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Friedrich Katz (1927 -2010) D.E.P.

17 October 2010

Friedrich Katz was one of the innumerable humans who, owing his life to Mexico’s unprecedented, heroic (and too little known) effort to provide a haven for those persecuted  by the Nazis, more than repaid his debt to the nation that saved him from the concentration camps.


Photo: University of Chicago


Born in Vienna in 1927,  the Katz family — then living in France — as Jews faced certain extermination in 1940, when they attempted to find refuge in the United States.  Friedrich’s father, however, was a Communist (and a veteran of the Spanish Republic’s International Brigade) which meant the family could not be granted permanent residency, and risked deportation to Austria.  The Katz’ were granted asylum by Lázaro Cárdenas both as victims of the Nazis and as Spanish Republicans.

Friedrich attended the prestigious (and still extant) Liceo Franco-Mexicano and began his studies at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia during the “War Against Nazi-Fascism”.  His own role, as a minor witness to Mexico’s role in that struggle, was the beginning of a life-long career as one of Mexico’s most distinguished historians.

Katz is credited with almost single-handedly changing the world’s understanding of the Revolution, writing an authoritative biography of Pancho Villa as well as extensive studies of Emiliano Zapata, not as a “bandits” or even a rogue military geniuses, but as a 20th century ideological warriors and social revolutionaries, comparable to Mao,  Lenin or Fidel Castro… but lacking the luxury of a pre-existing political framework on which to build their movements.

In addition to his “The Life and Times of Pancho Villa” (and several lesser books on the Centaur of the North), he wrote extensively about foreign diplomatic and military maneuvers  during the Revolution (Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States and the Mexican Revolution), the Porfiriate, the Aztecs and other Mexican subjects during his academic career at Humbolt University in what was at the time East Berlin, and later at the University of Chicago and Colombia University.  He also taught at universities in Mexico and Texas.

Never having become a Mexican citizen, the most his country could do for him was award him the Orden del Aguila Azteca — the highest honor Mexico can bestow on a foreigner — in 1988.  He died Saturday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the age of 83.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Benjamin Ross permalink
    14 April 2012 4:04 pm

    I was very, very touched by your wonderfull obituary for my grandfather, friend, and life long mentor, Friedrich. Surfing the internet today, as I sometimes do when I realize just how much I miss him, I came across your obituary for him. I can honestly say that none other has done him or his work as much justice as yours. For a fact, I can say nothing made him happier in life than to serve the proud people of Mexico. Friedrich would have been more moved by your truly splendid obituary than perhaps anyother I know.

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