The Presence of a Teacher
When, as a graduate student at Notre Dame, I first met Gerhart Niemeyer early in 1970, like many others I knew immediately that he was the teacher I had been searching for. What impressed me in Niemeyer’s first words introducing a course in the philosophy of history was not only the brilliance and lucidity of his mind but also, and primarily, what the philosopher Gabriel Marcel referred to as “presence,” the mysterious and ineffable glimpse into transcendence that we encounter in another person’s look, intonation, or even handshake. I had had many good teachers, but Niemeyer was a teacher par excellence, a man with a true charism because he appealed directly to the souls of his students to awaken in them the philosophic eros for wisdom and knowledge.
When I think of Niemeyer’s life the word that most readily comes to mind is “rich,” for his was a life abounding in riches—of marriage and family, intellect and education, personality and character, religion and spirituality, friendships, career, students, writings, travel, sports, music, and laughter. When Hans Emil Theodor Ludwig Gerhard Niemeyer (who originally went by the name Hans Gerd but eventually changed it to Gerhart) joined the world in Essen, Germany on February 15, 1907, he had ahead of him 90 years, 4 months, and 8 days, a relatively brief span of time, one thinks, considering all that he managed to pack into it.
In this beautifully printed and bound, and generously illustrated volume, Paul, the third of Gerhart and Lucie Niemeyer’s five children, who was appointed the “family historian” and archivist by his father, has wisely chosen to given us biographies of both his parents as well as a family memoir. He has written a fairly objective and detailed account of his father’s career, including his major publications, as well as the historical background. But he has also devoted substantial attention to his mother’s life, personality, and accomplishments and has filled the book with family photographs and memories of the life, the holiday celebrations, the abundant laughter, and the Vermont vacations of the Niemeyer family. The most immediate appeal of this intimate and loving personal portrait will be to those who knew and loved Gerhart and Lucie (Lenzner) Niemeyer, but those who did not know them personally can still profit immeasurably from the lives of these two exemplary human beings.
Those who knew Gerhart and Lucie will not be surprised to learn that both came from rather distinguished families of public figures in Germany. Paul devotes some 60 pages to five centuries of ancestors, among them jurists, educators, musicians, a physician, and a founder of the Pietist movement, many of them famous in their own times. After a brief flirtation with the career of shipbuilding engineer, Gerhart Niemeyer decide to pursue a legal career like his father, Victor, and his grandfather, Hans, both well-known lawyers. He first spent a pleasant year at Cambridge University studying law and losing his superficial Christian faith, for he was persuaded that “no really intelligent person could be a religious believer. At any rate, I felt it was below my intellectual dignity.” Politically, he converted to socialism.
After his return to Germany in 1926 he enrolled in the University of Munich where he seems to have spent more time skiing, mountain climbing, and partying than he did studying. Recognizing that this was a problem he transferred to the University of Kiel. (He was also a great lover of motorcycles and of memorably adventurous travel by motorcycle and small boat in Europe and North Africa, trips that he gave up after he and Lucie were married.) The move to Kiel, where his uncle Theodor was a distinguished professor of law, proved to be providential because at his uncle’s house he met the legal thinker Hermann Heller, who, before his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1933, would write several books on political and legal theory. Niemeyer later followed Heller as he moved to various places in Europe and after Heller’s death Niemeyer edited and published his last, unfinished book, Staatslehre.
The beginning of the book tells the story of the evening that Niemeyer and Lucie met in 1929 at his mother’s birthday party for which Lucie had been hired as a dancer. They were married in 1931, a marriage that lasted for 56 years. Because they found life in Nazi Germany intolerable they moved to Spain where Niemeyer gave lectures and learned Spanish (not necessarily in that order) and did some research and writing, until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 while they were on summer vacation in Germany made it impossible for them to return. After a year Niemeyer succeeded in obtaining a position at Princeton University, where he thrived during the next seven years. During this time he published his first book in English, Law Without Force, a theory of international law, and his last major writing on law. He began to read widely in political theory, philosophy, and international relations. One of the authors he read was Kierkegaard, who, he was surprised to discover, was a very intelligent religious believer.
The core of the book, as it was the core of his and Lucie’s lives, was their conversion to Christianity. Although at the time they met Gerhart was an atheist and Lucie, who had been brought up without religion, considered herself an agnostic, over the course of the next 15 years or so both made internal journeys that brought them to the same conclusion at the same time, that they needed to search into the truth of Christianity. And in due course they both became devout believers of deep spirituality, deciding eventually to become members of the Episcopal Church, in which Niemeyer would later be ordained a deacon in 1973 and a priest in 1980. His eventual difficulties with the Episcopal Church’s revision of the Book of Common Prayer and ordination of women (which, he said, “cast a shadow on Jesus Christ”) led him to make the difficult decision at the end of 1992 to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. This resolved his difficulties in some ways, but it was also a great loss, because although he sought ordination as a Catholic priest he was denied.
Beginning in the 1940s his conversion to Christianity, his extensive reading in philosophy, and his acquaintance with Eric Voegelin and his work gradually but radically transformed Niemeyer’s writing, adding to the intellectual rigor with which he had analyzed law, politics, and foreign relations a steadily deepening and broadening concern with the search for truth and the meaning of existence. Also by thoroughly studying Communism he became a world expert at a time when very few people actually understood the nature of Communism. As a result he began to work for the government and was very much involved in foreign policy think tanks and in lecturing. The major part of his career was a series of academic and government positions of which the most important began with his hiring by the University of Notre Dame in 1955, where he continued his work on Communism and taught students, such as Richard Allen, who would later play an important role in the Reagan administration in formulating the foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that led to the end of the Cold War. After his retirement from full-time teaching at Notre Dame he continued to teach there part-time while he began to teach at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He taught until the age of 84. During this time he produced several books and numerous articles and book reviews; he collaborated in founding a journal called the Center Journal, which unfortunately lasted only a few years; and he taught and lectured extensively and participated in many programs of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Besides all of his intellectual work, Niemeyer found time to be an accomplished amateur musician. He played the piano, the recorder, and, when he was nearly 60, he learned the bass viola da gamba. He and Lucie, who had abandoned her dancing career early in their marriage but continued to study and perform as a singer, had musical evenings in their home, to which other musician friends would be invited to play chamber music. He also went to Oberlin College in the summer to engage in “gamba-ing,” which he clearly relished.
His life was filled with friendships, many spanning half a century or more, because of the generosity of his spirit and his immensely attractive personality. He had a gift for and an intense appreciation and need of friendship and “fellowship,” which included nurturing friendships with his students. He corresponded with me for many years and when his travels took him to my vicinity he would call or write to arrange a meeting. He once told another former student that he would put his hand in the fire for him, and he did put his hand at least near the fire for me. Simply put, he had the rare ability to create unbreakable bonds.
When I met Niemeyer he was almost 63 and at the height of his powers, which he would enjoy for about another 15 years. But in his last years, after decades of richness and fullness, his life underwent a gradual but relentless emptying, beginning with the death of his beloved Lucie in May 1987. His mental powers began to decline, and he retired from teaching. He developed prostate cancer that eventually spread until he was no longer quite able to live on his own. He sold his house and gave away most of his enormous library and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, to await death. During the next year and a half his memory deteriorated to the point that much of his past life was lost to him.
I think he would have found meaning in all of this. At the end of a recorded interview from the early ’90s in which he recounted his life, Niemeyer began to speak of prayer. He said:
Prayer is essentially an emptiness of ourselves with the view of having the emptiness filled by God. . . . The basic prayer is one in which the praying person has to dismiss all the problems of his life, all the engagements in this world, all that he seeks or tries to do, all that has been done against him. . . . There is a point then at which there is a great silence in oneself and the silence is an emptiness, and at that point sometimes you feel precisely that God is filling the emptiness, which does not occur every time, but it occurs often enough that you feel God is a living reality. And the emptiness is the only contribution that we can make to a living relation with God.
It was this living relation with God that one sensed in Niemeyer, as he sensed, and responded to, it in others. In 1994 he wrote in his eulogy for Russell Kirk that “We enjoy the many facets of such a personality, the generosity of his soul, the gentility of his manners, and, seeking to look through all this to the core of his secret, we faintly taste the peace of God.” I myself would apply these words to Niemeyer himself, as well as what he had written more than 50 years earlier about Hermann Heller: “[His] teaching inspired me with his ideas; his living inspired me with the example of an extraordinary man, outstanding in qualities both of soul and mind.”
In his own numerous book reviews Niemeyer often expressed gratitude for the wisdom and insights of the author. In that spirit, I think we can be grateful not only for the lives of Gerhart and Lucie Niemeyer but also for their son Paul’s biography of them, which preserves so much of the beauty of their souls and which will, I hope, lead readers unfamiliar with Niemeyer’s own writings to open his books.
Michael Henry teaches philosophy at St. John’s University in New York and is the editor of The Library of Conservative Thought published by Transaction Publishers.
For a DVD of the Niemeyer interview mentioned above, send $40 to David Schock, 545 Gidley Drive, Grand Haven, MI 49417 (Tel. 616-844-1061).
Posted: April 19, 2008
Did you see this one?
An Augustine for Our Age
Jeffrey O. Nelson
Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)