David Hackett, Historian and Holocaust Expert, Dies at 80

As a teenager growing up in El Paso in the 1950s, David Hackett always looked forward to Sunday evenings with a German family, the Bornsteins.

Goulash and sauerbraten were served, his parents sipped schnapps with Dr. Bornstein and his wife, and David got to sit next to their daughter, Olga. But what he relished most about these evenings was their atmosphere, reminiscent of an intellectual salon.

David considered these soirees sophisticated. He considered them, in other words, European. And he liked it.

But at these gatherings he also started to grasp that Dr. Bornstein was a Holocaust survivor who had fled Europe in the 1940s. As he learned more, his fascination with world history grew and blossomed into a career.

He studied in Munich as a Fulbright scholar in the 1960s and acquired fluent German. He became a history professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he worked for more than 40 years, specializing in Germany and early-20th-century Europe. He taught courses such as “The History of the Weimar Republic” and “The Rise of the Nazi Party.”

In 1995, he published “The Buchenwald Report,” his translation of an exhaustive document made by German-speaking U.S. Army officers at the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after its liberation in 1945. The complete report, which was originally thought to have been lost after the war, contained interviews with prisoners and graphic details about the camp’s conditions and was partly intended for Germans, with the aim of countering Holocaust denial.

“I transcribed, collated and restored the organization of the original German-language text, contained on 400 yellowed, brittle and blurry sheets of carbon copy paper,” Professor Hackett wrote in a preface. The work was, he argued, “one of the most significant documentary discoveries from the World War II period.”

Professor Hackett died on Nov. 15 at a hospital in El Paso. He was 80. The cause was complications of Covid-19, his daughter Mary-Elizabeth Hackett said.

“I think it was the ultimate puzzle for him,” Ms. Hackett said of her father’s work. “How could a country that produced Goethe, Mozart and Beethoven also be responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust? He wanted to understand it because it was so incomprehensible.”

David Hackett was born David Andrew Welper on Jan. 29, 1940, in Rensselaer, Ind. His father, Andrew Dale Welper, an engineer, died of sepsis when David was 4. His mother, Margaret (Jenkins) Welper, a homemaker, married Clarence G. Hackett, a child psychologist, and the family eventually settled in El Paso. David graduated from Austin High School there in 1958.

After graduating from Earlham College in Indiana with a B.A. in history, he received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His Ph.D. dissertation, which ran 457 pages long, was titled “The Nazi Party in the Reichstag Election of 1930.”

As a Fulbright scholar, he lived in a tiny flat in Munich, where his strict landlady brought him crusty rolls each morning for breakfast. In his spare time, he attended the opera and skied in the Bavarian Alps.

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    When he returned to the United States and needed a new car, he opted for a green Volkswagen Beetle. Soon he was driving it to his first teaching job, at Pittsburg State University in Kansas.

    Professor Hackett joined the history department of the University of Texas at El Paso in 1971. He served a term as chairman in the late 1990s and retired in 2014. A few years later, Parkinson’s disease started to affect his mobility.

    In addition to his daughter Mary-Elizabeth, he is survived by his wife, Anne Hackett; another daughter, Caroline Hackett; a son, Michael; a brother, Don; his stepmother, Helen; two stepbrothers, James and John Macayel; two half sisters, Peggy Heinrichs and Susan Murray; a stepsister, Jennifer Eveler; and six grandchildren.

    Publishing “The Buchenwald Report” took its toll on Professor Hackett. He spent more than five years translating the document’s brittle yellow pages, working late into the night.

    “It was an emotional effort,” his wife said. “He found it so shockingly demoralizing to see what one fellow human could do to another. But he also realized its critical importance. To not let it be forgotten. That this history cannot be denied.”

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