This is the 29th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.
“If I had accepted the deck of cards that M-A dealt me, I don’t think much would have happened in my life,” said Donald Abenheim ‘71, a historian of war and politics in the U.S., Europe, and Germany.
Over the course of his career, Abenheim has worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense, written several books, organized seminars at North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters across Eastern Europe, studied as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and taught European Military History at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He has educated hundreds of military graduate students, including fighter pilots, European generals, and Admiral Bill McRaven, who went on to lead the raid on Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
“As a child, I was a history buff, but I didn’t really have an outlet for it,” Abenheim remembered. “I had to struggle to get into the advanced U.S. history class. I had been tracked into low-level courses at the beginning of middle school, and that followed me around. My advisor essentially told me I wasn’t smart enough to learn German, which is funny because now I write books in German. At M-A, I got good grades in the subjects I liked, and in the ones I didn’t like, I didn’t get good grades.”
The first of M-A’s race riots took place in 1967, a few weeks into Abenheim’s freshman year. “It was a very violent time,” Abenheim remembered. “The school had sections in it that were no-go zones. I couldn’t go to the bathroom because I’d get beaten up. I was targeted for being Jewish, and beaten up in math class.”
“The transition from childhood to teen years to adulthood is difficult, and it was particularly difficult for me because of the violence, the hippies, the race wars, and the Vietnam and Cold Wars,” he continued.
“The world was on the verge of nuclear war, and there were sheriffs practically occupying our school. Those fighting for racial justice were right, but all the violence was very unpleasant. The hippies were a dead end. The social ideal was under attack, all tradition was under attack, and I had my doubts about that. I thought it didn’t make much sense.”
“I did have a good P.E. coach, though: Coach Ben Parks,” Abenheim said. “He did something I learned in the army, which was that you’re responsible for bringing everyone along—not just the ones you like and who are pretty and alpha males or females, but everyone. I wasn’t athletic at all, and he was very good about that. I had a very pleasant rapport with him and he had a gift with people, which I admired.”
When he graduated from M-A, Abenheim joined the Republican party—“Partially, I think, as a result of the chaos of my high school experience,” he reflected. “I was a true conservative, and I remained Republican for decades—until the tragedy of Trump, when my party tried to destroy the core, vital institutions of this country.”
After M-A, Abenheim attended Cañada College. “Cañada was just a wonderful experience,” he said. “There, I was able to mature, focus, and gain altitude.”
“Cañada was very college-prep focused, and it was great—really a blessing,” he continued. “I had a fabulous, old-fashioned German teacher, and worked harder there than ever before, spending upwards of five hours a day learning German.”
“I decided that I wanted to specialize in German military history,” he explained. “I wanted to understand Nazism, because I was not content with the explanations given to me.”
After two years at Cañada, Abenheim transferred to Stanford University, where he earned a B.A. in European History with a concentration in German Studies. “I was exposed to very fine scholars at Stanford who set an example of not only writing books and being a good teacher, but also working in the government and doing the things you studied—being a military diplomat, or a war strategist,” he said.
Abenheim then worked a short stint as a museum curator for the Army Museum in the presidio of San Francisco. “I love military antiques,” he explained. “I’ve always felt that we need to hold on to and study objects from the past.”
He went on to earn an M.A. from San Jose State University for a thesis about German espionage in California and the U.S. during World War I. “At San Jose State, I studied with a wonderful man who taught me how to do primary source research—how to approach topics where there’s no secondary literature, no books or encyclopedias to read in the early research stages,” he explained.
Abenheim worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for a year as an archivist focusing on Germany in the 20th century. “There, I learned how to deal with archival papers, how to take an old paper, and decipher what it means—that is a craft and an art,” he explained.
“Then, I continued studying German history in a PhD program at UC Berkeley, where I met many smart peers,” Abenheim continued. “However, in these types of environments, there is also a lot of pressure—it’s ‘publish or perish’ for the professors, and the students are often left to their own devices. After a year, I decided that particular program just wasn’t a good fit for me, so I left.”
In 1979, Abenheim returned to Stanford, where he earned his PhD in European History. “Out of my PhD program, I got a job in the U.S. Army Europe as a foreign area officer—a liaison to the West German army,” he said. “There are people in the American military who specialize in either the enemy or our allies, and I specialized more in our allies, so I got to work inside the West German army.”
“Being a Jew around German soldiers was not easy. It was always a challenge, but it was one I lived, and enjoyed, and one which I am very proud of. They accepted me as one of them, and I spent much of my life working with them, which I think shows how far we had—and have—come” he added.
In the U.S. Army Europe, Abenheim worked as a strategist under senior generals. “I had a fight with one general who wanted me to be his speechwriter,” he remembered. “He was crazy. He broke pencils and fired colonels, and he liked me because he knew I was smart, but he was a monster—he was kind of like Trump, in his bad traits.”
In 1985, Abenheim returned to the U.S. and got a job as an Associate Professor of European Military History at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, where he taught courses like “The History of Modern Europe,” “War and Culture in Europe,” “Security and Politics in Europe and North America,” and “US-European Relations” until his retirement in 2021.
“I had good teachers over the years who were very tough on me, so in turn, I was very tough on my students,” he said. “A lot of them, especially young men, if you challenged them and said, ‘Read the goddamn book, don’t read the Wikipedia article, but read the whole book,’ they would balk. Ultimately, they did the work, but I had to be very hard on them. Teaching people how to write for the high level of strategy and policy is a very aggressive skill, and it takes a lot of patience. But I did it, and I found it very rewarding.”
Many of Abenheim’s students were retired fighter pilots transitioning to new careers. He explained, “When fighter pilots hit around age 40, they can’t be fighter pilots anymore, because they physically can’t take it. So, part of my job was to take those pilots and make them into soldier diplomats, strategists, people who would do these higher aspects of foreign policy and strategy, and that takes a lot of preparation. The German word is bildung—education, formation. An education is a project of a lifetime.”
Abenheim’s advice to current M-A students:
Listen to people who disagree with you.“The public mind of today operates through a friend-enemy relationship. There is ‘us,’ and there is ‘them’—’them’ is the opponent—and there is too much of this relationship right now. Our first reaction to everything is to reach for these categories, and yes, the friend-enemy relationship exists, but it is not the very first tool we should grab when we are confronted with difficult ideas or questions.”
Take your education seriously. “Develop yourself through your education—through the classic study of history, philosophy, politics, and great books. I believe in the humanities, and I believe that each one of us has ethical, political, and social responsibilities. There are 500 great books and 200 great questions, and not to justify racism or white supremacy, no! To answer: What is virtue? Why is war? What is nationalism? Why is Putin killing these people? Those were the big questions, and they are still the big questions, and education allows you to get at them.”
Don’t be manipulated. “Set goals, be patient, and don’t allow other people to divert or manipulate you, because they will try. If you have a lot going for you, people will be jealous, and they will try to stop you. Much of what happens today is other people stopping each other. But when they try to stop you, you should either smash them directly or go around them. Also, it is important to be skeptical. Not cynical, but skeptical. Education is a way to have skepticism and to have freedom. In many respects, people today are not free. When I was young, we were able to walk through the Stanford Dish area off the path to look at the coyotes and natural creatures. When I drive down Atherton Avenue today, every 500 feet it says, ‘You’re speeding!’ Maybe I drive too fast, but this area has changed—and not for the better. And I’m not a libertarian. At all. My wife grew up in Czechoslovakia in a totalitarian society, so she’s very alert to oppression, propaganda, bullshit, and when people start trying to brainwash you and control you. With the digital thing, the big data, the ‘likes,’ the people spying on you—it’s all bad.”
Live a life focused on the needs of others. “Part of being a good citizen is respecting the freedom and rights of other people. To me, satisfaction comes from helping other people. Kant gave us the categorical imperative—that thoughts and deeds should merit emulation. A big pile of money, or teenage beauty, or Tik-Toks with hundreds of thousands of followers hardly constitute the most desirable goals. Much of modern American society is oriented towards the concept of oneself, but often, you are better suited to think about the ways that you can serve your country and your society instead of the other way around.
On his favorite books, Abenheim said, “I like Reflections on World History by Jacob Burckhardt, who wrote about cultural history and the Renaissance, On War by Carl von Clausewitz, and, of course, my own books!”
“I always felt that I had a duty to others, and I did that in my own way—by serving in the government, by writing, by working as a teacher in a very difficult field of service,” Abenheim added. “You, the young people of today, have that same duty to help others, and you must do it in your own way. You must serve, and you must make the people around you—your communities, your schools, and your countries—better.”
Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. As Maria Popova once wrote, “There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.” There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]