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AAN obituary: Ludwig Adamec, the Afghanistan Encyclopedian (1924-2019)

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

Professor Ludwig W Adamec was the author of “The Who is Who of Afghanistan” – a book every student of Afghanistan will have encountered early in her or his career. Printed in 1975, and updated several times since then, it is nothing less than one of the standard works of Afghan studies. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig bought his copy for a lot of money second-hand in Kabul in 1983 – its provenance may have been murky; books were stolen from libraries in large numbers and sold in Kabul bookshops. Professor Emeritus Ludwig Adamec passed away in Arizona on 1 January 2019 at the age of 94.

Ludwig W Adamec (1924-2019). Photo: ToloNews

Ludwig W. Adamec, an Austrian-turned-American, belonged to the first generation of post World War II academics who turned their interests to Afghanistan, when still a country far from the focus of international reporting and even research. Visiting consistently over many decades, until the 1978 Saur coup and the 1979 Soviet intervention interrupted this opportunity, he became the meticulous encyclopedian of Afghanistan, informing generations of scholars with his work. He will remain remembered as a champion of Afghan studies.

Youth under fascism

Ludwig Adamec was born in the Austrian capital Vienna in 1924. He was not even a teenager when a proto-fascist, authoritarian regime took over in 1933, and was just 14 years old when Nazi Germany annexed his country in 1938. 

Later, in a 2010 testimonial titled “Die Würde der Arbeit“ (“The dignity of work”), Adamec wrote that, as a teenager, he developed the wish “to see the world but as a child of [the 1930s economic] depression there seemed to be no chance to fulfil this dream.” (1) He learned English anyway “just in case” and in what spare time he had left working as an apprentice toolmaker, he watched American movies and listened to Jazz. He became a ‘swing boy’, a member of the era’s nonconformist youth, who wore knee-long jackets, tight pants and long neckties with small knots. Adamec had a first run-in with a band of the militant Hitler youth, which – apart from some abuse because of his outfit – luckily remained non-violent. “Naturally I did not want to become a member,” he remarked later. 

Aged 16, Adamec became a full orphan and decided to leave the country. However, during his first attempt, a ‘friendly’ Red Cross lady, who had given him a bed in a town near the Swiss border, locked him in and handed him over to the Gestapo – Germany’s Secret State (political) Police. This started a long journey of stays in – and escapes from – jails, orphanages and ‘correction’ institutes. During the war, food was scarce and only available on the basis of coupons for those with an address and a registration. So, while on the run, Adamec depended on the help of friends. After another failed attempt to leave the country, this time through Hungary and Czechoslovakia, he was re-arrested and jailed in his home city, Vienna. 

In detention, Adamec witnessed other people, among them a man from the Roma minority, being sent to Auschwitz. He himself was sent in shackles to the Moringen juvenile concentration camp to do hard labour; first, in a salt mine and, later, in a quarry. In the camp, he was subjected to harsh treatment, beatings, humiliation and indoctrination lectures. His situation improved when he was sent to a metal workshop, given his vocational skills, but he still had to work 12-hour shifts, with only one meal of cabbage or pea soup per day. Apart from the lucky ones, who received food packages from relatives or the Red Cross, he wrote, “we were all undernourished.” 

Towards the end of the war, Adamec narrowly escaped being executed. While cleaning the guards’ barracks, he heard reports on an ‘enemy’ radio station of the capture of the first German cities by the allied forces. When he told his co-detainees about these reports, a guard overheard and reported him. Luckily, the man was a so-called ‘Volksdeutscher’ (Germans from the occupied areas, mainly in Eastern Europe) who spoke German badly, so Adamec was able to talk himself out of the allegations and was spared.

When the camps’ inhabitants were marched further away from the approaching frontline, Adamec managed to escape. “With someone else from Vienna, I marched through the front line at night, passing the American soldiers who did not stop us when I told them: ‘We are your friends, prisoners from a concentration camp.’”

This part of Adamec’s biography reminds us of the disturbingly long list of people who the Nazis considered “unworthy to live” – according to their antihuman terminology. Not only Jews, communists and political opponents were detained and killed in ‘labour’ and extermination camps, or experimented on in gruesome ‘research labs,’ but also the mentally ill, ‘gypsies’, homosexuals, criminals, the so-called ‘work-shy’ and ‘anti-social,’ as well as the non-conformist youth. Adamec was lucky to have survived this.

Ludwig Adamec as a young man. Photo: National Funds Austria.

Travelling to Afghanistan

After his escape and rescue, the fulfilment of Adamec’s dream to see the world started. Ludwig Adamec left Austria in 1950 and travelled extensively through Europa, Asia and Africa. In 1952, he came to Afghanistan for the first time. He stayed in Herat  – where a German-educated Afghan engineer had him hired for a job in the construction of a power plant built with assistance from the government of Germany – and Kabul for two years.In the 1960s and 1970s, he travelled to Afghanistan every year. 

In 1954, Adamec settled in the US and wrote his PhD thesis in Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of California in Los Angeles under the supervision of the prominent Austrian-American Middle East scholar, Gustave von Grunebaum. In 1967, he joined the University of Arizona at Tucson as a scholar in Middle Eastern studies. There, he taught the history of Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa from 500 AD to the present day, and Arabic and Persian, until his retirement in 2005. 

In the summer of 1967, as an assistant professor at Tucson, he was part of pioneering a ground-breaking “special studies seminar” at the University of Michigan. This aimed to give “public notice of scholarly efforts… on new methodological and geographical frontiers,” namely Afghanistan. As the University of Michigan’s George Grassmuck wrote in the foreword to the early Afghan studies handbook, titled “Afghanistan: Some New Approaches” (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1969), which the project resulted in:

Until well into the middle of the twentieth century the study of Afghanistan was heavily historical… [and] Afghanistan falls between the centers of South Asian study, Middle Eastern study, and Soviet and Central Asian studies; and because it remains in limbo, those who do research on the country, often approach it from the vantage point of their know references… The justification for [this] effort lies in the conviction that now is a good time for ordering the scattered varieties of new knowledge about this old land and long independent state, so that there can be broader and better comprehension, and so that the stock of knowledge about it will better serve those both inside and outside Afghanistan who must arrive at operative decisions or ‘non-decisions’. …

If there are to be new approaches to the study of this unique country, studies which produce conclusions based on consideration of various types of information, then it is necessary to pull together special capabilities and qualifications.

In 1975, he established a Near Eastern Center at the University, which he headed for the subsequent ten years. In 1986-87, he headed the Afghanistan Branch of Voice of America.

Adamec was lucky enough to witness Afghanistan under peaceful conditions, before its internal political tensions morphed into – still small-scale – armed conflict in 1975 and became internationalised in 1979. The fact that he saw Afghanistan in more peaceful times is reflected in the last paragraph of his 1967 monograph Afghanistan, 1900–1923: A Diplomatic History (Berkeley: University of California Press) where he wrote in full optimism:

As 1973 ended, Afghanistan was at peace with the world: relations with both [sic] neighbours were satisfactory, and the traditional policy of balancing powers appeared no longer to be relevant. The power of the British Empire that was Afghanistan’s traditional enemy had been reduced to the status of a secondary power. Germany was again a major partner of Afghanistan in the country’s development and modernization, and the Soviet Union and the United States had moved from the political field to the more positive area of competition for the goodwill of the Afghan people.

No one can blame Adamec for not foreseeing the ugly turn of events that Afghans were to experience within less than a decade. 

Before his last visit to Kabul in 2008, at the invitation of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs to participate in an international seminar on Mahmud Tarzi, he visited Afghanistan again only twice; once each in the time of Hafizullah Amin’s (1979) and of Najibullah’s government (1986-92), to collect material to update the Who’s Who.

Adamec’s oeuvre

Adamec’s Who’s Who of Afghanistan, which has a historical and a contemporary part, is the most well-known book from his oeuvre. He consulted many scholars in the East and West for this book, including in Afghanistan. In his introduction to its first edition in 1975, Adamec wrote: 

Research in Afghanistan studies has advanced tremendously during recent years with the appearance of numerous works in virtually every field of scholarly interest. However, many scholars, especially those interested in history and contemporary research, have keenly felt the need for a reference source which would provide concise biographical data.

Adamec said he knew it was not exhaustive, but that he had followed the advice of Afghan scholar and diplomat, Abdul Ghafur Rawan Farhadi, “that it is preferable to publish a work [relatively quickly] and spend twenty years improving it… than to spend twenty years in seclusion in an effort to attain a perfection which may never be reached.” And that is exactly what he did, for more than twenty years.

In 1997, the Who’s Whobecame the Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan, with a second, further expanded edition, in 2002. It contained a great deal of additional entries, mainly of the new political players who had emerged on the Afghan scene with the revolutions and resistance of the 1980s and 1990s: from Hafizullah Amin to Abdul Qadir Zabihullah, then the most famous Jamiati commander in Balkh province, the memory of him now overshadowed by the surviving Atta Muhammad. A detailed timeline and an impressive list of sources were added, including cabinet lists. The genealogies of important Afghan families, mainly linked to the now overthrown monarchy, were dropped.

The Who is Who was printed in the city of Graz, in his home country Austria. Graz was also the home of the Afghanistan Journal, a three-monthly publication of research articles in English, French and German, covering everything from pre-war flora and fauna and ethnology, to economy and politics. The journal started in 1974, with Ludwig W Adamec on its team of scientific advisors and authors (in cooperation with the German-language academic Arbeitsgemeinschaft [working group] Afghanistan). It was discontinued in 1982, when its editor wrote that the political changes after the 1978 ‘April revolution’ had made it impossible for western scholars to still travel to the country and present up-to-date research results. 

Much of Adamec’s other works also show him as Afghanistan’s foremost encyclopedian. These include his 1973/74 re-publication of the monumental, six volume Historical and political gazetteer of Afghanistan.This had originally been compiled in 1914 by the general staff of the government of British India, as a secret reference source representing all information on Afghanistan that had been collected up to that time. There is also a Historical Dictionary of Islam (2nd edition 2009) by Adamec and a number of entries by him in the online Encyclopedia Iranica, which cover his second field: Afghanistan’s foreign relations. Some of his books – such as his 1967 monograph Afghanistan, 1900–1923: A Diplomatic History (Berkeley: University of California Press) – were translated into Persian.

Of particular interest, but not very well known, is an article Adamec wrote in 1998 and which was reprinted in 2015 in Afghanistan: Identity, Society and Politics since 1980 (London and New York). This was a ‘best-of’ of articles published by the prestigious Afghanistan Info. This bulletin, over four decades, distributed news and reviews about Afghanistan from Neuchâtel in Switzerland but was discontinued in 2017. Both, book and bulletin, were edited by Micheline Centlivres-Demont (more here).

Adamec’s article dealt with one of the most contentious issues linked with Afghanistan, the question: whether there had been a chance of reuniting Afghanistan with the tribal areas now part of Pakistan, titled “Greater Afghanistan: A Missed Chance?” In it, Adamec reproduced a secret document – a legal advice sought by the British Foreign Office in case it was taken to an international tribunal for arbitration, dated 28 April 1949, ie after the partition of British-India – he had found in the archives of the Oriental and India Office Collection of the British Library. The document indicated a ‘yes’ to this question, saying this had been possible “if the tribes had placed themselves under the protection of Afghanistan or if, with the consent of the tribes, the tribal areas had been annexed by Afghanistan.” Adamec commented: “It seems that Afghan diplomacy missed the chance to regain the Pashtun tribal belt, but it was a very slim chance.”

Parts of Ludwig W Adamec’s oeuvre. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

Ludwig W Adamec is survived by his wife, Rahella Adamec, his son, Eric Adamec, his step-daughter, Helena Malikyar, his step-son, Mahmood Malikyar, and his grand-daughter and step-grandchildren (see source). Watch another obituary, in Pashto, by the Voice of America here.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert

(1) Adamec wrote the testimonial for the Austrian Republic’s National Fund for the Victims of National Socialism (see here). It was first published in: Renate S. Meissner im Auftrag des Nationalfonds der Republik Österreich für Opfer des Nationalsozialismus (Hg.): Erinnerungen. Lebensgeschichten von Opfern des Nationalsozialismus.Vienna, 2010, pp 234-41.


Austria fascism Herat Kabul Ludwig Adamec obituary Who is who in Afghanistan