Ernst C. Helmreich, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of History and Political Science Emeritus at Bowd

Story posted June 15, 1997


BRUNSWICK, Maine -- Ernst C. Helmreich, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of History and Political Science Emeritus at Bowdoin College, died on Wednesday, June 25 in Brunswick, Maine at the age of 94. He was an authority on Central and Eastern European history.


Helmreich joined the faculty at Bowdoin in 1931 as an instructor in history and government and was promoted to assistant professor in 1932. He became an associate professor in 1940 and attained the rank of full professor in 1946. He was named to the Thomas Brackett Reed professorship in 1959 and served as chairman of the Department of History at Bowdoin from 1955 to 1963 and again from 1964 to 1967. He retired in 1972.

"Ernst Helmreich was a rare scholarly mind whose vitality and breadth of learning opened the world of ideas to generations of Bowdoin students," said Bowdoin College President Robert H. Edwards.

"In the years of his retirement, senators, statesmen and other devoted graduates continued to beat a path to his house on Boody Street -- out of gratitude and respect, but also because his prodigious intellect continued to probe and challenge up to the end of his life. All Bowdoin mourns his passing," said Edwards.

One of those who made it a point to always call on Dr. Helmreich when he was on campus was former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1954 and one of Dr. Helmreich' former students.

"Dr. Helmreich was a great teacher and historian," said Mitchell in a statement issued from Northern Ireland where he is mediating peace talks. "In his long and distinguished career at Bowdoin College, he inspired in many young people a love of history and of learning itself. I was one of those young people.

"Along with history, Dr. Helmreich taught me the importance of having high standards and working hard to meet them. He had the highest standards of intellect and integrity. Although I was not able to actually meet his academic standards, I learned from the effort.

"In more recent years, he has been a constant source of comfort and counsel to me. I will miss him very much, as will the entire Bowdoin community," said Mitchell.

A native of Crescent City, Ill., Helmreich prepared for college at Watseka High School and was graduated from the University of Illinois in 1924 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. A year later he received a master of arts degree from Illinois. From 1924 to 1926, he was an instructor in history at Purdue University before entering the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, from which he received a second master of arts degree in 1927 and a doctor of philosophy degree in 1932. While studying at Harvard he was an assistant in history at Radcliffe College for three years and in 1929-30 studied in Europe as a Sheldon Traveling Fellow.

In 1943-44 Helmreich was a visiting professor of diplomatic history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

He served on many committees at Bowdoin, including the recording committee and the committee on religious affairs, and was an active follower of Bowdoin athletics. During his more than 40 years as an active member of the faculty, he missed only one home football game, and that was to attend a history conference.

In 1974 he received the Bowdoin Alumni Council' annual Award for Faculty and Staff, the citation for which said, in part, "...he taught with vigor and authority. Hundreds of his students remember gratefully his insistence upon accurate documentation, high standards of scholarship, and complete intellectual integrity... His influence did not end with the class hour, however. His warm solicitude for the welfare of undergraduates was and is reflected in his generous support of many student activities, temporal and religious. In the deliberations of faculty meetings, he could always be counted upon to voice trenchantly the principles of reason."

In June of 1991 Helmreich received Bowdoin' Gordon S. Hargraves O Preservation of Freedom Fund Prize, awarded, beginning in 1988, "to a student, member of the faculty, or group of Bowdoin alumni making an outstanding contribution to the understanding and advancement of human freedoms and the duty of the individual to protect and strengthen these freedoms at all times."

Helmreich was a prolific writer and continued in this work long after he retired from teaching in 1972. Among his books are The Diplomacy of the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913; Religious Education in German Schools: An Historical Approach (a volume that was also published in German); and Twentieth Century Europe: A History, a widely-used college text that was co-written with C. E. Black.

In 1979 he published The German Churches Under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue, which drew together a vast amount of scholarly research and extended it with new archival material previously unavailable to scholars. He also consulted a large number of microfilms of captured German documents from the National Archives of the United States. In his own words, the Gestapo films especially gave "ample evidence of what busybodies the police were" in respect to churches. The book treated not only the large Protestant Land churches and the Catholic church but also the small Free churches and a variety of sectarian groups.

In 1982 Dr. Helmreich completed work on a subject closer to home, Religion at Bowdoin College: A History. He edited and collaborated on various volumes dealing with European history and wrote more than 200 articles and reviews for professional journals. He also contributed regularly to Americana Annual and the Encyclopedia Americana. A former member of the board of editors of The Journal of Modern History, he was a member of the executive board of the Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association.

Professor Helmreich served for some years as clerk of the First Parish Church in Brunswick and was for a time an examiner for Boy Scout Merit Badges, especially those relating to citizenship in the community and the nation.

He was married in 1932 to the Louise B. Roberts, who received her doctor of philosophy degree in Russian from Radcliffe College and taught at Randolph-Macon College, Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University, and Vassar College before their marriage. She died in 1989.

Dr. Helmreich is survived by two sons, Dr. Paul C. Helmreich, who for many years has taught history at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass., and Dr. Jonathan E. Helmreich, professor of history at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Also surviving are a brother, Dr. Theodore Helmreich of West Lafayette, IN; six grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial service will be announced shortly. Memorial gifts may be sent to the Helmreich Memorial Fund at First Parish Church, 10 Cleveland St., Brunswick, ME 04011, or may be made to the principal of the Ernst C. and Louise R. Helmreich Book Fund, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME 04011.

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