Historical Figures

Ralf Dahrendorf:sociologist and liberal pioneer

Born in Hamburg, the German-British sociologist is considered one of the most important representatives of liberal social and state theory. He significantly shaped the development of German post-war sociology.

Dahrendorf was born on May 1, 1929 in the Hanseatic city. His father Gustav works as an editor at the social-democratic newspaper "Hamburger Echo" and is a member of the SPD parliamentary group in the Hamburg Parliament. In 1932/1933 he is also a member of the German Reichstag.

First among the youth, then targeted by the Gestapo

Ralf Dahrendorf was a German-British sociologist and politician.

Although his parents are critical of the regime, Ralf Dahrendorf becomes a member of the youth group and - like many children - is enthusiastic about the German Wehrmacht:"I still remember exactly the day I came home and said triumphantly, 'We have now Denmark and Norway were occupied, and then I immediately felt from my parents that there was a completely different reaction," he says in his biography "Over Borders". "I think from that day it was clear to me that there was a different perspective on events than what was preached at school." Dahrendorf begins to get involved politically against the regime and is increasingly targeted by the Gestapo. He was imprisoned in the Schwetig/Oder concentration camp at the end of 1944 for taking part in an illegal student association - he was 15 at the time.

Academic career as a social scientist

Ralf Dahrendorf (here a photo from 1968) became a professor in Hamburg at the age of 29.

Dahrendorf experienced the end of the Second World War in Berlin-Zehlendorf. From 1947 he studied philosophy and classical philology in Hamburg and did his doctorate on Karl Marx. From 1952 to 1954 he completed graduate studies in sociology at the renowned London School of Economics and Political Science, where he also acquired a British doctorate. He then researched as an assistant at the University of Saarbrücken and habilitated there in 1957 with a thesis on "Social Classes and Class Conflicts in Industrial Society". Dahrendorf became a professor at the Academy for Social Economy in Hamburg at the age of only 29, taught in Tübingen, moved to the newly founded University of Konstanz in 1966 and took on several guest professorships in the USA.

Politicians with a strong desire for freedom

The man from Hamburg does not leave it at a university career, but is also active as a politician, journalist, economist and liberal thinker in European public life. He sees his pronounced desire for freedom as based on the experiences during the Nazi era, as he explains in an interview on Deutschlandradio in 2005:"The elementary motive that they strengthened in me, perhaps also aroused, is the motive not to be locked up, to be free, to have opportunities to work according to one's own intentions, wishes, life plans. That comes before all democracy. That means that that's really elementary."

Joined the FDP

Dahrendorf had a legendary debate on a car roof with APO pioneer Rudi Dutschke in 1968.

Dahrendorf was already fighting for "education as a civil right" in the 1960s. In 1967 he joined the FDP, entered the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg in 1968 and became a member of the party's national executive committee. However, he was not enthusiastic about the positions of the APO (extra-parliamentary opposition of the student movement):On the fringes of the FDP party conference in Freiburg, there was a legendary discussion on a car roof with Rudi Dutschke, the mastermind of the APO, during which Dahrendorf clearly distanced himself from it postures.

Member of the Bundestag, Minister of State and EU Commissioner

In 1969 Dahrendorf moved into the Bundestag, was brought into the Foreign Office as Minister of State by the then Foreign Minister Walter Scheel and was a member of the European Commission from 1970 to 1974. In the summer of 1971, two articles published under the pseudonym Wieland Europa in "Zeit" caused a great stir, in which Dahrendorf sharply criticized the European institutions and the working methods of professional Europeans.

In 1983, at the Epiphany meeting of the Liberals in Stuttgart, Dahrendorf, meanwhile rector of the London School of Economics and chairman of the FDP-affiliated Friedrich Naumann Foundation, called for a programmatic renewal of his party with new forms of social ties, self-help and solidarity. In 1988 he even left the FDP. In the same year he takes on German and British citizenship. He moves to England, where he works at the University of Oxford until his retirement in 1997.

Proclaimed Lord by the Queen

Ralf Dahrendorf was a member of the FDP for many years, but left in 1988.

In 1993, Queen Elizabeth II elevated Dahrendorf to the nobility for his services to the Empire. From this point on, Ralf Dahrendorf is not only allowed to call himself Baron of Clare Market in the City of Westminster, but is also a member of the upper house of the British Parliament (House of Lords), where he is responsible, among other things, for European and educational issues. In both Germany and England, the lord remains one of the most important representatives of a liberal political and social theory in Europe, he is regarded as a lateral thinker and shapes scientific and political discourse.

Countless awards and honorary doctorates

In his biography, Ralf Dahrendorf describes himself as a "lucky child in the fast lane". He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Grand Cross of Merit with Ribbon and Star, the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and honorary doctorates from universities in twelve countries. Mainly because of his political and social commitment, Lord Dahrendorf is Europe's flagship dignitary.

Privately, Dahrendorf has been married three times:three daughters come from the first marriage to the British Vera Banister. He was married to the American Ellen Joan Krug from 1980 to 2004 and to the German doctor Dr. Christiane Klebs. Dahrendorf died in Cologne on June 17, 2009 at the age of 80 after a serious illness.

Editor's note:An earlier version of the article stated that Ralf Dahrendorf would have turned 100 on May 1, 2019. This is not true, he would have been 90 years old on May 1, 2019. We have corrected the information and apologize for the error.