Thomas Kovach received his B. A. in German from Columbia University and his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 1978. From 1978 to 1990 he was Assistant and then Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Utah, from 1990 to 1994 he chaired the German and Russian Department at the University of Alabama, and in 1994 he came to The University of Arizona to head the Department of German Studies, a position he held for ten years, until July 2004. He was promoted to full professor in 2003.
His research has long focused on the Austrian literature of the fin-de-siècle, with two books (A Companion to the Works of Hugo von Hofmannsthal , Hofmannsthal and Symbolism: Art and Life in the Work of a Modern Poet ) and several articles on Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and several articles on the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Since coming to the University of Arizona, though, his focus has shifted to the Jewish participation in Austrian and German literature, not just around 1900, but also from the beginnings of emancipation in the eighteenth century up to the present day. He has developed and taught two classes reflecting this new direction: one on German-Jewish Writers and another on the representation of Jews in German texts from 1500 to the present. He has published an article, based on a paper presented at a Madison, Wisconsin conference on German-Jewish identities in the US, on Alfred Uhry’s play The Last Night of Ballyhoo. In 1999, he gave a lecture as part of the UA Distinguished Lecture Series, co-sponsored by the College of Humanities and of Social and Behavioral Sciences, on the subject “Reflecting on Assimilation: The Jewish Experience in Germany, Austria, and the U.S.” His sermon on the subject of assimilation, delivered in 1998 at the U of A Hillel Kol Nidrei service, was published in the Arizona Jewish Post and in Jewish newspapers around the country. In the years since he has given a number of community outreach courses, sponsored by the UA Center for Judaic Studies, on topics related to German and Austrian Jewish culture.
He engages with this topic on both a professional and a personal level. Himself the son of Jewish emigrés from Central Europe in the late 1930s, he received no religious upbringing, but was deeply immersed in the musical and, later on, the literary culture of the world centered around Vienna, which his parents had left behind. And yet his love for this cultural heritage has always been challenged by the fact that it was this culture that was responsible for the death of his maternal grandfather and other family members in the Holocaust.
His most recent book, published in 2008, reflects this new direction in his research: a study of the postwar German writer Martin Walser and his struggles to deal with the Holocaust and the burden it represents for Germany and Germans today.