Pioneering History on Two Continents: An Autobiography

Pioneering History on Two Continents: An Autobiography

Pioneering History on Two Continents: An Autobiography

Pioneering History on Two Continents: An Autobiography


Bruce F. Pauley draws on his family and personal history to tell a story that examines the lives of Volga Germans during the eighteenth century, the pioneering experiences of his family in late nineteenth-century Nebraska, and the dramatic transformations that influenced the history profession during the second half of the twentieth century. An award-winning historian of anti-Semitism, Nazism, and totalitarianism Pauley helped shape historical interpretation from the 1970s to the '90s both in the United States and Central Europe.

Pioneering History on Two Continents provides an intimate look at the shifting approaches to the historian's craft during a volatile period of world history, with an emphasis on twentieth-century Central European political, social, and diplomatic developments. It also examines the greater sweep of history through the author's firsthand experiences as well as those of his ancestors who participated in these global currents through their migration from Germany to the steppes of Russia to the Great Plains of the United States.


When I first started writing this book, my motive was like that of many autobiographers: to provide my children, grandchildren, and later descendants with a record of my life, as well as the lives of my ancestors as far back as I could trace them. As this project progressed, however, I began to realize that my family’s evolution reflects in many ways the social and economic history of the United States since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, although the ancestors on my father’s side were unusual in being pioneers in both Russia and America.

All my great-great-grandfathers and great-grandfathers were farmers, as were their forebears. My grandfathers left the land to enter the business world at the beginning of the twentieth century. My parents were the first members of their families to go to college, and they belonged to the generation that came to maturity at the beginning of the Great Depression. My father typified his generation in wanting to actively serve his country during World War ii, not content to be a passive bystander.

My own story also mirrors the world in which I grew up and the profession I entered. Like most historians, I was born into a stable, middle-class family that valued education and travel more than material possessions. Although mildly nonconformist, I never underwent an emotional rebellion against my parents and indeed always had a high respect for them. Unlike the eighteenth-century British historian and author of the six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, I did not grow up with “half a dozen chosen servants … [while being] the absolute master of my hours and actions.” a dignified leisure was never an option for me or for most historians. Consequently, there was never a debate about whether I would . . .

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