Of the American historians of his generation, George L. Mosse, who died in Madison, Wis., in January, was one of the greatest teachers, perhaps the best known internationally and certainly one of the most beloved. There were long and thoughtful reviews of his work in the German and French press, in Italy and Israel. Mosse was also a man with a pronounced sense of humor, and he would have been greatly amused to see his obituary in the New York Times accompanied by the picture of another person. With the posthumous publication of "The Fascist Revolution," readers have a chance to get reacquainted with his work.
Mosse was born into a prominent and wealthy German Jewish family; his grandfather founded the greatest advertising agency, which later became a media empire. He grew up on a manor south of Berlin. He had part of the castle for himself; there were servants and governesses (usually from Britain and France), and on his birthday the local orchestra would serenade him. The family lost most of its possessions in 1933 and would regain some after the war. I have known no other person to whom money meant so little; I doubt whether Mosse at any time of his life owned more than two suits, and he lived more than modestly. He regarded the family's priceless collection of china and old musical instruments as mainly a nuisance.
Mosse seems to have been a disruptive influence in elementary school, and his parents sent him to one of the most progressive institutions, Schloss Salem, which in later years was attended by Prince Philip of England. From there, by way of Switzerland and France, he went to England. Bootham, the Quaker school near York, accepted him, and he went on to Cambridge to read history. But there was little encouragement; the master of his college told him: "You people become journalists, not historians."
At the outbreak of the war, he found himself a tourist in New York. With his last money he bought a ticket to Philadelphia, where, he had been told, there were many Quakers, asked for the nearest Quaker school, introduced himself to the president of Haverford and, having made a good impression, heard the magic words: "We shall accept thee."
In his memoirs (as yet unpublished), Mosse writes that he never experienced the personal and mental deprivations of exile; on the contrary, exile energized him and challenged him as nothing ever had before: "My existence had been secure, my future programmed and I would eventually have entered the family firm and stayed there. As a result, looking back I was a youth without direction, without much purpose in life."
Purpose and direction came in England when he became interested in history and politics and even more so in America. He had the good fortune to discover that Harvard had a scholarship for students born in Berlin-Charlottenburg; he was the only one of his generation to qualify. But at Harvard, his career almost came to an abrupt end because there were two eccentrics on his doctoral committee, one of whom had persuaded himself that because Mosse came from a publishing family, he was an expert on printing. Mosse knew next to nothing about it, which greatly annoyed his examiner. Having overcome this hurdle, he made his way to Iowa, where in 1944 he arrived for his first teaching job.
It soon appeared that he had a rare talent for public speaking. Quiet, diffident, almost withdrawn in personal life, his persona changed in the presence of 500 or 800 students; his voice became firmer, he had the rare gift of generating interest and even enthusiasm for his subject among young people.
Over the years many thousands came to his lectures, and he became so popular among the students that, unbeknownst to him, they put him forward as a candidate for sheriff in Iowa City. (He was defeated by a few votes).
In the late '60s and '70s, with the move to Madison, Wis., his fame spread. In addition to his duties at the University of Wisconsin, he received a chair at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he was the only professor ever permitted in that institution to lecture in a language other than Hebrew. There were annual courses of lectures at Cornell and in Munich, Paris and Cambridge, England. He was generous to a fault. He would seldom turn down invitations even in later life when it involved complicated travel arrangements, a loss of time and other hardships. He was not impervious to honors bestowed (he received three honorary doctorates in one month), but he cared even more about his students and, of the students who emerged from his instruction to become distinguished teachers themselves, almost all were helped by him in their first difficult steps of their careers. It was a delight to work with him. The two of us founded the Journal of Contemporary History in 1965 and were in almost daily contact editing it to the week he died; I do not remember a single quarrel during more than three decades, and not because we always agreed or found it easy to compromise.
He was neither a saint nor a perfectionist. His memory was sometimes selective; his spelling was uncertain in all languages (the stress in Schloss Salem had been on character building, not orthography), and he had the disdain of a grand seigneur vis-a-vis dates in history. In a recent memoir about his parents, he had written that his father had invited Edith Piaf to perform in Berlin in 1919 as a step toward German-French reconciliation. I pointed out that this seemed unlikely since Piaf was 5 years old at the time. Did he mean perhaps Yvette Guilbert or Mistinguett? Yes, of course, he said, but did it really matter?
Mosse was a radical by temperament, but this came with a spirit of tolerance, rare among rebels. He encouraged his students to read Marx at a time when this was distinctly unfashionable, but they also had to read the thinkers of the right like Lagarde and Langbehn. He never belonged to a political party, and the spirit of orthodoxy and sectarianism was alien to him, just as he had no sympathy for radical chic and political correctness. Among those who came out of his stable were people of the left as well as the right: And he cared about the ones as much as the others.
His interests ranged widely. He began his professional career as an expert on England during the reformation with an abiding interest in religion. His books about the "holy pretence" and Calvinism were well received. (He claimed to be able to officiate at a Mass, and I have no reason to disbelieve him.)
Later on he was attracted by the era of fascism, especially its ideological and cultural aspects, the highways and byways of the doctrine of extreme nationalism and racist thought in 20th century Europe. It was in this field that he probably made his most lasting contributions. But restless spirit that he was, the study of fascism led him to other fields, not considered by some at the time a proper subject for traditional historians--the nationalization of the masses, political symbolism in our time and, increasingly, toward the end of his life, the study of masculinity and sexuality.
"The Fascist Revolution" is a collection of the most significant articles written by Mosse since the late 1960s on fascism. They deal with topics such as fascist aesthetics, fascism and the intellectuals, the occult origins of National Socialism and homosexuality and French fascism. But the most stimulating and influential essay is the first and longest, "Toward a General Theory of Fascism." The title is perhaps a trifle misleading because the differences between the various forms of fascism, between Germany and Italy, between the movements which seized power and those that remained in opposition, were so marked that a general theory covering all of them will forever remain a distant and unattainable goal.
Mosse shows that the emphasis on economic and social factors to explain the fascist phenomenon made only a modest contribution. The most painstaking investigations have shown that Nazism had support in all classes; it did better in the Protestant regions of the country than in the Catholic, but even there the difference was not overwhelming. The Nazi electorate was amorphous; there was strong middle-class support, but the Nazis also scored higher than the parties of the left among the working class. The industrialists and the bankers, with a few exceptions, did not support Hitler before the seizure of power in 1933, simply because the Nazis were too radical and unpredictable.
The specifics of fascism were its revolutionary character and its emphasis on youth, which symbolized vigor and action, and on national mystique. The left in Germany and Italy had difficulties coming to terms with the experience of World War I, whereas Nazism and fascism were thriving on it. Mosse believes that cultural rather than economic factors were preeminent in the rise and victory of fascism and that the contention that fascist culture diverged from the mainstream of European culture cannot be upheld, for it absorbed what had the greatest mass appeal in the past: "[I]n fact, it positioned itself much more in the mainstream than socialism which tried to educate and elevate the tastes of the worker. Fascism made no such attempt, it accepted the common man's preferences and went on to direct them to its own ends." This argument probably needs further refinement because there was not one mainstream of European culture but several, and although fascism certainly derived its ideas from one such tradition fashionable at the last turn of the century, it emphatically rejected others such as democracy, liberalism and the tradition of the Enlightenment.
Does fascism have a future? Are nationalist movements in our age bound to end up in an updated and streamlined version of the plague of the 1930s? Writing almost three decades ago, Mosse sounded optimistic: It did not seem likely to him that Europe would repeat the fascist or Nazi experience. He had, no doubt, Western and Central Europe in mind, but what of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the world outside Europe? He added, however, a prophetic warning: Aggressive nationalism, the basic force which had made fascism possible in the first place, was still rampant. It had not only remained but was growing in strength as the principal integrative force among peoples and nations. The danger of successful appeals to authoritarianism is always present, however changed from its earlier forms.
The dangers to freedom and civilization seem less now than in the 1930s when young George Mosse discovered and embraced anti-fascism at Downing College, Cambridge, but they have certainly not disappeared. Just as Mosse used the political climate of the '30s to define his academic pursuits in the postwar world, his students and students of his students may opt for continuing this tradition, trying to understand and explain the sources of the discontents and threats in the present world.