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Obituary: Henryk Skrzypczak (3 May 1926 – 2 May 2017)

After a long illness, the historian and scientific organiser Dr. Henryk Skrzypczak died shortly before his 91st birthday. His legacy does not include monumental works, but thoroughly well-researched studies characterized by combining detailed descriptions and well-balanced interpretations; stylistically presented in a language avoiding worn out catchwords. Reference shall be made to his research on the Berlin transport strike of 1932 and the role of trade unions in the Weimar Republic, when “it was ‘all or nothing’” as the German book title “Als es ‘ums Ganze’ ging” suggests.

At the time, when some West German historians cut off their relations to East German colleagues, arranged for their evaluation or took over their chairs or their scholarly positions, he was among the few that left the trenches of the Cold War at an early stage and built bridges. This was not at all as self-evident as it may sound. When we met for the first time – at the Linz Conference of the ITH in 1967 – it did not cross my mind that someday we were to become friends and that I was to devote him an obituary. Because although factual controversies dominated these unique encounters of labour historians from East and West, viewpoints seriously come to blows. And Henryk Skrzypczak was among those, who knew how to use a sharp blade in these debates.

He, in particular, gained reputation by founding and editing the “Internationale Wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung” (IWK) – a publication organ that informed about research results as well as research proposals. Although he took his doctoral degree in a topic on medieval history, the labour movement had become his preferred field of work. The credit for having rediscovered, saved and looked after the lost documents of the collection of the archives of the August Bebel Institute belongs to him. When the Historical Commission Berlin (West) was found, he acted as its General Secretary for a decade.

Thus, it suggested itself that he was also among the co-founders of the ITH, the “International Conference of Historians of the Labour Movement”, as the ITH was called initially. For a long time, he was active in operative positions and was finally elected into the Honorary Committee. It is not possible to imagine the scientific debates and deliberations at the General Assemblies without his well-considered contributions. I will never forget his outrage during the Linz Conference of the ITH in September 1999 over the Blair-Schröder-Paper that abandoned traditional social democratic positions. I fully agree with Winfried Garscha, who, on the occasion of Skrzypczak’s 80th birthday, emphasised that he was among those personalities, who “gave the Linz Conferences of the ITH that specific flair that distinguishes those yearly encounters”.

In the years following the “Wende”, the heritage of the labour movement collected in the GDR, particularly the Central Party Archive of the SED stored in the newly formed Institute for the History of the Labour Movement, were threatened by improper appropriation and fragmentation, partly expressed as demands filled with hatred. Thus, the responsible persons sought support in the public and prepared the foundation of a sponsoring society (“Förderkreis”). The undertaking could only have success, if it were possible to win a qualified and respected scientist as chairman, who could not be muzzled with sarcasm about his “burdens of the past”. When Skrzypczak was – to his total surprise – confronted with this request, he did not hesitate and met this task with enormous commitment. Until he fell ill, he always was on hand with help and advice for the “Förderkreis Archive und Bibliotheken zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung”.

For this purpose, he also accepted that some of his social democratic comrades accused him of having to close relations to SED cadres. Alongside Gregor Gysi, Klaus Höpcke and chief archivist Inge Pardon, he conducted the negotiations with the Bonn Ministry of the Interior that led to the establishment of the “Foundation Archives of Parties and Mass Organisations of the GDR” – a structure that has found wide recognition.

Thinking about Henryk Skrzypczak also means remembering his musical and drawing talent. He was still allowed to see a collection of his poems, essays and satirical feuilleton and commentaries published under the title “Spurenfolge. Frühe Gedichte & einiges mehr”.

A man with versatile talents and unmistakable character has left us.

Günther Benser (Berlin)
Translated from German by Lukas Neissl

Extended version of an obituary published in the weekend edition of the newspaper “neues Deutschland” from 13/14 May 2017.