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Felix Gilbert on Being a Student of Friedrich Meinecke in the 1920s (Retrospective Account, 1988)

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Some members of the seminar were most reluctant to open their mouths because they did not want to confront Meinecke with what might be an inappropriate contribution to the discussion. Although, in my opinion, this was a silly attitude, it shows something of Meinecke’s immense prestige and authority among history students. Those who attended his seminar knew that in the evaluation of a historical work quality was his only concern; he was entirely impartial, and his judgments were uninfluenced by ideological considerations. Meinecke’s attitude toward the work of Eckart Kehr is a good example of this. Kehr, after the Second World War, attained posthumous fame as a pioneer in the application of methods of social history and social criticism to German history. In the late twenties, when I was studying in Berlin, Kehr had just finished his dissertation on the building of the German navy; in contrast to the traditional doctrine about the primacy of foreign policy, it set forth the thesis that the navy owed its existence to a compromise between the interests of the great landowners and the leaders of heavy industry. Meinecke was not particularly enthusiastic about this demonstration of the determining nature of material interests in the foreign policy of the empire. But he was so impressed by the quality of Kehr’s research that he did something very unusual: in the book he was then writing on the origins of the conflict between Germany and Great Britain, he praised Kehr’s manuscript, which was still unpublished.

I knew Kehr quite well. He was a most astonishing mixture of high intelligence and naiveté. He came from a family of Prussian civil servants, and had inherited something of their ascetic attitude. He was full of distrust of wealth, and was inclined to believe that wealthy people must be evil. On the other hand, he believed that when confronted with the truth, people would accept it no matter what their prejudices, traditions, and interests might be. He saw himself as starting a new, modern movement in German historiography, and there is no doubt that he appeared to many of us as the born leader of a new generation of historians.

Because of Meinecke’s presence, the historical seminar of the University of Berlin was the center of gravity for history students with a democratic and intellectually adventurous outlook. This attitude was not popular among older, conservative historians, still predominant in German academic life. On the occasion of Meinecke’s retirement (I believe it was in 1931), a meeting in his honor was arranged in the Berlin seminar, at which his older and younger disciples were present. Kehr and I had written a play in which we made fun of the various patriotic myths of German history (I must confess that Kehr wrote the more satirical and amusing parts, whereas I moderated the tone by inserting here and there patriotic and sentimental verses). I have no doubt that this play was a sorry effort, but the openly expressed contempt of Meinecke’s older disciples, whose admiration for the master had been expressed in a very traditional eulogy, was aroused not so much by the lack of quality of our dilettantish poetry as by its lack of respect for the heroic stories of the past and by our radicalism.

[ . . . ]

After having finished the dissertation it was customary in Germany for the doctoral candidate to go to the professors who would examine him and arrange a date for the oral examination. The establishment of an examination schedule usually took place four to six weeks before the examination. I went to Meinecke early in January, soon after the Christmas vacation, and after I had explained to him the purpose of my visit I asked him when in February or March he would have time to examine me. Meinecke said: “I am free now. How is it if I would examine you now?” For a moment I was shaken, but then I thought that it would be ridiculous to tell the professor with whom I had studied modern European history for four years that I would be ready to be examined in this field only after I had studied it for another four weeks. I therefore said that if he had time to examine me now, this would be fine with me. Once the examination was over I concluded that it hadn’t gone too badly because, after the hour of questions, Meinecke said: “Do you really think it would have been much better four weeks later?” And I left Meinecke’s house somewhat elated because, whereas I had expected in the following four weeks to devote my time to modern European history, I could now spend all my time preparing for examinations in my minor fields: medieval history, philosophy, and economics.

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