The First Ten Years

The First Ten Years: George Mosse’s Vision for the Mosse Program
by John Tortorice

2010.09.16 – John Tortorice at Program 10th Anniversary

For those of us who knew, loved, and admired George, his presence is still so immediate that it can’t be almost twelve years since he passed from the scene. What can I say about George Mosse that has not already been said? Many of you in this room knew George for decades, and are well aware of his sterling qualities as a man, scholar, and a teacher. I can tell you that he is greatly missed on three continents, and that his ability to create a community of passionately engaged scholars, to bring an exciting, challenging, and humane voice to the study of history remains a singular achievement.

George was a complex man. For all of his vast accomplishments, and authoritative voice, he was surprisingly vulnerable and sensitive, and his pioneering use of empathy in the study of history can be traced to this part of his character. Certainly he used history to help allay the anxieties of his “double-outsider” status in a very repressive time, and to understand the forces that shaped his own persecution and exile. This led him to pour his prodigious energy, his passion, and his disciplined focus into his scholarship and teaching. It was this vulnerability and this passion which inspired so many generations of students, and as so many have attested, profoundly changed lives.

His real contentment was to be found when he was working at full speed, producing another book or article, teaching a course or giving a lecture. By the time I knew him, George was totally “outwardly directed” and his days were devoted to communicating with his former students, mentoring younger colleagues, teaching courses at various universities, and of course to his prodigious immersion in his reading and writing. George completely “lived in the present moment” and he viewed all history as contemporary history, as the “here and now.” He had no nostalgia, fetishism, or sentimentality about the past, and he embraced current historical methods with great vigor- his work was enriched and renewed by investigating new approaches to scholarship, and many young scholars he mentored in his later years-many of them women- have gone on to stellar careers in academic life.

George had a youthful innocence; was easily bored; he was a charismatic man and teacher. He was a true subversive, and unlike most people, George became more radical as his grew older- his critique of normative society in his later work is a radical critique. Yet he could also be the consummate insider, whose privileged background opened doors, and gave him the profound insights into the “dark side” of normative society that was one of his many contributions to the study of history. He cultivated “outrageousness” and he possessed an incredibly well developed sense of humor: He used these qualities as refined forms of teaching, both to educate and entertain, and as methods to challenge the received opinions, stereotypes, and ideologies of his students. An example of this is George’s take on his students: “Most of my students are yeomen, but they’re Scarsdale yeomen, and that is quite another thing.” Or “I was on the terrace today, and the students looked so emaciated. You can tell they’re on drugs when they’re so skinny.”

George was very excited about how his bequest to the University would be received by his colleagues, and by the larger University and scholarly community. For most of his life, George was not a wealthy man, and he lived modestly. Throughout most of his life he retained the “lifestyle” of a graduate student, and he disdained many of the comforts and concerns of his class background. With his peripatetic lifestyle, and aristocratic disdain for the details of daily life, he spent most of his time thinking, and writing about history. I recall an occasion when George decided to settle down to domestic tasks, and entertain some colleagues by hosting a traditional English tea party. He inadvertently forgot to move a plant liner off the table, where upon along with the scones, he proceeded to serve this dish of plant mud as a rather nasty lemon curd. (The crumbs evident in the mud were ample proof of this unfortunate event.

In fact, he viewed the wealth that came to him towards the end of his life from the sale of Mosse family property stolen by the Nazis not as his money, but rather the true legacy of his secular German-Jewish family, a legacy that was cruelly interrupted by the Nazis, but was always an abiding concern, and guiding force in George’s life. Many of you may not know that George’s grandfather established an exchange program between German universities, and that through extensive philanthropy, the Mosse’s devoted their resources both to education, and to assistance to those less fortunate than themselves-as they still do today, mostly notably through the Mosse Family Foundation whose extensive reach provides funding for both the Mosse Lectures at the Humbolt University in Berlin, and to scholarships for disadvantaged children at the Waisman Center here on campus.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, George did not identify himself with the forces of history, but he did have an ambitious agenda for history: for him, the study of history was an ethical undertaking; it was the closest we can get to “truth” and the point was to teach us to live an examined life, to be better human beings, to create a more just world. From the beginning, his abiding concern in his work was the dignity of the individual confronted by mass society. He never established a “school of history” (In fact one of his greatest enjoyments was the give and take of historical argument, and he really appreciated well informed disagreement with his ideas).
Yet he did create a community of scholars committed to the rigorous, insightful study of history, and to the humane values and devotion to students that were always present in his life. He also strongly believed in maintaining a community of scholars, and in the Mosse Program, he has assured that the international scholarly community from which he derived such sustenance will be sustained and enhanced through the generations, and will provide the kind of insights that his own scholarship provided.

The Mission of the Mosse Program is to provide the opportunities, support, enrichment, and mentoring of students-a central component of George Mosse’s legacy. I believe that George could not bear the idea of not engaging with students, and that this was his way of both honoring his family tradition, and assuring that he would still be a vibrant presence for future generations of students. It would take a great deal of time to explain all the various aspects of the Mosse legacy at UW-Madison, and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I will let Vanessa Walker Gordon, a student who has participated in the Program tell you of her own experiences, and those of her fellow students.

I can say that the Mosse legacy has provided direct support to one hundred twenty seven graduate students through the Mosse Exchange Program, mutli year fellowships in modern Jewish history, in LGBT history, in European Cultural and Intellectual history, and support for the Mosse Teaching Fellowships in European history. We also provide direct financial support to the Dept. of History, which provides support for the Mosse Undergraduate Peer Advisors, and for the Mosse Undergraduate Prize for International Service Learning. This helps affirm George’s own fierce devotion to undergraduate education, and to teaching freshmen students.

Certainly, the Mosse Program has had a profound impact at the Hebrew University, where our program is unique. Supporting the Mosse cosmopolitan, secular, humanistic tradition in a region of the world where the forces of aggressive nationalism and convinced religious belief are more and more influential is where George would want us to be. I am particularly pleased that a whole generation of Steve Aschheim’s students from the Hebrew University has come through the Mosse Exchange Program. These students were able to experience a direct link with George through one of his students who is also an inspired teacher, and great scholar. As Steve Aschheim recently said, the Mosse Program has been a beacon of opportunity, hope, and inspiration in a bleak time.</

It is wonderful to witness a new generation of students engaging with George’s work, fascinated and inspired by his ideas and his life story. Students affiliated with the Mosse Program are now moving forward with their careers, obtaining positions at universities including Cincinnati, Amsterdam, Toronto, Tel Aviv, and Dartmouth, and they tell me that participation in the Mosse Program has greatly enhanced their education, and their prospects.

Certainly, George is irreplaceable- such brilliance, passion, and profound humanity are very rare indeed. Yet, those of us who knew and loved George are committed to seeing that his vision for the Mosse Program is carried into the future. I believe that George’s faith and trust in the Department of History, and in the UW-Madison, and the extraordinary honor and enrichment he brought to this institution, will always be an essential part of our institutional history. It is my hope that the Department of History and UW administration will fill George’s faculty position, and make an ever stronger commitment to continuing the international influence of his work.

Now it is my great pleasure to introduce Vanessa Walker Gordon. Vanessa is close to finishing her dissertation under the direction of Jeremi Suri, and over the years both Vanessa and Jeremi have been very active in collaborating with the Mosse Program-most notably when Vanessa was a Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellow at the Hebrew University in 2003-2004. She will tell you about her own experiences in the Program, and those of her fellow students. Vanessa?