Wolfgang Schivelbusch, a polymathic cultural historian who "explored mass transportation, spices and stimulants, commercial lighting and the legacy of defeat on society in about a dozen groundbreaking books," died March 26, the New York Times reported. He was 81. Schivelbusch wrote "in his native German (most were eventually translated into English) from his Manhattan apartment, where he spent winters, and his home in Berlin," though his death was not widely reported outside Europe.
"He was an extraordinary public intellectual, an independent largely unaffiliated wildly poly-curious and extravagantly gifted seeker after the patterns and idiosyncrasies of history," author Lawrence Wechsler wrote to members of the New York Institute for the Humanities, where Wechsler was a director and Schivelbusch was a fellow.
Die Zeit, the German national weekly, called Schivelbusch a "master of cultural-historical research."
His books include The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (1977); Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants (1980); Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century (1983); The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2001); Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939 (2005); and The Other Side: Living and Researching Between New York and Berlin (2021).
Schivelbusch's "pithy and provocative books won praise from academics for microscopically connecting history with quotidian life. But, unusual for a public (if unpretentious) intellectual, he also attracted a wider audience that, captivated by his quirky curiosity, joined him on his exploits--even if, unlike Indiana Jones's, those exploits were largely confined to libraries," the Times wrote.
The Railway Journey won the German Nonfiction Prize in 1978. In 2003, the Academy of Arts in Berlin awarded him the Heinrich Mann Prize, and in 2013 he won the Lessing Prize of the City of Hamburg for achievements in German culture.
Schivelbusch's objective was "not to repeat what was already known, but to make the little-known or unknown better known," German scholar Eva Geulen wrote recently on the Leibniz Center's blog, adding: "His feeling for the neglected detail was due to an individual sensitivity for the concrete, from which no rules were to be followed. His subjects found him, not the other way around."