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Wolfgang Leonhard, historian
of Soviet Union, dies at 93

Wolfgang Leonhard, whose lectures on the history of the Soviet Union packed the Yale Law School auditorium and inspired students from future president George W. Bush ’68 to future spy writer Joseph Weisberg ’87, has died at age 93.

Born in Vienna in 1921 and raised in Berlin, Leonhard fled Nazi Germany for Moscow with “his communist-inspired mother,” according to the German website Deutsche Welle, which reported his August 17 death in Germany. He “was sent for training at one of the Soviet Union’s then most important ideological-political centers”—although his mother, poet Susanne Leonhard, eventually ended up in a Soviet labor camp.

In 1945, Moscow sent Leonhard to the Soviet-controlled section of vanquished Germany to help establish what would become the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. Initially, he believed the Soviet promise of a “parliamentary democratic republic,” he later told one interviewer.

“This was the biggest mistake of my life, to believe that. And I can only say I was not the only one.” 

Soon Leonhard became what he called East Germany’s “first dissident,” breaking with its founder in 1948 and fleeing to Yugoslavia the next year, Deutsche Welle says.

After studying history at Oxford and Columbia universities, he came to Yale in 1966 and taught here for 21 years. During the early and mid-1980s, his “History of the Soviet Union” class was one of a handful of courses universally known by the lecturer’s name (see also: ”Spence,” “Blum,” “Morgan,” “Scully”), and the only one I can recall that invoked the professor’s first name.

In 1982, Phi Beta Kappa students at Yale chose Leonhard as corecipient of the DeVane Medal, awarded to “members of the faculty who have distinguished themselves as teachers of undergraduates in Yale College and as scholars in their fields.” In 1991, James Leitner ’75 established the Wolfgang Leonhard Prize in Russian and East European Studies, for a senior essay in those subjects.

One of Leonhard’s early students was George W. Bush, who calls the class “one of my most memorable courses.”

“In his thick German accent, he described the show trials, mass arrests and widespread deprivations,” Bush wrote in his memoir, Decision Points. “The class was an introduction to the struggle between tyranny and freedom, a battle that has held my attention for the rest of my life.”

Some two decades later, Weisberg was similarly wowed.

“Leonhard offered a nuanced view of foreign relations, but I came out of it with a very un-nuanced view of the world,” Weisberg told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2011. “I wanted to fight in that war,” joining the CIA before becoming a spy novelist and TV writer.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Wolfgang Leonhard, history, Soviet Union


  • Joel Abraham MC'89
    Joel Abraham MC'89, 12:15am August 19 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I still remember his personal narratives of global events: "There was a showing of the opera Decembrist. All the members of the politburo were there, except for [in a gravelly, deepened voice; heavily accenting and drawing out the first syllable] Beria. [Then quickly tripping off his tongue -] So we knew that he had been shot."

  • Kevin Kelly TD '78
    Kevin Kelly TD '78, 3:38pm August 20 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    And then the kicker--in the Soviet Encyclopedia the picture of Beria was replaced by one of the Bering Strait! You are so right about his dramatic delivery. RIP Wolfie

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