Arno J. Mayer

Born in Luxembourg in 1926. Arno J. Mayer might well have spent his life in Europe had not been for the outbreak of World War II. Escaping through France to North Africa, the Mayer family finally took refuge in the United States. Professor Mayer received his B.A. from the City College of New York; his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale. He would be the first to say that his teaching and research were decisively influenced by this early war-time experience, which helped shape his perspective of the last century and half of European history.

Following his graduation from Yale. Professor Mayer taught briefly at Wesleyan and Harvard before coming to Princeton in 1962. Although recruited as diplomatic historian of Europe, his view of the past was never constrained by disciplinary boundaries. He believed in viewing the whole of Europe as a single, albeit national responses to broad European-wide forces, as he did so effectively in two of his prize-winning works on the ending of World War I. His Political Origins of the New Diplomacy I, 1917-1918 (1959) reviewed 10 months of diplomacy as German resistance collapsed, Russia’s revolution began, and the armistice opened the way to a “new ideological era in international politics.” In The Politics and Diplomacy of Peace-Making: Containment and Counter-Revolution at Versailles (1967) he revisited this ground, this time emphasizing the ties between the internal politics of diplomacy and the onset of a “universal international civil war.”

Like Professor Mayer became intrigued with the historical problem of the middle class, with the dynamics of counter-revolution, and with the persistence of Europe’s pre-French revolutionary institutions and traditions into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But he could not turn away from transforming and defining event of his own life: Nazism and the Holocaust. Tackling this vexing historical problem as “a west-European Jew.” He sought to place even the most unthinkable in a wide, comparative historical context, the conflict between reaction and revolutionary change. In Why did the Heavens not Darken? he historicized the Holocaust, arguing that Nazism turned from Judeophobia to Judeocide when the German armies became bogged down in savage military campaigns on the Eastern front.

Professor Mayer’s readiness to question conventional historical wisdom to plumb the wellsprings of conservatism as well as his commitment to eminently relevant issues in the trajectory of modern Europe have made him a legendary teacher and mentor of students throughout this long career at Princeton. He is also famed for his interest in the work of historians, young and old alike, no matter how far afield their work happened to be, provided they were eager to exchange ideas and receive suggestions. Perhaps no other member of the Princeton history department has read more manuscripts in preparation or made a greater contribution to assisting young scholars readying their dissertations for publication. He has earned the respect and affection of undergraduates, graduate students, and colleagues in and outside the Department of History.