Peter Gay is Director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He wrote Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815–1914.

Witness to Fascism

Early in 1935, the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian—journalist, playwright, novelist, literary critic—decided to start a diary. He was twenty-eight. The first entry, dated February 12, hints at the events that preoccupied him. 10 PM. The radio is tuned to Prague. I have been listening to a concerto by J.S. Bach …

‘My German Question’

The following address was given in Munich on November 22, 1999, by Mr. Gay, after he received the Geschwister-Scholl Prize for the German translation of his book My German Question. The prize, which has been given annually for twenty years, is named in honor of Hans and Sophie Scholl, brother …

The Old New Man

Rousseau is the most exasperating of thinkers: the man keeps breaking in. Obviously the question of how much and what kind of biographical information is relevant to interpreting a system of ideas is a general one: it must be asked about austere metaphysicians as much as about passionate prophets, about …

Man in The Middle

Some historians are born controversialists, others have controversy thrust upon them. Alfred Cobban belongs to the first group; in a lifetime of vigorous and witty polemicizing, he has aimed at a variety of targets with a fine disregard for political consequences that only a thoroughly committed historian could muster. In …

The Present in the Past

This book is as modest in its pretensions as it is impressive in its achievement. It claims to be directed at students, foreigners, and the general public; scholars are warned off: “Specialists in each period will learn nothing from it, and will note strange lacunae.” True, a book of 600 …

Bourgeois manifesto

Political pamphlets sometimes have surprising careers. Most of them are ephemeral production; they last their appointed time and vanish. But a few of them outlive ponderous treatises ostensibly written for the ages: the Communist Manifesto is treated as a classic in political theory, Luther’s ringing Pagan Servitude of the Church, …

Napoleon Against Himself

For a century and a half now, Napoleon Bonaparte has been a projective test and a convenient symbol. Politicians rode to power by using his name and borrowing his charisma, patriots nostalgically invoked his image, royalists fed their resentments against the modern world by despising him. In this century, the …

Voltaire

The eighteenth century was a century of great letter writers, and Voltaire was the greatest of them all. He was also one of the most prolific. As Theodore Besterman reminds us in his Introduction to his selection from Voltaire’s vast correspondence, Voltaire wrote at least twenty thousand letters in his …

The Deluge

The Terror still arouses passionate debates. No other historical event so remote in time and shadowy in detail has so much actuality. No wonder: ours is an age suspicious of ideals and sick of violence, and the Terror—at least so we are told over and over again—was the incarnation of …