Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Confessions of a Fellow Traveler

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Confessions of a Fellow Traveler

Article excerpt

Margaret Anderson considers the interaction between scholarship and life, and the interventions of mentors and friends, in her continuing education as a teacher and scholar of European and Catholic history.

Keywords: anti-Catholicism; antisemitism; Kulturkampf; Leo XIII, Pope; Windthorst, Ludwig

The Accident of Choice

My husband is fond quoting a line he attributes to Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

Alas, that bon mot turns out to have originated not with the distinguished Danish theologian, but with the much-married Artie Shaw, one of the kings of swing.1 Whatever its source, the insight describes a career whose central preoccupations, as I lived them, seemed to have come by chance, but which- Looking Backward-appear embarrassingly predictable. These preoccupations-the Catholic struggle for respect and religious freedom in the German empire; its impact on the party system and thus on the course of German history; controversies over "clericalism" in politics and the limits of pluralism; the "secularization" narrative; the paradoxical relationship between ultramontanism and democracy-all have to do, in one way or another, with Religion and/or its "Cultured Despisers." And all of these themes followed, ultimately, from my dissertation: a biography of Ludwig Windthorst.

Yet I did not choose that topic myself. When I applied to graduate school in 1963,1 had designated German history as my field because I wanted to find the answer to the Shoah: that is, how a civilized country-in our century!- could have committed such horrors. In those days and even through the 1970s, historians gripped by the Shoah rarely studied death camps or Einsatztruppen. They often didn't study the Third Reich at all. We sought the "deeper" causes that might have encouraged or enabled it. My own topic, when I went off to Germany in fall 1966 to begin research, was Weimar's Left intellectuals, and my working hypothesis was that their relentless criticism of the Republic unintentionally "paved the way" for the Nazis who would imprison them.

But almost as soon as I got off the boat, I learned that a book had just appeared on that subject, and another was in the pipeline. No room for me. But my adviser, Klaus Epstein, who was also in Germany that year and broke the bad news, happened to be dining that evening with the historian Rudolf Morsey. Morsey was prominent for two important works on the (Catholic) Center Party, one on its central role in the founding of the Weimar Republic, another on its craven collapse at the end. Epstein himself had recently published a highly regarded biography of Matthias Erzberger, who had burst on the German political scene in 1903 as the youngest member of the Center's Reichstag delegation and caused an uproar by exposing, through missionary reports, the destruction of the Herero in German Southwest Africa. By 1914 the most powerful man in the Reichstag, Erzberger had the thankless task of "negotiating" the armistice in November 1918, for which he was assassinated in 1921.

While I sat in my flat worrying about how I could ever make the "original contribution" requisite for entry into our profession, Epstein and Morsey decided that I could do worse than a study of the Center's first leader, during the Kulturkampf of the 1870s and 1880s: Ludwig Windthorst. True, Windthorst had burned his personal papers. Therefore, Morsey warned when we met the next day, the dissertation could never be a real biography. I should subtitle it, he said, "A Contribution to "), the blank to be filled in with whatever I found. (He gave me a leg up by handing me two articles of his own that demolished existing scholarship on the Kulturkampf. They have stood before my mind's eye as a kind of memento moñ ever since.2) Epstein, charac- teristically more sanguine, promised that I would have printed contemporary sources aplenty-and all those parliamentary debates! Let's not make a fetish of archives! …

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