A professor’s passion

David Wetzel's climb to the top


As one careens through the corridors of Dwinelle Hall on a languid summer day, an impassioned voice speaks of a bygone era with ferocious energy.

The voice — at once assertive and fascinating, commanding attention — belongs to professor of history David Wetzel, who stalks the front of a classroom while discussing the First World War, often at high volume and a blistering pace.

Eschewing point-by-point notes, Wetzel says he rehearses his lectures at his San Francisco home as an actor would go over scenes.

“I think learning should be fun,” he said. “Telling history as a narrative and a drama — in technicolor — gives students an interest in the subject that they otherwise might not have.”

Wetzel, who says his interest in history stems “from the time I can remember walking and breathing,” has taught at UC Berkeley since 2003, developing a unique and dynamic style combining lecture and performance.

Junior Shannon Rieger said that Wetzel’s infectious enthusiasm rubs off on his students in a unique way.

“He’s so passionate, you can’t help but be fascinated,” she said. “Every lecture is a dramatic story, and I look forward to every class to see what’s going to happen next.”

His love of history led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree at  the University of Pennsylvania, where an adviser once told Wetzel he was “committing a crime” by sticking blindly to history and that he would be “bored stiff” in graduate school.

Nonplussed, Wetzel earned his PhD in history from the University of Chicago in 1976 after completing a dissertation on the Crimean War.

Margaret Anderson, a longtime friend of Wetzel’s and a fellow history professor, said the 1970s job climate for history professors shifted as the demand for social history courses and research grew while the bottom dropped out of the market for other areas of history.

“It used to be that history cared a lot about political and international relations,” she said. “I was astonished, moved and in admiration that someone who had every reason to feel rejected by the profession could do what he did.”

Finding it difficult to attain a job in a market saturated with tenured professors — having narrowly missed an opportunity for a position at Princeton — Wetzel started his career at Berkeley in the billing and payment services department in 1986.

Despite the setback, Wetzel struck a deal with his bosses that allowed him to develop his academic writing on top of his day job.

“I’d collect a lot of money, or at least try to, if they would give me four 10-hour workdays,” he said. “In the years I was with billing and payment services, I was able to write four books.”

The last of these four books — “A Duel of Giants,” which details the Franco-Prussian War and was published in 2001 — caught the attention of Berkeley’s history department, and by January 2003 Wetzel was teaching his first course.

Anderson said Wetzel began teaching with very little experience.

“David came into my office after his class and said, ‘good God, how do I do this?’” she said.

Anderson added that despite Wetzel’s inexperience, his organization and passion for the work helped him excel in the field and grow beloved by staff and students alike.

Wetzel recently finished a manuscript for a work titled “A Duel of Nations,” a sequel to his 2001 novel that deals with the Franco-Prussian War.  He is also teaching an upcoming summer course titled “Where Have All The Soldiers Gone?” that deals with the wars and evils of the 20th century.

Wetzel often rises at 5:30 a.m. or earlier to start writing but enjoys watching historical movies like “The King’s Speech” or listening to music in his spare time. But even off the clock, Wetzel’s dedication to history informs nearly everything he does.

“I got into an argument in Hawaii with a person who asked me, ‘why do you study history?’” he said. “I asked him, ‘why do you breathe air?’”


Correction: Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that David Wetzel’s second book is a novel titled “A Duel of Giants.” In fact, the second book is a nonfiction work titled “A Duel of Nations.” A previous version of this article also stated that David Wetzel obtained his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1976. In fact, he received his PhD from the University of Chicago at that time.