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Gilbert, Felix

Gilbert, Felix

(b. 21 May 1905 in Baden-Baden, Germany; d .14 February 1991 in Princeton, New Jersey), historian and educator who specialized in the Italian Renaissance, international diplomacy, and intellectual history.

Gilbert was the second child of William Henry Gilbert, an English medical doctor, and Cecile Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a homemaker. His father, who directed a sanatorium patronized by upper-class patients, died when Felix was an infant. His mother, a descendant of the famous Jewish composer (for whom Gilbert was named) and relative of the wealthy Oppenheim banking family, then took her two children to Berlin. As Gilbert recalled in his memoirs, he was raised in a comfortable, cultivated world of servants and foreign travel. Even the upheaval caused by World War I and the chaos that followed failed to disturb the family’s well-being.

Receiving an excellent education at a Berlin gymnasium (secondary school), Gilbert continued his studies at the University of Heidelberg after the war. But the rampant inflation of the early 1920s compelled him to leave school and find gainful employment. From 1923 to 1925 Gilbert worked in the historical section of the German foreign ministry, where he helped edit the official collection of diplomatic documents concerning the origins of World War I. He attended classes at the University of Berlin in the evening.

Improved economic conditions permitted Gilbert to resume full-time study. By then he had developed a strong interest in both foreign policy and Renaissance Italy. Under the direction of the renowned scholar Friedrich Meinecke, he completed a doctoral dissertation on the nineteenth-century Prussian historian Johann Gustav Droysen. Published in 1931, it was followed two years later by his edition of Droysen’s political writings.

Gilbert spent most of 1932 and 1933 exploring the Florentine archives. But his academic career was blighted when the Nazis came to power and began placing restrictions on Germany’s Jews. Consequently, in October 1933 Gilbert left his homeland for Great Britain where his sister lived. He resided in London for almost three years, learning English and discussing politics with fellow German refugees.

To improve his circumstances, Gilbert accepted a teaching position at Scripps College in Claremont, California, emigrating to the United States in August 1936. A year later he moved to Princeton, New Jersey. There, at the Institute for Advanced Study, he served as an assistant to Edward Mead Earle, who specialized in diplomatic history. Gilbert helped plan and administer seminars, one on American foreign policy, the other on national security. Out of these discussions emerged Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler (1943), to which he contributed a chapter dealing with Machiavelli’s ideas about war.

Naturalized as an American citizen that same year, Gilbert served his new country through his work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He was assigned to the Central Section of the Research and Analysis Branch where he evaluated information from Nazi-controlled Europe. Stationed first in Washington, D.C., Gilbert was later assigned to London, Paris, and, at war’s end, Wiesbaden, Germany. While working as an analyst for the German section of the European Research Branch of the OSS in Wiesbaden in 1945, he sought to revive university education along democratic lines. His wartime experience enabled him to publish Hitler Directs His War (1950), an annotated edition of the secret records of the German dictator’s daily military conferences. After being demobilized, he spent a year as a research analyst with the U.S. State Department. Returning to the academic world in 1946, Gilbert joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. There he spent sixteen years, rising from lecturer to full professor. He married one of his graduate students, Mary Raymond, on 21 April 1956; they had no children. A popular course that he taught on modern Europe was later transformed into a textbook, The End of the EuropeanEra, 1890 to the Present (1970). With Gordon A. Craig, he edited and contributed to The Diplomats, 1919–1939 (1953), a collection of essays concerning European and American ambassadors as well as the conduct of policy by foreign ministers. It focused on the transformation of international relations under pressure from both democracy and totalitarianism. On his own, Gilbert produced To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy (1961), which traced the international and intellectual origins of U.S. diplomacy. It concluded with an examination of George Washington’s message to his countrymen in 1796, stressing how his words fused realism and idealism. The book earned Gilbert the Bancroft Prize from Columbia University.

In 1962 he accepted an appointment at the School of Historical Studies of the Institute for Advanced Study. Gilbert remained there until 1974 when he retired as professor emeritus. Even in retirement, however, he actively pursued his scholarship on the author of The Prince. His Niccolò Machiavelli e la vita culturale del suo tempo (Niccolò Machiavelli and the Cultural Life of His Time, 1964) brought together essays written over the previous quarter century. Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence (1965) depicted the two writers as humanists, one the originator of modern political theory, the other the founder of modern historical writing.

Gilbert also devoted considerable attention to historiographical questions. In collaboration with John Higham and Leonard Krieger, he published History (1965), contributing a chapter on the interaction of European and American historical thought. In 1971, with Stephen R. Graubard, he edited Historical Studies Today, a series of essays written by prominent historians about trends in their various fields. His own contribution dealt with the aims and methods of intellectual history. Gilbert also produced The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze (1975), which collected the essential writings of a German scholar whose work he esteemed.

In retirement, Gilbert again focused on the Italian Renaissance. His book The Pope, His Banker and Venice (1980) explored the intricate economic diplomacy practices in early sixteenth-century Italy. Gilbert’s final study, History: Politics or Culture? Reflections on Ranke and Burckhardt (1990), surveyed the contributions made by two major nineteenth-century historians who held divergent points of view.

To honor their teacher and friend, several of Gilbert’s former students published History: Choice and Commitment (1977). This extensive collection of his articles, book reviews, and addresses demonstrated his extraordinary erudition. The American Historical Association recognized his many accomplishments in 1985 when it conferred upon Gilbert its first Award for Scholarly Distinction.

Suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Gilbert died at his home in Princeton and was cremated.

Of medium height, gray-haired, and bespectacled, Gilbert was shy and decorous in public. But with students and colleagues he displayed warmth and charm. A noticeable German accent did not prevent him from becoming a highly effective classroom lecturer. Gilbert’s knowledge of subjects that ranged from the Italian Renaissance to Nazi Germany, his tireless capacity for research, and his fresh ideas enabled him to publish extensively, thereby exerting considerable influence within the historical profession.

Gilbert’s papers are housed at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California, but remain closed until 2018, as per his widow’s request. His official wartime correspondence is available in the records of the Office of Strategic Services held by the National Archives and Records Administration. In A European Past: Memoirs, 1905-1945 (1988), Gilbert recalls his family, education, and early career. His student years are described in “The Historical Seminar of the University of Berlin in the Twenties,” in Hartmut Lehmann and James J. Sheehan, eds., An Interrupted Past: German-Speaking Refugee Historians in the United States after 1933 (1991). A study by Barry M. Katz, of Gilbert’s activities during World War II, “German Historians in the Office of Strategic Service, “appears in the same volume. An extensive bibliography of his writings is given in History: Choice and Commitment (1977). For an overview of Gilbert’s attainments, see Hartmut Lehmann, ed., Felix Gilbert as Scholar and Teacher (1992). Appreciations are presented in Journal of the History of Ideas 52 (Apr.-June 1991), Renaissance Studies 5 (Dec. 1991), and Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 137 (Mar. 1993). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Feb. 1991).

James Friguglietti

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