Peter Gay, 1923-2015

From the New York Times:

Peter Gay, Historian Who Explored Social History of Ideas, Dies at 91

MAY 12, 2015

Peter Gay, a German-born historian whose sense of intellectual adventure led him to write groundbreaking books on the Enlightenment, the Victorian middle classes, Sigmund Freud, Weimar culture and the cultural situation of Jews in Germany, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his stepdaughter Elizabeth Glazer.

Mr. Gay, a refugee from Nazi Germany, devoted his career to exploring the social history of ideas, a quest that took him far from his original area of specialization, Voltaire and the Enlightenment. “He is one of the major American historians of European thought, period,” said Sander L. Gilman, a cultural and literary historian at Emory University.

It was his work on the 18th century that sealed Mr. Gay’s reputation as one of the pre-eminent historians of his generation. “Voltaire’s Politics,” published in 1959, was followed by “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation,” a monumental two-part study whose first volume, subtitled “The Rise of Modern Paganism,” won the National Book Award in 1967. The second volume, subtitled “The Science of Freedom,” was published in 1969.

“That is the last great work to provide a synthetic account of the philosophes and their world,” said Margaret Jacob, a professor of history at U.C.L.A. “It was canonical. He just had an encyclopedic grasp of the subject.”

A longstanding interest in Freud’s ideas led Mr. Gay to train at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis and motivated him to write a revisionist psychohistory of the Victorian middle classes, “The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud,” whose five volumes were published in the 1980s. He also wrote the acclaimed “Sigmund Freud: A Life for Our Time” (1988), the first substantial Freud biography since Ernest Jones’s three-volume one in the 1950s.

Freud and Mr. Gay were both assimilated, nonreligious Jews nourished by and trapped in a Germanic culture whose anti-Semitic undercurrents gathered strength around them. Their shared predicament provoked some of Mr. Gay’s most personal and anguished historical writing, notably the essays in “Freud, Jews and Other Germans” (1978) and the autobiographical “My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin” (1998).

More at the link.

American GIs and the Concentration Camps

History program faculty member Dr. Theresa Ast alerts me to her HubPages space and an essay she wrote based on her book. Click the first link to see the original, including notes and illustrations.


American GIs : Liberators’ View of the Survivors

By Theresa Ast

First Encounters

When the liberators first saw the camp survivors, they were more than emaciated and ill; many of them were, by modern civilized standards, incredibly filthy. Many were covered in dirt, in excrement, smelled foul, and covered their bodies with little more than soiled rags. Their condition was not accidental, not due to a scarcity of clothing or cleaning supplies. Their condition was deliberate, purposeful, imposed upon them by their Nazi captors.

The Nazis systematically dehumanized their prisoners, in part out of complete disregard for those they deemed sub-human, in part to make it easier for guards to abuse and mistreat the prisoners. There is a natural and fairly universal revulsion felt for those who are unclean; prisoners who looked and smelled abominable could more easily be categorized as less than human and easily treated as less than human. This revulsion might affect anyone.

Possibly, some American GIs were revolted by the look and smell of the survivors, and may have viewed them as less than human. Robert Abzug, in his book Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps, emphasizes the negative reactions of American soldiers confronted with camp survivors. Abzug describes a process, “psychic closing-off,” which allowed ordinary soldiers to cope with the extraordinary horror of the concentration camps.

A Contrary and Negative Assessment

He believes that many liberators distanced themselves from the survivors and were unable to view them or treat them as if they were human, and that, as a coping strategy, soldiers repressed their emotions because they needed the camps to be ordinary, within the realm of their normal world. To admit the survivors were fully human would be to recognize that the same thing could happen to any human being. So soldiers who struggled with this realization might view the survivors as creatures, sub-human, animalistic, as a way of distancing themselves from an emotionally traumatizing situation.

Abzug writes, “The gulf of experience and expectation that lay between liberator and survivor, the different world that made battle-weary Americans innocents by comparison, disoriented and disturbed even those most ready to embrace the victims of Nazi terror. An almost unbearable mixture of empathy, disgust, guilt, anger, and alienation pervaded each entry into a camp, compounding the palpable horror that greeted the liberator in each barracks and on every parade ground.”

Abzug emphasizes the reactions of disgust and alienation toward the survivors, almost to the exclusion of empathy and compassionate concern for the victims. He also describes soldiers who avoided those in the worst physical condition, preferring instead to work with healthier survivors.

Chronology Matters When Interpreting History

There is some merit to Dr. Abzug’s conclusion; however, two different groups of American soldiers worked with the liberated concentration camp inmates. The first group, whom I refer to as liberators, first encountered the survivors in the final weeks of the war; they saw the full horror of the camps and were acutely aware of the treatment meted out to the camp inmates by the Nazis. The second group consists of the occupation army, soldiers trained to handle civil affairs and military government in defeated Germany. Most of these individuals never saw the camps in their original condition and never separated the living survivors from among the countless dead.

The work of cleaning up the camps and disposing of the bodies was largely accomplished by the time they arrived. Occupation troops were, by mid-summer, still dealing with very frustrated and impatient Jewish DPs (former concentration camp inmates) long after the DPs of all other nationalities had been repatriated.

I do not doubt that these men were disgusted by the survivors’ behaviors, and perhaps revolted by their still poor physical appearance, but we should not confuse their reactions, which were substantially less sympathetic, even callous, with the reactions of the initial liberators and witnesses.* The bulk of the testimony cited in Inside the Vicious Heart comes from occupation troops, newspapers, and magazine reports; little testimony comes from the liberators, the men who first entered the camps.

Liberators, as a group, did not think of the survivors as animals, creatures, or sub-humans. They were certainly sickened and revolted by the conditions in which the camp inmates had been forced to live, but this did not lead to any wholesale rejection of the survivors themselves. Only the smallest handful of liberators described the victims as sub-human or animal-like.

Appalled, Saddened, and Horrified

The overwhelming majority of the liberators did not view the camp inmates in those terms. American soldiers saw the dreadfully sick, abused, and dirty survivors as fully human, and they treated them with the care and respect due fellow human beings. Liberating soldiers went to great lengths to treat the survivors with patience and kindness and their most often mentioned feelings were sorrow, compassion, pity, and sympathy.

Captain Reuben Soldinger, present at Woebbelin concentration camp, recalled, “I was heartbroken to see the dead and near dead in the camp….” PFC Sam Platamone described his feelings. “I felt an infinite sorrow for the victims….I never thought of the camp prisoners as being anything but what they were – human beings.” A witness at Buchenwald, Captain Melvin Rappaport wrote, “our fellow soldiers treated them in a kind way. Everyone was upset, disturbed by the unbelievable sights – all beyond description. We felt sad–looking at those unfortunate victims.

Liberators were frequently able to draw a connection between the horrendous treatment suffered by the camp inmates and their continuing, less than desirable behaviors. Rather than being surprised and offended by survivor behaviors, as were many occupation troops, they understood them, understood their source.

Compassion, Care, and Concern

One of the liberators of Gunskirchen Lager, Captain J.D. Pletcher wrote, “I want to make it clear that human beings subjected to the treatment these people were given by the Germans results in a return to the primitive….the deliberate prolonged starvation, the indiscriminate murder on little or no provocation, the unbelievable living conditions gradually brought about a change in even the strongest [inmate].”

Liberators were more tolerant of the appearance and behavior of survivors; they were able to view them in the context of the worst excesses of the concentration camp system, something soldiers arriving on the scene later would have difficulty doing.

Dr. Abzug has identified a reaction pattern of some men who worked with the survivors in the first few months of the Allied occupation of Germany many of whom never saw the initial and most severe conditions in which inmates lived. However, the responses and attitudes of most liberators, who were certainly sickened by what they saw in the camps, were overwhelmingly positive; the great majority of them treated the survivors with the kindness and compassion which all human beings deserve.

* Gitta Sereny mentions this phenomenon. “The fighting troops were very soon replaced by occupation personnel, men who had not experienced the discoveries made by the armies that had actually entered German-held territories at the end of the war. These men on the whole had a different attitude toward the Germans…on the whole US [occupation] personnel soon felt considerably more sympathy for the Germans than for their victims. For the latter they often maintained a condescension bordering on insolence, and a distrust in their individual and collective integrity….”


Scroll to the end of the original piece to see links to other of Dr. Ast’s HubPages essays (including “Children’s Holocaust Memorial: Six Million Paper Clips” that has also appeared on First Floor Tarpley).

Fun with Fonts

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed with moveable type in the west.* To own a copy would now cost tens of millions of dollars, and even a single folio will set you back tens of thousands. Yet it is difficult to remember that in the fifteenth century, the products of the moveable-type printing press were el-cheapo simulacra of the real thing, books written and decorated by hand, by a genuine team of craftsmen. Hence the GB’s hexagonal gothic typeface, which imitated monastic script, even including the abbreviation marks (which make it easier for monks to write things out, but which make printing things by moveable type more difficult, because you need more characters). Plus the decorated initials and marginalia, added afterwards by hand.

Detail, first page of the Epistle of Saint Jerome, Gutenberg Bible, University of Texas copy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Very quickly, however, Italian humanists came to view this sort of writing as carrying the foul stench of the monastic scriptorium. If we’re going to revive Ciceronian Latin, we need more appropriate clothing for it! So humanists derived the sort of Roman fonts (e.g. “Times New Roman”) that we’re familiar with today. These were not a slavish imitation of actual Roman letters (Romans did not use minuscules, after all), but the clarity and gracefulness of a good Roman inscription were highly valued and reproduced on paper.

Inscription on the Arch of Titus (first century AD). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Type specimen by Aldus Manutius, from Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna, 1495–96. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually humanist letterforms triumphed all over Europe – except in Germany. Just as Gothic architecture held out in England long after the Italians switched to a neoclassical style, so also did medieval letterforms hold out in Germany, where they eventually became a badge of national pride. Here is a German article from 1894 that I got through interlibrary loan (thanks, Stephanie!) illustrating the distinctive German Fraktur font:

Note that the French expressions (fête des fous and fête de l’âne) are actually set in Roman type (or, as it was known in Germany, Antiqua) – the idea being that German language required a German font. According to a Wikipedia article on the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute, Otto von Bismarck would return gifts of German books not set in Fraktur, with the notice that “I do not read German books in Latin letters!” This certainly helps to explain why Bauhaus typography was so outré in the 1920s. The irony is that Fraktur fell out of use under… the Nazis! You’d think that the Nazis of all people would have cherished it as an aspect of the ineffable Germanness that they claimed to represent, but instead they condemned it as old-school and fusty. From the page (Adolf Hitler this time):

Your alleged gothic internalisation does not fit well in this age of steel and iron, glass and concrete, of womanly beauty and manly strength, of head raised high and intention defiant… In a hundred years, our language will be the European language. The nations of the east, the north and the west will, to communicate with us, learn our language. The prerequisite for this: The script called Gothic is replaced by the script we have called Latin so far…

Fascinating stuff! (Every now and then the Nazis would claim to represent Modernity, although Hitler did not go in for architectural modernism nearly as much as Mussolini did.)

* The Chinese invented moveable type in the eleventh century, but it is much less useful with an ideographic script.

Die Mauer

November 9 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wrote this back on the twentieth anniversary; my opinion hasn’t changed much.

Let us give credit where it is due: to the Soviet and East German leadership, who could have responded to the Winds of Change by pulling a full-scale Tiananmen Square massacre (another event in that fateful year of 1989), but who chose not to. And let us give credit to the man who prompted the election of Mikhail Gorbachev in the first place: that amiable dunce Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 after Jimmy Carter wore out his welcome. Reagan, with Margaret Thatcher, ratcheted up the pressure on the Soviets on any number of fronts, and since the Soviets found they could not compete with this pressure, appointed Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985 in the hopes of reforming Communism so that they could compete. “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” became household words, and Reagan became much more willing to play ball with the Soviets in his second term. Even when the whole thing got ahead of Gorby (in Eastern Europe at any rate) he didn’t order a repeat of Prague in 1968 or Budapest in 1956, although he could very well have.

The fall of the Wall was significant on at least two levels – it represented the reunification of Germany, and was therefore deeply emotional to the Germans; for the rest of us it also represented the fall of the Iron Curtain (“from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”), the opening up of the east, and the beginning of the end of Communism as we knew it. As it turns out the Soviets’ Eastern European empire was its Achilles’ heel – for the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, et al. to throw off Communism was as much about rejecting Soviet influence as it was about ridding themselves of a corrupt and decayed system that wasn’t working anymore. The revolutions then spread to the SSRs, and finally to Moscow itself. There went Communism, and with it the Cold War, and with that the threat of nuclear war. Remember nuclear war? As portrayed in such classic movies as War Games or The Day After? We have forgotten the constant background worry about the possibility of this event, but I assure you it was always there.

I grew up in Canada, where it went absolutely without saying that Americans were stupid, that Reagan was stupid, that he saw the world in simplistic good-and-evil terms, and that he was needlessly provoking the Soviets and thus toying with the annihilation of the world. And indeed, let us not write history with the end in mind: the world could very well have ended up this way. But Reagan was vindicated, even if there was a great deal of contingency in the actual events, and probably deserves at least partial credit for the defeat of Communism, whatever the other flaws his administration may have been. Mainstream liberal opinion in the 1980s, if not indulgent of Communism, at least averred that we should seek to “live with” the Soviets and achieve a “balanced” political situation. After all, said Sting, don’t the Russians love their children too? But Reagan dared to state the obvious fact that the Soviet system was evil, and to imagine a world without it. And his vision came to pass! Incredible! (Of course we were far from absolutely good ourselves, but still, you must confess that Reagan was right on a certain level…)

With all due respect to one of my colleagues, the Berlin Wall was not a symbol of the Cold War as much as it was a symbol of Communism. (As George Jonas pointed out: no one sees the gate at Auschwitz as a symbol of the Second World War, but of Nazism.) This leads me to examine an invitation from another colleague to consider other walls and how we might take them down. Some walls serve a legitimate purpose. Consider the photos that our Belfast exchange student took of the Peace Wall separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods – Catholics and Protestants in Belfast do not get along, and do not want to get along, so what else can you do but separate them with a wall, on the principle that good fences make good neighbors? Similarly, the wall that the Israelis are building around the West Bank, or the wall that some people would like to build along the border with Mexico, or the walls that have surrounded important cities throughout most of human history – these are defensive walls, built to protect inhabitants from the predations of outsiders. Die Mauer was neither of these. It did not go up by mutual agreement, but was put up unilaterally by the East Germans – and although they called it an “anti-fascist rampart,” it was in fact a way of keeping their own people on the farm. It was parallel to a prison wall, a very Bad Thing indeed, and an obvious demonstration of the real nature of Communism. The world is a better place without it.

Two Articles

If there is one historical topic that fascinates people it is Hitler, the Nazis, and World War II. I’ve heard the History Channel referred to as the World War II channel; when I lived in London I remember seeing a lot of WW2 documentaries on the BBC. Apparently it is everyone’s default history A-level too. Go to the Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million and you’ll see a large number of books for sale on various aspects of WW2 – and invariably any book on Germany is going to be a book about the Third Reich.

Evil is fascinating in itself, of course, and the fact that we helped defeat it is flattering. I’m not immune to the appeal of this but of course it is rather unfair to reduce Germany to the Nazizeit, and there are many other historical events worthy of our attention.

Having said that, I repost two interesting recent articles from the National Post about minor aspects of Hitler’s regime, one about Hitler’s amphetamine use, and another about a murdered Canadian journalist.


High Hitler? The Nazi leader was secretly addicted to crystal meth, says new documentary

WASHINGTON — Adolf Hitler is remembered as many things: a genocidal warmonger, a hateful ideologue, a failed art student. But the phrase “drug addict” is usually not high among the list of epithets.

A documentary, to be aired this weekend by Britain’s Channel 4, digs into the Führer’s “hidden drug habit.” Based on details in a 47-page American military dossier compiled during the war, Hitler was taking a cocktail of 74 different drugs, including a form of what is now commonly known as crystal meth. He also took “barbiturate tranquilizers, morphine, bulls’ semen,” according to reports.

The revelations aren’t exactly new. Methamphetamines, which were pioneered in Germany at the end of the 19th century, were used by various armies during World War II as stimulants to aid fatigued soldiers. The drug was popularly consumed in Germany as Pervitin, a pill Hitler took among his various medications.

As a young soldier in the Wehrmacht, Heinrich Böll — who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972 — wrote forlorn, bleak letters home. “Perhaps you could obtain some more Pervitin so that I can have a backup supply?” he requested in a 1940 letter, cited by German publication Der Spiegel.

Hitler was apparently prescribed these drugs by Theodor Morell, an unconventional doctor who examined Hitler daily beginning in 1936. The American dossier drew upon Morell’s personal letters.

The Nazi leader was supposedly injected with extracts from bull’s testicles to boost his libido — the Führer needed to cut a virile figure in public and, as reports suggest, keep up with Eva Braun, his much younger consort. Other medicines were aimed at combating a host of Hitler’s maladies, ranging from stomach cramps to symptoms related to a potential bipolar disorder.

He was apparently under the influence of methamphetamine when he held his last meeting with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in July 1943 — a reportedly tense, one-sided affair with Hitler lecturing his counterpart, whose hold on power was about to unravel.

The Daily Mail offers some more detail on the new revelations:

The dossier also debunks one of the most enduring legends about the Fuhrer – the claim that he lost a testicle when he was injured at the Battle of the Somme. Morale-boosting ditty “Hitler has only got one ball” was popular during the Second World War and his admirer Unity Mitford suggested he “lacked something in the manly department.”

But the American records, which feature in a Channel 4 documentary, show the dictator was not monorchid (the medical term for being born with one testicle). They also shoot down claims that Hitler was a predatory homosexual who massacred 150 supporters to hide his secret.

Hitler’s own addictions shouldn’t obscure the vast scale drugs like methamphetamine were consumed by both sides in World War II. Millions of tablets of various narcotics were issued as stimulants to soldiers. The nickname for Pervitin in Germany was Panzerschokolade, or “tank chocolate.”

“Two tablets taken once eliminate the need to sleep for three to eight hours, and two doses of two tablets each are normally effective for 24 hours,” advised the Nazi military command, in a communique released in 1942. The German invasions of Poland and France, says Der Spiegel, were driven by soldiers hooked on meth and copious amounts of alcohol.

The drug’s ill effects were less known, including insomnia, hallucinations, erratic behavior and a dulling of brain functions over time. The trope of the “zombie” Nazi soldier is a popular one in science fiction — and, as these reports all reveal, that may not just be because of the evils carried out by Hitler’s murderous regime.


The mysterious death of Lukin Johnston: Vancouver reporter interviewed Hitler in 1933, then disappeared

Province reporter turned foreign correspondent Lukin Johnston had just scored the biggest coup of his career — a one-on-one interview with newly appointed German chancellor Adolf Hitler.

As his Canadian readers digested the veteran scribe’s impressions of the Nazi leader in November 1933, the 46-year-old Johnston was heading back to his London offices on an overnight steamer from Holland across the English Channel.

Colin Castle goes through some of his archived material on Rufus Lukin Johnston, a former Vancouver Province and Southam correspondent who interviewed Hitler in 1933.

He never made it. Johnston was nowhere to be found when the ship docked at the British port of Harwich. To this day, his B.C. family is convinced that someone pushed Johnston into the Channel, while news accounts at the time speculated that the correspondent was “giddy or tired” and simply fell.

“Highly unlikely,” said Colin Castle, author of a new biography of Johnston. “He was a very experienced ship traveller. He was never seasick.”

Castle, whose wife Val is Johnston’s granddaughter, said his best theory “is that he was pushed, I’m afraid.”

The new book, titled Rufus for the childhood nickname that stuck with Johnston as an adult, follows the British-born Johnston to Canada as a teen, where he crossed the country working jobs ranging from farming to banking before landing at The Province in 1910 as a 23-year-old rookie reporter.

He learned journalism quickly, reporting from all over B.C., his journalistic rise interrupted by First World War service as a Canadian Army officer.

Clipping of an article by Lukin Johnston, the Southam newspaper chain correspondent who interviewed Hitler in 1933.

Johnston came back to the paper after the war, wrote several books on his travels in Europe and B.C., and eventually became the Southam newspaper chain’s correspondent in London.

Castle’s book hits its dramatic high point recounting Johnston’s reporting in Europe starting just before the Nazis took power. In 1932, Johnston headed to Munich where he at first couldn’t get an interview with Nazi leader Hitler.

Johnston filed his first impressions of the Nazis’ Munich party headquarters in a Province story that year: “They raised the right hand and said ‘Heil Hitler’ … the whole atmosphere of the place seemed to me like that just before the curtain goes up on an amateur theatrical show.”

But by the following year the Nazis were solidly in power, and Johnston realized these men weren’t just comic actors.

“Rufus couldn’t believe that all this militarism that was going on in Germany meant nothing,” said Castle, a retired history teacher in West Kelowna. “Hitler would say it was just a way of providing discipline. Rufus didn’t buy that and it comes through in his articles.”

Johnston visited a German camp holding 1,600 political dissidents, where he talked to a jailed social democrat.

“It was suggested to me that whatever I wrote must be submitted to the authorities for the correction of any ‘misunderstandings.’ I could only refuse the suggestion point blank,” Johnston wrote in one dispatch. He added: “Such visitors as myself are only shown the best side of such places.”

In a story published in The Province 10 days before the Nov. 12 German election in 1933, Johnston wrote: “Never in history has propaganda been mobilized on such a vast scale or with such crushing efficiency to bend the will of a nation … opposition parties have ceased to exist, and the watchful eyes of the storm troopers will check voters in thousands of small electoral districts.”

All of which was the backdrop to Johnston’s big scoop on Nov. 15, 1933 — a half-hour interview with Hitler in the chancellor’s Berlin office.

“He’d shaken Hitler’s hand, he’d been relatively cordial,” Castle said. “He’d asked him some pretty tough questions.”

As Johnston left Hitler’s office, then-Gestapo head Hermann Goering was waiting in the anteroom.

“Goering leaned toward Rufus and said in English, ‘You’re damned lucky to get out,’” Castle said, adding that Johnston related that encounter afterwards to fellow foreign correspondents at a favourite Berlin bar.

“Rufus was a little bit upset because of the aggression, Goering’s attitude.”

Also around that time, another foreign correspondent had been accused by the Germans of being a spy — ominous times for foreign journalists.

“I don’t think Rufus was worried (after the encounter with Goering), but he wasn’t happy about it.”

Rufus Johnston’s last journal entry before his 1933 disappearance, two days after his interview with Hitler.

Johnston headed back to England, his work on the continent done for the moment. His disappearance from the ship came two days after the Hitler interview.

“I suspect it was one of Goering’s minions,” Castle said. Goering had founded and at the time was in charge of the Gestapo, the German secret police. “No way was Rufus going to fall off a ship.”