Historian who focused on the Enlightenment and the world of ideas in modern Europe.
Peter Gay, who has died aged 91, was one of America’s leading historians, known particularly for his work on modern European cultural and intellectual history. His massive study The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (two volumes, 1966 and 1969), rehabilitated the age of reason and its thinkers, above all perhaps the Scottish philosopher David Hume, as rationalists who consciously rejected Christian myths and superstition and laid the foundations for the modern world of ideas.
Men such as Voltaire, he argued, were not irresponsible or impractical thinkers, but provided the intellectual ammunition for the liberal and democratic political ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries. The first volume, subtitled The Rise of Modern Paganism, was widely acclaimed far beyond the academic world, and won the National Book award in the US.
In his encyclopedic The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (five volumes between 1984 and 1998), Gay explored in wonderfully readable prose a wide range of aspects of the European – especially the British, French and German – and the North American middle classes in their heyday. The books are full of obscure and often surprising information, most notably about bourgeois sexuality, which he argued, with a wealth of examples drawn from diaries and letters of the time, was far from being as prudish as popular memory imagined.
Covering subjects as varied as love and marriage, art collecting and connoisseurship, attitudes to crime and deviance (dealt with in a pathbreaking volume on The Cultivation of Hatred), literature and much more besides, the volumes can be criticised for omitting such central preoccupations and pastimes as politics, music, respectability and so on. But taken together, they are a fundamental text for anyone who wishes to understand bourgeois culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This was, essentially, the culture into which Gay was born, in Berlin, as Peter Joachim Fröhlich, the son of Helga and Moritz, a small businessman of left-leaning views and liberal habits of mind. Of Jewish ancestry, his parents were social democrats and so, in consequence, atheists, bringing their only child up without recourse to beatings or other forms of discipline common at the time. Indeed, Peter led a charmed life, being admitted to a grammar school under the Nazis because his father was a decorated and war-wounded army veteran and surviving the early years of the Third Reich without any great difficulty as a blond, blue-eyed boy who did not conform to the Nazi image of a Jewish person in any respect.
In his engrossing memoir, My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin (1998), Gay confessed that he encountered antisemitism personally only on the very rarest of occasions: once, when, unusually, a teacher declared that “Jews always exaggerate” (a remark to which he attributed his later concern for precision in his historical writings), and in 1936 when the family went by car on a tour of Germany and encountered a notice outside a village saying: “Jews are not wanted here.”
But otherwise, he lived the normal life of a German boy, reading the wild west novels of Karl May, experiencing the heady excitement of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and – largely thanks to his father’s enthusiasm for the game – becoming a football fan. Oddly enough, he became an Arsenal supporter and remained one for the rest of his life, though while he remained in Berlin he had to make do with visits to the local team, Hertha BSC.
The family’s tour of Germany was undertaken because the Fröhlichs realised, presciently, that they would probably have to leave Germany at some time in the not too distant future, and wanted to say a last fond farewell to their homeland.
That moment came in 1938, when Nazi antisemitism became markedly more radical following the Anschluss of Austria, culminating in the nationwide pogrom of 9 and 10 November, when Jewish shops were smashed and trashed and synagogues burned to the ground. His father avoided arrest by going into hiding, but decided immediately to put into operation an emigration plan he had been discussing with his well-off relations in the US.
Because Moritz had been born in Silesia, he was counted by the US authorities in the quota of immigrants allotted to Poland, but aware of opposition to immigration, the family’s friends and relatives arranged for entry visas to Cuba instead. They were booked on the MS St Louis with many other refugees, but he feared that something might happen if they waited, and forged a ticket for a passage on another steamer, the Iberia, which sailed two weeks earlier. He was right: while the Iberia arrived safely in Havana, the St Louis was refused permission to land in Cuba, the US and Canada, after which it was forced to return, with nearly 1,000 refugees on board, to Europe. Nearly a quarter of them were subsequently murdered by the Nazis.
Eventually the family managed to travel on to the US. Because Americans were unable to pronounce the name Fröhlich, they decided to translate it into English. It means happy, jolly or gay, and they chose the last of these three names, only for Peter to start receiving hate-mail years later, as the rise of the gay liberation movement made homophobes think his surname was a political statement.
He studied at the University of Colorado, in Denver, then took a master’s degree at Columbia University, New York, in 1947, and a doctorate in political science four years later, on the leading “revisionist” social democrat of the Kaiser’s Germany, Eduard Bernstein, with whose views he to a large extent identified. This was an unusual choice of topic, reflecting his background in the German Social Democratic Party; Bernstein, an early critic of Marx, was anathema to communists and the left more generally, and labour and socialist history did not become academically respectable until the 1970s. But it was not a path that Gay followed in his academic career: instead, he went in another direction entirely.
He taught at Columbia from 1947 to 1969, becoming professor in 1962, and was then at Yale up to his retirement in 1993. There he focused above all on European cultural and intellectual history. Becoming a serious disciple of Freud, he underwent analysis, writing an acclaimed biography, Freud: A Life for Our Time, in 1988. His Freudianism was often applied with a light touch, however, as in The Bourgeois Experience, and his many essays and shorter books on Freud and aspects of his life and thought were not uncritical in their approach to the master.
Urbane, cultured, courteous and hospitable, Gay held many seminars and discussions in his house, fondly remembered by his students. His lectures, some of which I attended in the 80s, were learned, engrossing, heavily illustrated with slides (a novelty for historians in the days before PowerPoint), and delivered with fluency and grace. Among his many books was a study of Mozart (1999), the influential Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider (1968), and a brilliant account covering all the arts in the 20th century, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (2007).
For him, nazism was a barbaric negation of everything the Enlightenment and indeed modern European and American culture stood for, and it was unrewarding as a subject for study. He recorded in his memoirs the criticisms he had to face from some members of the Jewish community in the US for not confronting it, for not asserting a Jewish identity, even for not protesting at the time against the militant antisemitism of the Nazis. But these criticisms were beside the point: in his writings and his life, he upheld and reasserted not a narrow sense of the Jewish identity which the Nazis tried to force on him, but the wider values of the civilisation which the Nazis tried and failed to destroy.
Gay received many honours and honours, including a lifetime distinction award from the American Historical Association in 2004, the University of Munich’s Geschwister Scholl prize in 1999 for My German Question and the Heineken prize from the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990. In 2007 he was described by the New York Times as America’s pre-eminent cultural historian. He continued to write, and at the time of his death was said to have another book under contract.
In 1959 he married the sociologist Ruth Slotkin, who died in 2006. Her three daughters from a previous marriage survive him.
- Peter Gay, historian, born 20 June 1923; died 12 May 2015