Arno Mayer, 1926-2023

The historian Arno Mayer, who had such an influence on my work and eventually became a friend, has died at 97. He wrote books on everything from the French Revolution to the First World War to the Holocaust to the creation of the State of Israel. He was one of a cohort of brilliant scholars at Princeton University who made the study of history, in which I majored as an undergraduate in the 1980s, the most exciting discipline and department in the world.

I have a tribute to him at the New Left Review. Some excerpts:

Mayer liked to attribute his in-betweenness to being born Jewish in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The child of a marginal people in a marginal country, Mayer was repelled by nationalism and drawn to cosmopolitanism like those other great historians of Europe from small countries: Pirenne (Belgium), Huizinga (the Netherlands) and Burckhardt (Switzerland). That inheritance led him to diplomatic history, a world in between states. Mayer told this origin story so often – and the story has so often been told ­– that I’ve come to think of it as the equivalent of a family myth. I see his in-betweenness differently.

I was introduced to Arno as an undergraduate at Princeton by my roommate, the son of the European intellectual historian Stuart Hughes. I don’t know if it was my personality or my connection to Hughes, but for whatever reason, Arno immediately made me feel like family. His writing gives the impression of an old-world Jewish sophisticate, but in his being and bearing, he reminded me of nothing so much as my very non-academic Jewish American family from the suburbs of New York. 

Other diplomatic historians studied the relations between states. Arno looked inside of states, at the domestic relations and power struggles within. When he wrote about the French and Russian revolutions, he turned not to Marx or Lenin but to The Oresteia and the Hebrew Bible, master texts of familial violence and personal vengeance. Where other Marxist historians of the twentieth century spoke of the transition to finance capital and the corporate form, Arno was more impressed by the staying power of the family firm.

His most daring and enduring ideas – that the First and Second World Wars were like the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century; that the history of modern Europe is not one of a rising bourgeoisie but of a regnant aristocracy; that the Holocaust might be compared to the pogroms of the Crusades, a work of detoured ambition, in which a marauding army from the West, crazed and stymied in its quest for the lands of the East, acts out its zeal and frustration on the helpless Jews caught in the way – are not the creations of a contrarian. They are reflections of a spirit seeking to dispel the depersonalizing aura and bureaucratic myths of modernity in favour of more intimate, domestic, familial, and lineal, but no less tractable or terrible, examples from the past.

Where we imagine today’s city as the home of the left, The Persistence of the Old Regime reminds us that the city can be the natural space of the right. At the turn of the last century, European cities, particularly imperial capitals, employed vast numbers in the tertiary sector of commerce, finance, real estate, government and the professions. Members of those sectors, which included much of what we today would call the PMC, often outnumbered the more traditionally recognized ranks of the urban proletariat. Far from generating a cosmopolitan or metropolitan left, they were a breeding ground of the radical right.

Until recently, Mayer’s political geography of the city might have seemed of historical interest only. With Israel’s war on Gaza, it bears re-reading. 

You can read the entire tribute here. May his memory be for a blessing.

4 Comments

  1. Benjamin David Steele December 31, 2023 at 8:31 pm | #

    I always feel like you’re talking around American Anti-Federalism for some reason. But as far as I know, you’ve never referred to the Anti-Federalists directly by that name, or at least I haven’t seen it or been able to find it when doing a web search. In this piece, you even conclude by paraphrasing a famous statement by the Anti-Federalist Thomas Paine, when you wrote that: “Perhaps we might try a different tack. Might not a defeat described in detail offer the left something akin to what Rosh Hashanah offers the Jews? Not a chance to begin – Burckhardt (not to mention the rabbis) warned against that delusion – but a chance to begin again.” Specifically referring to the hope for a democratic constitutional order, Paine expressed the now oft quoted words: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Also, in one entire lengthy paragraph (quoted in full below), you offered a critique that sounds like what an Anti-Federalist could’ve written, if they were alive today. I so long to hear you one day give an exposition on this area of American history that rarely gets told, well outside of a few leftist scholars.

    Why haven’t you, so far, talked about the Anti-Federalists? Or have you somewhere? You have on various occasions mentioned Paine, and I have no doubt that you are extremely familiar with the topic. That is all the more reason I find the lacuna perplexing. Your own views apparently are well in line with this lineage of early American thought. The tribute you linked to here isn’t the first time I’ve come across you having made Anti-Federalist-like observations and arguments. And every time you do so, I’ve written you a comment pointing it out. It always feels like an opportunity lost, since Americans rarely learn anything about Anti-Federalism, at least not in any detail. The Federalists (or rather often pseudo-federalists, as many were nationalists or imperialists) won the war of ideology, rhetoric, and political power. And it was they who gained control of the Constitutional Convention, forcing an overturning of the true federalism of the Articles of Confederation, whatever else one may think of that document, the original constitution. Ask most Americans about this history and they know next to nothing about it. That was the real victory of the Federalists, the erasure of the Anti-Federalists. As always, the victors wrote the history books, at least the history books used in mainstream education.

    “In his analysis of Europe’s states and empires, particularly their political structures and institutions, Mayer drew inspiration from Engels’s famous claim, in Anti-Dühring, that as early modern Europe came to be ‘more and more bourgeois…the political order remained feudal’. We might take similar instruction from Mayer (and Engels) today. The United States has one of the most archaic constitutional orders of the world, designed originally to protect the interests of the landed, monied, and enslaving classes, the white and the wealthy, from the majority. Not only does that constitutional order still, today, protect and enhance, through the state, older, whiter, more conservative, and more privileged sectors of society. It also is almost completely impervious to the forces and demands of demographic and social change, particularly young people, people of colour and newer immigrants. Of all the constitutions in the world, the American is the most difficult to amend. While scholars and journalists lavish attention on the social dysfunction of America – the racist and other pathologies of the white working class, the refusal of evangelicals to accept truth and facts, the toxic influence of television and social media – they pay less attention to what Schumpeter called the ‘steel frame’ of the political order. That was Mayer’s great theme: the archaic holdover of the social and economic past, how it takes shape and form in the state and its institutions, inviting reactionary, elite but declining, forces to find refuge, succour, position and space. It should be our own.”

  2. jonnybutter January 1, 2024 at 2:43 pm | #

    I loved this piece and also Greg Grandin’s homage in Jacobin. Not to say it’s a good time for Meyer to have died, but it’s a perfect time for his work to be reviewed – remarkable how pertinent it apparently is. Now I want to hear his voice myself so I have to go read.

    A great, truthful cliche is conductor George Szell’s dictum that with music one must ‘feel with the brain and think with the heart’. I found these two pieces to be *intellectually* moving. And some relief from the bleakness too – comforting not because the ideas proffer a soothing illusion but because they cut through illusion.

    Cheers

  3. lfc2014 January 3, 2024 at 9:26 pm | #

    The Mayer book on my shelf is the slim Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870-1956 (which is not to say that I’ve actually read it, alas). It was cited by his colleague James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom when McPherson discussed “the counterrevolution of 1861” (as he called the South’s secession from the Union).

  4. Kevin R Cox January 5, 2024 at 6:18 pm | #

    You are spot on regarding the US constitution: an absolute albatross when it comes to any sort of progressive change. Likewise your comments on universities today and who is calling the shots. Thank you.

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