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Isaiah Berlin

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


This article is about the 20th-century philosopher. For the 18th-century rabbi, see Isaiah
Berlin (rabbi).
Sir Isaiah Berlin
OM CBE FBA

6 June 1909
Born Riga, Governorate of Livonia (capital
of present-day Latvia)
5 November 1997 (aged 88)
Died
Oxford, UK
Alma mater Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Era 20th-century philosophy


Region Western philosophy
School Liberalism Analytic philosophy
Political philosophy Philosophy of
history History of ideas Liberalism
Main
Ethics Marxism Modern history
interests
Russian history Russian literature
Romanticism
Notable Two Concepts of Liberty Counter-
ideas Enlightenment Value pluralism
Influences[show]
Influenced[show]

Sir Isaiah Berlin OM CBE FBA (6 June 1909 5 November 1997) was a Russian-British
social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas.[1] He was an essayist,
conversationalist, raconteur, and lecturer.[1] In its obituary of the scholar, the
Independent stated that "Isaiah Berlin was often described, especially in his old age, by
means of superlatives: the world's greatest talker, the century's most inspired reader, one
of the finest minds of our time [...] there is no doubt that he showed in more than one
direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of
human potential".[2]

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, he moved to Petrograd, Russia, at the age of six, where
he witnessed the revolutions of 1917. In 1921 his family came to the UK, and he was
educated at St Paul's School, London, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford.[3] In 1932, at
the age of 23, Berlin was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He
translated works by Ivan Turgenev from Russian into English and, during the war,
worked for the British Diplomatic Service. From 1957 to 1967 he was Chichele
Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He was president
of the Aristotelian Society from 1963 to 1964. In 1966, he played a crucial role in
founding Wolfson College, Oxford, and became its first President. Berlin was appointed
a CBE in 1946, knighted in 1957, and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971. He was
President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He also received the 1979
Jerusalem Prize for his writings on individual freedom.

An annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture is held at the Hampstead Synagogue, at Wolfson


College, Oxford, at the British Academy, and in Riga. Berlin's work on liberal theory
and on value pluralism has had a lasting influence.

Contents
1 Early life
2 Education
3 Personal life
4 Thought
o 4.1 "Two Concepts of Liberty"
o 4.2 Counter-Enlightenment
o 4.3 Value pluralism
o 4.4 "The Hedgehog and the Fox"
o 4.5 Other work
5 Published works
6 Commemoration
7 See also
8 References
9 Sources
10 Further reading
o 10.1 Books
o 10.2 Tributes, obituaries, articles and profiles
11 External links

Early life
Plaque marking what was once Berlin's childhood home in Riga, engraved in Latvian,
English and Hebrew with the tribute "The British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin lived in
this house 19091915"

Berlin was the only surviving child of a prosperous Jewish family, the son of Mendel
Berlin, a timber trader and direct descendant of Shneur Zalman (founder of Chabad
Hasidism), and his wife Marie, ne Volshonok. He spent his first six years in Riga, and
later lived in Andreapol (a small timber town near Pskov, effectively owned by the
family business)[4] and Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), witnessing both the February
and October Revolutions of 1917.

Feeling increasingly oppressed by life under Bolshevik rule, the family left Petrograd,
on 5 October 1920, for Riga, but encounters with anti-Semitism and difficulties with the
Latvian authorities convinced them to leave, and they moved to Britain in early 1921
(Mendel in January, Isaiah and Marie at the beginning of February), when Berlin was
eleven.[5] In London, the family first stayed in Surbiton, then within the year they
bought a house in Holland Park, and six years later in Hampstead. Berlin's English was
virtually nonexistent at first, but he became fluent within a year.[6]

Education
Berlin was educated at St Paul's School (London), then at Corpus Christi College,
Oxford, where he studied Greats (Classics). In his final examinations, he took a First,
winning The John Locke Prize for his performance in the philosophy papers, in which
he outscored A. J. Ayer.[7] He subsequently took another degree at Oxford in PPE
(Philosophy, Politics and Economics), winning another First after less than a year on the
course. He was appointed a tutor in philosophy at New College, Oxford, and soon
afterwards was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, the first Jew
to achieve this.[8]

While still a student, he befriended Ayer (with whom he was to share a lifelong
amicable rivalry), Stuart Hampshire, Richard Wollheim, Maurice Bowra, Stephen
Spender, J. L. Austin and Nicolas Nabokov. In 1940, he presented a philosophical paper
on other minds to a meeting attended by Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University.
Wittgenstein rejected the argument of his paper in discussion but praised Berlin for his
intellectual honesty and integrity. Berlin was to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life,
apart from a period working for British Information Services in New York from 1940 to
1942, and for the British embassies in Washington, DC, and Moscow from then until
1946. Prior to this service, however, Berlin was barred from participation in the British
war effort as a result of his being born in Latvia,[9] and because his left arm had been
damaged at birth. In April 1943 he wrote a confidential analysis of members of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the Foreign Office; he described Senator
Arthur Capper from Kansas as a solid, stolid, 78-year-old reactionary from the corn
belt, who is the very voice of Mid-Western "grass root" isolationism.[10] For his services,
he was appointed a CBE in the 1946 New Year Honours.[11] Berlin was fluent in
Russian and English, spoke French, German and Italian, and knew Hebrew, Latin and
Ancient Greek. Meetings with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in November 1945 and
January 1946 had a powerful effect on both of them, and serious repercussions for
Akhmatova (who immortalised the meetings in her poetry).[12]

Personal life
In 1956 Berlin married Aline Halban, ne de Gunzbourg, who was not only the former
wife of an Oxford colleague and a former winner of the ladies' golf championship of
France, but from an exiled half Russian-aristocratic and half ennobled-Jewish banking
and petroleum family (her mother was Yvonne Deutsch de la Meurthe, granddaughter
of Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe) based in Paris.

The Berlin Quadrangle, Wolfson College.

He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences in 1959.[13] He was instrumental in the founding, in 1966, of a new graduate
college at Oxford University: Wolfson College. The college was founded to be a centre
of academic excellence which, unlike many other colleges at Oxford, would also be
based on a strong egalitarian and democratic ethos.[14] Berlin was a member of the
Founding Council of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University.[15] As
later revealed, when he was asked to evaluate the academic credentials of Isaac
Deutscher, Isaiah Berlin argued against a promotion, because of the profoundly pro-
communist militancy of the candidate.[16]

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88.[1] He is buried there in Wolvercote Cemetery.
On his death, the obituarist of The Independent wrote: "he was a man of formidable
intellectual power with a rare gift for understanding a wide range of human motives,
hopes and fears, and a prodigiously energetic capacity for enjoyment of life, of people
in all their variety, of their ideas and idiosyncrasies, of literature, of music, of art".[2]
The front page of The New York Times concluded: "His was an exuberant life crowded
with joys the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends. [...] The theme
that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human
beings [...]. Sir Isaiah radiated well-being."[17]

Thought

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"Two Concepts of Liberty"

Main article: Two Concepts of Liberty

Berlin is popularly known for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", delivered in 1958
as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford.
The essay, with its analytical approach to the definition of political concepts, re-
introduced the methods of analytic philosophy to the study of political philosophy.
Spurred by his background in the philosophy of language, Berlin argued for a nuanced
and subtle understanding of our political terminology, where what was superficially
understood as a single concept could mask a plurality of different uses and therefore
meanings. Berlin argued that these multiple and differing concepts, otherwise masked
by rhetorical conflations, showed the plurality and incompatibility of human values, and
the need for us to distinguish and trade off analytically between, rather than conflate,
them, if we are to avoid disguising underlying value-conflicts. The two concepts are
'negative freedom', or freedom from interference, which Berlin derived from the British
tradition, and 'positive freedom', or freedom as self-mastery, which asks not what we are
free from, but what we are free to do. Berlin points out that these two different
conceptions of liberty can clash with each other.

Counter-Enlightenment

Main article: Counter-Enlightenment


Further information: Three Critics of the Enlightenment

Berlin's writings on the Enlightenment and its critics (especially Giambattista Vico,
Johann Gottfried Herder, Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann, to whose views
Berlin referred as the Counter-Enlightenment) contributed to his advocacy of an
irreducibly pluralist ethical ontology.[18] In Three Critics of the Enlightenment, Berlin
argues that Hamann was one of the first thinkers to conceive of human cognition as
language the articulation and use of symbols. Berlin saw Hamann as having
recognised as the rationalist's Cartesian fallacy the notion that there are "clear and
distinct" ideas "which can be contemplated by a kind of inner eye", without the use of
language a recognition greatly sharpened in the 20th century by Wittgenstein's private
language argument.[19]

Value pluralism

Main article: value pluralism

For Berlin, values are creations of mankind, rather than products of nature waiting to be
discovered. He argued, on the basis of the epistemic and empathetic access we have to
other cultures across history, that the nature of mankind is such that certain values the
importance of individual liberty, for instance will hold true across cultures, and this is
what he meant by objective pluralism. Berlin's argument was partly grounded in
Wittgenstein's later theory of language, which argued that inter-translatability was
supervenient on a similarity in forms of life, with the inverse implication that our
epistemic access to other cultures entails an ontologically contiguous value-structure.
With his account of value pluralism, he proposed the view that moral values may be
equally, or rather incommensurably, valid and yet incompatible, and may therefore
come into conflict with one another in a way that admits of no resolution without
reference to particular contexts of decision. When values clash, it may not be that one is
more important than the other: keeping a promise may conflict with the pursuit of truth;
liberty may clash with social justice. Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable
element in human life". "These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are
and what we are."[20] For Berlin, this clashing of incommensurate values within, no less
than between, individuals, constitutes the tragedy of human life. Alan Brown suggests,
however, that Berlin ignores the fact that values are commensurable in the extent to
which they contribute to the human good.[21]

"The Hedgehog and the Fox"

Main article: The Hedgehog and the Fox


"The Hedgehog and the Fox", a title referring to a fragment of the ancient Greek poet
Archilochus, was one of Berlin's most popular essays with the general public, reprinted
in numerous editions. Of the classification that gives the essay its title, Berlin once said
"I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but
it was taken seriously."[22]

Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories:
hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples
given include Plato), and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for
whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include
William Shakespeare).

Other work

Berlin's essay "Historical Inevitability" (1954) focused on a controversy in the


philosophy of history. Given the choice, whether one believes that "the lives of entire
peoples and societies have been decisively influenced by exceptional individuals" or,
conversely, that whatever happens occurs as a result of impersonal forces oblivious to
human intentions, Berlin rejected both options and the choice itself as nonsensical.
Berlin is also well known for his writings on Russian intellectual history, most of which
are collected in Russian Thinkers (1978; 2nd ed. 2008) and edited, as most of Berlin's
work, by Henry Hardy (in the case of this volume, jointly with Aileen Kelly). Berlin
also contributed a number of essays on leading intellectuals and political figures of his
time, including Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Chaim Weizmann.
Eighteen of these character sketches were published together as "Personal Impressions"
(1980; 2nd ed., with four additional essays, 1998; 3rd ed., with a further ten essays,
2014).[23]

Published works
Apart from earlier editions of Karl Marx and The Hedgehog and the Fox, and
Unfinished Dialogue, all books listed from 1978 onwards are edited (or, where stated,
co-edited) by Henry Hardy, and all but Karl Marx are compilations or transcripts of
lectures, essays, and letters. Details given are of first and latest UK editions, and current
US editions. Most titles are also available as e-books. The 11 titles marked with a '+' are
available in the US market in revised editions from Princeton University Press, with
additional material by Berlin, and (except in the case of Karl Marx) new forewords by
contemporary authors; the 5th edition of Karl Marx is also available in the UK.

+Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, Thornton Butterworth, 1939. 5th ed.,
2013, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15650-7.
The Age of Enlightenment: The Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, New
American Library, 1956. Out of print.
Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Chatto and Windus, 1976.
Superseded by Three Critics of the Enlightenment.
+The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953. 2nd ed., 2014, Phoenix. ISBN 978-1-
7802-2843-3. (2nd US ed., Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4008-
4663-4.)
Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969. Superseded by Liberty.
Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Chatto and Windus, 1976.
Superseded by Three Critics of the Enlightenment.
Russian Thinkers (co-edited with Aileen Kelly), Hogarth Press, 1978. 2nd ed.
(revised by Henry Hardy), Penguin, 2008. ISBN 978-0-14-144220-4.
+Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, Hogarth Press, 1978. Pimlico.
ISBN 978-0-7126-6552-0. 2nd ed., 2013, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-
0-691-15749-8.
+Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Hogarth Press, 1979.
Pimlico. ISBN 978-0-7126-6690-9. 2nd ed., 2013, Princeton University Press.
+Personal Impressions, Hogarth Press, 1980. 2nd ed., Pimlico, 1998. 978-0-
7126-6601-5. 3rd ed., 2014, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-
15770-2.
+The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, John
Murray, 1990. 2nd ed., Pimlico, 2013. ISBN 978-1-8459-5208-2. 2nd ed., 2013,
Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15593-7.
The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern
Irrationalism, John Murray, 1993. Superseded by Three Critics of the
Enlightenment.
The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, Chatto & Windus,
1996. Pimlico. ISBN 978-0-7126-7367-9.
The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (co-edited with Roger
Hausheer) [a one-volume selection from the whole of Berlin's work], Chatto &
Windus, 1997. 2nd ed., Vintage, 2013. ISBN 978-0-0995-8276-2.
+The Roots of Romanticism (recorded 1965), Chatto & Windus, 1999. Pimlico.
ISBN 978-0-7126-6544-5. 2nd ed., 2013, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-
0-691-15620-0.
+Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, Pimlico, 2000. 2nd
ed., 2013. ISBN 978-1-8459-5213-6. 2nd ed., 2013, Princeton University Press.
ISBN 978-0-691-15765-8.
+The Power of Ideas, Chatto & Windus, 2000. Pimlico. ISBN 978-0-7126-6554-
4. 2nd ed., 2013, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15760-3.
+Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (recorded 1952),
Chatto & Windus, 2002. Pimlico. ISBN 978-0-7126-6842-2. 2nd ed., 2014,
Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-11499-6.
Liberty [revised and expanded edition of Four Essays On Liberty], Oxford
University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-19-924989-3.
The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism, Brookings Institution
Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8157-2155-0. 2nd ed., Brookings Classics, 2016. ISBN
978-0-8157-2887-0.
Flourishing: Letters 19281946, Chatto & Windus, 2004. Pimlico. ISBN 978-0-
7126-3565-3.
+Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern
Thought, Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 0-7011-7909-0. Pimlico, ISBN 978-1-
84413-926-2. 2nd ed., 2014, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-
12695-1.
(with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska) Unfinished Dialogue, Prometheus, 2006.
ISBN 978-1-59102-376-0.
Enlightening: Letters 19461960 (co-edited with Jennifer Holmes), Chatto &
Windus, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7011-7889-5. Pimlico, ISBN 978-1-8441-3834-0.
Building: Letters 19601975 (co-edited with Mark Pottle), Chatto & Windus,
2013. ISBN 978-0-701-18576-3.
Affirming: Letters 19751997 (co-edited with Mark Pottle), Chatto & Windus,
2015. ISBN 978-1-784-74008-5.

Commemoration
Many volumes from Berlin's personal library were donated to Ben-Gurion University of
the Negev in Beer Sheva and form part of the Aranne Library collection. The Isaiah
Berlin Room, on the third floor of the library, is a replica of his study at the University
of Oxford.[24]

See also
Gerald C. MacCallum, Jr.

References
1.

"Philosopher and political thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin dies". BBC News. 8 November
1997. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
Hardy, Henry (7 November 1997). "Obituary: Sir Isaiah Berlin". The Independent.
Retrieved 7 March 2012.
"CONCEPTS AND CATEGORIES - Philosophical Essays" (PDF). Pimlico.
Retrieved 6 September 2016.
Ignatieff 1998, p. 21
Ignatieff 1998, p. 31
Ignatieff 1998, pp. 3337
Ignatieff 1998, p. 57
Sir Isaiah's Modest Zionism
http://contemporarythinkers.org/isaiah-berlin/biography/
Hachey, Thomas E. (Winter 19731974). "American Profiles on Capitol Hill: A
Confidential Study for the British Foreign Office in 1943" (PDF). Wisconsin Magazine
of History. 57 (2): 141153. JSTOR 4634869. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21
October 2013.
London Gazette, 1 January 1946.
Brooks, David (2 May 2014), "Love Story", The New York Times.
"Book of Members, 17802010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and
Sciences. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
Ignatieff 1998, p. 268
"Founding Council". The Rothermere American Institute. Archived from the
original on 17 November 2012. Retrieved 2012-11-22.
Isaiah Berlin, Building: Letters 19601975, ed. Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle
(London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 3778.
Berger, Marilyn (10 November 1997). "Isaiah Berlin, Philosopher And Pluralist, Is
Dead at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
Cherniss, Joshua; Hardy, Henry (25 May 2010). "Isaiah Berlin". Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
D. Bleich (2006). "The Materiality of Reading". New Literary History. 37: 607
629. doi:10.1353/nlh.2006.0000. Retrieved 19 June 2008.
Berlin, Isaiah (1997). Hardy, Henry; Hausheer, Roger, eds. The Proper Study of
Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. Chatto and Windus. pp. 238, 11. ISBN 0-7011-6527-
8. OCLC 443072603.
Brown, Alan (1986). Modern Political Philosophy: Theories of the Just Society.
Middlesex: Penguin Books. pp. 1578. ISBN 0-14-022528-5. OCLC 14371928.
Jahanbegloo, Ramin. Conversations with Isaiah Berlin. Halban Publishers. p. 188.
ISBN 1-870015-48-7. OCLC 26358922.
"Personal Impressions".

24. Rare correspondence between Sir Isaiah Berlin and David Ben-Gurion on
Who is a Jew? donated to BGU

Sources
External video

Booknotes interview with Michael Ignatieff on


Isaiah Berlin: A Life, 24 January 1999, C-SPAN

Ignatieff, Michael (1998). Isaiah Berlin: A Life. New York: Metropolitan.


ISBN 0-8050-6300-5. OCLC 42666274. Authorised biography.

Further reading
Books

The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin edited by Henry


Hardy, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2009.
John Gray. Isaiah Berlin, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-
691-04824-X.
Charles Blattberg, From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics: Putting Practice First,
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-829688-6. A
critique of Berlin's value pluralism. Blattberg has also criticised Berlin for taking
politics "too seriously."
George Crowder, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, Cambridge: Polity Press,
2004. ISBN 0-7456-2476-6.
Claude Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
ISBN 0-19-827868-3.

Tributes, obituaries, articles and profiles

Sir Isaiah Berlin - May He Rest in Peace.


A tribute to Isaiah Berlin & A conversation with Isaiah Berlin on The
Philosopher's Zone, ABC, 6 & 13 June 2009.
Isaiah Berlin and the history of ideas.
The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, Wolfson College, Oxford.
A podcast interview with Henry Hardy on Berlin's pluralism.
A recording of the last of Berlin's Mellon Lectures, Wolfson College, Oxford.
Biographical information on Sir Isaiah Berlin.
A section from the last essay written by Isaiah Berlin, The New York Review of
Books, Vol. XLV, Number 8 (1998).
Ned O'Gorman, 'My dinners with Isaiah: the music of a philosopher's life Sir
Isaiah Berlin' includes related article on Isaiah Berlin's commitment to ideals
of genuine understanding over intellectual mastery, Commonweal, 14 August
1998[permanent dead link].
Tribute from the Chief Rabbi at his funeral.
Anecdote from Wolfson College's tribute page.
Hywel Williams: An English liberal stooge.
Letter to Berlin from Tony Blair, 23 October 1997.
Assaf Inbari, "The Spectacles of Isaiah Berlin", Azure (Spring 2006).
Obituary by Henry Hardy.
Joshua Cherniss, 'Isaiah Berlin: A Defence', in the Oxonian Review
Joshua Cherniss, 'Freedom and Philosophers', review of Freedom and its
Betrayal in the Oxonian Review
Isaiah Berlin, Beyond the Wit, Evan R. Goldstein.
Berlin archive and author page from The New York Review of Books.
Bendle, Mervyn F. (December 2009). "On liberty : Isaiah Berlin, John Stuart
Mill and the ends of life". Quadrant. 53 (12): 3643. Retrieved 8 August 2011.

External links

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Isaiah Berlin

Website and bibliography of Isaiah Berlin's writings


Full text of Concepts and Categories
Entry on Isaiah Berlin in the International Encyclopedia of Ethics
Cherniss, Joshua; Hardy, Henry. "Isaiah Berlin". Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy.
Bibliography at Wolfson College
Bragg, Melvyn, "War in the 20th Century", In Our Time, BBC Radio Four,
including a discussion with Michael Ignatieff, biographer, of the ideas of Berlin,
a year after the latter's death
Sir Isaiah Berlin's Blue Plaque on Headington House
Isaiah Berlin Day in Riga

Academic offices
Founder-President of Wolfson
Preceded by Succeeded by
College, Oxford
New creation Sir Henry Fisher
19651975

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VIAF: 27076924
LCCN: n79011141
ISNI: 0000 0001 2125 1691
GND: 119024608
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This page was last edited on 5 August 2017, at 21:34.


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