The George L. Mosse Program in History has initiated an oral history project to document the impact of George L. Mosse as a historian, teacher, and mentor and the ongoing legacy of the Program he endowed in the Department of History at UW-Madison
8 March 2019
I went up to Henry Kissinger and introduced myself to him and said, Dr. Kissinger, I am a relative of yours. My name is Jim Hilb. My grandmother’s maiden name was Walter. Your mother’s maiden name was Walter. And my grandmother and your grandmother, I believe were first cousins or those to that effect. Well, he looked at me like, “who in the world are you?” And I sensed that I flubbed the opportunity, which as it turned out, I did. ...George Mosse was at that lecture presentation. And he came over to me and said, Let me talk to you, young man. So I introduced myself, to him and the rest, as they say, is history.
26 October 2017
[Mosse] was really engaged on a personal level. He was really in loco parentis. Because when my mother died, I was sort of at sea. I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I was just in my twenties. I think I’d just passed my prelims. And he just took me, you know, under his wing. And he said, “Here’s what you need to do.” And he told me you’ve got to go talk to this accountant, he gave me the name of an accountant. Told me how to go about getting rid of her belongings. I’ll tell you about that in a second. And you know, he just took care of everything. And he said, “Now I want you to go back to work.” And that was really important.
25 March 2018
Even though the book, original book in which it was had gone completely out of print. And that this new generation was making use of Mosse interpretation in their work. It was also Paolo Acanfora and many others that did, as well as Renato Moro and others were mentioning how more durable Mosse interpretations were than some others that at the moment were keeping the scene, but now appear to be void of content and so on.
And on the other end, of course, the take on George Mosse himself in Italy had changed. The Mosse consensus, we could say, had appeared.
2 September 2020
My first contact with Mosse was when he read the rough draft of my dissertation. He was wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic and made helpful additional bibliographical suggestions. After I defended the dissertation in January 1975, he shared a copy with Yehuda Bauer in Jerusalem, which was the point at which Israeli scholars became aware of my work for the first time.
22 May 2014
Yeah. [Mosse] always had his holiday, his winter holiday party. And she was always invited to that. Always had her hair done before she went to it, as I recall. And they were very close. I told you about the story that he was talking to Judy and I in his office. And he was so excited to have Judy come and see his hooligan lamps. And we had no idea what he was talking about, thinking it was motion detector or something like that. Turns out it was a halogen lamp over his dining room table. It was like, okay.
17 August 2017
I also think that Professor Mosse was digging really deeply into his own soul. And ... it's one thing to talk about intellectual or intellectual history of like the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It's another thing to talk about the reason why you had to scram out of Berlin, and that your relatives were involved, that sort of thing. I mean, so it was the sort of the emotional impact that you can hear in his voice.
5 October 2018
I don’t want to study history just for the sake of history, just for knowing the past. I want to study it so I can know how to live in the current situation and to change it. And so that’s why coming back to the present moment in which we’re living was critical. For me. It was just a natural thing. ... I don’t want to debate nineteenth-century racist literature. I see some value in that. But for me it’s about what does it mean for now? What does it mean for my life now? My grandkids’ life, and what’s going to happen to the world. And that’s why I think Mosse’s teachings are so important.
5 October 2018
It was so wonderful to be involved. And to think you could make a difference. I'm not sure kids today have that. And I hadn't realized until I read Professor Mosse's autobiography, how much he was involved politically behind the scenes. He kept that out of his lectures. He really did. And I really respect that. You could be a rock-ribbed conservative and still learn from Professor Mosse. And I'm not sure that that was as true of some of the others who let the emotion of the moment get into their classes. And he really was a wonderful professional.
28 October 2010
Mosse comes in and he says, “Okay, I’ve got good news for you.” Now. He, he’s he knows that it’s worthwhile investing himself in me. Okay. I don’t think he’d like to see somebody smelling of pus, okay, and all the rest. He says to me, “you got your job, I put you in for a job at Harvard and you’ve got, got the job.”
I said, “George, I can’t do this.” I said, “I haven’t finished my research on Tocqueville, the big primary research at Yale. I’ve gotta go back and do it.”
He said, “nonsense, you’re not going to do that, you’re going to go and take the job. And you’re gonna write the dissertation and it’s going to be written by June because that’s what you need.”
5 October 2018
[I]n the second semester of my sophomore year, I took my first, or it was the first semester as my elective while I was in ILS, was George Mosse’s introduction European history, introduction to European history. And that’s, I was totally impressed the first minute he started talking. And I think he says, I’m here to destroy your illusions or your slogans, one or the other. And he went through the slogans he was destroying, which was, the first was the idea that this is a democracy. It’s not, it’s representative government. ... The other illusion is “the people.” There is no “the people.” The question is, which people are you talking about? And so I was zeroed in, focused in right away from there.
21 April 2008
As I recall it was a session on history as it’s been reflected in the movies. I thought that would be fun and so I agreed to participate. At the end of the session an older gentleman came up and said “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Earl Pomeroy, one of your teachers at Madison and I thought I’d come by and say hello,” and I said Wonderful, thank you, and he said, “You know, I always thought that it was a shame you hadn’t gone on and had a career in history, until I saw the Pink Panther (1963). Then I knew you’d done the right thing.”
Image courtesy of University Communications. Photo by Jeff Miller.
28 April 2014
[Mosse] was teaching at the Hebrew University in the early years. Is it still working? And he was giving a class... I probably told this in the other interview on Weimar. And there you had old Weimarians in the class, and one Weimarian stood up and said, “Wait a minute, I was there. It wasn’t like that at all.” And George would say, “You are in the valley; I am in the mountain.” Now for instance I couldn’t say something like that. That does take a certain authority. I couldn’t do that. So, in that sense, George… George was unique in that sort of thing.
8 May 2019
George was the greatest teaser ever. He’d find out something about you. And then he’d exaggerate wildly, make wild claims about things that you did or accuse you of saying something, bragging about yourself or something that he was just, he was impossible. But he would laugh at his own jokes. But he’d make everybody else, I guess, this is something I was going to say earlier that I have two faces for George. One is his laughing face. The other one is “I’m talking about Nazism here” face. And they couldn’t be more different. And yet he could go from one to the other pretty fast.
15 June 2018
And the more I listened to George Mosse, the more I realized that we were not, as our leaders were saying, in a revolutionary situation. That if we didn't, as he told us, and why I became a historian, was because if you do not understand your historical reality, you’re doomed to be a victim of what’s going on, that you have to understand the context...that really is what was most important to me about George Mosse was that he taught me to step back and look at the context. And to think through what the subtext to what all the pundits and political leaders of our day.
8 November 2019
The position at Madison opened. George first told me about it over lunch in London. I told him I wasn’t interested. He was disappointed.
Then Ken[neth] Sacks, who was chair of the history department came to Oxford to give a lecture. He got in touch with me. I invited him to lunch at Saint Antony’s. Ken was, I’m sure still is, a fabulous salesman. And he sold me on Madison.
I went home and Shifra and I talked about it. And we realized that Madison would solve all of our problems. It was affordable. The public schools were good. It was an excellent opportunity for me professionally because it was an endowed chair. I would come as a full professor. And I was being asked, or given the opportunity, to create a Jewish studies program from the ground up.
31 March 2017
So I was a sophomore, but I was in an honors program that should have given me the right to be in there. But for some reason, you know, the axe came down. And so I went to talk to him and he wouldn’t discuss it. (laughs) But Alex[ander] Orbach, who was the TA, told me to just be persistent and keep coming to the class and other people would drop out, because there was a very heavy workload there. Which was true very quickly. People started to drop. And so I was able to stay in the course. And it was a terrific course. There were other students there, Nancy Green, also...
7 November 2018
But to jump a little bit further ahead, you know, [Mosse] came to my graduation. I went through graduation exercises in, in 1989 and he made it very clear to me that it was only the second time that he ever did it. The only other time he did it was with a student of his who was blind. You know, and he thought this was quite important that he go through commencement exercises with him. I think it was Norman. Is it Norman Coombs (PhD, 1961)? ... He said that he would go through the ceremonies with me because he so liked my parents, my family, and respected my family.
And he says because your mother and father are such lovely people that I will, I will do this otherwise, he said I'm completely against it. I don't like this kind of thing. And it turned out to be an absolutely, an absolutely wonderful experience.
27 January 2021
Mosse may have been suspicious of theory because he dealt with so many of them in his scholarship and he understood the nature and limits of each one. As a scholar, he had no desire to commit himself to a theoretical position so as to forestall any tendentious political identification in his scholarship. His deepest admiration was for English liberalism, for its open-minded toleration, its commitment to fair play, and moral integrity. He had a place in his heart for Thomas Hughes (1822-1896) as well as for John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) among the heroes of his course on nineteenth-century Europe.
24, 25, 26 February 2019
George taught me, we talked about this informally over the last couple of days, the power of myth. Which I understood to some extent when I took his classes. But I really understood far more in the 1990s, and then since the year 2000. It’s an emotional construct. It’s human-created. It’s a way of looking at things, a way of explaining things, that is the antithesis of reason, although it may have some reasonable elements in it. And it has a great power. And the right understood this far more than the left in many countries in Western and Central Europe.
9 April 2013
I went in and the chair of the [history] department ... and he said, “Well, what are you interested in?” And I said, “I’ve narrowed it down to intellectual history and the early modern period.” That was all I could say…. He said, “You go to Mosse.” And that’s how I got started. And I went to see George. And he was sitting in his office with his high forehead. All of us remarked how over the 20 or 30 years we knew him; he was always the same age. And he was kind of a little bit intimidating. And I asked him what his seminar was going to be on. And he said, “I’ll tell you when you get there.”
18 December 2018
[O]f course, George was very present in those years. When I came to take possession of my office, the very first day of fall semester in 1968, the first person who said hello was George coming down the hallway when he heard that I was there, with a great beaming smile on his face. I never will forget that. I’ve never seen George beam more than on that particular occasion. So it was very nice to see that. It made me feel very welcome. And within just a year or so, George suggested we got the money to have a visiting lecturer series on fascism. I think it was in 1970, 71, different specialist from the different institutions around the country talking about basically different countries and different movements.
13 July 2021
But second semester I took George’s 1815 to the present class. And some of it was familiar to me from my own reading. But the Holocaust was almost altogether new. It probably had a paragraph or a page in my high school history book. And he didn’t ever mention his own connection to it. I didn’t learn about that till later. I certainly didn’t know about the Mosse publishing family and the Mosse building in Berlin or any of that stuff. I didn’t know that he was gay, either. Those things just weren’t talked about in those days...But as I took that course, I just said, this is what I want to study.
22 January 2022
He came through and I got my teaching job without my dissertation, a job as lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh. He really was very thoughtful. ... he went out of his way to help one of his students get a job at the University of Pittsburgh for one year. ... So Mosse was very, very helpful. As graduate students our nickname for people like him was “a good provider.” He was known as a graduate director who worked his tail off to help his students get jobs.
1984, 2012, 2013
Tortorice: Well, that’s interesting. Because of course now this is expected, that professors are always on the market, chronically on the market, just to get some compensation that is equal to other schools.
Ciplijauskaitė: Well, yes. But that is what I consider so wrong. Because when I got all these offers, then also my friends who were saying, “Well, go and show those offers because you’ll get a salary increase.”
And I said, “I don’t sell myself.” Like when I had, I had once or twice an offer of almost twice the salary because they needed a woman. Well I wrote back to those people, “I don’t sell myself.” Money isn’t everything in life.
7, 8, 9, 10 April 2008
George Mosse and I used to talk about this all the time. That’s why George always kept a beginning history course as long as he taught. He taught graduate students and a beginning history course. He found that it was the most important course in history. And I feel that the beginning design courses are the most basic foundation you can get. And they should be taught by your most sophisticated teachers. You have to get the very essence about what’s important...
12 May, 6 August 2008
But you know, on the bigger scale, we all have the right to do crazy things. Because sometimes the crazy things happen to be important...The other thing I think about with great pleasure is the potential of having brought to the University of Wisconsin something that will be useful for many years. Namely, the collection [William F. "Jack" Fry Collection on Italian Culture]. Now here again, that is really, that pleasure and that thought is small compared to the pleasure I had in making it. The feeling of discovery. The feeling of learning something I never understood before. The joy of meeting people I would never have met if I were not involved in that.
10 August 2022
And then there was George Mosse. George Mosse was something of a campus character. Everybody knew who he was. Unlike Merle Curti, who was extremely well-known professionally, but was not known to undergraduates, George Mosse on the other hand, was a cultural phenomenon on campus...
Mosse had a very large following, both in the undergraduates and the graduate students. While he expressed a very stern demeanor and sort of huffed and puffed a lot, he was very approachable. Mosse gave himself to his students which was a very unusual phenomenon in elite academic circles. The Madison faculty as a whole was very unusual; they taught and catered to their students.
27 March 2018
But [Mosse] began to speak. I realized immediately that he was a great orator. He fascinated out of the mobility of his eyes. And another feature I remember so well was his, he addressed to us without any form of hierarchy. We were accustomed in Italy that those high standard academics, they seemed to make you a great concession speaking with you. This was not absolutely the case. He was curious. He was interested in everything you may say. He had a very strong love for discussion, different perspective. It was very, very, very interesting and very fascinating.
26 February 2014
19 May 2014
10 June 2014
George, I was told, or he told me, that when an issue of Radical America arrived, he was a subscriber and it was a comic book, he thought perhaps he’d been given the wrong magazine, that he’d been given a subscription to a comic magazine, (laughs) or a comic book series. But you know, I’ve thought about that since. And I think he was so enthusiastic about expressing socially critical, radical ideas in popular form, that he may very well have been tickled by it. Puzzled and tickled. He kept it.
15 June 2018
So little things I remember about Professor Mosse. One, driving. He was a disaster as a driver, because he loved to talk. And not only did he love to talk, he loved to talk facing people in the backseat. And I remember my poor mother ducking three-quarters of the time, and being in terror as Professor Mosse would go off. And he had his hands flying around as he was talking.
18 and 22 November 2000
I went one time with George Mosse to the Jewish museum, to the Holocaust Museum, for a benefit for our Washington alums. And they managed to write this up splendidly in the Wisconsin University papers, mentioning only George Mosse and leaving me out. This is what happens when a culture changes. It was so-called the usual innocent mistake. And I asked George whether he thought it was conceivable that the innocent mistake could have been made the other way. (laughs)
Teicher: What did he say?
Lerner: No way!
20 December 2022
I still every once in a while find Mosse being mentioned in introductions of me. I did a talk for the Miami Holocaust Memorial Center recently and Michael Berenbaum was hosting. And introducing me, he mentioned Mosse and he says, “Most of you probably don’t know this name, but you should read his books.” It’s amazing how well they age. The book on masculinity. Amazing. And sexuality. George was, had his finger on the pulse of a lot of things that have become much more popular and much more mainstream than when he was writing about them.
16 December 2022
[Mosse] also told us about how he had been audited. And he had taken off as a research trip, a trip that he made to Val d’Isère, the pretty hoity toity French ski resort. And the taxman said, “I noticed that you deducted your trip to Val d’Isère.” George, of course, made up something about he was going there for research. And the taxman said, “But I think it’s just a ski resort. I’ve been there.”
And George said—in this he revealed the old European upper-class attitude, which he still had—he said, “This little taxman had been to Val d’Isère!” He was shocked. (laughter) But he also loved it. He loved the irony. He loved being caught.
15 June 2018
And when we got to Nietzsche, or Marx, or [Sigmund] Freud (1856-1939), he would stop his lecture and say, “and yes, children. I know you’ve all read your Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), and you’re going to combine Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. And I am here to tell you that all you’re going to get out of that is fascism.”
8 June 2023
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.
15 June 2018
23 November 2022
The faculty failed to censure William Sewell. George spoke at the faculty meeting. George committed a slip of the tongue. Instead of making a reference to the Dow demonstrations and the violence that happened, he said “Dow Jones.” The faculty cracked up. He caught himself, being very fast on his feet. He said, “You know, this is not a time for my colleagues on the faculty to be interested in their stock portfolios. This is very, serious business.” He caught the slip and he came right back.
17 March 2023
George Mosse, Stanley Kutler, and Kenneth Dolbeare (b. 1930) in the political science department. And I said to them — we were discussing the events — and I said to them, “Well, all we’re doing is putting into action what you’re teaching us.” And all three of them had this ashen face. I said, “No, no, no. You didn’t teach us to get involved in violent demonstrations. You taught us the role we could play in terms of impacting events.” They looked a little better after that.