The Failures of F. M. Fling
Jaiden Schilke, History 250: The Historian Craft, Spring 2022
The University of Nebraska has been home to many influential people who made great strides in their fields. It is not uncommon, however, for people to fail to release a major work or to die before publishing it. One professor, Fred Morrow Fling, failed to release multiple major works all while disrespecting his colleagues, which may have aided in his failure to publish his life’s work. Although Fred Fling had tremendous credentials as a historian and was a highly regarded teacher, he failed spectacularly on several levels and is probably one of UNL's most disappointing faculty.
Fred Morrow Fling was hired as a professor in the European History department in 1891 after obtaining his doctoral degree at the University of Leipzig in Germany. Fling became known as a specialist in the history of the French Revolution after many trips to Europe for research. His reputation was especially tied with the French statesman Mirabeau, who he gained an interest for during his time at Leipzig. During the first half of his career at the University, he published minor works related to history education, the French Revolution, and visited other universities to give lectures.
After the United States entered World War I, Americans began to have a growing fear of German spies infiltrating the country. The University of Nebraska was victim to this paranoia too. Fling, among other faculty, took this opportunity to accuse some of the faculty of disloyalty, in the hopes of getting them removed. Although Fling’s motives are not explicitly shown, it can be inferred that he stood with the rest of the accusing faculty in acting on their animosity against other faculty they personally disliked. On March 18th, 1918, the Board of Regents held a hearing on the accusations of disloyalty among the faculty. During this meeting, it was deduced that the accusations of disloyalty were unfounded and based on personal differences among some of the faculty. Fling stood among the accusing faculty, accused of misleading the public and prosecution with no evidence to support the claims.
The Board of Regents stated that he had supported informing a chairman of the State Council of Defense and told the media that he had inside information of disloyalty among faculty of the University, but never supplied any. He claimed he was less involved than other faculty in accusing others, however, which granted him another chance. The board concluded that most of the accusers had to be dismissed. In Fling’s case, however, on the basis that he was not as directly involved as other faculty, he was given the chance to plead his case for a chance to remain at the University. He was informed of this in a letter sent to him from acting Chancellor Hastings on July 3rd. In this letter, there was also proof of the regard people had for Fling, where the acting Chancellor wrote “I have the privilege to remain with great respect.” In August, he was informed that the Board allowed him to remain associated with the University, exonerated of his charges on July 31st, 1918.
Fling’s involvement and exoneration showed the lack of character that he possessed. He attempted to get other faculty members fired by manipulating the public’s fear of German espionage, and when accused of doing so, he denied his direct relation and made a case that he was simply a concerned citizen who was deceived. To maintain his innocence, Fling destroyed the careers of others and lied about his involvement. Though he had enough respect among the faculty to warrant him a second chance, he squandered it by lying about his motives and his involvement. To add insult to injury, he did not appear in person to plead his case, as he instead opted to write a letter to the Board of Regents. Fling’s steps toward his exoneration are proof of the kind of person he truly was, which only became more apparent through his work during World War I.
By the time of his exoneration, he was already in Washington beginning research on the diplomatic history of World War I. In early March 1918, before the false accusations, Fling received a request from the head of the historical branch of the military to assist in documenting the conflict, commending him on his credentials and reputation. The letter stated that he was the perfect man for the job and cited his reputation as a European historian. On March 19th, his request for leave was approved, albeit without pay. Sometime over the winter, Fling traveled from the War College in Washington to France, where he observed the Treaty of Versailles as a member of the historian committee with the United States. During this, sensing the end of the war, Fling wrote to the newly returned Chancellor Samuel Avery on April 21st about what he wanted him to do. In an attempt to delay his return, Fling suggested an option that he stay in France for another year, giving him the ability to observe the lingering effects of the conflict.
Fling had to wait for a month before he got a response. Avery did not reply to him until May 22nd, where he informed Fling of the massive organizational changes happening to the University, including the consolidation of the three history departments: English, American and European. In the letter, Avery also detailed that he would like for Fling to return to campus before September 1st of 1918. He continued by mentioning that the Board of Regents ruled that Fling could be gone for an indefinite leave, without salary, but that his position upon returning later would be in question. Avery summarized this by saying that it would be better to return at the decided date of September 1st. Additionally, the Chancellor suggested that Fling begin to work more on writing and publishing his work and focusing less on gathering the information.
In response to the suggestion, Fling wrote back to Avery on July 16th when he had returned in Washington D.C. In the letter, he mentioned how it was nice to see his wife and son again. He continued to report that he was still gathering information and that he gained access to Woodrow Wilson’s Address to Congress upon permission from Nebraska Senator Hitchcock. He then stated that he was nearing completion of a book detailing the diplomatic relations of the United States throughout World War I, which he mentioned a name for: America at the Congress at Paris. He referred to it as a two-volume work, for which he was finishing the twenty-third chapter. He requested that Avery grant him an extra week to be able to gather more information before returning to campus where he could commit to finalizing the book.
As major changes to the University continued and the start of the next school year neared, Avery responded in a letter to Fling on July 28th, 1919. In the letter, he denied Fling’s request to extend his stay in Washington. Avery reasoned that the tensions were high with the Board of Regents, who were knee-deep in the reorganization of the entire university, and that it would be embarrassing to him for Fling to arrive in Lincoln late. He said that he would like Fling to arrive at the train station no later than 6pm on September 1st and that he looked forward to seeing him soon. Fling’s attempts to remain off-campus were shut down, and he returned to campus on-time to begin the 1919-1920 academic year with the newly formed history department.
There is no other record of America at the Congress at Paris, which leads to the conclusion that it never got published. There is no substantial evidence, aside from plenty of notes, of the existence of any work that Fling may have done besides a course he taught after his return, titled The World War. Further putting his efforts into question, in the letter Fling sent to Avery on April 21st, he contradicted himself. While he stated that he is working tirelessly to get as much information as he can, he also dedicated a good chunk of the letter to describing his experiences in France. Most of the experiences mentioned are related to his work, though some are not. For instance, he mentioned that he had seen several his former students in France and had coffee with them, or even gotten a meal with some. While this is minor, one can infer from this that he may not have been dedicating as much time to compiling information as he let on. His actions are put into further question when he requests more time to gather information for the book, which could be interpreted as attempts to delay his return which could be to truly make progress on the book, or simply to be away from the University for a longer time. Moreover, there is no mention of his work at the Paris Peace Conference at all after his return. Fling seemingly returned his focus solely to Mirabeau and the French Revolution, disregarding any work he had done during his time in France. Fling’s lack of production after his research during World War I may have been a turning point in the animosity the Board of Regents had toward him. Alongside the controversy that Fling was associated with in 1918, the lies of his progress on the book may have been a point of contention that would lessen the respect other faculty had for him. The animosity from his actions during these events may be what prevented the publication of his life’s work.
The largest work that Fling attempted to complete was Mirabeau and the French Revolution. In its latest version, the full work was four volumes and focused on the life of the French statesman Mirabeau. Fling had only ever published the first volume of the work, with it being centered around Mirabeau’s youth. The other three volumes remained incomplete, but it is evident that Fling truly worked on them. Other proof that he was more committed to this work can be seen from the letters he sent to Chancellor Avery on June 6th, 1923, where he asks for the Board of Regents to help cover the costs of publishing the second volume. While this effort was somewhat fruitless due to Fling needing more time to finish the volume, Avery wrote to Fling on January 11th, 1927, attempting to set up a meeting to ensure that the University would support the printing of the final product, even though the second volume had not begun publishing after multiple discussions about it.
The letter was sent on Avery’s way out of the Chancellor position, and E.A. Burnett was his successor. Fling continued his work on Mirabeau, taking a trip to France in 1929. In 1932, Fling was finally ready to discuss the publishing of his entire work. He requested that the first volume be republished with the rest to keep uniformity and assured that the work would pay for itself in sales. He added that the project was forty-four years of research and was confident there would be interest in the subject. The same day, Burnett wrote to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Charles Oldfather, about the publication. He requested that he investigate the financial viability of printing the full work of Mirabeau and the French Revolution.
Oldfather never replied to the letter, and the Board of Regents did not discuss the publishing of Mirabeau and the French Revolution. Though this could be tied to the Board possibly having animosity towards Fling, there are no records that Oldfather investigated the costs of printing Fling’s work. This leads to the conclusion that Oldfather, either by choice or by error, prevented Fling from fully publishing his life’s work. He only ever officially released the first volume of the work in 1908 and delayed the second volume multiple times before it could be published. Another possibility is that Fling could have delayed the volumes like he did prior, but Oldfather’s inaction to Fling’s request is a sign at the possibility of it simply being pushed off due to animosity towards him for his past actions.
Fred Fling was a well-known and highly regarded historian and educator in his time but has been largely lost to history. When given the opportunity, he chose against finishing what could have been a major contribution of the history of World War 1. After this failed to complete his life’s work on Mirabeau, partly due to the loss of respect from his peers from the accusations of disloyalty in 1918, where he lied and threw other faculty under the bus to preserve his position. Fling had every chance to become a memorable historian and a great hallmark of Nebraska faculty but failed spectacularly, his reputation dying with him in 1934.
- F.M. Fling Collection, Box 16, Folders 1-2, Biographical Information
- Minutes and Agendas, Board of Regents Minutes 1909-1923, Microfilm 01/01/02, Disloyalty Hearing; Samuel Avery, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 3rd, 1918, Letter from acting Chancellor Hastings; Samuel Avery, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 31st, 1918, Letter from acting Chancellor Hastings.
- Samuel Avery, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, March 18th, 1918, Letter from War College
- Minutes and Agendas, Board of Regents Minutes 1909-1923, Microfilm 01/01/02, March 19th, Fling Request
- F.M. Fling, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, April 21st , 1919, Letter from Fling.
- Samuel Avery, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, May 22nd, 1919, Letter from Avery to Fling
- F.M. Fling, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 16th, 1919, Letter from Fling to Avery
- Samuel Avery, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 28th, 1919, Letter from Avery to Fling
- Catalogs and Bulletins, Box 7, 1920-1921 Catalog
- F.M. Fling, Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, April 21st , 1919, Letter from Fling
- Samuel Avery, E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, January 11th, 1927, Samuel Avery Letter to F.M. Fling
- Fred Fling, E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, June 14, 1929, Fling Letter to Burnett about trip to France.
- Fred Fling, E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, June 2, 1932, Fling Letter to Burnett about Mirabeau
- E.A. Burnett, E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, June 2, 1932, Burnett Letter to Oldfather
- Avery, Samuel. Letter from Avery to Fling. Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, May 22nd, 1919.
- Avery, Samuel. Letter from Avery to Fling. Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 28th, 1919.
- Avery, Samuel. Samuel Avery Letter to F.M. Fling. E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, January 11th, 1927.F.M. Fling Collection, Box 16, Folders 1-2, Biographical Information.
- Burnett, E.A. Burnett Letter to Oldfather. E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, June 2, 1932.
- Photo of F.M. Fling, https://unlhistory.unl.edu/exhibits/show/fred-m-fling/fred-m-fling Fling,
- F.M. Letter from War College. Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, March 18th, 1918.
- Burnett, E.A. Burnett Letter to Oldfather. E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, June 2, 1932.
- Catalogs and Bulletins, Box 7, 1920-1921 Catalog.
- Fling, F.M. Letter from Fling to Avery. Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, April 21st, 1919.
- Fling, F.M. Letter from Fling to Avery. Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 16th, 1919.
- Fling, F.M. Fling Letter to Burnett about trip to France. E.A. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, June 14, 1929.
- Fling, F.M. E.A. Fling Letter to Burnett about Mirabeau. Burnett Correspondence, Box 2 Folder 21, June 2, 1932.
- Hastings, William. Letter from acting Chancellor Hastings. Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 3rd, 1918.
- Hastings, William. Letter from acting Chancellor Hastings. Samuel Avery Correspondence 1909-1927, Box 3 Folder 14, F.M. Fling, 1918-1926, July 31st, 1918.
- Photo of the Treaty of Versailles, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Versailles#/media/File:Treaty_of_Versailles,_English_version.jpg
- Minutes and Agendas, Board of Regents Minutes 1909-1923, Microfilm 01/01/02, Disloyalty Hearing.
- Minutes and Agendas, Board of Regents Minutes 1909-1923, Microfilm 01/01/02, March 19th, Fling Request.