Oral History Center - UC Berkeley Library

Richard Herr: Historian of Spain and France, University of California, Berkeley, 1960-1991

Herr, Richard
Lage, Ann
Richard Herr: Historian of Spain and France, University of California, Berkeley, 1960-1991
In his oral history Richard Herr, historian of Spain and France, looks back on his life and career as a “great train ride,” in which he “witnessed one vast transformation.” Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1922, the youngest son of a mining engineer, he grew up bilingually, living in a sort of colonial world—“closer to Victorian society than to our current society”—near the mine that his father headed. After high school in Cincinnati, he studied history at Harvard, thinking he would pursue a career as a newspaper man, and enlisted in the army after early graduation. As a member of the Signal Intelligence Corps during World War II, he was stationed in Washington DC, London, and Paris. He was in Germany the day the Germans surrendered and has lasting impressions of his visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp. In Paris he met a group of Spanish civil war refugees, including the woman who became his first wife, Elena Fernández Mel, and after the war he continued his studies at the University of Paris. After a brief stint in the world of Commerce, Industry, and Labor when he returned home to Ohio, he decided to pursue an academic career, attending the University of Chicago and studying political and intellectual history under Louis Gottschalk and Daniel Mornet. His research trip to Spain in 1950-51 for his doctoral dissertation was the first of many over the next forty years. In his oral history he describes his immersion in Spain’s past, as he delved into rich archival sources in the national library and in remote rural outposts. At the same time, he was participating in a rapidly changing Spanish society, living in Spain under Franco, taking part in tertulia with Madrid intellectuals and becoming acquainted with village priests and alcaldes in the countryside. While directing UC’s Education Abroad Program in Madrid from 1975 to 1977, he observed the transition in Spain after Franco’s death. His wealth of archival research and firsthand understanding of Spanish culture, as well as his interest in diverse historical approaches, are apparent in his several books on Spain, all well received among Spanish academics and in the US. Throughout his career, Herr has also taught and written on topics in the history of France and Western Europe. Richard Herr came to Berkeley from Yale, first arriving as a visiting professor in 1955-’56 and then hired as associate professor in 1960. He provides an important perspective on the sixties in the Department of History, recalling his distress at the pressures faced by young faculty under consideration for promotion to tenure as the department fashioned itself into one of the most prominent in the nation. He also recalls departmental and his own personal responses to the Free Speech Movement and anti-war protests. As a member of the Select Committee on Education (Muscatine Committee) and chair of a committee to review the undergraduate program in the College of Letter and Sciences, Herr helped craft a series of academic reform proposals. His oral history also reflects on changes in the department in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the impact of women faculty and women graduate students. In the 1980s, Herr helped found and was director of programs in Spanish and Portuguese Studies at Berkeley. He taught at Berkeley until his retirement in 1991, upon which he began, as he terms it, his “third age,” continuing to be actively engaged in the historical enterprise. In 1990, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Subject area(s):
Education and University of California
Interview date(s):
History Department, UC Berkeley
Herr, Richard. "Richard Herr: Historian of Spain and France, University of California, Berkeley, 1960-1991." Interview by Ann Lage in 2008. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2009.