During a long scholarly career, Friedrich Katz '49 became “the most eminent historian of modern Mexico working in the second half of the 20th century,” according to the University of Chicago Magazine. “His October 2010 death at 83 was front-page news in newspapers throughout Mexico.” Wagner College was an important way station for the budding young scholar in an early life unsettled by the tides of history.
Katz was born in 1927 in Vienna, into a prominent intellectual Jewish and Communist family. They moved to Berlin, but had to flee in 1933 as Nazism took hold, first to France, then to the U.S., and finally to Mexico. Katz, who was then 13 years old, completed his secondary schooling in Mexico City.
“Fred” Katz (as registrar's records have him) came to Wagner through family friends in New York City. He completed his B.A. degree in less than three years. His son, Penn Law Professor Leo Katz, says that this short time was very significant to his father. He roomed with Peter Berger '49 H'73, a fellow Austrian émigré who also became an eminent scholar. “It was this stay that solidified his connection with America, as well as his love of American academic life,” says Leo Katz.
Friedrich Katz went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Vienna, writing a groundbreaking dissertation on Aztec society. He continued his career in East Berlin and Texas before going to the University of Chicago in 1971, where he remained on the faculty for nearly 40 years and was named the Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus. His magisterial books The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (1981) and The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (1998) made a huge impact by placing the Mexican Revolution in an international context and bringing to life one of its key figures.
The University of Chicago honored his scholarship and teaching by establishing the Katz Center for Mexican Studies. The Mexican government also bestowed on him its highest honor for a non-citizen, the Order of the Aztec Eagle. “Friedrich was not just respected, he was revered here and in Mexico and indeed anywhere in the world where Mexico's revolution was studied,” says John H. Coatsworth, dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
Editor's Note: Thanks to Trygve Skarsten '49 for sending us the University of Chicago Magazine story about Friedrich Katz.