Narrator: Seymour Drescher
Interviewer: Anita Hecht, Life History Services
Videographer: Anita Hecht
Date: 28 October 2010
Transcribed: Skye Doney
Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Editing: Charles Glen for Life History Services, LLC
Kyle Jenkins, Greg Konop from the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Mentoring at UW-Madison
Seymour Drescher Biography:
Seymour Drescher is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the departments of History and of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed his PhD with George L. Mosse at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 1960. With Eugene McCreary he edited the documentary “Confrontation Paris: 1968,” which he discusses during the final five minutes of this oral history. “Confrontation Paris: 1968,” is available here.
Professor Drescher’s publications include:
– Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization (Pittsburgh, 1968).
– Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (London/New York, 1986/2010).
– The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor vs. Slavery in British Emancipation (New York, Oxford, 2002) Frederick Douglas Book Prize
– Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (New York/Cambridge, 2009).
– Co-ed. Cambridge World History of Slavery: Vol 4, 1804-Present (New York/Cambridge, 2017).
**To access the OHMS oral history page for Seymour Drescher, which allows listeners to search text or keywords and to listen to specific sections of this interview, click here.**
Anita Hecht: The date is October 28th in the year 2010. My name is Anita Hecht and I have the great pleasure and honor of interviewing Professor Seymour Drescher on behalf of the George L. Mosse Oral History Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And we find ourselves in the Fluno Center for Executive Education in Madison, Wisconsin. And welcome from Pittsburgh.
Seymour Drescher: And, thank you, my pleasure.
Hecht: So here we are to talk about George Mosse. But to begin with Professor Drescher, let’s just start with a little bit about your personal and your professional background. When and where were you born?
Drescher: I was born in 1934 in the Bronx, New York, where I spent the first 21 years of my life. I attended public school, attended the specialized school called the Bronx High School of Science, which had the convenience of not only being an excellent school, which you had to take a specialized exam for, but it happened to be one half of a block from my home, so I didn’t have to wander very far.
And I made my big move in New York, going down to the City College in Manhattan Island. I led a very, very limited geographical life until I was 21.
Hecht: What was your family background?
Drescher: Family background: my parents came from Europe immediately after the First World War. I believe the same year, married in 1930 and lived in very close proximity with their families in the Bronx. And they were of Polish- Jewish background, one from Galicia and one from Russian Poland. Before the 1914 war.
Hecht: Did religion play a part in your upbringing?
Drescher: It was a presence, not an overwhelming presence, but my parents did belong to an Orthodox synagogue. I had a bar mitzvah. I was, I identified with the people who were in the, in the community and very deeply identified with them.
Hecht: How, at what level of education did your parents achieve?
Drescher: My parents, not, not beyond the sixth grade. They came over, they were both ten, but my father was probably 12, my mother 10. And they both went to school only long enough until they could get jobs in the New York garment district. My father became a hatter. He blocked hats, had he had on his hands, big calluses. My mother was and worked in a tie factory and when she was the secondary earner. But when my father lost his job and his industry my mother continued to pull, to plug along until he could find himself some a new job down at Wall Street, not as a stockbroker, but as a deliverer of large checks and other kinds of confidential information.
Hecht: Interesting. What were your early interests?
Drescher: Well, one of my very early interests was history.
Drescher: As a kid, I used to on Friday afternoon, head down to the public library. There was, there were history shelves, and I would pull everything off the shelves there was to read. And I read a child’s history of the world. Realized that it wasn’t quite so different from the biblical stories that I also had read and just began to, I read so intensively that by the time I got to high school, I realized for most of my teachers, I knew more than they did about the period that they were talking about. It just, it was a love that just turned into something that later became a livelihood.
Hecht: So when you graduated from Bronx High School of Science, it was 1951?
Hecht: The historic context of your life at that point, what had influenced you?
Drescher: Okay. First of all, going to a highly competitive high school. You are, you’re coming out of the Second World War. This is 1948, I head off to Science. So it’s in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Influenced by the, the huge mobilization as a, as a young man, you could follow in the newspapers the daily events of the, of the Second World War and of course the aftermath in 1948, also the creation of the State of Israel. An enormous number of things happening at the same time. So my interest in history was in fact, slowly gearing even in high school toward non-American history, which I thought had, had the tremendous traumatic events of the twentieth century were leading me to, to think about Europe in general as a place that whose history I would like to understand.
And of course, the fact that my parents had fled Europe, I mean not fled but migrated from Europe in 1920, immediately following the First World War. And were actually the last people to come in before the quotas were introduced in 1920 in the immigration, which by 1924 considerably slowed down immigration from those countries which had not, did not have a large immigrant population in the United States in 1890, I think, which was the basis of the quota system. So all of those, that, that sense of the world, that the sense of the community and the sense of events I think weighed in on me.
Hecht: Did it have a political influence on you in terms of affiliating with a party or a platform?
Drescher: Most of the folks in my area were voted for Roosevelt, voted for Truman, were Democrats. I didn’t feel any obligation to, to veer from that in the Bronx High School of Science. In our discussion sections, we did have one Republican, he came from Manhattan. And when we would want to look at for the Republican view, we would turn to Doug Middleman and say, “what’s the Republican view?”
Right behind me, I had a very radical student who had come from Austria and was every day we look, both looked at the Times. I would say this is an interesting thing and he would say, “this is what it means,” and he would give me the party line. It was very interesting to listen to. If I disputed it, he sometimes became very upset and he said, “come the revolution, we’ll see what you have to say.” Actually it worried me a bit, and I thought, well gee. I didn’t realize I had an enemy.
Hecht: Did you experience any antisemitism yourself?
Drescher: Very little. I was assaulted once, but around that that was, by people who were not around the block. Every once in a while on Halloween people would come over and invade the territory and claim it. But for the most part, it was a very mixed group and, mixed religious and ethnic group. And there was 0 antisemitism manifesting there, a really a very coherent and very friendly block.
Hecht: And even though your parents hadn’t had the opportunity for higher education, did they want that for their children?
Drescher: My father told me, he said, you know, take you take your child to work they now introduced. I once asked him if I could go to work with him. I was terribly fascinated by his, the calluses on his knuckles and he said, “you will never enter that place. You’re going to college.” And there was no question that they were both. That was, that was my fate. What he couldn’t decide is what I was going to do in college. Of course, he wanted me to become a doctor. And I did, but not the kind that he wanted. And so he would refer to me as a “schmeckle” doctor. That is one who does no good for anybody and immediately.
Hecht: So when you started college, were you already fairly sure that you were headed?
Drescher: I was divided. I had a wonderful biology lab and I’ve thought of, I flirted with biology, but, you know, sometimes you want to stick with the one that brung you and I was already so into history and so interested in it and so fascinated by it and had a couple of fabulous professors. Including a German-Czech, Professor Hans Kohn (1891-1971), who really made Europe come alive for us. And so I, I, by the time I was, oh a junior, I was hooked on history for the rest of my life.
Hecht: Was there a particular area of study at that point for you?
Drescher: Well, as an undergraduate, I mean, you had to, you had to go take a variety of courses, but still it was European history, 19th, 20th century which was, which had, which had grabbed me the most.
Hecht: And you graduated with your BA in 1955?
Drescher: That’s right, with a major in history. Yeah.
Hecht: Tell me what happens next.
Drescher: Well, then you when you’re in your graduating year, you going to go off to college. And I was fortunate enough to meet a young woman who was also graduating. And I we went out February, oh no January and by the end of February, I proposed to her, but in such an ambiguous way that she doesn’t, wasn’t quite sure. And finally I said, well are you coming out to Madison with me, I’ve been offered a scholarship? She said, “in what capacity?” And I said, “Oh, no, I mean marriage.” And it took her about a week. Then we got married. So I did have a companion coming out into a part of the world that I had never seen.
Until the age of 21, probably 90 miles from New York was my furthest venture. Eastern, Eastern New Jersey, New York, New Jersey, and no Eastern Pennsylvania, and upstate New York were about the limits of and little bit of Connecticut. So I was extraordinarily provincial.
Even downtown New York was not my turf. It was the turf for rich people. My only venture into that world was they came around auditioning for young children, for children’s chorus in the Metropolitan Opera. And I spent three years down there until my voice changed. That was fabulous.
Hecht: So really coming to Wisconsin was like the Wild West or something.
Drescher: It seemed like another world. You think of Madison as a metropolitan area. I thought of it as a rural village. And I kept it a subway bus token in my pocket if I ever needed to go back fast, assuming that somehow at the down right behind the Capital, there must be a subway station.
Hecht: So you got to Madison because of your then wife?
Drescher: I got to Madison, I had made out applications and one of the things that interested me at Madison, I wanted to work with a Professor Merle Curti (1897-1996), who was probably the most famous teacher, history teacher in Madison at the time. He had, he was in American intellectual history. But I thought that I would be able to do something that would be transatlantic. I was determined to do something with Europe. And I came to, to work with him.
And the first day I arrived, I went in, it was, I think August or early September 1955, went in to see the Chairman William Sachse (1927-2012), I believe Sachse was his name. I think it’s William was his first name and he sat me down and asked me about my background and my interests. And I told them I had come to work with Merle Curti. He said, Oh, he said, Did you. He said, Well, you know, Merle Curti is on fellowship this year, he’s on leave and he won’t be here. So I’m going to introduce you to a new man that’s just arrived. His name is George Mosse and you will be comfortable with him.
I thought to myself, how the hell does he know who I’ll be comfortable with him? Why would he even use that phrase? And later I found out and I will let you know when, when the time comes. And so that’s, I realized that I was a virgin and this man was also a virgin to Wisconsin and that in fact determined the composition of the first seminar. You want me to go on?
Drescher: Yeah? Okay. Walked into the seminar and there are these people ranging from baby faces like myself, freshmen, all the way up to people who are writing their dissertations. There were people working in German history, Italian history, French history, British history. All there because of a common interest in intellectual history, which was going to be George Mosse’s assigned forté for the university.
And it was really a motley crew. Some of these people were, had already, were well-formed, they were on their way, they’re writing their dissertations, they were mature graduate students. And others were just like me, completely wet behind the ears. And that meant that the they, they were the ones, the older ones that set the tone. And the tone was also set by our new instructor who gave us the impression right away with his statement. This is a history seminar. We reserve nice comments for the sherry hour afterward. This is a critical, analytical seminar. I immediately got the message. This is a bullfight. And we are the bulls, and we are also the picadors and toreadors. And that’s the way it’s going to be.
And it was really an education. I’ll just give you one example because it was the example of my life. I was assigned. He said, everybody has to bring in one paper per week. He’s not gonna do any, any of the talking. He’ll talk at the end, he’ll summarize. But you’re assigned a paper, you bring it in and everybody has the task of going at it critically.
So I thought, I’m not ready for this. The older folks will have to go, but he went around and we’re sitting in order and I got week number 4. This was week number 1. Three weeks, come up with a topic for your master’s. He wanted, he said you’re going to get your master’s fast, in a year. So you’d better come up with a, try to come up with a topic very quickly.
Okay, I know French. I start, I run in to the Memorial Library and I start pulling books in French history. No, that doesn’t seem to work. It’s not going to work fast enough. French novels. I start pulling out French novels, and what would I be interested in French novels that would give me a transnational, a kind of transnational thing. I had come to work with French novels. French novelists who write about America in the 19th century. So I started pulling off a few books and I realize I do have, I do have something to work with. And one book I had known was there already was a Tocqueville, Alexis de Tocqueville’s (1805-1859), traveling companion to America in 1831, Gustave de Beaumont (1802-1866), who had written a book called Marie, ou l’esclavage aux Etats-Unis, Marie, or Slavery in the United States.
So I look at that and I think, okay, I’ve got a topic and I quickly call, cobble together an introductory essay, and I walk in and they tore me to pieces. It was put together hastily. You didn’t do this. This is a non sequitur. This is no good. Why do you put this in? What’s your thesis? And I’m sitting there and diminishing very rapidly in my own eyes, wanting to be out of there, going out of that seminar and saying, going home to my wife and saying, “I think we’re going to have to move back to New York.” I think I, I’ve been finished by these folks.
Well it took me a day to recover. I did not ever tell anyone this until my dissertation defense and I told George about this. And it later entered his lore. He would tell all future graduate students coming in how one of his better students had been reduced to tears and went out weeping from the seminar, which was of course a total exaggeration. But in typical George fashion. In any event, he loved when he heard that he couldn’t get over it because none of the other graduate students ever got over it. But he was able to set the right tone because he told them this student almost broke down. But in fact, not only survived, but went off to a very prestigious institution when he got his PhD. So that is 19–, the fall of 1955.
Well, there’s another part of George has to be talked about because this was his undergraduate teaching. George. If you, if you saw him, you realized that he was a cut above all the other lecturers that you could possibly attend. I only had one person in in, in City College who came close to him. This was this was Hans Kohn. And I’m, I realized that I could only mention that once because George did not like rivals and he, he kind of said, “Yes, yes, but I’m better am I not?” I said, “yes, of course you are.”
But in his lecture, this was the first lecture, of the course. And he had a relatively ordinary classroom. Full, but not immensely full. And I would sit up in front with my jeans, which was my, my, I had one other pair of pants and listen right in front and drink it up and be critical at the same time because I realized, okay, if you’re going to if you’re going to be like this to us, we’ve got to learn how to be like this to you when the time comes for you to talk, you want us to be seminar students who are critical, we’ll be critical. And I listened and I loved it. I mean, this, this was, it was, he was absolutely fascinating.
But I didn’t know where I stood with him. This is late in the first part of the term. I’m getting, getting good grades around midterm, but where do I stand in the seminar? Was this first baptism of fire an indication of my standing? Is it worth my while continuing? And one day toward the end of the term, he said come to the office, come, come to my office. I go into his office and he said, “there’s a small fellowship waiting for you, it’s $200.” And I thought, oh. And he said, “And the first thing I want you to do with that fellowship is to get yourself another pair of pants.” He said, “I can’t stand watching you only in jeans.” Jeans were not the, the, the garb of, of, of everybody by then. He said, “you’ve gotta, you gotta, you’ve gotta have another pair of pants. It’s just impossible.” I went off, I picked up my fellowship.
And it wasn’t until you began to ask me about this and then I realized he may have created that fellowship. It may have been his money that he put in there. But how does the History Department come to give a fellowship? They may have had some money, but I have a feeling that he just wanted to show me, you know, what? That’s okay. I’ve watched you now. You take your turn as the bull, but then you become picadors. And I was doing pretty well as a picador. I learned that my craft pretty well. And by the time our the second or third year, we were all masters of slaughtering each other and then surviving for the next day. There’s a wonderful cartoon in French history where there’s in the Third Republic. They have ministers who constantly walk the plank on a pirate ship, but there’s another plank under it, but they fall, hit the plank and they go back in. And so I always told my graduate students, that’s the way it is in a seminar. It can only kill you, but they don’t really destroy you and come back and you’re better person.
Anyway. So I knew that I was, I was, I was on the good side and pretty soon I got a chance to see that I was that he really thought very highly of me. You want me to go on with this or shall I?
Hecht: I’ve got many questions, but if there are places you want to go, I’ll let you go ahead.
Drescher: I’ll just continue a little bit more with that. 1956, I have to say this about George, he was, he was a combination to me. And this is why I wasn’t really very comfortable with him. This is a man who announced that he had been from the upper classes of Germany. That put us at one distance. He had gone to a Quaker high school in England, Bootham, I think it was. And he spoke with a British accent. So he was a combination of a German bourgeois and an English gentleman, neither of which I was. And I kept, it kept ringing in my head. Why, why am I supposed to be comfortable with this man? I’m not comfortable at all. He’s an exotic European and I’m a Bronx American.
And then became clear to me why Sachse had said this to me in the fall of 1956, the year after I was there. The, the Suez War broke out. The Israelis invade Suez within a couple of days they are down to the Nile, the British and the French come in. And George Mosse comes in to the seminar with a slight grin on his face and he says, “These Jews have become Prussians.” And then he smiles a little bit like, “you know, they know how to fight.” And I thought he wouldn’t be saying that unless he had some link. I don’t think what my first idea was this is a guy who may have a Jewish background somewhere, but he’s obviously an Episcopalian or a Quaker. He’s not Jewish. But there, I said maybe, maybe he’s nothing but obviously there’s a linkage there.
Other than that, he was a closed book to us. This seminar made up of a composite was not like it was 10 years later when people came because he was there ‘cause they knew him. This was a man who was introducing himself to us and us to him. And for the time I was there it was a much more open seminar people went in all directions, Reformation history, 19th-century Britain, I’m picking up on Alexis de Tocqueville. And we didn’t know yet just where, where he was going and I didn’t find out until I left. When his first major book on German history in The Crisis of German Ideology (1964, University of Wisconsin Press 2021) hit me like a thunderstorm. This is what he’s been working on. He kept it all to himself. And it was intriguing that that was the beginning. That was only the first, the first blossom in a, in something that just bloomed: Nationalization of the Masses with which he talks about how people are psychologically mobilized the, Toward the Final Solution in terms of racism. Moving into the First World War and the, and the, and the wounded soldiers and the dead soldiers and what is done with the death the civil war. Talking about Jewish history, he opens up, I think he opened up Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin.
All these things like a flowering and then of course, the final capstone, coming out as a, as a gay individual. All of these absolutely unknown to us, any of us in the course. We thought of him as a sexless Buddha who was interested in pure intellectual history of Europe, the classics and popular culture and that was it. And that was the place from which you went. And his, his many publications had been in 17th-century England. So that was, that was George in general.
When I went in 1956, my wife who’s played as much of a role in my development as did George. Not just as my development as a human being, but in history, she said to me one day, there’s a new thing called Fulbright scholarships. Why don’t you apply? This is the fall of 1956, I’ve been there a year, I’ve got my master’s degree, I’ve worked on an article which passed through the seminar with flying colors. And so I said, Okay, I’ll try and I write out a little thing about what I’d like to study, break off from the master’s degree and I get it.
And it comes through, hadn’t told George about this at all. I walk up to the Bascom Hill and I say to George. “George, I’ve just gotten a Fulbright scholarship and I’m going to Paris next year.” And he looks at me, he says, “you can’t do that. He said, you haven’t passed your comps, you’re in the middle of things. What are you doing? Why did you apply for a Fulbright?” I said, “my wife suggested I apply. I applied.” Should I not go? He said, “Of course you’re going.” He said, “this is an incredible opportunity. So, but you’d better work hard there.” Off to Paris I went.
In Paris, I discovered that somebody a French scholar had just done a 1400-page thèse, the classic thèse of the French on the very topic I was interested in. So I thought, I’m going to work on somebody I had read I read in college, Alexis de Tocqueville, and I’m going to work on something that nobody has studied his relationship to England. And while I was there, I, I, I’ll go into the story later if you want. But while I was there, I decided that we should take a trip to England. We were on, we had a scooter, we drove through Europe on it, Lambretta. We get to England.
George happens to be there. And he says, “I’m going to take you up to Cambridge.” He had spent a, I think a year in Cambridge and I will show you around. And George transforms himself as we get, as you reach Cambridge into a English gentlemen, a young English gentleman, an undergraduate who has been who knows the ropes and can show us what Cambridge is like as opposed to Wisconsin. They have a historic landscape here and a little river in which people go punting on, on the little boats. And George, to show us how marvelous he is takes us punting. I said, Ruth, “get your camera ready.” This guy is going to get stuck. He’s, he’s reached the end as long as he was intellectual talking about the King’s, King’s College Chapel. It was fine. He’s getting out in a boat now. This guy, better watch out. And of course, she caught him at the moment when he had to make a decision as to whether to hold on to the punter, whatever it’s called the pole and, and miss the boat or leave the punter. Or leave the rail end there in the water, in the mud and go along with the boat and he left it and we got back and I, I can’t mock him because then he said, “well you do it.” And I get the same thing happened to me. These are things you learn.
Anyway, George wanted to keep us there for the whole time we were in England. And we finally said to him, George, we gotta get out. I got to see something about England besides you. Okay. Go do it. Okay. The next okay. You want to ask a question? I got one more thing which I,
Hecht: Go for it.
Drescher: think is the most important thing, I’m going to move right to…
Hecht: The heart of the matter, okay.
Drescher: the PhD thesis. I tell him, I’m, I get back. I tell him I’m going to work on Alexis de Tocqueville. He says, fine. Loves everybody to take their own. He’s a, he’s a charismatic figure, but he’s not a Pied Piper, he doesn’t want imitators. He wants people to venture. I start working and I begin to produce my chapters for the seminar. And after about the second chapter, he says to me privately, Why would you work on a man like Alexis de Tocqueville? He’s so sane. And I realized sane, s-a-n-e. He’s not one of his, one of these mythical, irrational creatures whom he loves to study. And I said, well George, and I happened to get hooked on this guy and I wrote a poem about one of his books. So I guess that’s touches the aesthetic a little bit. And he said that was fine.
And then by 19–, by early 1960, I’m ready to do my thesis. And I get very ill. I have a leaking appendix, go to the hospital over here in Madison. It turns out to be a very complex operation I’m up on tubes for three weeks in the hospital, constantly losing weight, my intestines don’t work. George doesn’t show up for two weeks. Finally, my wife tells me he’s, I’m beginning to get better. He comes in and he says, “Okay, I’ve got good news for you.” Now. He, he’s he knows that it’s worthwhile investing himself in me. Okay. I don’t think he’d like to see somebody smelling of pus, okay, and all the rest. He says to me, “you got your job, I put you in for a job at Harvard and you’ve got, got the job.”
I said, “George, I can’t do this.” I said, “I haven’t finished my research on Tocqueville, the big primary research at Yale. I’ve gotta go back and do it.”
He said, “nonsense, you’re not going to do that, you’re going to go and take the job. And you’re gonna write the dissertation and it’s going to be written by June because that’s what you need.” I said, “George, what am I going to do?” He said, “your topic is Tocqueville in England, right?” I said, “right.” He said, “you write: Tocqueville said this. Tocqueville said that, and you get your degree and you’re out of here. You’ll, you’ll touch up the thesis for the book later on.”
And that’s a message which I’ve been able to communicate to all of my graduate students. The dissertation is a union card. If you put, if you, if you work for ten years on your dissertation, you put out a book, style book, really a good book. Nobody will publish it because it all goes on dissertation, dissertation abstract, digital dissertations. And what do they do with it? Anybody has access, nobody’s going to publish it.
So he got me uplifted and that was the, that was the moment of that to me was a supreme moment. It was a moment of utter confidence in me, a moment in which he was sending me off and he knew that I had to, I had to make my career out there with a dissertation. It turned out Harvard was a very different place from Madison. A much more hierarchical place. But I was then on my way.
Hecht: And you were his first placement at Harvard?
Drescher: Yes. Yes. I may have been his last. But I think they needed somebody then and he, he probably put my name forward. That was it. And I had about a half hour interview before it.
Hecht: Do you think you were unique in the amount of attention he gave you as a graduate student? Or did he really take such a deep interest in the well-being of…
Drescher: That’s one of the major points that has to be made about George. We all felt, all of us that he was paying a lot of attention to us. And first of all, you have to realize, we had the luck of having a man who had no wife, no children. We were his children. We were his, his mates. And we had all the seminars at his home. And he did sherry was served and we could say nice things to each other after the seminar. And I had the feeling that every one of us, every single one of us was followed very closely and very carefully. And as, as he got into his full stride after we left, I think he attracted people for precisely the same reason. He paid attention.
One of the people came later. I met him at one of the meetings in Madison we had at the very end of the 1990s. And he said to me, he came to Madison as an undergraduate. And he was a man who came down to the, to the Lake Mendota. The waterfront sat down. He recognized them from your undergraduate sat down and started talking to him right away. Only faculty member he had ever met who did that.
George did use his social and spare time. He had to have a special, of course, a special talent for attracting people. He didn’t have a built-in family and a built-in wife and a built-in social manager as wives frequently are or husbands if their wives are working. And so he had, he developed that sense of investment. No, no. I was never a unique. I knew that I wanted that.
I was not even one of his housekeepers. He had, always had a housekeeper. And they were, I think, most intimately involved with him and they would love to belittle him in his in his daily working. He was a complete incompetent at doing housework and washing dishes and the rest of that. So they could get a feeling of at least technical superiority in the housework, even though they were his, not his intellectual equals as yet.
Hecht: Do you have any ideas about where his skills as a lecturer and a mentor and it came from?
Drescher: That I can’t tell you. I know, I do know that he was hired by Wisconsin for his ability to draw crowds. He had first gone to Iowa. I don’t know how he developed it. I think well, I do know something. Yes. My brother-in-law during the Second World War was in a training camp and George was lecturing on the background of Germany. And he would, he said, George would always just walk to the front and make these two little steps burst out with something. And it was a very, he was already a unique teacher. I don’t know where he got it from, but he obviously developed it at Iowa to the point where he was teaching to 1,000 students.
And when he came to Wisconsin, it was because of that. And the very second semester of his teaching, he walked into the room and the room was not only full, but there were students out in the hall with long lines of students. And he said, oh, well, we’ve got ourselves a bigger room. There are just too many students and we all poured out of the room marching down to the next hallway. And one of the students next to me said, “this is the biggest migration since the Exodus.” And that’s the way we felt, I remember, but it was a Moses who didn’t want to lead.
He was, his whole life was telling you know, charisma is one thing. But be, be wary of it and be critical. And that’s why he was training us all to be very critical. The, it’s, it’s very easy to get people to be convinced of that. To be convinced of your, your, your specialness. It’s a danger.
Hecht: It’s such an interesting contrast to the Holocaust in which he was…
Drescher: Oh yes, exactly. He was saying that the basic big question, why is it, how is it that so many people get caught up in so much irrationality.
Drescher: And then I can say something about the Festschrift because that’s, that’s the next step was the end of the 1970s. George told David [Warren] Sabean, who was another of his students, I’m going to be 65 soon, Dave, I might die. I want to have a Festschrift while I’m still alive. You get, you get, Seymour Drescher and somebody else, who he mentioned, Allan Sharlin (1950-1983). And you’ve got a Festschrift for me. I want it in three years. And so we did it. This is a man who knew exactly what he wanted. And it was, it was really exhilarating work.
And as disciples will do, we fought over what to say in the introduction. David wanted him to be a quasi-Marxist and emphasized George’s focus on class. I wanted him to, George to be a study, student of mass society. So I wanted to insist on his, his cross-class analysis about the ideology and its appeal, especially Nazi German ideology. And so we quarreled in a wonderful correspondence for about three months and Allan Sharlin stepped in and voted, I think mostly with me. So we got that in. And so at the Festschrift my talk was basically taken from our correspondence. The debate between the clearly classy Mosse and the mostly massy Mosse. And that was the Festschrift. But the most important thing happened with the Festschrift, was getting back to Mr. Merle Curti who gave a talk. And who explained how George got to Madison. He apparently came here very briefly, impressed people with his ability to draw crowds. They wanted somebody in Western civilization who could teach lots of students. And so he, yeah, he was put on a list of people who are potential appointments.
There were no Jews in the History Department at that time. George obviously had the best credentials as Iowa, 1,000 people with the best credentials. But he wound up only one of three people and he wound up choice number three and they hired someone else, I believe in 1954, an independently wealthy scholar who by the end of the first term, decided he didn’t want to teach all his life. This was not what he wanted to do, spend his time in the classroom, and so he left at the end of the year. Number two had already gotten a job at another place. And so there they were. George Mosse came having been acknowledged as eligible and now hired by default and Merle Curti said it was a very interesting. He wouldn’t go into the details to see how difficult it was as late as 1954 to get into the History Department, somebody who was of that particular background.
And I know this was the case because in the Economics Department, a very famous economist, economic historian, Selig Perlman (1888-1959) was on the History Department list from outside evaluators and after, I think in 1939, refused to serve anymore, he said, if they’re good enough to be your graduate students, one of them should be good now, that he meant Jews, should be good enough to be in the History Department. But it took them another 14 years to get around to that. But, you know, we came into a different world because I experienced, you asked about antisemitism. Nothing in my street. Bronx High School Science had 70% Jews. City College had 60% Jews. I was always in a majority situation. And when I got to Wisconsin. That had almost, not quite but almost disappeared. My way was clear.
By the end of the 1950s, people who are going out of their way as a kind of silent affirmative action to prove that they were no longer bigoted, from Illinois and other places which had been restrictive. And it was George’s students who are going out, and breaking ice everywhere.
Hecht: Did you ever have any conversations with him about being Jewish, just personally?
Drescher: No, I steered away from. Oh, yes later on after him, after he came out with the, with the The Crisis of German Ideology. And then he started to have the Jewish program, we did have. And he was, he was not at all identified religiously. I think at his funeral he did not want Kaddish read, but he did want to be identified as a Jew.
I think he was very concerned, and terribly concerned with the Israel’s development, not just, not just its existence, but he wanted to, he had a list of people who, part of whom were, who were his culture heroes. That is, early Zionists who wanted a, an integrated or a two-state solution for the problem of Palestine long before it was even formed. And my favorite City College teacher, Hans Kohn, was a man who had been disillusioned by the divisions by the, by the fact that the Jews in Palestine were not sufficiently cognizant of the fact that they had a real massive problem of people living on the land already. And were not addressing themselves to it. Were trying to look the other way. And so I think George was, felt affiliated in that way.
One of his friends, his very young life friends once told me that he was, she was sat in a seminar in Jerusalem and he was talking about Jews in the early 1930s. And someone in the seminar asked him, What did it feel like to be a Jew in their early 1930s? He said, Well, you could take a walk over to East Jerusalem. You might get some inkling there. What it feels like to be a minority, to be rendered to be rendered. How shall I say, insecure, constantly, and totally insecure.
So that’s, that’s the kind of affiliation he had. A great and deep, I think an abiding affection and a deep interest in the history of Judaism, but also a sense of wariness about the way, the way Israel was developing.
Hecht: And the nationalism.
Drescher: And the nationalism of course. And that’s part of his, the dangers of nationalism, people who cease to worship God and workshop themselves. That’s the opening theme of the French Revolution and The Nationalization of the Masses. And it’s a thing that’s sticks in your mind. And it runs right through that. And worshipping is the, is the key, mythologies that you build up in order to create myths.
Hecht: Tell me a little bit more about his approach to history and their use of empathy and that?
Drescher: Well, he, I can do it best by talking about how he came to move into the, into the Nazi, into studies of the background of Nazism and other ideologies. And he did it by taking people seriously. One of the things really after the Second World War, One of the things was to dismiss what the Nazis and what Germans had thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries and especially during the Nazi regime as some aberrant behavior, propagandism, something that had been developed just to get to power. And that there was, there was no coherence to this ideology. And he said, “No, you’ve got to get inside, not just the heads up the Nazis, but the people to whom he was, they were speaking, to the pre-Nazis, the German nationalists. You’ve got to find out what it is that, that makes people join, empathize, tolerate things which you might find irrational, not simply to dismiss them because you think that in fact, because it’s irrational, it’s incoherent.”
You can have irrational mythologies which in fact embed themselves and appeal deeply to people. And one of his favorite analogies was if you want to find out what Nazism, what made Nazism so appealing, with its rituals and its decor, and its choreography, go into a Baroque church. And you see that what the Church is trying to do is not to stress just words, but to appeal to all the senses. To get people to drop their, to let that critical sense relax to say that there’s something different and better and higher than logic and empirical rationalism. And I think that he communicated even to his students in the undergraduate courses.
He said, “pay attention to myths.” Pay attention not just to great thinkers but to the people, the novels that people are reading, the poems that they’re writing, the pictures that they’re drawing, that are being drawn, the way in which movements project a meaning to history and make themselves the endpoint of history. I think it was very important and very dramatic in what he did.
And that’s why he held, despite his complete carelessness about facts, which made me laugh constantly when I was a TA. And students would turn around and look at me. And I’d say you take down what he says. You’re Mirandized though, this is before Miranda, but you’re Mirandized, you’ll not be held responsible for any errors that are made. But he didn’t care. He was conveying something very different. And it didn’t matter. The facts were really, they were petty facts. You know, what’s the proof of German influence on America? King of Prussia. The town of King of Prussia in Pennsylvania. Well, that’s all the kids get to know. They’re not going to know anything about the influence, but his ability to draw, to ad lib, to pull people in to make them think about things to make striking observations about, especially about irrational thought.
How it, how it links up how people are hungry for this, how they want it. How they want meaning it’s terrible to walk around with, with chaos.
Hecht: It’d be interesting to hear what he would say today about the political environment we’re in currently.
Drescher: Oh, he’d love it. He would love it. I mean this would be grist for him. He’d say, “ahh, now the Americans have finally become people who talk irrationally to each other. They scream at each other from across these television stations, these political television stations, and across the internet.” And I mean, it’s opened up a whole new world of how you convey myths and world views. I’m, I’m, I’m sure he would, he would be having a party with the images and words, and whole narratives wrapped up in a what do you call it, a Facebook, Twitter message.
Hecht: Do you have any sense of what he believed in as the antidote to?
Drescher: I think best he could do was exposure. Let’s say this is what you’re being subjected to. This is the kind, I mean, you do ultimately need some facts, but you’ve gotta people, draw people’s attention to the facts. If you’re teaching people about why the medical men in Germany were one of the chief pillars of the reign, of the regime. Why in fact, they not only were people went along, but people who wanted to be at the front ranks wanted to make this new racial revolution. You’ve got to study why people who raised and take the Hippocratic Oath do no harm. Why they’ll do a lot of harm. They’ll do the opposite. Instead of saving lives, they will destroy lives or sterilize people at a lower level, but they’ll do all sorts of thing to segregate, incarcerate, and ultimately destroy. Why would they do that?
And you’ll have to find out that in fact, they had been led to believe that there’s something higher than do no harm to the individual. And that is very simply do no harm to the collectivity. The most important collectivity. There is life unworthy of life. There are groups unworthy of life. And they must be in fact removed from the group. And that’s the priority, not saving every life, which could be in fact, the worst thing you could do. You save all these epileptics, schizophrenics, tuberculous, deformed children, feeble-minded people. All these things, all that fit together in the same boat. Jews are one of the primary targets because they pollute invisibly. And they have a way of doing things which is invisible. And so you’ve got it, when these people stood in the Nuremberg trials, their defense was, we believed that collective public medicine was the priority for our regime. And the national health was more important than the individual health.
Can’t go better than, than to show people that, it was a total transformation on what that Hippocratic Oath actually meant to these men. And that’s their defense, right in 1945, they stuck to it then.
Hecht: How did his interests and development as a scholar into these areas influence your path? And what your interests became?
Drescher: Well, in one sense, very little because when I left, he was still the scholar of the Reformation.
But when I, when I, when I worked on Tocqueville, I was not particularly interested in the irrational. Fascin-, increasingly fascinated by it. But I turned to the idea. Okay, we’ve looked at stories that are told by men who are intent on very, very horrendous transformations of society, and restructuring of society. But is it also possible that there are myths created by people in the name of the good. And so, having gotten interested in abolition, I began to be interested in what are the myths of the abolitionists? Which was in fact, something I’m going to be talking about this afternoon. The myth of the free labor ideology. That free labor is always superior to slave labor. And that’s one of the reasons why in fact, it’s much better to introduce emancipation for everybody because in fact, everybody will be better off. Society will automatically become wealthier and richer. Well, and of course it will be freer. Therefore, it’s the myths of the abolitionists which also demand analysis. And it’s caused a bit of a stir. But that’s one of the real impacts that he had on me. And just indirectly, just reading stuff and reading his material in the way he approached things.
Hecht: That’s interesting. So as a scholar yourself, as a teacher yourself, you said he influenced you.
Drescher: Oh yeah. The mobilization of the masses is my big deal with abolition. So that’s the big difference between why nobody talked about abolition for 2000 years and why in 50 years it suddenly became the agenda of a world movement. And by a 100 years every civilized society and pledged itself to be anti-slavery instead of slavery, Now it’s not a bad transformation.
Hecht: Not a bad transformation.
Drescher: And then of course, why it doesn’t work all the time. Because in Nazi Germany or in Europe itself, you had more slave labor work. You slave laborers working in Germany in 1944 that had been working in all of the Americas 100 years before. Not, this is not a thing, a tale with a happy ending. In history, there are only occasionally pleasant interludes, no happy endings. That’s Drescher, not Mosse, but I’m sure he would have agreed with that.
Hecht: Tell me a little bit. This is moving back sort of chronologically, does the context of Madison and the History Department and anything you can compare to today or contrast from today?
Drescher: Well, for me, Madison was first of all, it was an opening up of a whole world. I mean, Madison. But five years down the road, I didn’t want to leave this. Like, I said I wanted to stay for another year, do research. Part of it was, this is so comfortable, this is so wonderful.
I’ve got this great mentor. I’ve got these wonderful. I was finishing my PhD in five years. Most of the seminar was they were taking an extra year any way to do it. And I thought it would be wonderful to spend another year. Why do I have to go out in the world and work? And this way, like and it’s, you’re sitting on the consuming end, rather than the getting out in front and really transforming yourself in relation to the students. And Madison to me was a bit of paradise. I had this, I had lucked into. I stepped into this magnificent relationship with this magnificent mentor. I had. There were gathered around him, a group of just bright, energetic people, who when they got the message. Be as energetic and creative as possible were responding to it, and he had produced a fabulous set of graduate students.
And the History Department in general, well, that was less important because at that, at that point, I don’t know if they still do it. You went into your major professor’s fief and that’s what you stayed for the full five years. I took seminars with other people. That’s what we did. I never found his, even his near equal, I found some wonderful lecturers in American history. But that wasn’t turf that, you only worked with your with your major advisor’s permission you went to certain turf, and if I said I’d like to do such and such in medieval history. Good, you can do it. Comparative Literature. Good, you can do it. Russian history, fine, you can do it. American? You don’t need to do American history. That’s, that’s, that’s off your ground. You’ve got enough, you’ve had enough undergraduate history in American, in America, you can, you can do that. You’re going to do Tocqueville in England, not Tocqueville in America. Get busy. We’re looking at British history. So that’s, that’s the way. I mean, it was it was not just one History Department. Although the fact that we called our professors, Mr. and not professor. The fact that when I walked into Harvard, the chairman of the department with my union card in my hand. I’m now a doctor. He says call me doctor. I call him doctor. He didn’t invite me to sit down. This was a very different thing from Madison, Wisconsin.
Hecht: It was more egalitarian, here?
Drescher: Much more egalitarian here. And but George had his own. I mean, look, you’re out to his house every week. You’re, you’re in a constant relationship with him. So in fact, it feels like more like a family than it does like being in a university, a graduate school. Tremendous degree of comfort and security.
Hecht: How much did the wider world of politics enter? I mean this is also the late 1950s. The Democratic Party is on the ascendancy. [Joseph] McCarthy (1908-1957) dies.
Drescher: Sure, right. I came out just to witness the last last move of McCarthy. I went to work for the guy who was the, there was a, there was a group called the Young Socialists, were Young People’s Socialist League.
It was a last gasp of them. When I came out in 1955, I think they were mostly people from New York. And he showed me, came back one day from the meeting of the YPSL, the Young People’s Socialist League. And he said, this is what they were carrying outside, he said, you know, k**es go back to New York. Okay. So it was there. But you know what? The, it was the left that was beginning to really take off. They had, there was a group of students who founded a new journal called “Studies on the Left.” They were very committed. In fact, many of them were good hard Marxists. And the mostly what you saw was a general changing of the, I don’t know how it had been in 1952, 1953, 1954, but by 1956, 1957, 1958, it’s, the McCarthyism was just gone. He’s vanished. And McCarthyism has vanished.
And there’s a, there’s a new ethos that’s, that’s brewing on the campus. Of then there were highly political events. The U.S. sent troops into Lebanon. There was a protest. There was, of course, the Cold War being fought, but I didn’t have much. I mean, I, I did engage in lots of discussions with the folks on the left, but I was wary of them. There was one thing that happened, there was a, was a student of one of the, one of the foremost students on the left we were walking home one night he and his wife had gone one of the first go to, to visit Mao, think it was 1959, 1958 or 1959, it must have been 1958, the fall of 1958. And I said, well, you know, “one thing I can’t imagine is what’s going on in China. There are thousands, maybe millions of people seem to be dying. The landlord class as a whole, why do you, why do you have to have death as a penalty for living under a revolutionary government?” He said to me, “you know, you fail to realize life is very cheap in China.” I said, “so what is the revolution all about?” It was cheap. It is cheap. What’s the revolution? It’s just one more person coming in and taking his cut into the, the vast tradition of bloody suppression. And so I was a little wary. I stood off from that, I was not, I figured I had one myth in my childhood, it was okay, it was comforting. It lasted for a couple of thousand years. Let this new myth of revolutions remaking the world, Let’s see it last for 50, 100 years, what happens to it? Are people wealthier, healthier, happier, we’ll see.
Hecht: Did George become active politically while you were here in any way that you were?
Drescher: No. No. He never took any political positions. I understood that he cautioned the students in the late 1960s that they may not, there are unintended consequences that they were, they might get themselves into a position of being.
Those masses who feel that the moment for utopian transformation has arrived. And I do believe that there was, there was an explosion and death here and it made an impact on the, on the nationwide. And others, other teachers, other professors had encouraged the students. And then backed way when the time came to stand out for them because George had cautioned them but always spoke to them. They had, they had a confidence in him that he spoke to them straightforwardly, but he wouldn’t betray them. He was in fact steady and he did, he went to the fence when the time came. So he was, that’s again, the kind of person he was.
Hecht: So you worked on the Festschrift, that was 1982 tell me about other joint work that you did together.
Drescher: Okay. The in 1984, I was at the Wilson Center and as I said, I undertook this a program at they or I’m not sure. I mean, I told somebody else before, earlier in the morning. I undertook to do well to set up a program in European studies. And what I liked most about the invitation to join it for a year, just take an additional year off after my fellowship there, was that they said there was setting up a program. It was an all European study. It was not going to be Eastern Europe and Western Europe. And that attracted me enormously because my general perspective was, look, the Europe has been there for at least 1,000 years as 2,000 years as a concept. And this, this is just one late development, this division along this particular boundary line. Really what you have to do is discuss the long-term trajectory and the European, the European division is temporary or we don’t know if it’s permanent, but it’s got to be a European program.
So I came, went eagerly, set up a program. And before I left, they announced to me, well the State Department was giving money, but only if they separated and made it Eastern European and Western European program. I had asked George to come in and be one of my advisors for you have a little team. And he spoke up very strongly for the retention of this original idea. He was taken by it, hadn’t consulted him before. He just came in and made this beautiful, eloquent statement. But a beautiful eloquent, statement you know, doesn’t talk as loudly as a State Department grant, which is going to be in perpetuum, George Mosse and Seymour Drescher, come and go. The money stays. And so we had to wait until 1989 before the the the two systems then began to fuse again.
Hecht: But he’d worked with you on an advisory, advisory committee.
Drescher: On an advisory committee. And he came out and helped me to select them, fellows for the next year.
And this is what part of our task was. He came out to give a talk. I got him to to give a talk to the Wilson Center, which was really a very prestigious gathering place for intellectuals to meet with politicians. And then our final collaboration, which was not as close as it might have been, was when he asked me to become an editor of the Journal of Contemporary History. And he was, felt he was getting old. He wanted somebody to replace him. I wasn’t sure that I was the person for that because I had been focusing mostly on 18th and 19th century stuff. The focus of the, of The Journal of Contemporary History had been very heavily on Europe. And I was interested in I’d been becoming globalized, looking at slavery in a global perspective and transcontinental rather, transcontinental rather than regional European. But I agreed to go on.
I thought it was a wonderful compliment that he paid me. I stayed for a few years and then I was very happy when Stanley Payne came on the scene, somebody in the 20th century who had all the networks who was willing, they didn’t want to have reviews. He was willing to in fact introduce. I wasn’t I didn’t have the confidence to say, look, this is your turf and I want to put reviews in there and do these different things. So I, it was really I contributed less than I, than I should have and I was glad that I got out when I did.
Hecht: Did you and George stay in touch?
Drescher: Oh, continually.
Hecht: Always, yeah?
Drescher: Yeah. Yeah. I, at the end of about 1997, early 1998, he called me up and we were just talking. It was I think the last long conversation we had. And he said, how’s your? How are you? How’s your family? I started with my parents and said, well, my parents are both 90 years old and they’re on Social Security. I’ll be going on Social Security next year too. So I think it’s, it’s a pretty nice thing. And I got to an advisor who’s got nice longevity. And so maybe I have a feeling that maybe, maybe I’ve got something about that keeps people alive. He said, Yeah, well you’ve led a charmed life. He said, and he was absolutely right. And but then a few months later, he he developed this, these symptoms which which roared through his body very quickly. And I only had time to send him the preface for a book, a collection of my essays which was coming out, would come out the next year. And I wanted him to see what I had written about him. I’d like to read it if you wouldn’t mind.
Hecht: Oh, I’d love it if you read it.
Drescher: Okay, and this was this was in the preface.
I had a chance to send it to him. And it was, the book was From Slavery to Freedom, and it was a collection of essays written over by 1994, been written over almost 25 years. “So generational an exercise as this series of essays is inevitably stimulates multi-generational reflection. My teacher and friend, George Mosse, receives his due only tangentially in these pages, where my historical interests briefly intrude into his own area of expertise.” That was the Holocaust. Comparing it to the slave trade. “Yet no graduate student could ever have had better fortune than to share the exhilaration that was George Mosse’s seminar. No aspiring young scholar could have been more challenged to sustained effort than I was by his, the relentless tide of George Mosse’s own work. And no sexagenarian, that is me, standing amazed at the restless energy of his globe- trotting octogenarian mentor would dare to dream of pausing for a breath in ours, the world’s most satisfying preoccupation. I can only be thankful that my wife Ruth appeared on the horizon of my life just in time to keep George’s example in comparative human perspective.”
Hecht: That was wonderful.
Drescher: I was blessed with this man.
Hecht: And it sounds like he felt the same about you.
Drescher: He did it was very mutual.
Hecht: We talked a little bit about the uniqueness of his career and I wondered whether you could say a little bit on tape about that.
Drescher: Sure. Well, I mean, the I think I have to reiterate something. He was so much of an enigma to me in the beginning. And I think it was an enigma to himself. One of the, one of the things that surprised me most was a succession of things that he got interested in. The German ideology then the mobilization of the masses. This human behavior, the, the fallen soldiers, what was the impact of the First World War? Jewish studies, sexuality, and nationalism. This is a man who just didn’t just flip from subject to subject, just zoomed and zigzagged from subject to subject.
And I think, I don’t think any other historian that I’ve ever met had that kind of breadth, that kind of interest, that way of lending, of getting to a subject where he almost could. You sensed that he felt that was in the air and he zoomed into it. And then other people come on board. And you can only fully sense what that had meant. When in his, in his posthumous meetings that I attended and the books, a book that came out. What the breadth, the sheer breadth of his interest was, and how he could stimulate people to think about their own work in ways that had nothing directly to do with their own work.
Let me give you just one example at the one of the Festschrifts, the last one that I attended here, an Israeli who had attended his seminars in Madison, was talking about the fallen soldier, talked about the standardization of graves, the, the fact that all these graves were exactly alike in these World War I memorials, same shape, same size. Almost always the same “For King and Country,” or something like it. The same standard slogan. So it was the individual being absorbed into the group into the nation. And he said, and I’m sure he said that Israeli graves are just the same. I’ll bet all your war graves are the exactly the same. This student said, You know what? I took him out to see an Israeli war graveyard. And every one was different. Every one had its own shape. And he said, the people who buried these people refuse to let the state absorb them. That, it wasn’t their dying and merging with a mission. It was the loss of a family and their membership in the family that was important. And he said, George said, Oh, I like this. I like this graveyard. This is a good one. So there was, and I’ve given you one example, but you could see how he touched people again and again and again. As, as things began and things just opened up behind him, he’s always at the crest of the wave. I think of them as a kind of, to get back to the Cambridge boat incident. Intellectually, he was, you know, Hawaii Five-0 on the crest, always at the top. Keeping me a little bit in front. And for the most part, making waves himself.
Hecht: So what do you think his legacy is in your mind? I mean, that’s such a huge.
Drescher: Legacies are something we don’t know about.
Drescher: I find myself being quoted as saying the opposite of what I said. And I realize that once you, once it’s out there, it’s out there for anybody to tear apart. There may be people who will deconstruct everything he says to show that he was really the opposite of what he was saying he was, I have no idea. I do know one thing that he’s obviously still part of an ongoing conversation when I have a young person visiting me this morning and saying that he’s working on an intellectual biography of George Mosse. Still going on, still stimulating, he’s still part of the, of the, of the conversation. And that’s really the important thing.
Hecht: And he did begin these new areas of study here with that, whether it was Jewish Studies.
Drescher: Jewish Studies, absolutely, and right at the front of things. And this happened.
Hecht: You said that both the Jewish Studies and Gay Studies interests were shocks to you?
Drescher: Absolute shocks to me, I thought, okay, he might, he might, have some affiliation with his Jewish tradition, but that’s probably what it amounted to and he might go to Israel, but yeah, okay.
He would be talking about Europe to Israelis. But when he started the Jewish Studies thing, that, that really got me, I thought he’s investing his time in this whole new field. I’m absolutely positive he didn’t have a huge breadth or depth of knowledge when he started to look at it, he plunged into it and he was, as I said, his one of my colleagues who is working with me now, was his first teaching assistant there and said it was amazing. How much he could. He seemed to have learned almost overnight. And it just was, again, it was a pleasure. He could stimulate students. He would say things which were not about Judaism or Jewish Studies are Jewish affiliations which would speak to them whatever they were, whatever their background was to make that come alive to them as well. And he had that, that capacity. And he was where he had that. There was that sense in his head that you can explain the known, the unknown, by the known, let them make, make it relevant to somebody in ways that they can, they can, they can feel as part of their, that they know that familiar with all this empathetic with, boom, you’ve got your audience. He could do that.
Hecht: Again, that’s using the empathy to really connect.
Drescher: He’s, he’s making them empathic with the material, not necessarily with the, with the message, but the way the message is delivered and why the message could appeal to other people’s empathy.
Hecht: I mean, if there are common threads, it seems to me that they have to do with outsiderdom and the influence of being an exile.
Drescher: Of course. Right. A pilgrim. An outsider saying to us, keep, always keep a suitcase packed. You know that famous phrase. Because you never know when the wind is going to turn the other way. So that sense of, and very sensitive after all, if you’re empathic with the plight of outsiders. You are also in a situation where you know, that this is a situation of less power. I mean, there’s lots of talk now about agency. But I to quote, to paraphrase, George Orwell. Everybody is born with agency. But all agencies are not equal.
Hecht: Yeah. Is there anything I haven’t asked you, or a story that you’ve thought of in terms of?
Drescher: Let me see, let me take a look at my turf thing here.
Hecht: You mentioned he had a great sense of humor and that’s sort of come across in a lot of your stories, but are there others that you?
Drescher: Well, I one of the ways in which he could capture the audience was of course, to make himself an exotic person. One of, one of my graduate student’s wives said, when she attended his classes, she said, You were so exotic.
You were old Europe. We could picture you and that was what Europe was, was all about. And he would play on that. On his Festschrift program, we put one of his, one of his little sayings. He said, which was totally absurd but actually was perfect in its sloganeering. I was born to rule the German Empire. I was educated to rule the British Empire. And they both vanished before my very eyes. Now, okay, now of course he wasn’t born to rule the German Empire. He was a Jew and he’s not going to become a ruler of the German Empire. And he was not going to go into the British Empire because he was also born a Jew. In fact, one of the things that happened in England, I don’t know if he ever told the story to anybody. Was that his, one of his history teachers, I think G.M. Trevelyan (1876-1962), called him in once and said you’re a very bright student. But either you better go into journalism or go to America. This was in 1938. Because it’s going to be very difficult for a person of your background to get into the British establishment. Now it had been done, but there were very few on the ground.
Hecht: Meaning Jews shouldn’t study history.
Drescher: Jews shouldn’t attempt. Now they can study history all you want, but don’t attempt to get a job in it. Okay. Okay. That’s the difference. Yeah.
Hecht: Uh-huh. Okay. You know, he had an unusual in late life experience of coming into a lot of family wealth.
Drescher: Another surprise, right? After all the intellectual surprises, this was another one. Finally, money could talk back. Not like the Wilson Center.
Hecht: Tell me about that and when did you know about it?
Drescher: Well I found out about it. Well, I found out about it. One of the things that I immediately did went to Berlin to Germany in 2000 because my wife had fled with her parents in August of 1939 to America. And she was invited back to Stuttgart, which was her city of birth, to make her an honorary citizen again, and to make a real citizen if she wished, and she did, She became a real citizen. And we took a trip to Berlin. And of course, we went to see the, the newspaper building in which George, which George’s father and grandfather had, owned, a huge building on a block, a city block. And that was, I think the basis of the wealth that accrued to him. And you went in there and there were two things that were obvious. There was one little museum, just an alcove, it was smaller than than this this little space around us, which had the history of the newspaper, which he made, I think as a condition of the giving, of getting the money from the German government. The second thing was a, there was a space there for the Jewish Studies and a third for Gay Studies. That had to be part, the rest they could do what they wanted. But that was part of his conditions. And I think there was a twinkle in his eye there too.
I mean, it was not only that the, you know, he was he was getting something back from his history had turned around and his favor, but also putting Gay Studies and they’re meant that all of Nineteenth-century culture was being transformed in that little space as well. And people could study this perfectly openly and freely. I knew nothing about how much money he had. I thought it was only 5 million, not 14 million dollars or something like that. I didn’t ever ask him what my what he was going to do with all that money? My father was convinced that in fact he ought to leave it to all his graduate students. I said that one, that’s not going to happen. And I said it didn’t need to happen. His graduate students were very comfortable. Thank you.
Hecht: He helped set them up already.
Drescher: Right, right. But my father had of course been an orphan in the First World War, you know, no parents. And then the Depression didn’t have much of a job most of the time. So he was very anxious to get his hands on anything that might make him secure if he could. But George, you know, he never spoke to me about what he’s going to do with the money. He mentioned once in passing. He said I will do something good with it. And I expected that he would had no idea that he would he would create this this fabulous institution that he has created with the money and that he was very grateful to this, this university. He may have had trouble getting in the front door at the very beginning, but I think he felt that they were enormously good to him throughout the rest of his career. And he would never have thought of going anywhere anywhere else. And I I don’t know, but I’m convinced that like others who make a sufficient mark on the world, you do get, you do get invitations. And I think he felt very, very loyal to this institution.
Hecht: Do you have any sense of how the community responded to his coming out?
Drescher: Here? I don’t know. It didn’t make a single ripple it I mean, I knew he was gay long before he was, when he actually said so because I saw him once at the American Historical Association meeting, and he embraced somebody and kissed him on the lips. And I thought, oh, that’s interesting. He isn’t really a sexless Buddha, like we always thought. I mean it. Look, I came out of a very sheltered. I thought there were people who may act effeminate, but there was nobody who was really effeminate, I mean, that really had, I thought of this as really one of the myths made up about people who were effeminate, and that there really, weren’t really any gay people. I mean, it was a subconscious thing. I never discussed it, nobody else, none of the other of us ever even speculated that he had anything like a different sexual orientation. Nothing, sexless was the key. So again, all of these things, a man and this man, liked to surprise. If you, if you stood back and you look at his life, It’s like, one of these firework shows. You see this come out that come and the next thing come out and you say, Okay, what’s next?
Because this is a bottomless pit, there’s going to be more to come if you wait long enough.
Hecht: Well, shades of George Mosse in your current teaching, scholarly work, you’ve covered a lot.
Drescher: I have, the myth of the free labor ideology is my next project because I’m going to carry it all the way through to past the Second World War. In fact, today I’ll give a hint of what I’m, what my aim is in doing this. And standing in front of a classroom, knowing that what George said you shouldn’t be a textbook wired for sound. Don’t be afraid to say outrageous things. Although, as he said to me, if he had said some of the things in 1995 that he said in 1955, he would’ve lost his tenure like when Bermuda shorts came in, he said, “Why are you girls all wearing nothing. You all look ugly in it now.” They would have been that would have been on the campus newspaper. They would have hauled him before the dean. You can imagine what would have happened. So things have changed, in some ways, things have gotten much freer in other ways, of course, the taboos always exist. And so if it’s not one, it’s the other.
Hecht: Any ideas about conversations he would be in today?
Drescher: Oh my gosh. I think every lecture would contain some allusion to he loved to watch television. December Bride (1954-1959), so he could get his, his finger on the pulse of America. Now he would be surfing. I’m sure, he would. That, that’s one technology he could learn. He would surf the net. And wait for something ridiculous to be said. If he was smart, he’d be watching Jon Stewart. Because that’s where you get some of the most intelligent dialogue produced as clips. But a man who can condense things marvelously in and just bring things to your attention. But I think he, he would make use of as he did from the Eisenhower era on. Make use of everything that came across his, his, his inner man brain screen and project it outward in some of his lectures. Make sure he alluded to that. Okay. I found that, for example, I want to, I always want to talk about masturbation as part of liberalism, okay? You want, if you’re, if you’re going to have a free society, everybody has to control themselves. Okay? So this is why some people in the nineteenth century got so excited about, hadn’t made people very excited before the 18th century. Okay, now everybody is concerned, don’t touch yourself, okay? And you’ve got to learn not to touch yourself, but how you introduce it to a class. Because I think I’m looking at these kids. Somebody’s going to say I’m introducing intricate things that make them uncomfortable in class. So when I talk about is the anti-masturbation movement, okay? Now that’s okay. Who can object, right? Anti- is always better. And then I talk about in one of his books, he has a little wax.
There was Napoleon put up the wax museum against masturbation. And you’ve, had a little boy and little girl in different stages of what happens to you if you continue to abuse yourself, okay? And the last one, the little boy’s wax penis is down on the floor. So I said thereafter they closed it. And by the, by the time you get to the mid-19th century, they don’t want to put penises out on the floor. So fathers take their sons to the tertiary ward of the tertiary ward of syphilis sufferers and show them the insane. And so they will wear protection when they have sex, you know, that kind of thing. And you want to keep those. And I, of course, I can allude to AIDS and to circumcision, which they’ve made correlations so we can go into that. But I think that’s I can picture him more, I can’t picture him, what he was. What next. That was the wonderful thing. I could never picture what he was gonna do next. But in the lecture, I can, I can hear him, that I can always hear him doing. And I can always hear him bringing this or that in. And he would have done, of course, much more than I would have even thought, imagined. But that’s, I mean, the infinite ingenuity of the human brain. We all can pick out things.
Hecht: This is a complete non sequitur, but I did fail to ask you about a film that you mentioned, I believe that you made in 1968?
Drescher: Oh, yes. Back to irrationality. Oh, yes. That was sheer fun, and he loved it.
Hecht: So tell me about it.
Drescher: What happened. You know the events of 1968, the students go out and in France, the workers also go out and they bring France to a stand still. And I was in Paris in 1968, 1969 with my family and watching I came in the summer of 1968. So the events themselves were old, but they had, what do you call it, you call it, when there’s an earthquake: aftershocks. And the police and the, and, and the revolutionaries were constantly getting into it. And my son was eight years old. And for him this was like, you know, street theater. And he sees these long police lies moving down toward the students. He says, let’s follow them. We’ll see action, I said we don’t follow anybody anywhere you keep. If you ever see police walking, you don’t go anyplace because these police when they started, these are the CRS, the security police. They take your head against the ground. They play a little game of ball, head against pavement, comes up, stick against the head, goes back down, bang, bang, bang, like a little, little ping-pong. Okay?
Anyway, students come, some French students, they’ve taken films of, of these events. About nine hours worth of film. And I look at them and I think this is just spliced films of different events. What if I can put it together? I put them together in a 50-minute with a friend of mine and a 50- minute, colleague, in a 50-minute film called Paris, Confrontation, Paris: 1968.
And basically it’s what happens when you literally say, we’re going to, we’re going to really overthrow this whole bourgeois culture. There’s this whole social culture. We’re going to make a complete, total social revolution. And the imagination to power was the, was the slogan. Okay, anything you want to do. And they inverted all of the bureaucracies. They closed down the hospitals, they seized the theaters. And finally, the outcome was at the end of our film. They didn’t produce this film. We had a little bit about what happens at the end. Government calls for a national election. And the conservatives win the biggest majority that they have ever won. And what did the government do? I, in our film we had made, we’ve shown the streets afterward and they’re burnt out. Peugeots, and Volkswagens, and Mercedes all burnt out. But there’s nothing around. There’s burned out cars on the block. And I said, it’s funny that the government took these pictures. About 30 years later I read a study. Government made a deliberate decision, we’ll clean out debris around the streets, but we’ll leave the burned out cars there until after the election. Let people walk into the polling booth and say, that could be my car. I don’t want that to happen. Enough people to give the conservatives, as I said, the biggest majority that they have. I don’t think they ever matched it again. And they made, I thought if things go too far in France now we will have this scenario. It may work itself out in the same way. So then that would have been George’s advice to students. Watch out for utopia. You may get what you wish for, but it may not look like what you want.
Hecht: Okay. Anything else?
Hecht: You’ve done a wonderful job. I know. Well, thank you very much for letting me interview you and thank you even more for honoring George in this way. That’s great.
Drescher: This is, this is my obligation to him. This is such an opportunity. I can’t tell you how good, how much I’ve enjoyed this. And I hope for your sake and for mine and for George’s, that you keep going with this and get as many people before they die as possible.
Hecht: Okay. Thank you.