Peter Gay was an urbane gent, according to the obituaries but he was also a great historian, perhaps not in the grand mode of an Edward Gibbon or Henry Adams, but nonetheless a historian of such scholarly fecundity, as to be an effective rebuke to the widespread specialization that has taken over the history profession at large. A scholar of modern Europe, Gay wrote authoritatively on the Enlightenment, Freud, modernism, and German culture. But it is German culture where Gay had his most crucial effect on the historical literature of 20th century life. Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider is a classic short text of what made Germany’s nascent experiment in liberalism such an instructive episode for all modern democracies.
Modern historians would abjure “instructive”—history is too messy, events too discreet, reality too contradictory to provide tidy answers and pat lessons. Most of us don’t believe this, but many professional historians believe this view provides objectivity and leaves history to them alone, not to the generally educated or political leaders. It is professional arrogance dressed up as modesty. By taking a precise look at German political and cultural institutions after World War I, Gay was able to piece together a coherent message: political institutions are fragile things, political moderation is unhealthy when taken to extremes and is a threat to democratic institutions; pay attention to the academy as a cauldron of ideas; the avant-garde truly foretells things and can be a sign of broad cultural disruption. And always, the Jewish are outsiders and seen as disruptors of the status quo, and that puts energy into the historic anti-Semitism of Europe. Gay’s elegant, cultured, subtle, immensely learned approach to the art of the historian will be missed by those who know how rare such a thing is. R.I.P.