Ralf Dahrendorf (Lord Dahrendorf), 1929-2009

Writing in 1997, Ralf Dahrendorf referred to his favourite countries: Britain and Germany, and the Europe – even the Europe – to which they both belong; his commitment to public service, to academia, to politics and to liberalism has been visible in all of them.

Born in Hamburg, that most anglophile of German cities, on 1 May 1929, Ralf Dahrendorf was brought up in Berlin. His father was the Social Democrat politician, Gustav Dahrendorf. Like his father, Ralf Dahrendorf was an active opponent of the Nazi regime and although still a schoolboy, was arrested and held in a camp in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder during the last year of the Second World War. Dahrendorf was later to comment that he had experienced the feeling of liberation twice in his life: once when the Red Army liberated Berlin and again when he and his father were smuggled out of that city by the British.

After the war Dahrendorf began an illustrious academic career as a philosopher and sociologist. He read classics and philosophy at the University of Hamburg, gaining a doctorate in 1952, before undertaking postgraduate studies in sociology at the London School of Economics between 1952 and 1954, acquiring a second doctorate in 1956. Returning to Germany, he became Professor of Sociology at the University of Hamburg in 1958, and subsequently held chairs at the University of Tbingen (1960-65) and at the University of Konstanz (1966-69), having been Vice-Chairman of the founding committee (1964-66).

Dahrendorf’s political career began in Germany in 1968, when he was elected as a Free Democrat member of the Baden-Wrttemberg Landtag (state parliament). The following year he was elected to the Bundestag, and became a member of Willy Brandt’s Social Democrat-Free Democrat coalition government as a junior foreign office minister dealing with European affairs under Foreign Secretary Walter Scheel. In 1970, however, Dahrendorf left domestic politics to become a member of the European Commission. Initially responsible for foreign trade and external relations, he took the research, science and education portfolio in 1973.

After his period as a European Commissioner, Dahrendorf’s career was primarily academic and intellectual, and shifted from Germany to Britain. He was Director of the London School of Economics between 1974 and 1984 (and indeed wrote the history of the School to mark its centenary in 1995). After a brief period in Germany, he returned to Britain in 1987, this time as Warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, a position he held until his retirement in 1997.

Despite his academic commitments, Dahrendorf was highly active in public life in Britain, serving inter alia on the Hansard Society’s Commission on Electoral Reform (1975-76), the Royal Commission on Legal Services (1976-79) and the Committee to Review the Functioning of Financial Institutions (1977-80). Awarded a knighthood in 1982, Dahrendorf took British citizenship in 1988, and in 1993 was created a life peer, styled Baron Dahrendorf of Clare Market in the City of Westminster. Although he had not previously been active in British party politics the new Lord Dahrendorf opted to take the Liberal Democrat whip in the House of Lords.

Once a member of the House, Dahrendorf was soon playing an active role in British Liberal politics. In 1995 he chaired the Commission on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion, the independent body set up by Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown. Indeed, one of the things he hoped to do on retiring from St. Antony’s was to become more active in the House of Lords, where he became a member of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation and in the same year was coopted on to the Select Committee on the European Communities, Sub-Committee A (economic and financial affairs, trade and external relations), as well as being a member of the All-Party London Group. Dahrendorf succeeded Baroness Seear as President of the Liberal Summer School and was an active participant in the 1998 School, the first under his presidency. He became a Patron of Liberal International (World Liberal Union) in 1987. Alongside his many other directorships and charitable activities – he was a Trustee of the Charities Aid Foundation – in 1997 he became a Director of the Bank Gesellschaft Berlin (UK) plc, while his interest in matters European was amply demonstrated by his place on the Board of Trustees of the Central European University in Budapest.

A Fellow of the British Academy, Honorary Fellow of the LSE, a Foreign Member of the (American) National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Irish Academy, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Polish Academy of Sciences, Dahrendorf had also by 1998 been awarded twenty-five honorary doctorates and had been decorated by seven countries, including the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz mit Stern und Schulterband of the German Federal Republic in 1974. Of his numerous writings, many translated into several languages, perhaps the most enduring is his sociological volume, Class and Class Conflict, published in 1959 (the original Soziale Klassen und Klassenkonflikt was published in 1957).

Dahrendorf had three daughters by his first wife. His second wife, Ellen, whom he married in 1980, was a scholar of Russian history.


Dr Julie Smith was a Teaching Fellow at the Centre of International Studies and Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge, at the time of writing this piece. Her publications include, A Sense of Liberty: The History of Liberal International 1947-1997 (1997) and Voice of the People: The European Parliament in the 1990s (1995).