Biography: Max Weber
Maximillian Carl Emil Weber was born on April 21st 1864 at Erfurt, Thuringia, East Germany. The eldest of seven children born to – Max Weber senior, a prominent and wealthy civil servant and politician and – Helene Fallenstein, a protestant Calvinist with strong, moral ideas. To understand the writings of Max Weber it is necessary to understand the history of his genetic make up, to understand where his own beliefs stemmed from, and to understand who or what had influenced his life and way of thinking.
His paternal grandfather was a prosperous linen dealer living in Bielfeld, having been driven from catholic Salzburg because of his protestant beliefs. He had two sons; one took over the linen business, and the other, Weber’s father worked in government, as a city councillor in Berlin, and a magistrate in Erfurt. He was often described as a shallow, self-satisfied man. Max Weber junior’s maternal grandfather descended from a long line of schoolteachers. He was a teacher and translator, fought in the war of liberation against Napoleon then settled in Heidelberg with his first wife Emilie Souchay. Emilie was the daughter of a successful merchant in Frankfurt. The Souchay’s came from a long line of Huguenot emigrants driven from France after Louis X1V outlawed Protestantism.
Weber, a sickly, shy and withdrawn child, met influential, leading academic and political men from and early age. Although not religious, he, in his writing was influenced by his mother’s beliefs. He was intelligent, a reader and a thinker. However, his description by his tutors was that he had a lack of respect for authority or discipline. At Christmas 1886 when he was thirteen, he gave to his parents’ two essays, in which there were references to the pope and the emperor during the Constantine 1 period. The following year his letters home referred to Homer, Virgil, Cicero and Livy. He had shown that even at the young age of 14 he had extreme knowledge of Goethe, Spinoza, Kant and Schopenhauer.
In 1892, he joined the University of Heidelberg as a law student. He joined his father’s duelling fraternity, where he lost his skinny, frail looking gait and acquired through drink, a fuller figure. Whilst at the university he also attended Knies’s lectures in economics, studied Erdmannsdoeffer’s medieval history and Kuno Fischer’s theology. Passing his final exams in the spring of 1882 (and it is supposed that he helped various friends to cheat) he worked as a junior barrister in Berlin courts. After returning home, he returned to study in 1884, at the University of Berlin, where he stayed for eight years. During this time, he spent a short time at the University of Gottingen, and partook in some military training.
To avoid his father’s patronizing authoritarianism, Weber sought confidential political and academic discussions from his uncle – Hermann Baumgarten whose wife Ida was his mother’s sister. Ida and Hermann became like his second parents. For six years, he was engaged to their daughter Emmy. Unfortunately, the girl was frail of body and mind and spent much time in a sanatorium. Weber felt it necessary to end their relationship. In 1886 he passed his referendar exam, which is comparable to the bar association exam in the British and American legal system. Then, in 1888 he joined ‘Verein’ (new professional association of German economists) and in 1890 after writing ‘The History of Medieval Business Organisations’ and ‘The Roman Agarian History and its Significance for Public and private Law’, he became qualified to hold a German professorship. Later that year, Verein began researching the Polish question of ‘Ostflucht’ – the influx of foreign farm workers into East Germany, as local labourers move to the industrialized cities. Weber headed the study earning him the reputation as an Agarian.
He married Marianne Schnitger in 1893, another cousin but from his fathers side, whom he had snatched away from a close friend. Marianne was the 22-year-old daughter of a physician. The couple moved to Freiburg in 1894 for Weber to take the position of professor at the university. Where he had succeeded former teacher Goldschmidt. Marianne went on to become a feminist and an author, and, although the marriage was never consummated, the Webers enjoyed intellectual and moral companionship. Later the same year Weber’s uncle and confidant Hermann Baumgarten died. Then, moving the following year to Heidberg, Weber took over the position of professor of economics, from his former tutor Knies.
In July of 1897, Webers’ parents visited. Helene had preferred to visit alone. There was a venomous clash between father and son, Weber junior, told his father to leave his house, for the way he had been treating his mother. Within two months, Weber senior was dead. Depression took hold, he became nervous, insomnia set in, and eventually Max Weber suffered a complete breakdown that lasted over five years. Some of that time he spent in a sanatorium, suffering from exhaustion and guilt presumably brought on by his impotence with his wife and by leaving his first love Emmy. He spent some time in Italy until 1902. He then being unable to write resigned his professorship in autumn of 1903.
Miraculously he joined Edgar Jaffe and Werner Sombart in editing ‘Archives for Social Science and Social Welfare’, it became the leading German journal. He regained contact with friends and academic colleagues. He went on in 1904 to publish seminal papers (pro ethic). A former colleague Hugo Muensterberg, who was now at Harvard college, invited him to read a paper at the ‘Congress of Arts and Sciences’ in St Louis, USA. Where, he delivered a lecture on the social structure of Germany. It was six and a half years since he had last spoken publicly. He travelled in the USA for a further three months, where he laid the foundations for ‘the Development of Economic Systems’.
Returning to Heidelberg in 1905, he resumed teaching and a full time writing career. Writing; ‘The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism’, his most famous work. Followed in 1906, with writings on political developments in Russia, after the revolution. In addition, between 1908/1909 he worked on the social psychology of industrial work and factory workers. He also participated in academic conventions and spoke at political meetings. Weber, with Toennies and Simnel co-founded the German sociological society in 1910. However, was unsuccessful in 1912 at organising a left wing political party. Sometime before the onset of the First World War, he embarked on an affair with Else Jaffe-Von Richthofen, he also became godfather to her son Peter, who was the son of Otto Gross.
The First World War arrived and Weber was commissioned as director of army hospitals, running nine military hospitals in Heidelberg. He resigned in1915 to sit in on commissions trying to re-train German supremacy in Belgium and Poland. Later, in 1916 his views on war helped in him becoming a member of the worker and soldier council. Later still, in 1918 he was consultant to German armistice commission at the treaty of Versailles peace conference. He helped to draft the Weiner Constitution; Adolph Hitler later used chapter 48 to ‘institute rule by degree’, thereby allowing his government to suppress opposition and obtain dictatorial powers.
Weber resumed teaching at Vienna University as head of the first German university of sociology. He left politics in 1920 as right wing students argued his left wing speeches on German revolution. He suffered a tragic blow in the same year, when his favourite sister Lily Schafer committed suicide. Fate was to deal yet another blow in the same year, in early June, Weber was taken ill with Spanish flu, he later developed pneumonia and on 14th June, Max Weber died. His last words were “The truth is the truth”.
Of Max Weber’s other siblings – it is known that, his brother Alfred [1868-1958] became a rival and a sociologist of culture, and, his brother Karl [1898-1963] was the minister of justice from April to October in 1965.
Sociology – Anthony Giddons, 2nd edition – 1993
Human Societies – Geoffrey Hurd – 1986
Comparative Sociology and Social Theory – Graham crow – 1997
A Collection of Sociology Essays – coral plumb – 1997