J-P. Mayer, editor for many years of the Gallimard complete edition of the works of Alexis de Tocqueville and founder of the De Tocqueville Centre at Reading University, was a leading figure in the anti-Nazi movement in Germany in the mid-1930s.
Peter Mayer was born in Frankenthal, Germany, and was only 15 when the Great War ended, thus missing service in the trenches of the Western Front; he grew up through the great German depression of the early 1920s. He secured a job as a journalist, writing syndicated articles for the main newspapers of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of which he was a keen supporter. He was trusted enough to carry abroad in his head educated guesses about the way German armament was already developing in the early 1930s; he reported direct to Leon Blum in Paris or to Sir Stafford Cripps in London. He married an ardent fellow socialist, Lola Grusemann, who had a Communist brother.
When the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Mayer went into resistance, and helped to plan an abortive SPD coup d'etat in 1934 that was called off because the Communists refused to join in it. While his wife was pregnant with their only son, they were both arrested for distributing unlicensed pamphlets, and were lucky to escape with a fine. The Nazis relaxed their strictest anti-Jewish laws during the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, and the Mayers took advantage of this lull by going to England, ostensibly on holiday; they did not return. Peter Mayer already knew Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, and Richard Crossman, who had recently joined the magazine, and made a living of a sort reviewing books for Martin.
Mayer's first book, written with Crossman and others, called Political Thought: the European tradition, came out in 1939. In parallel with it he produced - also in 1939 - Prophet of the Mass Age, a study of Count Alexis de Tocqueville, to whom much of the rest of his life was devoted. This book was later translated into German, Spanish and Finnish and reworked for the American market in 1960.
When the war began he was taken on - under the wing of the Ministry of Economic Warfare - to prepare broadcasts to Germany. Though he did not become a British subject till 1948, neither Mayer nor his family were interned in the summer of 1940, as so many refugees from Germany and Austria were.
Mayer disagreed with his employers about how post-war Germany ought to be organised, and spent the last two years of the war monitoring broadcasts in German at Caversham - a duller but necessary task.
He variegated it by writing a short book on Max Weber and German Politics and a book on French political thought from the Abbe Sieyes to Sorel, which reached its third edition in 1961. He also edited Martin's book on French liberal thought in the 18th century, and wrote on the sociology of the cinema.
He produced in 1948 an edition, not superseded for many years, of de Tocqueville's recollections, and launched in 1951 an edition of the complete works in French. He produced several editions, in French and in English, of The Ancien Regime and the Revolution and of Democracy in America; and after a spell as Nato Professor at Seattle, settled at the Reading University, where he became Professor Emeritus, and where the De Tocqueville Institute he founded in the early Seventies is still hard at work.
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