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George Mosse

George Mosse

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George Lachmann Mosse was a German-born American social and cultural historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

. Mosse authored 25 books on a variety of fields, from English constitutional law, Lutheran theology, to the history of fascism
Fascism is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to rejuvenate their nation based on commitment to the national community as an organic entity, in which individuals are bound together in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry, culture, and blood...

, Jewish history, and the history of masculinity. He was perhaps best-known for his books and articles that redefined the discussion and interpretation of Nazism. In 1966, he and Walter Laqueur
Walter Laqueur
Walter Zeev Laqueur is an American historian and political commentator. He was born in Breslau, Germany , to a Jewish family. In 1938, Laqueur left Germany for the British Mandate of Palestine. His parents, who were unable to leave, became victims of the Holocaust...

 founded The Journal of Contemporary History, which they co-edited up to 1999.


Mosse was born in Berlin into one of Germany's richest Jewish families. His maternal grandfather, Rudolf Mosse
Rudolf Mosse
Rudolf Mosse was a German publisher and philanthropist.-Biography:Mosse was born in Grätz, Grand Duchy of Posen, as the son of Dr. Markus Moses, a noted physician...

, was the founder of one of Germany's leading newspaper concerns and publisher of Berliner Tageblatt
Berliner Tageblatt
The Berliner Tageblatt or BT was a German language newspaper published in Berlin from 1872-1939. Along with the Frankfurter Zeitung, it became one of the most important liberal German newspapers of its time.-History:...

. His father, Hans Lachmann Mosse, commissioned the architect Erich Mendelsohn
Erich Mendelsohn
Erich Mendelsohn was a Jewish German architect, known for his expressionist architecture in the 1920s, as well as for developing a dynamic functionalism in his projects for department stores and cinemas.-Early life:...

 to redesign the Mossehaus
Mossehaus is an office building on 18-25 Schützenstrasse in Berlin, renovated and with a corner designed by Erich Mendelsohn in 1921-3.The original Mosse building housed the printing press and offices of the newspapers owned by Rudolf Mosse, mainly liberal newspapers such as the Berliner Tageblatt...

 where the Tageblatt was produced until the Nazis closed it and forced the family to emigrate. He was educated at the famous Mommsen-Gymnasium in Berlin and later from 1928 onwards at Schule Schloss Salem
Schule Schloss Salem
Schule Schloss Salem is a boarding school with campuses in Hohenfels, Salem and Überlingen in Baden-Württemberg, Southern Germany. It is considered one of the most elite schools in Europe.It offers the German Abitur, as well as the International Baccalaureate...

. In 1933 the Mosse family fled and separated. His Mother went to Switzerland, as did his sister. His father and his new wife moved to France. Mosse went to boarding school in England. Mosse served as professor at the University of Iowa
University of Iowa
The University of Iowa is a public state-supported research university located in Iowa City, Iowa, United States. It is the oldest public university in the state. The university is organized into eleven colleges granting undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees...

 (1944-1955), the University of Wisconsin from 1955 onwards,and also the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A strong Zionist
Zionism is a Jewish political movement that, in its broadest sense, has supported the self-determination of the Jewish people in a sovereign Jewish national homeland. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Zionist movement continues primarily to advocate on behalf of the Jewish state...

, Mosse enjoyed teaching in Israel. As a pupil in Germany, Mosse attended the exclusive boys' boarding school at Salem
Schule Schloss Salem
Schule Schloss Salem is a boarding school with campuses in Hohenfels, Salem and Überlingen in Baden-Württemberg, Southern Germany. It is considered one of the most elite schools in Europe.It offers the German Abitur, as well as the International Baccalaureate...

. During the period when Mosse attend the school, it was run by former Army officers who imposed a demanding physical education regime imposed on the pupils, which Mosse as a frail youth, he had difficulty with. Most of Mosse's teachers were supporters of the German National People's Party
German National People's Party
The German National People's Party was a national conservative party in Germany during the time of the Weimar Republic. Before the rise of the NSDAP it was the main nationalist party in Weimar Germany composed of nationalists, reactionary monarchists, völkisch, and antisemitic elements, and...

 and were more or less open anti-Semites
Antisemitism is suspicion of, hatred toward, or discrimination against Jews for reasons connected to their Jewish heritage. According to a 2005 U.S...

. Mosse's experience there left him with an life-long sense of being an outsider.

After fleeing Germany in 1933, he attended the Bootham School
Bootham School
Bootham School is an independent Quaker boarding school in the city of York in North Yorkshire, England. It was founded by the Religious Society of Friends in 1823. It is close to York Minster. The current headmaster is Jonathan Taylor. The school's motto Membra Sumus Corporis Magni means "We...

 and Cambridge University in England, where he studied history with G. M. Trevelyan
G. M. Trevelyan
George Macaulay Trevelyan, OM, CBE, FRS, FBA , was a British historian. Trevelyan was the third son of Sir George Otto Trevelyan, 2nd Baronet, and great-nephew of Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose staunch liberal Whig principles he espoused in accessible works of literate narrative avoiding a...

 and Helen Maude Cam
Helen Cam
Helen Maud Cam was an English historian of the Middle Ages, born at Abingdon, Berkshire ....

. According to Mosse's autobiography, Confronting History it was at the Bootham School that he discovered he was an homosexual. In 1936 Mosse moved to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. Despite his background, Mosse was a self-proclaimed "Marxist of the heart", meaning that while he did not believe in Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 as a theory, he nonetheless sympathized with it as an ideology. In 1939, his family relocated to the United States, where he completed undergraduate studies with honors at Haverford College
Haverford College
Haverford College is a private, coeducational liberal arts college located in Haverford, Pennsylvania, United States, a suburb of Philadelphia...

 in 1941. He continued his studies on the graduate level at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

, earning a Ph.D. in 1946 with a dissertation written under the supervision of Charles Howard McIlwain
Charles Howard McIlwain
Charles Howard McIlwain was a highly regarded scholar of Anglo-American constitutional history, and won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for History...

 that was subsequently published as The Struggle for Sovereignty in England (1950).

Mosse began his career as a historian at the University of Iowa
University of Iowa
The University of Iowa is a public state-supported research university located in Iowa City, Iowa, United States. It is the oldest public university in the state. The university is organized into eleven colleges granting undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees...

, where he focused on religion in early modern Europe and published a brief study of the Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

 that was widely adopted as a textbook in university courses. In 1955, he moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison
University of Wisconsin–Madison
The University of Wisconsin–Madison is a public research university located in Madison, Wisconsin, United States. Founded in 1848, UW–Madison is the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin System. It became a land-grant institution in 1866...

 and began lecturing on modern history. His The Culture of Western Europe: the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, An Introduction (1961) summarizes these lectures and was also widely adopted as a textbook.

From 1969, Mosse spent one semester each year teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem ; ; abbreviated HUJI) is Israel's second-oldest university, after the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. The Hebrew University has three campuses in Jerusalem and one in Rehovot. The world's largest Jewish studies library is located on its Edmond J...

. He taught for more than thirty years at the University of Wisconsin, where he was named John C. Bascom Professor of European History and Weinstein-Bascom of Jewish Studies, while concurrently holding the Koebner Professorship of History at Hebrew University. He was also a visiting professor at University of Tel Aviv and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. After retiring from the University of Wisconsin, he taught at Cambridge University and Cornell University
Cornell University
Cornell University is an Ivy League university located in Ithaca, New York, United States. It is a private land-grant university, receiving annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions...

. He was the first research historian in residence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Mosse turned to a focus on fascism and Nazism in the 1960s, challenging conventional interpretations in a series of innovative books including The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964), Nazi Culture (1966), The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars Through the Third Reich (1975), and Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (1977). In these works, Mosse argued that fascism was not merely brutal, oppressive, and devoid of ideas, but a European-wide mass movement capable of mobilizing large numbers of people. The success of Nazism, he contended, could not be explained by abstract concepts then in vogue such as "totalitarianism," nor by simplifications that traced Hitler's ideas to the precepts of Luther
Martin Luther
Martin Luther was a German priest, professor of theology and iconic figure of the Protestant Reformation. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money. He confronted indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel with his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517...

 or Hegel. Instead, he located its origins in völkisch ideology, a 19th-century organicist worldview that fused pseudo-scientific with mystical notions of German soul and nature. The Nazis made völkisch thinking accessible to a broadly literate public through potent rhetoric, powerful symbols, and mass rituals. Mosse's originality lay in his ability to connect political movements to deeply held popular and cultural stereotypes, an approach that he applied to the history of European racism. He demonstrated that antisemitism drew on an amalgam of stereotypes that depicted the Jew as the enemy of the German Volk, as the embodiment of the urban, materialistic, scientific, and modern culture supposedly responsible for the corruption of the German spirit. Just as the Nazis tapped a deep vein of völkisch thought, other fascist movements drew on the "new politics" of nationalism to create the secular religions that dominated post-World War I Europe. Fascism, Mosse argued, successfully mediated between people and leaders, expressing itself through rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and striking images. Neither manipulation nor terror, but the ability to provide millions of people with an active and meaningful sense of belonging to a community along with the ability to compromise and achieve tangible economic success, ultimately accounted for the ability of fascist regimesto rule by consensus rather than force, in Germany even more than in Italy.

For Mosse, culture was never simply the literary and artistic achievements of the élites. Defining culture as "a state or habit of mind which is apt to become a way of life," Mosse pioneered the study of mentalities or popular attitudes which were often inconsistent and contradictory ways of coping with reality. In later years, he turned to the broader implications of European culture for the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, especially World War I and the Holocaust. His 1977 study of European racism, Toward the Final Solution, showed that racial stereotypes were deeply rooted in the European tendency to regard humanity from an aesthetic point of view and to classify human beings according to their closeness or distance from Greek ideals of beauty. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe (1985) extended these insight to encompass the broader history of the excluded and persecuted—Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies (or Roma), and the mentally ill—in European history. The nineteenth century gave academic and scholarly license to popular cultural stereotypes, defining human beings as "healthy" and "degenerate," "normal" and "abnormal," "insiders" and "outsiders." In his ground-breaking study The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996), Mosse traced the ways that the model of middle-class male respectability, beauty, solidity, and self-control established in the eighteenth century constantly evoked "countertypes"—images of men whose weakness, nervousness, effeminacy, degeneracy, or sexual ambiguity threatened to undermine the ideal of manhood.

Much of Mosse's writing and teaching was about the complex legacy of German Jewry for post-Holocaust Jews in America and elsewhere. As he once recalled, "I remember well the shock I received when, shortly after emigration to the United States in 1939, my family was told that we could not go to our chosen vacation spot because it was 'restricted.' And when I wanted to enter the graduate school of my choice, I was told that the Jewish quota was full. I was the first Jew ever hired on the history faculties of the two state universities where I have taught (Iowa and Wisconsin), and this was, I am sure, because I was a German Jew of a 'good family' who had gone to an excellent English public school and Cambridge University."

Mosse's upbringing in a family that represented the best traditions of German-Jewish civility and cultivation attuned him to the advantages but also the dangers of a purely humanistic education. His book German Jews Beyond Judaism (1985) describes the German-Jewish dedication to Bildung, or cultivation, as helping to transcend a narrow group identity. But it also reveals how, during the Weimar Republic
Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic is the name given by historians to the parliamentary republic established in 1919 in Germany to replace the imperial form of government...

, it contributed to a collective blindness toward the harsh and illiberal political realities that engulfed enlightened Jewish families like the Mosses. His skeptical liberalism also informed his supportive but critical judgment on Zionism
Zionism is a Jewish political movement that, in its broadest sense, has supported the self-determination of the Jewish people in a sovereign Jewish national homeland. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Zionist movement continues primarily to advocate on behalf of the Jewish state...

 and the State of Israel. In an essay written on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Zionism, he wrote that, whereas the early Zionists envisioned a commonwealth that was liberal and based on individualism and solidarity, in the State of Israel a "more aggressive, exclusionary and normative nationalism eventually came to the fore."

Popularity as a teacher

At the University of Wisconsin, George Mosse became legendary as a charismatic and inspiring teacher. During the Vietnam War era, despite political divisions among students and faculty, he was able to speak to both sides. Tom Bates' Rads: A True Story of the End of the Sixties (1992) describes how students flocked to Mosse's courses to "savor the crossfire" with his friend and rival, the Marxist historian Harvey Goldberg
Harvey Goldberg
Harvey Goldberg was a teacher, historian and political activist.- Biography :...

. Mosse's popularity was due not only to his compelling style of critical skepticism laced with humor, irony and empathy; he was able to address contemporary issues with historical insight without deprecating the opposing view while remaining true to his own principles.


Mosse left a substantial bequest to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to establish the George L. Mosse Program in History, a collaborative program with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He also left smaller endowments to support LGBT studies
Queer studies
Queer studies is the critical theory based study of issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity usually focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and cultures. Universities have also labeled this area of analysis Sexual Diversity Studies, Sexualities...

 at both the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Amsterdam, where he taught as a visiting professor. The endowment was funded by the restitution of Mosse family properties located in eastern Germany that were expropriated by the Nazi regime and not restored to the Mosses until 1989-90, following the collapse of East Germany. He viewed the use of restituted funds to educate future generations as a validation of his family liberalism and an "unforeseen irony of history" that allowed for some level of justice.

Awards and honors

  • American Historical Association
    American Historical Association
    The American Historical Association is the oldest and largest society of historians and professors of history in the United States. Founded in 1884, the association promotes historical studies, the teaching of history, and the preservation of and access to historical materials...

    's award for Scholarly Distinction
  • 1998 Leo-Baeck-Medal
    The Leo-Baeck-Medal has been awarded since 1978 by the Leo Baeck Institut of New York and is given for special efforts in German-Jewish reconciliation....

     of the Leo Baeck Institute
    Leo Baeck Institute
    The Leo Baeck Institute-New York in Manhattan is a library, archive, and exhibition centre devoted to the study of the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry. The Institutes's offices and collections are housed in Center for Jewish History in New York City...

  • Goethe Medal
    Goethe Medal
    The Goethe Medal, also known as the Goethe-Medaille, is a yearly prize given by the Goethe Institute honoring non-Germans for meritorious contributions in the spirit of the Institute. It is an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany....

     of the Goethe-Institut
    The Goethe-Institut is a non-profit German cultural institution operational worldwide, promoting the study of the German language abroad and encouraging international cultural exchange and relations. The Goethe-Institut also fosters knowledge about Germany by providing information on German...

  • Prezzolini Prize
  • Honorary doctorates from Hebrew University, Hebrew Union College
    Hebrew Union College
    The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is the oldest extant Jewish seminary in the Americas and the main seminary for training rabbis, cantors, educators and communal workers in Reform Judaism.HUC-JIR has campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.The Jerusalem...

    , Lakeland College, and the University of Siegen
    University of Siegen
    The University of Siegen in Siegen, North Rhine-Westphalia, was founded in 1972. 14,100 students were enrolled at the university as of October 2010.-Faculties:University of Siegen offers in total 126 degree programmes across four faculties:...

Published works

  • The Struggle for Sovereignty in England from the Reign of Queen Elizabeth to the Petition of Right, 1950.
  • The Reformation, 1953.
  • The Holy Pretence: A Study in Christianity and Reason of State from William Perkins to John Winthrop
    John Winthrop
    John Winthrop was a wealthy English Puritan lawyer, and one of the leading figures in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first major settlement in New England after Plymouth Colony. Winthrop led the first large wave of migrants from England in 1630, and served as governor for 12 of...

    , 1957.
  • The Culture of Western Europe: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. An Introduction, 1961.
  • The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, 1964.
  • Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich, edited by G.L. Mosse, 1966.
  • 1914: The Coming of the First World War, edited by G.L. Mosse and Walter Laqueur, 1966.
  • Literature and Politics in the Twentieth Century, edited by G.L. Mosse and Walter Laqueur, 1967.
  • Germans and Jews: The Right, the Left, and the Search for a "Third Force" in Pre-Nazi Germany, 1970.
  • Historians in Politics, edited by G.L. Mosse and Walter Laqueur, 1974.
  • Jews and Non-Jews in Eastern Europe, 1918-1945, edited by G.L. Mosse and Bela Vago
    Béla Vágó
    Béla Vágó was a Hungarian communist politician, who served as de facto Interior Minister with Jenő Landler during the Hungarian Soviet Republic. After the fall of the communist regime, he emigrated to the Soviet Union.-References:*...

    , 1974.
  • The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars
    Napoleonic Wars
    The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

     through the Third Reich
    , 1975.
  • Nazism: a Historical and Comparative Analysis of National Socialism, 1978.
  • Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, 1978.
  • International Fascism: New Thoughts and New Approaches, edited by G.L Mosse, 1979.
  • Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality, 1980.
  • German Jews beyond Judaism, 1985.
  • Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe, 1985.
  • Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, 1990.
  • Confronting the Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism, 1993.
  • The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity, 1996.
  • Confronting History (autobiography), 2000.

External links