Survivor of a Lost World

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,…

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