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George Mosse and the “Quest for German National Identity”

by guest contributor Anna Corsten

By Anna Corsten

With his studies on National Socialist ideology, the émigré historian George L. Mosse, born in Berlin in 1918, significantly shaped the study of fascism. Long before German historians began to discuss the comparability of National Socialism and Bolshevism in the heated and well-known Historikerstreit, Mosse had illustrated that Nazism differed in one key aspect from other dictatorships: the Holocaust. Nevertheless, his analyses were largely neglected during this debate, and Mosse himself abstained from getting directly involved in it, instead dismissing the controversy in his private notes as a mere proxy, “a quest for German national identity.”[1]

In his reticence to get involved in this debate, Mosse was emblematic for a general absence of émigré voices in the Historikerstreit. Also other émigré historians who likewise had significantly contributed to the study of National Socialism, such as Fritz Stern, curiously abstained from entering the debate. But why did they stay out of the debate? And what can their absence tell us about German historiography in the 1980s, about the prevalent culture in German history departments, and about the status of the transatlantic scholarly exchange at that time? Mosse’s remarkable absence from the Historikerstreit, and his relationship with German academia in general, provides an insight into the stark difference between the Anglophone and the German-speaking historiography of Germany from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s.

Fritz Stern in 2007. Photographer: Hans Weingartz.

Mosse, who started out as a historian of the Reformation and 16th and 17th century England, only began to write about German history in the 1950s, motivated by the quest for possible explanations for why the Nazis had been able to stay in power for twelve years. In Mosse’s words, National Socialism was “a subject which I had avoided, perhaps because it touched me so closely.” (142) Ironically, as Mosse himself pointed out, it was this emotional involvement that played a central role in the disdainful perception of works by émigré historians, especially in West Germany. Instead of being intellectually engaged with, they were often accused of writing German history in a subjective manner.

In 1964, Mosse published his first book “The Crisis of German Ideology,” an analysis of how Volkisch thought had paved the way for the Nazi rise to power and how ideology had sustained the National Socialist regime. Prior to the English publication, many books on recent German history had focused on socio-economic variables to account for 1933, a focus that Mosse criticized explicitly for its neglect of ideas in general and Volkish though in particular: “Historians have not given them [ideas] much serious attention, for they have regarded this ideology [Volkish thought] as a species of subintellectual rather than intellectual history.” (1) According to Mosse, by contrast, Volkisch thought was present in all parts of German society. With this assumption, he also differed significantly from other studies that had dealt with the role of ideology but had usually focused on one particular social group, such as Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair.

In the United States, Mosse’s reception in the 1960s was ambivalent. Some scholars praised his analysis, and particularly his attention to multiple factors that had only played a minor role in the previous scholarship on National Socialism. Others strongly criticized Mosse for downplaying the positive cultural traditions of Wilhelmine Germany. Among the latter were also émigré historians like Fritz Epstein and Hans Kohn, who belonged to the generation of émigré historians that preceded Mosse’s. This generation, generally born between 1895 and 1917, had still received their doctorate in Germany and was then forced to flee in the middle of their often promising careers. In fact, their criticism of Mosse demonstrates the generational divide between émigré historians. The first generation often (re)established stronger ties to Germany shortly after the war had ended. In line with the then-dominant scholarship on National Socialism, with its emphasis on anonymous, structural causes, Hans Kohn attacked Mosse for not considering other reasons for the rise of National Socialism, such as the “role of the immediate crisis, political, economic, and social factors.”[2] In sum, Mosse’s approach was considered novel in the United States and thus sparked a broader discussion about how to analyze National Socialism.

George Mosse in 1991. Photographer: James Streakley.

In West Germany, however, there was hardly any reaction to the book, neither to the English original version nor to the German translation, which tellingly was only published in 1979, fifteen years after the book’s appearance in the US. Only the historian Bernd-Jürgen Wendt, the successor of Fritz Fischer at the University of Hamburg, stated that Mosse would not receive much attention for his book due to his unusual focus on ideas and his strong emphasis on the ideological continuity from Wilhelmine Germany to National Socialism. Anticipating such criticism, Mosse had already written a different introduction to the German translation of the book which explicitly addressed the research by German historians and which did not shy away from attacking Gerhard Ritter, one of the leading German historians of the 1960s, by accusing the latter of writing an apologetic history of National Socialism:

By perceiving National Socialism as a disruption of the German past, as a unique aberration caused by the war and the economic crises after the First World War, German historians take the easy way out. Any question about their own personal responsibility is ignored by looking exclusively at these colossal powers.

This condensed overview of Mosse’s reception offers insight into the discourses that dominated German historiography in the 1960s and early 1970s – as well as the curious silence over debates on German history that were held elsewhere. The German debates avoided discussing the role of ideology, and particularly the possibility of an ideological continuity between Wilhemine Germany and National Socialism. Instead, many West German historians discussed whether Germany’s history could be described as a structural Sonderweg, meaning that the socio-economic process of German modernization and its creation as a nation constituted an aberration when compared to other European countries. In contrast, Mosse had raised these questions in his work by referring to an ideological Sonderweg, and as a result there was almost no reaction to Mosse‘s book among German historians.

In the following decade, Mosse published several other books analyzing the role of ideology in German history. With his work Nationalism and Sexuality, which appeared in 1984, he was finally declared a pioneer of cultural history in the United States. In this book, he analyzed how nationalism makes use of myths and symbols in order to create a consensus in a society. In West Germany, the translated version of his book appeared only one year after the English edition—but its reception in German history departments was again marginal. Two younger scholars born in the 1950s discussed Nationalism and Sexuality in the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and in the journal Neue Politische Literatur. The historian Christian Jansen, today a professor at the University of Trier, concluded that the “most instructive books in the history of ideology and mentality are still written in the United States.” In this regard, “German émigrés [play] a crucial role.”[3] Jansen was persuaded by Mosse’s argument that National Socialism was a unique phenomenon in European history. Christoph Boyer, now an emeritus professor at the University of Salzburg, shared Jansen’s judgement in his article for Süddeutsche Zeitung.[4] A majority of West German historians, however, once again remained silent about Mosse’s work. Here, too, an important reason was that Mosse had – in contrast to West German historians – emphasized the cultural origins of National Socialism. In order to mobilize large parts of society, Mosse argued, the National Socialist movement was drawing on long-standing patterns of thought. In addition, Mosse stressed the singularity of National Socialism.

So how can we explain the neglect of Mosse’s analyses in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s? While in the 1960s, an important reason can be found in the attempt by German historians to protect each other against “harmful insults,”[5] a term used by Gerhard Ritter in his 1953 lecture tour in the United States, as well as any accusation of collective guilt, this was of lesser significance in the 1980s. Yet, although a younger generation of West German historians, namely the “Bielefelder Schule,” had tried to distance themselves from the national self-aggrandizement of the older generation, they still focused on the impact of anonymous structures to explain Hitler’s rise to power. By contrast, Mosse examined which role German society played in the success of National Socialism.

Moreover, the debate in West Germany was one focused on the place of National Socialism in German national history.[6] And, by avoiding Mosse’s works, as Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann argues, German scholars tried “to rescue German history from Nazism in retrospect.”[7] The (lack of) reception of Mosse’s interpretations shows that he raised unpleasant questions and gave inconvenient answers.

In his private notes about the Historikertag 1988, an annual conference of German historians, Mosse criticized German colleagues like Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hillgruber and Michael Stürmer, who all had fought for a conservative position in the Historikerstreit, for not taking into account that racism was a part of German culture before and after 1933. Instead, he continued, they shifted their attention to similarities between National Socialism and Bolshevism in order to “mask the German past.” Thus, Mosse perceived their attempt to interpret National Socialism as a “new quest for nationalism” and as an attempt at “the integration of National Socialism into German national history. To say that National Socialism was merely a mirror of Bolshevism fulfills this purpose.” For Mosse, the task of the historian was not to be seen in strengthening a national identity but in “confront[ing] the development of ones [sic!] own nationalism. In the case of Germany that means accepting the dark side of national identity that is to say a break with history as national identification, but it is just that which seems unacceptable to conservatives such as Nolte, Hillgruber, Hildebrand and Stürmer.”[8]

From Mosse’s point of view, these German historians “made use of history” and sought “to restore an older kind of nationalism built upon a history without limits.”[9] While the conservative historians attacked by Mosse indeed emphasized the construction of a positive national identity as a crucial function of history writing, also liberal German scholars like Jürgen Kocka and Karl Dietrich Bracher argued that historiography should not be instrumental in the creation of a national identity.[10] Yet, none of these historians addressed as explicitly as George Mosse the political implications of writing history, as exemplified by the latter’s warning of the consequences of the Historikerstreit: “Here a set of false priorities and misleading historical comparisons are closely tied to dangerous political effects.”[11] Many other émigré historians, such as Fritz Stern or Raul Hilberg, openly discussed the connection between historiography and political events. West German historians, by contrast, excluded these implications from their debates for a long time—and the works of émigré historians with them. Eventually, however, the latter’s notion of “accepting the dark side of German history”[12] became important for liberal historians in the 1980s and 1990s.


[1] Notes „Historikerstreit“, 17.04.1988, GLMC, AR 25137, B 17/ F 32, LBI; George L. Mosse, Rez. zu: Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, in: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 27 No. 4 (1966), S. 621-625, GLMC, AR 25137, B 13/ F 15, LBI.

[2] Hans Kohn, “Belief in Blood,” The Nation, 04/ 26/ 1966.

[3] Christian Jansen, “Nationalismus, Nationalsozialismus, Sexualität. Rez. zu: George L. Mosse, Nationalismus und Sexualität. Bürgerliche Moral und sexuelle Normen,” Neue Politische Literatur 2 (1987), 2. German original: „Instruktive Bücher aus dem Bereich der Ideologie- bzw. Mentalitätsgeschichte [kommen] nach wie vor zu einem großen Teil aus den USA. Deutsche Emigranten [spielten dabei] eine ‘herausragende Rolle’.”

[4] Christoph Boyer, »Deformation bürgerlicher Moral. George L. Mosse: Nationalismus und Sexualität«, Süddeutsche Zeitung 05/03/1985.

[5] BArch, N 1166/225, Lectures Gerhard Ritter, USA 1953: “The present state of historical studies in Germany.”

[6] This can be seen in the correspondence between the German historian Martin Broszat and the émigré historian Saul Friedländer. See Martin Broszat and Saul Friedländer, 10/26/1987, Broszat/ Friedländer, Um die “Historisierung des Nationalsozialismus“, 351.

[7] Moshe Zimmermann, Mosse and German Historiography, in: George Mosse, On the Occasion of his Retirement, 06/17/1985, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1986, xx.

[8] Notes „Historikerstreit“, 17.04.1988, GLMC, AR 25137, B 17/ F 32, LBI.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Michael Stürmer, Dissonanzen des Fortschritts. Essays über Geschichte und Politik in Deutschland, München 1986, 209; Jürgen Kocka, “Kritik und Identität. Nationalsozialismus, Alltag, Geographie,” Die neue Gesellschaft. Frankfurter Hefte 33 (1986), 890-89; Karl D. Bracher, “Das Modewort Identität und die deutsche Frage,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 08/09/1986.

[11] Notes „Historikerstreit“, 17.04.1988, GLMC, AR 25137, B 17/ F 32, LBI.

[12] Ibid.


Anna Corsten is a research assistant (postdoc) at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich (IfZ). In 2020, she submitted her dissertation on German-speaking émigré historians and their impact on the study of National Socialism and the Holocaust at the University of Leipzig. She held several visiting positions, such as at the GHI in Washington D.C. and the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute and the Center for Holocaust Studies in Munich. She recently published essays on the conflict between Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt and the reception of German-speaking historians in West Germany after 1945.

Featured Image: George L. Mosse and Rolf Italiaander in Amsterdam in 1983. Photographer: James Steakley.

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