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

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The next morning my friend Mommsen telephoned. He told me that the evening before, his mother had been at a party with Mrs. Meinecke, who had mentioned that her husband had been most pleasantly surprised that afternoon. After asking doctoral candidates from time to time over the last thirty years whether they would be willing to be examined immediately rather than arranging a future date, he had for the first time found a candidate who had agreed to this proposal. Later Meinecke alluded several times to this event. If it contributed to establishing a closer connection with him, this connection was not based on my scholarly qualities but on my intellectual impudence.

In any case, the end of my studies for a doctorate in history was satisfactory. A few weeks after the examination Meinecke offered me the job of editing the political writings of Droysen for the Prussian Academy. He also indicated that he thought I might pursue a university career, and that it was not necessary for me to take the state examination, which would have entitled me to teach at a Gymnasium. At that time I was highly pleased, but from a practical, financial point of view it turned out to be bad advice. If I had sat for the state examinations I would have, after 1945, received a pension as if I had been an active civil servant throughout the entire Nazi period.

Meinecke never became a Nazi, nor did he lose contact with friends and students who had to leave Germany. But in the thirties he never gave much expression to his disapproval of the Nazi regime; he tried hard to find positive features in it and he looked upon the Nazis as a powerful, dynamic force. This attitude did not surprise me, nor do I think it surprised many of his other students. Meinecke called himself “a republican by reason.” The republic seemed to him the appropriate form of government after the First World War, but his heart was not in the republic. He once asked me as elections approached whether I would be willing to do some work for the Democratic Party. He was somewhat shocked when I said that I was willing to help but that I did not vote the Democratic Party, I voted Socialist. It must also be said that although no Jew had difficulties in being accepted among those who wrote dissertations under him, I think he supported habilitation only of those Jews who had converted to Christianity. Meinecke came from a traditional, conservative background, and it was not surprising that traces of this background remained. It is astonishing how far he had gotten in overcoming this background and opening himself to other ideas: liberalism, democracy, and nonconfessional religiosity. And it should also not be overlooked that what was a weakness in his political outlook was tied to what was characteristic and, one might say, a strength in his historical approach: its relativism, its emphasis on judging a past time on the basis of its own values, a subtle recognition of the continuous change in values. Such an attitude does not lead to very strong convictions and beliefs in politics. It must be admitted that, although historians are fatally attracted to politics, historians are not necessarily good politicians.

From A EUROPEAN PAST: MEMOIRS, 1905-1945 by Felix Gilbert (pp. 62-63, 68-71, and 73-76.). Copyright © 1988 by Felix Gilbert. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher. This book is available for purchase at

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