Arno J. Mayer, a historian whose unorthodox reading of the first half of the 20th century challenged conventional understandings of World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, died on Dec. 17 in a senior care facility in Princeton, N.J. He was 97.
His son Daniel confirmed the death.
Dr. Mayer, who was born in Luxembourg, fled to America with his Jewish family just ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940. He was one of the last survivors of a generation of émigré historians, many of them also Jews — among them Raul Hilberg, Peter Gay and Fritz Stern — who tried to make sense of the cataclysm they and the world had just experienced.
He was by training a historian of diplomacy, though he ranged far beyond his original field. His early scholarship focused on the origins of World War I, while his later writing reached both forward to the Holocaust and the founding of Israel and back as early as the French Revolution.
Yet a common idea threaded through his long career, which included seven books and teaching positions at Brandeis, Harvard and Princeton: that the period from 1914 to 1945 constituted a “second Thirty Years’ War,” as calamitous and widespread as the one that ravaged Europe in the 17th century.
Dr. Mayer considered himself a Marxist, and though he was far from doctrinaire, he took from Marx the notion that society must be conceived as a whole, and that history is the result of tensions among its constituent parts, like class and social structures.
From this vantage point, he argued that the three-decade crisis was the result of modern, bourgeois-liberal capitalism coming into conflict with the still-entrenched aristocratic elites of Europe — what he called “The Persistence of the Old Regime,” the title of a book he published in 1981.
Through scrupulous research in archives in Britain, France and Germany — he was fluent in the languages of all three — he showed that World War I was the result not of diplomatic failures but of “pre-emptive counterrevolutions” in each country, meant to stave off mass unrest at home by turning public energies abroad.
The peace negotiations and agreements that ended the war, he went on, were in large part a continuation of the conflict between the old and new orders by other means — and their resulting incoherency meant that another, even greater, conflagration would follow.
But unlike some Marxist historians, Dr. Mayer rejected deterministic thinking; in his view, nothing was inevitable and everything was contingent.
That principle undergirded his most controversial work, “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The ‘Final Solution’ in History” (1988).
Dr. Mayer argued that while antisemitism was rife within German society, it was only one of many reasons for the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union. Just as important was the specter of Soviet Communism, which drove the old German elite to support Hitler in the first place.
“If Hitler’s worldview had an epicenter,” he wrote, “it was his deep-seated animosity toward contemporary civilization, and not his hatred for Jews, which was grafted onto it.”
While the Nazis had imprisoned and murdered countless Jews already, Dr. Mayer argued that it was only when the invasion of the Soviet Union faltered, in late 1941, that Hitler and his circle decided on a systematic plan of extermination, which Dr. Mayer called the Judeocide.
While several prominent historians supported Dr. Mayer’s thesis — the Polish Jewish historian Nechama Tec called the book “a welcome addition to the existing literature” — many others denounced it vehemently. In a lengthy review in The New Republic, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, then a graduate student at Harvard, called it “a mockery of memory and history.”
The Anti-Defamation League went further, adding Dr. Mayer to its list of “Hitler’s Apologists” in a 1993 report, accusing him of writing “historical scholarship which relativizes the genocide of the Jews.”
And indeed, several prominent Holocaust deniers took quotations out of the book to support their arguments, though in every case they were out of context and grossly misrepresented Dr. Mayer’s point.
But Dr. Mayer persisted, arguing that his opponents had created a “cult of memory” around the Holocaust that resisted, and even punished, any attempt to explain it as a historical event.
“After 50 years the question is no longer whether or not to reappraise and historicize the Judeocide,” he wrote in the preface to the book, “but rather how to do so responsibly.”
Arno Joseph Mayer was born on June 19, 1926, in Luxembourg City, the son of Frank and Ida (Liebin) Mayer. His father was a wholesaler.
The Germans invaded Luxembourg on May 10, 1940, and within hours the Mayer family — Arno, his parents, his paternal grandfather and his sister, Ruth — were fleeing south through France in their two-door Chevrolet.
Arno’s maternal grandparents stayed behind, and were eventually sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the present-day Czech Republic. His grandfather died there; his grandmother survived.
The family tried to cross into Spain but were turned away. They then boarded a ship to Algeria and eventually reached Casablanca, Morocco, where they secured exit papers to the United States.
The Mayers settled in New York City. In 1944, when Arno turned 18, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Fort Knox to train as a member of a tank crew.
Just before his unit was to leave for combat in Europe, he was reassigned to a facility in Maryland, Camp Ritchie, where high-value German prisoners of war were being held. He was assigned to be a sort of morale officer, attached to the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, whom the United States hoped would work for the military after the war.
“I was officially initiated into the ironies of the Cold War when I was given strict orders not to dispute any of their justifications for having served Hitler,” he wrote in “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?”
He studied business at the City College of New York and graduated in 1949. But a gnawing desire to understand the war he had just been through, and the Holocaust he had barely survived, pushed him toward graduate study at Yale, where he received a doctorate in political science in 1953.
He joined the Brandeis faculty a year later. He taught there and at Harvard before moving to Princeton in 1961. He took emeritus status in 1993.
He married Nancy Grant in 1955. They divorced in 1965. Along with his son Daniel, he is survived by another son, Carl; his sister, Ruth Burger; and five grandchildren.
Dr. Mayer’s father was an ardent left-wing Zionist, as was Dr. Mayer early in his career. He worked on a Communist kibbutz in Israel in the early 1950s and befriended the philosopher Martin Buber.
But in time he grew deeply critical of the Israeli state, believing that it had betrayed the vision of its founders in favor of a militarized, segregated society beholden to nationalists and ultrareligious forces — an argument he unpacked in 2008 in his book “Plowshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel.”
Once more he drew criticism for his views. And once again he stood fast, declaring that his antipathy toward what Israel had become was of a piece with his worldview as the child of a small, landlocked country forced to flee by war among greater powers. He was, he insisted, “singularly immune to the allure of all nationalisms.”