He was born in Haindorf/Bohemia (now Hejnice, Czech Republic) in 1941. He is married to Urte Kocka, neé Schild. He received his M. A. in Political Science from UNC, Chapel Hill, in 1965, his PhD (Dr. phil.) from Free University of Berlin in 1968 and his Habilitation in Modern History from the University of Münster in 1972.
From 1973 to 2009 he taught history at the University of Bielefeld and the Free University of Berlin. 1983-88 he was Director at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research Bielefeld, 1991-2000 Permanent Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) Berlin, 2001-2007 President of the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB). He was one of the directors of the Berlin School of the Comparative History of Europe (Free University and Humboldt University Berlin) which he has helped to found in the 1990s. 2000-2005 he was President of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (CISH).
Presently he is a Permanent Fellow of the International Research Center “Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History” at the Humboldt University Berlin and Senior Fellow of the Center for Research on Contemporary History Potsdam. As a Visiting Professor he teaches regularly at UCLA.
He has held guest professorships and research positions at/in: Harvard (1969/70), the Institute for Advanced Study Princeton (1975/76), University of Chicago (1984), Hebrew University Jerusalem (1985), New School of Social Research New York (1990), Central European University Budapest (1992, 1993), Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences Stanford (1994/95), EHESS Paris (1996), NIAS Wassenaar (2000), St Antony’s College Oxford (2004/05) and UCLA (since 2009).
He has received Honorary Degrees from Erasmus University Rotterdam, the University of Uppsala, the Russian Academy of Sciences Moscow, the European University Institute Florence and the Russian State University for the Humanities Moscow. He has received the Leibniz Preis of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Historians’ Prize of the City of Bochum. He is a member of the Academia Europaea, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Torino Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, Republic of Korea.