As a result, Weber found himself isolated in his political activities. He never qualified as "a good party man." His open nationalism of the Freiburg days antagonized his old-fashioned liberal friends, while his attacks on the Prussian Junkers made him the bete noire of the conservatives. His dire prophecy that socialism would hasten the trend toward bureaucratization, rather than bring the promised freedom from necessity, alienated him from the Social Democrats despite his sympathy for the labor unions and his admiration for the sober virtues of skilled German workmen. His passionate attacks against emperor Wilhelm and his entourage, his violent outbursts against the leadership in the war effort, endeared him to the pacifist and radical left, whose trust he yet failed to gain after he characterized the revolution as a bloody carnival.

Weber was an authentic truth-seeker. That is the reason why he could both write a dispassionate and disciplined Science as a Vocation and be sincerely attracted by passionate bohemians and Tolstoyan mystics – why he could both be a German patriot and a friend of rebels and outcasts.