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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Perils of Normalcy

George L. Mosse’s Cultural History

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A refugee from Nazi Germany, George Mosse (1918-1999) fled with his family to England and was attending college in the U.S. when World War II began. Graduating from Harvard, his career led to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he became one of the century’s most prominent cultural historians.

Mosse was marked twice over as an outsider, Jewish and gay; he called no attention to the former until he was well established in the U.S. (American academic anti-Semitism was a living memory in the 1940s); for the later, he came out gradually without great fanfare.

Unlike the “cultural theorists” (crypto fascists among them) who wrenched control over many academic departments in the 1980s and ‘90s, Mosse was a historian with a commitment to grounding opinions on facts. He was also impatient with earlier generations of historians who believed the human story was shaped only by political, military or economic forces. He held that ideas spring from the soil of culture; ideas motivate the direction of human deeds and leave behind artifacts that can be studied for what they say about the society they reflects. The cultural context of Germany, which preoccupied Mosse, doesn’t entirely explain the rise of Nazism but sheds light on its roots and acceptance by many Germans.

Karel Plessini has written a compact but densely packed intellectual biography in The Perils of Normalcy: George L. Mosse and the Remaking of Cultural History (University of Wisconsin Press). By “perils of normalcy,” Plessini calls attention to Mosse’s anxiety over the destructive power of mass movements and of acquiescence without reflection. Mosse’s ideas were nuanced and calibrated with concern for how societies could best function as supportive, non-destructive communities.

Mosse sought balance. He feared the irrational forces that fed Nazism but disdained the Enlightenment’s dismissal of the irrational, warned against an excess of nationalism but found importance in positive patriotism, and opposed both Utopians who flinched at nothing in building new worlds and myopic conservatives unable to see the possibility of social change. Mosse loved the gospel reference calling on the faithful to be wise as serpents and mild as doves in the paradox of balancing pragmatism with idealism.