The Journeys of Jacob Peter Mayer and his Papers

Friday 6 August 2021

In the first of a series of blog posts about the Archive of European intellectual life, project archivist Miriam Buncombe, looks at the papers of Jacob Peter Mayer.

Jacob Peter Mayer (ID: ms39108/1/9. Copyright not evaluated.)

Jacob Peter Mayer is now best remembered for his work as editor of the complete works of the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. That this was Mayer’s all-consuming endeavour is well corroborated by his papers, held by the University of St Andrews Special Collections as part of the Archive of European Intellectual Life, where a good quarter of the fifty boxes of Mayer’s papers relate to Tocqueville. In turn, the life philosophy of Mayer’s great intellectual hero shaped Mayer’s own, founding a longstanding friendship with the de Tocqueville family, a life-long connection with France, taking Mayer out to the US to lecture on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and, not least of all, earning Mayer the Légion d’honneur.

This narrative of Mayer’s successful, albeit obsessive, academic pursuit of Tocqueville belies a darker story. Born into a German-Jewish family in Frankenthal, 1903, Mayer’s earliest papers tell the tale of a close, intellectual family who gathered regularly for thematic ‘Reading Evenings’, where Jacob, his sisters, and other family members would take turns to present papers (some preserved in this collection) on literature and philosophy. Several of Mayer’s handwritten essays from his teenage years are dedicated to family members ‘for Christmas’; the recipients’ level of delight at young Jacob Peter’s somewhat self-confident choice of gift is left unrecorded.

Studying at the Universities of Marburg, Freiburg, Hamburg and Berlin, Mayer soon became absorbed within the world of Philosophy through seminars with Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Oskar Becker. Immersed in this intellectual world he clearly admired, Mayer even wrote a series of his own philosophical journals between 1920 – 1926, recording his daily musing on life and philosophy. Following his studies, Mayer became heavily involved with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), writing articles for left-wing publications on politics, literature and history, which he carefully clipped out following publication and pasted into a chronological card index. He became archivist for the SPD in Berlin, and rediscovered and then published several Marx manuscripts unknown in the West.

Yet the political and intellectual circles in which Mayer operated found themselves under attack as national socialism came to dominate German politics. Mayer’s papers offer a snapshot of the ever-widening infiltration of national socialist policy into the sphere of Mayer’s political intelligentsia. Preserved here is, for example, remarkable correspondence between Mayer and his Zurich-based publisher Rascher & Cie, debating how best to present Mayer’s Jewish name as author on his published work so it might still be published in Germany; the simple throwaway ephemera of a booksellers’ journal flyer recommending an all-Nazi-approved booklist for the ideal bookshop Christmas display adds another piece to this picture of hostility. In this political climate, Mayer became active in the anti-national socialist movement, associated with the Kreisau circle, and was, for a period, friendly with Adam von Trott. In 1936, however, Mayer, together with his wife Lola and young son Karl Peter, fled Germany for England under the guise of a holiday. This was a prescient decision; sadly, those in Mayer’s family who remained in Germany did not survive the war.

It is particularly poignant to consider that many of the items within Mayer’s papers are among the things Mayer chose to carry with him when forced to flee Germany secretly. Relationships with friends and family left behind in Germany emerge from fraught correspondence from this period, and the Mayers’ continued connection with their German community is woven through the numerous letters asking for advice and support for those trying to escape and establish lives elsewhere. However, the inclusion in this German material of so many of Mayer’s articles and essays from the 1920s – 1930s is suggestive of the importance he placed on his intellectual work. The choice to carry his writing with him as a refugee may reflect Mayer’s keen awareness, as a student of political philosophy with an ear to the political underground, that his writing was at high risk, and that physically removing it was the only way its preservation would be guaranteed. In later correspondence with Stephen Turner, Mayer reflects that his Marx library and research, the main part of which remained in Germany, were in all likelihood destroyed by the Nazis.

Typed essay draft entitled ‘Welche Marx-ausgaben soll man lesen?’. (ID: ms39108/3/1/14/41. Copyright not evaluated.)

The survival of this pre-emigration material gives a remarkable sense of coherence to Mayer’s broad and varied research, with items preserved in Mayer’s German pre-war papers hinting at interests he pursued later in his career. Dating to 1929 and 1930, editions of ‘Die Auflklaerung’ magazine for sexual and social reform, published by Magnus Hirschfeld and Maria Krische, appear to foreshadow Mayer’s interest in changing societal mores. These are research interests which reappear in subsequent collaboration with the William Temple, Archbishop of York and later Canterbury, on modern social values. Similarly, special editions of ‘Der Bildwart’ from 1928 and 1929 indicate that the fascination with the influence of audio-visual media underpinning Mayer’s ground-breaking sociological research into the impacts of film on children, begun in earnest in about 1945, had been fermenting in his mind for much longer.

Mayer’s papers do not always paint him as an easy person. Though he settled down with his family in Stoke Poges, and his writings of the 1940s enthusiastically vaunt his new his English identity, he was frequently away from home and family to conduct research at Chateau Tocqueville or lecturing in the US. Correspondence with his son and wife reveals Mayer’s sense of restlessness and a compelling urge to keep working, even in the face of age, illness and exhaustion. Professional relationships, too, did not always fall his way. A whole series of files of correspondence, that it is tempting to title ‘disputes’, relay the heated discussions and ever-increasing frustrations between Mayer and various collaborators in the preparation of editions for the complete works of Tocqueville. Eventually, Mayer pleads to the office of the French Presidency for assistance; unsurprisingly, this plea is to no avail with the office politely but firmly making clear that such academic matters are not the business of the head of state.

The J. P. Mayer papers not only provide access to his varied and innovative work, but offer a glimpse into the personal context underpinning Mayer’s rich intellectual world. Travelling with Mayer between pre-war Germany to post-war England via the nineteenth-century bubble of Chateau Tocqueville, these records illuminate the threads of scholarship woven between European and British intellectual circles through the crises of the mid-twentieth century.

Miriam Buncombe
Project Archivist

2 thoughts on "The Journeys of Jacob Peter Mayer and his Papers"

  • Ernst-Friedrich Harmsen
    Ernst-Friedrich Harmsen
    Thursday 8 February 2024, 10.19pm

    In following the friendship between J.P.Mayer and Tet Arnold von Borsig from Berlin, after August 1934 in Florence, then from 1939 in New York, I would like to know about the role of J.P.Mayer after Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and his and Borsig's membership in the Eiserne Front and the failure of a coup d'etat in 1934 from Mayer's papers.

    • skr23
      Friday 9 February 2024, 11.46am

      Dear Ernst-Friedrich, Thank you for your comment. Please could you email your query to [email protected] and someone should get back to you regarding this collection. Best wishes, Sarah


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