Steve Aschheim on George Mosse
George Mosse at 80: A Critical Laudatio1
George Mosse's Europe has always been peopled by strange and powerful forces threatening to engulf its precious but fragile humanist heritage. His cultural history is animated by a complex but unabashed commitment to that heritage; his work over nearly the last forty years has also made clear its radical precariousness.2 The twentieth century experience of totalitarianism and of genocide, the personal circumstance of becoming a refugee3, intertwined with an emerging acknowledgement and consciousness of his own minority sexual status4, have constrained Mosse to become perhaps the contemporary historian of the manifold strategies of inclusion and exclusion, of racism and stereotypes, outsiders and respectability, war, “irrationalism” and mass murderousness in the modern age. He has throughout concerned himself with the deeper roots of Nazism and its destruction of the Jews, always lifting it out of narrow, parochial contexts and linking it to wider - and usually unpreceived - modalities of culture. Over the years the foci have become ever more broader, probing and daring. Viewed compositely his work - always evolving and covering different aspects of the European experience - represents an unfolding vision of, and ongoing concern with, that continent's dialectic of hope and hazard, liberalism and totalitarianism, breadth and narrowness, freedom and constriction.5
Typically, George Mosse's work continues apace, always developing and continuing to surprise us with its openness, shifts and freshness. There should therefore be no hint of closure in the present analysis. What the present exercise proposes is to touch upon some of the major (often unstated) assumptions, connections and changing perspectives that underlie and give vitality to his work.
Any appreciation of Mosse's project requires brief mention of the particular approach he brings to the study of cultural and intellectual history. Here, one is not limited to abstract and rational ideas that are somehow borne autonomously aloft through the historical process as was the practice with the traditional "history of ideas" school. Rather, we enter a far broader realm. Culture, Mosse declared very early on, is “a state or habit of mind which is apt to become a way of life intimately linked to the challenges and dilemmas of contemporary society”.6 We have entered, above all, the political and popular culture, the mental worlds, of an industrializing nineteenth and twentieth Europe - mass societies - in which the diffusion of consolatory and demonising myths and ideologies, symbols and stereotypes becomes of paramount importance. In effect, this consitutes a history of mediated human perceptions, one that is concerned with the active constructions of meaning and its consequences. Material factors, Mosse would acknowledge, are fundamental to historical life. But, as he notes in the introduction to Masses and Man:
However much they may be limited by objective reality, men and women do have choices to make. Indeed, that reality tends to be shaped by the perceptions men and women have of it. . . . [They] act upon reality as they perceive it, and thus they help to shape it as well.7
Today, even for historians, this notion of culture does not seem surprising but, we should not forget, Mosse was years ahead of his times and, indeed, shaped our revised conceptions of it.8 It was already in 1966 that his anthology “Nazi Culture” appeared.9 For many readers, schooled in older conceptions of the idea of “high” culture, the title itself must have seemed shocking. Was not the very notion “Nazi Culture” an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Who had not heard of Goebbels' perhaps apocryphal (but nevertheless famous) declaration that “every time I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my revolver?”10 Documenting diverse aspects of everyday life under Hitler, it sought to discover how “National Socialism” impinged on the consciousness of who those who lived under it and, in the process, sought to create an integrated racial universe.
In all of Mosse's work this understanding of culture is never represented statically or unidimensionally. History becomes a kind of updated Hegelian totality, a dialectic in which the political cannot be separated from the religious, the scientific from the aesthetic, the rational from the mythological. Although its outlines were already apparent in Mosse's first - and very successful - career as an early modernist11, it becomes central to his sustained, multi-pronged effort to come to grips with the later period, especially his studies on European Fascism in general and Nazism in particular.
His first foray into the field, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964), has become a classic and continues to shape our image of Nazism to this day. This book took issue with the conventional view in the 1950s of Nazism as totalitarianism. It denied the notion that Nazism was simply the product of mass propaganda and terror, the rule of an atomized and terrified population by a ruthless elite. Nazism, rather, had to be conceived as an immanent tendency with its roots in German sociopolitical development and popular culture. Mosse did not, however, try to demonstrate this via the usual history-of-ideas approach. Nor did he accept the crude argument that Nazism was somehow inherent in German national character and that the line from Luther to Hitler was a direct and irresistible one, as one reviewer charged when the book was published.12
What he sought to identify, rather, was one particular tradition: the emergence and crystallization of a habit of thought, feeling, and perception, which he designated as Völkish ideology. This was a response generated by the perplexities and singularities of the German experience of modernization during the latter part of the nineteenth century - and which was then reinforced and radicalized in the twentieth century. The Crisis of German Ideology treats us to an erudite and differentiated exposition of this semi-mystic, organic, nationalist Weltanschauung. The work demonstrates how it was absorbed into German popular culture and transformed into a cultural resource available for appropriate political tapping.
It was through Völkish ideology, Mosse contended, that conceptions of German identity during this period became so critically linked with the "Jewish question." The central foil, the salient antitype of Völkish thought and imagery - with its metaphysic of national roots; its symbolism of blood, soil, and will; its anti-urban and antiliberal bias - focused most naturally upon the Jew. Who better fit the requisite stereotype of rootlessness and foreignness, of liberalism and restless modernity than the Jew? For Mosse, therefore, the eventual development of Nazism into an "anti-Jewish revolution" became comprehensible largely within the wider context of Völkish thinking, which had its beginnings long before the Weimar period.
If in many ways The Crisis of German Ideology departed from the conventional wisdom of the day, it did, nevertheless, contain a species of the Sonderweg thesis (a notion critically analysed elsewhere in this volume). Mosse, to be sure, disdained simplistic conceptions of German national character. No historical determinism, no assertions of inherent murderousness are to be found in that tome. Yet, in the last analysis, the The Crisis of German Ideology held that Nazism could be grasped only as a result of long-term historical differences between Germany and other nations. German Fascism, Mosse wrote, was different from Fascism elsewhere because it ultimately reflected "the difference between German thought and that of the other western European nations." Only there was the repudiation of the heritage of the European Enlightenment "planted so deep or for such a long time."13
Subsequently, these kinds of analyses have become considerably muted in his work and, if invoked at all, formulated more in terms of “absences” and deficiencies than pernicious presences! Thus, Mosse has repeatedly pointed out that prior to 1914 the most lethal proto-Fascist, racist, and antisemitic tendencies were to be found not in Germany, but in France.14 There were no German equivalents of the Dreyfus Affair, the Panama Scandal, or the Third Republic. Nevertheless, as Mosse also emphasises, France did possess vital countervailing tendencies. Unlike Germany, it did have a powerful and ongoing liberal, revolutionary tradition. When Germany was defeated in World War I and the crisis erupted, there were no similar effective and popular antidotes available.15
Viewed as a whole, we can discern an unfolding development, an emerging pattern woven onto Mosse's ever-broadening canvas. To be sure, the animus, the search for the deeper, underlying sources of Fascism and Nazism remains a constant leitmotif of his work. “I have been accused, not without reason,” he candidly writes, “of writing teleological history, that is to say history which always looked to the future, ending up in the fascist or Nazi embrace. However, fascism did provide the climax of many of the trends which have interested me....”16 But the oeuvre has become increasingly European-wide and not restricted to the German realm, linked integrally rather than exotically to the course of modern cultural and political developments, a part of normative and mainstream not subterranean history. For instance, in his pathbreaking work, Fallen Soldiers (1990)17 it is the well-nigh universal twentieth century experience of mass death that takes centre stage. The unprecedented event of total, world war - and the later militant, right-wing appropriation of its thematics into national political mythology and memory - becomes paramount. The brutalizing events of 1914-1918 were fundamental to the rise of Fascist politics throughout Europe, and only war and defeat were able to propel previously - relatively marginal - German trends such as Völkish ideology into the center.
The Nationalization of the Masses (1975) - in Mosse's opinion, “the real breakthrough in putting my stamp upon the analysis of cultural history”18 - delved into a different dimension of the problem. It sought to uncover not so much the content, as the form, of what Mosse identified as a new kind of an essentially sacralized politics. Its most sophisticated and radical expression was indeed to be found in Nazism but its origins were virtually co-extensive with modernity itself. Ultimately, Fascism and Nazism were part of the broadest, defining political developments, incomprehensible outside of this European backdrop of the fusion of democracy and nationalism and the creation of a new mobilising, liturgical politics. Here we witness the rise of a visually oriented, participatory “counterpolitics” to liberal parliamentarism. (In The Nationalization of the Masses Mosse still defined liberal and bourgeois modes as antithetical to Fascist and Nazi modes - a position which, as we shall see, he later rendered decidedly more problematic.) Characteristically fusing nationalism with democracy, the new politics had a style which, Mosse argued, could not be subsumed under the canons of traditional theory.
In order to understand its driving impulse, one had to go beyond explanations (such as in J.L. Talmon's The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy) that sought to account for it in terms of the centrality of ideas and the continuity of political thought.19 What Mosse proposed instead was the emergence of an extraparliamentary, secular religion based not upon a coherent rational analysis of philosophical premises, but rather upon salient myths and symbols, concretizing its mystique through the creation of new ceremonial and liturgical forms. The origins of this were hardly German. It was the French Revolution, Mosse argues, which ushered in the new visual age of mass politics:
Political movements now had to project themselves upon the largely illiterate or semi-educated masses, whose newly roused political consciousness had to be taken into account. They were moved by what they could see and touch, by politics as a drama which gave them a feeling of political participation. We witness a change, slow to be sure, from written to iconographical language.20
The Nationalization of the Masses demonstrates how mass meetings, national monuments and symbols, public festivals, and political aesthetics objectified - perhaps even created? - the conscious and unconscious wishes of the masses, canalizing their desires and harnessing an ever present hunger for community into the nationalist framework. In preparation of this work Mosse had, after all, conducted personal interviews with the great practitioner of this politics, Albert Speer. Yet, it seems, these only confirmed his almost instinctive understanding of their inner dynamics and emotions. Few of his students will forget his classroom descriptions of the lure of its mass meetings, of its “fully furnished houses”, its attempt to forge a political environment of totality in an era of “wobbles” and confusing alienation. For Mosse this alternative politics did indeed consitute a general temptation - the Left, he makes clear, also indulged in its modalities. But it was the Right that most successfully activated its liturgical political style and annexed it to its own needs. Unlike its liberal and Left opponents, the Right was not constrained by the tenets of Enlightenment rationalism and abstract theorizing.
George Mosse tends to conceive of culture and cultural process in terms of a dialectical relationship between center and periphery. The insider acquires identity and defines himself in terms of the outsider he creates. There can be no ideal types without antitypes: the victor cannot be understood apart from his victim. The concern with the the outsider and the “abnormal” - with processes of exclusion and victimization - critically illuminates the “inside” and the “normal”.
The earliest work that pointed both conceptually and methodologically in this direction was Mosse's Towards the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (1978). This analyzed perhaps the most lethal of all modes of exclusion by showing how Jews, and to a somewhat lesser extent Blacks, became its central victims. What distinguished Mosse's treatment of racism from other approaches was his emphasis on the centrality of visual stereotypes and his insights into the usually hidden but absolutely crucial role of aesthetics in the making of stereotypical judgements. Mosse's racism is bent on creating a divided world according to ideal types and antitypes. Its model, he argues, was based upon the deeply rooted ideal of Greek beauty. This aesthetic provided the basis for making judgments not only about external appearance but also concerning inner moral qualities. Classical beauty came to symbolize not only the perfect form, but also the form within which a "true soul" was bound to reside.
It was, inevitably, Christian Europeans who most closely corresponded to the ideal type and exemplified nobility of appearance and character. The obvious antitypes were the Blacks and the Jews. No one could claim a Greek heritage for the thick lips, flat nose, and crinkly hair of the Negro; nor was the hunched, ugly stereotype of the ghetto Jew any closer to the ideal. The "sciences" of physiognomy and phrenology buttressed this aesthetic, for they espoused notions in which external appearance was held to reflect internal moral, spiritual and characterological qualities. Black deportment confirmed an essential inner violence and primitivism. Jewish looks validated an inherent criminality and manipulative nature.
Mosse made it quite clear that such "sciences" did not always necessarily have either racist or antisemitic intentions. Nor, he emphasised, was it possible to draw a straight line from eugenics to racial genocide. Nevertheless, these kinds of beliefs did feed into the world view of those committed to racist positions, a world view found in all European countries. Its adherents forged what Mosse strikingly termed a "scavenger ideology," one that annexed all the virtues of the modern age and condemned those regarded as deficient in such virtues as inferior and "degenerate" (a category which fused the biological with the social and which attested to the ever-growing and influential medicalization of discourse).
Beyond this, however, racism, in Mosse's view, represented the most stark case of the modern inversion of the relationship between myth and reality. “The world racism created was realized because racism willed it so, despite the fact that it lacked any basis in historical, social, or political reality.” In the concentration camps, the Nazis were able to create the outsiders of their own fantasies, to realize their myths about the Jew and other sub-races. Racism succeeded in transforming its stereotype into self-fulfilling prophecies. Systematic dehumanization turned the victim into the image which the victimizer desired. "Myth accepted as reality became the reality."21
Mosse has consistently argued for the centrality of the Jewish dimension in the unfolding of his historical inquiry. Indeed, he has gone considerably further than this - and in a remarkable statement that we shall attempt to unpack over the course of this paper - stated: “All my books in one way or another have dealt with the Jewish catastrophe of my time which I have always regarded as no accident, structural fault or continuity of bureaucratic habits, but seemingly built into our society and attitudes towards life. Nothing in European history is a stranger to the holocaust.”22 The Mosseian project therefore, amounts to a cumulative examination of the manifold, yet always interrelated, components of that history. Fascism, Nazism, the “Final Solution” come to be viewed as the culmination of deeper immanent trends, perceptions and processes - albeit in their most radical and corrupted form. While always keeping in mind the special venom of Jewish victimization, Mosse has increasingly extended the scope and come to locate the issue within the frame of the general creation of “outsiders” and “insiders”.
We will return to this presently but here it is important to note that already in The Crisis of German Ideology Mosse's interpretation of antisemitism differed from the conventional view. Neither continuity nor the sustained influence of traditional Christian Jew-hatred within the modern world is emphasised. Mosse would not deny these as crucial background factors. Nevertheless, nineteenth and twentieth century manifestations of antisemitism assume qualitatively different forms and substance, comprehensible only within the specific configurations and crises of modernity that produced them. As the convenient foil for a host of ideologies - Völkisch, nationalist and above all the racist variety - antisemitism had to be placed against the conditioning background of the dynamics of postemancipation bourgeois society. Mosse's insistence on the historical contingency of antisemitism provides a salutary corrective to the tendency - still surprisingly widespread - to regard antisemitism as somehow above history, an eternal metaphysical phenomenon quite beyond contextual explanation or change. By linking Jewish fate to these central currents, Mosse reveals the (previously obscure, if not entirely hidden) connections between realms normally compartmentalized.
This approach similarly animates his overall conception of modern Jewish history. Jewish existence is, as it were, deghettoized, its relation to the surrounding society, and the mutual interplay, always paramount. Mosse's analyses of the appropriation of pietism and middle-class values into Jewish theology,23 the Jewish internalization of Christian symbols (albeit in secularized form) attendant upon participation in the national state,24 and the influence of Völkisch ideology on Jewish self-definition25 define the connections in mischievously unorthodox, yet highly illuminating, ways. At the same time, however, he calls attention to the unresolved contradictions of this experience and points to the positive reappropriation of non-Jewish modes to maintain a distinctive Jewish identity along modern lines.
Nationalism and Sexuality26 (1985) must be regarded as a landmark, a departure - most recently elaborated in The Image of Man27 - in which the continuity of Mosse's concern is matched by a strikingly new perspective. The victimization of the Jew remains both central and unique, but the scope of analysis is considerably broadened: Jews as victims form part of a continuum and dynamic affecting other victims, their status and stereotype becomes comprehensible only alongside other outsiders. “The Jewish stereotype is not unique”, Mosse proclaimed in a revealing newspaper interview. “It's the same as the stereotype of all outsiders: sexual deviants, gypsies, the permanently insane, people who have hereditary diseases. They all look alike. They are all absolute look alikes. And, of course these are all the people Hitler wanted to exterminate and whom he did exterminate. They all look the opposite of the middle-class, self-controlled idea of beauty, energy, all of this sort of thing.”28 The stage has not only become European wide, but the central categories rendered far more a matter of class than of nation.
These works represent the fruits of Mosse's long-developing, critical reassessment of the role of the bourgeoisie and its all-pervasive ethic. As Arthur Mitzman has incisively observed, in The Crisis of German Ideology Mosse enunciated the prevailing liberal conventional wisdom that Nazism represented the pure, irrational antithesis of rational, liberal bourgeois modernity.29 Over the course of time, his view of the role of the bourgeoisie and its world-view has been almost inverted: at least in some of its guises that class is now seen not so much as the mirror opposite, the victim of Nazi ideology, but rather as an essential expression of it.30
In which way is Mosse able to draw such conclusions? He argues that from the late eighteenth century onward, nationalism and middle-class morality entered into a powerful alliance, together defining modern standards of respectability (sexual and otherwise) in such a way that an ever tightening distinction between normality and abnormality was created and enforced. Nationalism and Sexuality and The Image of Man are histories of manners and morals that, unlike many other contemporary studies of sexuality, do not enter the privacy of the bedroom but seeks, rather, to grasp the collective dimensions of sexuality and unmask its hidden connections to public ideologies. According to Mosse, the markers of manliness and virility became essential parts of normal national and bourgeois self-definition. Anyone perceived as lacking in those characteristics was necessarily consigned to abnormal, outsider status. This alliance, Mosse holds, became increasingly totalized, insistent on assigning everyone a fixed place: healthy and degenerate, manly men and effiminate homosexuals, sane and insane, productive and lazy, native and foreigner. An ordered and safe "inside" could be created and maintained only by extending the net of exclusion. This rigid code, cloaked under the guise of respectablity and Sittlichkeit, was invoked to control the reality that the alliance had itself created. “Bourgeois society” Mosse contests, “needed its dialectical opposite in order to exist.”31
These most recent books, with their hints of delicious subversion, typical of Mosse's thinking, are themselves a challenge to the respectability they expose. In his insistence on illuminating our own condition, Mosse has always been the opposite of an antiquarian. The autobiographical impulses behind the study of Jewish history, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust have always been clear. Similarly, we are now able to recognise that his present forays into the more generalised processes of exclusion, his unmasking of the pernicious functions of “respectability”, his insights into the making of the categories of normal and abnormal sexuality (i.e..homosexuality) have experiential roots. The personal dimension, Mosse writes, has decisively entered the concern with outsiderdom in general for “I have also addressed the specific outsiderdoms of which I have been a member.” The fact that homosexuality only became explicitly addressed over the last 15 years or so must itself be regarded both as a testament to the power - and an indictment - of that very “respectability” he has exposed. In the earlier years, his memoirs relate, “homosexuality could not be mentioned, and certainly not admitted, without paying the steep price of being driven out of one's profession (especially as a teacher) and expelled from normative society.......My preoccupation with the history of respectability...was driven by a sense of discovery and my own situation as a double outsider.”32
This, then, is history fuelled by autobiography and resonant with social criticism. It also constitutes part of Mosse's ongoing concem with the submersion of individuality and tolerance in an increasingly homogenized world. From this point of view, bourgeois morality becomes a historical villain whose constrictive and intolerant moral sense gradually radicalized to the point that, in its Nazi version, it became an essential ingredient of genocidal motivation. The new man of National Socialism, Mosse tells us, "was the ideal bourgeois."33 In terms of conventional historiography, this is perhaps the most startling of all of Mosse's theses: Nazism as the incarnation, the most extreme defender of bourgeois respectability.
This picture is far removed from Rauschning's Nazi nihilists breaking all limits in a kind of Nietzschean ecstasy or Thomas Mann's covenant with the demonic, or Ernst Nolte's portrayal of Nazism as the ultimate naturalistic revolt against bourgeois transcendence.34 Mosse's Nazi is a corrupted middle-class man intent on cleansing his world and preserving it against what he perceives to be anti-bourgeois forces of degeneration. The so-called euthanasia program against the handicapped, the insane, and the criminal; the persecution and murder of homosexuals, gypsies, and communists; and the "final solution"- all represent not so much a challenge to or the antithesis of the bourgeois experience but, rather, an extreme, corrupted version of it. Here were middle-class men attempting to maintain the values of manliness, orderliness, cleanliness, honesty, hard work, and family life against those outsider groups who, in their eyes, seemed morally and aesthetically to desecrate the basic tenets of respectability.
During the Nazi period, that morality proved most fatal to the Jews and gypsies precisely because, as separate peoples, they seemed radically different; all other categories of outsiders were at least partial insiders, deviants with some sort of a claim. Mosse would hold, however, that bourgeois morality in general is debilitating to outsiders - and potentially murderous. This thesis contains a suggestive insight,35 but a more detailed discussion relating middle-class morality to murderous Nazi modes would be helpful. Bourgeois Sittlichkeit, after all, while often illiberal, was seldom genocidal and it is surely in the processes of corruption and radicalization that such a transformation was engendered. It would be useful to flesh out further the nature of these processes.
Mosse has argued that the answer is to be found in the totalizing logic of racism. But unless one works out in very fine detail the exceedingly unique characteristics of its Nazi variety, “racism” as such may merely push the argument a step backward. For on its own, racism - while always pernicious - has to be made murderous, genocidal. This does not happen automatically. Historically, and in principle, it has, after all, coexisted with policies of emigration, separation, enslavement and domination or even paternalism. Knowledge of perpetrator motivation is, of course, always very much a speculative affair but, it seems to me that, at some, however remote, level of consciousness the conceivers and perpetrators of the Holocaust and associated atrocities were aware of the transgressive, taboo-breaking - that is, the highly “unbourgeois” - nature of their acts.36 The analysis of these corrupting and transformative processes, these transgressive impulses, would, I believe, bring out the dual moment within Nazism itself: its combination of bourgeois and radical anti-bourgeois elements (Mosse himself brilliantly demonstrated these in The Crisis of German Ideology). Precisely in the combination of and tension between these elements, in the fusion of the conventional and the extraordinary, could Nazism transcend middle-class morality at the same time that it embodied it. Whatever future research will bring, however, Mosse has performed a valuable service in alerting us to these important middle-class dimensions of the Nazi experience.
Indeed, in more general terms would it be going too far to suggest that he has cumulatively woven a conceptual and historical critique of the very notion of “normalcy” (and our own complicity within it)? In a typically provocative and offhand remark he once commented to me that “everything normal is boring”! But, of course, it goes deeper than that for he has demonstrated that such stifling discourses of normative conformity are also potentially murderous - and rendered effective and dangerous precisely because they come disguised in the redemptive vocabulary of nation, race, health and respectability.
These are the insights of an historian, the product of deep reflection. One will search in vain for a set of ideological or politically correct positions. If Mosse has focused on problems of his own outsidership - as a Jew and homosexual - he makes it quite clear that “I do not belong to a more recent generation where victimization is a badge of pride rather than a frustration or a test of character.” An unflagging honesty informs his work; there is no confusion of his own preferences with the historical reality he analyzes. This sobriety is very much in evidence in the way he ultimately frames his overall analysis of respectability. Its normative manners and morals are essential, he insists, “for the cohesion and functioning of society itself.”37 If the gist of Nationalism and Sexuality was critical - bourgeois morality as intolerant of outsiders and indeed potentially murderous - the last paragraph of that book hinted at the profoundity of the dilemma, at the conviction that “respectability” was, indeed, built-in to the very structure of our societies. “What began as bourgeois morality in the eighteenth century”, Mosse concluded, “in the end became everyone's morality.”38 That being so, Mosse has defined his task as producing a critical recognition - not a fundamental subversion - of this reality. As he puts it, “I like to provoke, to break Tabu's - but purely theoretically....to get people to think, not in the practice of daily life.”39 Once in conversation he perplexedly wondered if it were at all possible to imagine a world, a society, run along lines qualitiatively different from those enshrined in this normative bourgeois morality. After a short silence, he concluded, sadly but firmly, that it was not.
There are of course affirmations in Mosse's thought, a positive vision is to be found in his work - one that is indeed related to another side of the very “bourgeoisie” he criticises. We shall shortly attend to this. But before moving on we should pause to elaborate on the nature and logic of the tapestry he has has woven from the 1960s through to the present for it may help to reveal a perhaps previously unnoticed but crucial dimension of his work. I am referring to the tightly interrelated nature, the mutual implication, of the manifold and apparently separate building-blocks and forces complicit in the process leading towards Nazism and Fascism. Mosse's work is informed and animated by a conceptual frame of ever-constricting incorporation. Nationalism, middle-class morality, notions of inclusion and exclusion, racism, mass politics, aesthetics and stereotypes have different origins, pedigrees and functions but in this evolving portrait they come to coalesce. Mosse's writings are suffused with the language of alliance, annexation, penetration, co-optation. Nationalism and bourgeois “respectability” stand in “alliance” together defining increasingly homogenizing standards of inclusion and exclusion; they “annex” aesthetics and a secular, sacralized mass politics into this lethal combination; and racism, that great “scavenger” as Mosse suggestively calls it, penetrates all these forces driving them to new heights of exclusivity and radicalism and, “locking” them, as he puts it, “securely in place.”
Viewed compositely, we can discern an unfolding development, an emerging pattern, woven into an ever-broadening canvas, in which the Holocaust and its related barbarities is conceived, finally, not as some kind of aberration but as continuous with the normative and mainstream, rather than subterranean and deviant, dimensions of post-Enlightenment European society, politics and culture.
George Mosse is a historian who analyzes phenomena that go against his grain - a humanist pushed into the study of the inhumane. But, like Benedetto Croce, who has greatly influenced Mosse,40 he accepts the notion that this is an unavoidable task, for outside of history there is no reality. The only way, therefore, of confronting the reality is by coming to grips with history from the inside and in a committed, rather than a positivistic and descriptive, manner. History, for him, must be a passion, certainly not “a profession like any other.”41 Like Croce, Mosse insists that the mind of the historian is central to historical analysis; as a result, only history relevant to one's present situation is worthy of its name. Like Croce's work, too, Mosse's writings are animated by a commitment to individual liberty in a world threatened by the forces of mass irrationality and mass politics.
To be sure, over the years both the source and, indeed, the very nature of this “irrationality” have undergone change and deepening in Mosse's work. Until The Nationalization of the Masses, he did indeed simply equate “irrationality” with those cultural, political and ideological forces that stood opposed to a normative bourgeois liberal rationalism. Michael P. Steinberg may be correct in discerning in Mosse's work a kind of “fortress rationality”, a refusal to accept the complex mixture and intertwining of the rational with the irrational. This, he argues, is a result of first-hand experience of European fascism, leading Mosse “to abjure negotiation with cultural demons by adopting this strict posture.”42 Steinberg's characterization may, to some extent, capture the spirit of some of Mosse's earlier work. But over the years, he has increasingly stressed that some of the most problematic, even pernicious, properties themselves lurk in the fortress.
Still, in this troubled Europe Mosse sees not only points of darkness; muted potentials for redemption are always present. His legendary lectures at the University of Wisconsin on "The Culture of Western Europe" (presented in his textbook of the same name) presented many young American audiences with unknown, almost magical areas of European culture. Here were liberal, libertarian, Freudian, existentialist, Kantian socialist, and Hegelian Marxist answers to the contemporary dilemmas of European society.
These answers, to be sure, failed in the interwar period in Europe; yet long after the demise of Nazism and Fascism, in Mosse's presentation they retained their vitality, their possibilities apparently far from exhausted. Of course, he has always kept a critical distance from these options. Nevertheless, as one student of his has pointed out, he retains a deep empathy for the ethical utopian impulse43, a hope that somehow a humanist fusion of liberalism with socialism would be possible. His writings and lectures unfailingly both encourage and critically examine these unorthodox alternatives.
There is, however, another source that, I believe, gets us closer to the core of Mosse's positive commitments. In order to grasp this, we must first examine his analysis of the ideal of Bildung. For, as Mosse puts it, if Sittlichkeit, or respectability, represents bourgeois constrictiveness, the contraction of tolerance and human expression, then the German Enlightenment (and, of course, mainly middle-class) ideal of Bildung embodies the ideal of the expansion of human possibilities and stands for tolerance, cultured self-cultivation, and the primacy of individual autonomy.44 To be sure, this view goes well beyond a naive liberal Enlightenment position. Over the years Mosse has become increasingly sensitive to the darker side of Aufklärung.45 More specifically, he has recently spelled out an important critique of the liberalism to which he himself is attached. Liberalism, he argues, has always equated liberty as such only or mainly with political freedom. As a result, it also sanctioned the rigid rules of personal behavior as laid down by the precepts of respectability, and legitimized the restrictions upon the individual by society, if not by parliaments. His critique of bourgeois morality (of Sittlichkeit as opposed to Bildung) is, in the last resort, a plea "to extend the liberal definition of freedom even to those moral and behavioural restraints which liberalism has sanctioned."46
In his recently published German Jews Beyond Judaism, Mosse brilliantly analyzes the historical process whereby German Jewry slowly, but irrevocably, became virtually the sole carriers of that humanizing Bildung sensibility, and witnesses to the gradual desertion by the non-Jewish German educated middle class of a doctrine that they had originally shared with their emancipated Jewish co-citizens (German nationalism, he has constantly maintained, did not have to take the course it ultimately did). For him, the German-Jewish heritage ultimately becomes the heritage of Bildung, which becomes transformed into a kind of new Jewish tradition. Indeed, it becomes the defining ingredient of post-emancipation Jewish identity.47 For traditionalists, of course, there is something profoundly shocking, even subversive, in the notion that nineteenth and twentieth century (intellectual) Jewishness is synonymous with a particular strand of German culture (albeit its most tolerant, progressive side). They would likely not join Walter Benjamin in praise of the statement by Ludwig Strauss that "in a study of Goethe one finds one's Jewish substance."48
Mosse demonstrates that the internalization of the ethos of Bildung derived from the specific historical circumstances of the struggle for Jewish emancipation in Germany. For a community emerging from the ghetto and seeking integration within German life, the prevalent ideal of Bildung seemed tailor-made "because it transcended all differences of nationality and religion through the unfolding of the individual personality."49 Thus, Mosse holds, cultural humanism became integrally interwoven into the fabric of modern German-Jewish being. He is characteristically critical of much of this internalization. He argues, for instance, that Bildung modes of thought encouraged an almost automatic belief in the primacy of culture over politics, which tended to distort contemporary perceptions and blind one to the imperatives of an ever strengthened mass politics. Bildung Jews engaged in the politics of delusion, projecting their ideals of a tolerant Germany onto a quite different, far more brutal reality. Jews clung to a heritage that by 1933 was overwhelmed and rendered irrelevant.
For all that, Mosse insists, the heritage lives on. It was kept alive originally by liberal and left-wing intellectuals in exile and later "by new generations eager to take up a heritage thought long dead and forgotten." It is in this heritage, indeed, that Mosse the man and his work most profoundly meet. Here Mosse himself closely resembles the Jewish intellectuals, ranging from Sigmund Freud to Stefan Zweig and the Frankfurt School, he describes. In them, as he put it, Jewish-ness became a metaphor for the critical, unmasking, yet always humanizing and autonomous, mind. It is as much a plea, and statement of hope as it is historical analysis.
German Jews Beyond Judaism, then, presents Mosse's creed. It is, he admits, “certainly my most personal book, almost a confession of faith.”50 Mosse is a historian whose essential task has been that of a critic of culture, ideology and politics, opposed to mindless conformities and stultifying orthodoxies of any kind. Yet there is a complexity here that we should not overlook. We have already demonstrated that Mosse is aware of the necessity, even the desirability, of order in society, that he recognizes that the conflicting demands between cohesion and tolerance require a delicate balance. He is aware, too, that criticism without the act of positive building, devoid of constructive vision, has historically led to both impotence and alienation.51 Moreover, and most intriguingly, he often has a certain sympathy for some of the myths and symbols he studies; they answer deep needs for human community and meaning and will not be wished away in terms of mindless negation.
This certainly applies to Mosse's Zionism, his identification with the very nationalist myths and symbols he has done so much to demystify. This, indeed, has been a source of puzzlement to many. How are we to explain it? At a certain intellectual level, of course, the case can be made that there is no inbuilt inconsistency. For Mosse has gone out of his way to recover the liberal, Bildung legacy of the early German-speaking Zionists (ranging from Robert Weltsch, Kurt Blumenfeld and Martin Buber52 through Gershom Scholem53), insisting upon the originally humanist face of an essentially tolerant, liberal experiment which could have avoided going the way of conventional nationalism.54
Yet the matter is surely more complicated than this. For someone as acutely aware of the Nazi experience and the destruction of European Jewry, Mosse's Zionist affirmation may, indeed, have as one of its sources a (largely unstated) appreciation of the need for force and collective self-defence in a very imperfect, uncultured world (a corrective to the blind-spot of the Bildungs intellectuals who habitually misdiagnosed the harsh political realities that directly confronted them.) How ironic, one wonders, was his constant invocation of Max Nordau's contemptuous juxtaposition of “coffee-house” with “muscle Jews”55
Mosse himself disarmingly notes that “I was far from consistent. My own engagement in Israel told of the need for a more concrete embodiment of my Jewish identity, my accelerated heart-beat when I witnessed the swearing-in of Israeli paratroopers on Massada - Israel's Holy Mountain - tells of the attraction of an emotional committment even for one who prides himself on the use of reason.......once again, ideal and reality differ even within my own person.”56 Later in his memoirs, in relating his reactions to the Israeli experience Mosse puts it even more candidly: “I remember vividly my joy when I saw sturdy, self-confident Jews on my first visit, and though this was, once again, a stereotype, I was only conscious of the contrast between the present and the humiliating past. I knew full well that this ‘new Jew’ represented a normalization, an assimilation to general middle class ideals which otherwise I professed to dislike. But I could not help myself, faced with this Zionist ideal my reason and historical knowledge were defeated.”57
For all his wariness as an exile of passports, his dislike of conformity and homogenization, his suspicion of labels and stereotypes, his uniquely individual personality, Zionism may have been attractive simply because it provided him with a “sense of belonging”.58 Yet, even though Mosse regards this as the defeat of his reason by his emotion, I think he does himself an injustice. For he has indeed intelligbly integrated these forces of collective identification within his larger intellectual vision. Because nationalism, religion, Marxism, bourgeois respectability and any number of other ideologies correspond to real human desires, are built into the modern experience, the crucial question for Mosse is not how to abolish and dismantle these structures, but how to humanize them. The challenge for him is to maintain the values of Enlightenment-Bildung, of autonomy, reason, tolerance, and the free play of mind and human action, in a world of conformity, mass politics and mass brutalization. Mosse does not accept total solutions. His is rather a meliorating response based always on the compassionate, personalizing mode.
It is no accident that amongst the values he most admires in both the Enlightenment and German-Jewish heritage is that of friendship, the attempt at all times to personalize relationships.59 This is deeply embodied both in his work and in his caring, scintillating person. The task he sets before us is to reassert the positive potentials within these forms of community, to make us aware of the dangers inherent in conformity and homogenization, and to alert us to the primacy of humanization and solidarity over domination and superiority. His is truly a personal and historical sensibility for all seasons.
- This chapter consists of a compilation, but also a considerable elaboration and reworking, of my piece “Between Rationality and Irrationalism: George L.Mosse, the Holocaust and European Cultural History” that appeared in the Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual, Volume 5 (1988), pp.187-202 and a talk given on the occasion of a celebration of George Mosse's 80th birthday in Madison, Wisconsin in September 1998. It has gained immeasurably - and I have indeed had the pleasure of having some of its insights confirmed and deepened - by George Mosse generously providing me access to, and granting me permission to quote from, his autobiography Confronting History.Back ↑
- See Mosse's introduction to his The Culture of Western Europe: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Chicago, 1961), pp. 1-10.Back ↑
- Mosse was born in 1918 into the upper-middle class of acculturated Berlin Jewry. His maternal grandfather was the founder of the prestigious liberal newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt. Mosse fled Germany soon after the Nazi assumption of power, and received his education in England and the United States. See the interview with Michael Ledeen, in Nazism: A Historical and Comparative Analysis of National Socialism (New Brunswick, 1978), Chap. 1, pp. 21-31. See also Sterling Fishman, "GLM: An Appreciation," in Political Symbolism in Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of George L. Mosse, ed. Seymour Drescher, David Sabean, and Allen Sharlin (New Brunswick and London, 1982), pp. 275ff.Back ↑
- The homosexual aspect of Mosse's life, its importance as a sensitising influence on the themes, emphases and insights of his work, has only recently been made explicit and I shall return to this subject later in the paper. See Mosse's forthcoming biography, especially the chapter “Confronting History”.Back ↑
- Accessible analyses of Mosse's work may be found in the “Introduction” to Semour Drescher, David Sabean, Allan Sharlin, eds., Political Symbolism in Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of George L.Mosse (New Brunswick, 1982) and in the protracted interview with Mosse conducted by Michael Ledeen, Nazism: A Historical and Comparative Analysis of National Socialism (New Brunswick, 1978).Back ↑
- See The Culture of Western Europe, op.cit., p.2. The work was originally published in 1961.Back ↑
- Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality (New York, 1980) , pp. 14-15.Back ↑
- This is true too in more general terms. Moshe Zimmermann has documented the ways in which Mosse prefigured trends that later dominated German historiography but where the willingness to embrace and acknowledge his work was exceedingly slow. See his “Mosse and German Historiography” in George Mosse: On the Occasion of his Retirement (Jerusalem, 1986). That situation has, of course, been remedied and over the last few years Mosse's work has been extensively recognised in Germany and he has been the recipient of various academic honors.Back ↑
- Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich (New York, 1966).Back ↑
- In a sense one could argue that Mosse's career has been a kind of application of Maclmolm Muggeridge's retort to Goebbels: “Every time I hear the word ‘revolver’ I reach for my culture!” Mosse is, in many ways (as I shall try to show later) the incarnation of the German-Jewish Bildung Jews he so masterfully analyses. But this too must be qualified as he has often criticised these same intellectuals for their over-estimation of “culture” and for an ensuing, idealised politics, quite cut off from more brutalised political realities. See, for instance, the lengthy essay “Left-Wing Intellectuals in the Weimar Republic” in Germans and Jews: The Right, The Left, and the Search for a “Third Force” in Pre-Nazi Germany (London, 1971).Back ↑
- Many of these have been through numerous editions. See, respectively, The Struggle for Sovereignty in England, from the Reign of Queen Elizabeth to the Petition of Right (Oxford, 1950); The Reformation (New York, 1950); The Holy Pretence, a Study of Christianity and Reason of State from William Perkins to John Winthrop (Oxford, 1957). Mosse has not entirely ignored the earlier period even in his second phase. See his remarkably successful Europe in the Sixteenth Century - co-authored with H. Koenigsberger - (London, 1968).Back ↑
- Klemens von Klemperer, in American Historical Review 71 (1966): 608-10.Back ↑
- The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York, 1964), p. 315.Back ↑
- Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York, 1978), p. 168. For an example of his more recent comparative work, see Mosse's "Toward a General Theory of Fascism," in Masses and Man, pp. 159-96. See too his Confronting the Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism (Hanover and London, 1993).Back ↑
- "Der erste Weltkrieg und die Brutalisierung der Politik: Betrachtungen über die Politische Rechte, den Rassismus, und den deutschen Sonderweg", in Demokratie und Diktatur: Geist und Gestalt politischer Herrschaft in Deutschland und Europa, ed. Manfred Funke et.al. (Düsseldorf, 1987) pp. 135-36.Back ↑
- Autobiography, op.cit., p.267. The rest of the quote is also revealing: “and if I have shown how what was latent or inherent in nationalism or in the discrimination of the outsider became overt through these movements, then I have filled in a neglected piece of history which is also relevant to the present.”Back ↑
- Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York, 1990).Back ↑
- See the Autobiography, op.cit., p.257.Back ↑
- See The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich (New York, 1975). For his criticism of Talmon, see Mosse, "Political Style and Political Theory -Totalitarian Democracy Revisited," in Totalitarian Democracy and After (Jerusalem, 1984), pp. 167-76.Back ↑
- The Nationalization of the Masses, p.168.Back ↑
- Toward the Final Solution, op.cit., pp.xiii-xiv.Back ↑
- See Mosse's response in George Mosse: On the Occasion of His Retirement (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, The Koebner Chair of German History, n.d.), p. xxviii. This book also contains a full bibliography of Mosse's work until mid-1985.Back ↑
- See “The Secularization of Jewish Theology” in Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality (New York, 1980), pp.249-262.Back ↑
- See “The Jews and the German War Experience”, in Masses and Man, pp.263-283.Back ↑
- See “The Influence of the Volkish Idea on German Jewry” op.cit., one of Mosse's most original, influential and provocative essays.Back ↑
- Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (New York, 1985).Back ↑
- The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (New York, 1996).Back ↑
- See the interview with David Strassler in The Jerusalem Post, September 17, 1991, p.8.Back ↑
- Arthur Mitzman, “Fascism and Anti-Sex”, Stichtung Theoretische Geschiedenis 12 (1986), 339-43, esp.340.Back ↑
- This critique of the bourgeoisie and this analysis of its place within the Nazi scheme must be firmly distinguished from Marxist and neo-Marxist interpretations. Although both approaches indict the bourgeoisie, Mosse's analysis stresses perceptual and ideological factors, not material ones. He does not argue that Nazism was a tool of or served the interests of finance capitalism, as do the Marxists. His analysis is pitched at a different level. For some of the relationships and dissonances between these analyses, see my "Nazism, Normalcy, and the German Sonderweg," in the present volume.Back ↑
- Interview, The Jerusalem Post, op.cit.Back ↑
- Confronting History, op.cit., pp.261-263.Back ↑
- Nazism: A Historical and Comprative Analysis, p.43.Back ↑
- See Mosse's review, "E. Nolte on Three Faces on Fascism," Journal of the History of ldeas 27 (1966): 621-26.Back ↑
- For a critical but sympathetic review of Nationalism and Sexuality, see Peter N. Stearns, in Journal of Modern History 58 (1986): 256-58.Back ↑
- This problem is discussed in more detail in this book in the chapter “On Saul Friedländer”.Back ↑
- Confronting History, op.cit., p.264.Back ↑
- See Chapter 9, “Conclusion: Everyone's Morality”, Nationalism and Sexuality, op.cit., especially p.191.Back ↑
- Confronting History, op.cit., p.264.Back ↑
- Mosse discusses Croce in The Culture of Western Europe, esp.pp.302-7. See also Nazism: A Historical and Comparative Analysis, pp.28-29.Back ↑
- “Ever since I left Harvard I had lived largely among historians committed to their subject. While this furthered my own reasearch and writing, it also made me intolerant of those historians for whom writing history seemed to be only a profession like any other.....I sometimes said publicly - and certainly unjustly - that some of my present-day colleagues could just as well have been accountants.” Confronting History, op.cit., pp.247-248.Back ↑
- Michael Steinberg., “Aby Warburg's Kreuzlingen Lecture: A Reading” in Aby M.Warburg, Images from the Region of Pueblo Indians of North America (Ithaca and London, 1995), especially p.73 and note 27, p.111. The only place, I would argue, that a celebratory view of such a “fortress rationality” may still be discerned in Mosse's work is in his portrait of the rational project of German-Jewish intellectuals, a subject to be dealt with presently.Back ↑
- Paul Breines has published two splendidly evocative articles chronicling Mosse's influence as a man and as a teacher: “Germans, Journals, and Jews - Madison, Men, Marxism, and Mosse: A Tale of Jewish-Leftist Identity Confusion in America”, New German Critique 20 (1980), pp.81-103; and “With George Mosse in the 1960s” in Political Symbolism in Modern Europe, op.cit., pp.285-299. For similar influence in Jerusalem, see Ze'ev Mankowitz, “George Mosse and Jewish History”, in George Mosse: On the Occasion of his Retirement, pp.xxiff.Back ↑
- George L.Mosse, “Jewish Emancipation between Bildung and Respectability”, in The Jewish Response to German Culture, ed. Jehuda Reinharz and Walter Schatzberg (Hanover and London, 1985), pp.1-16. It has also been reproduced in Confronting the Nation, op.cit.Back ↑
- See Towards the Final Solution, Chapter 1, pp.1-16, and Nazism, op.cit., esp.pp.94-95.Back ↑
- Mosse, “Political Style and Political Theory”, p.176, also pp.170-71.Back ↑
- This is a highly astute portrait of the inner essence and the best explanation of the astonishing creativity of German-speaking Jewry that I know. I have questioned aspects of this analysis but this only strengthens the greater validity of the whole. See “German Jews beyond Bildung and Liberalism: The Radical Jewish Revival in the Weimar Republic” in my Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (New York, 1996).Back ↑
- German Jews Beyond Judaism (Bloomington, 1985), p.14.Back ↑
- Ibid., p.3.Back ↑
- Confronting History, op.cit., p.272.Back ↑
- See “Left-Wing Intellectuals in the Weimar Republic”, Germans and Jews, op.cit., pp.214-215.Back ↑
- Even in the famous essay, “The Influence of the Volkish Idea on German Jewry”, op.cit, where Zionism's problematic sources are highlighted, Mosse underscores the fact that these Zionists always emphasised the more universal, humanist side of nationalism, rejecting its racist and other exclusivist implications.Back ↑
- “Gershom Scholem as a German Jew” in Confronting the Nation: Jewish and German Nationalism (Hanover and London, 1993).Back ↑
- See, most recently, “Can Nationalism be Saved? About Zionism, Rightful and Unjust Nationalism”, Israel Studies, Vol.2, No.1 (Spring, 1977); “Central European Intellectuals in Palestine”, Judaism, Vol.42, No.2 (Spring, 1996) and the contribution to a symposium in The New Republic (September 8 & 15, 1977), pp. 19-20. In the latter piece he also proclaims that “Zionism, in the last resort, is about solidarity and how this can be strengthened in future generations.”Back ↑
- See his “Introduction” to Nordau's Degeneration (New York, 1968) and his “Max Nordau: Liberalism and the New Jew“ in Confronting the Nation, op.cit.Back ↑
- Confronting History, op. cit., p.273.Back ↑
- Ibid., pp.318-319. And, Mosse adds, “I myself was far from immune to the irrational forces which as a historian I deplored and that especially when it came to that group which I regard as my own.”Back ↑
- Ibid., pp. 6-7.Back ↑
- See George L. Mosse, “Friendship and Nationhood: About the Promise and Failure of German Nationalism”, Journal of Contemporary History 17 (1982), pp.351-67; and German Jews Beyond Judaism, esp.p.32.Back ↑