Rose Weithaus, “How George L. Mosse’s Scholarship Speaks to the Importance of History Today”

In May of 2021, I was hired as an intern for the George L. Mosse Program. My job was to make existing oral histories, including those recorded with people who knew and worked with George L. Mosse, more discoverable and accessible to the public. I was already vaguely familiar with Mosse because the Humanities building on campus is named after him. But after diving into his oral history recordings, as well as his collected papers and published works, I discovered that Mosse’s influence reaches far beyond the Madison campus and that his ideas about the value of the historical profession, as well as its cultural and educational importance, continue to resonate today.

Looking through Mosse’s archive was especially eye-opening. From old campus posters to contentious cross-campus correspondence, reading the materials collected there offered a behind-the-scenes look at his career. The piece that struck me most was a keynote speech that he gave at the American Historical Association conference in 1959. In that address, he discussed the declining prestige of history in academia, stating that all people should be concerned. “History was [once] widely regarded as the teacher of life,” he said, whereas now, he cautioned, history is “in danger of losing its relevance” (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 7). In a similar vein, he warned that history might even be “replaced by other social sciences because they seem to have more relevance to the direction and settlement of human affairs” (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 7). In part, he thought historians themselves were to blame. When students asked what the study of history “all means,” practitioners in the field seemed “not at all sure” how to answer their question (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 7).

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I found Mosse’s own answer to that question to be direct and inspiring. The purpose of history, he argued in that same keynote address, is to teach us about life: to help us understand who we are and what forces have created the world in which we live. Reading multiple, sometimes conflicting, accounts of the same set of historical events, he insisted, teaches us to recognize that there are multiple sides to every story. Studying the past also teaches people how to empathize and listen, as one’s opinions and views are challenged by the wide variety of historical interpretations that the historical discipline has to offer. These points resonate with my own experience as a history major in 2023. Against those today who might say that a history degree has no value or “relevance,” I would argue that studying history has taught me how to understand people who are different from me while encouraging me to change my outlook. Like Mosse, I worry what a world where these habits aren’t cultivated will look like.

Mosse’s keynote also addressed another point that continues to resonate with my experience studying history today: the importance of welcoming new perspectives. As he put it: “historians have now come to believe that the truth of history [lies] in the multiplicity of individual historical manifestations,” a point he developed further, explaining: “We find the truth about this or that, not about something in general.” (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 7). History, is not about discovering a single truth, in other words; it is about studying multiple points of view. This is an outlook that continues to gain traction many years later. People with different gender identities, different racial identities, and from different lands of origin whose historical experiences had been excluded from dominant narratives are now being given a voice in the historical profession. In my history courses at Madison, I’ve learned about the history of members of the LGBTQ+ community, indigenous people, and the lived experiences of people of color in America. Even though there is still a long way to go before all perspectives are moved from “the periphery,” a shift is occurring, and more stories are being told. This change was just beginning when Mosse have his keynote address, with Mosse himself acting as an early guide. By encouraging the field to share more perspectives on the past, he helped push the boundaries of what is considered valid history—and he helped make the historical profession more honest.

After working through his archives and oral histories, I also spent some time looking more carefully at Mosse’s published scholarship. He is, of course, well-known for studying German cultural history and the history of the Nazi movement. What I found most fascinating was how he analyzed the cultural changes that allowed antisemitism to gain traction in Nazi Germany. In his book, The Nationalization of Masses, he discussed how Nazi culture was integrated into the “aesthetics” of society. After World War I, the German population was struggling to understand modernity, both economically and socially (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 35). To escape this confusion, a portion of the population was emotionally drawn towards a new form of nationalism that, they hoped, would solve their problems and lead to a better Germany (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 35). As this process unfolded, “the Jews” became the enemy in a wider struggle to revive and purify the German nation; their supposedly “capitalist tendencies” and “middleman behavior” made them the “other” (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 14) against which the German nation and the German people were being defined. Eventually, the development of a culture that excluded Jews and united the “German, Aryan nation” against them as an unwelcome “other” metastasized into the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII.

Mosse insisted that the ideology behind Nazism needed to be studied and taken seriously. As he put it, “The defeat of the Nazis and the collapse of fascism does not end the story. Mass politics depends to a large extent upon the symbolic uses of the political process” (Mosse Papers, Box 7, Folder 58). National Socialism was just one example of how easily fascism and repressive ideologies can spread. By insisting on the coherence and seriousness of fascist ideology, Mosse was also pointing out how understanding the past can help us better predict and understand developments in our present. It was quite possible, he believed, for the conditions that made Nazism possible in Germany to reappear in a different time and place.

This last point is frighteningly relevant in our current world. We see disorder, conformism, cultural repression, and stark nationalism as forces that plague American society. Book bans exist in thirty-seven states. Florida has explicitly restricted the teaching of AP Psychology, among other courses, due to possible discussion of gender and sexuality. Cultural repression is being used to advance a particular viewpoint. Bans on queer and sexual content in American schools, literature, and media have a disturbing resonance with to the Nazis’ attempt to “other” the Jewish people and, eventually, justify genocide. As unpleasant as these parallels might be, they suggest that Mosse’s work and legacy remain as urgent and important as ever. I am grateful to have been immersed in them for a time as an intern for the Program that bears his name.


2023.04-Rose-WeithausRose Weithaus is a senior at UW-Madison studying political science and history with a certificate in public policy. Her interests include American foreign relations, early European and Middle Eastern religious history, the Founding era, and the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Rose is the finance chair of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honors fraternity. Outside of her work in history, she has also worked at the Jones Leadership Center and the Wisconsin Department of Justice. In her senior year, Rose will begin her project of examining Mosse’s archival materials, publishing some new findings, and restoring some on campus oral history. She believes history is an important part of understanding our world and has enjoyed developing her understanding throughout this internship.



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