A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Tuesday, April 11, for Professor Emeritus of History John L. Heineman, a highly regarded scholar of modern Germany and Nazi Germany, who died April 6. He was 81.

The Mass for Dr. Heineman will take place at Saint George’s Church, 74 School St., Framingham.

John Heineman
Dr. John Heineman

Dr. Heineman, who taught at Boston College for 40 years, chaired the History Department from 1970-76 and pursued research in modern Germany (1803-present) and the Third Reich, as well as the history of warfare, the intellectual history of western Europe and religious and Church history. 

But he was particularly interested in the Nazi era: He taught a course, Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, using a large collection of mostly unpublished primary source documents he had translated. These documents, which he later put online, included material on the Nazi seizure of power and the treatment of Jews during the Third Reich.

Interviewed by The Heights shortly before he retired in 2003, Dr. Heineman said he became fascinated with German history somewhat unexpectedly while an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame when he took a trip to Europe – a journey made possible by a $500 bequest from his great aunt, who stipulated he use it for travel.

Signing up for a Catholic student tour, Dr. Heineman visited Ireland and England with great anticipation, but came away “faintly disappointed.” Arriving in Germany, however, was “an almost mystical experience” that deepened in the days he spent there. 

“I came back absolutely convinced I wanted to be a German historian,” he recalled.

After earning his degree from Notre Dame, Dr. Heineman went to Germany on a Fulbright grant and later received a full scholarship to study German history at Cornell University. Searching for a dissertation topic, Dr. Heineman was drawn to the story of Constantin Von Neurath, who had served as foreign secretary during the last years of the Weimar Republic and stayed on after Adolf Hitler came to power. He did extensive research on Neurath and later published a comprehensive biography, Hitler's First Foreign Minister: Constantin Freiherr von Neurath.

To Dr. Heineman, Neurath was an all-too-common example of “decent and honorable men” who served “the evil that was National Socialism.” The fact that Germany’s pre-World War II foreign policy did not change following the ascension of the Nazis was because Neurath and other professional diplomats who, although not party members, continued to run the Foreign Office, he said. 

“Born for another century, relying with too much trust upon an outmoded code of doing one’s duty,” wrote Dr. Heineman, “Neurath never successfully defined the nature of the challenge that faced him.”

Dr. Heineman was wary of drawing historical comparisons with current events. Asked by The Heights in 2003 about the parallels between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler, he replied that using “historical analogies and similes for similar situations while you are teaching history is to create a distortion of the past.”

“The circumstances that brought Hitler to power in the 1920s and ’30s are not the same ones that brought to power Saddam Hussein,” he added. “The chief function of a historian is to recreate history the way it actually was, and that is without the hindsight of the future.”

In 1997, Dr. Heineman was selected for a teaching award from the Boston College Phi Beta Kappa chapter. In an interview with Boston College Chronicle, he said he relished the honor because it had been given by students in recognition of his teaching – his “greatest love,” he called it.

"I'm very much aware that my function up there is to inform, partially to entertain, partially to inspire," he said, "but also to give them a model of analysis of how a reasonably intelligent person can look at data and make sense of it." 

Dr. Heineman is survived by his wife, Helen; his sons John, Michael, George and Joseph; 10 grandchildren; and siblings Margo Daniels, George, Charles, Ellen Colemire, Robert and Teesie Eck.

-Sean Smith / University Communications