Werner (David) Ferdinand Falk - goaded and guided in the footsteps of Ernst Cassirer
"Weber died in 1920. He then believed that, despite all these obstacles, a German democracy and a German democratic spirit might yet be possible. Events have since then shown this hope was vain. The German middle class's traditional lack of confidence in a system based on agreement instead of authority, the lost influence in world politics, the attraction of the leader idea and the need created by the depression for the regulation of the economic life of the state have finally extinguished the spirit of individual liberty, of humanitarian moderation and rational agreement. We find the same consequences in other countries; the same causes which threaten to reverse the values of Western civilization are at work everywhere. Up to the present they have developed most in the countries where inner tensions were greatest and the democratic traditions were weakest."
Werner (David) Ferdinand Falk in Berlin
Werner Falk, "Democracy and Capitalism in Max Weber's Sociology", The Sociological Review, Vol XXVII, Number Four, October 1935.
Group of children with Werner Falk (far right) and sister Else (second from right)

The life of Werner Falk is interesting not only in its complex and varied course but also because of the way it reflected the tensions between his Cassirer and Falk background on the one hand, and the shattering effect once more of the two great wars and Holocaust on the other.

It is an oddity of how we label people that those who descend from the daughters of a family lose their original family name and take another. Thus Werner Falk who was the son of Betty Cassirer may superficially appear less a Cassirer than say, Heiner Cassirer, even though each were born of a Cassirer parent and were very much emersed in the Cassirer culture. Certainly, Werner Falk in his own understanding of the two parental strands from which he was genetically constructed, focussed much more on his famous Cassirer half than on his Falk half. To the powerful Cassirer relatives, Werner's father Fritz Falk was 'der kleine Fritz' (little Fritz), a short man from what they were perhaps too ready to judge as an undistinguished family. But in a sense Betty Cassirer had escaped from the powerful, agressive and judgemental Cassirer family culture to the perhaps more human scale environment that Fritz could provide. Fritz was a much liked doctor who had built a successful practice and, whatever the judgements of some Cassirer relatives, Fritz's family had become in their own right an established merchant family.

Like so many of the Cassirer children of his generation, Werner had a leaning toward abstract thought, and in particular, towards philosophy. But for a time this was supressed by the complex circumstances of his childhood.

First there was the First World War. As mentioned earlier, in 1914 his father was called up to military service and moved to a small town called Fürstenwalde near Berlin where he became an army doctor. Commented Werner:

When it became clear that he [Fritz] would be stationed there for a long time, we all moved to Fürstenwalde.  ... of course my parents were full of anxiety because the question was always "will he be sent to the front" or "will we be able to stay where we were".  But he was never sent to the Front so all this worry was unnecessary but of course the worry was there because the uncertainty was there. ....  Of course I went to school there, I went to the gymnasium there, and I never felt right.  This wasn't the atmosphere which I could feel at home with and I had difficulties about having friends.  They were terribly antisemitic  there.  These are very formative experiences - the school age, you know. ..Before 1914 - of course, we had two maids and one cook and eine kinderzieherl (educator).  And then when 1914 came everything was abolished, and we lived in a smaller apartment in the provincial town and my mother had to do everything.  We had one maid and that was all who did the cooking.  But the whole brunt of my mother's ideas and energy fell upon us children, you know,  and that wasn't good.  So, still I see this as an unpleasant experience.

The troubling experience for the young Werner in Furstenwalde was not repaired by the return to Berlin some five years later. As Werner noted:

And then we went back to Berlin and there was the 1919 revolution and all the anxiety connected with  that.  I mean we had shooting in the street and went to school past a big hotel which had been turned into a fortress.  So it wasn't a very peaceful early days. And then one consequence of this was that I never managed to get into the right school.  I mean, what do I mean by the right school? There were two gymnasia where young people of our class and religion would go.  They were academically famous and if you had been to any of them you would have been with your likes.  But I had to go because I couldn't get into these - it was all too late -  I had to go to school which was the opposite of this.  It was in a very reactionary Berlin district where there were no Jews but only reactionaries. It was stupid. The teachers were reactionaries and anti-semites and the students, these boys, also.  I mean we got the full brunt of anti-seminitism there and I remember I was a big strong 12 year old and I remember in the lunch break the few Jewish guys that were there in that school would line up behind me in a corner of the courtyard and the college students  would attack us and we would defend ourselves.   It wasn't pleasant at all.

So this whole story of my later school years, my recollection is a very unpleasant one, full of tensions.   And in consequence I was not a good student.  I was a good student in a few subjects that interested me - there I was very good.   …first of all was German literature - writing essays.   And later on I had one wonderful teacher who taught us philosophy and taught us things like that  and there I got my A's.  But otherwise I didn't really like to work for that school. 

[But] then... there was still never straight failures. I got through my matric[ulation] and there was the question of what to do.  And I said I wanted to go to the university and I don't care what I do there, but at least I want to have had that experience.  But there was no money.

As mentioned elsewhere, Werner's grandfather, Isidor Cassirer, had invested the family fortune in German Marks as a gesture of patriotic support. And then came the inflation that turned that money into little more than the paper it was written on.

By 1925 the family fortune had dwindled to nothing.  I mean my grandfather [Isidor Cassirer] just left a few stocks and shares.    But this [had been] a big fortune - 11 million marks at that time - it was really, really a lot of money.  So, no famous pictures and no money...

So, despite his intellectual predisposition, the young Werner - who was so impressed by Ernst Cassirer (his first cousin, once removed) - found himself having to go not to University but to an apprenticeship in a firm that made motor car accessories.

They sold the windshield wiper that was operated by hand.  And they sold a machine that you used if your tyres got too smooth - then they would take it to the garage and there the machine would roughen up the tyres - a machine that roughs up rubber and smoothes it - crazy!

Well, I used to work there and then do what I had already done at school because I was great  in my last years at school for being absent.  And I did that on a big scale because I thought just to be absent one day or two days you got found out.  The teacher says "where's your letter of excuse from your parents".  So I decided if I stayed away for two weeks it would be clear that I must have been sick and when I came back no-one would ask me.  And I got away with that quite a number of times.... There was a museum collection in Berlin called the Prints Collection (Kupferstichkabinett) where you could go and ask for Rembrandts or whatever you liked - graphic works - and they would be taken out of their shelves and put in front of you on a desk.  And you spend all day just looking at Rembrandt graphics, or whatever.

And well, when I was an apprentice I did the same thing, except I stayed as long as I had to stay and then instead of going home I would go to the Kupferstichkabinett or something similar and study graphic art.  I did that for two years .  That was my only consolation.

I wasn't interested [in selling] I was much too embarrassed.  A single boy of 18 or 19 going to these rough (garage) quarters, and Jewish into the bargain. So then I convinced my parents that this was enough. 

Indeed by 1924 there had been sufficient economic recovery for University to be a possibility. Werner had matriculated in 1924 just when the period of inflation was ending and everyone was broke. Now, three years later in 1927, things had settled down and his father lent him some money.

You see the custom was that in the professions, someone like my father would send out bills at the end of the year.  Only once, see.  And of course you couldn't convince my father that he should charge retrospectively more - you know that a visit was worth 5 marks in January, if he billed it 12 months later he couldn't still charge 5 marks.  But he charged 5 marks at the end.  They were in a terrible situation, and many professional people likewise. But all this had become easier and, needless to say, it was Uncle Fritz - who has always played a big positive part of my life - that he convinced my parents that I ought to go to University.  And, so I did.

 [I went to the University in]…. Berlin.  Except to say in Germany you can university hop.  You can easily move from one university to another. And I for instance had one semester in Zurich because we had friends. So after Uncle Fritz decided I should go to University there was still the question what should I do at the university.   And what I wanted to do was philosophy.  And that didn't appeal to my father at all.  Because if really they had to bring the sacrifice of sending me to university then I should do something there with some practical future.   So one day my father came home and he said he'd had a long conversation with one of his patients, a banker, and the banker had said there is only one thing for me to do and that is to study economics.

So, I knew nothing about economics, but I knew the regulations of the university which permitted in Berlin someone to take a Ph.D. with philosophy as a subsidiary subject.  You had two main subjects and two subsidiary subjects to study for a Ph.D.  And you could for instance have what I eventually had which was economics and sociology as my main subjects and philosophy and art history as my two subsidiary subjects.

What I then did to strengthen this - you see you choose the subjects for Ph.D. theses, and in this German system, in those days, you didn't get any help from anyone.   And I had one professor who was really interested in economic organisation within the business.   Well with that professor I had a little more contact and he was an interesting man.  And he suggested a totally unsuitable subject - namely to write a thesis on the differences  between different industries with regard to the possibility of forming cartels.  I thought this an interesting subject.  It was concrete and it was not too close to something finicky.  And I started to work on this but my unconscious mind just wouldn't function in the right way.

I did a good deal of work on this topic but it got out of my hands.  It developed into a much more theoretical topic and it ended up with my writing a thesis on the judgment of value - a basic problem in the methodology and of the economics - all so to speak on the question of how is economics possible as a discipline.

And I got myself another professor who was interested in these questions (or questions of this sort) -  a very famous man, Professor Werner Sombart. And I arranged with him that this was the thesis I was to write under him.  I had one conversation with this man at the beginning and one conversation when I presented the outlines of my thesis to his graduate seminar.  And I never saw him again.  That was having a supervisor in Germany.

Now that is a story which I can tell.   When I started on that thesis and chose this man as supervisor I knew that he was working on these questions.  And there were two questions which were sort of around academia and economics - nothing to do with economics.  The one was the old Max Weber thing whether you could have a value free social science. And so that invited the question "can you have a value free economics?".  And the other question concerned the nature of economics as a discipline - namely whether (it was a typical German problematic which had descended from the 19th Century) whether economics would be a predominantly historical discipline or whether it should be a theoretical mathematical discipline - which worked out the theory of the market and the theory of equilibrium of forces that... the establishment of such equilibrium presupposed.    Now I had a bright idea.  My idea was that these two questions, unrelated as they seem, belong together, and that economics had to be conceived [of] as a discipline that was not  value-free and was not historical.  But I mean that in so far as it pursued it's theoretical framework it was the framework of the British welfare economics, and not something concerned with the history of the production of fever thermometers in the Black Forest... which was the historical school approach.

And I knew that my professor was working on these two problems, on a book which he was going to call Die drei Nationale Economies and in which he would argue fervently for the historical and value-free approach.[Werner Sombart, Die drei Nationalökonomien: Geschichte und System der Lehre von der Wirtschaft. Munich / Leipzig, 1930]  So where he was working on this book I was working on my thesis.  And we finished about the same time -  never communicating with each other.  So I handed in my thesis and one good morning, which I still remember quite clearly, there was a letter which had just come from this professor.   And he said "Dear Mr Falk, I cannot deny that this is an interesting thesis but in order even to report on it to the Senate", which was part of the routine, "I would have to submit my whole book refused.  Find yourself", and this was a typical German thing, "Find yourself a professor who will take it.   I can't take it, its against my convictions."  So I did find myself a professor, in Heidelberg [Professor E Lederer].  I went to Heidelberg.

[This worked well for me] because the first one,  Sombart was a  conservative.  The other was a socialist.  Well one of my theses  was that the  planned economy involved value judgments.  I mean I said that we had to treat economics altogether as a teleological system.  It serves ends.   That is to say, my model for that sort of things was [Pigou] and the idea of welfare economics.   He said that the guts of  Adam Smith was to describe the mechanisms by which welfare is produced - something worth having.


The outcome of this process was very positive. In May 1932 Werner Falk was awarded the PhD by the University of Heidelberg with First Class Honours (Summa Cum Laude). Indeed it was a very strong First:

And when I came back from Heidelburg that year with my Heidelburg First - that was one of the greater moments of my life because I didn't have such very high ideas of myself.   But, as it turned out, I was much better than I thought I was because as it turned out I got a First  in my thesis and in every oral examination whether it was on fine arts or philosophy or  sociology or economics.  I got firsts in everything - so much so that it was thought that this was the best First that Heidelberg had turned out in the last 20 years or something.  I was invited to dinner with the Dean and there was all great festivities.  

And, of course, I had a better view of myself than I had up till then.  You see, it told me one thing.  I had been mistaken about myself.  One can be better than one thinks one is. 


Opposite: Cover page of Werner Falk's PhD dissertation Das Werturteil: Basic logical questions of economic science; submitted to the Philosophy Faculty, University of Heidelberg by Werner Falk, Berlin, May 1932.


Subsequent research in the University of Heidelberg archives has uncovered the comments by the examiner, Prof Lederer, on Werner's thesis. The translation and original can be seen by clicking here. It confirms that "This work has a prehistory. The author studied with Mr. Sombart in Berlin, out of whose advanced course his investigation grew up. The author is in a most detailed way concerned with Sombart's methodological position, which he rejects. Therefore Mr. Sombart would not submit this work to his faculty and asked me to take over this actually very interesting thesis since otherwise he would be obliged to start a very extensive discussion of it." The examiner is very flattering about the candidate's work: "This work has to be appreciated as a capital achievement,  seizing the problem of methods in its deepest  anchorage and also being aware to keep in touch with developments of the economic system. Beyond that it's based to some extent on an exact theoretical  knowledge - more exact than generally could be expected among methodologists." However Prof Lederer is less impressed with the choice of problem: "In consideration of the scientific level I don't hesitate to recommend acceptance of   this work with the note I [Summa Cum Laude], although it would be desirable that this talented author should soon turn to different problems."

It was also during the period of his PhD studies that Werner gained the experience that produced his first full-time academic job. And it was a typical path into this sort of work, beginning with some part-time teaching whilst still studying, and then by a series of fortunate coincidences and continuities arising out of that prior experience, finding himself positioned at the right place and the right time to begin his first full-time academic job in 1931 as Lecturer in social philosophy at the Deutsche Hochscule für Politik in Berlin.

I mean I never set out to have an academic career.  I didn't know what I would do after.   I thought perhaps I would find a job in industry or something.  I had [had] an interesting job while I was a student which actually paid for all my extra expenses - for, I think for 3 or 4 years which was - ah, that is another story.

I had a girlfriend at the university and she was engaged to some guy.   And he was a director of a car manufacturing  outfit.   And he was a member - there was a National Union of Industries or something - [of] one of these big framework organisations which was concerned with the interests of industry in general.  And they had study groups.   And this man was the head of one of these study groups.  And he knew the secretary who would keep the minutes of the meetings,  which were interesting  because they were on planned economies, and sometimes we had some Russians come to talk to us on planned economies.  And he knew the secretary and this girl, who was then  his wife, and she wasn't my girlfriend any more, recommended me because she thought it was a nice idea.  And he took me and for three years of my university career I worked for him and it was very good because it didn't take so much of my time, I learned a lot about things I would not have learned otherwise, and I relieved my parents of having to spend any money on me except what money they spent by my living there and my eating there.  So this was a good solution.  Otherwise this wouldn't really have worked - this study.

And, ah yes, then at one time the School of Politics had on their programme a seminar on a book that had more recently come out.  You may still even know Mannheim, who used to be a political philosopher.   And that was a matter of interest to me and so I went over and was a student there for that course.

That course was run by a man who I found very interesting , Professor Stolzmann[?], a sociologist who had still been working under Weber - a very interesting man.   And he sort of selected me.  He thought I was good and so we became friends and he thought well of my contributions to that seminar.

These preliminary coincidences and pieces of casual work played out well resulting, with the support of the Professor who had become his patron and mentor, in Werner's first full-time academic position.

 It but also shows how much part chance can play because when I came back Professor Stolzmann said to me "you know, I'm going away for semester would you take my course".  I said "what is the course supposed to be". He said "on Marx".  And I said "well Marx, I can teach about."  And so I taught that summer at the University and at the end of this the Director asked me, and he said, would I want a job there?

They had a vacancy for someone who could do just economic theory and political theory and a little later they had a much more specific job which was really very interesting.  They had a little sub-school which was called the Trade Union School and that was a 3 years course specifically for young  trade unionists to study bits of economics and law and politics.  And he asked me if I wanted to be Head of this school which, I mean, wasn't a big thing but it had to be organised and I would lecture there too, and so on.  And I accepted this.  So very early on suddenly I had all this.  And it was nice.  And I had these three very productive years.  I wrote some good papers which were published and the future seemed to have a future.

 [My parents]… were pleased .  They hadn't expected this - and my mother of course - my father looked rather sceptically at all this talk... - but my mother of course, for a boy Cassirer, it was just what you would expect for her son.  And I could go and talk to Ernst, and we could talk philosophy and...   You see my first important paper which I published was on "The Idea of Freedom in Marx and Hegel" [Die Idee der Freiheit bei Hegel und Marx] and it was published in the journal Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik.

So you can imagine how many ups and downs those universities had for me. But that ended well. Because I got through what I set out to do and it was productive and it got me a teaching job… at the German School of Politics  in Berlin.  It was a very interesting place.  It was founded in 1919 with a view  to provide an education for journalists and other people involved [in] politics, cultivating  an objective scientific approach to politics.  And it was staffed very interestingly.  We had people from all parties. We had a communist, we had a Nazi, we had a lot of middle of the road people. One of my colleagues was the guy who later on became the first President after … the Second World War finished [Theodor Heuss].

Well, so was all swinging and then 1933 came and ruined everything.

In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. At about the same time Werner, who was a keen skier and rock climber, decided to take a holiday during the Spring Vacation for the School of Politics. His choice was Obergurgl, a wonderful skiing mountain where now the Austrian national ski sport academy is located (housed in a large set of buildings with fortified underground tunnels) constructed under the orders of Hitler as an alpine retreat for himself and his staff.


... I always went skiing in my spring vacation.  And so I went skiing and when I was packing I decided I might take one suit with me, which I never would otherwise do.  Why, God knows! 

Well, after two weeks away in Obergurgl - a wonderful place in Austria, the highest village in Austria, 2000 metres and the skiing! It is a glacier area and you can go and ski from one hut to another and never be below 2,400 metres. And for 10 days you get up in the morning.  You do the mountain and ski down for 2 hours or something to the next hut.  That was nice.

But after two weeks, [on the 27 February 1933], I opened the paper and there was the Reichstag fire.

On the day following the Reichstag fire (28 February 1933), President Hindenburg and Chancellor Hitler invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which permited the suspension of civil liberties in time of national emergency. This Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State abrogated key constitutional protections, including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of assembly and association, the right to privacy of postal and electronic communications, protection against unlawful searches and seizures, individual property rights, and States' right of self-government. A supplemental decree created the SA (Storm Troops) and SS (Special Security) Federal police agencies. (The parallel with the retreat of some civil liberties in the wake of the contemporary 'War on Terror' following the attack on the US World Trade Centre, whilst much less advanced, is still striking.)

And from there on there was no peace.  First I got this telegram from my parents saying that I should stay and ski more and more because it was necessary for my health.  And - well it was all quite clear because our Institute was the first thing which was taken over by Goebbels.   Because that was to turn it immediately into a political propaganda institute. And so finally I did not come back to Germany but went to Switzerland where we had friends…[and]… Switzerland saved me.

Oh then I went to France.  Then we all played a crazy game.  I mean, between Zurich and Paris, and Paris and Zurich.  Where would we go?  And then I decided there was no future in either Switzerland or France for various reasons, and the head of the School of Politics had in the meanwhile for the moment gone to London.  And I was in correspondence with him and he said come here.  Come to London.  I will find you something.  And I got something there - a kind of scholarship.  The  English Jews collected money for a fund to support refugee scholars before they could really be settled.  And I got some of those funds and in 1933 I went to London and stayed in England.

It is hard to imagine the difficulty faced by a young up and coming German intellectual forced to flee to England, and then in a language completely unfamiliar to him to begin to break into the very different English academic culture and try to find a future. That Werner managed to do this was a testimony both to his own dedication to the task and the help also he received from a young Australian girl, Barbara Cohen, he met in London and who soon became his girlfriend and constant support. With Barbara's help Werner worked over and over his papers, written first in German, then translated to English, and then honed to the point where they could stand up in the fierce intellectual forum which philosophers traditionally construct as their intellectual proving ground.

Much could be written here, but will not be, since it still entwines too much with the lives of the still living. It is enough to say that Werner changed his name to David to make himself more acceptable in war-time England, moved to Oxford where he studied first and having received first class honours was then, in 1938, taken on as a Lecturer at New College. Unlike, for example Ernst Cassirer, Werner made a determined effort to understand the intellectual culture within English philosophy. He enjoyed the intellectual challenge:

In England... I resumed my university education in order to fit myself for university teaching in the English-speaking world... Throughout these changes I have been pursuing much the same philosophical interests. My concern in lectures and publications has been with ethics, value theory, political philosophy and the philosophy of mind. In the history of philosophy, I have made a special study of the eighteenth century, especially of the English empiricists and of Kant.

In Oxford Werner Falk also married Barbara Cohen who produced a daughter (Anne Falk) and then two sons (John and James (Jim) Falk) . There they settled at 99 Hollywell Street, in a University house adjoining New College.

Werner with pipe
Barbara Falk with daughter Anne Falk in Oxford
Werner with daughter Anne Falk in 1939

In 1950 the family moved to Australia where Werner (now David Werner Falk) would take up a Readership in the Philosophy Department at the University of Melbourne, and Barbara's family would be in closer contact with Barbara and her exotic European husband. David Werner Falk spent a number of what seemed to be happy years in Australia with his growing family but in 1958 he left Australia on a visiting professorship to the University of Michigan, and was never to return to Australia.

After a series of postions in the US in the Spring of 1963 David Werner Falk came as a visiting professor to the University of North Carolina's Department of Philosophy.

After only a few months in that position, the department offered him the Chairmanship and awarded him the newly endowed Hanes professorship.

In the US he remarried twice - first marrying Dr Ruth Loewe who bore him two more sons (Adam and Toby Falk- see opposite), and then following a divorce, in 1972 marrying for the third time a postgraduate student at the University - Jeanette Strasser - who complemented his family with a daughter (Becky Filene) and son (Benjamin Filene) by a prior marriage.

With this family David Werner Falk lived happily in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, until his death on 11 October 1991.


David Werner Falk with sons Adam and Toby
In the Dolomites with Jeanette Falk (ne Strasser) in August 1976

More on David Werner Falk's life (especially whilst in the USA) can be found in the account by his third wife, Jeanette Falk, by clicking here. A formal Curriculum Vitae has been assembled and can be viewed by clicking here.

In retrospect it would be fair to say that the life of the young Werner Ferdinand Falk was characterised by the intellectual strengths and example which came from his Cassirer heritage, but also by the more human scale setting of his Falk background. There is a story that at one family occasion, when it was clear that Werner was intent to embark on the career of a philosopher his uncle Ernst Cassirer took him into a side room to interrogate him, returning some time later to announce to the assembled Cassirers that 'the boy is good'. Ernst would have been proud of the intellectual weight of Werner's writing, which received high acclaim in the US. But he also had practical and social capacities, less characteristic of his Cassirer heritage, that made him a strong Departmental leader in the American university in which he established himself. It is also clear that his identity and aspirations were severely challenged by his forced emigration to England and the need to reconstruct himself in that foreign culture. But he did so, and whilst he took some time to find what his inner being would identify as home again, he eventually established this to his satisfaction in the setting of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In this sense his struggle, to reconstruct himself in a foreign culture, was also characteristic of the Falk and Cassirer families in the aftermath of the shattering events which befell all who might be characterised as Jews in Hitler's Germany.

Back to Contents