Quantcast

What Gerda Lerner Taught Us | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

What Gerda Lerner Taught Us

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.”

Like Mosse, Lerner wrestled with questions about the role of minorities—be they anti-fascist radicals in Austria or abolitionists in the pre–Civil War South. But over time she became most interested in the role of a majority group: women. She titled one of her most influential essay collections: The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History. Even majorities could be “invisible” to the powerful, and those who write the histories of the powerful. My friend Matt Rothschild says of Lerner: “Her whole life, in a way, was an effort to make visible the invisible—and to honor it.” Lerner echoes that view: “I was part of the invisible, first in the underground as an anti-fascist, then as an immigrant, then as a leftwing radical. My life experience was counter to the mythology.”

Lerner countered the mythology early in her career by focusing attention in particular on the experience of African-American women. At Sarah Lawrence, she created the nation’s first Women’s History graduate program. A decade later, having joined Mosse on the faculty of the influential UW history department, Lerner developed a PhD program in women’s history that would become a model for universities across the country and internationally. So great was her contribution that an appreciation of her career by the American Association of Retired People blog noted, “If you know about the Seneca Falls Declaration and the 5,000 women who braved catcalls and projectiles to march down Pennsylvania Avenue during President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration to demand the right to vote, you ought to thank Gerda Lerner for keeping the history of the women’s movement in America from being forgotten.”

Like this article? Support this journalism with a $5 donation now.

 

Lerner always mingled academic rigor with activist commitment. she was, for instance, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and a frequent presence at feminist gatherings.  "Gerda Lerner was fierce, brilliant and unique," said Gloria Steinem. "She lived history by her bravery, restored history by her scholarship and democratized its study by her activism. She understood, as Paula Gunn Allen wrote, that 'the root of oppression is the loss of memory.'"

Lerner's groundbreaking presidency of the Organization of American Historians coincided with the first years of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Lerner was no fan of Reagan. Nor was Mosse.

It was their shared frustration with an ahistorical remark by the fortieth president that animated both Lerner and Mosse at that gathering to honor the Lincoln vets. They recalled how, in 1986, Reagan had defended interventions on behalf of Central America’s right-wing dictators and economic elites on the grounds that Americans had in the 1930s gone to Spain to defend a democratically elected government in its struggle against fascists and economic elites who would impose a right-wing dictatorship. “He did not know his history,” Mosse said, with a scolding voice and a wry smile. “We should treat the struggle against the Nazis, against fascism, very seriously,” said Lerner, a bit sterner in her delivery. “The anti-fascists, the opposition, the Socialists, the radicals, the Jews who resisted,” she continued. “It is so important to get the history right.”

This was, for Gerda Lerner, an essential premise. She learned lessons from struggle, from solidarity in the face of repression, that would define her scholarship and our understanding of the role and potential of history in defining and directing our contemporary activism. When she was imprisoned in Vienna, 18-year-old Gerda Hedwig Kronstein (her late husband, with whom she co-wrote the script for the film Black Like Me, was Carl Lerner) was held in a cell with several young women who had been active in the anti-fascist resistance to the Nazis. The jailers limited rations for Jews, but the young socialists, as gentiles, were given full rations. Week after week, they shared their food with Gerda, keeping her strong until her family was able to arrange for her to leave Austria.

“They taught me how to survive,” Lerner wrote in her brilliant autobiography, Fireweed. “Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life, I learned in jail in those six weeks.”

What she learned about resistance and solidarity and the hidden history of what happens when women help one another to survive and thrive, Gerda Lerner taught the rest of us. It is a lesson that has transformed America’s understanding of itself, and of our radical potential.

A few days before Lerner's death, the progressive community also lost young environmentalist leader Becky Tarbotton. Read Peter Rothberg's tribute here.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.