Jay Geller, review of Darcy Buerkle, Skye Doney eds., “Contemporary Europe in the Historical Imagination”

Darcy Buerkle and Skye Doney, eds. Contemporary Europe in the Historical Imagination. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2023. 418 pp. Cloth $79.95. ISBN 9780299342401.

BuerkleDoney cover

The mid-twentieth century produced many exceptional scholars of German history, more than a few of whom were émigrés from Germany. Among them was George L. Mosse, who trained generations of historians and whose work still inspires, and occasionally vexes, scholars of the history of Germany; modern Jewry; sexuality and the body; and political ideology, including fascism, nationalism, and liberalism.

In June 2019, these subjects, among others, were examined at a conference in Berlin entitled “Mosse’s Europe: New Perspectives in the History of German Judaism, Fascism, and Sexuality.” From this rich exchange of new scholarship, remembrances of Mosse, and reflections on his life and world grew the volume Contemporary Europe in the Historical Imagination, a kind of posthumous Festschrift for the Berlin-born, American-educated scholar associated for decades with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

It would be easy for such a wide-ranging book to become unwieldy or seem haphazard. Thus, to bring order to both disparate and obliquely overlapping topics, the editors organized the essays, written by scholars with a wide range of different interests and areas of expertise, into discrete sections that reflect multiple axes of Mossean investigation.

First, there is the life of the man himself. He began his career as a scholar of early modern England and Christianity, but that was only a prelude to an explosion of work that both grew from his life experiences and established his reputation. “As a German-Jewish émigré and, at first, an undeclared homosexual” (4), Steven E. Aschheim notes, Mosse was certainly positioned to comment knowingly about questions of inclusion and exclusion and the impact of ideology or societal values on those dynamics. Historians of German Jewry are grateful to Mosse for insisting on a contextualization of the Jewish experience within a wider European experience. What happened to Jews could, and did, happen to others. What happened to Jews had broad causes and broad implications beyond just the Jews.

As such, as Aleida Assmann points out, Mosse capitalized on his perspective as an outsider and helped pioneer and legitimate the historical study of other outsider groups as well. “His great innovation was to lay bare the structure of bourgeois respectability as a repressive system that was also built on the exclusion of the other, this time [after the 1960s] not the racial but the social, cultural, and sexual outsider” (25-26). In Mosse’s provocative estimation, the Third Reich, the Bonn Republic (West Germany), and even the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) were all bourgeois states. He was also ahead of the curve with his study of historical memory, particularly the myth of the World War I experience (Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars).

Mosse rarely, if ever, mentioned his homosexuality, even with his beloved colleagues and closest family or as he considered and wrote about the history of sexuality. And when it came to writing his own autobiography, published posthumously, he remained hesitant to write about his sexuality, despite the consequences it had for his life, both through its presence and its suppression. That is not to say that it does not appear. Indeed, it does, but, as Darcy Buerkle writes, Mosse’s “repetitions and evasions” reveal more “than he may have wished” (41). Moreover, unpublished, archived versions of his memoir, or excised excerpts, pull back the curtain on the issue of sexuality in the Lachmann-Mosse family.

Starting with its second section, the book moves into ruminations on topics that Mosse investigated or topics that were inspired by his work. Enzo Traverso notes that Mosse was a pioneer in accepting that fascism had a cultural component, but his interpretation of fascism largely disregarded “the social and economic bases of fascism” (61). Yet, in trying to understand the symbolism and ideology of fascism from their proponents’ perspective—an “empathetic” approach—he developed close ties to Renzo De Felice and even Albert Speer. Mosse’s analyses of fascism also omitted a consideration of colonialism, which was critical to Italian Fascist and Nazi self-understanding—an absence that Traverso locates in the works of many German-Jewish émigré theorists in the shadow of Nazism and the Holocaust. Mary Nolan hails Mosse’s position in a pioneering wave of scholars who considered gender and sexuality in conjunction with fascist movements, including Nazism. “Yet current studies of right radical populism, most of them by men,” she argues, “have not attended to issues of women, gender, family, and sexuality” (80). Nolan’s essay is a corrective to the trend. She notes that women have increasingly been supporters of right-wing movements, including Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), though for reasons that differ from male supporters. Additionally, these right-wing parties often “embed prevalent center-right views, like opposition to abortion or gay marriage, in broad discourses of ethnonationalism, opposition to immigration, and Islamophobia” (94). And while few right-wing extremist parties are in government in Europe, they have unsettled the longstanding paradigm of domination by Christian democratic and social democratic parties and shifted the political center to the right. When George L. Mosse took the culture of fascism seriously as an object of study, he was looking at historical phenomena. Today, we see again “fascist modes of thought and behavior,” though, as Andreas Huyssen argues, we need to move beyond “facile analogies of interwar fascism and the present” and apply “categories used by the Frankfurt School and its orbit,” which is particularly pertinent as “its work has become the basis for the right’s virulent attack on cultural Marxism” (100). In fact, revisiting Franz Neumann’s Behemoth: Structure and Practice of Nation Socialism, Huyssen argues that Neumann’s characterization of National Socialism as highly mutable and Machiavellian fits Trumpism better than it did National Socialism.

Stefanie Schüler-Springorum contemplates the role of emotions, rather than solely antisemitic ideology, in fostering violence against Jews and social outsiders in Germany. Discrimination against Jews cannot be dissociated from misogyny and homophobia in the vision of an antimodern and hierarchical society, and Jews were associated with, or considered responsible for, unnatural sexuality. Lurid depictions of supposedly perverse Jewish sexuality received coverage in Der Stürmer in a titillating mix of “desire, fear, disgust, and violence” that also seemed “to typify antisemitic propaganda in Nazi Germany” (122). There was a fascination with instances of so-called race defilement, which often ended in arrests or public humiliations at the instigation of an informant, and the concern was applied to Polish conscript laborers after 1939. Photographs and official reports note the mix of joy and scorn on the faces of bystanders as offenders were paraded through the streets. Elissa Mailänder explores the Alltag experience of female concentration camp guards for whom the control and murder of inmates was work. Very few women working in the camps were Nazi Party members. It was for them a well-paying and stable job, not an exercise in ideological commitment. Guards at Majdanek lived in spartan conditions, but they enjoyed leisure activities such as horseback riding and an active urban cultural life in nearby Lublin. Many had romances with male SS staff members. Among many executioners and guards in the camp, there was both an internal social hierarchy and a sense of professionalism associated with their jobs. Some carried on while trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the murder around them. They sought a normalization of their lives, but “death and killing reentered their lives in the most banal situations” (149).

David Harrisville considers how Germans, especially soldiers on the Eastern Front, navigated a moral system that was both new and relied “on more traditional moral discourse to secure popular support.” As a result, they used “whatever values or moral arguments they believed best helped them to preserve their own personal sense of integrity and decency” (159). They were, to borrow a Mossean phrase, “moral ‘scavengers,’” sometimes adopting Nazi morality, sometimes employing pre-1933 notions (including religious outlooks) to rationalize their actions, sometimes mixing the two worldviews. Arie Dubnov celebrates the impact of Mosse’s Fallen Soldiers in inaugurating the study of commemoration, “a secular religion, with its own symbolism, rituals, public festivals, and mythologies” (173). Of course, Mosse originally had Europe in mind , but he also had a strong interest in Israeli memorial culture, which he saw as different from a European memorial culture based in Christian traditions. Dubnov thinks that Mosse’s exposure to Israeli memorial culture was highly selective, focusing solely on physical artifacts and sites of commemoration, overlooking the place of literature in commemoration, and Dubnov considers the literary reaction to the “institutionalization and routinization” of state commemorations (190).

Mosse famously considered German Jews beyond Berlin and beyond Germany. Mosse’s German Jews beyond Judaism influenced many scholars who built on it or revised its basic thesis, including Robin Judd, Marion Kaplan, and this reviewer. Yet, as Sarah Wobick-Segev notes, Mosse overlooked or was not concerned with the “rich history of religious engagement relevant to a significant number of German Jews,” perhaps skewing the subsequent scholarly literature (203). She looks to gender to examine the importance of religion in the lives of German Jews. Rabbis were increasingly providers of “emotional counsel and pastoral care,” while “religious practice was increasingly gendered female” (205). Women were active participants in the debate on women’s roles in Judaism and Jewish communities in Germany that preceded Regina Jonas’s investiture as the first female rabbi. Marc Volovici explores the multivalent place of German in the early Zionist movement and Zionist imaginary. Important tracts such as Leon Pinsker’s Autoemancipation and Theodor Herzl’s The Jews’ State were written in German, and German was the movement’s original lingua franca, but not without controversy. Speeches made in other languages were often omitted from the official transcripts of Zionist Congresses or published in an abbreviated translation. After 1907, there was a serious effort by some delegates to have the Congress use Hebrew, at least for ceremonial purposes, but German continued its dominance into the 1930s. Nonetheless, even the German spoken at the Zionist Congresses, Kongressdeutsch, was highly Yiddishized.

Rebekka Grossmann considers the gaze of German-Jewish photographer Tim Gidal as he traveled between India and Palestine in 1940. By then a stateless refugee, his view “was shaped by both his training as a photojournalist and his personal story of racialized exclusion from German society” (234-235) Capturing both colonial and anticolonial contexts, Gidal helped shape Western views of what we now call “the Global South.” His photos depicted colonized societies through the eyes of their inhabitants and not from the perspective of the colonizers, but they were also products of a naive Western gaze. Adi Armon reminds us that Max Nordau was as famous as Herzl in the early years of political Zionism, but he was regarded as irrelevant “to the spirit of the age after the First World War” and irrelevant to problems of the interwar Near East and, thus, quickly forgotten. However, George L. Mosse and Benzion Netanyahu “embraced the forgotten Nordau and made him a key figure in their writings,” the former fascinated with him, the latter glorifying and using his ideas as political inspiration (254). Mosse railed against the Revisionists’ unnuanced and instrumentalized reading of Nordau.

Mosse was, of course, a product of one of the great Berlin Jewish families, which helped shape Jewish and general life in the German capital. Robert Zwarg ruminates on the coincidence that several old photographs, owned by his life partner, which she had found in an apartment building’s trash container, were of the Mosse-Stift and its successors, an orphanage funded by the Mosse family and later a children’s hospital. Zwarg filters his ruminations through the lens of Theodor Adorno’s theories. Nearly all the sites of the Mosse family’s heritage in Berlin are “broken physically or missing completely,” as Elisabeth Wagner notes in her essay, which traces the history of these sites and takes the reader on a visit to them today, or in recent decades (285). She recalls George L. Mosse’s own trips to Berlin after 1990 and his warning in 1997 about the precariousness of liberal democracy that could be threatened by “völkisch voices” once again (299). Meike Hoffmann introduces the Mosse Art Research Initiative (MARI), a collaboration between Rudolf Mosse’s heirs and German institutions; relates the biography of the newspaper baron and arts patron Rudolf Mosse; and explains the fate of his collection. The MARI works to locate confiscated and “Aryanized” items from Mosse’s once vast collection. Frank Mecklenburg also sketches out the history and milieu of the Mosse family: a world of entrepreneurship and great affluence, professional accomplishment, cultural patronage, political liberalism, Reform Judaism, and sprawling family connections among Berlin’s Jewish elite. In some ways, the Mosses’ enterprises and their legacy live on in the collections of the Leo Baeck Institute, where Mecklenburg is Senior Historian. His narration is complemented in the volume’s final essay by the reflections of Roger Strauch, George L. Mosse’s step-nephew and leader of the Mosse Art Restitution Project.

Contemporary Europe in the Historical Imagination is a big book, in multiple senses of the word. Including the preface, introduction, and the afterword, it contains twenty distinct essays and spans slightly more than 400 pages. Some readers will find themselves drawn to certain essay topics more than others, while others will be interested in the book in toto. But, considering the role that Mosse’s scholarship has played in many fields, a broad volume that considers his life, his work, and many of the subjects that interested him should command attention and disciplinary conversation. Even more: Mosse’s books and this intriguing volume encourage us to take historical knowledge and wrestle with “the big questions,” a message as germane in 2023 as it was in Mosse’s time.

Jay Geller headshotJay Geller is an expert on the history of the Jews in modern Germany, with a particular interest in politics, society, and relations between Jews and non-Jews.  He teaches a wide range of courses on Jewish history and religion, the history of modern Europe, German history, and urban history.

His publications include  The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction (Cornell University Press), which examines the life of the Berlin-born Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem and his family in the context of the Jewish middle class in Germany, and Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953 (Cambridge University Press), which explores the reestablishment of organized Jewish life and German-Jewish relations after the Holocaust.  He has co-edited and contributed to the collections of essays Three-Way Street: Jews, Germans, and the Transnational (University of Michigan Press) and Rebuilding Jewish Life in Germany (Rutgers University Press).

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