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In Memoriam

THE FASCIST REVOLUTION: Toward a General Theory of Fascism;\o7 By George L. Mosse; (Howard Fertig: 230 pp., $35)\f7

July 11, 1999|WALTER LAQUEUR | Walter Laqueur is the author of numerous books, including "Weimar: A Cultural History," "Fascism: Past, Present, Future" and "Fin de Siecle and Other Essays on America and Europe."

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.

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