Professor Michael Butler: Scholar of German literature

Photo of Professor Michael Butler

The following article is reprinted by permission from the Independent, Obituaries, 11 February 2008.

Michael Butler had a long and distinguished career as Professor of Modern German Literature at Birmingham University. His engagement with his principal field of research, the literature of German-speaking Switzerland since 1945, began with a doctorate on Max Frisch, published as The Novels of Max Frisch (1975). This was followed in 1985 by The Plays of Max Frisch and a critical guide to Frisch's Andorra on which countless A-level students (and teachers) came to rely.

In 1991 he published (with Malcolm Pender) an edited volume of essays, Rejection and Emancipation: writing in German-speaking Switzerland 1945-1991 (1991). He then co-edited (with Pender and Joy Charnley) a volume with a wider, interdisciplinary sweep, The Making of Modern Switzerland, 1848-1998, to mark the 150th anniversary of the modern Swiss constitution. As a regular visitor to the Solothurn literary festival in Switzerland, Butler got to know many writers; their respect and affection for him is evident from the tabula gratulatoria for a Festschrift to mark his 65th birthday, The Writers' Morality (2000), which included contributions from Kurt Marti, Maja Beutler, Elsbeth Pulver and E.Y. Meyer.

His interests and intellectual sympathies ranged far beyond Switzerland, however, reaching back to the Enlightenment and forward to later defenders of its values. Gotthold Lessing and Georg Büchner were as alive to him as the work of contemporary writers. In addition to the edited volumes The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Böll: social conscience and literary achievement (1994) and The Challenge of German Culture (2000), he published essays on Molière, Lessing, J.M.R. Lenz, Nikolas Lenau, the poetry of German Expressionism, Ted Hughes, Sarah Kirsch, Günter Grass, Martin Walser, Gert Hofmann and Christa Wolf.

Having edited a small poetry magazine, Samphire, from 1968 to 1983, Butler maintained a lively interest in contemporary British writing. With his frequent reviews for the TLS, his lecture tours at the invitation of the German-British Society, and his work on behalf of the Centre for British Studies at the University of Bamberg, he aimed to keep open the intellectual channels between Britain and the Continent.

Michael Butler was born in Nottingham in 1935, the son of a policeman, whose fatherly example he remembered and followed with gratitude. He learned to be self-reliant early on and to deal with life's difficulties quietly and without fuss. Yet this attitude was paired with compassion and generous support for others: for friends, colleagues and the many undergraduates who, far from home, needed a kindly word and practical advice.
After High Pavement School in Nottingham he read Modern Languages at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and took a DipEd at Trinity College, Oxford. By his own confession he spent too many afternoons on the games field and too few in the library. When he became a tutor in his turn, undergraduates picked for a university team soon learned that they had a better chance of being excused a prose class if they approached Mike Butler rather than other, more unbending lecturers.

After leaving Oxford, he took up a teaching post at King's School, Worcester in 1958. It was during his three years here that he married Jean Griffith. He then spent a year teaching at a gymnasium in Profzheim, West Germany, before becoming Head of German at Ipswich School in 1962.

Having embarked on a PhD by private study, Butler was appointed Lecturer in German at Birmingham University in 1970. He was initially assistant to the diminutive but redoubtable Caroline Cunningham, teaching German to students in the faculties of Commerce, Engineering and Science. At 12.30 precisely on his first day, she took him straight to meet "the really important people here" – in Staff House bar. Cunningham's wisdom that people mattered more than anything else struck a chord with Butler's convivial and humane instincts that shaped his approach to everything.

Neither friend nor foe was left in doubt about his views. His forthrightness generally won him respect, particularly from the many junior colleagues he supported over the years. In public arenas, such as Faculty, Senate or Court, his Burkean rhetoric was applied to good effect, prompting one vice-chancellor to observe that every university needed a Mike Butler – but not more than one.

He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1980, Head of German Studies in 1984 (until 2001), and Professor of Modern German Literature in 1986. He became the first Head of the School of Modern Languages in 1988. A loyal member of the Conference of University Teachers of German, he was its vice-president, then president. Although his own forte was for subtle textual analysis, he favoured a wide diversity of approach to German Studies.

This open-mindedness led to his energetic support for an interdisciplinary Institute for German Studies at Birmingham, established in 1994 with joint funding from the German federal government and Birmingham University. As a professorial fellow of the IGS he became (with W.E. Paterson) joint general editor of the Palgrave/Macmillan series "New Perspectives in German Studies", exemplary for its wide range of studies by political scientists, economists, and literary historians.

Butler was given an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University as well as the German Order of Merit (both 1999). From 1997 to 2005 he was Public Orator at Birmingham University. This was a role he relished, as much for the opportunity to meet interesting honorary graduates, as for the theatricality of the occasion, when he would forsake his usual garb of well-worn tweed jacket or jumper to transform himself (rather like E.T.A. Hoffmann's Archivarius Lindhorst) into a tall, resplendent figure in billowing red robes, white bow-tie, and the tasselled cap that he would doff with such grave panache that the irony was unmistakeable to all.

He died just 10 days after what was to be his last class on German lyric poetry at Birmingham University. Having made Brecht's self-definition ("Describe me as a teacher") his own, he was determined to practise his vocation to the end.

Ronald Speirs

Michael Gregory Butler, German scholar and teacher: born Nottingham 1 November 1935; Head of German, Ipswich School 1962-70; Lecturer in German, Birmingham University 1970-80, Senior Lecturer 1980-86, Head, Department of German Studies 1984-2001, Professor of Modern German Literature 1986-2003 (Emeritus), Head, School of Modern Languages 1988-93, Professorial Fellow, Institute for German Studies 1997-2007; married 1960 Jean Mary Griffith (one son, one daughter); died Redditch, Worcestershire 25 November 2007.