Sander L. Giman biography:
Sander L. Gilman is a distinguished professor emeritus of the Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University. A cultural and literary historian, he is the author or editor of over one hundred books. His “Gebannt in diesem magischen Judenkreis”: Essays appeared with Wallstein Verlag (Göttingen) in 2022; his most recent edited volume is Jews and Science, the Casden Institute Annual Review, vol. 20, published in 2022 with Purdue University Press. He is the author of the basic study of the visual stereotyping of the mentally ill, Seeing the Insane, published by John Wiley and Sons in 1982 (reprinted: 1996 and 2014) as well as the standard study of Jewish Self-Hatred, the title of his Johns Hopkins University Press monograph of 1986, which is still in print. For twenty-five years he was a member of the humanities and medical faculties at Cornell University where he held the Goldwin Smith Professorship of Humane Studies. For six years he held the Henry R. Luce Distinguished Service Professorship of the Liberal Arts in Human Biology at the University of Chicago. For four years he was a distinguished professor of the Liberal Arts and Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he created the “Humanities Laboratory.” During 1990-1991 he served as the Visiting Historical Scholar at the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; 1996-1997 as a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, CA; 2000-2001 as a Berlin prize fellow at the American Academy in Berlin; 2004-2005 as the Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of European Comparative Literature at Oxford University; 2007-2012 as Professor at the Institute in the Humanities, Birkbeck College; 2010 to 2013 as a Visiting Research Professor at The University of Hong Kong; and 2017-2018 as the Alliance Professor of History at the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich. He has been a visiting professor at numerous universities in North America, South Africa, The United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, China, and New Zealand. He was president of the Modern Language Association in 1995. He has been awarded a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) at the University of Toronto in 1997, elected an honorary professor of the Free University in Berlin (2000), an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association (2007), and made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2016).
Skye Doney: All right. Let’s just jump right in if that’s okay with you. Today is Thursday, 8 June 2023. This is Skye Doney with Professor Sander L. Gilman for the Mosse Oral History Project, which is a subset of the UW-Madison Oral History Program. Today I’m joined, as I said, by Professor Sander L. Gilman, who completed his PhD at Tulane in 1968. He is currently Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, where he is the director of the Program in Psychoanalysis and the Health Sciences Humanities Initiative.
For 25 years, he was a member of the Humanities and Medical faculties at Cornell University, where he held the Goldwin Smith Professorship of Humane Studies. For six years, he held the Henry R. Luce Distinguished Service Professorship of the Liberal Arts in Human Biology at the University of Chicago, and for four years he was a Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Medicine as well as the creator of the Humanities Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A cultural and literary historian, he’s the author or editor of over 80 books on a broad range of topics, including Sigmund Freud, the history of racism, the history of posture, obesity, dieting, and biology, as well as a magisterial collection of translated primary sources from the Third Reich, which he completed with Professor Anson Rabinbach.
His monographs have included important studies on the history of stereotype, including Seeing the Insane, published in 1982, reissued in 2013. Jewish Self-Hatred, published in 1986, is still in print in 2021. He co-authored I Know Who Caused Covid-19: Pandemics and Xenophobia. He is an interdisciplinary leader of the humanities, a former president of the Modern Languages Association, and he has received numerous honors. I’ll just mention two this morning, Doctor of Laws from the University of Toronto in 1997, and the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize. Professor Gilman, thank you again for making the time to talk to me about your career and about your relationship with George L. Mosse.
Sander Gilman: Delighted to do so, Skye.
Skye Doney: We’re going to start out with a very basic question to kick off this discussion, which is, I wondered if you could tell me about where you were born, the type of milieu you grew up in, your childhood, as well as maybe early teachers or mentors who put you on the path of studying history and psychology.
Sander Gilman: Well, I was born in Buffalo, New York. My parents were first generation North Americans. My mother was actually born in Poland, came over with her parents as an infant in arms. My father was the first of his family born in the United States. His sister had been born in Imperial Russia.
I was raised in a family that was Eastern European, was the sort of general designation, but radically different. My grandfather had been a Sattler. He’d been involved in trading, buying, and breaking horses. He had been in the Imperial Army. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War where he was badly wounded. In other words, he was an Orthodox Jew who had very little education. My mother’s father, on the other hand, was very well-educated. He was a socialist, he had been a Bundist in Poland, he was a commercial photographer. In fact, he worked for Karsh, which is the most important studio in Canada at the time. And in an odd way, I inherited both of these interests, both pointing toward the complexity of identity, right? The complexity of identity.
When I was 14, my father, who was a truck driver, my father was very much working class as his father had been, moved the family to New Orleans. And I was in a very odd situation because the school system in New Orleans was, first of all, segregated. Second of all, can we say not pristine, not of the, can we say, highest caliber. Though to be brutal about it, New York State wasn’t a hell of a lot better, we thought we were. And I spent a year then living with my grandparents and finishing up high school. I graduated at 15. And then on a wild card, which is something I learned about much later when I was a visiting professor at Tulane, I was admitted to Tulane as a freshman. Everybody on the admissions committee got one person who otherwise would not have been admitted. I was admitted, I got a full scholarship. I did my undergraduate work there in three years. I went then to Munich to study. I had done German and intellectual history as an undergraduate and went to Munich to study because there were interesting people I thought at Munich, Helmut Motekat (1919-1996) had been a visiting professor at Tulane.
He invited me to Munich, where I went. Munich, which I learned about when I was there, this was in the mid-1960s, was a very conservative institution. By the way, conservative is not a negative word. The people who were the most prominent people at the university were older people, many of them who had lost the ability to teach under the Nazis, right? The orientation, though, was we’re going to talk about history and culture up to 1933 and everything after 1933 to 1945 was an anomaly, right? And therefore it isn’t important because it’s the thing that is the exception to the rule of German Culture with culture written with a capital “C.” I found this, to be brutal about it, not terribly engaging. I was interested in precisely the questions which obviously my own background arose on both sides of the family we lost, with the exception of one of my paternal grandfather’s cousins, every single member of the families that remained in Soviet Russia or in Poland. My mother lost six aunts and all of their families. Right? So, I mean, this was obviously a topic, by the way, not a topic of conversation, not a topic of conversation, but it was a question which obviously was part of why I studied German as an undergraduate and why I was interested in, for me, contemporary history, right, 1960s, the war is contemporary history. I was born in 1944. So I go to Munich, find interesting, nice people, a little weird. But okay, we had to, because I was the first semester student, we had compulsory chapel, we had to show up to high Mass, all the new students to be blessed by the archbishop. Weird. Okay. At Munich I learned that there was a whole new wave of teachers who had come to the Free University in Berlin. And one of them, Eberhard Lämmert (1924-2015) was doing a Ringvorlesung on something that had never been discussed in Germany after 1945, which was the literature of the Third Reich. And that, and the fact that there were all of these people who were not in their 50s and 60s or 70s and 80s, but in their 30s brought me to a city which doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s a city that is written as one word, written as Westberlin with a small b. It was a complete anomaly. If you went to Westberlin, you didn’t have to have the obligation to serve in the West German Army or alternative service. It was a city 2.5-3 years after the beginning of the wall, there were still people coming across. There was tunnels being built and so forth and so on. There was a kind of interesting presence, right? Interesting presence funded, he learns 30 years later, by the CIA primarily. Okay. Okay. So I go to the Free University, go to Lämmert and say, look, I’m interested in what you’re doing. It turns out that he was trained in Bonn, he was a literary scholar, but he was a phenomenologist. Which was a kind of interesting, ahistorical way
because after 1945, no one was interested in the complexities of literary history in either Germanistik or I must admit in most of the other of the so-called Geisteswissenschaften. Okay? But Lämmert was open to these questions obviously because of the Ringvorlesung.
He invited me into his Doktoranden colloquium, which was amazing. He was working on novel theory. Again, very interesting ways of getting into history in complicated ways. I spent a very fruitful time there. Taubes, Jacob Taubes (1923–1987), had just joined the faculty when I was there. He was the first actual full- time professor of Jewish studies. There had been visitors on a regular basis. [Adolf F.] Leschnitzer (1899-1980), who was at the City College, who would come over every year. He had an honorary professorship in Jewish Studies. But Taubes was doing hermeneutics, he was doing interpretation. And he was doing interpretation, which was obviously what Lämmert was doing. He was a phenomenologist, but looking at Jewish texts. So I signed up for his hermeneutics course. And I had this very, for me, amazing ability to talk about questions with different kinds of people in ways that were certainly not possible in Munich. And to be honest with you, since Germanistik in the United States was again very conservative,
very conservative, with exceptions, with exceptions, than in the United States, so I began to write a dissertation with Lämmert. Again, he was doing novel theory. We were assigned — this was the good old days when your professor told you what topics you wrote on. I was supposed to write on Expressionism in the cinema, expressionist novel theory and the cinema. I began working on that topic using the expressionist writer Klabund, Alfred Henschke (1890-1928) who was both a notable novelist and poet, one of these cabaret famous cabaret poets of the 1920s, but also wrote screenplays for MGM in Germany, some of which he then converted into novels. It was really an interesting topic I got very much into it, was doing early cinema theory before, people knew there was early cinema theory 1964, 1965, 1966. And then if one will pardon the expression, the shit hit the fan, because Berlin was an anomaly, and Berlin began to be the site for street demonstrations against the Shah. Again, we forget about this, right? In which students were killed. Students were killed. There was a very, very powerful student movement that wanted to reform the state. And if it couldn’t reform the state, and remember the state is being run at this point still by very old people who had survived the Nazis. And many of the people in their administrations had been, maybe even still were Nazis by the end of the 1960s. So there was a real attempt to see the university as kind of a wedge, to begin to reform the society. And the university de facto closed down. Closed down. Now I had an off ramp. I wrote to my teachers at Tulane, specifically, I wrote to Margaret Groben, with whom I had studied, who was teaching at the Coordinated Women’s College, Newcomb College. This is a structure that doesn’t exist anymore, I think except for Columbia and Barnard, which was that the university was open to men. And then they thought late 19th, early 20th century ought to have something for women. And Sophie Newcomb College was created as the Coordinated
Women’s College at Tulane. Margaret Groben wrote me back saying, certainly, come back.
We can find some teaching for you to do to pay for your study and your tuition, and you can finish up your project with Lämmert with me. Even though she clearly wasn’t a specialist, I went back and finished up in 18 months basically because of her charity. I mean, she was an extraordinarily generous woman who had been trained in the early 1930s in Cologne. Okay. Right. So she understood what happens when universities get transformed.
Skye Doney: Yeah. Did Lämmert then come back? He, did he travel to Tulane for the defense or no?
Sander Gilman: No. No, there wasn’t. Again, the good old days. Lämmert had taught at
Princeton for a term, but he wrote the Gutachten. All right. I mean, this is, again, we’ve lost all of these things. He was my external reader. He was the person that Tulane called on to provide the expertise, even though, by the way, he knew no more about Expressionist cinema than Margaret Groben did. But he wrote a very nice, long evaluation. He then was willing, and God bless him, was important for me to be one of my referees when I was looking for jobs and for early fellowships. Right. But so I have a two degrees from Tulane. And taught then at a historically Black at that time university. We say now HBCU, which was at Dillard University. Because partially of my experiences in Berlin, I had gotten involved with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans. And this was before, by the way, SNCC requested that non-African Americans resign. This is the John Lewis (1940-2020) moment. And I was still involved. I was involved in a passive way because the active members of SNCC were obviously, all my contemporaries were all African Americans. I had the calling then to teach at Dillard. What I did not understand was that I was going back to Munich. Right? Which is that Dillard’s president was a very, very conservative administrator, as by the way, were most of the administrators at historically Black colleges and universities in the 1960s. So again, very, very Munich-like. Yeah.
First week of class, we have compulsory chapel. We all go into the chapel, faculty and students, and we get a lecture welcoming us to the academic year and saying that if anybody is arrested, student or faculty, the students will be forced. He didn’t say for civil rights, just arrested. We filled in the blanks. Remembering that Dillard, all of the Black schools, Howard, Dillard, all of them that were not state schools, these were private schools, were for the “talented tenth.” They were for the children of the Black middle class. Their kids were going to become doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, preachers, and so forth and so on. The state universities were much more open, Tuskegee being the obvious one, But the Black middle class wasn’t wild about their kids getting busted, right? They really weren’t.
Skye Doney: Yeah. Yeah.
Sander Gilman: They wanted their kids to have, you know, again, what Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) had, which was this kind of compact with white society, right? Which obviously never was a real compact with white society. So I taught at Dillard in the spring. I got busted and got fired.
Skye Doney: Was it at a demonstration?
Sander Gilman: At a demonstration. We were doing a sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter. And my job, which was very funny because I was white, and very young, my job was to go to the lunch counter, sit down, and order something, and then when one of the Black members of SNCC came, I was to stand up and give him or her my seat.
Skye Doney: Okay. Yeah.
Sander Gilman: Right? But when the cops came, they busted everybody who looked suspicious. I spent a night in the jail at Orleans Parish. The Orleans Parish lock-up. One of the least pleasant evenings I have spent in my life because there were 16 or 17 of us in a single cell, right? Yeah. With a public toilet in the cell and so forth. Yes. I applied then for academic jobs. The next year I had the good fortune to be offered a number of positions. German still had this very odd reputation of being important. In fact, the humanities were thought to be important. Yeah, I was offered a number of jobs and took one at a new university. That’s what was interesting to me in Cleveland. And that university was created because it merged Case Institute, which was the engineering school, with Western Reserve University, which had a major medical school.
And it became the major university, private university in Cleveland, competing again with the big state university, Ohio State. And I was hired in a most interesting group of people because there were, the chairman was a British scholar who had written extremely well on the Enlightenment. And I was asked because of my interest in early modern. Yeah, I’d done my dissertation with Lämmert, right. But I got interested in Luther and the Age of the Reformation. As the kind of beginning of the idea of a modern Germany, right? Because Germany is something that exists in your head until the 1870s. It doesn’t exist in the world. And I began to be, I’ve done my work with Hans-Gert Roloff (b. 1932) in Berlin. I again began to be a quite serious scholar of the Reformation. So I taught early modern stuff. I taught German for engineering, 08:00 Saturday morning, you’ll see a bunch of hungover engineers trying to do German come into my class, right?
One of my colleagues was a young, not so young, a middle-aged PhD. She had just gotten their PhD from Berkeley, writing on the Baroque. A woman by the name of Ruth Angress Klüger (1931-2020). And Ruth Angress was just an interesting person. We were both beginners. She’d done a dissertation on the Baroque because she was told at Berkeley to do this, even though she was interested in things Jewish, because she was a Holocaust survivor, which I learned in the most odd way. I had gone to Berlin in the summer because I’d go to Berlin in the summer and there are other stories coming out of that summer. I went to East Berlin regularly and you had to exchange 25 West Marks for 25 East Marks. And there was really nothing to buy in East Berlin except books. So I went to the Heinrich-Heine Buchhandlung, which was the big bookstore in East Berlin, and I bought a stack of books, including an anthology of poetry which had been written in the concentration and death camps. Who knew? I didn’t. All right, I come back in the fall, the books, I mean, they’re stacked on my desk.
Ruth wanders in and looks at the books on my desk and picks up this anthology and leafs through it and says, “I’ve got a poem in here.” One I knew she was a survivor. She had a tattoo. I’m not an idiot. Right. You have a poem here? I didn’t see your name. Oh, it’s under my maiden name, Klüger. And so she leaves and she comes back with a whole stack of xeroxes for me with poems she had written as a child in her head in Auschwitz, and then had written them down after she and her mother, they had escaped from the train sending the Auschwitz inmates west in 1945 before the Soviet troops came. So she became great friends. We had common interests. She had two small kids. She was divorced. And through a whole series of very weird concatenations in the course of the year, she and I had to share a class on 20th Century German literature because the person who was supposed to teach it didn’t show up. And so she taught Rilke, she taught poetry. She had all this poetry in her head. I had done some work again in Berlin on Arthur Schnitzer and Karl Kraus (1874-1936), and I did a little Schnitzer and Kraus with the students, which didn’t go over well, by the way. But in the class was the woman who eventually would become my wife. And we’ve been married now 53 years. Something you can’t do anymore. But I didn’t date her until she was no longer in my class. And I learned only at that point that she was a graduate student, which was more or less Kosher. Ruth then went off to Kansas. I then went off to Cornell.
Okay. Okay. I’m going to stop for a moment and go back to that summer in Westberlin. Because something happened that summer, which was really weird and prefigured my relationship with George in very complicated ways. So, you understand there are hierarchies in German higher education? Yeah, it’s very difficult to imagine that today, I knew Lämmert for 45 years, ten years or so before his death. We saw each other every year. I would go to Berlin and he would come to the States to lecture. And we saw each other every year socially. Yeah. And about ten years before his death, we were having dinner and he offered me the “du,” which is just amazing, I mean.
Right? I can honestly say to you thereafter, I avoided addressing him directly because I couldn’t use the du. It was like a taboo, which was so great that you could not imagine it. So I’m in Berlin, in Westberlin, that summer and I get a note, and remember this is pre-email. I get a physical letter in my mailbox I have a semi-official invitation at the FU, so I have a little mailbox and it’s from one of my teachers, Eckehard Catholy (1914-2010). Now remember the university is closed, right? The students are boycotting the university. When I come up to use the library, I have to make an argument that I’m point of fact a foreign student or foreign faculty. I’m, you know, I’m not here and I just want to just kind of go in the buildings because there were, if they weren’t actually pickets, but it was unpleasant to get into the buildings. So Catholy invited me for lunch, I’d never been invited by lunch for lunch by a faculty member ever. We meet obviously off campus because the campus is basically closed and it’s an interesting lunch. We have this set of pleasantries: how are you, how’s life going now in Cleveland? What are you writing about, Professor Catholy? How are you doing well? Are you able to get any work done? I know you haven’t been able to teach. So that goes on for like 15 or 20 minutes. And then it comes to the meat of the question. This has to do with a whole set of things that, again, were always unspoken in higher education, but people always knew were present, right? So Catholy says, look, I’m in a very odd situation. I don’t want to stay here in Berlin. I’ve been literally attacked. I mean his last Vorlesung, they came up and they shoved him off of the stage. It was very violent, very unpleasant, and by the way, more pleasant, unpleasant against the Liberals than the Conservatives. Lämmert eventually leaves the FU, he’s a liberal, he goes to Heidelberg as president. Catholy, you know, they were supportive of reforms.
They were not supportive of taking the universities apart. Okay? Okay. So, he’s got two offers. He doesn’t know North America very well. Can we talk about these places? So, the two offers are from St. Michael’s College, which is one of the constituent colleges at the University of Toronto, and the other one was from Cornell. Now Toronto I know very well. Toronto I know backwards and forwards. My mother was born, wasn’t born, was raised there. She came over as an infant from Poland. My grandparents lived there, my aunts and uncles lived there. We went regularly when we lived in Buffalo because of family. Right. But I also knew that Toronto was called “Toronto the good.” Young people, if they wanted a hot evening, went to Buffalo from Toronto. It’s inconceivable today.
Skye Doney: Yeah.
Sander Gilman: But I knew Toronto in big city, many immigrants. Conservative university, but small college structures. Like the British college structures, I think, I didn’t know. But I knew small-town America. My God, I knew small-town America. And I knew upstate New York because I’d been living in Buffalo. And so we had this conversation. I said, you know, Toronto is this wonderful city. University is on the conservative side, St. Michael’s is a Catholic school, right? But it’s a university that has been very tolerant. I knew about Jews who had professorships and a university that wasn’t terribly interested in policing its faculty off-campus. Exactly like the British colleges. Right. If you lived in the college, fine, if you decided not to live in the college it was your business. And I said, small-town America is bloody small-town America. It’s a town that’s got 15,000 inhabitants. And when the university is there, when the students are there, it doubles it or even triples it. And I said, you know, I love Toronto. I always did, family. And upstate New York has always struck me as provincial. The other thing, one also has to say in the 1960s Upstate New York was dominated, as, by the way, central Pennsylvania was, by the John Reed Society, which was the forerunners of the Tea Party, the forerunners of the, this is the spinoff of the anti-communism of McCarthy in the 1950s.
The John Reed Society was in point of fact, very, very powerful in central New York. So we have this conversation. I knew what the conversation was about. It wasn’t about St. Michael’s and it wasn’t about Ithaca. Catholy was gay and he was a triply closeted gay. He had been a gay man in the Wehrmacht. Most of my teachers had been in the Wehrmacht at some point or another. As an academic, first of all in Tübingen and then in Berlin, he was very closeted. So much so that he didn’t have much of a social life. West Berlin was a very gay city. It was Berlin, was San Francisco more or less, or, by the way, New Orleans, which was the other great gay city in the United States. But I understood what he was talking about and he eventually took the job at St. Michael’s. Had a wonderful career there. Had a partner, mathematician of his generation. Something that would not have happened had he stayed in Berlin, I think, who knows. But I think. But he turned on the job at, I think it was obviously a very senior job. But he mentioned that he had a young student teaching at Cleveland who would be of interest. And the people at Cornell that brought me in, they then offered me obviously not the senior position, but a very junior position. And I made the transition then to Ithaca, where I spent 25 very productive years at an institution that was very, very supportive, once I got tenure, of the kind of wild and crazy stuff I did. Until I got tenure, I was a Reformation scholar, an early modern scholar, exactly as George Mosse was at the beginning of his career. And as his great friend whom I got to know in Ithaca, Helli Koenigsberger (1918-2014) was, who eventually went to teach in London, where again, I maintained my relationship with Helli. Right. Why did we do early modern? Yeah, because German and German history of the 20th century was a cesspit, right? It was a cesspit. And so if you wanted tenure, you didn’t get involved in that. I played the game, George played the game.
Skye Doney: Absolutely.
Sander Gilman: We all played the game. Because we understood that once we got tenure, if the institution had some flexibility, George found that, by the way, at Madison, not by the way, without pushback, especially during the 1960s.
Remember George is a generation older than I am. Generation and a half older than I am.
Skye Doney: Yeah.
Sander Gilman: But Ithaca was interesting, so the first year there is the legacy of the year before when I was still in Cleveland, where African American students had taken over, armed African American students had taken over the student union on parents’ weekend. There was lots and lots of debates within the faculty, which fractured right down the middle, half condemning the black students, half supporting them. When I was brought to Ithaca, that was kept very secret from me. I learned that only when I was on campus because there were people who would try to recruit me for one camp or the other. Not a tenured person. Right? I mean, the other thing we wound up having to do was there was an arson on campus. Someone, never found out who, burnt down the Black Studies Center, the African American Center. So we then were recruited and I spent a number of nights, and I mean nights, from eight in the night to eight in the morning, doing arson watch in the buildings on campus. That was my introduction to the Ivy League.
Skye Doney: Yeah, okay.
Sander Gilman: Yeah, I get tenure. I publish in the Reformation, first major book. My dissertation is published. I begin to work on Jewish subjects because that’s why I kind of got into the field. And I got interested then in the psychological literature and then the psycho-analytic literature on xenophobia and stereotyping. This was something. Sorry?
Skye Doney: I was just going to ask, as you made that transition, was that surprising to colleagues at Cornell or were they…?
Sander Gilman: I think the word was shocking.
Skye Doney: Shocking. Okay. Yeah.
Sander Gilman: It was shocking, yeah. Because I also then got involved in the new administrative structures that were being generated in order for this interdisciplinary work to take part. Remember departments are silos, right? They may tolerate you doing stuff, but they’re going to evaluate you on the stuff that they think is important in their silo.
That’s why George and I did the Early Modern stuff, right? So I get tenure and I get involved in setting up the Jewish Studies Program. Okay? Which the university did not want and did not want us raising money for. Because they say, well, the Jewish graduates of the law school should give money to the law school. You’re going to take that money away. Eventually, I became for two terms the director, I got involved in the creation of the Gay and Lesbian
Studies Program. I insisted, by the way, that it be called Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual. We didn’t have the whole series of categories then, but I understood also that dichotomy sucked, based on my own work on stereotyping, right? And then did innovative teaching. I got involved in the Ford Foundation Center for European Studies. I ran that for a term, set up the first interdisciplinary German Studies program where you could do as an undergraduate a mixed major that had never been done before. Because historians doing German wanted them to be historians. And literary people wanted them to be literary people. And the political scientists, we call them the Department of Government, wanted them to be political scientists. So I was able to get that through, by the way, with lots of hesitation. I was involved in setting up the first interdisciplinary undergraduate, pre-med major. We called it Biology and Society, because again, of my interest in stereotyping. And then in 1973, was invited to spend a year at the Cornell Medical School, because I had begun a project looking at the representation of the mentally ill, the visual representation. Because there’s been a lot of work on stereotyping. Yeah, But most of the work on stereotyping had been using texts. And this goes by the way to Walter Lippmann (1899-1974) in the 1930s is not a new question, right? It arises exactly when fascism arises, it becomes part of the discussion around fascism both in the public sphere. Walter Lippmann, very much in the public sphere, in social psychology. Gordon Allport (1897-1967) at Harvard, very much in that sphere and in psychoanalysis, whose practitioners in the United States and in Europe are heavily Jewish.
Okay, so the people of medical school, Department of Psychiatry invite me to come. I’m in residence for a year, I do the work on Seeing the Insane, which is still, I think, one of the major contributions I made to historical art, historical cultural stereotyping. Yeah, and it’s now, and it’s now by the way, in its third iteration. There were two editions of the book. It has now been picked up by yet another publisher. So it’s never been out of print, since the 1980s, it’s never been out of print. And as a result of that, I start to teach on the history of antisemitism and I get together with my colleague Itsie Hull (b. 1949). And we start to say there are a number of us because of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Studies, interested in the history of sexuality. Again, it’s Itsie does the same thing. She’s a military historian, right? She would have never in a million years got tenure at Cornell, any place, doing the history of sexuality?
Skye Doney: No.
Sander Gilman: So I get invited now, period, paragraph. I get invited to come to Paris and to lecture, a keynote, a conference on Max Nordau (1849-1923), he great early Zionist, the man who wrote the book Degeneration, right? The most popular books of the 1890s, translated in every possible language you can imagine. And I’m in Paris, and in Paris at the same time as Andy Rabinbach and George Mosse. Now I had corresponded with George. I had sent him copies of the book. We had had fleeting meetings at the AHA, and I’d been invited to Madison. It was all very pleasant, but very academic. But George then invites Andy and me to dinner. And where else are we going to have dinner but in the Marais, which is not only the center, of course, of Jewish life, by the way, much less at that point, it was almost disappearing in the Marais, but also gay life. So, we have this lovely dinner, and this is the moment when George looks at Andy and myself and looks, and he says, oh my God, the future of German-Jewish history is in the hands of the Ostjuden. Not wrong, by the way. Not wrong, because of course, a whole range of George’s students are in point of fact the descendants of Eastern European Jews, who came to George exactly because George had started working, once he got tenure, on the history of Fascism, Italian Fascism,
and then on the history of racism in the nineteenth century, which overlapped with a lot of my work. And then on the history of the Nazis, right? Yeah. Again, one has to say that this was seen as kind of weird at Madison, right? I mean, George was supposed to be the early modernist in the department. Um, and he got, you know, should we say there were, there were words dropped. There were words dropped as in my case. Yeah.
Skye Doney: It’s interesting, though, there’s another interesting parallel here, this interdisciplinary angle. Because where Mosse finds interlocutors is in the German Department with like Jost Hermand (1930-2021) and Klaus Berghahn (1937-2019) and Hans Adler. There’s, it’s, it’s this other kind of, you’re similarly drawn across these, across these boundaries.
Sander Gilman: These boundaries, because what is going on in the German Department at Madison is that, now I’m going to be very careful in what I’m going to say because even at the time, people always talked about that as a Marxist department, it was never a Marxist department, it was a left-center department. Klaus Berghahn, right, Adler who, by the way, was better known as a poet in the German-Jewish émigré world. Which meant nobody knew
him at all because the German-Jewish literary community did not exist at anybody’s ken, it didn’t exist in Israel. Well, there were lots of German Jews writing in German. It damn well didn’t exist in Germany because I was the litmus test for pointing out Jewish writing in Germany, right, in the 1970s, end of the 1970s. And in the United States, only if you read Aufbau. And there were like four people who were not émigrés who read Aufbau, right? And I was one of them. I actually had a subscription to Aufbau.
Skye Doney: That’s great!
Sander Gilman: Just bizarre. Yeah, absolutely, George had this interlocutor which was more interested in the history of literature and the social significance of that history than a kind of materialist reading.
But at the time, nobody knew from shit, right, so? So New German Critique is created and everybody thinks this is the left wing, having been in Berlin, I knew it wasn’t the left wing, right? Well, because I knew about everybody in East Berlin teaching at the Humboldt, right. The literary people. Yeah. Who were real Marxists. Like it or not, they were real Marxist.
Skye Doney: Yeah.
Sander Gilman: So I come back, Itsie and I plan this conference, Itsie invites her Doktorvater, which is completely weird. Who knew that her Doktorvater was Peter Gay (1923-2015). Right, so, and I invite George. And George then comes. Again he’s been working on a whole bunch of political topics, but I knew he wanted to do a book on masculinities. And he came and he gave the first public presentation of the masculinities work. And I think, and I’m going to say this even though it may not be 100% true, that I forced him to come out of the closet, not as a gay man. Everybody knew he was a gay man at that point. Right. But I forced him to come out of the closet as somebody working on what would be considered today gay history, history of masculinity. Again, one of these odd topics that had existed but in fields like the history of medicine, right? There had been work done on Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), but not in mainstream history, right? Yeah. I again, today we have to reconstruct how these topics get absorbed and now are mainstream.
Skye Doney: Right, yeah, absolutely.
Sander Gilman: Yeah. George and I then develop a real friendship. George meets my wife for the first time and it was a wonderful conference, it was very global. We had people from Britain and France and Germany. We had lots of young scholars, many women’s scholars. Because again, women’s history had just, just started to look at something other than it’s really important. Women’s history comes out of family history, right? The great family historians are the ones who start to say, hey, wait a minute. Women are central to this. And the first women’s historians start to look at what? Women in the context of the patriarchy. And then there are a whole bunch of people, Evelyn Fox Keller (b. 1936) and people of my generation, who start to say, now we have to think about women as a separate conceptual category and a complicated one. And that’s why Eva and I have lots of correspondence around that because I’m interested in thinking about Jews now in terms of the Jewish body, which means the Jewish male body.
Right. Because I’m interested in things like the history of circumcision in Western culture. So the AHA is in Washington, D.C. So I hang out, I’m one of these guys who sits in bars. It’s more fun.
Skye Doney: Yeah, definitely
Sander Gilman: I see George. And we sit down, we have the equivalent of a drink together. And I say to him, look, I’ve got to go. I’m staying with my father-in-law here in D.C. And then I had this weird I mean, why I thought this, I don’t know. And I said to him, I think you guys might be interested in meeting one another. So I call Wolf. My father-in-law is Wolf Von Eckardt (1918-1995). So I call Wolf and remember that means going to a pay phone. I mean, this is none of this phone in the pocket state and stuff, right? I call Wolf and I said, Wolf, I’m not after dinner. I’m, you know, I’m going to come and I’d like to bring somebody, a friend of mine. And I think you guys might be interested in meeting one another. And so about 08:00 George, and I meet the Hilton, I think. And take the tube over to Dupont Circle and where my father-in-law was living at that point for evening drinks and he’d made some capanés and things. And now my father-in-law was at that point the architectural and urban critic for the Washington Post. He eventually goes and is the cultural clinic for Time Magazine. He had come over in 1938 with his mother and sister from Berlin. His stepfather, his mother’s second husband, was Emil Lederer (1882-1939), who was the man who de facto wrote the Weimar Constitution, fled Germany in 1933, had been professor of constitutional, not constitutional law, that’s an English translation, at the University in Berlin, and was invited then to become the first Dean of the University in Exile. Right? So Wolf and his sister and his mom come over in 1938 as late as possible. Wolf has no education. He had been an apprentice topographer even though his parents were very educated. But he didn’t like any of that stuff. His parents had gotten a divorce. He was what we would today call a difficult child. And if you are a difficult child, in the 1920s and early 1930s, you were sent to one specific boarding school, and that was a school called Salem.
And Salem, which when its director, who was a Jew, was forced to leave Germany after 1933 was reborn as Gordonstoun, right, which is where Prince Philip (1921-2021) went in England. Salem was a spin-off of the hippie movement of the 1880s and 1890s in Germany. It was body-centered, there was always physical labor, cold showers in the morning, building bridges. Very strict rules about deportment. Very, very good education. Very, very rigorous and intellectually very sound education. Wolf then came to the States. He eventually goes and does some art training and eventually gets hired in Washington as the PR guy for the American Architectural Association and moves from there to the Post where he, and that is the generation of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), creates this “let’s look at cities and what cities really are” column. It becomes quite important in city planning. And the big critiques because the cities, remember, were becoming depopulated, which was the technical word, which meant that Blacks were moving into the cities. And whites were moving out of the cities. So we’re having drinks. And of course it turns out that both Wolf and George were Salem at the same time.
Skye Doney: Interesting.
Sander Gilman: Right? For George. George suddenly becomes effusive, right? His parents sent him there also because he was a really difficult kid, right? George loved every minute of it. It made him into a man, he said. Wolf hated the idea of being there, and he despised every second. It was the most amusing evening I’d ever spent. But out of that we became, we became really all of us great friends. George and my wife hit it off very well. And so we had this kind of very interesting kind of social relationship. When I moved to Chicago, which was obviously much easier to get to, to Madison, we saw George very regularly until he became ill, of course, and we had a good relationship. I dedicated my first book really on Jewish Studies, which was The Jew’s Body to George. Right. Because I thought he would be the person who would kind of get it.
And he did, and he did. So that’s my sort of memoir.
Skye Doney: Thank you.
Sander Gilman: You’re welcome, Skye.
Skye Doney: I really appreciate it, Sander. It feels like there was a lot of avenues we might have pursued.
Sander Gilman: Oh, absolutely. And at some point we may do a follow up. I think this is a good first stage.
Skye Doney: Yeah, absolutely. Well, that being the case, today is again 8 June 2023, Thursday. And this is Skye Doney concluding the Oral History with Professor Sander Gilman.