Terrence Peterson: Reading Mosse in an Age of Populism

Nationalization of the MassesFor George L. Mosse, the past was always contemporary. Historians may search for meaning in the past, but that search is – and should be, Mosse would add – tied to the ‘vital problems’ historians face in their own time.[i] It is not surprising, then, that in an era of resurgent populism historians and many others have turned to the past with an eye for explaining our current moment. The absence of Mosse’s ideas in the intellectual debate is surprising, given how frequently observers have compared the destabilizing effects of rising nationalist or nativist politics today to similar phenomena in the past – notably to Weimar Germany. The popular press and even prominent historians warn that we stand on the brink of a new era of fascism. Always critical, however, Mosse might offer more circumspection in drawing such comparisons.

Much of Mosse’s work was driven by a single question: what motivates people to participate in mass politics? Writing in the shadow of the Holocaust, it was clear to Mosse and to many of his generation that Enlightenment rationalism was not a sufficient framework to explain human behavior. Mosse focused instead on culture, teasing out the connections between the irrationalism he saw at the roots of fascism and modern mass politics. In the German context, Mosse located the answer to this question not only in the content of Nazi ideology but also in its form. In The Crisis of German Ideology (1964) and later in The Nationalization of the Masses (1975), Mosse points toward a new mode of politics defined less by a dogmatic agenda than a habit of thought, a mode of seeing, an aesthetic sensibility that conveyed a particular set of moral values. Politics became, as Dan Hummel has already highlighted, a drama: a performative array of ceremony and ritual that drew on powerful longings for community and allowed ordinary Germans to enact a romanticized ideal of national togetherness. What mattered most to Germans who found themselves swept up in the Nazi movement, Mosse argued, was the style and symbolic content of such politics-as-drama. Such a ‘style’ was not new, but rather traced its roots deep into the 19th century – a continuity which afforded Nazism firm ground. As Mosse makes clear, the appeal of National Socialism was not just ideological or rational, but also emotional and affective.

It is here that Mosse’s work might yield intellectual clarity in the present. The 2016 elections offered a serious challenge to the status quo in both American political parties, and pundits continue to puzzle at how a man who seemed to lack a clear political platform was able to galvanize supporters and win the presidency. While many observers have pointed to the President’s anti-establishment language and nativist preferences as straightforward indicators of a ‘populist’ ideology, the explanations for why that ideology held such emotional resonance remain highly contentious. It is impossible to know exactly how Mosse might have reacted to a figure like Trump. But his work suggests that we ought to focus our attention less on trying to trace the vague outlines of the ‘profound ideological realignment’ announced by political analysts than on trying to understand the political style – the aesthetics, rituals, and performative attitudes – that has accompanied it. After all, it is precisely the President’s mode of political engagement that has captured the attention of critics and supporters alike. Just as Mosse notes with the ‘new politics’ that reached its apex in Germany in the mid-twentieth century, the appeal of Trump’s political style lies not necessarily in its originality or content, but rather in its theatricality and ability to invoke popular taste. Likewise, the aesthetic and moral values embedded in his mode of political performance have allowed him to mobilize a deep longing for community among a segment of the American population, often in ways his political opponents could not. Teasing out how such politics succeed at plucking the heart-strings of Americans requires delving into the realm of culture. Mosse’s particular model of historical inquiry is certainly well-suited for that task.

Situated in his present, George L. Mosse sought to explain the role of the irrational in modern politics – not only to comprehend it, but to contain it.[ii] In our own present, the urgency of that task endures. As Mosse argues in Masses and Man (1980), historians should endeavor not simply to discern historical reality, but to understand how popular culture mediated and reshaped it. Decades later, Mosse’s work still points the way.

Terrence G. Peterson[i] Karel Plessini, The Perils of Normalcy: George L. Mosse and the Remaking of Cultural History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 176.

[ii] Steven E. Aschheim, “Between Rationality and Irrationalism: George L. Mosse, the Holocaust, and European Cultural History,”Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual 5 (1988): 199.

Terrence Peterson is Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University. His research focuses on the historical relationship between France and North Africa, and he is currently writing a book entitled “Hearts and Minds: The French Army, Algerian Independence, and the invention of Modern Counterinsurgency, 1954-1962.”

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