Otago sparked love of German and a life’s work

The announcement that the German programme of our university will be ditched, together with the amputation of other language courses, was bad enough. Worse still the callow justifications offered.

It reminds me that at Otago Boys High I was lucky enough to have an enthusiastic German teacher. At University Prof Eric Herd and his staff opened up for us the magical world of German literature. Rilke’s Stundenbuch took us into a haunting new world of imagination, the dazzling play of metaphor. On Friday mornings Eric Herd then introduced us to the whole range of contemporary German literature. I guess I understood about 5% of it. Sixty years later the fascination remains.

Then I was off to Edinburgh for theology where my Latin from Otago stood me in good stead as we read Augustine’s Confessions in the original. I acquired a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, too, but it was German which flowed in my veins. The close nexus of Scottish theology with German critical theology took me to the romantic university town of Tubingen, where I found myself the sole English speaker among 90 German students.

Language is a tool of communication, of course, but more, far, far more. It is the key into another way of thought, of culture, indeed of life. I fell headlong in love with every aspect of Tubingen. My mates in the student college were struggling with their country’s Nazi past and that of their parents. They invited me into their homes. This was the 1960s, the Wirtschaftswunder, the single-minded pursuit of affluence, and my new friends wanted nothing of it.

I’m told that after two years in Tubingen I was often mistaken for a native speaker. I had sloughed off an old skin, and adopted a new one. My Britishness now appeared in a new light, not always a flattering one. Back in Scotland as a young lecturer in Edinburgh University, the grounding Otago had given me helped me to see Martin Luther as a wordsmith up there in the Premier League with Rabelais and Shakespeare. For my students I could trace the Nazi degradation of the language.

A 10-year exploration of the liturgies, letters and revolutionary tracts of the radical reformer and peasant leader Thomas Muntzer followed. When I turned up in Berlin, the doyen of Muntzer scholarship, Prof Siegfried Brauer, who was to became a close friend, chortled at the idea of a new colleague crawling out of the New Zealand bush.

Perhaps the most exciting day in my life came when in the Bavarian national archives I was handed documents which belonged to Germany’s first woman reformer, Argula von Stauff. I had already translated her pamphlets. Now I could work on her correspondence, write her biography and a critical edition of her works.

In retirement, with my German wife, Heinke, we unravelled the moving story of her parents, Liselotte and Ernst Sommer, based on letters and postcards they exchanged from 1937 until Ernst’s death in Russia, dying in tragically misplaced loyalty to Hitler.

When does a university cease to merit the name? Perhaps when the venerable ideal of the studium generale, representing every discipline, is abandoned ... And let’s remember that my life-long love affair with German was made possible by an Otago University which was tiny, barely a quarter of the size of the present one. Yet today's big institution cannot find the resources to keep one of its noblest traditions alive. Shameful indeed.

The Rev Dr Peter Matheson is Emeritus Professor, Knox Theological College, Dunedin.