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Wolfsohn, Hugo Adolf (1918–1982)

by John Power and James Jupp

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Hugo Adolf Wolfsohn (1918-1982), political scientist, was born on 22 February 1918 in Berlin, son of Georg Wolfsohn, surgeon, and his Jewish wife Betti, née Seligsohn. Hugo was educated at the elite Prussian gymnasium, the Graues Kloster. To escape the Nazis, he went to Italy in 1937 and worked as a translator, before going to Britain in June 1939. His father died before the war. His mother was deported from Berlin, first to Czechoslovakia and then to Auschwitz, where she died.

Interned by the British in June 1940, Wolfsohn was transported to Australia shortly after in the Dunera. This shipload of ‘enemy aliens’ included many who later took a major role in Australia’s intellectual life. Among them was Wolfsohn’s lifelong friend Henry Mayer, later professor of political theory at the University of Sydney. Together with other detainees, Wolfsohn was interned initially in a camp near Hay, New South Wales, and later in one near Tatura, Victoria.

From May to November 1942 Wolfsohn served in the 8th Employment Company, Australian Military Forces, and then worked as a laboratory assistant at Australian Paper Manufacturers. On 11 June 1945 at Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Melbourne, he married Austrian-born Ilse Miriam Friedler, a corsetiere. In 1946 he was naturalised. He graduated with honours from the University of Melbourne (BA, 1947), having undertaken most of his study as an external student while also employed. In mid-1947 he was appointed to a tutorship in political science at the university, progressing to senior lecturer in 1960.

During his time at Melbourne, Wolfsohn spent a sabbatical leave in Britain at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1956-57, and another as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow in the United States of America in 1963. His interest in the relatively new field of development studies also took him to India. He acted as a consultant for the Ford Foundation. While he published comparatively little, he was an inspiring teacher, with an exquisite sense of irony. The head of his department at Melbourne, Professor William Macmahon Ball, summed up two decades of association with him: ‘Mr Wolfsohn’s power to open new worlds of study and thought to his students is exceptional’.

In 1966 Wolfsohn was appointed to the foundation chair of political science at La Trobe University. In 1967-68 he served a term as president of the Australasian Political Studies Association, of which he was a founding member. At La Trobe he held a range of important positions, including head of his department for four years, dean of the school of social sciences for three, and a member of both the academic board (for sixteen years) and the university council (for six years).

La Trobe became a centre of student activism in the early 1970s. Concerned at what he saw as threats to the integrity of the institution, Wolfsohn emerged as a conservative leader. The Maoist group in student politics aroused his anger by its violent and anti-intellectual behaviour. He became one of its most vehement opponents, rejecting more conciliatory attitudes among his academic colleagues, some of whom he antagonised with his sharp tongue.

Wolfsohn was a relentless debunker of ideologies—whether they justified orthodoxy or attacked it from the left—and a fervent opponent of totalitarianism. In the university upheavals of the 1970s his stance was consistent, though it brought him closer to the political and intellectual establishment than he sometimes found comfortable. He agreed with many on the left that the university was little more than a knowledge factory, but sought to provide intellectual stimulation within such a context, and rejected any romantic proposals to convert the university into a community of scholars. In his most influential article, ‘The Ideology Makers’, published in Dissent in 1964, he had attacked those who sought to redefine Australian society in moralistic and conservative terms.

Wolfsohn’s impulse to prick the romantic pretensions of ideologies led him to concentrate his research interests for several years on India, where Gandhian ideologues were a favourite target. He avoided organisational links with the labour movement and the Jewish community. The former was embroiled in factional disputes for much of his time at Melbourne, and he was sceptical about the latter because he believed the Jewish establishment had been unsympathetic to the Dunera deportees.

As a staunch follower of Max Weber, Wolfsohn was particularly interested in the development of intellectual constructs to illuminate an often messy reality. For many students, he was as a lecturer the very embodiment of the Weberian concept of charisma about which he taught. His broad interests helped to lead academic political science away from its narrow concerns with local issues and personalities in what was still a rather parochial society. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, Wolfsohn died of coronary artery disease on 16 February 1982 at Prahran, Melbourne, and was buried in Springvale cemetery. His work was commemorated by La Trobe’s Hugo Wolfsohn memorial lecture and Hugo Wolfsohn memorial prize.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Pearl, The Dunera Scandal (1983)
  • APSA Newsletter, no 3, 1982, p 2
  • MP1103/1, item E40960, MP1103/2, item E40960, B884, item V378157, A435, item 1945/4/5648 (National Archives of Australia)
  • La Trobe University archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Power and James Jupp, 'Wolfsohn, Hugo Adolf (1918–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wolfsohn-hugo-adolf-15873/text27074, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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