George Lachmann Mosse (1918-99)
Jerry Z. Muller, May 1999
George Lachmann Mosse, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, passed away on January 22, 1999. At a gathering in Madison last September in honor of his 80 birthday he was celebrated by students and colleagues from three continents. Remarkably vital at that time, he learned shortly thereafter that he had cancer of the liver, to which he succumbed.
Mosse was the scion of an illustrious German Jewish family. His grandfather, Rudolf Mosse, was a pioneer in the development of newspaper advertising, and the founder of a publishing empire that included the Berliner Tageblatt, in its day one of the most influential newspapers in the world. Rudolf's brother, Albert Mosse, was a distinguished German jurist, who as adviser to the government of Japan helped draft the Japanese constitution.
Born in Berlin in 1918, George left Germany with his family shortly after Hitler's rise to power. They fled first to Paris, and then to England, where George began studies at Cambridge University in 1937. In 1939, when his family obtained an American visa, he came to the United States and was accepted at Haverford College.
At Harvard, where he pursued his doctorate with C. H. McIlwain, Mosse became a historian of the Reformation era. His books on that topic began with The Struggle for Sovereignty in England, from the Reign of Queen to the Petition of Right (1950). The Holy Pretense, a Study of Christianity and Reason of State from William Perkins to John Winthrop (1957) was a book in the German tradition of Geistesgeschichte, yet which called into question one of the major works of that tradition, Friedrich Meinecke's Der Idee der Staatsraison in der Neueren Geschichte (1925), by showing that the process of coming to terms with the necessities of worldly power occurred within religious thought, not simply outside of it. Mosse's short introduction, The Reformation, went through many editions, and his book with H. Koenigsberger, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (1968), was for many years among the most widely used texts on the period.
Mosse was an extremely engaging lecturer and popular professor, beginning with his first post at the University of Iowa, where he began teaching in 1944. In 1955 he moved to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he pioneered the teaching of European intellectual and cultural history, and where his lectures were broadcast to the public over Wisconsin Public Radio's "College of the Air" series.
Mosse's growing interest in the modern period gave birth first to another widely used survey, The Culture of Western Europe (1961), and then to perhaps his most significant work, The Crisis of German Ideology: The Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964). At a time when most historians were still interpreting Nazi ideology as a tool for the manipulation of the masses, Mosse showed not only that Nazi ideas were actually believed by the Nazis and formed a motive for their action, but that those ideas had substantial cultural and institutional roots in modern Germany. The book was also pioneering in its exploration of "subintellectual history," of doctrines and stereotypes that were influential despite their irrationality and crudity. The book also contained the seeds of several subsequent works, including Nazi Culture (1966) and Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (1977). Mosse maintained that liberal, rationalist historians tended to underrate the role of myth, symbols, and the aesthetic element of political mobilization, especially, but not exclusively, in fascism. He explored this theme most consistently in The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich (1977), and in his collection, Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality (1980).
As he turned his attention to the history of modern Germany, Mosse also developed an interest in the cultural history of German Jewry, which he explored in a series of essays and in German Jews Beyond Judaism (1985). Beginning in 1960, he served as visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he held the Richard Koebner Chair for German History from 1979 until 1986. He played a role in the creation of a Jewish Studies Program at Madison and in 1982 became Bascom-Weinstein Professor of Jewish Studies there. He also held visiting professorships in Cambridge, Amsterdam, Munich, Paris, and at Cornell University.
In his third (or fourth) incarnation, Mosse pursued his interests in symbols and stereotypes and their links with nationalism in a series of studies focused on sexuality and masculinity, including Nationalism and Sexuality (1985) and The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996). During the last decades of his life, he also encouraged the development of gay historiography.
In addition to his prodigious record of teaching and publication, Mosse, together with Walter Laqueur, founded the Journal of Contemporary History in 1966, which he continued to co-edit until his passing. Mosse and Laqueur also edited a series of thematic volumes that grew out of the journal.
Mosse was a mentor to men and women of remarkable national, political, and cultural diversity. In each case, he encouraged them to adopt a critical distance toward their own positions, and by his example he demonstrated the virtues of open-mindedness and tolerance. Though accomplished, he was utterly lacking in pretension, and he was able to combine humor with a concern for the most weighty of historical subjects.
A Festschrift, Political Symbolism in Modern Europe, edited by Seymour Drescher, David Sabean, and Allan Sharlin, was published in 1982. In 1986, on the occasion of his retirement from the Koebner Chair, a booklet of essays about him, including a bibliography of his writings to that date, was published by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A book of interviews with Mosse, entitled "Ich bleibe Emigrant" appeared in Germany in 1991, and a memoir that he completed just before his death is slated for publication by the University of Wisconsin Press.
—Jerry Z. Muller
Catholic University of America