27 April 2023
Steven E. Aschheim, “George L. Mosse: Historian of Fascism, Masculinity, and Nationalism”
Claudia Breger: My name is Claudia Breger, I’m the chair of the department of Germanic studies and languages here. And I am so very pleased to see you all and welcome you here today. We are extremely honored and pleased to host this inaugural Mosse lecture at Columbia today made possible by Roger Strauch and the Mosse Foundation in Wisconsin, and featuring Professor Emeritus Steven Aschheim, the Vigevani Chair of European Studies and the director of the Franz Rosenzweig Research Center for German Literature and Cultural History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And as [video begins] — can you hear me? The music — (Background conversation)
Audience: The music is still on. (music turned off)
Breger: Okay. All right. So, yes. Maybe reiterate that last very important piece. So this lecture today is featuring Professor Emeritus Steven E. Aschheim, the Vigevani Chair of European Studies and the director of the Franz Rosenzweig Research Center for German Literature and Cultural History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And as respondent, we will have Professor Victoria de Grazia, the Moore Collegiate Professor Emerita of History here at Columbia. Andreas Huyssen, whom I believe many of you know very well, he is the Villard Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature, also at Columbia, will introduce them in a moment, as well as very briefly introduce the historian George Mosse, whose legacy these lectures are endowed to honor. And Mosse will be introduced only very briefly by Andreas because he is also the topic of the lecture tonight. Are we having interferences again?
Audience: Please silence your cellphones. Thank you.
Breger: So the topic of the lecture today is George Mosse, historian of fascism, masculinity, and nationalism. It is only fitting that the first of these annual lectures here at Columbia should honor the memory of the scholar in whose name they are given. Future lectures will turn to pressing contemporary political, social, and cultural issues to be addressed in cross-disciplinary and transnational perspectives by scholars, public intellectuals, artists, or writers. Although given the rise of fascism in our own contemporary moment, perhaps the implied distinction between historiographic perspectives on the one hand and current affairs on the other is less than solid. What could be more pressing than talking about the analysis of fascism today?
In any case, my job here really are only the thank yous. Again, first and foremost, without musical interference, to Roger Strauch and the Mosse Foundation in Wisconsin. But I’m also grateful to a number of co-sponsoring units here on campus who helped us get out the word and come together as a community for this occasion, namely the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, the University Seminar on Cultural Memory, the Society of Fellows, and the Heyman Center for the Humanities and the European Institute.
And then I would also in particular like to thank as always but really with emphasis on this occasion, Sherene Alexander and Kerstin Hofmann, who made it all possible from the administrative angle, as well as Ryan on the tech. And it’s been a long planning process.
Finally, last but not least, I would like to thank Andreas himself, without whom all of this would not have come together here at Columbia. So let me just hand it over to Andreas Huyssen now. (applause)
Huyssen: Welcome. It’s great to see you all. It is a great pleasure for me to introduce Professor Steven Aschheim and Vicki de Grazia, both of whom are long-term friends and compagnons de route. Steven is, of course, as you know, a major intellectual historian and cultural historian whose life work revolves around the legacies of German Jewish culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Having been a student of George Mosse’s at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in the 1960s, and having carried on Mosse’s legacies in critical and expanded form, he was our immediate choice to introduce this first annual Mosse lecture at Columbia.
But let me first add before I say more about him and the respondent, let me add my personal thanks to Roger Strauch and the Mosse Foundation and also welcome the special guest Skye Doney. Where are you? Here. Skye Doney, who is the director of the George Mosse Program in History at UW-Madison in Wisconsin.
Now I will not yield to the temptation to speak about George Mosse, whom I knew quite well in my time as assistant professor in Wisconsin, except to say this: his work on the historical roots of Nazi culture — yes, you heard right, Nazi culture, a term that would have raised many eyebrows among historians at that time — his work was pathbreaking and formative for a whole generation of young Germanists in literature and in history. It helped reorient the field of German literary and cultural studies in the United States, which took many of its cues from the annual Wisconsin Workshop, in which Mosse’s voice was as central as that of his colleagues in literature.
I should add here as a footnote that Steven Aschheim taught here one semester as a Distinguished Max Kade Visiting Professor in 2005. He taught a wonderful seminar. I remember the students’ glowing reports. But neither of us remembers what the topic was. (laughter) So it’s a pleasure to have you back here, Steven.
Among Steven’s many books, I’d single out the early and influential Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German Jewish Consciousness: 1800-1923, published in 1982.
The book offered a cogent discourse analysis as we call it now of the historical emergence of the rift between Eastern and Western Jews, German Jews and Ostjuden, the creation of cultural symbols, perceptions and visual images that were to prove central in the antisemitic, völkisch ideology of the Nazis. Then after that, a big tome, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990, published in 1992, which explored the conflictual reception of Nietzsche between right and left, fascists, socialists, and liberals. This book was followed by Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises, published in 1996, which focused on the indissoluble dialectic between culture and catastrophe, a by now standard trope characterizing not just National Socialism, but in some accounts, the twentieth century at large.
Many more books followed, with rich and illuminating essays on key problems of German modernity, the Sonderweg thesis, totalitarianism, the historiography of the Shoah, and practically on every German-Jewish major intellectual of the twentieth century, such as Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Ernst Cassirer, Aby Warburg, Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig, Victor Klemperer, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Jean Améry, and of course, last but not least, George Mosse. And I left many out.
Steven’s most recent book, Fragile Spaces: Forays into Jewish Memory, European History and Complex Identities, appeared in 2018. So he’s still very much at it. Compelling writing throughout, deep historical knowledge, commitment to an enlightenment tradition, and sober and succinct analysis characterizes all of Steven’s work, which is also always, I should add, a pleasure to read. So glad to have you with us again.
Responding to the lecture will be Victoria de Grazia, who has taught at Columbia since 1994. She’s a leading scholar of Italian Fascism, with books such as The Culture of Consent: Mass Organization of Leisure in Fascist Italy, 1981, and How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy 1922-1945, published eleven years later. Books that were followed by Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe, published in 2005, a magisterial and irresistible analysis of how American-style marketing, mass distribution, and Hollywood mass entertainment invaded Europe in the interwar years, breaking down traditional patterns of consumption and of class distinction.
Her most recent book, however, is the prize-winning The Perfect Fascist: The Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy, a compelling page-turner that illuminates the history of fascist Italy through the story of Mussolini’s most loyal soldier and strongman, Attilio Teruzzi (1882-1950), minister of colonial Italian Africa and leader of the Black Shirts, husband to the Jewish-American opera diva Lilliana Weinman he could not divorce. Partnered with a Romanian-born Jewish woman he could not marry, and by 1938, father to a Jewish daughter he could not legally recognize. Reading about this perfect Fascist’s political and familial trajectory and operatic tribulations, I wondered how George Mosse would have described the perfect Nazi in the German context of love, power, and morality, and some other things one would probably have to add here. Anyway, perhaps we should leave this question for the discussion period, if you like. So please welcome with me Steven Aschheim and Vicki de Grazia. (applause)
Steven E. Aschheim: Well, one does have to start with thanks. But in this case, it’s actually very genuine. So I’ll very, very briefly thank, first of all, the members of the German Department, Claudia Breger, Sherene Alexander, I can’t see her, but she tolerated my bumblings and maneuvers for months. And Kerstin. Skye Doney, who is the director of the Madison Mosse Program. But above all — not above all, but certainly central, is this fellow Andreas Huyssen, whose generous introduction was perhaps exaggerated. But his generosity and his warmth and his care is obvious to everyone, especially because once in 2005, he did the most outstanding and perhaps crazy act. He actually came to fetch me at the Newark airport. (laughter) So this tells you something about Andreas apart from the quality of his scholarship.
So I’ll get straight to it. Obviously it is an honor to open the series, but those of you are perhaps unfamiliar with George Lachmann Mosse, his biography is as interesting as his work. And obviously his biography and his work are deeply interconnected. He was born in 1918 into what can only be called the wealthy German Jewish elite: the Mosse Lachmann family, which was famed for its art collection, its encouragement of culture, and its philanthropy. And they were, of course, owners of a highly influential publishing empire and the leading liberal German newspaper, the Berliner Tageblatt. During the Weimar Republic, they were constantly attacked by the Nazis, and just upon the takeover of power, the young George in perhaps his lifelong, characteristic madcap fashion, managed to leave Germany at the very last possible moment. For he was both — he later described himself, by the way, as a permanent exile. There’s a book called Ich bleibe Emigrant, which was only half true, for he was both an outsider, a sensitivity that we will see was very closely tied to his work, but also a revered member of the communities to which he belonged. He spent his academic life restlessly traversing the world, yet he was also very much at home in Madison.
As George was a pioneering historian, we also have, and Andreas pointed this out to me, a New York connection with his sister Hilde, who did pioneering psychiatric work with children in Harlem.
But let me now try to get the measure of the historian George Mosse. George, as those who knew him almost addressed him, he thought, spoke, and wrote prodigiously, pioneeringly, and almost always provocatively. If you want to know what a Mossean is, it’s provocation. While not neglecting high culture, and indeed himself kind of incarnating the Enlightenment Bildungs culture he himself incarnated, was his role in literally part of redefining what intellectual and cultural history is about. He consciously departed from the somewhat elitist and rarified Hegelian tradition of Ideengeschichte with its inbuilt bias toward abstraction and a progressive Hegelian rationality, and turned to subjects like popular literature, myths and symbols, ideologies of irrationalism, youth movements, muscle-building gymnastics, nose-straightening surgery.
Don’t look at mine. More than anything else, he uncovered the crucial role of normative stereotypes and their excluding mechanisms. His specialized studies covered a wide range of topics and subject matter. I won’t turn to them, but in his early career as he himself said, “I first had to assimilate to American culture before I could really turn to most existentially is important to me.”
And so there’s a series of works on Christianity, on Christian casuistry, on reason of state of state, until one day a colleague came up to him and said to him, “George, you’re such an interesting person. Why are your books so boring?” (laughter)
And it’s at that point, after two decades in the United States, that he turned to what was his life indeed. So his life and his writings are very deeply interconnected. From that time on, a virtual flood of works ensued, on völkisch ideology, fascism, Nazism, the Holocaust, German history, Jewish history, Zionism, antisemitism, on monuments, secular religion, and mass politics, on liberalism and socialism, and the role of intellectuals in politics, on war, shell shock, and processes of civic brutalization, on memory and modes of commemoration, on medicine, nervousness, and degenerative masturbation.
When he came to the Hebrew University and the historians there heard he was talking about masturbation, there was absolute crisis in the department. On racism, aesthetics, and visual culture, on bourgeois respectability, on masculinity, on androgynes, which today we go by another name, transsexuality. He was writing about them very early on. And of course sexuality and nationalism.
These are varied topics, obviously. But they possess a certain unity. Linked what I think, by a critical concern with processes of inclusion and exclusion. With ideal and antitypes. With strait jacketing definitions of normalcy and abnormalcy. Which was always propelled by a certain Enlightenment belief in the autonomy of the individual, the expansion of humanizing experience, and its concern with its defeat by mass forces of homogenization.
He brought to his work a commitment and passion which he said was really decreasing amongst his colleagues, in which he said — he always had this accent — “Oh, so many of my colleagues should have been accountants,” is what he said. (laughter)
As a German Jewish émigré and at first an undeclared homosexual — later he declared — who had himself experienced rejection and exclusion firsthand, there’s little doubt that his evolving work had both generational and autobiographical roots. It is telling that although he regarded his forced leaving of Germany in 1933 as a form of liberation, a way of saying I’m getting away from the constrictions of this elite family, that he did say, ultimately towards the end he did define himself, I quote, as “a member of the Holocaust generation.” In all his works, he never really went into anything like the mechanics of the Holocaust, the details which he would have dismissed, I think, as merely technical in nature. What he did do was probe the multitudes of deeper lines of cultural, ideological, and political building blocks that rendered the events conceivable, that made it thinkable in the first place, something which most historians did not deal with. His position on this was very radical, Probably very questionable today. I’m quoting, “All my books,” he says, “in one way or another have dealt with the Jewish catastrophe of my time, which I always regarded as no accident, structural fault, or continuity of bureaucratic habit, but which is built into our society and towards our life. Nothing in European history is a stranger to the Holocaust. And I have tried to delve ever more deeply into the nature of European society through analyzing its perceptions of and attitudes to the outsider.” That can be disputed.
Typically, he also insisted on what I would call de-ghettoizing Jewish history. He rejected the common, and this certainly was true in Jerusalem, a common kind of ethnocentric bias that by definition had to kind of follow its own unique narrative and laws, imminent laws. To some extent, certain critics have said Mosse’s view of Jewish history was that of the German-Jewish elite. It was from above. It wasn’t part of the experience of the masses. It was part of the wealthy Berlin Jewish elite. After all, who else could write a paean of praise with the title German Jews beyond Judaism. So this is not the typical food that you would think of regular Jewish historians.
At any rate, by linking Jewish fate to central currents of the European experience, he connected dimensions that very often remain separate and compartmentalized. Clearly The Crisis of German Ideology, which is a book that really forms his entrance into the modern period, over the years his canvas became broader. There was an evolution of thought and evolution of perspective. His work now became implicitly intertwined with an emerging acknowledgement of his own minority homosexual status. While Jewish victimization remained central, even unique, the scope of analysis became ever more broader. Jews as victims formed part of a continuum and a dynamic affecting other victims, their status and stereotypes comprehensible only alongside other outsiders.
Now I’m going to start here by saying that broader canvas hides other significant shifts. In order to understand this, we must first examine the Crisis book. By the way, I say the Crisis book. For those who didn’t know George, if he was writing about sexuality, he said, “Oh, I’m writing the sex book.” “Oh, I’m writing the war book.” Or, “I’m writing the crisis book.” So in the Crisis book, it treated us to an erudite, richly detailed display of how völkisch ideology, that semi-mystic organic Weltanschauung with its metaphysic of eternal national rootedness, its symbolism of blood and soil, its antiliberal, anti-urban bias penetrated German culture and politics, and by focusing upon the Jewish stereotype of rootlessness and alienness, how that became intertwined or integrated into the Nazi anti-Jewish revolution.
Yet original as it was — and it was — there was a competitor, by the way, whose name perhaps I should mention, seeing that we’re at Columbia. His name was Fritz Stern (1926-2016), who when the Crisis came out, The Politics of Cultural Despair (October 1974) was not dissimilar in nature. And anyway, the Crisis book nevertheless fitted a conventional Sonderweg paradigm of the time. German developments, he argued, towards modernity, were singular and differed fundamentally from the liberal democratic west, its anti-modernity repudiating the rational European Enlightenment and the social radicalism of the French Revolution.
But as he proceeded, George subtly softened the Sonderweg Germano-centric explanation and moved far more to a wider European canvas. So his 1975 Nationalization of the Masses made it clear that ultimately fascism and Nazism were part of the broadest defining developments of political modernity, incomprehensible outside of the European-wide backdrop of the fusion of democracy and nationalism, and the creation of a new mobilizing liturgical politics, visually-oriented, participatory, counter to liberal parliamentarism, rendering even the French Revolution as partly complicit in the rise of fascism.
His 1978 Toward the Final Solution, it is true, rendered Jews as its central victims. But it is also not just a history of German racism, but a wider history of European racism. There the world is divided into normative types and antitypes and there is a major subtle role of aesthetics, not science, as the standards of racist judgments rooted in the ubiquitous ideal of Greek beauty, racists employed an aesthetic physiognomy predicated on making judgments not only about external appearance, but crucially about inner moral qualities. These were European-wide stereotypes and clearly not limited to Jews just as no one could claim Greek heritage for the hunched, ugly stereotype of the ghetto Jew. This was equally true for the thick lips, crinkly hair, and flat nose of the quote unquote “Negro” stereotype. I know one is not allowed to use it without the quotes. If Jewish looks validated an inherent criminality and manipulativeness, Black deportment confirmed an essential inner violence and primitiveness.
And these widening European perspectives are equally apparent in his 1990 Fallen Soldiers. There it is World War I with its well-nigh universal twentieth-century experience of mass death that takes center stage in that context, not völkisch tradition, not ingrained racism, but the later militant rightwing appropriation of the brutalized war experience, which was transposed into civil politics, became paramount. But his most radical turn was not just the simple enlargement of the historical canvas that took in most of Europe and went beyond Germany. It concerns his portrait of the role of the middle class in all of these developments. Although in The Crisis of German Ideology he did suggest that through antisemitism, the bourgeoisie was integrated into the Nazi revolution, the determinative role of the middle classes was only very minimally outlined. But in his 1985 Nationalism and Sexuality and 1996 The Image of Man, the modern bourgeoisie, at least in some of its guises, becomes an essential expression of the intolerant fascist and Nazi impulses. From the late eighteenth century on, Mosse argued, nationalism and middle-class morality entered into a powerful alliance, defining modern standards of sexual behavior and other modes of respectable conduct in such a way that an ever-tightening distinction between normality and abnormality was developed and enforced. Manliness now became part of normal and normative national and bourgeois self-definition.
“This alliance,” he wrote, “became increasingly totalized, insisting on assigning everyone a fixed place.” There were the healthy. If you have the healthy, then you have to have the degenerate. If you have virile self-controlled men, you have to have nervous, effeminate homosexuals. If you have sane people, you have to have insane people. And the energetically productive as opposed to the lazy. And, of course, the settled native and the rootless foreigner.
This rigid code put under the guise of respectability what was called in German Sittlichkeit was invoked to control the reality that the alliance had itself created. “Bourgeois society,” he wrote, “needs its dialectical opposite in order to exist.” And it is there that the critique of respectability becomes subversively and conceptually central.
For Mosse, Nazism was not about a peculiar German Sonderweg or even a radical Nietzschean nihilism, or even the [Ernst] Nolte-an (1923-2016) revolt against bourgeois transcendence, but rather about corrupted and threatened middle-class men attempting to maintain the apparent values of healthy manliness, orderliness, cleanliness, hard work, and family life against those outsider groups who in their eyes seemed morally, bodily, and aesthetically diseased and degenerate, and who dangerously desecrated the basic tenets of bourgeois respectability.
I quote: “The New Man of National Socialism,” he wrote, “was the ideal bourgeois. And it was the anti-types, the sexual deviants — Gypsies, Jews, permanently insane people — whom Hitler wanted to exterminate and whom he did exterminate. They all seemed alike. They all looked the opposite of the middle-class self-controlled idea of beauty, energy, and productivity.”
Now, parenthetically, we are allowed to have a certain criticism of the man we’re celebrating. So parenthetically what I would argue here, that this was a brilliant Mossean provocation. He was surely aware that Nazi perpetrators understood the highly transgressive taboo-breaking, that is highly un-bourgeois nature of their acts. He would agree I believe that Nazism combined both bourgeois and anti-bourgeois elements. And it was precisely in the combination and tension between these elements, in the fusion of the conventional and the extraordinary, that Nazism transcended middle-class morality at the same time that it embodied it.
Indeed, as George demonstrated in The Image of Man, middle-class morality and respectability doesn’t make it so we have to be genocidal. I mean, you are a middle-class audience. You’re sitting there very politely. You may be bored, but you’re sitting here as good bourgeoisie, listening. So he understood this, that middle-class respectability was clearly a deeply necessary and ingrained part of our lives. In fact, what he showed and that we continue, although less and less so, and that’s a good thing, to have definitions of what constitutes normality and abnormality.
The book ends with a chapter called “Everyone’s Morality.” That is to say, if you wanted to really find bourgeois morality, it would be in the Bolshevik state. It was in Russia.
So, we’ve looked at some of his most pointed negative critiques. What about his more positive commitments? What he called his points of redemption of the human spirit. He was clearly a liberal who believed deeply in the autonomy of the individual and personalizing relationships. More specifically, he constantly emphasized that these values were most clearly incarnated in the specific notion of Bildung, that untranslatable classical German idea of ethical and cultural development through self-cultivation. If for Mosse respectability represents narrowness, constrictedness, the contraction of tolerance and possibilities, for him Bildung embodied the ideal of openness, the expansion of human experience. Tolerance, cultured self-cultivation, and the autonomy of the individual were its trademarks. And implicitly he applied these as the moral measure to all his works.
Yet once again, a very autobiographical impulse emerges, for he’d rendered the ethical history of Bildung, which is a general thing, into virtually a specific ethnic Jewish property. His 1985 German Jews beyond Judaism is an analysis of the historical process whereby German Jews slowly became virtually the sole carriers of that humanizing sensibility, witness to the desertion by the non-Jewish German-educated middle-class of a doctrine they had originally shared with the emancipated Jewish co-citizens.
Indeed for George, the German Jewish heritage is the heritage of Bildung, which itself became a kind of new Jewish tradition, a defining ingredient of their post-emancipation identity. For this was an idea that seemed tailor-made for their needs to emancipate. Because as he put it — (ringing) Hello. (laughter)
Breger: Somebody else wants to come in still. It’s the doorbell.
Aschheim: It’s the doorbell.
Breger: Yeah, it’s the doorbell.
Aschheim: Very insistent doorbell. Where was I? Yeah. It was an ideal made for integration because it transcended all differences of nationality and religion through the unfolding of the individual personality. And this he argued, became woven into the very fabric of German-Jewish being. (ringing)
German Jews beyond Judaism, by the way, is the work in which, as he himself admitted, “is my most personal book, almost a confession of faith.” But he was a responsible and critical historian and he characteristically retained a certain critical perspective on Bildung itself. Given the almost automatic belief in the primacy of culture over politics, Bildungs Jews, he wrote, entirely misread their own situation and deluded themselves by projecting their own ethical ideals onto a Germany that already possessed a quite different reality. Indeed, as he argued, while Jews were emancipated into the promises of Bildung, they were also taught to adjust to the norms of respectability. Eventually they became caught in a vise when Bildung became a nationalized, rather than an individual value, it was very easy to stereotypically represent gesticulating, manipulating, nervous Jews as the antithesis of respectability.
In all these ways, Mosse became perhaps the most important contemporary historian of the manifold strategies of inclusion and exclusion, belonging and displacement, disdained outsiders and normative insiders. This was a conception of culture determined by a dialectical relationship between the center and the periphery. The insider acquires identity and defines himself or herself in terms of the outsider that they create. Moreover, these processes were always located within what he used to call a fully furnished house. Despite his own liberalism, history for him was a totality: the political cannot be separated from the religious, the science from the aesthetics, the mythological from the rational. Clearly then, he wasn’t interested in history as a dry narrative, but in the big questions and possible answers. He was no positivist and certainly not a plodding antiquarian. Indeed, sometimes he could be completely cavalier with his facts and his stories.
Walter Laqueur (1921-2018) tells a story about George telling him that he was entertained in his home in 1919 by Edith Piaf (1915-1963), when in fact, Edith Piaf was five years old at the time. (laughter) But that didn’t worry George. He said, “But that’s not the point.” (laughter) And he was quite correct; it really wasn’t the point. But anyway, that’s just one instance. His general portrait of Bildung and his idealized portrait of German Jews has without doubt received criticism from a whole variety of perspectives that I won’t go into them now. In fact, I’m one of the people who wrote a criticism.
And what stood out for George is his delight at being critiqued. And that is to say, first of all the understanding that someone took his work seriously. And that part of the work of a historian is the critical role. So in effect, in that sense, he was quite, if you like, unique. But he was a deeply complex man. And like all of us, I assume, full of conflicts and contradictions. And it’s precisely these conflicts and contradictions — which I hope it’s true for most of us — that render the work so energetic and compulsive.
So, who better to detail the dialectics between nervousness and self-control than George? Anyone who knew George knows that his leg was always moving. Always moving. But he yielded insights from that, which were extremely relevant. So, I want to, I’m going to try and be as quick as I can now. We’re waiting to hear from Vicki.
His writing and his history was precisely because it was galvanized by his own autobiography. So I’m going to give two examples. The first and the most obvious is apparent in his work on sexuality. Existential roots and his own gayness he acknowledged were behind his concern with bourgeois respectability and its construction of normal and abnormal categories of sexuality. As he put it, he had engaged with the specific outsiderdoms of which I’ve been a member. Yet even though in the Crisis book he was the first to discuss male Eros as part of völkisch thought, he only explicitly addressed homosexuality in the latter part of his life. Indeed, with extraordinary candor, he even claimed that perhaps these later works “failed to suppress sufficiently my anger over the fact that the strictures of respectability had made my own life so much more difficult.”
As I mentioned before, although he never used the word “transsexual,” very early on, he was writing amongst other things in his works on sexuality about trans people and androgynes and hermaphrodites. For all that, he never allowed his analysis to become embittered or simplistic or politically correct. That is because at the same time that he critiqued respectability, he not only personally internalized it, but he understood its very necessity. If he advocated the expansion of boundaries and pressed for greater tolerance of minorities and sexual outsiders, he also understood the limits of such expansion. Perhaps one could permit greater latitude of sexual expression, a relaxation of over-repressive controls, he wrote, provided that it not endanger respectability’s power and dominance. This was so, simply because, as he put it, the normative manners of respectability were essential for the creation of some kind of order for the cohesion and functioning of society itself.
The second example of his tensions and contradictions concern his analyses of and personal relation to nationalism in general and Jewish nationalism in particular. How did this work? At the same time in which he unmasked and critiqued the deep dangers of nationalism, he possessed a profound attachment to its blandishments. His school at Salem, he wrote, “gave me a first taste of nationalism, which at the time I found congenial. There was a danger that it might provide a belief system that I so badly lacked. When as a historian much later I wrote about nationalism, I did have an insight into its truly seductive nature.” Indeed, at the age of about fifteen, he watched a Nazi demonstration in front of his home in Berlin. The impression was so great, he later recalled, “that I ran away from home” — it must have been in 1932 — “and went to a Hitler rally. I must admit even today that it was an experience. I was swept away.” First, there were masses of people. That was very captivating to be in the middle of it. But it was also Hitler. Strange. Nationalism, as he understood it, satisfied deep cravings for community and he systematized these insights about the power of this new politics, what he called the secular religion. He loved to go with me to Masada, which he called the Jewish holy mountain. Each nationalism has its holy mountain, monuments, flags, myths and symbols, as he wrote in The Nationalization of the Masses.
This same empathic duality, this same contradiction, applied to Zionism in Israel. No one better demonstrated how Zionism embodied precisely those categories that he had critiqued. This new Zionist Jew, he wrote, so different to the ghetto Jew, beautiful, muscular, filled with — don’t look to me! (laughter) I’m just reporting. This new Zionist Jew. So different to the ghetto Jew — beautiful, muscular, filled with energy — actually represented a normalization, an assimilation to middle-class ideals and stereotypes. Yet he identified deeply with those very same myths, symbols, and stereotypes. As he candidly admitted, “I was far from consistent. My own engagement in Israel told of the need for a more concrete embodiment of my Jewish identity. My accelerated heartbeat when I witnessed the swearing in of Israeli paratroopers on Masada,” Israel’s holy mountain, as he writes, reveals the attraction of an emotional commitment even for one who prides himself on the use of his reason. “Perhaps such a reaction is based upon the experience of antisemitism and its constant denial of Jewish manhood. However, once again ideal and reality differ even within my own person. I remember my joy on my first visit when I saw sturdy, self-confident Jews,” though this again was a stereotype. And he concluded, “I myself was far from immune to the irrational forces, which as a historian I deplore. And especially when it came to that group, which I regard as my own.”
Part of this affirmation may well have as one of its sources, he wrote elsewhere, “A largely unstated appreciation of the need for organized force and collective self-defense in a very imperfect, murderous world. A corrective, perhaps, to the blind spot of the Bildungs intellectuals, who habitually misdiagnosed brutal political realities and rendered them into culture.” There was, he reflected, always a certain pull towards realism, to the feeling that if one did not belong to a strong nation, one could slide back into statelessness.
I am going to skip a bit here, running for time. So, I want to say very briefly, not so much about his legacy and his influence, and I’m sure Vicki may mention his extraordinary influence in Italy, not in Germany, but in Italy. I want to talk less about that than the afterlife of his work. How does it stand in relation to some current, wider political, cultural developments?
The first relates to masculinity and sexuality. In his Image of Man, George was certainly aware of significant positive developments, especially the erosion of the traditional masculine stereotype. I think he would have been absolutely delighted by many contemporary changes, the radical extent of which I do not think he foresaw, and which can be considered without doubt to be absolutely revolutionary. Within an unbelievably quick time, the constraints of sexual respectability have become remarkably relaxed. Gay marriage, even in his time, was an unthinkable possibility. Not too long ago, the very idea of a group being called LGBTQ would have been unrecognizable. Today it’s a kind of familiar, almost domesticated, collective noun. And to the end of his life, George still felt it necessary to repeat, I think Andy [Rabinbach] was at that conference, he went on and on and on, “Beware of normalcy. Beware of normalcy.” Time and time again. But we’ve got to a point that in Israel a few years ago, there’s a group called Gevanim. And that group had a huge billboard in which it said, “Have the courage to be normal.” So we’re seeing here some kind of dialectic return. It’s like James Thurber’s (1894-1961) quip, “Must you be as nonconformist as everybody else?” (laughter)
But he had no simplistic illusions about this matter. Whatever positive changes there were, it was difficult to maintain, to envision either the downfall or even an ultimate challenge to respectability and masculinity because he believed to the end that it provided the cement for order and social cohesion. And so fundamentally he even argued that many homosexuals continued to accept the ideal of masculinity and they accent their own masculinity.
But most importantly, he foresaw that a clear reaction to these positive developments would set in a very deep reaction. Of that he was clear. And quite apart from the persistence of traditional homophobic attitudes in areas of the non-western world, the inevitable counter movement in the West is underway. His analysis may help to account for the intensity of our present cultural wars, the extreme backlash against the LGBTQ phenomenon and its perceived ever-growing threat to normalcy and sexuality.
Yeah. Again, whole paragraphs, I’ll just paraphrase it by saying we are at the moment redefining outsiders and insiders. Some of the outsiders are now within the society. They are not outsiders. They are creating new outsiders within. And what I’m trying to argue here is that that dialectic continues with a new form.
And I will end with this on nationalism. He understood that nationalism satisfied both legitimate and deep longings of community and could not be wished away. The idea, therefore, was not to abolish but rather humanize it, make it less aggressive, more inclusive. He even had in mind a model for that ideal, suggesting how can this be accomplished? He insisted upon a principal distinction between what he called patriotic and integral nationalism. Thus, he argued in eighteenth-century Germany, the idea of friendship which symbolized the autonomy of personal relations and the acceptance of individual differences, the free exercise of citizenship, coexisted with a sense of patriotism and national identification. Solidarity rather than domination prevailed. He argued it was only in the nineteenth century that integral nationalism arose with its controlling claims of totality that gave rise to a homogenized, ever-increasing conformity.
And he took as his example this group of Central European Zionist intellectuals: Brit Shalom, Hans Kohn, Robert Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, [Gershom] Scholem, who formed Brit Shalom to create a kind of bi-national state. And he argued Jews were more able to become advocates of this alternative nationalism which might keep its earlier fronts. As late as 1986, he continued to believe that this alternative was a realistic one. I quote, “That I have spent so much time investigating that nationalism which has made the Jews one of its principal victims does not mean that a nobler nationalism cannot exist. Indeed, it has existed in the past, based upon solidarity rather than aggression. Today it seems almost forgotten that it was precisely these Zionists in Eastern and Western Europe who continued to desire this kind of nationalism, which is based on solidarity.”
Now, these are great sentiments. And as a great admirer of George, I identify with it. But very sadly, the present situation in parts of Europe and the United States, not to mention various Islamic and African countries, and especially now, Israel, does not provide much realism or hope of success to George’s vision. Indeed, the eighteenth-century patriotism of friendship and the free exercise of citizenship which he spoke about I think was really a very pale form of nationalism right from the beginning. I rather think it was doomed right from the beginning. Indeed, he started realizing this. He said even amongst its most progressive early prophets, national liberation undermined democratic self-determination.
And in any case, in the context of nationalism, what is meant by solidarity and self-determination? Solidarity for and against whom? Potentially the very notion of self-determination may negate the self who is the other. At a different time, he expressed himself a certain skepticism. “What does self-determination mean?” he wrote. “There are certain historical circumstances under which it is impossible or in which it leads to more conflicts than it solves.” I wonder if today however sadly he would agree that his humanizing, expansive vision appears very dim. We cannot know.
So, I’m just going to give two paragraphs and I’m going to do it quickly. Because I want to talk about George the mensch, the man, as a person. It is his sheer, overflowing humanity, so refreshingly different from the usual dry, run-of-the-mill academic that so shone out. It was apparent in his charismatic teaching, passionate, direct, engaging, engendering thoughts through often outrageous but always illuminating assertions. He would have been absolutely appalled by the notion of safe spaces or trigger warnings that would drive the sensitivities of students. The job was to provoke them. I think it was Skye this morning who reminded me, one of his sayings is that “liberal education demands disagreement.” And so teaching through provocation was his method. So as progressive as he was, in that sense, he would be deeply anti-PC in that sense.
So, everyone has their own George and I’m going to end just with one or two last personal stories about George. No one but George could worry about squirrels laying eggs in his attic, which bothered him for months. (laughter) Or who else could sell the Mosse Schenkendorf estate to, I’m not kidding, to a Romanian prince called Count Dracula? (laughter) I am serious, read the book. Those who knew him inevitably had their George stories. Mine began on the very first night I met him on a 1968 night at the time of the student revolution, when the University of Wisconsin was on political fire with demonstrations and disruptions. I knew immediately that he would be my teacher when we said, “George, how on earth can you teach like this?”
And he said, “Oh, Steven, no student revolution begins before two in the afternoon. I teach at ten in the morning.” (laughter, applause)
Victoria de Grazia: Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me to comment, respond to Steven’s wonderful talk about George Mosse. When I was a graduate student at Columbia between 70 roughly and 76 and I studied with great European Jews, with Fritz Stern (1926-2016) and with Arno Mayer (b. 1926) who was at that time teaching at Columbia, coming from Princeton. And I never heard the name of George Mosse. The Columbia department was constituted in a very, very different way so that a figure like George Mosse would have been very difficult to imagine and at a certain point we can work through some of the reasons why this should have been so.
So my own acquaintance with George Mosse goes back to the mid-1970s on my own. It was a professional and intellectual connection, acquaintance if you want, and personal in a very, very deep way, though I never met the man. So it was in 1976 I believe, just when I finished my thesis, which was on fascist mass organizations with its cultural dimensions that he wrote to me and asked if I wanted to contribute an article on this thesis to his Journal of Contemporary History. And of course I was just oh my goodness, my luck. And I set to work on it. And I smoked a lot in those days because hey, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) smoked, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) smoked, and I smoked, and you know, it was part of a woman’s self-regard as an intellectual. (laughter) So I really set in to do the article. And I smoked and smoked and smoked and very little work was going on. I smoked and smoked and smoked, smoked another month. About three months of smoking, I said this is going nowhere and I had to start teaching. And it’s not happening.
So you can imagine, I’m beginning my career, so I wrote to him and I said, “School is about to begin and I haven’t done it. And I don’t think I can.”
And he wrote back and said, “Oh. That happens. It’s maybe all for the best.”
So it was an extraordinary moment and I said I’ve wasted three months. I’ve not done anything. Humiliation, self-humiliation. And then I said, I think I can save this. I heard it takes three months when you stop smoking, you never get any work done. So I took the cigarettes and threw them into the attic space, and I stopped smoking. So I attribute that to George. (laughter)
But that was preceded actually by a strong intellectual connection I made in 1976 or 77, a year or so after he published The Nationalization of the Masses. And by that time, George Mosse had published a half dozen books. The first in 1950 — and Steven has really given a strong sense of his trajectory here — a revision of his Harvard dissertation. He would write a half dozen more books before he died in early 1999. But he always regarded that book, The Nationalization of the Masses, as his breakthrough book, as special. And it was the first time, I believe, that he gave full voice to his notion of cultural history, which was something very new in the way he was presenting it at the time, and which was very different from what Columbia was very good at, intellectual history, defined very differently, and Fritz Stern was part of that, or political history different bases. It was the first book to explore political symbols and the means of their diffusion. This book honed the acute anthropological sensibility that two decades later would culminate in Mosse’s last major work, The Image of Man, his pioneering historical kind of masculine stereotypes in modern Western culture.
So, why was it I’m interested in it? The book’s subject was about men. Specifically, it was about the gregarious, flag-waving, choral-singing, war shrine-worshiping male associational culture of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany. Where did these powerful originally local movements of fraternity, playfulness, and aesthetics come from? That was one of his questions. How did they change after Germany became a nation state, then a magnificent empire after it was defeated under the Weimar Republic? What was the premise for this inquiry, was upfront, Adolf Hitler he argued, his seizure of power could never be understood, he contended, so long as historians treated Hitler as some sort of super Pied Piper of Hamelin, using his personal magic to captivate the masses on behalf of the forces of reaction. That Hitler was able to exploit the culture of the masses for the purposes of the Nazi revolution, it was because he had been formed the same deeply felt low-brow, and time-worn more racist culture and because he truly believed, Hitler, that by turning its repertory of sites and symbols into a quasi-religion worshipped by the whole nation, he would bring about Germany’s resurrection.
Well, why was I so interested in it? Well at the time, I was an assistant professor and just starting revisions on my own thesis on Fascist Italy, which I had defended the year before. So we were all at that point, I was very interested in the masses. Classes, whatever they were, they weren’t working classes. This was a big problem for the 70s, especially in view of populist, various populist movements. They were the economically miserable-waged and salaried poor of Fascist Italy, that’s what I was doing. And I was doing the charismatic dictator, not Hitler, it was Benito Mussolini, he, too, a consummate organizer of masses who in my thesis was set on corralling the people’s every leisure-time activity from bocci games to tourist outings into his famous Dopolavoro, or after work organizations.
To my great gratification, George Mosse opened his narrative by citing Mussolini. It was 1932, the Duce was at Palazzo Venezia being interviewed by the well-known German journalist Ernst Ludwig, and he was saying that any successful revolution knew to draw on old political forms, reinventing them for new purposes.
To tell from my copy’s cracked binding, creased cover, and page after page of notes, smudges, underlining of his Nationalization of the Masses, I took Mosse’s arguments very seriously indeed. It was one long wrangle between his liberal culturalist perspective and my Gramscian Marxist feminism over what he meant by nationalization. This is a question that comes up, his relationship to the nation and what he believes nationalism is. And who were these masses? That was a term that we were getting very nervous about as radicals, to lump them all together and see them in some ways as trying through the French Revolution to create a revolution and then becoming seduced by themselves and into worshipping themselves and looking for leaders who would pander to that kind of self-worship. Why speak of political religion, and this is a question we might turn back to, well to all of us, if politics and religion in the West were always contaminating one other, why set aside this notion that there was some special symbolic logic? Why did he speak of civil society? And there he’s talking about all these people marching around civil society. Again, these are the grumbles of a young professor. But when it was self-evident that the national chauvinist forces were rising to a milieu in civil society only to be captured by reactionary forces empowered through their seizure of the levers of state power. And why no women? Okay. Weren’t they singularly present in these idealized male solidarities even in their ostensible absence? No women. No women.
Now, not that any of these arguments kept me from feeling that I was in the company of a real compagnon de route. That word comes up, that there’s something charming about this guy whom I didn’t know and whose book I was reading. Now, from the radical history grapevine, the Twitter feed in those days (laughter), students and untenured left professoriate, I knew George Mosse was a German-Jewish émigré of prodigious culture and hard to pinpoint politically, which was not necessarily a plus in those fractious times.
He was no firebrand Marxist. I understood that from coffee with Andy Rabinbach. And unlike his University of Wisconsin colleague, the French labor historian Harvey Goldberg, whom we did read at Columbia, with social historians like Robert Paxton (b. 1932), nor was he an anti-establishment populist like the US foreign policy historian William Appleman Williams (1921-1990), whom we invited to the radical history groupings and lectures which we held in New York in those days. But whatever he was, his students revered him as the teacher and mentor, respected him for his equanimity in the face of antiwar protestors and flaming student polemicists, delighted in his seminars, soirées with sips of cognac, and thrived on the intense contact with European antifascist culture through the German workshops he supported. And they also registered approvingly, something that was so important at the time, his indifference to the suffocating heteronormativity of academic sociability. Oh, it was so… (laughter) Professors and their wives, with its donnish, womanizing husbands, officious wives, and cute, uncomplaining children.
So this was a person who at a distance — also is a state university, a public university, Wisconsin, it’s radical, this seemed like somebody really, really quite wonderful.
Now since we were all post-1968 and we were all upset at one another, here I want to simply start to place him, because that seemed very important to understanding in some ways his legacy and why he should be here at Columbia in this department and the occasion for going forward with really joyous and very wonderful sociable talk. It was an incredible time, the 1970s, when Mosse was making his swerve, let’s say, in the mid-1970s. I think this book, The Nationalization marked the beginning, marked the beginning of a whole new trajectory for a professor, lots of professors sort of stopped what they were doing and stayed doing what they were doing until they were retired. He did not. He set off on a whole new direction. It was just the midpoint in his career and things would happen in those next years which I think depended very much on his responses to the 1970s and a kind of liberation that he, too, felt with all of the political action that was taking place amongst the students and then in the culture generally.
So to just think back to those times, really in the 70s, the revolution wasn’t happening. And reforms, well, maybe they were happening. But it was the beginning of what my contemporary historians and historians now call this great neo-liberal swerve. And nobody could get a grip on the so-called silent majority, which after embracing Richard Nixon in the 68 elections and electing him once more in 1972 only to see him impeached and quit, had given a grudging yes to the populist Democrat Jimmy Carter. Only to embrace — oh dear — four years later, Ronald Reagan. We can go on. The 70s was mind-boggling. Mind-boggling.
The more our historical studies sought to bring the state back to understand the power of big government, the more history suggested that reforms only made state power more capillary, fluidified what Michel Foucault characterized at the time as the micropowers of governmentality, so that they circulated into everything from sex and the psychiatrist’s couch, the public assistance monitoring, we could ask in a moment or so about Mosse’s relationship to Foucault. That goes on his normativity because it raises such interesting questions I think also for our students.
The upside was that in this interregnum of the 1970s was a springtime for critical history and, indeed, for the fierce debates between radicals and revisionists about what that meant. As American scholarship was internationalized with European historians, historians of Europe, I should say, in the lead, it was God versus the devil as we wrangled over the diverse, often antagonistic schools of thought, all which seemed a radical improvement over American empiricism or worse, the scientistic turn to econometrics and sociological modeling. There was the French influence of the Annales school, structuralism, Louis Althusser, German critical theory, strong with some of you, the Frankfurt School with Walter Benjamin and Jürgen Habermas, and there was British cultural Marxism, but especially the refined social and cultural history of Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson.
As history departments began a little bit to become more inclusive in terms of sheer numbers of graduate students and in growing numbers of women among them, with big state universities in the lead here, so the leads were places like Wisconsin or Rutgers or the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, not at Columbia, we fed off of newsletters, conferences, and journals like Radical History Review, New German Critique, Telos, Radical America, and Critical Theory.
And there was a great deal of political wrangling, camaraderie, and bruised egos, but also a lot of intellectual satisfactions. All that made The Nationalization of the Masses, this book coming out in 76, even though it wasn’t picked up by the professoriate, especially the great intellectuals, the great German Jews who dominated the very strong German, this very strong department, so it was a work that was like sui generis and captivating. He was writing cultural history, not history of ideas. Fritz Stern’s book, for example, beautiful book, The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961), which has sympathies which are akin, he is writing about the failure of Bildung and young male, brilliant young men to turn all their contempt on the culture. So it was a very different, it wasn’t a cultural history, though now we could sort of say hmm, it’s certainly different from the more traditional intellectual history as history of ideas. So it, too, was very new but in a different way.
His book spoke to transcendent political questions: how did the nationalism of early nineteenth-century liberal democracy, once regarded as a force for progress, open the way to reactionary forces culminating in Nazism and Fascism? Why hadn’t the socialist left been able to capture the resentments of the middle classes against industrial society? Could we speak of an authentic mass working class or popular culture, or were they inevitably corrupted by the powers that be? Why was it that liberal societies ended up being so cruel to individuals? These, I think, were very big questions. Now, those are still questions that, as we heard also from Steven’s work, are very much present with us today.
I think I want to stop here with these, opening up these big questions and hoping that they will continue to be addressed as, in conferences, I should say annual or biannual or whatever conference or speech, presentation, which will be taking place. But in so doing, I just want to thank on behalf of Columbia, on behalf historians as well as relations between the German department which has a strong also historical interest for this. It’s an unusual legacy, I have to say that, which has money in it.
That’s an interesting, terribly interesting part of the story, this Mosse legacy when I wrote about the Irresistible Empire. And one of the first names I came across when I was writing about advertising, sort of the pushback to American-type advertising was the Mosse Agency, without connecting George Mosse to this agency. And of course all this immense wealth was expropriated, and after 1989, after 1990, the process of reappropriating it, which then has been certainly very helpful in terms of getting Mosse’s books back, but also the kinds of wonderful programming that’s been going on to revive historical research and historical thinking, and not just about Europe in any narrow way, but much more broadly. These kind of issues that I pose.
But I have questions that we might want to continue to discuss. It does, it is a question how he understood normative behavior. And I found, and then male sexuality. I’ve had students of mine, very recently, two years ago, when COVID — read The Image of Man as part of a class on men in crisis (laughs), you know, 1880, I tried to limit it, from 1880 to 1940, reading Buddenbrooks and so on and so forth. But a liberal idea, but it seems still narrow in some way. And I want you to think about that. In other words, he’s sort of a deeply in a bourgeois order, not dealing a lot with power, actually, either individual power or, he’s assuming the power of opinion, power of the state. Radically not connected to Foucault and how others couldn’t speak to that, how is it that a historian who speaks of having dealt with interest in anthropological, interest in liturgical, what would be, how would it work, that you wouldn’t, you ignore that? Now he wouldn’t be the only one. I think that a lot of historians coming out of the German, particularly German world, were not paying attention to Foucault. He’s coming very late in coming mainly through feminism. But it was sort of a question if you set up these problems of normativity. Foucault is working exactly the same period.
He works in 56, 76, 80. It’s exactly the moment Wisconsin must have been bringing in Foucault, Foucauldianism. So it’s a question for you, for those of you who were here, how a figure like Mosse, who has a big appetite, you know, cultural appetite, how is he working that new schools, you know, to respond to new schools, and to the kind of thinking that Foucault would have generated also for masculinity studies and for sexual studies? Thank you. (applause)
Aschheim: Would you like to hear the talk again? (laughter) I don’t know what I’m doing with the microphone.
Breger: We were thinking that maybe you would like to say something.
Aschheim: To talk, then you have to sit here, Vicki.
Breger: Yes, you also like you to sit there.
de Grazia: Yeah, thank you.
Aschheim: Very briefly, Vicki and I sat at a dinner table a few nights ago and not what she said now, but a comment she made at the dinner table was extremely true, and I think one should mention this. George wrote history in which there are no stories. And that’s something that Vicki pointed out, and that’s correct. It’s a more, I don’t know if, “abstract” is also not the word. But there are no stories, which is strange. Because if you sat with George on a personal level, all you would hear are stories. I mean, the best story I heard from George, for those of you who don’t understand Hebrew, you will have to excuse me. He came to Israel maybe for 30 years. His Hebrew was not that of a great linguist. So every time he walked into a restaurant and spoke to the waiter, he would say, “Adonai,” (laughter) meaning “God.” And he said, “I would get great service.” (laughter) So he was full of stories, but his history was not storytelling. It was conceptual story, which brings us to your question about Foucault. Which is interesting. First of all, you were right to say I don’t think George could have been Foucauldian or Foucault could have been Mossean because George was essentially liberal and Foucault was not classically liberal.
But more importantly than that — I know some disagree — George, although he read theory, wasn’t really interested in theory. Or, put it this way, I don’t know, maybe he was. But it’s not apparent in his work. So his work would come out through understanding popular attitudes, norms, symbols, and so on. He would never resort to theory in a way that Foucault does.
And I know that Skye pointed out, somebody has written an article in which Foucault and Mosse are compared. Which I’d forgotten the name of the person. But I do think that they read very differently. Although as you say, there is a match of concern at that time. That’s all.
Breger: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I should have of course before I even handed the mic back to you I should have said thank you both very much for your wonderful, your lecture and your response to it. That was very, very rich. We did want to, I was going to, I wanted to push the table away. That’s why I handed it to you that way. We also, we did want to give you a moment to talk to each other if you would like to talk. So I will hand the mic next to you again. And then we’ll open it up to the audience in a bit.
de Grazia: So my, it’s more of a sensibility than a thorough reading. Because I’ve always, I’ve frankly found Mosse difficult to read. And again I ask myself why is that? Why is that? Well, he doesn’t use analytical categories especially analytically. They’re elusive categories. And that is the charm. I mean “Nationalization of the masses” is never defined. Never a second is it defined. I found it, it’s a term I come back to. I use it very differently from him. It is a moment where regimes, US, Americanization, nationalization of the masses, the Americanization moment, we probably could take the reconstruction moment in the United States. You could certainly see in Italy the efforts in the late nineteenth century to bring the socialists into the state. Then fascism is considered to be. And he seemed to be, again, using this work, to have set up a comparison. Oh, and it’s not there. (laughs) It’s something. So it’s like he’s a companion. There’s something about, he’s companionable. He would not say, “You’re wrong.” But nor is he offering a strict comparison. There’s something about, now what do these books bring? This is also The Image of Man, this immense culture, which is also a visual culture. I thought back to 76, 1976. He’s talking about fascism and the beauty of it, and how Hitler loves beauty.
Which is, Susan Sontag (1933-2004) is writing about fascinating fascism in 1974 and saying let’s be careful here, I mean, she is going on with the aesthetic problems. Well, he has this eye, he has all these photographs. We had no eye to go on then. Nobody had then Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, the film, we saw a few minutes here and there, these very dark and bleed, we had no visual images of fascism except the stuff that my father brought back from the war, people arriving at concentration camps, at Buchenwald. Bodies and stuff like that.
But the richness of the pageantry, that will be coming much, quite a bit later, not to mention now, we’ve got so much visual material. And so his writing, which is kind of ludic and moves around and lucid often, it requires a certain sophistication. Or a kind of readerliness, a fine, kind of readers of a certain age who are familiar, if you want, with the subject matters. I mean, this is again a sort of a personal response.
So it’s fascinating how much, how well it’s lasted. That’s what I find very, I’m not sure who all is reading it. The books weren’t even translated very widely. His work wasn’t translated into German. Though you said —
Breger: In 1985.
de Grazia: 85. Then it starts. So he became much more popular in the 80s and in the 90s, I think. And in fact I think it’s in the 90s that his work, George’s work, starts to come together as an oeuvre which is very illuminating, when a lot of the work on fascism was becoming more and more tedious and more and more typological and boring, his work, you know, he’s adding in sex, adding gender, too, even if it was no women, it was still, you know the way he wrote about masculinity was fascinating because it had huge repercussions through the society. Anyway, let me hand it back.
Aschheim: Do you want to open it up to the public?
Breger: You would like to open it up?
Aschheim: No, you open it up.
Breger: Yes, but you would like me to open it up?
Breger: Well yes, okay, all right. So hereby I open it up. Do we have questions? Yes, please?
Audience: So, Mosse wrote one of his later really great books, Fallen Soldiers in 1990, and what also came out near then was Detlev Peukert’s (1950-1990) History of Weimar (Die Weimarer Republik: Krisenjahre der klassischen Moderne, 1987). And a big, big difference between them was that Detlev Peukert barely referenced veterans during the interwar period, whereas of course Fallen Soldiers, almost all the credit is given to them. So what I’m wondering is, did living in North America as opposed to the German academic scene give him a different kind of leeway in writing about these issues? Or do you think that…?
Aschheim: You know, there are certain questions to which I don’t have the answer. (laughter) So I’ve never thought about in which way does the American context particularly influence that book. But I know post-Fallen Soldiers, what context he did discover and which was interesting, and which is now being disputed, I won’t get into that. And which he said he was very impressed with military cemeteries in Israel. And he was impressed because in Europe generally, these were mass graves, dying for state in a homogenized way, whereas commemoration in most of the military cemeteries in Israel were personal, were addressed to the particular soldier that died, and not just for king and country and the whole thing.
But now we have a student, actually he was a doctoral student of mine. I should never have allowed that because he’s critiquing Mosse’s thesis and thinks that it’s wrong, Arie Dubnov. Right. So, but I cannot tell you how America specifically influenced that book. I mean, it’s very interesting. George wasn’t really an American. I mean, he never said Milwaukee. He always said (with German accent) Milwaukee. That was George. So he was a German in America. And I think his foci — although he was dying, as my wife said always, he loved to attend democratic parties and get involved in the democratic process. But I think his focus almost always was on not even Eastern Europe, but Western, Central Europe. So I don’t know how to answer that question, how America influenced him. I don’t know if you have —
de Grazia: I don’t. This is such an outsider trying to figure out — it was hard to imagine that if he had stayed in Germany, he would have even, he would have gone into the firm and he certainly wouldn’t have become a professor.
So that was the sense, in other words, how he came into the university system in the United States. It was being respectable. What does a German Jew — I mean, how is he going to fashion a career? That’s a very off, using my imagination and not going deeply, but that he did at the university — again, this is really second-hand, I’m not a biographer — he studied maybe with very high Harvard professoriate doing constitutional law, English Reformation. That’s very hard stuff in the United States. That’s sort of the power historiography of the great universities. And you don’t play around with that. You do your thesis, you write your first book. You continue to work on the Reformation at University of Idaho, then must have been a great thrill to get to Wisconsin.
de Grazia: Iowa. I’m sorry, excuse me. No, Iowa — okay, not Idaho, sorry. Apologies. And I just, how he lived, these structures were so rigid in some ways. But others can speak to that question. I mean, after, I mean, Wisconsin, things began to open up. But the kind of demands that the, wasn’t even profession. The profession/vocation put. So what the German Jews had to do — German — European Jews coming into the system at 16, 17, 18, 20 years old. It was a hard course. Because that was the one way they could make it.
Aschheim: Just before this gentleman with what you say — no, no, don’t need the microphone. It’s just that I know one of the jobs he was applying for, one of his professors said, “Despite his background, Professor Mosse has got very good manners.” (laughter)
Eric Santner: Steve, I don’t know if you remember, Eric Santner, you used to beat me in tennis at the Institute Woods.
Aschheim: Well, I beat most people in tennis. (laughter) I don’t know who you are. Excuse me.
Santner: There’s a question that came up partly in addressing the tension between Mosse and Foucault and I think it has to do with the ambiguity of the word that’s used so much, normativity.
I mean, at some level, normativity can mean responsibility for your claims, answerability to counter-arguments, norms of discourse and rational argumentation, including that has something to do with I think the Enlightenment legacy that he clearly associated with a cultural formation. Not reason, disembodied reason, but cultural formation that made commitments to that kind of normativity. And then there’s normativity in the sense of heteronormativity that is much more what Foucault was interested in. And so we have this phenomenon now in the United States where people completely ignore the normativity of discursive practices like truth, facts, responsibility for consistency of your argument, respecting counter-arguments, modifying your points. And at the same time, with very rigid views on normativity in a sense of normal behavior, the way people ought to look. So you have this weird tension between, that seems to haunt the word normativity.
But the other, that’s just a remark, when you were talking about respectability and middle-class respectability and Bildung, we are all respectable and not genocidal. But I think part of the larger critique of respectability is that of course, at some level, we’re decent. But we’re also participating in practices that are destroying the planet, enslave, basically putting people in debt, slavery, digging, you know, rare earth metals so we can use our phones. So in other words, our decency is, you know, there’s something also obscene about it. And so you know, not genocidal, it’s clearly different. But there’s a, the difference is sometimes difficult to discern.
Aschheim: Yeah, uh, first of all I think, first of all I think you’re completely correct. But I also think that George would completely agree. And this flows from what Vicki said that he never defined his terms. And that, you said, is part of the problem, Vicki. And it’s also part of the charm. These are kind of rather large categories. I don’t remember him ever using the term “normativity.” He used the word “norms” and he kept on saying “Beware of normalcy.” Whereas he would accept the norms of Enlightenment rationality. So in that sense, you’re completely right and I think he would agree with what you have to say.
In fact, he did put Bildung and respectability together. And saw that in respectability, or in what you call decency, there are, that’s the issue. Because you know, in fact, and he used words very interestingly. I mean, if he met a religious person, he would say, “Oh, he’s very pious.” Now there’s a subtle way of using the word. So what I’m trying to say is I think his very notion of respectability has critique in it. It’s in it. So he would say, “What do you mean, decent? The decency of the people who put Oscar Wilde in prison? They were the decent people.” So I think he was utterly in agreement with you.
de Grazia: Andy.
Anson Rabinbach: I want to speak to this issue of George and theory. He was very, how should I put it, bemused with theory. He had his students, many of his students worked from theory. Paul Breines wrote on George Lukács. We had someone in our seminar who didn’t become a historian, but who was an advocate of Wilhelm Reich. I wrote on Austro-Marxism. He was bemused by theory. He wasn’t theoretical himself except once. He wrote an article early on, I think it was in the Journal of the History of Ideas about myth and symbols. And that’s where he picked up a lot of the ideas that he used in his books. It was anthropology that interested him. [Franz] Boas (1858-1942) and people like that. So I think that he had maybe an ambivalent, an ambivalent relationship to theory. He was very proud of our New German Critique interest in the Frankfurt School, but he wouldn’t adopt it for himself.
The other thing I wanted to say is just a comment. We all have our George stories, but you mentioned this night when you arrived on campus and the campus was in disarray and people were occupying buildings. I also came at that time. And the thing about George was, unlike other faculty members, he wasn’t reserved. He didn’t keep his distance from students. He was the only one who sat on the Wisconsin terrace with a bunch of students and in this particular instance, the students were screaming at each other over the question of whether or not their action, they were trying to kidnap the Dow Chemical company recruiter. And they were saying they were Leninists. And George said, “You’re not Leninists. You’re Sorelians.” (laughter) I didn’t know who [Georges] Sorel (1847-1922) was, but I thought it was a good idea that I should look him up.
Breger: Thank you. Responses to this? No, no response.
Aschheim: This man.
Audience: You talk about the masculinity and you know, when watching Triumph of the Will, you see these grim-faced little kids banging away on drums. But what I don’t understand is the type of masculinity that I see on World War II documentaries where German soldiers are in a theater and they’re relaxing and they have their arms around each other, touching each other, swinging to a music or singing. And to me, that’s almost the antithesis of masculinity. So what I want, it would really help me to understand if you could explain to me what that is. Is that a relic of college fraternities? Or is it a European thing? Is it a German thing? This touching of masculine flesh going back like that. It’s problematic to me.
Aschheim: I think it’s part and parcel of what he was talking about because he drew our attention to what in Germany were called Männerbünde. That is to say, groups of men who typically excluded women. If you read the memoirs of a lot of these people, women were completely sidelined. And much of it was not homosexual. But a great deal of it was homoerotic. And the homoeroticism and masculinity are not contradictory. You know, the folding of arms and singing songs together. Singing songs together can be a very beautiful but also a very militant activity. Soldiers sing often. So I think that there isn’t really a deep contradiction between the fact of men touching each other and putting their arms around each other and singing together and the masculinity which is the tough aggressive kind. And I think he would think that.
He was the first to draw my attention to the whole idea of the Männerbünde, groups of men, which I don’t know how, if it applies today at all in America, but I belonged to a Zionist youth movement in my guilty past. And the girls, as we used to call them, or even worse, Vicki, we used to call them dolls, the dolls were there. But the real activity and the real camaraderie was with men.
And World War I camaraderie, obviously amongst the soldiers, was absolutely crucial. It was the glue that kept people together. So I think the two go hand-in-hand, rather than excluding each other.
Breger: I think we are getting close to the end of our time. I’m just looking around one more time if there are, would you like to, would either of you like to say any concluding words before we —
de Grazia: No. Thank you.
Breger: Thank you so much again, both of you! This was wonderful! (applause)