Eugen Weber, 1925-2007
Some of my teachers at UCLA disappointed me. Not Eugen Weber. His lectures, combining telling detail with astute generalizations, were enthralling. He was handsome and self-assured, impressing us all by his cosmopolitanism. Eugen was born in Bucharest of (I suppose) Jewish parents. When he was 12, his parents were astute enough to enroll him in an English boarding school. After the war, he discovered his true calling: the history of modern France. (As far as I know, Eugen was not related to Max Weber, about whom I recently wrote.)
The New York Times obituary stressed Weber’s methodological empiricism and avoidance of grand themes. This is not my recollection, though perhaps he became more skeptical as he went along. To be sure, Weber had a practical side, derived from a serious fund of experience. Once (anent the Crusaders) I fatuously remarked about how single combat must be more satisfying than bombardment and other form of “distance warfare.” He immediately contradicted me, saying that he had had to bayonet enemy soldiers when he was with the British Army in Sicily. It was not satisfying at all.
Since Weber’s political views inclined to the left, it might seem surprising that he chose as his first major research project the Action Francaise, a far-right movement. In those days, we thought that the French were all lefties, and only gradually did one become aware (in large measure because of Weber’s work) that France had been, regrettably, a hothouse of proto-fascist thought,.
Weber’s most innovative book was “Peasants into Frenchmen” (1976). Here he showed, with much detail, how France was not (as some French people think even today) some Platonic idea that had always existed. Instead it was the creation of relatively recent times, beginning in fact with the Third Republic in 1871. The political centralization and educational reforms of that regime began to mold local particularisms into a sense of national identity. As Benedict Anderson and others have since observed in more general terms, nations are, in many cases, artifacts, not “natural” entities.
Many will have seen Eugen Weber on public television in the 52-part series “The Western Tradition,” produced in 1989 by WGBH in Boston. Perhaps because I had heard much of the material in class thirty years before, I was not so impressed. In fact, the television lectures were a kind of elegy for a particular concept of Europe, which now seems dated and exclusivist. Some have even gone so far as to call this approach “Nato history,” a kind of enabling instrument masking some of the seamier aspects of Cold War realpolitik.
During World War II my parents assumed that Europe would never recover from the devastation inflicted by that horrific conflict. Only a few years after the end of the war, though, a book appeared titled “Fire in the Ashes.” Indeed, Europe was making a remarkable come-back, though still very much dependent on the shield of American power. It was in those days--my Weber period, I suppose--that I and many other sensitive ypung Americans conceived the idea of escaping from the crass commercialism of America to Europe, the true seat, we thought, of all genuine culture. I did indeed reside for a time in Italy and England, and have been back to Europe many times. I also found in trips to Latin America, Africa, and Asia that there is much more to be seen in the world at large. I tempered my Eurocentrism.
It was ironic that I aspired to make the reverse journey of Weber. He had started in Romania, then sojourned in England and France. After a brief period in Canada he had settled by the warm shores of the Pacific Ocean.
In those days one might have said that Weber was a “refugee.” This term is unkind. The best rubric for this geographical and intellectual trajectory is “the Transatlantic Migration.” It was only when I got to NYU in 1956 that I experienced the brain power of this phenomenon at full strength. The teachers who influenced me there were German Jews, including Richard Krautheimer, Karl Lehmann, and Erwin Panofsky. After at titanic struggle, the Third Reich was defeated, a struggle my teachers aided. Yet the other Germany, the good one, had, in these paragons of intellect, vanquished England and France combined. Germania: non omnis moriar.
Those heady days of graduate school in New York gave way to new experiences in London. There I found little nourishment in indigenous thinkers, Little Englanders as they for the most part were. My greatest inspiration came in two mighty figures of Austrian origin, Karl Popper and Ernst Gombrich.
With all this stimulatsion I practically forgot about Eugen Weber. One affinity remained, for I share Weber’s love for France. Intellectually, though, I suppose I still speak German--trotzdem (“nonetheless,” as another Austrian, the architect Adolf Loos would have put it).