Walter Pohl (born 27 December 1953) is an Austrian historian who is Professor of Auxiliary Sciences of History and Medieval History at the University of Vienna. He is a leading member of the Vienna School of History.

Walter Pohl
Walter Pohl Aufnahme von Monika Reimitz.jpg
Pohl in 2021
Born (1953-09-27) 27 September 1953 (age 69)
Vienna, Austria
Academic background
Alma mater
Doctoral advisorHerwig Wolfram
Academic work
DisciplineMedieval History
School or traditionVienna School
Main interestsLate Antiquity


Walter Pohl was born in Vienna, Austria, on 27 December 1953. He received his PhD at the University of Vienna in 1984 under the supervision of Herwig Wolfram with a thesis on the Pannonian Avars. He received his habilitation in medieval history at the University of Vienna in 1989.[1]

Pohl is a leading member of the European Science Foundation and the recipient of a large number of grants from the European Research Council. He was a key member of the Transformation of the Roman World project. In 2004, Pohl was elected Director of the Institute for Medieval Studies and Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In 2013, Pohl was elected a Member of Academia Europaea.[1]


Together with Wolfram, Pohl is a leading member of the Vienna School of History. However, he has a "much more fluid" approach on the issues than Wolfram or the latters mentor Reinhard Wenskus. Pohl's theories are "profoundly influenced" by sociology, the philosophy of language and critical theory.[2]

Pohl is well known for his theories about the Germanic peoples. He regards the category 'Germanic' as a primarily linguistic one, and doubts whether ethnicity is useful as a concept in analyzing the early Germanic peoples.[3][4] Pohl treats the Germani strictly as a Roman construct existing from the 1st century BC to the 6th century AD.[4] He does not consider language and culture as defining the Germani, and instead stresses fluidity, flexibility and ambiguity.[5] He partly follows the ancient, contemporary, definitions of the Germani which did not include the Goths, Vandals and Merovingian Franks.[5][6]


Pohls work has faced some opposition. Wolf Liebeschuetz called his work "extraordinarily one-sided" and a form of ideological "dogmatism" evincing "a closed mind", which he believed to be a reaction to Nazi racism.[7] Liebeschuetz agrees with Pohl's view that the early Germanic peoples did not form a racial unit, but he opposed the increasingly popular idea among modern scholars such as Pohl that the early Germanic peoples had no single shared set of institutions or values of their own, because this idea conflicts with Liebeschuetz's belief that these peoples should be considered a single entity that made a major contribution to the emergence of Medieval Europe.[8][4] John F. Drinkwater has suggested that Pohl's theories on Germanic peoples are motivated by a desire to accelerate European integration.[5]

On the other hand, members of the Toronto School of History, led by Walter Goffart, have accused Pohl of not going far enough in his denials of the existence of a single continuous Germanic ethnicity in late antiquity. They charge Pohl and his colleagues at Vienna with perpetuating older German nationalist scholarship in an improved form. According to them, some of Pohl's theories on Germanic peoples are still ultimately derived from nineteenth-century germanische Altertumskunde, via scholars such as Otto Höfler, and have not changed significantly since Reinhard Wenskus.[9] These charges have been denied by Pohl, who argues that ethnogenesis theory "has come a long way" since Wenskus, and that his own critique of Wenskus is in fact parallel to the critiques which are, in his view wrongly against him.[10] As evidence of how far the Vienna ethnogenesis paradigm has changed, he wrote:[11]

It was precisely Herwig Wolfram who underlined the Roman foundations of the Gothic kingdoms, contrary to the views held by Höfler, Schlesinger, and Wenskus. Patrick Geary’s ‘mantra’ that ‘the Germanic world was perhaps the greatest and most enduring creation of Roman political and military genius’ sketches a new paradigm that is contrary to all that Höfler ever believed.


Works in English translation. For a complete list see publications.

  • Die Awaren. Ein Steppenvolk in Mitteleuropa 567 – 822 n. Chr. (2002). English translation in conjunction with Cornell:
    • Pohl, Walter (2018). The Avars: A Steppe Empire in Central Europe, 567–822. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-1-5017-2940-9.
  • Pohl, Walter (1995). Die Welt der Babenberger: Schleier, Kreuz und Schwert. Graz: Verlag Styria. ISBN 978-3-222-12334-4.
  • Kingdoms of the Empire: The Integration of Barbarians in Late Antiquity (1997).
  • Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300–800 (1998).
  • The Transformation of Frontiers: From Late Antiquity to the Carolingians (2000).
  • Regna and Gentes: The Relationship Between Late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples and Kingdoms in the Transformation of the Roman World (2003).


  1. ^ a b "Walter Pohl". University of Vienna. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  2. ^ Halsall 2007, p. 16.
  3. ^ Maas 2001, p. 76. "Walter Pohl, Wolfram’s successor in Vienna, is influenced by ethnogenesis theory, but he does not accept all of Wenskus’s and Wolfram’s ideas... [H]e rejects the idea of a German(ic)Volk or people, comprised of various tribes, as anything other than a linguistic abstraction... He raises a question that would have shocked Wenskus..."
  4. ^ a b c Fruscione 2010.
  5. ^ a b c Drinkwater 2002, pp. 348–350. "Pohl's Germani are not all Germani, but those encountered by the Romans on the Rhine and the upper Danube from about the first century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. He does not consider, for example, the Goths or the Franks of the Merovingian kingdoms... [Pohl] is dismissive of language and culture as determinants... of ethnic identity. He stresses fluidity, flexibility and ambiguity... As I read P.'s book, I was frequently struck by the thought that this is the conviction of those urging faster and closer European integration... Perhaps attempting to convince people that the societies they belong to are no more than ephemeral historical artefacts may in the end prove to be just as misguided as praising them for their racial, social and institutional purity."
  6. ^ Kulikowski 2002, p. 70. "Pohl... explicitly excludes the Goths and Vandals from the Germani he is meant to be treating, before proceeding to retail their history at length."
  7. ^ Liebeschuetz 2015, p. xxi. "Walter Pohl, had a completely closed mind to any view that admitted that these northern gentes had genuine histories and traditions of their own. Not content to demolish the view that these tribes were essentially racial organizations, they relied on sociological theory that ethnicity is nothing more than a negotiated system of social classification... to deny these peoples any institutions and values of their own, and so to reduce their contribution to medieval Europe to nothing at all. Such dogmatism is easily explained as a reaction to Nazi racism but it is nevertheless extraordinarily one-sided..."
  8. ^ Liebeschuetz 2015, p. xxi.
  9. ^ Callander Murray 2002.
  10. ^ Pohl 2002, pp. 223–224.
  11. ^ Pohl 2002, p. 225.


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