- Transatlantic Enlightenment
- Peter Gay and the drama of German history in the United States, 1930s-1970s
- Award date
- 13 January 2017
- Number of pages
- Document type
- PhD thesis
- Faculty of Humanities (FGw)
- Amsterdam School of Historical Studies (ASH)
This is the first research on the life and work of the Jewish German-American historian Peter Gay (1923-2015). The dissertation analyzes the impact of Gay’s experience of emigration from Nazi Germany to the United States on his idea of western culture. It focuses especially on the period from the 1930s tot he 1970s, when many intellectuals in the United States grappled with the “lessons” of the Second World War for the West.
This dissertation claims that Gay’s idea of western culture should be understood as an attempt to re-connect European and American intellectual traditions, in a time when the rise of ideologies often estranged the transatlantic partners. American intellectuals’ often conflicting interpretations of the rise of National Socialism frequently led to either theories of American exceptionalism, or an extreme pessimism about western culture. In this polarized atmosphere, in which thorough knowledge about German history was often lacking, Gay took the role as a transatlantic mediator. He distinguished himself from other German-American émigré intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno or Hannah Arendt, because his emigration as a child had made him an insider of both German and American culture. Therefore, his historical work, in which he perceived the Enlightenment as the birth of western culture, should not be exclusively approached as the result of his Cold War politics, the trauma of his experiences in the Third Reich, or as a continuation of Weimar’s intellectual traditions. Instead, his idea of western culture reflects his aim to fuell a “European-American” symbiosis that endowed the liberal center with acute relevance in the postwar period.
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