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Anson Rabinbach Biography:
Anson Rabinbach is Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University. He received his B.A. in 1967 from Hofstra University, and his M.A. in 1970 and Ph.D. in 1973 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the co-founder of the journal New German Critique, on whose editorial board he still sits, and has received numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Humanities grant (with Sander E. Gilman) to complete The Third Reich Sourcebook as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has published extensively on 20th-century Europe, particularly Austria and Germany, labor, and the mechanization of the human in works such as The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor (2018), In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment (2001), and The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (1992).
Tortorice: Testing, one, two, three. I can only hope this is working. It is. So this picks up conversation quite well.
Rabinbach: Should I test it? Is this okay?
Tortorice: Yes, I tested it. It’s this button here. Then also you can see that it’s recording. It’s got the numbers. Yes, so it’s working fine. All right. So, it’s October 26, 2017. This is John Tortorice from the Mosse Program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And I’m in New York to interview Professor Anson Rabinbach, Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. Well, let’s go back to the beginning. Where and when were you born?
Rabinbach: I was born in 1945 in the Bronx, New York. Not far from the Grand Concourse. Which was, at the time, a very Jewish neighborhood. In fact we had, I can’t remember more than there being one non-Jewish child in my school classes.
Tortorice: So you came from a very Jewish background.
Rabinbach: Intensely so. My parents spoke Yiddish. They didn’t speak to each other at all. So Yiddish was the lingua franca of the household. But they didn’t live, I should add that, because this is relevant to George, and I’ll come back to this in a few minutes. But they split up when I was an infant. So I never experienced them together. But my father, I should say, was a very engaged Yiddishist. He was a worker, he was a tailor. But he was involved with the Morgen Freiheit (1922-1988), which was the Yiddish communist daily newspaper in New York. He worked and lived in that milieu. He was involved in politics, Yiddish politics.
In fact, before I was born, let’s go back a few years before I was born, in the early 1940s, a famous Soviet actor named Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948) came to New York to raise money for the Soviet war effort. And my father shepherded him around New York. This is relevant. Can I just—
Tortorice: Of course, yes.
Rabinbach: This is relevant in another respect. Because Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin in the 1950s. I think it was 1953 when a number of Jewish poets were killed by Stalin in one night. And Mikhoels was one of them. And this created a crisis among this group of communists in New York that were Yiddish-identified. And eventually in the 1960s, they broke with the Communist Party. But over the Six Day War, not over the Mikhoels’ case.
So anyway, can I continue?
Tortorice: Amazing. Oh, of course.
Rabinbach: So anyway, I grew up with a very, very passive understanding of Yiddish. I didn’t speak Yiddish. But they tried to indoctrinate me in Yiddish communist culture. And I went to a for several years, I went to a Yiddish-speaking day school called a Sholem Aleichem school, which is, still exists in the Bronx. And we had a teacher named Goldstein, whom we called Comrade Goldstein. Hannah Goldstein. And so I did learn Yiddish. I learned to speak and read. And I will say that it helped me learning German. It was kind of, I sort of had to forget Yiddish to learn German. But there were similarities. There are, of course, similarities.
Tortorice: Did you find that it was helpful in your research and later years? Have you used Yiddish?
Rabinbach: I never worked in Yiddish sources. But the idea of Yiddish-speaking immigrants was a very important part of my intellectual development at an early stage. When I was in college, long before Wisconsin, when I was in college I wrote a thesis, senior thesis, on the migration of Galician Jews to Vienna. That actually was turned into an MA thesis for George. So these were Yiddish-speaking immigrants.
So I was always interested in Yiddish culture, Yiddish-speaking culture. And of course I still have, to this day, a fairly decent, not great, passive understanding of Yiddish. Like for example, when I hear it on the radio, there were, I don’t know if there still are, but there were some Yiddish radio stations in New York. When I heard it on the radio I could follow a story. Except I would get caught up on one word or another word that I didn’t remember. But I had it.
And this Yiddish culture stayed. My father was just totally, this was his world. And when he retired in 1966 or ‘67, he moved to Florida to a retirement community called Century Village. Its slogan was, “Century Village: You should live to be 100.” And many of the people there were Yiddish-speaking communists.
Tortorice: So this probably was the community that Paul Buhle (b. 1944) then did some work with, I imagine.
Rabinbach: Exactly. And I have a story about that. Paul Buhle went to Century Village to interview my father and his cronies.
Rabinbach: And my father called me up after the interview and he said to me, “Who is this Paul Buhle? Is he Jewish?”
Tortorice: (laughs) There’s a long history there.
Tortorice: Well we’re talking a little bit about the milieu in which you were born and what your childhood was like. So, Anson is an unusual name. How did you get that name?
Rabinbach: Yeah. I think that also had to do with the fact that they were Yiddish speaking and didn’t know anything about American culture. So they thought it was a name like Fred or John or whatever, American name. They didn’t realize that Anson was an unusual name. They found it in a book. And I was named after a grandmother, my grandmother who died in the passage from Europe to America. On the boat. And her name was Hannah. And they wanted something to capture the Hannah, the “an” sound. And that’s how Anson came about.
Tortorice: So you described your father a bit. What was your mother like? What was the milieu like in which you grew up? Obviously it was very political.
Tortorice: And Yiddish culture. Very Jewish. How did you feel about that community? Were you closely identified with it? Engaged with it? Did you feel any alienation from your Yiddish and Jewish background at an early age?
Rabinbach: Total alienation. I actually, when I became a teenager, I wanted to have nothing to do with it. I mean, it just struck me as Old World fuddy duddyish, ancient, out of date, obsolete, un-American. I just wanted to have no contact with it. After a while, I softened. But there was a period there where I just was rebelling against that and most other things as well.
My mother. My mother had one sort of raison d’etre, and that was hating my father. And so this war between my mother and father sort of dominated my childhood. Lawyers and all sorts of things.
Tortorice: That’s too bad. And you were probably a pawn in this battle.
Tortorice: That’s terrible. And you were an only child.
Tortorice: Okay. Did you know your grandparents?
Rabinbach: No. They were dead by the time I was born.
Tortorice: They were all dead.
Tortorice: Your grandmother had died on the passage over.
Rabinbach: Right. Right And the grandfather had come earlier and had left the family behind. And so he was persona non grata. Nobody wanted to see him. So I didn’t even know his name or, you know, whether he was alive when I was a child or not.
Tortorice: So were there any family members, individuals, teachers, who encouraged you in your studies, in your life? Someone that was a major force when you were a child in shaping you and guiding you?
Rabinbach: Not really. I was a very bad student. I never graduated from high school.
Rabinbach: I was absent so many days during the school year that I didn’t qualify for graduation. And I was going to be put in what was called at the time the commercial class, which was a euphemism for dummies. And I decided not to do that. So I dropped out of high school.
And then I found out, or friends of mine found out and told me about a school in New York that was kind of an adult school that would give you your high school degree if you bought a few courses. If you paid for and attended and passed a few courses. Called the Rhodes School. And so it doesn’t exist anymore. But it was quite well known at the time. I went to the Rhodes School for a year and then I got my high school degree from Rhodes School. So when people brag about having been a Rhodes scholar, I said, “I was a Rhodes scholar.”
Tortorice: Well in that, you and George are very similar. He also was a terrible student until well into his college education.
Rabinbach: Yeah, that’s right. We did have that in common.
Tortorice: Yes. And also really a sense of not having strong family support as a child. A certain alienation. I think that was George’s case, too.
Rabinbach: Let me just add, we haven’t gotten to this yet. But when I did finally write my dissertation on Austrian social democracy, my father read it. And he had a lot to say about it, because he knew a lot of the people in it. He had been in Berlin in the Weimar Republic. He’d seen Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919). He’d seen Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) So I was really in his wheelhouse when I was writing that dissertation.
Tortorice: So in a way, you came back to your family history, the milieu of your childhood, through your research, through your lifelong immersion in this subject.
Rabinbach: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: And figured it out.
Rabinbach: I did come back to it. And I connected with him around this.
Tortorice: Great. So you were an indifferent student. So what happened that allowed you to go to university? And where did you go to school?
Rabinbach: Okay. So I applied to several colleges. Based on this Rhodes School diploma, my record, my academic record in high school was expunged. So the only thing that was available were the grades that I got at Rhodes, which were very good. But it was only one year. So with a Rhodes diploma, I applied to several colleges. NYU and Hofstra, which I was told was fairly easy to get into at the time. It was a commuter school on Long Island. And probably still is.
And I went to Hofstra and I did well the first year. I wasn’t a history major. I mean, we hadn’t declared majors. I thought I was going to do premed and biology. And I did well the first year at Hofstra. And I decided to transfer to Queens College because it was free, tuition free. And when I told Hofstra about it, they offered me a full scholarship, four-year scholarship, if I didn’t go. Because I was on dean’s list. So that’s where I stayed. And that was a good choice. In many ways, it was. Excellent history department. Very good people. And they were encouraging. There weren’t that many people from Hofstra who went on to do graduate work in history. So I was unique. There was another person, a friend of mine called Harry Marks, who died a few years ago (d. 2011) who was also at Hofstra. And went on to work in history of medicine at well I’ll remember. He taught at Hopkins.
Tortorice: At Hopkins. Okay. So there wasn’t a moment that really changed your attitude towards school. It was just more of a maturing, a kind of understanding that you could do this. You could do it well. That you were engaged in it, and it just developed.
Rabinbach: But there were teachers who really sparked my enthusiasm for history. There was a medievalist called John C. Moore, M-o-o-r-e, Jack Moore. And he was an expert on the medieval papacy. So I wrote a long paper for him on the papacy of Innocent III in the 13th century. This was as far away from Yiddish as you could get. And I was really excited about it and he was excited about it and we became kind of friends. And I actually wrote him this year, asked him if he was, and he’s quite elderly now. But I’m going to see him, I hope, in January. Because he’s in Bloomington. I’m going to be in Bloomington for the Scholem conference. And I emailed Jack and said I hope we can get together. And he plays a role in the George connection, too. I’ll come back to that.
But there was another professor called Ed Dunbar, who was an Austrian specialist and had written a dissertation on the Christian Social Party in fin de siècle Vienna. And he was the person I wrote my senior thesis with on the migration of Galician Jews to Vienna.
So it was a good atmosphere. It was exciting. It wasn’t snobbish. It wasn’t elitist. You know, I never felt uncomfortable at Hofstra.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. So there were teachers that sparked—
Rabinbach: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: That’s great. Did you have German by then?
Rabinbach: No. I applied to study, I applied to study with George and I applied to the Committee for Social Thought in Chicago. And that summer, the summer I graduated, I went to Salzburg, to the Salzburg Sommerschuler to learn German. And that was a trip. I mean, that was just an extraordinary experience. Not all to the good. But what happened was, we were in a class with a professor who, I would say, I would wager, I would bet very heavily on the fact that he was a Nazi. Because he evaded and avoided any difficult questions about the summer school and the history course and the history of Austria that he taught. In fact, he never told us that the actual castle that our summer school was located in, was where Hitler met [Kurt] Schuschnigg (1897-1977) in 38. They never mentioned this. It was only after the course was over that I discovered this. And he also, when he got to the Nazis, when he got to the Anschluss in 1938 in his lectures, he stopped. And he said, “In 1938, Austria ceased to exist.” And then he took a pause. And then he said, “In 1955, Austria was reconstituted as a federal republic.” (Tortorice laughs)
Up went the hand. “Excuse me. Can you say something about what happened between 1938 and 1945?”
And he looked at me, angry, glared at me. And he said, “For that, you have to take a German history course.” So that was Salzburg Sommerschuler. So I had some German by the time I came to Madison.
Tortorice: So that also must have sparked your interest to be face to face with that history and the denial of that history.
Rabinbach: Oh, absolutely. And Austria was this sort of capital of Nazi denial.
Tortorice: So you got your master’s where?
Tortorice: Oh, you did. Oh, you did.
Rabinbach: Yeah. With the Vienna, with the Galician Jews, Jewish migration thesis.
Tortorice: Okay. So this was when you really started to immerse in Austrian history in particular is this—yeah.
Rabinbach: Yeah. I was involved in Austrian history. But there’s another Austrian connection. But before we talk about that—and I do want to talk about that—I should say that, two things. One is that I later found out from George that one of the things that attracted him to me as a candidate, PhD candidate, is that Jack Moore had written a letter of recommendation for me in which he said, “Rabinbach would be a good scholar if he didn’t spend so much time in Greenwich Village.” And George said this made him want to accept me right away.
Tortorice: (laughs) What were you doing down there in—
Rabinbach: I was just hanging out. Going to cafes, you know.
Tortorice: Well, that must have been an exciting period in Greenwich Village.
Tortorice: Bob Dylan and all of those people.
Rabinbach: Yeah, I never saw anybody like that. I did see Lenny Bruce (1925-1966).
Tortorice: That must have been an experience.
Rabinbach: Yeah, well, he was a phenomenon. I actually wrote a paper at Hofstra about Lenny Bruce. I was always getting in trouble.
Tortorice: You were rebellious.
Rabinbach: Yeah. Yeah. But then when I applied to graduate school, I applied to study with George in Madison. And then I applied to the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago. And I hadn’t made up my mind that summer where I was going to go in September. So in August, I went to Chicago first. I drove to Chicago. This was the first time I’d ever been outside of New York. I drove my Volkswagen to Chicago. I hung around the Committee for Social Thought with graduate students in the program. And I was appalled. I thought this is the most conservative, the most retrograde, the most out of date. This was not me. And snobbish. The whole thing turned me off completely.
And then I went to Madison. I walked out on the terrace and George was there. I sat down with George and he was sitting with a group of—I can remember who was at the table. He was sitting with a group of students, including Robert Cohen, Billy Woolf is that right?
Tortorice: That name sounds—
Rabinbach: Henry Haslach, you know Hank Haslach.
Tortorice: Yes, yes. Oh my God.
Rabinbach: And they were discussing whether or not seizing the Commerce Building and kidnaping the Dow Chemical recruiter would constitute a Leninist action or not. And George was really engaged in this conversation. And he said to them, “You’re not Leninists. You’re Sorelians.” And I didn’t know who [Georges] Sorel (1847-1922) was. But I really, I really wanted to find out. And I never thought about Chicago again.
Tortorice: As an aside, who was at Chicago in those days? Would that have been [Leo] Strauss (1899-1973) was there? Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) wasn’t there.
Rabinbach: I don’t know if Strauss was there. Hannah Arendt was there occasionally. But Allan Bloom (1930-1992) was there. It was a conservative operation.
Tortorice: Okay. So you’re now in Madison on the terrace.
Rabinbach: Nef was the professor, the other. I can’t remember his first name. [John Ulric] N-e-f, Nef (1899-1988). I think he was a Middle Eastern person.
Tortorice: Okay. So now you’re in Madison. It’s the height of the 60s antiwar politics and culture.
Rabinbach: Right. Right.
Tortorice: You’ve met George. He’s accepted you as a graduate student. So what was Madison like in those days when you first arrived?
Rabinbach: It was exciting. There was a lot of intellectual, you know, it was intellectually electric. There were people studying the Frankfurt School. There was Russell Jacoby (b. 1945) and Stuart Ewen (b. 1945) who had discovered the Frankfurt School. Jeffrey Herf (b. 1947) was a big Frankfurt School adept. There were anarchists of various kinds. There were some local Wisconsin people that I even met. But it was really intellectually highly-charged atmosphere. people were interested in ideas, exchanging ideas, discovering new ideas. The seminar didn’t end when the hour ended; it just kept going. And it was great. I was totally excited, elated by the experience.
Of course, I wasn’t elated by the politics on the ground. I mean, some of that was pretty scary. The day of the Dow protest, what was it, October 27, 1967? [October 18, 1967]
Tortorice: That sounds about, yes.
Rabinbach: I went down to the Commerce Building to see what was going on. There was this big crowd in front of the building. And then there were people in the building who were sitting in in front of the door of the Dow Chemical recruiter. I went in the building and I looked at the situation. I saw the cops outside with Ralph Hanson in his riot gear. And I said to myself, listen, don’t be a schmuck. If you go into that building, you’re going to come out bloody. There’s no way out of that building. And Evan Stark was there, he was in the building. I just walked out of the building and said I’m not going to do this. And five minutes later, the police charged in and beat the shit out of the kids in the building.
You know what happened after that. The campus exploded. It was just day after day protests, boycotts of classes. There was a crowd on Bascom Hill that night. There’s a photograph of it. Thousands of students I mean, Paul Buhle once said to me that the police were the best recruiting device that we had. And it was true. I mean, all the magazines and newspapers, and there were great magazines and newspapers in Madison, couldn’t have politicized people the way the police did that afternoon.
Speaking of which, just coming back to the intellectual atmosphere, I should have mentioned this. There was an incredible history of intellectual leftism in Madison that tapped into the ‘60s generation. And it was also a product of the ‘60s generation. Before that, there were Studies on the Left, which was James Weinstein (1926-2005) was the editor. It was really one of the first important New Left publications. Paul Breines wrote for it. There was an underground newspaper called Connections, edited by Bob [Robert S.] Gabriner (b. 1941) and his wife, Vicki [Levins] Gabriner (1942-2018). Do you remember them?
Tortorice: The names, I remember. And I certainly remember that publication. Yes.
Rabinbach: I wrote for them. That was the first thing I wrote for. I wrote a long review in the sort of pseudo-Frankfurt School jargon about the Living Theater. And of course they came to Madison, did a performance. And I wrote a long review, which was completely pretentious. And I was writing for Connections pretty regularly. In fact, an undergraduate, Princeton undergraduate who’s doing a senior thesis, did a senior thesis on the Madison left in the ‘60s, found some of my unpublished manuscripts in the archive in the State Historical Society, which were written for Connections. I don’t think they were actually published, but they were written for Connections.
Tortorice: Do you have a copy of that paper by your student?
Tortorice: I’d love to have a copy of that for our archive.
Rabinbach: Yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: That’s fascinating. Yeah, Studies on the Left. That goes back really to the early ‘60s.
Rabinbach: Early ‘60s, right. James Weinstein started it.
Tortorice: Okay. And that really comes out of a long tradition of the left in Madison at UW that goes way back, really, to the founding of the university.
Tortorice: The university has always been somewhat in opposition to the establishment. And this is, of course, now a real bone of contention.
Rabinbach: Right. Right.
Tortorice: But would you—
Rabinbach: I think it came out of the university’s opposition to Gene McCarthy. Not Gene, Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957). Because McCarthy was from Appleton. And the university was anti-McCarthy. So I think Studies on the Left started out in that era.
Tortorice: It’s fascinating. Because McCarthy never really attacked the university directly.
Rabinbach: No. No, because it was his home state university.
Tortorice: Fascinating. I think E.B. [Edwin Broun] Fred (1887-1981) played that very well. He was the president in those years.
Tortorice: And he went out of his way not to antagonize McCarthy. And he also tamped down a lot of potential conflict. We won’t go into all of the details, but there are a number of occasions that he did that. At any rate, of course UW-Madison was certainly anti-McCarthy.
Tortorice: I don’t know that they played the role up front that they might have. I think they were intimidated, too. I mean, there was a level of intimidation there. Because after all, the money came from the state. And at that point, completely was state-funded, essentially.
Tortorice: But anyways, to get back to that question of the origins of the New Left, partially in Madison, certainly significantly in Madison. But would you say that any theoretical underpinnings of the New Left came out of Madison? And perhaps Berkeley? There weren’t a lot. But these publications, these individuals who were engaged, actively engaged in this history, many of them came out of Madison in that period.
Rabinbach: Yeah, well, the big intellectual impetus for the New Left was at the Port Huron, it was the so-called Port Huron Statement, or what was called the Port Huron Statement, which was the first sort of attempt to sort of lay out the precepts of the New Left. Direct democracy as opposed to electoral democracy. Participatory democracy. Anti-anti-communism. These were the sort of ideas that were generated by the first meetings of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] in formulating the Port Huron Statement.
Madison had a very strong SDS chapter. But I’m not sure that they contributed directly to the New Left, to New Left doctrine. Except, I think, that because of its intellectual seriousness, Madison was always looked upon as the place you wanted to go if you wanted to do serious New Left-inspired research. And not Columbia, which was too activist. And not Berkeley, which was too activist and didn’t have a really strong intellectual tradition. But Madison.
And Paul Buhle was one of the people who generated that perception of Madison by starting Radical America (1967-1999), another periodical that I got involved in. I was on the board of Radical America for years. and even wrote some articles. And Paul was very skeptical, how should I put it, very skeptical, not very appreciative of European thought. He thought that America had to develop its own indigenous radicalism. So that’s why he went to Century Village, to find the indigenous radicals who were speaking Yiddish. (laughter) Never mind. I won’t say what I think about that.
But I think that Radical America was important. I mean, they published issues on surrealism, on Rosa Luxemburg. I wrote an article about Karl Kraus (1874-1936) for Radical America. My then-wife did, she was a photographer, she took photographs of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention that were published in Radical America. So Radical America was really a very important center of intellectual life in Madison when I came. I think they’d had one year publication already by then.
Tortorice: So it sounds like it was a very engaged, exciting, stimulating intellectual atmosphere on the left in particular. All variegations of the left were in play. And a sense of endless possibility, endless potential for the future.
Tortorice: There was, unlike young people today, there wasn’t this sense of the future being much worse than it is now—
Tortorice: —or a sense of disempowerment that comes from a bleakness about the future.
Tortorice: You know, I have a theory that it may be related to the aging of the Baby Boomers that they, they’re the ones, their perceptions of the world seemed to dominate in, you know. But anyways. So, what professors at UW in those years would have been engaged in this leftist dialog that developed?
Rabinbach: Well, I find that question the most difficult. Because I don’t remember having taken any courses with anybody at the university who was actually at the university. I mean, I did take courses, but not with people from the university. But actually, I did think of one. I took an intellectual history course with a very distinguished man called Merle Curti (1897-1996). And Merle Curti taught American intellectual history. And I took that course and I was appalled. I thought it was really one of the worst courses I’ve ever taken. It was just a chronicling, enumerating of libraries and library collections and different libraries all over the United States and the history of libraries. And I couldn’t see the point of this at all. It was just dullsville.
Tortorice: Was it a kind of methods course? It sounds like to teach you how to—
Rabinbach: I think he was writing a book about the history of libraries and just was rehearsing the book with us. But it was dull.
Tortorice: By that time he was a very elderly man.
Rabinbach: Yeah, he was. That’s right. But the people who I really did get a lot from were the people who replaced George when he went to Jerusalem every year for one semester. He always had a replacement. And he had three that I got to know. One was Ernst Wangermann who was a historian of baroque Austria. He was an early modern, because George always had this early modern side. He was an early modern Austrian historian. Wonderful guy. Very left wing. Very interesting. Very erudite. Took me around Vienna once. I got a lot out of taking a course with him.
The second one was a character that you could only invent on the stage. A character called William J. Fishman (1921-2014). I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him.
Rabinbach: He was called Wild Bill Fishman. He was an anarchist who studied anarchism. And he came from the East End of London. And he had an East End London worker’s accent, with which he would parody an Oxford accent. I mean, no one could duplicate this. This was fantastic. He would make a statement in Oxford English and then he would translate it into Cockney English. It was wonderful! He was such a theatrical guy. And I got a lot out of working with him. I learned a lot about anarchism. So there was Bill Fishman.
And then last but not least, the most important was Georges Haupt (1828-1978). Georges Haupt was a Romanian Jew who had been in Auschwitz, and had become the most distinguished, I mean, to this day the most distinguished and most well-respected historian of the Second International. His book on the Second International is still the standard work. And he worked on the history of socialism. And I was his teaching assistant. And I loved that. That was great. And he’s the one who told me that I should write my dissertation on Austro-Marxism. He said, “Nobody’s written about this, this is the most important thing that happened in Central Europe politically in the 20s and 30s. Why don’t you write about Austro-Marxism? I’ll set you up with some people in Vienna.” And that’s how it came about. George had nothing to do with the Austrian project. It was Georges Haupt all the way. And he was really very supportive and did make connections for me with people, historians in Vienna. And it worked out wonderfully. I went to Vienna in, I think it was January 1970. I’m not sure. It was either January 70 or 71. Maybe 71. January 71, I think that’s right.
And when I arrived, the campaign, the parliamentary campaign for chancellor was in full swing. It was Bruno Kreisky (1911-1990) against, oh, I can’t remember his [Josef Klaus (1910-2001)], it doesn’t matter. Against a conservative whose slogan was, whose electoral slogan was, “an authentic Austrian,” ein echter Österreicher.
Tortorice: Nothing has changed.
Rabinbach: Really. Yeah.
Tortorice: It’s amazing.
Rabinbach: And Kreisky, of course, won, though. That’s what’s changed. The Social Democrats were in the ascendancy at the time. And it was really great timing. I mean, this didn’t have anything to do with Haupt specifically, but it was great timing. Because Kreisky became chancellor, he furthered research on the history of social democracy. The archives were opening. There were various institutes that were involved in studying social democracy. Conferences, famous conferences on the history of red Vienna. And I was there for all of that. I was involved in all of that, and it was great.
Tortorice: You were there at the right time.
Rabinbach: It was perfect timing.
Tortorice: Perfect timing. And it was Haupt, very interesting. So what about Hans Gerth (1908-1978)? Did you take any courses with him?
Rabinbach: Well, I should say that Hans Gerth didn’t give any courses. He would, usually Evan Stark would tell him, “Professor Gerth, it’s time for you to teach your class.” And would walk him down, would escort him down to the classroom so he would find it. Then he would begin to talk. He would talk about whatever came into his head. Usually it was about the Vietnam War and how Saigon was being turned into a whorehouse by the American government. And he was just unstoppable. Spewing prejudice combined with brilliant insights. Talking about [György] Lukács (1885-1971), the Frankfurt School. And he wrote an article on Adorno for Radical America. It was, I think, the first English publication about Adorno in Radical America. First article about Adorno in Radical America was Hans Gerth.
And I used to go on Sunday morning to Gerth’s house. He would have a, I don’t know how you would describe it. He would sit there in his pajamas with a big glass of scotch. And he would talk, just talk. You were in the Weimar Republic for, I used to go with Eliott Eisenberg, who was also a, he was never a graduate student of George’s, but he was a fan of George’s, let me put it that way. So we used to go to Gerth’s house. And we’d watch him sit there in his striped pajamas with his scotch and talk about whatever. Talk about Democritus in Greek philosophy. He could talk about Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), who was his Doktorvater. It was really like being in the Weimar Republic. Of course, we couldn’t tell George about that, because he didn’t like Gerth.
Tortorice: Because in a sense, he is very much engaged with New Left or radical thinking on campus. George also was very interested in that. Perhaps more from a distance.
Rabinbach: Yeah, but George’s animosity to Gerth was boundless.
Rabinbach: And there were two reasons for that. One is he thought—this is the minor reason—he thought that Gerth was exploiting his status as a refugee, whereas in fact he did not have to be a refugee. In other words, he was not Jewish, there was no threat to his career, etcetera, etcetera. But there was a more important reason. George just had no tolerance for Gerth because Gerth had written for and worked for his father [Hans Lachmann-Mosse (1885-1944)] at the Berliner Tageblatt. And then when [Josef] Goebbels (1897-1945) took over the newspaper, he continued to write for it under Goebbels. And George was unforgiving about Gerth having written for the Berliner Tageblatt under Goebbels. He thought that Gerth was a completely compliant character, opportunistic and compliant character.
And Gerth was very defensive about this. This became a scandal later on, too, in later years. But he was very defensive and he would say, you know, I never wrote anything that talked about the regime or politics. Or I talked about Freud and stuff, I wrote about Freud and stuff like that. But you couldn’t tell George that you were seeing Gerth. That was two separate worlds.
Tortorice: Interesting to do a little research on what he actually wrote.
Rabinbach: There’s a book. There’s a book by, I think, Vidich, V-i-d-i-c-h. If you Google “Vidich Gerth,” you’ll find it. Arthur Vidich has a book. It’s more or less pro-Gerth. But it tells you what you need to know. [Guy Oakes, Arthur Vidich, Collaboration, Reputation, and Ethics in American Academic Life: Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (University of Illinois Press, 1999)].
Tortorice: I could see where George would not forgive that.
Rabinbach: No. Gerth was persona non grata.
Tortorice: That whole idea of a conversation or an oral presentation by a seer as part of academic training or part of the real attraction of academic training or college, seems less and less viable these days. I think people are much more cautious about what they might say in a situation like that. They wouldn’t be as provocative. I mean, I think it’s a loss. I think that was one of the things that was the best thing about people I’ve met in academic life is when you got them in a situation like that where they would emote and not feel censored or—
Rabinbach: You mean Gerth’s free association?
Tortorice: Yes. That whole question of listening to someone and picking out those things that are really enriching, enlightening, from the other things that you might find objectionable. But you still want to listen, you know? You still want to see how they’re connected, or whatever.
Rabinbach: Well, he made himself so unpopular.
Tortorice: Really. Okay.
Rabinbach: I mean, among his colleagues in the sociology department, he was unpopular because he was just contemptuous of them, and he was contemptuous of sociology. For example, I can tell a story about that. I was once in Gerth’s office and a student came in and said, “Professor Gerth, I want to study predictive sociology.”
And Gerth said, “I have just the thing for you.” And he reached onto his bookshelf and he took out a Ouija board. He said, “Here, this is for predictive sociology.” He was a wild man. But you had these eccentric characters in academia. I think what you’re saying is true. But I think what’s lost is because of the rigors of academic training and the difficulties of job placement and letter writing, people have to be completely, how should I put it, constrained. They have to be personally sober. It’s not so bad. Civil, that’s the thing.
Tortorice: Respectful. But, and they’re under such a high level of scrutiny.
Tortorice: Through technology, through student evaluations.
Rabinbach: Student evaluations, yeah. Whereas back in that day when you had the Bill Fishman’s and the Hans Gerth’s and George, people were pretty uninhibited.
Tortorice: I just wonder sometimes. I shouldn’t inject myself too much into this interview. But to me, it seems boring. I mean, I find it that because younger academics are so cautious except when pushing a certain line, then they might push the envelopes. But otherwise, they’re so cautious. And it’s a bit boring. I like provocation a bit more. That was one of the things I thought George was so good at.
Rabinbach: One of the things that attracted me to George was that he was so funny.
Rabinbach: And so scatological.
Rabinbach: And I had experience with this before George. Because we had this connection. I told George about it, but he didn’t know about it when he accepted me to graduate school. One of the jobs that I had, I worked a lot when I was in college. And one of the jobs that I had was stealing jokes.
Tortorice: Stealing jokes?
Rabinbach: Stealing jokes. I worked for a comedian who was not terribly successful. And she needed material. And the way she got material was she would send me to various hotels or comedy clubs or whatever, mostly hotels, where I would sit with a pad and write down the jokes that the comedian onstage was telling, so that she could use the jokes. It was plagiarism, basically. I was stealing jokes. The joke thief.
And this was a very dangerous job, by the way. Because one time, in a very big hotel, he saw me doing it, the comedian saw me doing it, and he said, “What are you doing? What are you writing there?” And two big guys came and took me out to the parking lot. And said, “Don’t come back.”
Tortorice: (laughs) Oh my goodness.
Rabinbach: So, George was a comedian. He was doing standup. I could relate to that. I knew exactly what standup was and how to do it. And he was fabulous.
Tortorice: He was great. He understood that learning had a huge entertainment component to it.
Tortorice: Certainly that’s true.
Rabinbach: And that goes to an interesting point we haven’t really talked about, which is, what was his relationship to the New Left? I mean, George was a liberal in the sort of Weimar mode. But a progressive liberal, let’s all it that. He was not, he had no patience with the kind of ex-communist liberalism of the Sidney Hook (1902-1989) variety in America, whereas liberals had become sort of hardcore cold warriors. He was not a hardcore cold warrior. He was very tolerant. He believed in really the ideas of Bildung and tolerance, and we know this. But he also, he also knew how to relate to people whose political ideas he didn’t agree with. He had a way of engaging in a conversation partially through irony. He was always being ironic. Like the story I told about Sorelians it was just to these wannabe anarchists and wannabe Leninists, you’re really Sorelian. What is he doing? He’s provoking them, say, challenging them. But he’s also saying hey, if you want to do this kind of politics, you better go out and read about what other people have said about it. I think that that was really his gift, that he could engage with people.
I mean, sometimes he wasn’t, how should I put it? Sometimes he wasn’t as informed as we would have liked him to have been. But he got the gist of something. But he would make fun of Lukács. And say, “You’re all so infatuated with Lukács, but you know that Lukács was a Stalinist,” or something like that. And everybody would start tearing their hair out. Lukács is a Stalinist. But he provoked you, and he did it in a good-natured, kind of humorous, humor-inflected way. And this irony was great. I thought it was a great teaching gift. I haven’t ever encountered it again.
Tortorice: I think that’s absolutely right. In his approach to the New Left in particular, it was all irony. He was, I think he had, he was born for that role. Because of course that was his subject, youth revolts in the early twentieth century.
Tortorice: He had been immersed in that. And then he had seen it firsthand in the 30s, in Paris. And engaged in it himself. He was immersed in that history himself. So I think he came to this with a distance and a sense of irony. So when he saw these young 18 year-olds with long hair and fervent ideological beliefs, he was set. He knew how to handle it. And of course they weren’t his children. That was another thing. He had a certain distance from it.
Tortorice: But I think that’s right. I think that was always a key part of his teaching, the irony and the humor.
Rabinbach: But it wasn’t contemptuous.
Tortorice: No. Not at all. No.
Rabinbach: He wasn’t contemptuous. But he would make lightly fun of, it was just on the border of criticism. But it wasn’t criticism. It was really a gift.
Tortorice: Yes. He didn’t, I feel that in a sense he wouldn’t censor because he felt that would disempower people.
Tortorice: But he would try to guide people to think critically. Essentially, people who were so immersed in politics and so engaged in this very exciting, inspirational time. And were also being encouraged by other adults, you know. So, yes, I agree. That ironic approach to the New Left. Which he in many ways admired. He admired the fact that the students were willing to challenge the future.
Rabinbach: He admired it. But he could see the folly of it, too.
Rabinbach: I mean, there’s a famous story when there was some, where was it, the black students called for a university-wide strike. So he would have classes in his house. So some students decided to picket his house. And they said, “You’re a fascist.”
And he said, “Yes. But what kind of a fascist?” I mean, that was typically George.
Tortorice: (laughs) It was Jeff Herf was out there picketing, wasn’t he? (laughs) Yes. Okay. So we should get back to your academic work.
Rabinbach: Well, wait. Let me just say one more thing about George on a personal level.
Tortorice: Sure. Yeah.
Rabinbach: He could be incredibly caring in a way that went beyond academic—I miss that in my own teaching. I don’t have very strong personal relationships with my students. I try to. But it’s not the same. He was really engaged on a personal level. He was really in loco parentis. Because when my mother died, I was sort of at sea. I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I was just in my twenties. I think I’d just passed my prelims. And he just took me, you know, under his wing. And he said, “Here’s what you need to do.” And he told me you’ve got to go talk to this accountant, he gave me the name of an accountant. Told me how to go about getting rid of her belongings. I’ll tell you about that in a second. And you know, he just took care of everything. And he said, “Now I want you to go back to work.” And that was really important. Because he just sort of took care of the business end of the death. And he just said you’ll deal with your grief or whatever by working. And that was very important to me.
Tortorice: I think this was true of a number of people, that he had a close parental, almost in loco parentis, a real parental relationship with his students. Not all. But some. And you certainly were one of them. Yes, he had a, I’d say he had a deep love for his students. A deep caring for his students that isn’t always possible to exhibit. Yes, I think that’s true. There are many examples amongst the people we know where he played a crucial role in their lives in helping in periods of crisis or difficulties.
Tortorice: Yes. So that was the first time that he made this really strong connection with you. But I know it continued throughout his life, right?
Rabinbach: Yeah, it certainly did. But that was the first and a very important time that he, he took control of the situation like a good parent would take control of the situation.
Tortorice: He was a very humane person. Very caring person. Moral person. That’s very true. So you’re in Madison. You’re beginning to work with George. So, we’ve talked about this a bit. But what was he like as a teacher, as a grad advisor?
Rabinbach: Well, he was a combination, I would say, first of all, as a grad teacher and grad advisor, he was a combination of toughness and sort of uncompromising, he was a disciplinarian. And he really took seriously the, he took very seriously the idea that if you were going to become a historian, you had to be able to do certain kinds of things that any historian, any good historian, would have to do. And he wasn’t going to let that slide by. So when you started his class, his graduate class, and remember, this was unique to Madison. This would never happen at Princeton, for example. He admitted all the students to his graduate class himself. There was no, the university or the department didn’t decide who got in; he decided. So we had about twelve, fifteen students in the seminar, all of whom have been chosen by George. And that meant that, he’s not going to advise fifteen dissertations. He’s going to winnow out the students that he doesn’t want to work with.
And so, there was this anxiety in the class right from the beginning. Are you going to make it? are you going to make the cut, or are you going to be kicked out?
And his first assignment—this is unforgettable—his first assignment was, he gave each of us a document, German document. And he said, “I want you to translate this document and annotate it as if you were creating a critical edition of the document.”
So mine was a Lutheran document from the 16th-century. It was in the—(phone ringing) I’ll just leave that.
Tortorice: Okay. I can—do you want to answer it?
Tortorice: Okay. So, a 16th-century Lutheran document. So he decided which ones to give you?
Rabinbach: It was a 16th-century Lutheran document. (phone still ringing, laughter, stops) There you go. Sixteenth-century Lutheran document. And it was written in this very stilted high German, but in a German that no longer really exists. And it was in Gothic script. That was also the challenge. Boy, did I work on that thing. I still remember slaving on that thing, morning through night. Dictionary. You know, I had to look up practically every word. First, trying to decipher the German, the gothic script. Then trying to decipher what the sentences meant. Then trying to interpret the sentences. Then trying to find some way to contextualize the document. I worked like a dog on that thing. And it paid off, because he was happy with the results. He had criticism, but he was happy with the results.
Not all the students took it that seriously. And some of them washed out right away. There was a famous historian, he’s now a famous historian, I should put “famous” in small quotation marks, called Michael Lesy (b. 1945)? L-e-s-y.
Tortorice: Sure, of course.
Rabinbach: He could not do this assignment. And he accused George of being cruel, and walked out of the seminar.
Tortorice: That’s where this animus comes from. Because he’s written about George in a negative way.
Tortorice: Yes. I’ve read, I came across this once. And I wondered where this was coming from.
Rabinbach: Oh, yeah. He washed out. And I saw this confrontation. So, George was that. And then, the second part of the seminar, I’m just trying to describe him as a graduate teacher. The second part of the seminar was we each had a topic. And we had to give a [prepared?] presentation, an oral presentation on this topic on a given day. And George would sit in his chair, sometimes with Schnutzie [the dog] on his lap. And he would sit there and listen to this presentation until he got bored. And then the hand would start flapping. (Tortorice laughs) And the more the hand flapped, the worse off you were. And the more pedantic and boring you were, the more the hand kept flapping. And sometimes he would say, “Well, that’s enough.” And that person would wash out. There was somebody, I can’t remember his name now. He became the owner of a big department store somewhere in the Midwest. He washed out.
So, there was a lot of anxiety in the seminar. And George didn’t often say much. He just let us talk. Because there were a lot of us. But eventually he would warm to some of the characters in the room. And we had this one guy, unforgettable guy, called Hugh Peters, who had this big bush of red hair. And Hugh Peters was from Munich. He was American, but he was from Munich. And his family—don’t ask me how—but his family was close to a notorious character called Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl (1887-1975).
Tortorice: Oh, yes. I’ve heard of Putzi.
Rabinbach: Putzi Hanfstaengl was the foreign, the press secretary of the Nazi Party. But in 1936, and he was also a Harvard graduate. So in 1936, he was dropped by Goebbels. Completely dropped. He was a kind of a drunk and so on. So he escaped to the United States and he got involved with the US military. His son went into the US Army. And he, Hanfstaengl, how did it go? Yeah, the son was in the US Army, so he recruited his father, Hanfstaengl, to write a memoir of Hitler for Franklin Roosevelt. Not for publication. It’s now been published many times. But it was a great little intro to Adolf, you know? what was Hitler really like?
And so Hugh Peters, coming back to George’s seminar, Hugh Peters had grown up with the Hanfstaengl family in Munich. So George would always ask him about Putzi Hanfstaengl. What kind of music did Hanfstaengl, he was a piano player, Hanfstaengl was. Hitler used to call him to his office to play the piano for him. So he would ask about Hanfstaengl. So he became very close to this Hugh Peters guy.
So slowly, people started to emerge, let me say. But there were other people who never made it through that first year. That first year was brutal.
Tortorice: It would be fascinating to talk to some of those people. I’ve talked to a few of them and they still hold George in high regard. But I imagine—
Rabinbach: I can tell you somebody, if you haven’t contacted him. Stephen Lieberstein. He was a dean at Brooklyn College for many years. He was in our seminar and he wrote a dissertation on French anarchism. And Steve was not a favorite of George’s, and George was not a favorite of Steve’s. But I’ve seen Steve over the years. We were involved with Atina [Grossmann] and Molly [Mary Nolan] and several other people in a fellowship program, postdoctoral fellowship program that Brooklyn College had started at the Center for Workers Education at Manhattan. Which still exists. So Steve Lieberstein is a good person to talk to, because he wasn’t a fan of George’s and so on. I think he regrets it now.
Tortorice: Let’s take a short break.
Tortorice: —this thing back on. Okay, we’re back after a short break. So we’ve talked a bit about George as a graduate teacher and the process that he developed to teach graduate students. Essentially, most of his PhDs came through within a ten-year period. I think he had 38. He basically stopped taking graduate students in ‘72. So you were probably one of his last, which is quite extraordinary.
Rabinbach: I thought Steve [Aschheim] came later.
Tortorice: Steve came later, and—
Rabinbach: [Michael] Berkowitz was the last.
Tortorice: And Berkowitz. Those were the two. You, Steve and Berkowitz, I think. But at your time, there were a number that were your contemporaries that were coming through at the same time.
Tortorice: Well, Paul [Breines].
Rabinbach: Yeah. Paul was before me.
Tortorice: Paul was before you. So maybe you were, they were just a little bit before you.
Tortorice: Right. So almost all of them were in that ‘60s, probably mid to late-’60s.
Rabinbach: Steve was later.
Tortorice: Steve was later. Steve was later, Berkowitz was later.
Rabinbach: The Jewish history people were later.
Tortorice: Yeah. Yeah. Larry [Lawrence] Baron, maybe, must have been from the ‘70s.
Rabinbach: Larry Baron.
Rabinbach: He teaches at Saint Lawrence University, is that right?
Tortorice: San Diego.
Rabinbach: San Diego.
Tortorice: Yeah. He just retired. But he was very prominent in his field. Yes. But yeah, most of his graduate students were within a small window. Really, ten years. Then after he started teaching at Hebrew University half time. He had some there, by the way. I think he had about six or seven. But it’s extraordinary how many students he had in that short window. And what you’re saying about his graduate seminar perhaps explains some of this, that he was so engaged in developing students, evaluating students that he felt that he could work with. I mean, he had this ability to select people that he thought would be successful with him.
Rabinbach: But also creative. Because he always insisted that if you didn’t have anything new to say, don’t bother saying it. And he just was very clear about what had to be done in terms of the kinds of research projects that people chose.
Tortorice: So maybe he just got tired of it. Or his explanation to me was that the jobs were drying up.
Rabinbach: Well, that’s possible.
Tortorice: Yes. He could, he used to be able to get jobs for his students, he was very good at that. But it got harder and harder. That was one reason. But I think he might have also just wanted to pursue other things, and didn’t necessarily want to engage in that. especially as he was traveling so much after 68.
Tortorice: He really wound down his engagement at UW after 68.
Tortorice: It’s really odd, it’s very telling that he did it.
Rabinbach: Do you think that had something to do with his estrangement from the faculty?
Tortorice: Yes, I think somewhat. And then also his engagement at Hebrew University. And that opened up a whole new range of intellectual possibilities and a community over there that he really appreciated. And I do think he felt that the level of intellectual community there was richer than in Madison. And then also, he might have been exhausted after those years of having so many students and then being so heavily engaged in the 60s in Madison. I mean, he may have felt, not that George ever admitted that he was exhausted about anything, now that I think about it.
Tortorice: That wouldn’t be the explanation. Well anyways, I think there was a real change there in the late 60s in terms of his engagement with graduate students. Okay, so—
Rabinbach: Can I tell one George story—
Rabinbach: —before we go on, because it just came into my head and I didn’t want to miss telling you this. In the ‘70s, when I was living in Vienna, George came to Germany. And I went to visit him. And he had told me so many times about his education at Salem and how it really had shaped him, Salem had shaped him. And how the head of the school, I think his name was [Kurt] Hahn (1886-1974) —
Tortorice: Yes, right.
Rabinbach: —was a very important educator. So we decided, George decided, that we would go to Salem. So we rented a car and we drove down to Salem. George drove, which is terrifying, as you know.
Rabinbach: On the Autobahn, George, whoa.
Tortorice: Oh my God. You’re lucky you survived.
Rabinbach: Yeah. And the whole way down he was telling me, you know, “This is a real school. You have no idea what a school really ought to be like until you see Salem. We used to get up five o’clock in the morning. Cold showers. Prince Philip (1921-2021) went there. Did I ever tell you that Prince Philip went there?” You always tell me about Prince Philip.
And so we get there, and we park the car and walk towards the school. And coming towards us is this teacher. Very stern looking, ascetic, very strict-looking woman, middle-aged woman. And George says, “Oh, that’s one of the teachers.” And he became so nervous he could barely talk to her.
So I said, “He’s an alumnus of this school and we would like to visit. Where should we go?” And she shows us where to go.
George says, “You see what that’s like?”
And then we get there and we walk into this courtyard where the students are. And the windows are all open and the music is blaring out of the windows, Rolling Stones. And the students are all smoking pot. And George looked at me and he said, “This is not how I remembered it.”
Tortorice: (laughs) Oh, that’s a great story.
Rabinbach: The Salem visit was a memorable visit.
Tortorice: He used to travel a lot with the students. Going way back to the 50s. I think that’s unusual for him to—
Rabinbach: I never experienced anything like that.
Tortorice: Yes Because I know he went on a memorable trip to Mexico in I think 57 or something like that or 58 with Sterling Fishman (1932-1997). And maybe it was Dick [Richard] Soloway (1934-2009). And they both were deathly ill for most of the trip with Montezuma’s revenge. And George just floated, you know, visiting all these baroque churches and having a great time. I remember Sterling telling me that story. And then this fellow that started the American Enterprise Institute.
Rabinbach: Burt Pines?
Tortorice: Yes. He and George traveled all over Eastern Europe.
Rabinbach: The reason for that, though, is important. Because Burton Pines (d. 2019) was the Time bureau chief for Eastern, Time magazine bureau chief for Eastern Europe. And he was based in Vienna. So I knew Burton in Vienna. I actually went out with George once. I remember the three of us went to Drei Husaren, which is a very fancy restaurant in Vienna. Still is. I’ve never been there since.
Tortorice: So that’s how we ended up there in 68 at the time of the Prague spring and all of that. Yeah. But I’ve heard a lot of stories of him traveling with his students. And that is very unusual. Okay. So it was Haupt that directed you towards—
Rabinbach: My dissertation subject.
Tortorice: Yes. And then you came to George and George said do it.
Rabinbach: Right. And George was very happy with it. And he thought it was a great topic, except that the main character of my, this is again George’s, George was never, how should I put it? He’d never give you detailed criticism the way that some of my colleagues give almost page by page criticism of dissertations. He never did that. He would give you like a few paragraphs, maybe two, three paragraphs, and that would be it. But he often hit the nail on the head right away.
So when I finished my dissertation, it was called Ernst Fischer and the Politics of Austrian Social Democracy, something like that [Ernst Fischer and the Left Opposition in Austrian Social Democracy: The Crisis of Austrian Socialism, 1927-1934]. Well, George said Ernst Fischer’s not that important. And he was right. Everything I did was right. And I knew Ernst Fischer. But Ernst Fischer was important in a particular moment. It’s not even important what it was. He didn’t really belong in a dissertation on Austrian social democracy, except for this one moment. And the one moment is gone. So George said, lose Ernst Fischer. That meant two more years’ work. Because the dissertation was built around this character of Ernst Fischer.
So I went back to Vienna, I went back to the archives, and I started to rewrite the whole thing without Ernst Fischer. And that’s how The Crisis of Austrian Socialism came about. And George was absolutely right. He nailed it. I kind of misread Fischer’s importance. Or I wasn’t mature enough to know that Fischer wasn’t that—I don’t know. Maybe Haupt influenced me into thinking that he was important, because he got involved in the Prague spring. But this was irrelevant for the 20s and 30s.
Tortorice: So why didn’t George tell you that earlier, though? Maybe he wanted you to go through this process, or maybe he wasn’t—
Rabinbach: I don’t know if he really considered it. I was sort of off writing my dissertation on my own. I had done all this research. I’d lived in Vienna for two years. But he was right. He was absolutely right.
Tortorice: Part of the process. But you know, he had this, you said that he could immediately analyze something brilliantly and quickly. So when books would come in, he would look at the book and he would read like the first two paragraphs. And he would either just throw it away, you know, he would just, with a kind of sad look, he would toss it to the side. (laughs) Or he would set it in this other pile. And I always thought, you know, that’s really unfair. I asked him about it. I said, “George, how can you figure that out so quickly? How can you analyze a whole book by just reading the first page?”
Rabinbach: So, what did he say?
Tortorice: He said, “I do it. I get bored pretty fast.”
Rabinbach: He used to answer that question when I asked him by saying, “You don’t have to drink the whole bottle to know if the wine is any good.”
Tortorice: (laughs) Yes, that’s right. He had all kinds of those kind of sayings. Yeah, right. But I always thought that was amazing that he could do that. And I’m sure he was always right, you know.
Tortorice: Anyway, so you worked on your dissertation. That, I assume, was your first book?
Tortorice: That it had been shaped by your dissertation.
Rabinbach: Yes. Yes.
Rabinbach: Without Ernst Fischer (1899-1972), the book. He’s a minor character in the book.
Tortorice: Did you find you had to put a lot of work into the dissertation to turn it into a book?
Rabinbach: Oh, a lot. I had to go back to Vienna. Sit back down in the archives and rethink the whole thing.
Tortorice: So that question, you’re not really writing a book when you write your dissertation. That’s something that—
Rabinbach: Well, we encourage people to think that this is going to be a book. But I’ve never seen a dissertation that didn’t need work to be turned into a book. I’ve now had about a dozen graduate students, PhDs, that I’ve advised. And that’s true of all of them.
Tortorice: So you were drawn to Austrian history. That’s where you made your first mark.
Tortorice: And you’re still very engaged with that subject.
Rabinbach: Less and less, because I haven’t written anything for a long time in Austrian history. But I go to Vienna quite often. And I keep a hand in, so to speak.
Tortorice: So tell me about some of your colleagues that you studied with at UW. Some that were George’s students, and students of other professors and that period.
Rabinbach: Well, I remember Sterling, of course. Because Sterling’s first heart attack came when I first arrived.
Tortorice: He must have been very young.
Rabinbach: Yeah, he was. The damn thing was, was that Sterling was the healthiest looking person I ever saw. He was always suntanned, carrying a tennis racket. I’m thinking this guy’s going to live forever, I’m going to die in five years. And then he has a heart attack and George comes to me and says, “Sterling has had a heart attack. You have to teach his course.”
I said, “What’s his course?”
“History of European education. Here’s the syllabus.” George hands me the syllabus. I’m like, I’ve been on the campus like two weeks.
Tortorice: This is when you first arrived. Gee.
Rabinbach: Yeah. I knew nothing about the history of European education. How are we doing?
Tortorice: Yes, we’re fine, yeah.
Rabinbach: And I did it. I mean, I taught the course. And the Ed School didn’t make it any easier, because they sent, I told you this, they sent a spy to monitor my class, called Kazamias. What’s his first name? Mikos? [Andreas].
Tortorice: No. I can’t think of it, either. But he just retired a few years ago.
Rabinbach: Kazamias. And he complained when I would say something that he didn’t particularly care for. Or it wasn’t just me. I gave them a text. It’s interesting. Sterling gave them the text. I mean, it was his syllabus was a memoir by George Orwell of going to fancy private public school, which is a private school in Britain.
Tortorice: Such were the Days [“Such, Such Were the Joys”] or something like that?
Rabinbach: Yeah, something like that. And so I described it and I gave it to the students. And I said that there was a lot of homosexuality in the British upper class school system. And Kazamias stood up, he said, “No there wasn’t!” And he started to complain about my saying this. And he couldn’t abide anybody besmirching the British educational system, because he had been a product of these schools.
Rabinbach: This was the way I had my intro to Sterling’s class. So, there was Sterling.
The other person I really admired was Paul Breines wasn’t there when I first came, because he had gone to Cornell for a year. I think it was because of Winnie needed to do some work at Cornell. So he wasn’t there. But his work on Lukács was very important for me. And I thought that he had really, you know, he was the first person I ever met who really knew about Lukács and Paul was an important influence. We weren’t that close friends. Well, we were friends. But he was just an amazing influence. I learned a lot from him. And his work on the Frankfurt School was very important for me.
And one time, George took me and Paul Breines to meet [Gershom] Scholem in Boston. And it was great, because Scholem asked what we were working on, and I told him. Then he asked Paul what he was working on. Paul said, “Well, I wrote my master’s thesis on Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and my dissertation on György Lukács.”
And he looked at Paul and said, “Well, you went up intellectually, but down morally.”
Tortorice: (laughs) That’s great.
Rabinbach: Isn’t it great? So there was Paul. There was Jeff Herf, who was a close friend. He was then a rabid Marcusaite. And would give these speeches about one-dimensional man from the back of a truck on State Street. There was, who else was there?
Tortorice: Steve wasn’t there in those days.
Rabinbach: No, no, no. I didn’t meet Steve till much later.
Rabinbach: I can’t remember anybody else, really. Harry Marks. But Harry was, studied with a French historian.
Tortorice: Goldberg or—
Rabinbach: Gargan. Ed [Edward T.] Gargan (1934-1966). So I was close to Harry. Harry was always interested in French medicine. He was a more positivistic historian.
Tortorice: Did you know Harvey Goldberg (1922-1987) or take any courses from Harvey?
Rabinbach: I would occasionally sit in on a class of Harvey’s. You know, it’s a funny thing. Although I consider myself to have been on the left, to be on the left, and I was always, I grew up, as we just talked about, in a completely left-wing milieu, I didn’t like Harvey’s way of doing history, or thinking about the history of the left. I thought it was cheerleading.
Tortorice: It’s old-fashioned.
Rabinbach: I thought it was old-fashioned. I thought it was romantic. I thought it was uncritical. That it was proto-Stalinist. I had all these criticisms of it. Maybe I wasn’t fair to Harvey. But he was on my dissertation committee.
Tortorice: Oh, he was.
Rabinbach: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: Who else was on the committee? Do you recall?
Rabinbach: Harvey, David Bathrick (1936-2020). The three, yeah, David Bathrick.
Tortorice: Okay. That brings up another subject. So you and David became friends while you were in Madison.
Rabinbach: Yeah. We became friends when he came. I was sort of already finishing up when he came. And I got to know him through Paul Breines. Yeah, we became close. And we had a little reading group. We would sit and read these impossible articles, impossible to understand articles with titles like, “The Semiotics of Technological Reproducibility,” and stuff like that. We became very close.
And then we decided at a certain point that German Studies was a disaster. That people can’t go on writing articles about [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe (1749-1832), [Friedrich] Schiller (1759-1805), and Thomas Mann (1875-1955). That we have to sort of retool German studies in a more critical Frankfurt School direction, and resurrect, really do a kind of archeology of the Frankfurt School. We really brought the Frankfurt School to America.
Tortorice: So that’s why I was asking about Madison as an intellectual base for the New Left, because of these publications and these scholars that came out and these ideas that came out of it. So in that sense, that’s correct.
Rabinbach: Yeah. And we thought, there were already initiatives in that direction. There was Telos, which was edited by Paul Piccone (1940-2004). But that was not something we were that interested in. That was more philosophy. We wanted to do a kind of reinvent German Studies, have more stuff about film, sexuality. It was sort of George’s program, really. The history of Nazism. But also literary stuff. Theory, Foucault. But mostly the Frankfurt School. And we were translating, in the early issues of New German Critique we were translating texts from the Frankfurt School that hadn’t been published in English. We had an arrangement with Suhrkamp Verlag. We did a translation, they got an advertisement. This lasted for years. Maybe ten years. And then they of course started to see that there was money to be made publishing the Frankfurt School in America, so they withdrew the arrangement. And we stopped translating texts. But I translated “The Culture Industry” essay by [Theodor W.] Adorno (1903-1969). And we had also another person who was involved in the early days of that journal called Jack Zipes (b. 1937).
Tortorice: Oh, yes. Yes.
Rabinbach: He was in Milwaukee.
Rabinbach: That’s a long story, but Jack was really the engine behind New German Critique in the early years. And so it was between Madison and Milwaukee. It was a real Wisconsin project. Jack eventually became totally involved with writing books about the Grimms and about fairy tales. And he didn’t see New German Critique as really serving any purpose for him any longer. We didn’t think that we wanted to publish a lot more of his fairy tale articles. So we sort of dropped the whole thing.
Tortorice: And he’s at Minnesota.
Rabinbach: Yeah, but he’s retired now.
Tortorice: He just retired. Okay. So, fifty years later, it’s still going strong, the journal.
Rabinbach: It’s still going strong.
Tortorice: And you’re still an editor, I believe.
Rabinbach: I’m still an editor. David Bathrick has just retired. He’s an editor.
Tortorice: So that’s a whole other interview. The whole history of New German Critique. And the field. I mean, I don’t know that this is the place to go into that. But perhaps we could talk about that another time? Does that make sense?
Rabinbach: Yeah, sure. And Andreas Huyssen, a very important figure in the early days of, and continues. It’s truly Andreas and me who do most of the work, the editorial work. We have several people who we work closely with, Brad Prager, Eric Rentschler, Lydia Goehr. But the journal is going strong. I mean, I wake up every morning to ten new submissions.
Tortorice: That’s great! Because that’s getting harder and harder to get good quality submissions.
Rabinbach: We are. We have no problem. We have a backlog of two years at the least. So we’re accepting articles now for 2020.
Tortorice: Great. I mean that, in some ways that replicates George’s history with the Journal of Contemporary History.
Rabinbach: Yeah. Rethinking contemporary history, putting it on a more political and cultural footing.
Tortorice: Yes. And that, well, that Mossean influence on New German Critique that you just mentioned, that’s fascinating.
Rabinbach: And George used to write for us occasionally.
Tortorice: Oh, did he? That, I didn’t know.
Rabinbach: He wrote an article on the book burnings. Called “The Bourgeoisie Burns Their Own Books.”
Tortorice: It’s a great title it sounds like.
Rabinbach: Yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: Okay. So that also then came out of Madison.
Rabinbach: Absolutely. In fact, we are still, legally, New German Critique is still a not-for-profit corporation in Madison, Wisconsin.
Rabinbach: Yeah. We’ve never lost that. We have an accountant and it goes. But you know, let me just toot my own horn for a second. We’ve become a real success because the internet has provided us with this connection to JSTOR. And it’s quite lucrative. So the journal is self-supporting now. More than that. It’s—
Tortorice: Making money.
Rabinbach: It’s making, well, we can’t earn any money. I mean, I keep saying we should go on a vacation somewhere, you know. But we can’t use it for that. But we could put on conferences and things. We do put on, and we’re now going to establish a postdoctoral fellow.
Tortorice: Oh, that’s great. That’s really good.
Rabinbach: Because we got a donation which was unexpected. The mother of somebody who’d worked closely with us, managing editor, died. Terrible story. Died very young. And his mother was so appreciative of the way that we handled his passing, memorialized him, that she gave us a nice donation that we’re going to use to establish some sort of postdoctoral travel grant or something. We haven’t worked it out yet.
Tortorice: You can be a co-sponsor of our Berlin conference. (laughs)
Rabinbach: We could talk about that.
Tortorice: Yeah, right? Perhaps that—
Rabinbach: We could talk about that. That’s not unthinkable.
Tortorice: Because it could be a special issue, or it could be something that we could publish with you or if it’s—
Rabinbach: All I can say is, when I hear the words “special issue,” my hair goes up. (Tortorice laughs) Because we are now two or three years, we have a backlog of two or three years. So if we start thinking about a special issue now, it’s going to come out five years from now. In 2025. I’ll be drinking oatmeal out of a straw.
Tortorice: (laughs) We’ll all be dead. Anyways, well that’s really an important part of your Madison connection.
Tortorice: That’s a whole other interview. But it’s been really a profoundly influential journal, I know. And one thing with the Journal of Contemporary History, because of its origins and it was always connected with a larger entity, I don’t think George and Walter [Laqueur (1921-2018)] had the kind of control over the finances that you probably do over your journal. Because I think that journal has made lots of money for SAGE over the years. I’m talking millions of dollars. And it was a model that wasn’t necessarily beneficial to those that did all the work, you know?
Tortorice: And they’ve never been that generous in terms of subscriptions or travel grants or any of that sort of thing. So it’s good, I gather you’re not tied into one of these.
Rabinbach: Oh, we are. Duke University Press.
Tortorice: Okay. But that’s a little different than SAGE. But anyways, we won’t go into—
Rabinbach: Who’s the editor now?
Tortorice: It’s Richard Evans and a woman from University of Texas, Austin, who’s in Russia this year [Mary Neuburger]. I can’t think of her name. They’ve taken over from Stan Payne and Walter.
Rabinbach: Walter’s still kicking, huh?
Tortorice: It’s extraordinary.
Rabinbach: He’s ninety-what?
Tortorice: Seven or something like that.
Rabinbach: Jesus. Jeff Herf is in touch with him. I’m not.
Tortorice: He is. Yeah. I’m really not, either. But anyways we won’t go into all of that.
Rabinbach: It’s interesting that George could work with somebody like that, because he’s so reactionary. And he hates the Frankfurt School.
Tortorice: That is why I couldn’t. Yes. Yes.
Rabinbach: He wrote this notorious article about why should anybody care about Walter Benjamin. The answer is, nobody should care about Walter Benjamin. So he’s never been my cup of tea.
Tortorice: It’s amazing that they were able to maintain this collaboration and really friendship.
Rabinbach: Yeah, how do you explain that?
Tortorice: I think it’s partially what you mentioned about George and those who disagreed with them politically.
Tortorice: That as long as they had a cogent argument that they exhibited—well, engagement and interaction with ideas, that they could defend their ideas, I think he gave them a lot of leeway. So he didn’t judge people on their politics. I think he felt that was something that had been very damaging. Even though he had strong political opinions and beliefs. I don’t know that Walter ever crossed that line with him where he would have felt that he couldn’t continue to work with him on the basis of politics. It seemed to me that George did most of the editing of the journal. I think he was the one that, in terms of the scholarly articles. But they used to speak about once every week. And I always felt that George would supply Walter with all of the scholarly information. All of the multiple books that he had probably read during that week, or the politics of academic life, or new ideas. And Walter would provide the real-world background, the Washington, the intelligence community, the institute community, the political community. So it was a good mixture, in that sense. Yeah. But yeah, they did.
Tortorice: They stayed friends for all their lives. Yeah. You’re right, though. Last time I had dinner with him and Stan Payne. And that was just—they’re so reactionary!
Rabinbach: Yeah, really.
Tortorice: It’s just extraordinary. But I don’t think anyone’s ever really written anything on Walter, at this point. Udi Greenberg said one time that he might want to do that. That would be worth doing, certainly. Okay. So, is there anything else you want to say about your Madison years? Your relationship with George, of course, continued long after you left Madison.
Rabinbach: Sure. Sure.
Tortorice: It was a lifelong friendship, mentorship. And like you said, it was almost more like a father/son relationship.
Rabinbach: Yeah. That’s right.
Tortorice: That was the way I perceived it.
Rabinbach: And also, my scholarship when I left Madison was more directly engaged with George’s work than while I was at Madison. Because the Austrian book, of course, wasn’t George’s subject. But my next project, which was writing about the Schönheit der Arbeit, 34:52 the beauty of labor, the Nazi project of beautifying and aestheticize factories and factor environments and design and introduce a modernist aesthetic into German industrial landscape, was a direct response to The Crisis of German Ideology, which looked at Nazism as kind of a pre-modern or a romantic anti-modern movement. And I wanted to argue that it was a modernist movement as well. That you couldn’t just focus on völkisch thought. You had to look at these aesthetic projects. And Albert Speer (1905-1981) was the eminence gris, not eminence, well, not gris. He was the author and the architect of these beautification projects.
So George, of course, this is a wonderful thing about George’s quality as a person. He did not see this as a criticism of his work, about which he should become defensive. On the contrary, he saw it as something that enhanced his work. And he immediately said, “You’ve got to get in touch with Speer. You’ve got to go to Germany and talk to Speer. I’ll set it up.”
And so he did. And I went to Germany and went to Heidelberg. And I stayed, I didn’t stay overnight, but I stayed with Speer for a couple of days and we went over this. I had done a lot of archival research. So we went over the personnel, the changes that happened in the course of the existence of this Beauty of Labor project. All sorts of things. And you know, he was more than willing to work with me, because he was a kind of a professor of himself. He was an expert on Albert Speer. He happened to be Albert Speer. But not everybody’s an expert on themselves. And he was an expert on himself. He remembered every detail, every conservation, every meeting, every memo that went on that I’d found in the archives. And at the end, he thanked me for the objectivity with which I described, and then there was “our efforts,” “unsere Bemühungen.” 37:18 I’ll never forget that, because when I thought, what do you mean “our?” Who’s the “our” in me? Is it Adolf and me? I mean, what is the “our” in this sentence? He meant his bureau. You know, his office. He didn’t mean Hitler. But it’s still unbecoming to talk about “our” efforts.
But anyway, so Beauty of Labor became my new project, my post-Madison project. I published it in the Journal of Contemporary History. George helped facilitate that. And then I expanded it into a book called The Human Motor, which was about technologies of work and the body from the 19th century up through Beauty of Labor. So Beauty of Labor became the end of a project. My thought was to do an archeology of the idea of technological aesthetics and aesthetic technology and the dynamics of the workplace and the working body in the 19th century.
And that brought my Marxism and my interest in the Frankfurt School together with my interest in Nazism. It was kind of a happy marriage of these two interests of mine. Because I have a chapter of Marx as a theorist of work. And I put him in the context of thermodynamics and the history of physics in Germany, rather than the history of political economy.
And George was really happy with that book.
Tortorice: Oh, yes. Yes.
Rabinbach: He kept calling it “the fatigue book.” It is in the title, the subtitle is “Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity.” But he would cite it all the time. And in the right context, that Nazism was, as Jeff Herf also pointed out, a kind of reactionary modernism. Not an anti-modernism. So he changed his mind about Nazism. I think, I’m not going to take credit for changing his mind. I think it was in the air, too. But it was at a time where people were looking at Nazi modernism. Not völkisch ideology. And I was part of that, and there were others. I mean, in differently areas. Paul Weindling in the history 39:48 of medicine and so on.
Tortorice: Well, I know George always said he wished he’d written that book, that he felt complemented his work beautifully. And you’re right. He never felt defensive about—
Rabinbach: He never was threatened if the idea was good.
Tortorice: Yes. That’s really true.
Rabinbach: It was wonderful for me, because I was a great admirer of the crisis book. In fact, when I think about what it was that brought me to study with George, it was reading The Crisis of German Ideology in Salzburg that summer. I knew I wanted to study with the person who had written this book. This is a book that really goes deep into the origins of Nazism. Doesn’t just focus superficially on Hitler, or on Luther to Hitler, or all these sort of crackpot ideas that were current at the time. But had really gone into the sources of racist, völkisch thought.
You know, you can criticize the book. But at the time, it was just miles ahead of what other people were doing.
Tortorice: Have you read the transcript to that seminar at Stanford that he did the year before that book came out? Did I ever send that to you?
Tortorice: So Gordon Craig (1913-2005) brought together all of the experts on fascism in one place to critique George’s book over the course of a semester. So every week, they would take a chapter and then it would be critiqued and George would have to defend it. It’s absolutely fascinating.
Rabinbach: Is it interesting, really?
Tortorice: I think it’s interesting.
Rabinbach: Yeah, I’d like to see that.
Tortorice: I will send you a copy. Because I think that is where George really turned in terms of his engagement with contemporary history and left behind the early modern and saw that he had a huge contribution that he could make to this field. And it seems to me a very key document. And then also just how retrograde some of the ideas of these people, these scholars of that period, were about that subject. Of course, it was only, what, fifteen years since the end of the war. But it’s very unique.
Rabinbach: But that was the era where everybody was excited about the prospect of thinking about Nazism as a kind of failure to modernize, as a failure of liberalism to establish itself in Germany, you know the so-called Sonderweg debate. And George had no patience for that. He wasn’t interested in that. He’s been accused of being an example of that. And you could read The Crisis in that way, as a kind of Germany’s illiberal path. But I don’t think he ever really thought of himself as a Sonderweg theorist.
Tortorice: I would think that whole immersion in popular culture, that aspect of the book was so pioneering, so important, in many different fields, really.
Rabinbach: Right. No, that book was very important for me. I haven’t read it for a while. There was also a, it really annoyed the hell out of me. I was reading, do you know Die Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe is (1972)? It’s an eight-volume research work, multiple authors, history of different concepts in German history. So one of them is Volk, vökisch, etcetera. And this was done in the ‘70s. So George’s book was long out. Not mentioned at all.
Tortorice: I know.
Rabinbach: Not mentioned at all.
Tortorice: My God. Was there a translation into German by then of his book?
Rabinbach: Yes. Yes. The German version had already come out. No, he was systematically ignored by German historians. Especially those Hans Mommsen (1930-2015) and sort of leading lights of German history. And I wonder why.
Tortorice: That’s something we will discuss in Berlin. But, yes.
Rabinbach: We should talk about it. You know who can talk about that. What’s his name? In Jena. Norbert Frei. I had a conversation with Norbert about this once. And he said that there were certain German historians that were interested in George. But I couldn’t find evidence of this. It really upset me that this Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe which was supposed to be the standard work on German historiography doesn’t mention The Crisis of German Ideology, in a chapter on völkisch thinking. And this chapter, when I say chapter, it’s about 130 pages.
Tortorice: I think George was easy to dismiss by that generation because he was so original and he was so provocative in the sense that he didn’t follow the way they did history, or their conclusions. And then there was, and that was true in England, too. I mean, it was true in a lot of places. It wasn’t only in Germany. I think German’s a special case. But, for example, Ian Kershaw (b. 1943) doesn’t mention George. Which is quite extraordinary.
Rabinbach: In his Hitler biography?
Tortorice: Mm hmm.
Rabinbach: That’s interesting.
Tortorice: In some of his publications. I can’t remember the young man that was writing that book on George said he had looked at Kershaw’s writing and said that George is not even mentioned.
Rabinbach: Yeah, there’s this book called The Nazi Dictatorship.
Tortorice: Yeah. It would be good to check that one out. But, yeah. There is a real resistance. Well then Dagmar [Herzog] told me that Bracher once described George as “that old gay goat.” Something along those lines. And then [David] Sabean, in my interview with him, mentions that some of these older scholars at the Wissenschaftskolleg that had dinner with Sabean and George when Sabean was there, were very dismissive of George. Even to his face. But George was, you know, you couldn’t do that with George. He just didn’t respond to that kind of thing. This is what Sabean said. That’s interesting. Yeah. That’s an important topic.
Tortorice: But, well anyways, we’ve been going an hour and a half. Do you want to wrap this up and we could continue another time? Or do you want to keep going?
Rabinbach: We could go a little bit longer. I’m okay.
Tortorice: Okay. So, The Human Motor, which I think is really an extraordinary book, and I know George really appreciated tat book. And I think it does, again, tie into that whole question of Madison, of George, of others, really as engines of New Left thinking. Of one of the places, the important centers of that. And the revival of the Frankfurt School, that George felt was something that his students gave him that he knew very little about it, although I think he read all those things in the 40s, even in the 50s. But that that interest really was revived by people like you, others, Paul, in the 60s.
Rabinbach: Well, The Human Motor was an attempt, in a way, to operationalize the Frankfurt School in a historical way. The Frankfurt School was really great philosophically and interesting even historically in some cases. But by and large, they didn’t do historical research. And the ways that they thought about the history of technology were suggestive, but didn’t really have the information about the history of technology that we’d need to make an argument like the argument of Dialectic of Enlightenment historically operational. And that’s what I tried to do. That was my project was to sort of, can you write history informed by the Frankfurt School but not about the Frankfurt School? They’re not really in the book. They’re just sort of hovering around, looking over my shoulder, thinking about what I’m saying.
Tortorice: I thought Liliane’s [Weissberg] talk was very much influenced by your example last night, the talk that she gave. [“The Frankfurt School Knew Trump was Coming.” Panel Discussion, Leo Baeck Institute, Center for Jewish History].
Rabinbach: I loved her pictures.
Tortorice: Yes. They were great. So you then got a job at Cooper Union?
Tortorice: No, that was not true?
Rabinbach: Hampshire College.
Tortorice: Oh, Hampshire. Okay.
Rabinbach: That was my first job. And Hampshire was a college in the process of inventing itself. It was an expensive, offbeat liberal arts college that hadn’t decided yet whether it wanted to be an academic institution or a therapeutic community. And that was the problem with Hampshire College, in a nutshell. And I was clearly on the academic side, but I didn’t have a whole lot of support. So I would try to, I’ll give you an example. When I came, there were very few courses. People would just sit in their office and have sessions with students, like therapy sessions. And I said, this is really bad. This is creating a sense of isolation on the part of the students. We need to have a communal experience. Why don’t we call it a lecture course? I’ll give the lectures. I volunteered.
So I created this course called Capitalism and Empire, which was basically what we used to call Western Civ, by a different name. I taught Capitalism and Empire, two-semester lecture course. Early modern, modern intellectual history, some political history, some military history. Colonialism. But I was, you know, I wanted to create a pedagogy and a curriculum appropriate to this institution, which hadn’t decided what kind of institution it was going to be yet.
I stayed only three years. And then I went to, I left not having another job.
Tortorice: How did the students respond to your attempts to create a more academic—
Rabinbach: It was popular. The lecture course was very popular. We used to, it was kind of like we would, I don’t know how to describe this. We had a kind of ironic attitude towards it. It was sort of tongue and cheek to the whole place, and to what we were doing there. I had a friend called Lawrence Pitkethly who had made two hundred films to the BBC. But he had studied with, I can’t remember his name now. Come on. Anyway, he’d studied in England. He’d done a thesis in intellectual history on Sartre. So we decided we would invent a course together called Philosophies of Liberation from the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) to the Present. This was the most popular course in the college. Everybody wanted to be in it. So we had this huge auditorium. And we would write the lecture—we were both living in New York at the time, so we would write the lectures in the car driving up to Hampshire.
And I stayed about three years. I found it very draining, in point of fact, because you had to be in your office all day long. And you just saw student after student after student. It was a therapeutic pedagogy, rather than an academic pedagogy. And then I finally just quit. Lawrence and I actually did it together. We just said, enough is enough. I can’t take this anymore. It’s wrecking my academic career. And I came to New York. I got a fellowship at the Remarque Institute for a year. And then I went to Cooper Union.
Tortorice: And then you were there until the 90s.
Rabinbach: Ninety-six. Ninety-five was my last year at Cooper Union. Ninety-six I came to Princeton.
Tortorice: Okay. At Cooper, you taught undergrad?
Rabinbach: Only undergrad. I had some students, I had some students at NYU. I moonlighted at NYU teaching graduate courses. And I had some doctoral students at NYU. Tim Pytell, Timothy Pytell, which we haven’t mentioned in the graduate students. (phone interruption)
Tortorice: I’m sorry. Timothy Pytell, this was your—
Rabinbach: Yeah. Timothy Pytell, he teaches at San Bernardino State College in Pasadena in California. And he wrote a very interesting book on Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), the psychoanalyst, the psychotherapist. I met him at NYU.
But basically, Cooper was undergraduate teaching. And I did the same thing that I did at Hampshire College. I made it a condition of my employment that I teach a two-semester lecture course, survey course. I don’t think I called it Capitalism and Empire. Making of the Modern World. And it actually, there’s actually a reader, a published reader from that course.
Tortorice: So by and large, your experiences there were good?
Rabinbach: They were like Atina’s [Grossmann] experiences. Cooper’s a chaotic place. It’s very badly run. When I was there, it was really badly run. It had a president who was completely incoherent named [John] Jay Iselin (1933-2008). He had been a PBS person. I don’t know, he was just impossible. I needed a, my problem with him was when he would say something to me, I needed a translator to explain what he just said. Because I had no idea what he was talking about. Anyway.
Tortorice: (laughs) It’s a good strategy.
Rabinbach: Anyway, Cooper Union was fine. It was in New York. It allowed me to do other things. I was very involved with the magazine Dissent at the time. So I wrote for Dissent a lot. I wrote a lot of political pieces for Dissent. Reportage about Europe. I tried to bring cultural history into political writing, which was, if I can say what my favorite piece was from those years, I wrote a piece called “Soviet Kitsch” (Fall, 1984). About the traces of the Soviet Union left over in contemporary Russia. So there, for example, a restaurant called Lenin’s Mating Call. (Tortorice laughs) Then there was, of course, the tomb of Lenin. Not tomb. He’s there. You know what I’m talking about. Dead Lenin, I used to call it. So I wrote a piece about how we understand kitsch in a more theoretical and historical way. I tried to show that it really created a kind of a thread to the old Soviet period, so that the Soviet Union is not forgotten, but it’s not remembered, either. That was the idea. That it created these kitschy versions, kitschified versions, of Stalinism, of Leninism. And the present was a way of maintaining contact with the past without really confronting or thinking about the past.
And I had a semester in Russia, I should say. I taught at Smolny College, which is a small liberal arts college in Saint Petersburg that was founded by Leon Botstein of Bard College. I taught there for a semester. I had a Fulbright teaching scholarship. That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that. It was the early Putin years, so it wasn’t as repressive as it is now. And I made some very good friends at Smolny, two of whom are now in Atlanta, because the director and his wife were forced out by Putin, and they went into exile in the United States and they’re teaching in Atlanta.
Tortorice: And you kept active in your scholarly life? I mean, you had the time? You weren’t overburdened with administrative or teaching responsibilities at Cooper, because you’ve always been very productive.
Rabinbach: Yeah, well, I did. And I started to, but I couldn’t, what I couldn’t do was the kind of archival research that I liked doing for the Austrian book or for The Human Motor. So I wrote a book which was based mostly on published sources called, hold on one second.
Tortorice: In The Shadow of Catastrophe[: German Intellectuals Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment (University of California Press, 1997)]?
Rabinbach: In the Shadow of Catastrophe. I always forget the title of my own books.
Tortorice: It’s similar to Steve’s.
Tortorice: It’s similar to Steve’s title. He uses the term “catastrophe” also, in terms of the fate of German Jewish intellectuals. Doesn’t he have a book? Maybe it was your book, but I thought Steve had some book with catastrophe in the title. Culture and Catastrophe.
Rabinbach: Culture and Catastrophe. That’s right. That’s right. So, Shadow of Catastrophe came out, I guess, in 96, somewhere around then. And it was an attempt to compare the two postwar, German intellectuals in the two postwar periods, the First World War and the Second World War. So from the First World War, I have the Frankfurt School. And a Dadaist called Hugo Ball (1886-1927). And for the Second World War, I have Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and the Frankfurt School. And I talk about the difference in ways that they thought about catastrophe in the wake of the two wars.
Tortorice: So would you say your teaching style was influenced by George’s?
Rabinbach: I wish it were. I wish I was better at making jokes in the lectures. George had an inimitable capacity, I don’t know where he got this from. His lectures, he didn’t lecture at people. He lectured in such a way that he spoke to them. And he would always make these parenthetical remarks directed at certain people, imagined and real, in the audience. He would say, “Okay, so for you Trotskyists from Scarsdale, let me just say—” Now I don’t know that there were any Trotskyists from Scarsdale in the audience. I mean, he probably didn’t know, either.
Tortorice: Probably not. (laughs)
Rabinbach: Except I think there was once a walkout by the Trotskyists from Scarsdale.
Tortorice: Was Paul amongst them? (laughs)
Rabinbach: Paul was the Scarsdale.
Tortorice: Yes, he was the Scarsdale. Right. Right. He had certain techniques, like repetition, that he had learned. Very effective teaching techniques that he had in his repertoire, certainly. But he prepared very vigorously for those lectures. And he changed them radically between one year and the next, or every couple of years. There would be the same material, but it would be different. Because we have some lectures he gave on contemporary Europe in 79 and then 83. And they’re very different. So he used those lectures to try out ideas on what he was working on, and well, as a laboratory for his own research and how to present his research. And then also, I think, he just loved teaching. He was a ham, really. He loved all of that. He was a great performer.
Rabinbach: He was a great performer.
Tortorice: He really was.
Rabinbach: The best I’ve ever seen.
Tortorice: Yeah. Yeah. I agree.
Rabinbach: We have some characters in my department, but he’s definitely the best I’ve ever seen.
Tortorice: I agree. He was really a first-rate teacher and performer.
Rabinbach: One of the things I learned from him, not so much in the performative angle, but I really appreciated the fact that he wrote out his lectures in advance, but didn’t read them. He stayed with the script to some extent, but he would go off on tangents. I thought that was a really good way to do it. Because writing out your lectures in advance, it gives you an anchor, so you don’t lose track of what you’re saying, or you don’t ramble, or you don’t stay too focused on one small detail. I mean occasionally he would miss things, sort of obvious things. Like, I can’t remember the exact dates of this, but he said something like, in one lecture, he said something like, and we salute the United Nations on the twentieth anniversary of its founding. And it was like the 25th or 30th anniversary of its founding. In other words, he’d written it a long time ago and hadn’t bothered to change it. And I would go like this, you know? (laughter)
And one time, one time, I don’t know if I’ve told you this. He was very good. He had bursitis, and his bursitis was terrible. And he refused to not go to class. I kept saying, “Don’t go to class, just let’s cancel.” But he was on medication. He said, “I’m going to teach. I never missed a class.” It was the Prussian George.
And so he went to class, and he somehow got hooked on a phrase that, he seized on Lukács, History and Class Consciousness. He couldn’t remember the title of the book. So he said, “Lukács, History and Consciousness. Bad book! Evil book!” And he kept slamming his hand on the table, going, “Evil book! Evil book!” And I could see this was the bursitis medicine talking. And this student in front of me is writing, “Evil book. Evil book.”
Tortorice: (laughs) Oh my goodness.
Rabinbach: But he was great at, I mean, he could deliver a lecture.
Tortorice: He came alive, I think, when he got on the stage. In his older years, I think, in particular, I noticed that. He would just, his energy level would just go way up, and his awareness. Yeah, it was really amazing.
Rabinbach: Right. Right.
Tortorice: And then you know, he wasn’t static. He moved around. He always—
Rabinbach: Right. He walked up and down.
Tortorice: And he was aware of his reception. So if he felt the students weren’t listening or weren’t engaged, he had methods of getting their attention. Because I always felt that this was a serious affair when you were in his class. You weren’t there, he wouldn’t have tolerated, for example, computers. Or he didn’t like people reading newspapers or not giving them his full attention, or talking. It was a pretty disciplined affair, if I recall.
Tortorice: He managed to do that very well. So—
Rabinbach: I’ve actually gotten to the point where I integrate the computers that the students have into my classes. So that, for example, if I’m talking about the [Adolf] Eichmann (1906-1962) affair, I say, “Okay, Google Eichmann. So you see a picture of Eichmann. Is he in a glass cage?” So I have them actually look at some of the illustrations in the computer.
Tortorice: That’s good. So you don’t ban them from your classes.
Tortorice: We have quite a few professors that do ban them.
Rabinbach: I say what’s the point? Kids grow up with them. They know how to take notes on them. I know they look at their email during class, Facebook. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Tortorice: Yup. Has your teaching changed at all over the years? Your undergraduate teaching? We’ll talk about that first. Do you think that you are a better teacher than you were when you first started out?
Rabinbach: I hope so I don’t teach—well, I still teach a lecture course, History of the 20th Century. We have so many people in my department, I should say, that it’s very difficult to teach a survey course the way I did at Cooper or at Hampshire. But we have 71 people in our department, so it’s a very large department. I teach History of 20th Century Europe, from the First World War basically to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I teach seminars. I would say that, I would say that my teaching has changed to the extent that it’s more elemental than it might have been. I don’t use that many secondary sources. I have them almost exclusively read primary sources. Certain things have become staples. Like in my survey course, I use Modris Eksteins’ book on the First World War, The Rites of Spring, which is something I think George, a book that I think George liked. And from George’s era, I still use Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which I think I read for the first time in George’s class. So there’s some continuities. But it’s become more elemental. And my intellectual history course is not cultural history. It’s intellectual history. We read John Stuart Mill. We read Freud, we read Nietzsche, we read Marx, we read Carl Schmitt. You know, I have the big thinkers. It was something George didn’t do.
Tortorice: If he did it, it was integrated with cultural history.
Rabinbach: Right. Right.
Tortorice: He had Freud, he had Marx, things like that, Hegel.
Rabinbach: Right, right. But he would never give a whole class on Marx. And I do that.
Tortorice: I don’t think George used secondary sources very much.
Rabinbach: No, I don’t think so.
Tortorice: He hardly ever did. He never assigned the work of another historian.
Rabinbach: I almost never do that.
Tortorice: That’s great. I like that idea, too. (laughs) Well, I would like to talk a little more about Speer and about whether you know anything regarding rightwing elements in Europe that George cultivated after the war. But perhaps we could do that at the end, and talk a little more about your graduate training first.
Tortorice: So how many graduate students have you had?
Rabinbach: Advised? About ten.
Tortorice: Okay. And most of those would have been at Princeton.
Rabinbach: Yes They include, I’m trying to remember all of them. I probably will forget some of them. Stefanos Geroulanos, who’s at NYU now.
Rabinbach: He was my undergraduate student at Princeton. He wrote a senior thesis with me on Heidegger in France. And then I was his thesis advisor, although he was not a graduate student at Princeton technically, because Princeton does not allow their undergraduates to become graduate students. So he took his degree at Hopkins. But I was on his committee and advised his dissertation on, An Atheism that Was Not a Humanism, it’s called, and it’s about French thought in the twentieth century, French intellectual history. So Stefanos is one of my favorite students. And he’s paid me back in many, many ways, including publishing my latest book in his series, which is a sequel to The Human Motor, called The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor.
Tortorice: Has that come out yet?
Tortorice: That’s the one that’s coming out. Great. Great.
Rabinbach: It’s done already.
Tortorice: Congratulations. That’s wonderful.
Tortorice: So you had asked me what Stefanos, this is a bit of an aside, had talked about in Madison when he was there last spring. And I couldn’t recall initially. But I recalled afterwards that he spoke about this group of Nazis that attempted to create a kind of intellectual grounding of Nazism. And they were mostly administrators. So that was the subject of his presentation. Yeah.
So, Stefanos, who’s gone on to quite a distinguished career already.
Tortorice: He’s a very young man. Was your graduate training similar to the way George worked?
Rabinbach: No, I don’t terrify people. Well, look. The difference is, institutionally and structurally, Princeton admits very few graduate students to the history department to begin with. We’re seventy people; if we admit twenty-five students in a year, that’s a lot. But that also means you don’t get a student every year. Sometimes I’ll go two years without—there would have to be a really compelling reason to accept a student to work with me, or I would have to make a compelling argument that I would want to work with a student. For example, John [Jonathon] Catlin, who you saw last night, was somebody I really wanted to work with. He worked with David Nirenberg in Chicago. He was interested in the Frankfurt School. He seemed like a really good writer. I thought this is a guy I’d really like to take on. But there are years where I don’t do that. Because it’s done by committee. I’m rarely on the admissions committee, because I dread being on admissions committees. And when it finally comes to my desk, I’ll maybe have five people to look at who are possible, I’ll say no, they’re not really people I want to work with.
Tortorice: So you’ve been quite selective. And therefore you’ve had some good–
Rabinbach: Well, the department has been selective, first of all. And I’ve been selective in that context. I’m not somebody who really wants, how shall I put it? I don’t get competitive or combative around admissions. If somebody comes to my desk who looks plausible, I’ll make the argument. But if not, then not. My ego is not involved in the admissions process.
Tortorice: Well, as you know, it often causes strife between colleagues. And if you can avoid that, that’s good. (laughs)
Rabinbach: Well. But I’ve had ten pretty important students. Can we talk about them a little bit?
Tortorice: Sure, yes.
Rabinbach: So, Joshua Derman D-e-r-m-a-n, teaches at the University of Hong Kong. He is a wonderful historian of Max Weber. And he wrote a book about the reception of Max Weber’s work in the Weimar Republic and in America. And the book came out, oh, I would say five, six years ago [Max Weber in Politics and Social Thought: From Charisma to Canonization (Cambridge, 2013)]. And I stay in touch with Josh and I’m going to see him this summer at a conference that I’m organizing. I won’t compare them, but he’s certainly one of the most, one of the students I’m most proud of. Let me put it that way.
Then there’s Clara Oberle, German woman. Teaches at San Diego College [Note: He means University of San Diego]. That’s the Catholic School. She wrote a very nice dissertation on the reconstruction of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the war. How they got the trains running, how they got housing, how they distributed housing, what were the politics of these policies, and also how the Americans actually worked very closely with the Russians, even though the Cold War was on, to get Berlin working again. So that’s a very good thesis.
There’s Maribel Morey is a fantastically interesting person. She’s trained in law as well as in history. And she did a dissertation on The [Note: An] American Dilemma, which was a book written by Gunnar Myrdal (1898-1987) and his wife in the 1940s about the race problem in America. But she learned Swedish. She went to Sweden and she worked in the Myrdal archives in Sweden to show the Swedish component of The American Dilemma. And she’s now become one of the leading young historians of the history of philanthropy, which is a new field.
Joe Kroll wrote a very theoretically sophisticated, really impressively sophisticated dissertation on the debate between Karl Löwith (1887-1973) and Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) in the 1950s over the question of religion and secularization. And he didn’t publish it, which is a pity. But he didn’t go into academic life, either. He went into publishing. I’m still hoping that he’ll publish his dissertation some form, but not looking, I’m not optimistic about it happening soon.
So, who else is there? There’s Humberto Schwarzbeck, which is a name that’s difficult to get your mind around. He’s Mexican. And he wrote a very creative dissertation which is going to be published soon on the concept of the instant in German culture. And he uses, for example one of his chapters is about Ernst Jünger, who wrote a book called The Dangerous Moment [The Dangerous Encounter], Die gefährliche Augenblick. And so this idea of the moment, the instant, he finds wonderful examples of where this notion of the instant comes from. It’s a really good example of cultural and intellectual history combined.
So then I’ve got two I really want to mention, Cristina Florea, who’s Romanian originally, did a fabulous, really mind-blowingly important dissertation on Czernowitz under five empires. And Cristina, in addition to being a very good historian, has countless languages. I mean, she has Romanian, I don’t want to go into the list. But Ukrainian, Romanian, German, French, Yiddish. You name it, she’s got it. So she’s done this study of this one city under different occupying empires. Her Czernowitz book is really going to make a big splash. She just got a job at State University of New York in Albany.
Tortorice: Hmm. So she’s recent.
Rabinbach: Oh, she’s very recent. She’s a year ago. And then the last one, the latest one, well, the two latest ones. But the one that I directed most recently is Marc Volovici, he’s Israeli. Comes from a Romanian family. He wrote a fantastic dissertation on the relationship between German and Hebrew, German and Yiddish, and the debates on Jewish nationalism and language. He’s impressive. Very impressive.
And the latest one, Emily Riley, just last week defended a thesis on the origins of American and European development policy in postwar Italy. Which is about banking, reconstruction, re-restoration, rebuilding Italy from the immediate postwar period where they’re just clearing rubble and feeding people to the emergence of a thought about a doctrine of development that could be exported from Italy to other countries to show how you can turn economic ruin and devastation into economic progress and development. That’s more, I’m probably leaving a couple out. But that’s more or less it.
Tortorice: That’s an impressive list. That’s great.
Rabinbach: They’re good. They’re a good group.
Tortorice: Yes. Yes. That’s obvious you’re very proud of them, and enjoyed, really enriched by working with them.
Rabinbach: Oh, yeah. I am and I like getting together with them.
Tortorice: Great. Great. So, we’ve been talking now for over two hours. So I think—
Rabinbach: We’ll take a break.
Tortorice: Yes. Shall we take a break?
Tortorice: Okay. Testing. Okay. So we’re back. And Andy, you wanted to mention another student.
Rabinbach: Yes. Molly Loberg, who wrote a dissertation some time about called Weimar Streets, which is a cultural history of street life in the Weimar Republic. Everything from [Ernst] Lifaß Säule you know, the, I don’t know what they called, Lifaß Säule poster kiosks to commercial vendors, carts, demonstrations, you name it. Lighting. You name it. Police. You name it. It’s really a wonderful synthesis of cultural history and political history, and a take on the Weimar Republic that’s very unusual.
Tortorice: And visual history. Another area that George made huge contributions. Well, we’ve been talking now for over three hours. So I really want to thank you for doing this, for taking the time to do this. This is wonderful. But do you have any final remarks that you would like to make? And we can also do this again, if you’d like, on another occasion.
Rabinbach: I’d love to talk more. Let me just say that it’s wonderful to talk about George. I could talk about him for another three hours.
Tortorice: Yes. Okay. Well, thank you so much.
Tortorice: Yeah, I think we’d better—
Total time = 155 minutes