Professor Eric Stein, 'Europe's Prophet,' dies at 98

Eminent legal scholar Eric Stein, who first came to the University of Michigan Law School as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and later helped his adopted country draft rules that still govern the United Nations, has died in Ann Arbor.

His death came peacefully after a long illness at 98.

The passing of a man universally acknowledged as the father of legal scholarship on the European Union means the loss of two bridges in the legal world – one spanning the Atlantic, and the other spanning the pre- and post-World War II eras.

Those who knew Professor Stein well acknowledged the loss of a brilliant scholar who was also among the most gracious people they knew.

“Eric Stein’s life embodied everything civilized society strives for,” said Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a former president of the University of Michigan and dean of its law school. “He worked ceaselessly for laws and policies whose purpose and function would be to unite peoples and nations.”

He applied that spirit in his personal and professional life, as well, Bollinger said.

“He was sensitive and cultured. Nothing was separate and discreet with Eric; it was all part of a whole and integrated existence,”

Bollinger said. “And that made him the most natural and best mentor and friend you could ever have.”

Professor Stein’s connection to the University of Michigan Law School, where he was the Hessel E. Yntema Professor of Law

Emeritus, began long before he joined its faculty in 1955. He was born in 1913 in Holice, Bohemia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Sikmund and Hermina (Zalud) Stein. By 1939 Professor Stein was already a young lawyer who had trained at Prague’s prestigious Charles University.

He was also a Jew. And with war in Europe looming, he found himself serving in the Czechoslovakian army. Hitler’s occupation came suddenly; in an interview Professor Stein described awakening in his barracks one morning and seeing German armored personnel carriers parked in the courtyard.

By 1940 he was in Naples, where he obtained a U.S. visa in what he described as “an extraordinary set of circumstances.” An embassy staffer had stepped completely beyond his authority to issue Stein a student visa. The risk quickly turned to reward for Stein’s new country; after earning an American JD at the University of Michigan Law School, Stein joined the U.S. Army and trained as an intelligence officer. He returned to Italy in uniform and helped design the temporary Allied military government. He even found himself unexpectedly drafting an abdication decree for the King of Italy. (The king ultimately decided to use a decree drafted by his own staff, possibly, Stein suspected, because of Stein’s faulty Italian.)

He also learned in Italy that only two of his close relatives had survived the war. His parents and a sister died in Nazi concentration camps.

Professor Stein’s service earned him a Bronze Star and the Order of the Italian Crown, Italian Military Cross. With the war over, he went to work for the U.S. Department of State, which assigned him to its new United Nations bureau. Armed only with the UN Charter – its ink barely dry – Stein and others set to work organizing the General Assembly, the Security Council, and other institutions still at work today.

Stein stumbled across what would become the center of his life’s work, in international and comparative law, while he was still with the State Department in the early 1950s. Europe’s Coal and Steel Community represented the marriage of the strategic industries of West Germany and Italy, along with the France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg – a group of nations whose members had been on opposite sides of the recent European World War II death struggle. Stein began seeing State Department cables about the new organization, which turned out to be the prototype for what later became the European Community, and ultimately today’s European Union. Stein became fascinated by the group’s potential to prevent catastrophes like World War II, even as he was becoming increasingly disappointed with the UN’s obvious Cold War-era shortcomings.

During this period an Army buddy from his time in Italy introduced him to Virginia Rhine, who was studying the Soviet Union for the State Department’s Office of Research. A trailblazing Arkansas native, Rhine first came to Washington as a Forest Service intern, then worked for the Food Distribution Administration and the Bureau of Economic Warfare. When peace came she enrolled in Columbia University’s newly formed Russian Institute and earned a graduate degree.

She said she was immediately drawn to “this rather exotic character.”

“I was simply attracted to him for his intelligence, his kindness, and his sense of humor,” Mrs. Stein said. “He has a wonderful sense of humor.”

The two married in 1955, and Professor Stein earned a steadfast soulmate – and a top-notch editor who helped prepare everything he wrote for publication.

The same year, after a chance meeting with the dean of the University of Michigan Law School, Professor Stein returned to Ann Arbor as a professor of law. But as a legal scholar, it wasn’t the UN that Stein wanted to study. Nor was it another fledgling international institution, the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose charter he had helped draft while with the State Department. It was the European Coal and Steel Community. Stein seemed to sense that hopes for peace in his battered native continent might well hinge on the success – and expansion – of such a community.

European scholars began streaming to the small Mid-western city of Ann Arbor to study with Professor Stein the legal underpinnings of the nascent European Community. Many of those scholars, like Bruno Simma who is currently a justice of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, returned to Europe and achieved leadership positions, spreading Professor Stein’s influence even further.
“Eric was one of the few people you meet in life who help you believe in the good in human beings,” said Justice Simma, who now teaches courses himself at the University of Michigan Law School. “Here is a man who, having barely escaped the Holocaust … turned into a father figure and made Ann Arbor a home for many German scholars. … I consider myself immensely fortunate to have caught his attention 40 years ago.”

Some who were influenced by Professor Stein, such as Professor Jose Alvarez of New York University School of Law, became leading scholars of international law in their own right.

“Of course, he helped to establish the field of European Community law,” Professor Alvarez said. “But he also shaped the careers of many of today’s leading lights.”

By 1960 Professor Stein had co-authored with Thomas Nicholson the first book on the Community, which correctly predicted that the organization could morph over time into a constitutional pan-European government. He also wrote 10 other scholarly books and dozens of articles.

“Eric taught the first course and wrote the first book on what we would now call European Union law,” said Professor Daniel Halberstam, who holds the endowed professorship created to honor Professor Stein at the University of Michigan Law School. “He also was the first to make people see the constitutional dimension of European integration. And he did all this with a wonderful gift for writing and a compelling spirit of decency.”

Looking back at Professor Stein’s work, a leading German newspaper recently proclaimed him “Europe’s Prophet.”

His remarkable career didn’t slow as Stein aged and the century waned. After the collapse of Communism, he helped draft a proposed constitution for a Czecho-Slovak Republic, then consulted on the Czech Republic's constitution after the two halves of his birth country finally parted. At age 84, he published the prize-winning book Czecho/Slovakia: Ethnic Conflict, Constitutional Fissure, Negotiated Breakup, which provided the first in-depth study of the separation. In 2001, Czech President Vaclav Havel personally presented Professor Stein with the Medal of Merit First Degree for his academic and practical achievements. Over the next few years, Stein received prestigious lifetime achievement awards in every discipline he had touched: from the American Society of Comparative Law in 2004, from the European Union Studies Association in 2005, and this year from the American Society of International Law.

“His career spanned the vital moments of the 20th Century,” said New York University Law professor and renowned expert on European integration Joseph Weiler. “As a human being, his life, alongside his wife Virginia, was rich and marked by an uncommon generosity of spirit and endless curiosity and energy.”

Through it all, his students and those who knew him adored him. He placed many in internships around the world, long before such arrangements became commonplace. In return, many streamed back to Ann Arbor from Europe and Asia in recent months to say goodbye.

“Eric Stein was far more than a mentor to me and many other international lawyers of my generation,” Professor Alvarez said. “He was the embodiment of all that any academic – any human being – could aspire to be.”

Professor Stein is survived by his wife of 56 years, Virginia Stein; his grandniece Karen Weiner of New York City; and cousins in Prague and the United States. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Eric and Virginia Stein Fund for International and Comparative Law at the University of Michigan Law School, 625 S. State St., Ann Arbor MI 48109, or to Arbor Hospice, 2366 Oak Valley Drive, Ann Arbor MI 48103. A memorial gathering will be held at the Law School on a date to be determined.