Monday, September 22, 2008

20 September 1918: Birth of Historian George Mosse

Mosse's grave, Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin

George Mosse, one of the most influential historians of modern Europe, was born into a distinguished German-Jewish publishing family in Berlin at the end of the First World War. (His grandfather was Rudolf Mosse, who revolutionized advertising in the German periodical press and brought out the famous liberal newspaper, Berliner Tageblatt, among other titles.)

After emigrating to the United States via England, Mosse studied early modern history and established his reputation as a Reformation scholar in the 1950s. He liked to note, with a mixture of pride and irony, that all of his examinations at Harvard were in fields prior to 1700. It was ironic because he became best known for his work on nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. He was in fact, a co-founder and -editor of the Journal of Contemporary History.

When, in the course of his early employment at the University of Iowa, and then Wisconsin, students asked him to talk about and teach the Weimar and Nazi eras, he both turned to and revolutionized another field. Mosse was among the first to take fascist and Nazi thought seriously, more interested in understanding its origins and functions than in judging its intellectual sophistication or lack thereof. Having set forth his views on the relation between high culture and popular attitudes in his influential text on The Culture of Western Europe (1961), he proceeded to show how racist and fascist ideologies--particularly German völkisch and antisemitic thought--far from being the mere ravings of a lunatic fringe, in fact corresponded to deep-seated needs of societies wracked by change and seeking reassurance and meaning. Rejecting both old-fashioned intellectual history as pedigree-hunting, and the abstractions of political sociology, Mosse located fascist thought squarely in the European cultural tradition. By stressing the nature of fascism as a politics of consensus based on true mass movements and popular support, he moved beyond simple notions of dictatorship and terror, offering an interpretation that was far more complex and ultimately far more disturbing. In the final phases of his career, Mosse turned to the history of sexuality and gay studies, again showing how cultural stereotypes and sharp oppositions between the putatively "normal" and "abnormal" in popular culture led to the conflation of difference and hierarchy and informed a host of practices, from the personal to the political. Again, a deeply disturbing revelation: social manners, antisemitism, and anti-homosexual prejudice all derived from similar notions of respectability, which were in turn linked to deeply held values of class and nation.

Although Mosse thus gravitated to many epochs and subjects in succession, there was in fact a deep and underlying unity to his research. As he always told us, the historian was best advised to focus not on a time, place, or topic, as such, and rather, on a significant question. For him, one of the most profound questions had to do with the ways that people find or make meaning in their daily existence--and reconcile themselves to the constraints of living in society; hence his definition of culture as "a state or habit of mind which is apt to become a way of life." Everything was therefore of a piece for him: His studies of Protestant and Baroque Catholic ritual and liturgy helped him to make sense of nineteenth-century nationalist monuments and the Nuremberg rallies. Observing popular Christianity in Mexico--he liked to recount stories of peasants splattering chicken blood on churches at Easter--provided him with insights into other syncretic forms of thought. The fixation with the artistic legacy of Classical Antiquity shared by the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie and Nazis alike led him to connect ideas of beauty with acts of brutality.

Mosse's work contributed greatly to the introduction of the study of collective mentalities into the study of modern history. An immensely learned man who wore his learning lightly, he eschewed the sort of complex theoretical discussions favored in some other branches of the profession (particularly those influenced by francophone scholarship), instead preferring to illustrate the workings of theory through its application to concrete examples, presented in eminently readable prose.

Mosse was one of the most popular professors at the University of Wisconsin, where he came to hold the position of Bascom Professor of History. Following his death, the Humanities Building, in which he had worked and taught, was renamed, "The George L. Mosse Humanities Building." Today, however, the forty-year old modernist structure is threatened with the wrecking ball--a fate that has provoked debate among academics and historic preservationists.


the Wikipedia entry presents an admirably solid and comprehensive portrait of the man, his life, and his work.

George Mosse Teaching Fellowship, University of Wisconsin History Department

neighbors in life and death: 
graves of George Mosse and his colleague and political sparring partner, Marxist Harvey Goldberg

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