Remembering Michael Stolleis

Michael Stolleis - image MPILHLTIt seems difficult these weeks at my blog to leave Frankfurt am Main for other locations. The news about the death of Michael Stolleis on March 18, 2021 cannot be passed over here in silence, and thus again Frankfurt comes into view. Some obituaries succeeded very well in showing Stolleis’ role and achievements, and therefore I will not try to repeat everything already said with eloquent words.

The history of public law

On March 19, 2021 the Max-Planck-Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory announced with sadness the death of Michael Stolleis (1941-2021) on March 18, aged 79 years. Stolleis was a director of the institute from 1991 until 2006, and acted as its interim director from 2007 to 2009. In view of his work for the institute it is certainly necesary to stress he was from 1974 to 2006 also a professor for public law and legal history at the university of Frankfurt. Klaus Günther wrote an obituary for the law faculty. He points to Stolleis’ role for the Research Centre Normative Orders in Frankfurt. In the obituary at the main website of the Universität Frankfurt Enrico Schleiff stressed the fact Stolleis was a true intellectual and a scholar who set Frankfurt on the map worldwide.

Patrick Bahners looked in his contribution for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in particular at the background. Stolleis’ father was burgomaster of Ludwigshafen between 1937 and 1941. After finishing secondary school Michael Stolleis followed the footsteps of his father who was both a vinegrower and lawyer, and started with learning viniculture. From a visit to a wine museum in Aigle I remember in particular how the plants and fruits need attention in every month of the year. Knowing about steps set before you, having to live in the present and working at the same time for the future is an excellent preparation for life. Bahners mentions rightly the way Stolleis combined objectivity with personal kindness. From the few times I met him I remember the word locker, relaxed, a label I did not associate at first with German professors, but luckily Stolleis could indeed look most happy and friendly. Stolleis conributed regularly to the FAZ with articles that struck me as most readable, well-informed and resonating in you mind long afterwards.

Stolleis studied law, German language and literature and art history at the universities of Heidelberg and Würzburg. He wrote his doctoral thesis under the aegis of Sten Gagnér in Munich [Staatsraison, Recht und Moral in philosophischen Texten des späten 18. Jahrhunderts, defended 1967, published Meisenheim 1972)]. Stolleis wrote a moving article in remembrance of his Doktorvater, a piece telling you much about Stolleis himself, too [‘Sten Gagnér (1921-2000), ein großer Lehrer der europäischen Rechtsgeschichte’, Quaderni Fiorentini 29 (2000) 560-569; PDF]. In 1973 he defended in Munich his Habilitationsschrift (second thesis) on Gemeinwohlformeln im nationalsozialistischen Recht (Berlin 1974). At that time it was one of the first forays by German legal historians into the history of the Third Reich. Its theme, terms for the common good in Nazi law, can only be tackled succesfully by someone trained also in German language and literature. Just a small example of Stolleis’ gifted pen and his calm judgment is his concise summary of the history of the Deutsche Rechtshistorikertag, in particular the paragraph on the dark years of the Third Reich.

The striking thing for me about Michael Stolleis is the combination of public law and legal history at one side, and promoting both fields whenever possible, as much for the general public as for fellow scholars. Frankfurt had a reputation for critical thinking with the Frankfurter Schule. Among the second generation of this group of scholars which focused on philosophy and social theory Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann stand out. Stolleis is responsible for putting the history of public law in Germany’s history on the same level as political and social history. The four volumes of his Geschichte des öffentlichen Rechts in Deutschland (Munich 1988-2012) definitely widened for German legal historians their fields of interest, and opened a necessary perspective on German history long overlooked as a defining and decisive element. However interesting, the history of private law cannot be the sole focus of legal history. Public law belongs as much to it as criminal law, procedure and canon law.

Only in my last post I mentioned the Repertorium der Policeyordnungen der Frühen Neuzeit, a project started by Stolleis. Social law as a historical subject was the theme in his Geschichte des Sozialrechts im Deutschland. Ein Grundriss (Stuttgart 2003). If you think Stolleis focused only on Germany you might turn to his preface for the biographical dictionary Juristen. Ein biographisches Lexikon von der Antike bis zum 20. Jahrhundert (first edition Munich 1995). His book on the image and the metaphor of the eye of the law shows him at work also in in the field of legal iconography [Das Auge des Gesetzes: Geschichte einer Metapher (Munich 2004)].

The Max-Planck-Gesellschaft loses with Stolleis one of its most active and resourceful directors. Between 1991 and 2006 the institute in Frankfurt transformed already much by opening to wider fields and new approaches, and thus it prepared for the final touch, a change in its very name. Leading such transformations and normal scholarly business in sometimes difficult situations, and through losses as the untimely death of Marie Theres Fögen, is a great achievement. I will not try to list all awards, academy memberships and honorary doctorates Stolleis received. Let one prize suffice, the Hegel-Preis awarded by the city Stuttgart to Stolleis in 2018. Hegel was not just a very influential philosopher. His views became central to state building in nineteenth-century Germany and nineteenth-century science, in particular for historical research, with consequences for the twentieth century at large. In a time when law faculties have turned into law schools or just Fachbereiche we should remember Stolleis as a truly outstanding thinker whose publications can help to free you from preconceived views and following trodden paths. My words can hardly do justice to Michael Stolleis whom I greatly admired. Sadness about his death should be mixed with gratitude for his life, achievements and example of a lawyer and historian firmly rooted in past and present.

A postscript

On March 23, 2021 Thomas Duve published on behalf of the Max-Planck-Institut a much more detailed obituary for Michael Stolleis, in German and English.

1 thought on “Remembering Michael Stolleis

  1. Ton Lenssen

    Sorry to hear this. I met Stolleis at the end of the eighties with something in common I forgot what. History of administrative law? He seemed to be a gentle and very erudite person.


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