PROFILE OF A PEACE HISTORIAN: IRWIN ABRAMS
- By Charles Chatfield
From the Spring 1994 issue of the Magazine of History
A scholar-practitioner who walks with familiarity in the past but is active in the present: Irwin Abrams profiles peace history. He has done the kind of things he studied, and his seminal contributions to the history of peace advocacy are like book ends, bracketing a notable career in teaching and international exchange.
Abrams was born in 1914, only months before the cataclysm that ushered in the twentieth century. He earned his A.B. at Stanford University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard. In 1936-37 a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship enabled him to do primary research on his dissertation in Europe. There he met outstanding leaders and scholars of peace movements, like Nobel Peace Prize laureates Ludwig Quidde, Christian Lange, and Henri LaFontaine, but also Henri Golay, secretary-general of the International Peace Bureau, and others.
Abrams opened and explored archival sources on which a generation of historians would come to depend. He returned to Stanford in 1938, this time as an instructor in history.
His dissertation, "A History of European Peace Societies, 1867-1899," won the Charles Sumner Peace Prize and, although it was never published, it has been called "the most quoted unpublished dissertation in history." Whether or not that is factual, it has the ring of truth, for Abrams's 1938 work and his subsequent writing gave direction and inspiration to historians on both sides of the Atlantic when the study of peace in history blossomed a generation later. Reflecting on the 1991 centennial of the International Peace Bureau, its secretary-general Archer Colin wrote to Abrams, "Without your pioneering work on the early history of the IPB, our centenary celebrations would have been limited to a few balloons." German scholar Jost Duelffer wrote, "It was such a pioneer study that it has influenced all research on that topic from that time on." Like Americans Sandi Cooper and Solomon Wank and many others, Swiss historian Verdiana Grossi counts herself among Abrams' "disciples."
In 1939 he married Freda Morrill, a Mills College senior who had worked with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in a summer peace campaign. They had discovered the same values, and the same playful wit and humor that they share today. Together they joined the Society of Friends (Quakers), and Irwin embraced pacifism, observing that "to change the world you had to change yourself."
During World War II Abrams fulfilled his obligations as a conscientious objector by working with the AFSC in Philadelphia. He researched international relief work, directed training for AFSC relief workers from 1943 to 1946, and organized the Quaker international work camp program the following year. Meanwhile, as a musicologist, Freda Abrams helped to prepare a multilingual songbook for work campers.
In 1947 Irwin joined the faculty of Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he organized the Department of History and created an introduction to western civilization that thoroughly integrated historical methodology. He became a full professor in 1951, Distinguished University Professor, Antioch University in 1979. Two years later he retired with that rank, emeritus.
The Abramses still live in Yellow Springs. Their cozy home is crammed (in an orderly way) with mementos of family, places and people they have known abroad, and friends they have hosted in Yellow Springs, Ohio. There is much evidence of Freda's interest in art and musical ethnography. She has completed the first of three books based on a sea-captain uncle, The Tall Ships of Newburyport, and she is translating Catalan Christmas carols into English. Irwin has acquired a computer and is in frequent E-mail communication with friends and colleagues abroad, generating fresh projects for himself and others. He travels frequently too, in relation to his scholarly pursuits, Quaker projects, and international understanding.
Throughout his Antioch years Abrams was nudged beyond the classroom by his Quaker concern for peace, his pioneering studies of the historic European peace movement, and his own international experience. He became, as he says "a theorist and practitioner" in study abroad and intercultural experience. The number of international exchanges, including study abroad, was rising rapidly, and Abrams saw this as an unparalleled opportunity to encourage cross-cultural understanding. In fact, he regarded understanding beyond sheer experience as the criterion of a worthwhile exchange. Here was an opportunity to encourage the very values for which the early peace movements had mobilized.
Abrams developed overseas programs for the college and the Great Lakes Colleges Association, notably seminars in Yugoslavia, which he and Freda led jointly for several years, and on comparative urban studies. He chaired several AFSC International Student Seminars, co-directed the task force on international education of International City Managers, was active in the Council on International Educational Exchange, consulted for the Exchange Program of the U.S. State Department, HEW, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Kettering Foundation. Somehow, he even found time for a Fulbright lectureship at the University of Cologne. All that activity was accompanied by extensive writing on international exchange, and by continued studies on the historic European peace movement and its leaders.
Shortly after his retirement from teaching, Abrams returned full time to peace research in history. Five years of research led to The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates: An Illustrated Biographical History, 1901-1987, selected by the American Library Association as one of the "outstanding reference works of 1989." That led in turn to further research in Europe and the renewal of European contacts, to a close association with the Nobel Institute at Oslo, and to annual trips with Freda to the Peace Prize Ceremony.
Soon there was an outpouring of essays on the Nobel Prize laureates, delivered in conferences and published journals in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In progress is his two-volume authorized edition of Nobel Peace Lectures 1971-1990.
Abrams feels strongly that young people today deserve models who embody significant social values -- what William James called the "moral equivalent of war." What better heroes and heroines than the Nobel Peace Prize laureates? To make the point, Abrams reaches out to audiences beyond the scholarly community. He edited a sprightly, popular booklet, The Words of Peace. Selections from the Speeches of the Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize (1990).
He contributes to the Nobel Prize Series of the Video and Curriculum Library, and to the Nobel Prize Annual. Toward the end of each year he is called upon by newspapers to interpret the current Peace Prize selection. The current high in his effort to reach a popular audience is an engaging article for the Scandinavian Airlines' in-flight magazine, Scanorama, "The Odd Couple" (the relationship between Austrian peace advocate Bertha von Suttner and the dynamite king Alfred Nobel, from which sprang the Peace Prize itself).
Here in profile is one peace historian, ebullient and energetic, practicing the kind of international understanding he recaptures as history, and contributing to both scholarly and popular understanding. As one colleague put it recently, "the continuum between [his] concern for others and the content of [his] scholarship is an unbroken tapestry."