History on the Move: Commemorating the Teaching of Jan-Georg Deutsch

The day after Georg’s memorial seminar, I had lunch with a friend who had studied history at Oxford. Although this friend had never studied African history, when I told him the reason for my trip, he immediately recalled that Georg had spoken at his school well over a decade ago as part of a scheme to encourage and prepare state school students to apply to Oxford. The reason I mention this is that during the seminar, Georg’s many activities at the university, the History Faculty, St Cross College and in West Oxford (where he lived) were detailed, yet this still did not encompass the full range of things he was involved in as none of the speakers mentioned his outreach work.

Festo Mkenda, the speaker at the memorial

Credit: Kuukuwa Manful

The Transnational and Global History Seminar, who organised the event, sensibly limited the speakers to around ten minutes, allowing for members of the 50-strong audience to make their own contributions. The seminar was an informal one, as befitting Georg’s dislike of stuffiness and hierarchy, and an opportunity to reminiscence, to share memories, stories and talk about the influence on Georg had on our lives. All five speakers, of whom I was one, were former students of Georg: Festo Mkenda, Cassandra Thiesen-Mark, Casper Andersen, Amalia Ribi Forclaz and myself.

Each of us spoke of Georg’s unfailing generosity, his unselfish devotion to teaching, and how he encouraged, empowered and imparted a sense of purpose to his undergraduate and doctoral students. Cassandra Thiesen-Mark related how Georg had convinced her to stay in academia. Casper Andersen recounted that Georg was the first professor who took his work seriously. Stories of Georg’s goodwill abounded at the seminar and over drinks afterwards. Someone told me afterwards that Georg gave them the single best piece of advice they had ever received in their career, someone else that he was the person who made them feel most welcome and at home in the university.

Colleagues from the History Faculty, and other departments, offered similar tributes about Georg’s generosity, scholarship, the astonishing breadth of his knowledge and continual willingness to take on students. Georg was an outsized presence in the History Faculty, promoting the study of African history virtually single-handed and encouraging oral history. He taught papers and supervised dissertations covering two centuries of history for an entire continent. African history should have been marginal at Oxford, Georg ensured it was not.  

This is Georg’s legacy at the university and a memorial fund has been established to provide support for students of African history through scholarships and hardship assistance. This legacy is also assured in another way. Georg amassed a vast collection of books, far too large for his modest office where the shelving practically groaned under the weight of the accumulated material. This library is now on its way to Nairobi to its new home at the Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa, which is headed by Festo Mkenda, where it will be accessible to current and future generations of scholars in East Africa. A fitting tribute.