Jahn, Karl

Karl Jahn (March 26, 1906 — November 07, 1985)



KARL JAHN, 1906-1985

Few people have been linked so intimately with the PIAC as Karl Jahn. He was there in Munich, in 1957, when our Conference was born; three times he was our President (in Oosterbeek, Holland in 1964, in Vienna in 1972, and again in 1980) , and in 1975 he was honored with the Indiana University Prize for Altaic Studies, the so-called PIAC gold-medal. He came to most of our meetings, took an active part in them, enjoyed their friendly atmosphere, and, as can be seen from the foregoing, was repeatedly ready to shoulder the burden incumbent upon the host of the Conference. He liked to be a guest, but he also liked to be a gracious host. This was all the more remarkable because, let us face it, Karl was anything but a good organizer, and if the meetings he presided over turned out to be successful, this was due to his ability to recruit very capable, generous young people to do the work for him. He was also able to cajole the appropriate authorities, including the Mayor of Vienna, to work for our PIAC.

Curiously enough, Karl Jahn was anything but a conventional “Altaist”; although he knew Turkish, his basic languages were Persian and Arabic and his education was that of a Near Eastern specialist. But he became inordinately fond of Central Asian history, and through his work on Rashid al-Din (which spanned his whole life), and the creation and editing for thirty years of the Central Asiatic Journal, he has brought an important contribution to its study.

I first met him in 1954 in Cambridge at the 23rd International Congress of Orientalists; then we met again in Munich in 1957 where the PIAC was founded; but I really got to know and like him the following year at our first meeting in Mainz. One evening the small band of those who gathered at the friendly Akademie der Wissenschaften had dinner on a terrace overlooking the Rhine. The wine was good and in ample supply, the conversation appropriately animated, and, when the time came to drive home, some of us, including Karl Jahn, piled into a Volkswagen bus. He then began to teil jokes — an exercise I do not always relish — but his stories were irresistible, they came, one after the other in a seemingly unending stream, most of them told with a strong Viennese accent, and we nearly burst with laughter. We only stopped when, with a mighty jerk, the bus came to a sudden halt, perhaps barely one meter away from a stone wall. Our driver, I cannot remember who he was, was himself so busily laughing that he drove the bus into a narrow cul-de-sac whence he could extricate himself only by backing out through the narrow passage which he did not remember ever having entered.

Karl and I recalled the incident when we last met, in 1981 at the PIAC’s 24th meeting in Jerusalem. He could still tell jokes but, clearly, much of the fire had gone.

He enjoyed his stay in Jerusalem, though, for political reasons which I could never quite understand, he had vowed not to come. He vaguely resented the fact that colleagues from Socialist countries would probably not be able to come. At an earlier PIAC he had vowed to abstain because he did expect colleagues from Socialist countries to come….

Political consistency was not his forte. He really belonged to the traditional, pre-1918 Kulturkreis Mitteleuropa, and the ideologies that appeared since then had no appeal for him. To the best of my knowledge, he has never visited the USA, though of course I invited him to come. The American way of life, as he knew it from the distance, did not appeal to him. I am reasonably certain that had he known it from close quarters — he still would not have liked it.

Born in Brno (which Jahn always called Brünn) in Moravia on March 26, 1906, Karl Jahn was a product of that (we only now appreciate how happy) conglomerate called Austria-Hungary. He attended both the German and the Czech universities of Prague but — taking full advantage of the facilities offered by the German-speaking universities –he studied also in Leipzig, Berlin, and Vienna. From 1948 to his early retirement in 1969 he taught at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht where he formed a remarkable group of young people — some of them genuine “Altaists”. Even by orientalists’ Standards he was remarkably multilingual; besides Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, he spoke Czech, Dutch, French, Italian, and Russian fluently. In our conversations he and I of course always spoke German, though in our correspondence he used German and I English. He was a good, reliable letter-writer, until the last years when health reasons prevented him from writing.

From 1969 to 1983 Jahn lived in his beloved Vienna.

He lived there in modest circumstances but, as far as I know, contented. No doubt, he had his personal problems and in April 1977, referring to his decision not to attend the PIAC in Leiden he confessed: “Nun mein Interesse [in der PIAC] besteht unverändert — natürlich — aber ich bin schon etwas des Treibens müde, es ist alles schon so weit und der Veränderungen mehr als genug!”

Karl Jahn was not what one could call a hard worker.

I do not know how much time he spent preparing for his teaching, nor do I know how good his lectures at the university were. It must remain the task of his pupils to comment on this aspect of his activity. His public lectures were carefully prepared, enjoyable presentations.

His style in German was Austrian and many aspects of his life and work cannot be understood without considering his deep attachment to Vienna and to the culture which, in Karl’s somewhat idealized picture, this city represented.

But, perhaps most of all, he enjoyed the Gemütlichkeit Vienna could offer. On a few occasions when I could meet him there, he guided me to some small Heuriger where he would drink in moderation but with great gusto the local wine, while deploring my abstemiousness on which, for over a quarter of a Century, he never failed to comment. He liked feminine Company, so we were,seldom alone, but he somehow always spoke as if we were and I listened to him with delight. Every so often in the course of the evening he would remark “Du hast’s ja leicht, Du bist jung”, a Statement of only relative accuracy, justified on the grounds that in the course of our friendship I have obstinately remained ten years his junior.

His chapter on Timur, prepared for the Cambridge History of Inner Asia of which I am the editor and which is now with the Printers, may be the last of his publications.

I know not what other finished manuscripts he may have left behind. But these reminiscences about Karl Jahn were not meant to serve as an obituary in the strict sense of the word, they were rather a one-sided conversation about a departed friend, a true, generous supporter of the PIAC.

May he rest in peace!

[I am very much indebted to Professor Ilse Laude-Cirtautas for graciously sending me the manuscript of an obituary to appear in the Central Asiatic Journal. It provided me with some data to which I had no other access.]

Denis Sinor

(Source: Permanent International Altaistic Conference Newsletter No. 16, August 1986, pp. 3–5)

Ilse Laude-Cirtautas also published an obituary:

Laude-Cirtautas, Ilse. “Karl Jahn (1906-1985).” Central Asiatic Journal 30, no. 1/2 (1986): 1–6. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41927517.