People - 19.12.2014 - 00:00 

In memoriam Karl Heinz Burmeister

On the occasion of the University’s centenary, Prof. Dr. Dr. Karl Heinz Burmeister presented it with its history in the form of the book "Geschichte der Universität St.Gallen". Last Friday, he died. Recollections of the HSG professor by his successor Lukas Gschwend, Dean of the Law School.


18 December 2014. On Friday, 12 December 2014, Karl Heinz Burmeister died after a short severe illness in Lindau on Lake Constance at the age of 79. From 1995 until his retirement in 2002, he worked as Professor of the General History of European and Swiss Law at the University of St.Gallen.

Humanist educational ideal

Born in Krefeld as the son of a medical doctor, Karl Heinz Burmeister grew up in the Rhineland and in Bregenz – his mother hailed from the Vorarlberg – where he attended school. After reading history at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, he obtained his Doctor's degree with a biographical study of the early modern geographer and Hebraist Sebastian Münster (1488-1552). Committed to the latter's humanist educational ideal, Burmeister then continued his studies at the universities of Cologne, Geneva, Vienna and Innsbruck, where he studied law.

This scholastic life only came to a temporary halt in Tübingen, after he met the Professor of the History of Law, German Law and Ecclesiastical Law at the Law Faculty of the university, Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Elsener, an academic teacher from Rapperswil who was to become his role model. Thus he obtained a second Doctor's degree in 1969, this time in Law, with a thesis on "Die Vorarlberger Landesbräuche und ihr Standort in der Weistumsforschung" [The local customs of the Vorarlberg and their position in the research into the collection of judicial sentences serving as precedents].  

History of Law in Tübingen

Inspired by the Tübingen environment, he predominantly devoted his future work to the History of Law, which he linked closely to regional history on the basis of detailed local sources but which he also succeeded in presenting as a legal history of education and science in a European context. By now he had been discovered by Zurich's Professor of the History of Law and Criminal Law, Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Karl Siegfried Bader, as a rising star on the academic firmament, he habilitated at the University of Zurich in 1974 with a study on "Das Studium der Rechte im Zeitalter des Humanismus im deutschen Rechtsbereich" [Studying law in the age of humanism in the area where German law was applicable]. Burmeister thereupon taught at the Universities of Zurich and Innsbruck.

In Summer Semester 1976, he substituted as a Professor of Modern History at Saarland University. From 1975, his main occupation was that of the Director of the Landesarchiv Vorarlberg in Bregenz. At the same time as his appointment as Associ-ate Professor of the History of Swiss and German Law at the University of Zurich, the title of Hofrat was conferred on Burmeister in his capacity as Land Archivist. On 1 January 1995, he was appointed Professor of the General History of European and Swiss Law at the University of St.Gallen with a workload of 50 per cent, which ena-bled Burmeister to continue to work at the "historical coalface" in the archive.

800 publications to his credit

His research cannot be viewed at a glance since he had some 800 publications to his credit. His work ranges from source editions, for instance about the history of Vorarlberg, to extensive research into the regional history of the greater Lake Constance area. A further focus of his research was the history of humanism and legal science in Europe. However, Burmeister also dealt with the history of human rights for many years, notably with the marginalisation and protection of minorities in history. Thus he wrote numerous contributions about the legal, economic and social position of Jews.

Legal archaeology and legal ethnology were also areas in which he was competent. Besides his highly productive work on publications, Burmeister – almost unbe-knownst to many – conducted research into Ancient Ethiopia and passionately collected literature and sources in that field. What is unforgettable for the University is Burmeister's festschrift, which he presented to the University on the occasion of its centenary and which will remain the standard work for decades. He won various awards for his research accomplishments. Thus he was awarded the Austrian medal of honour for science and art, the "Ehrenkreuz für Kunst und Wissenschaft 1. Klasse", in 1996.

30 years of teaching

Karl Heinz Burmeister will remain unforgettable as an academic teacher since he knew how to captivate students of Law and Humanities with his incomparable way of teaching at various universities for almost thirty years. His demeanour was always modest, the subjects he taught were differentiated and well balanced, frequently spiced with subtle humour – which to understand required a fair deal of basic knowledge, however.

In interpersonal relationships he was even-tempered and unflappable. Those who knew him better, however, also knew that his silence was sometimes not due to politeness but could also be a token of disapproval. In Karl Heinz Burmeister, we have lost not only a great and genuine scholar but also an extremely sensitive colleague and human being.

Discover our special topics