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

In this excerpt, historian Felix Gilbert describes the extent to which he was influenced by Friedrich Meinecke, who was one of his professors. Meinecke characterized himself as a “monarchist at heart” [Herzensmonarchist], who, in the face of the revolution of 1918, had been transformed into a “republican by reason” [Vernunftrepublikaner]. Despite his skepticism about political parties and the parliamentary system in general, Meinecke belonged to the liberal German Democratic Party [Deutsche Demokratische Partei or DDP]. He also initiated the “Weimar Circle,” a group of university professors who were loyal to the constitution. The group met for the first time in Weimar on April 23-24, 1926. Best described as a liberal conservative, Meinecke rejected National Socialism and Communism alike. He put forth the “national unity” of all social classes as his ideal utopian vision of social harmony. This vision, however, never compelled him to advocate for a racially defined Volksgemeinschaft, and in this respect, he differed from many of his contemporaries (and also from many of his colleagues at the university).

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Friedrich Meinecke, my history professor, lectured every morning at nine in the university. At the first lecture of a semester you reserved a seat for yourself by fixing your visiting card on the desk in front of your seat. I had reserved for myself a very good seat in the middle of the second row in order to hear well what Meinecke was saying. But getting up early in the morning was never to my liking, and I usually arrived only at the last minute, sometimes even only as Meinecke was ascending the podium. To get to my seat in the middle of the row all those sitting closer to the aisle had to get up. I noticed that one young man was getting up more and more slowly when I passed by to take my seat. We had reached the point at which I might have had to push him to get to my seat. This was the young man at Alsberg’s party, and we stared at each other. Finally he or I said: “Tomorrow morning we shall have a terrible fistfight.” We laughed, began to talk, and withdrew into a corner away from the company of the famous jurists. This began my friendship with Arnold Haase, which has continued to the present day.

[ . . . ]

After the end of my work as an assistant to the editors of the German Foreign Office documents [but before I returned to my studies in Berlin in the fall of 1926], I studied for a year in Munich. By then the political turmoil that had exploded in the Hitler putsch of 1923 had subsided, and Munich had sunk into quiet provincialism. I remember some posters announcing that Adolf Hitler, now out of prison, would speak at a public meeting, but it did not enter my mind to go because at the time Hitler and his movement seemed utterly unimportant. Still, despite the lack of excitement, living in Munich – a lovely city set in a beautiful landscape – was highly enjoyable, and the year there was also intellectually profitable. [ . . . ] Yet, although Munich had its attractions, I had no doubt that I wanted to complete my historical studies in Berlin. The reason was the presence of Friedrich Meinecke at Berlin University. Meinecke had shaken up German historical scholarship by emphasizing the relations among intellectual movements, political thought, and political action; after working for two years in diplomatic documents I was eager to broaden my outlook on the past. In addition, among the many conservative and reactionary German professors, Meinecke was an exception: he was a defender of the republic. Moreover, while I was working in the Foreign Office I had come to know several students of Meinecke, and I had heard from them that he allowed his students a very free hand, though at the same time was very much interested in what they were doing.

Meinecke was a great teacher. Although he stammered, and his lectures were rhetorically undistinguished, they were beautifully organized, and in placing the events of national histories in a European context they continued a tradition of German historiography that had begun with Leopold von Ranke. Meinecke’s seminars provided a rigorous training in historical methodology. They focused on the art of interpretation. We usually discussed a single document or treatise, like the French Charter of 1814, or Machiavelli’s Prince, and subjected the meaning of each sentence, almost each word, to scrutiny and discussion. Half of each seminar was taken up with the reading of papers written by the participants on the document under investigation. After a paper was presented Meinecke usually did not say more than “Thank you,” but when he added “Good,” you believed you were in seventh heaven

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