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George L. Mosse on his Berlin Childhood in the Last Years of the Weimar Republic (Retrospective Account, 2000)

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NO SENSE of impending doom marred my childhood, lived in Berlin during the last years of the Weimar Republic. I witnessed those years as a spectator cushioned from the real world through an opulent lifestyle which served to block out the realities of life. What other child had a car and driver of his own when not yet ten years of age and was driven to primary school when other children walked? Moreover, a series of governesses took care of all my needs. I had my own living room as well as bedroom at my disposal both in Berlin and on the country estate just outside the city.

[ . . . ]

But it was the opulence and the availability of space which characterized the setting of these early years. Although I was an infrequent visitor there, my grandfather’s mansion in Berlin is the house which, more than any other, seems to symbolize the background against which my childhood was lived. My maternal grandfather, Rudolf Mosse, built his “palace,” modeled on those of Renaissance Italy, on Berlin’s Leipziger Platz in 1882 in order to demonstrate the solidity of his publishing empire founded two decades earlier. As an additional sign of his status, he bought the rural estate of Schenkendorf in 1896, with its palatial country house, some forty minutes by car outside Berlin. The Berlin residence was a large stone building in the classical style; its courtyard enclosed a fountain by Walter Schott which, with its dancing maidens, was to be imitated by one at another estate in East Prussia and another in New York’s Central Park, which still stands. But this was not all; the mansion, besides the lavish living quarters, also contained my grandfather’s art gallery and extensive library.

The existence of such a gallery and library in a private house reflects the German middle-class ideal of Bildung: the acquisition of self-worth through continuous self-development in which education, culture, and the visual arts played an important part. The paintings and sculptures in a collection like that of Rudolf Mosse, with their historical, sacred, or national themes, could be absorbed without difficulty and given a spiritual dimension in which they exemplified truth and beauty and elevated the human spirit.

What must have been the most startling painting in the mansion decorated one large wall of the dining room. The artist, Anton von Werner, was famous for his 1877 painting of Bismarck’s proclamation of the new German Reich; he was an expert in crafting paintings with historical themes. I remember his huge fresco in the dining room well; it was a source of endless fascination. The Festival Dinner, as it is called, was a portrait painting in brilliant colors completed in 1899. Rudolf Mosse, along with his wife and daughter—my mother—and some of his important political friends, are all clad in Renaissance costume, seated at a large banquet table in an Italian setting, talking and proposing toasts. This was a gathering of leading liberals such as the physician-politician Rudolf Virchow and the liberal parliamentarian Heinrich Rickert. Others of the middle-class elite had themselves painted in the same manner, and frescoes in their homes, also built at the end of the last century, often showed the family in Renaissance dress.

This vogue, which would not survive long into the new century, documented a new self-confidence on the part of a new middle-class elite, as well as their quest to attain legitimacy by appropriating a nonaristocratic past that had been one of the high points of Western taste and culture. Moreover, this was a past which in its republicanism suited the liberal elite, patrons of culture; thus it was especially appropriate for German Jews as a sign of their integration into European history and tradition. I knew nothing of all of this, just the fun of looking at such a costume party, and I was always struck by the beauty of my mother as a young girl.

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