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The Second Generation: Émigrés from Nazi Germany as Historians

Felix Gilbert’s way of encountering the past

By Hartmut Lehmann, James J. Sheehan, and Peter Paret Published 2016

Herman Landshoff/Institute for Advanced Study, Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives
Felix Gilbert, 1981 

Of the thousands of children and young adults who fled Nazi Germany in the years before the Second World War, a remarkable number went on to become trained historians in their adopted homelands. The following are excerpts from The Second Generation (Berghahn Books, 2016), which places autobiographical testimonies alongside historical analysis and professional reflections by Institute scholars including Peter Paret, Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies, and former Members Fritz Stern, Steven E. Aschheim, Jeffrey Herf, Majorie Lamberti, and Jürgen Kocka, among others.

From the preface, contributed by Hartmut Lehmann, and James J. Sheehan, Members (1973–74) in the School of Historical Studies:

In 1973-74, Felix Gilbert (Member, 1939–43; Professor, 1962–75; Professor Emeritus, 1975–91) invited us to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. We occupied adjoining studies where we pursued our individual projects, but there was ample time to talk during the tea break in the morning and the coffee hour in the afternoon. Felix Gilbert, the most learned of Friedrich Meinecke’s many Doktoranden, was generous with his time. He seemed to like the idea that two young historians, who could have been his children, one from the United States and one from Germany, one from the country of his origins and one from the country to which he now belonged, began an intensive exchange of ideas and became friends. 

Felix Gilbert belonged to that great generation of German historians who had completed their education in Germany and were forced into exile by the Nazis. When Hartmut Lehmann became the founding director of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., he chose this generation as the subject of the Institute’s first scholarly conference, held in December 1988. Organized with the help of James Sheehan, it had three aims: first, to explore this important chapter in the relationship between German and American history and historians; second, to celebrate the scholarly achievements of these émigré scholars; and finally, to establish an agenda for the Institute’s scholarly activities for the next several years.

From the chapter “External Events, Inner Drives,” contributed by Peter Paret, Professor Emeritus:

As immigrants and historians-to-be, we shared in the collective act of leaving Germany for the United States as the Weimar Republic collapsed into the Third Reich, but each of us set out from particular circumstances, and each encountered the new differently. … A young historian arriving in this country in the thirties, even one who had already done significant work, could encounter considerable difficulties, and [Felix] Gilbert’s first years in the United States were far from easy ones.

Still, he was outspoken in his gratitude for the opportunities he was offered. His person and the years he spent here vastly benefitted the study and teaching of history in the United States. In turn, he and his work gained much––a duality of giving and receiving that I suspect has characterized or at least been noticeably present in every relationship of host country and émigré historian. Gilbert’s historical interests were exceptionally diverse. His early work on Johann Gustav Droysen, and his first writings on the ideas and politics of Renaissance Italy enriched his studies of later times and other places, from the political ideas of the early American Republic to the ideology and practices of the Third Reich. His way of encountering the past, a way he inherited from his teachers and then refined, belongs to the scholarly and cultural history of the country in which he grew up and from which he fled, to survive and add to the intellectual energy of his new home. With rare specificity, his work reminds us that knowledge in one area may complement our understanding of other areas, whether linked or far apart. Interpreting the history of one time, one country, one activity, helps us see the history of other countries, other societies, related activities, more clearly. And if we look once more at the subject that partly or wholly has occupied most members of the first and second generation of German émigré historians—the history of the country which they came—we see again that by achieving an understanding of any phase of German history, we may contribute to the recognition and understanding of its other aspects, be they sublime, ordinary and commonplace, or murderous.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2016