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  1. The Weekend Essay
19 December 2023

Arno J Mayer’s 20th century

The historian helped transform the writing of history – and with it our understanding of the modern world.

By Enzo Traverso

Editor’s note: Arno Mayer has died at the age of 97. This essay was originally published in February 2023 and looks at what made him such a brilliant historian.

The American historian Arno J Mayer belongs to an extraordinary generation of German-speaking Jewish scholars – George L Mosse, Raul Hilberg, Peter Gay and Fritz Stern among others – who were born in Europe between the end of the First World War and Hitler’s rise to power, reaching their maturity during the Second World War. The cataclysms of the 20th century forged their mental habitus and gave them a sharp sense of history. For them, history is not an object of peaceful and detached contemplation; it is a realm of sudden bifurcations, of unexpected turns that break continuities and change everything. It is also a realm of human tragedy. Mayer’s peculiarity among them lies in the breadth of his perspective and the variety of his interests. To present him as a “specialist” on particular topics – diplomacy, revolutions, the Holocaust, Zionism, political violence – risks eclipsing the most striking feature of his work: “Europe” itself, the history of the old continent conceived and interpreted as a crucible of interactions, exchanges and, often, deadly entanglements.

Born in Luxembourg in 1926 to a family of the Jewish cultivated middle class (Bildungsbürgertum), Mayer and his family fled France amid the Nazi invasion in June 1940. After being denied entry to Spain and Morocco for lack of visas, they were arrested for several weeks in Algeria and eventually arrived in the United States in 1941. In 1944, when he was 18 years old, Mayer obtained American citizenship and enlisted in the army. Owing to his linguistic skills, he was assigned to Fort Ritchie, Maryland, where intelligence officers interrogated high-ranking German POWs. The following year he started his studies at the City College of New York, which he continued at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, and then concluded at Yale, where he obtained a PhD in history. After teaching for nearly ten years at Wesleyan, Brandeis, and Harvard, he moved to Princeton University in 1961, where he taught until his retirement.

Mayer’s existential and intellectual trajectory was shaped by the experience of exile, and his works express the gaze of a European intellectual émigré in America. There is no doubt that his Luxembourgish origins pushed him to think historically beyond national patterns and political borders. As he pointed out, Mayer shared this cosmopolitan and supra-national horizon with other historians coming from small nations, such as the Swiss Jacob Burckhardt, the Belgian Henri Pirenne, and the Dutch Johan Huizinga.

[See also: What the Nazis did next]

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But thinking globally needs a methodology and, to a certain extent, it implies a philosophy of history. It was Marx who shaped Mayer’s style of thinking more than any other, and so adopting an old Marxist category, we can define him as a historian of Europe considered as concrete totality. That is, every part can only be understood in relation to its other parts. Without endorsing any Marxist orthodoxy, Mayer looks at the past by considering the connections between social structures, class conflicts and forms of domination, connecting ideologies, cultures and world-views to these material infrastructures.

Writing in English but speaking both German and French as native tongues, Mayer is more cosmopolitan than the average American scholar and, at the same time, he does not belong in the strictest sense to the milieu of German-Jewish exiles. His cultural background is Europe. On the other hand, his attachment to American culture is rooted in the tradition of the intellectual left that combined critical spirit, political radicalism and a strong consciousness of their European roots. At the beginning of the Cold War, when Mayer finished his university studies, the trajectory of the New York Intellectuals was also ending, but he felt some affinity with personalities such as Max Eastman or Irving Howe. In the 1950s he was anti-McCarthyite and became good friends with the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

[See also: From the NS archive: The final curtain]

In a prologue to Why Did the Heavens not Darken? (1988), his celebrated book on the origins of the Holocaust, Mayer narrated his biography as a young refugee rescued by the United States. Although he served in the Second World War he never idealised his new homeland. In our conversations over the years, he often mentioned the suffocating atmosphere of racism and anti-Semitism that surrounded the Ivy League universities in the 1950s, when he started his academic career. In 1970, he was even arrested and detained for a day after occupying with his students a building at Princeton in which scholars conducted cartographic studies commissioned by the Pentagon to prepare bombings in Vietnam. In this sense, he could be defined as a typical representative of the American “homeless left”, a left without party affiliations, critical, radical and clearly influenced by Marxism, but far from orthodox or dogmatic. At Princeton, he felt close to Felix Gilbert and Carl Schorske. His political friends were outside the Ivy League milieu: in the United States, Marcuse and Barrington Moore; in the UK, Eric Hobsbawm; in France, Pierre Vidal-Naquet.

As a “macro-historian”, not indifferent to details or singular events but always concerned to inscribe them into a broader historical context, Mayer focused on a variety of topics such as wars and revolutions, nationalism and genocide, diplomacy, popular uprisings, aristocracy and the middle class, longue durée and contingency, the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe and the US, as well as Asia and the Middle East. Answering his critics, several years ago, Mayer summarised his own conception of history-writing, indicating some “rules” underlying his works: contextualisation, historicism, comparison and conceptualisation. It was an interesting methodological self-portrait, and borrowing these categories – and sometimes redefining them – is a good way to “deconstruct” the historian Arno J Mayer.

Contextualisation is a thread that runs throughout Mayer’s entire corpus, from his first books devoted to reinterpreting the birth of 20th-century diplomacy – Political Origins of the New Diplomacy 1917-1918 (1959) and Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking (1967) – to Why Did the Heavens not Darken?. It consists in putting an event or an idea within its epoch, within its social framework, intellectual environment, and mental landscape. For Mayer, this is particularly important, for example, when trying to understand the attitudes of Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson on the eve of the Peace Conference of Versailles in 1919, or explaining the birth of Terror in the French and the Russian revolutions, since it avoids purely ideological interpretations. Contextualisation also allows Mayer to view the Holocaust – which he pertinently calls Judeocide – as resulting from the crucible of the Second World War, in the middle of the Nazi secularised crusade against Bolshevism, when the struggle for conquering lebensraum, destroying the USSR, and exterminating the Jews became a unique apocalyptic war.

Contextualisation means observing the birth of Israel, as he did in Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel (2008), as a historical contingency conditioned by the international situation at the end of the Second World War, rather than celebrating it in teleological terms as the accomplishment of a Jewish destiny. It also allows him to elucidate the Judeocide without falling into a “mystical” or, ultimately, obscurantist view of the extermination of the Jews as an event “transcending” history, as the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann did in his documentary Shoah (1985) by adopting as his own an infamous SS aphorism quoted by Primo Levi: Hier ist kein Warum (“Here there is no why”). Depicting the Nazi war against the Soviet Union as a modern “crusade” against Bolshevism means inscribing it both into the “long view” of history by considering its antecedents – 20th-century Nazi ideology as a religious war, or a secularised political theology – and into the “second Thirty Years’ War” unleashed by the collapse of the 19th-century European order in 1914.   

Historicism is Mayer’s second rule. This does not mean simply placing facts and ideas in their chronological order. Even if Mayer – to quote him – is a “historicist who takes diachrony (chronology) very seriously”, that does not make him a neo-Rankean historian – when the meaning of the past simply emerges from its careful reconstitution through extended archival research. While his attention to both events and social forces acting in the historical process excludes him from many variants of post-structuralist and postmodernist historiography, his conception of chronology is, nevertheless, at odds with a traditional kind of historicism (the Historismus criticised by Walter Benjamin as a linear, “homogeneous and empty time”). Mayer’s historicism, by contrast, means periodisation, which is the result of a complex interaction – occasionally a disruptive clash – between structural tendencies and historical contingency, between long and short duration, between epochs and events. This is true, in different ways, for the outbreak of the Great War, the Holocaust and the birth of Israel as well.

According to Mayer, chronology means, first of all, accounting for the autonomy of events. All historical events have their own premises but they don’t result from deterministic causality, because they can take on their own dynamic, “transcend” their premises and even radically change the course of history. Revolutionary Terror, as well as wars and genocides, should be interpreted in their context; they cannot be explained in purely teleological terms. This kind of historicism inspires Mayer’s criticism of Fernand Braudel’s vision of the “longue durée”: a stratified history in which the movement of structural forces – demography, economy, geography, mentalities, and so on – reduces events to superficial and irrelevant epiphenomena compared by the French historian to the “foam” that crests the ocean’s waves. In contrast to Braudel, Mayer stresses that events can reverse structural tendencies: the Holocaust destroyed one and a half centuries of Jewish emancipation, whose achievements appeared as irreversible to many observers at the start of the Second World War.

The autonomy of events may be crucial, but it is not enough. Mayer’s historicism inscribes the events – with their disruptive character – into broader tendencies, not diluting the former in the latter, but rather considering both in their symbiotic relationship. Thus, revolutions, wars and genocides become distinct steps of the historical process, arising from its structures and contradictions, but also shaping and transforming its main tendencies. In other words, the events can become their own immediate cause. Mayer’s entire oeuvre is an attempt to apprehend the “general crisis of the twentieth century”, a crisis that appears to him like a modern Thirty Years’ War, as an age with its own profile, made of interwoven cataclysmic events. In this way, the First and the Second World Wars are connected to each other by an “umbilical cord”; the Terror of the Russian Revolution, as well as the Holocaust, are two paroxysmal moments of this “general crisis”. This emphasis on linking events to broader conjunctural phenomena and structural tendencies is what connects all his books, from The Persistence of the Old Regime (1981), his portrait of dynastic Europe, to those published on diplomacy, the Holocaust and the birth of Israel.

[See also: Why Marx is more relevant than ever in the age of automation]

Assigning a crucial role to social forces as well as to violence in history – a violence rising from below, as a Geburtshelferin der Geschichte (“midwife of history”) – Mayer belongs to a Marxist historiographical tradition, enriched by other sociological and political contributions, notably Max Weber’s. His historicism, however, should not be ascribed to a classical Marxist historicism like that inspiring Hobsbawm’s quartet of works on the 19th and 20th centuries: an almost linear linking of different and ascending “ages” of Revolutions, Capital, Empires and Extremes. For Mayer, the general crisis of the 20th century resulted from the “persistence of the Old Regime”, the environment in which the forces of its own disruption were created and mobilised.

The 19th century was an age of deep social transformation, with the emergence of cities, industrial centres, mass culture and the ascension of a modern bourgeoisie as the most dynamic economic force. But these changes took place within a world that remained largely rural and that preserved its dynastic institutions. The aristocracy appeared, even in the eyes of the new ruling classes, to be an insuperable horizon that defined customs, rituals and behaviours. The 20th century was born from the collapse of this world of stability and tradition. The result was a second Thirty Years’ War, and even the bipolar world after 1945 – not by chance called “Cold War” – could not be compared with the “European concert” that ruled the “Hundred Years’ Peace” between the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 and the outbreak of the Great War. Rejecting any teleological perspective, some recent acclaimed works on the history of the 19th century – CA Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (2004) and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World (2009) – confirm Mayer’s hypothesis, with the difference that they have been written after, not before the historical break of 1989.

The third rule of Mayer’s history writing is comparison. Comparing events, epochs, contexts and ideas is indispensable for understanding them. Comparison requires precautions, chiefly the awareness of the historical distance separating the paralleled events, the recognition that affinities are not identities, that analogies cannot be transformed into homologies. Underlying his historical thinking, comparison takes on growing importance in Mayer’s works: rapidly evoked in his first books – in which the Restoration of 1815 is the hidden reference to his interpretation of the Versailles Conference that took place a century later – comparison becomes the object itself of The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and the Russian Revolutions (2000).

In this tour de force, he criticises many abused and ideologically oriented forms of comparison, like the assimilation of both the Vendée rebellion of 1793 and the Soviet collectivisation of the early 1930s to genocide. Mayer shows that, despite its excesses, the Vendée War should not be seen through the lens of perpetrators and victims. Instead, it opposed two enemy armies as part of a general clash between revolution and counterrevolution: the target of Jacobin Terror was the organised counterrevolution, not an ethnic group. Similar considerations could be made about Soviet collectivisation. Against most approaches inspired by theories of totalitarianism, Mayer suggests that the most pertinent comparison of the Holodomor – the famine induced by forced collectivisation of agriculture across the USSR (far beyond Ukraine) between 1930 and 1933 – is not Auschwitz but the Irish famine of the 1840s, a catastrophe that killed an eighth of the island’s population. Both resulted from economic and social policies, authoritarian drives, and scornful attitudes towards the peasantry, but – crucially – neither were planned as genocides.

The fourth rule is conceptualisation, not in the sense of Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptual history, which endeavours to capture the transformation of our language in relation to those of its underlying social world, but rather in the sense of Marx and Weber, who viewed concepts as analytical tools. Mayer treats concepts as “ideal types” useful for interpreting real historical processes. Mayer presents himself as “a conceptualiser, but without ceasing to be a narrator”. It is not easy to merge conceptualisation and narration. The first offers an interpretative frame, while the second shows the complexity of real things, insofar as history is a living process that can’t be reduced to abstractions. Finding a synthesis between the intelligibility of concepts and the tastefulness of narration is a major challenge in history writing.

As for comparison, Mayer’s books become increasingly conceptual, from his early works, which are built more conventionally on copious archival investigations, to his later works, which are conceived as ambitious efforts towards a global interpretation of Europe’s past two centuries. The first part of The Furies sketches a theory of revolution and counterrevolution, and the second part compares the two greatest revolutions of modernity, but the concepts structuring the book – (counter)revolution, violence, vengeance, religion and sacredness – are deduced from the narration of events instead of being mechanically applied or projected on them. The book’s title, borrowed from the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet, becomes a metaphorical concept, transforming a Weberian Idealtypus, or ideal type, into something evoking Benjamin’s “thought-image”. In other books, Mayer creates new concepts like “Judeocide” to capture the singularity of a historical event, or invents formulas to describe the meaning of a historical epoch, and consequently transforms them into such striking metaphors as the “persistence of the Old Regime” or “plowshares into swords”.

These rules are not “laws” of historical knowledge but they designate a “practice” – history writing – that remains deeply rooted in the present. It is always in their own time that historians try to reconstruct, think and interpret the past, and history writing does not escape from the “public use of the past”. Historians should remain aware of this by avoiding both the constraints of contingency and the illusion of neutrality linked to a false Olympian distance. Such comfortable serenity was unknown to Mayer.

Mayer’s work is not ideological or partisan, but it reveals a political commitment. Deconstructing the counterrevolution at the time of the Cold War; elaborating a secular interpretation of the Holocaust at the time of its liturgical commemoration; de-mythologising Zionism, suggesting that, without radical change, Israel could not be saved by the Bible or by the atomic bomb: these assessments reveal a political posture. This commitment does not express an ideological a priori but results from critical scholarship. That is probably the most fruitful way for overcoming the discrepancy described by the Polish theorist Zygmunt Bauman between “legislators” and “interpreters”, the two main forms of intellectuals we have known in the 20th century.

Read more:

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