Felix Gilbert
Felix Gilbert; drawing by David Levine


Professor Felix Gilbert, one of the subtlest of America’s historians, has chosen well the title of his memoirs: A European Past. He could have called it “My European Past,” but the possessive pronoun would claim too much for the work as autobiography and too little for it as history. The indefinite article, “a,” hangs suspended between “my” past and “the” past, between the purely personal and the historical. Gilbert has conceived his memoirs in the space between the two, where personal life and social development intermesh to shape the historical consciousness of a self. Gilbert’s quest is quite literally a recherche du temps perdu, an attempt to recover his life as a German, a life he had put behind him and to some degree repressed when, immediately after Hitler’s seizure of power, he chose exile.

Gilbert built a second life as an American, during which he produced the rich and varied works that have placed him among our most universally respected professional historians. This second life of more than four decades plays no part in these memoirs. His first forty years are their subject, ending in 1945, when he was sent back to Germany by the OSS as a political reporter. That return to his native Berlin triggered his search among the rubble for the shardlike remains of the lost past that Gilbert has assembled into the bright mosaic of this book.

Although writing with the distance that advanced years accord, Gilbert lends freshness and intensity to his meditations by adopting the perspective of a man of forty returning to the scene of his past when the country lay in ruins. The seeming finality of a world’s death perhaps liberates the power to identify with that world’s otherness. Gilbert uses vignettes of his own confrontation with shattered Germany in 1945 to project us into the remoter past. In his first pages he describes his attempt to find his grandmother’s apartment house in Berlin, where he had lived from childhood to manhood. So impassable was the field of rubble to which the once prosperous Tiergarten neighborhood of his family had been reduced that he despaired of locating the site. Then he found amid the wreckage a section of the driveway, paved in stones of blue and white. On those stones as a small boy Gilbert had played a kind of solitary hopscotch while awaiting the annual move of his family to the summer villa of the family patriarch in nearby Charlottenburg. Like Proust’s madeleine at Combray, Gilbert’s paving stones lead us into the sheltered, well-to-do, cultivated Berlin bourgeois milieu in which the future historian was reared.

Before telling us more about his secure early childhood, however, the returning émigré recovers a memory of another sort, chilling and portentous, from 1919, his thirteenth year. As he walked home from school, the boy watched some men pull a body from a canal. It was, he was told, the corpse of Rosa Luxemburg, the Communist leader murdered by a right-wing death squad. The two images, one of a secure childhood, the other of political chaos and terror, arise side by side from the wreckage of defeated Nazi Germany to set the extremes of the past to be reclaimed.

In the opening chapters, Gilbert’s account shows an increasing tension between security and instability that will permeate the whole book. The first chapter, devoted to his first ten years in the bosom of his well-to-do and cultivated extended family, is called “Summers of Childhood.” Here he presents the “solid” prewar world in three tableaux of summering places—Charlottenburg, the Berlin suburb where Gilbert’s great-grandfather had his summer villa among others of the capital’s nineteenth-century elite; Rindbach, a village near Salzburg, where his uncle, a passionate musical amateur, played host not only to the Gilberts, but to Artur Schnabel, Carl Flesch, and other notable musicians of the day; and finally, a Dutch seaside resort, where the idyllic golden years of childhood and the security of the imperial old regime were abruptly ended by the outbreak of the First World War. Gilbert pursues his summertime vision of prewar social stability and psychological well-being at the expense, one fears, of what the chill of winter might have brought to the life of even a well-protected child in Imperial Germany. Occasionally, to be sure, he introduces childhood experiences that shocked him into early awareness of the transience of things: a terrible fire, a graveyard filled with the victims of a sudden storm. But he defends his summer triptych: the “atmosphere of security and permanence” of a world he thought

would go on forever as it was. The First World War swept all this away—both this world and my feeling about it—and…that disappearance establishes for me a sharp dividing line between the period before 1914 and after.

Thus he connects the end of childhood innocence with the crisis of the old regime.


“Why I Became a Historian” is the title of chapter two, in which Gilbert examines the second, crucial, decade of his formation. Once more Gilbert divides his chapter into three parts, this time in starkest contrast to the three summer places of the prewar decade: “War,” “Revolution,” “Inflation.” The teenager’s traumatic experiences of these three social upheavals, in a world where politics had suddenly become not only spectacle but fate, drove him, he believes, to his vocation. History was a mode of thought with which one could confront the instability that seemed, against the background of prewar security, to have become the law of life.

Gilbert connects his growing sense of disorder with disillusion. He chronicles his passage from being a schoolboy patriot, who shared the heroic pieties of the imperial war ideology, to an adolescent critic opposing Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and supporting the controversial Reichstag Peace Resolution that marked a growing loss of faith in the imperial system. He draws unforgettable miniature self-portraits in describing this trajectory of disenchantment: the boy reciting the “Song of Hatred Against England,” learned at school, to a cool family audience, his mother reminding him of his deceased father’s English origins; the youth watching on a railway platform, in mounting astonishment and dismay, as an admired older soldier-cousin, who had fought throughout the entire war, struggled to force himself to board the train back to the western front in 1918; or the thirteen-year-old helping his aunt in the terrible task of unpacking a trunk containing the bloodstained uniforms of her slain husband, while revolutionaries raised the red flag over the seized Navy building a few doors away.

When he was eighteen, at the end of his first semester at Heidelberg, Gilbert decided to study history. His political position took mature form at the same time. He identified himself with the Social Democratic party and the Weimar Republic until its bitter end. Despite his unswerving commitment to German democratic politics, and some optimism about its future, the social trauma of adolescence left a permanent mark on his outlook more useful to a historian perhaps than to a man of politics. “A feeling of uncertainty about the world,” he tells us, “remained below the apparently firm surface [after the Republic passed its crises of birth]. There was no stability in this world.” Gilbert sees skepticism as characteristic of his Weimar generation, the children of turbulence. “We felt we were different from those who had grown up in the pseudo-splendor of the Wilhelminian Empire and had taken part in the war.” In a fascinating account of his Berlin life in the 1920s, Gilbert makes his point by delineating the cultural tastes and social mores through which his postwar generation of intellectually inclined Berliners distinguished themselves from their fathers.

In recent years, books on the heady Weimar culture have familiarized us with the febrile, creative, sometimes raw and acid urbanism of Berlin, but rarely has it been presented from the point of view of a young, upper-class participant and consumer such as Felix Gilbert was. Gilbert gives us a new sense of how this vital culture served to unite a generation of social peers when he recalls what it meant to frequent bars (his was The Jockey) instead of the wine restaurants favored by the older generation, or at least once a week to attend a Berlin theater for an exciting production of an expressionist drama or a radically reinterpreted classic.

In Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925), Thomas Mann drew a group portrait of the new culture from the point of view of an older generation (as represented by a professor of history) that saw it as dissolving prewar values. Christopher Isherwood, in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), evoked the raunchier aspect and decadence of the Berlin scene. Gilbert gives us a new perspective, that of an appreciative insider. His restrained temperament seems ill-suited to the histrionics of expressionism, and his memory may have screened out aspects of the culture that repelled him at the time. The more impressive, then, is his account of how exhilarating it was to belong to a culture as cuttingly critical as Berlin’s.

“The greatest and most unforgettable production…in which art and politics was beautifully combined,” Gilbert recalls, “was Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera,…which I must have seen three or four times.” Gilbert adds that, however much the audience may have shared the authors’ bleak picture of a society controlled by corruption, they also shared an irrational hope that Weimar’s cosmopolitan and energizing world on which they had pinned their hopes would be rescued from execution, like the hero of The Threepenny Opera, by a messenger of the king. For the immediate circle of bourgeois left liberals—professional and business people—in which Gilbert moved during his twenties, to have participated with pleasure in the socially critical Berlin intellectual culture was not inconsistent with commitment to the Weimar Republic, as later historians have sometimes maintained. Like skepticism about the durability of the existing system, cultural criticism of its shortcomings only strengthened their fidelity to it, a fidelity that for them was axiomatic.



The strong division between generations that governs Gilbert’s account of his German past, though well suited to dealing with the aesthetic and intellectual culture of Weltstadt Berlin, serves less well in accounting for the political alignments of the Weimar Republic. If some of Gilbert’s age group, born around 1905 and too young to fight in the First World War, accepted instability as a condition of social existence and substituted an attitude of openness for the conventional security their parents clung to, others of about the same age took another road, one that led to Nazism. Peter Loewenberg, in a pioneering article exploring the psychohistorical origins of the Nazi movement,1 demonstrated that for this other part of the same generation as Gilbert’s the experience of wartime deprivation and defeat led to almost opposite results: a heightened demand for security, an intolerance for instability, a weakened ego, and a radical reenforcement of the presumably betrayed values of the fathers. Where the social group of Felix Gilbert embraced a humanistic skepticism, internationalism, and democracy, the proto-Nazis turned to authoritarianism, nationalism, and violence. The common traumatic historical experience produced in the same generation different consequences in different social groups, according to the social value systems within which each of their responses were defined. Such values bridged the generation gaps even as they reinforced social cleavages and separate cultural identities.

Felix Gilbert provides much evidence from his own life to suggest that his stress on a break between generations is too strong. For whatever the consciousness of cultural identity in his social circle of peers, the power of family tradition spoke in him with equal force. Far from challenging that voice, he cherished it, as did those of his friends whose relations with their families he discusses.

Gilbert’s mother’s family was descended from Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish enlightenment philosopher. Long since converted to Lutheranism, they proudly maintained a sense of Jewish identity. More was involved here than the bland “pieux souvenir de famille” common to upper-class assimilated German and Austrian Jews. The prolific Mendelssohns—and those whom they married, Jew or gentile—had the powerful sense of kinship associated with Jewish culture. But because of the remarkable success of its members in acculturation over generations—not only in the arts with Felix Mendelssohn, but in banking, the law, bureaucracy, and intellectual life—the family saw itself as a carrier of a special branch of the Prussian tradition: that of the enlightenment and classicism, as it was defined at the end of the eighteenth century and in the era of reform during the French Revolution.

Throughout the nineteenth century’s intoxication with nationalism, romanticism, and Machtpolitik this cool, rationalistic, civil humanism quietly survived. It acquired new life in the Weimar Republic. Though this culture doubtless had its vicissitudes in the Mendelssohn clan, Gilbert gives ample evidence of its presence among relatives in his own lifetime. His great-grandfather, Otto Georg Oppenheim, was an eminent but maverick progressive jurist under Bismarck. His uncle, Albrecht Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, directed the Foreign Policy Institute in Hamburg, devoting his scholarly and social talents to promote a peaceful international order in the Weimar years. Perhaps the best parallel to the strong intellectual, liberal, and capitalist family culture of the Mendelssohns would be found among the great Huguenot families of France, who similarly combined shrewd business sense with intellectual interests and public service. Thanks to a strong collective ego, they could lead a comfortable but critically reserved life in a not always hospitable social world.

That Gilbert lost his father shortly after he was born and his mother in his teens—facts scarcely mentioned in these reticent memoirs—meant that his extended family must have had an even greater part in his upbringing than it did with most other Mendelssohns. His lines to the older generation were durable, and from these his social life—even with his peers—radiated outward. Of his Berlin life in the 1920s, Gilbert writes, “I knew a great many people, but, as is generally the case, the basic substratum of my social contacts was my family.” How many times he met famous people, such as Foreign Minister Rathenau or Soviet Ambassador Chicherin, or made new friends of his own age at a family party!

In one of his early memories of an Austrian summer, Gilbert recalls looking out the window of his room at night. Below him on a terrace were the women of the family, sewing by lamplight; they aroused in him, he tells us, a strong sense of security. Beyond them loomed a forbidding mountain, threatening though distant. “Security and remoteness.” With these words Gilbert fixed in thought the combination of feelings recovered from this moment of childhood vision. The family, one suspects, continued to represent a deep security, not only psychologically but in its values and its way of engaging with reality, as he widened his sphere of thought and action in the direction of the remote mountain that was the outer world.


Gilbert’s circle of friends reproduced in surprising degree the professional variety that prevailed in his family. How many professional historians lead their social lives beyond the confines of the academy? Even as he unfolded the immense capacity for friendship to which these memoirs bear witness, Gilbert seemed to construct among his peers a new, surrogate extended family on the principles of the old: diverse in professional composition (businessmen, lawyers, churchmen, journalists, scholars), they were held together not only by the protective skepticism that Gilbert stresses as his generation’s central intellectual trait, but by the liberal political and humanistic culture that marked them off as a subgroup of the bourgeois elite.

Nazism was simply unthinkable to such people. So was the political and business conservatism that, in the late Twenties, as David Abraham has so masterfully demonstrated, drew many of the erstwhile liberal supporters of the Weimar Republic in directions that led to the Nazi conquest of power.2

In two remarkable chapters of his memoirs Gilbert introduces the reader to his circle of friends. All are then a few years under thirty, at an age when they are embarking on their careers and defining their lives in a German setting. We meet them as they approach the moment of truth with which the Nazis will confront them. Gilbert’s portraits are characterized, like all of his writing, by tact, reticence, and discretion, almost to a fault; they are, in effect, the pencil drawings that suit his neoclassical preussischer Stil, not depth explorations in oils. But they are deft and sensitive. Gilbert knows how to let the surface speak.

In the second chapter of the two, he gives these and several other friends and family members their own voices at the time of trial and decision, reproducing letters written to him in Italy just after Hitler had seized power. I know of no other source that expresses better the unique mixture of disgust and outrage, reflectiveness and clarity of heart with which young German liberal intellectuals responded to the inevitable that most of them had foreseen for months. That Gilbert should have saved these letters and carried them into exile a few months after they were written suggests a more-than-normal capacity for friendship. That he should publish them now as the climactic part of his own memoirs tells something about a historian’s sense of what is fitting in the face of eloquent sources, of what in the past is to be spoken of and what allowed to speak.

Confining his memoirs as he does to his European past, Gilbert tells us little about the twelve years between his departure from Germany and his return in 1945. Only his first few months as a newly arrived exile in London are allowed to emerge strongly from a three-year stay in England. Those months stand out in unrelieved bleakness in what, despite the gravity of its content, is a serene, even philosophically cheerful book. Gilbert’s later experiences in London with the OSS at the war’s end serve primarily as a springboard to the final reencounter with Germany. There he offers another series of intriguing vignettes as he recovers in joy or malaise ties with old friends, university scholars, and family members who have survived somehow amid the wreckage.

Two telling episodes close the circle of Gilbert’s quest for the lost past. Both take place in Berlin on the same day. First came a private viewing of the shocking Nazi film of the brutal, humiliating trial of those complicit in the plot on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, some of whose supporters Gilbert knew. Immediately after seeing it, he braved Berlin’s broken subway system with its jury-rigged pedestrian detours, to attend a performance of The Threepenny Opera in the Soviet sector. Though the production had many of the same actors and the play all the vigor he had loved as a young man, the enchantment was gone—as though Brecht’s moral indictment of the world had fallen too short of the evil the world could generate, destroying the overtone of hope that Gilbert once had found in the play. We wonder: Had the reality of Hitler’s film destroyed the truth of Brecht’s play? Which had changed, Gilbert or the world he thought he knew?

Master historian that he is, Gilbert leaves the question of the recovery of a past open—his own, Berlin’s, and Europe’s. It is the strength and the charm of his understated book that it not only illuminates in its pastel light the rich history it contains, but also respects its mystery by viewing it through the modest, fine-meshed screen of personal memory.

This Issue

November 10, 1988