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German-French sociologist Alfred Grosser dies at 99

Sarah Judith Hofmann
February 8, 2024

An intellectual of Jewish origin, the political scientist Alfred Grosser tirelessly built bridges between France and Germany. He died Wednesday in Paris.

A black and white portrait of Alfred Grosser smiling at the camera from 2017.
Grosser was known as a critical and unconventional thinkerImage: Eventpress Stauffenberg/picture alliance

The German-French writer, sociologist, and political scientist Alfred Grosser has died at the age of 99.

The appeasing language of diplomacy wasn't his cup of tea — and yet Grosser was a great diplomat, especially when it came to Franco-German relations. Honesty and straightforwardness were among his essential qualities.

At the start of interviews, he used to ask interviewees one question about their report: "How long will it end up being?" And when he was told that the interview would be cut to a 3-minute TV report or to a short article, he would smile mischievously and say: "Well, then we won't talk for more than 15 minutes. In that time, all will be said."

And indeed, Grosser had the gift of getting to the heart of things, and of coming up with ideas that were either unheard of or that nobody dared mention before him.

A love of debate

When world leaders joined the huge crowds gathered in Paris for a solidarity march after the deadly attack on the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" in 2015, Grosser spoke of a "parade of hypocrites." In his view, it was ridiculous that politicians from Ankara and Moscow were taking part in a demonstration for press freedom.

Alfred Grosser speaks on a news show in 2017
Grosser loved to explain the Germans to the French, and vice versaImage: Wolfgang Borrs/NDR/dpa/picture alliance

"Please do not exaggerate the concept of 'the Occident,'" Grosser said to Germany's far-right movement PEGIDA and the far-right Alternative for Germany party. Referring to PEGIDA, an abbreviation for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident," he once declared on a German TV talk show: "When people talk of the Judeo-Christian Occidental civilization, it makes me, as a Jew, feel sick."

Grosser's father fought for Germany in World War I

Grosser knew what he was talking about. Born on February 1, 1925, in Frankfurt am Main, he had to flee Germany with his Jewishfamily when he was 8 years old. His father, Paul, who had fought as a German soldier in World War I and had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class for bravery, made the decision to leave his homeland shortly after Adolf Hitler seized power. Paul Grosser and all other Jewish veterans had been expelled from the Association of Iron Cross Bearers. 

Grosser reported this in a 2014 speech at the German Bundestag on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. He pointed out that France, the country his father had fought against in the war, had nevertheless honored Paul Grosser as a war veteran.

After the family fled to France, the country quickly became a new home for the young Alfred — and yet he never let go of his origins. 

Prolific author and political scientist

Grosser went on to study public affairs, and taught at the renowned Sciences Po college of politics in Paris. He wrote over 30 books, and in almost every publication he tried to explain either to the French what made Germans tick, or to the Germans, the mindset of the French.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz smiles at French President Emmanuel Macron in 2023.
Grosser wrote over 30 books, many of which focused on the Franco-German relationship, illustrated here by France's Emmanuel Macron (left) and Germany's Olaf ScholzImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Grosser provided both an internal and external perspective at the same time. Among the books he wrote were titles such as "Wie anders sind die Deutschen" ("How different are the Germans," 2002), and "Wie anders ist Frankreich" ("How different is France," 2005). It's thanks to people like Grosser that the Franco-German friendship developed after World War II.

A critic with many targets

Grosser received numerous awards for his commitment, both in Germany and France, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Goethe Plaque of the City of Frankfurt, the Grand Cross of Merit in Germany and the Grand Cross of France's Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor (Légion d'Honneur) — one of the highest honors of the French state.  

His informed opinions weren't limited to the field of current politics and contemporary history of both countries. 

Grosser was a critical and unconventional thinker — also when it came to Israel. When the German Nobel Prize laureate Günter Grass was sharply attacked for his 2012 poem in which he warned of a looming Israeli aggression against Iran, and even called an antisemite, Grosser was one of the few public figures who took Grass' side.

Grosser: 'Greatest hope is a genuine Europe' (2018)

In his view, the Israeli government was provoking and risking a war with Iran, and he said people should have the right to criticize Israel without immediately being branded as an antisemite — a label he had also been given for having criticized Israel's policies.

"Equalizing criticizing Israel with antisemitism directly — that is dishonest and leads to mistakes," he said following a similar controversy in 2007.

Grosser was a connoisseur of the emotional closeness of Germany, France and Israel, while always keeping the critical view of the outsider. This is what made him a great intellectual.

This article was originally written in German.