Courtesy: University of Wisconsin, Madison
Fifteen years ago, when Milt Wolff, the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, spoke at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, I attended the event with a pair of University of Wisconsin history professors, Gerda Lerner and George Mosse.
I had known Wolff for years and, like many Wisconsinites, I was close to the man Wolff had come to honor, Clarence Kailin, a Madison native who fought with the Lincolns against Franco and the fascists in a Spanish Civil War that anticipated World War II. Wolff and Kailin well recalled their “good fight” in Spain and their struggles on behalf of social justice at home with appropriate passion and an energy that belied their advancing years.
But what struck me most powerfully that day was the intense engagement of my academic friends, two of the twentieth century’s most revered historians, with the international brigadeers who had rallied to defend Spanish democracy. Neither had fought in Spain. Yet both traced roots of their political consciousness and their scholarship to the great anti-fascist struggle that animated the global left in the 1930s and 1940s.
Mosse, the son of one of Berlin’s most prominent Jewish families who died in 1999 at age 80, was spirited out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power, arriving in Britain on his own at age 15 and eventually making it to the United States.
Lerner, the daughter of Viennese Jews who died January 2 at age 92, joined the anti-Nazi resistance as an Austrian teenager and spent her eighteenth birthday in a fascist jail before immigrating to the New York in 1939.
Both Lerner and Mosse would complete their education in the United States (the New School and Columbia for Lerner, Haverford College and Harvard for Mosse) and both would became definitional figures in the new era of American historical inquiry—informed by personal experience and sympathy for neglected and betrayed peoples—that demanded academic institutions and society examine a broader history. Along with Howard Zinn, they began to reveal untold stories and unrecalled truths and, in so doing, invited new generations of students and scholars to burst the tight shackles of the discipline.
Mosse, a gay man, examined the cultural roots of racism, sexism and especially homophobia with a stunning series of books that included Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality and The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. His scholarship and activism laid the groundwork for the expansion of LGBT studies. Indeed, he used a portion of the fortune he obtained through restitution of family properties that had been expropriated by the Nazis, to endow LGBT studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A Haverford College journal article that reflected on Mosse as one of the school’s most distinguished graduates noted that “his struggles with personal identity both as a Jew and a gay man sharpened Mosse’s precision at untangling—and making sense of—history from the perspective of an outsider.”