Gertrude Himmelfarb
BornAugust 8, 1922
Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedDecember 30, 2019(2019-12-30) (aged 97)
Washington, D.C.[1]
Alma materBrooklyn College (BA 1942),
University of Chicago (M.A. 1944, PhD 1950)
Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1939–42)
Girton College, University of Cambridge (1946–47)[2]
Notable awardsFellow of the British Academy
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Fellow of the Royal Historical Society
Fellow of the Society of American Historians
Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1982–88)
Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress (1984–2008)
Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson Center (1985–96)
Council of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute (1987–present)
Jefferson Lecture (1991)
National Humanities Medal (2004)
SpouseIrving Kristol (m. January 18, 1942 – September 18, 2009; his death)
ChildrenWilliam Kristol
Elizabeth Nelson
Relativesparents Max and Bertha (Lerner) Himmelfarb
brother Milton Himmelfarb

 Literature portal

Gertrude Himmelfarb (August 8, 1922 – December 30, 2019), also known as Bea Kristol, was an American historian. She was a leader of conservative interpretations of history and historiography. She wrote extensively on intellectual history, with a focus on Great Britain and the Victorian era, as well as on contemporary society and culture.


Himmelfarb was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Bertha (née Lerner) and Max Himmelfarb, both of Russian Jewish background.[4] She received her undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College in 1942 and her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1950. Himmelfarb later went on to study at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

In 1942, she married Irving Kristol, known as the "godfather" of neoconservatism, and had two children, Elizabeth Nelson and William Kristol, a political commentator and editor of The Weekly Standard. She never changed her last name. Sociologist Daniel Bell wrote that theirs was "the best marriage of our generation" and her husband wrote that he was “astonished how intellectually twinned” the two were “pursuing different subjects while thinking the same thoughts and reaching the same conclusions”.[5]

She was long involved in Jewish conservative intellectual circles.[6] Professor Emerita at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, she was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees. She served on the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, the Council of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute, and the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was a Fellow of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1991, she delivered the Jefferson Lecture under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2004, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by the president of the United States of America. She died on December 30, 2019 at the age of 97.[7]


Himmelfarb long nurtured the neoconservative movement in U.S. politics and intellectual life; her husband, Irving Kristol, helped found the movement.[8]

Himmelfarb was a leading defender of traditional historical methods and practices. Her book, The New History and the Old (published in 1987 and revised and expanded in 2004), is a critique of the varieties of "new history" that have sought to displace the old. The "New Histories" she critiqued include: quantitative history that presumes to be more "scientific" than conventional history, but relies on partial and dubious data;[9] Marxist historiography derived from economic assumptions and class models that leave little room for the ideas and beliefs of contemporaries or the protagonists and events of history;[10] psychoanalytic history dependent on theories and speculations that violate the accepted criteria of historical evidence;[11] analytic history that reduces history to a series of isolated "moments" with no overriding narrative structure;[12] social history, "history from the bottom", that denigrates the role of politics, nationality, and individuals (the "great men" of history);[13][14][15] and, later, postmodernist history, which denies even the ideal of objectivity, viewing all of history as a "social construct" on the part of the historian.[16]

Himmelfarb criticized A.J.P. Taylor for seeking to "demoralize" history in his 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War, and for refusing to recognize "moral facts" about interwar Europe.[17] Himmelfarb maintained that Taylor was wrong to treat Adolf Hitler as a "normal" German leader playing by the traditional rules of diplomacy in The Origins of the Second World War, instead of being a "world-historical" figure such as Napoleon.[17]

Himmelfarb energetically rejected postmodern academic approaches:

[Postmodernism in history] is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth – that denies even the ideal of truth, truth is something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.[18]


Himmelfarb was best known as a historian of Victorian England, but she put that period in a larger context.[19] Her book, The Idea of Poverty, opens with an extended analysis of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, who helped shape debate and policies through much the nineteenth century and beyond. Nominated for the National Book Award,[20] Victorian Minds features such eighteenth-century "proto-Victorians" as Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham, concluding with the "last Victorian", John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, whose novels depict a twentieth-century imbued with Victorian values. The Moral Imagination ranges from Burke to Winston Churchill and Lionel Trilling, with assorted Victorians and non-Victorians in between. On Looking into the Abyss has modern culture and society in the forefront and the Victorians in the background, while One Nation, Two Cultures is entirely about American culture and society. The Roads to Modernity enlarges the perspective of the Age of Enlightenment, both chronologically and nationally, placing the British Enlightenment in opposition to the French and in accord with the American. The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot and The People of the Book focus on attitudes to Jews, Judaism, and Zionism in England from their readmission in the seventeenth century to the present.

In scores of essays she demonstrated that Victorian "values" ("virtues", she calls them) were not unique to that time and place. "The Victorian Ethos: Before and after Victoria" is the title of one essay;[21] "Victorianism before Victoria" are the opening words of another.[22] Today, the word "Victorian" may have a disagreeable and crabbed connotation, conjuring up repressive sexual and social mores. Himmelfarb humanized and democratized that concept. In an interview after receiving the National Humanities Medal, she explained that the Victorian virtues – prudence, temperance, industriousness, decency, responsibility – were thoroughly pedestrian. "They depended on no special breeding, talent, sensibility, or even money. They were common, everyday virtues, within the capacity of ordinary people. They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints – and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones".[23] Himmelfarb has argued "for the reintroduction of traditional values (she prefers the term 'virtues'), such as shame, responsibility, chastity, and self-reliance, into American political life and policy-making".[24]

While she is identified in America as a conservative, in Britain people on the left admire her work. One of her most outspoken admirers is Gordon Brown, the former Labour Party Prime Minister. His introduction to the British edition of Roads to Modernity opens: "I have long admired Gertrude Himmelfarb's historical work, in particular her love of the history of ideas, and her work has stayed with me ever since I was a history student at Edinburgh University."[25]

In an obituary, David Brooks described Himmelfarb as "The Historian of Moral Revolution".[26]




Critical studies and reviews of Himmelfarb's work

Past and present


  1. ^ Gertrude Himmelfarb, Conservative Historian of Ideas, Dies at 97", "The New York Times
  2. ^ "Gertrude Himmelfarb". Contemporary Authors Online. Biography in Context. Detroit: Gale. 2008. GALE|H1000045749. Retrieved September 3, 2011. (subscription required)
  3. ^ Rozenblit, Marsha (2007). "Gertrude Himmelfarb". In Berenbaum, Michael; Skolnik, Fred (eds.). Encyclopaedia Judaica (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Gale Document Number: GALE|K2587508972. Retrieved September 3, 2011 – via Fairfax County Public Library. Gale Biography in Context.
  4. ^ "Himmelfarb, Gertrude 1922–", Encyclopedia, J rank, archived from the original on March 3, 2016, retrieved July 10, 2012.
  5. ^ Martin, Douglas, and Slotnik, Daniel, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Conservative Historian of Ideas, Dies at 97 the New York Times, January 1, 2020, Obituary, section B, page 11
  6. ^ Oz Frankel, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (2006)
  7. ^ Brooks, David. "The Historian of Moral Revolution", The Atlantic, December 31, 2019.
  8. ^ Mark Gerson, "Reflections of a Neoconservative Disciple." in DeMuth, Christopher C.; Kristol, William, eds. (1995). The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol. American Enterprise Institute. p. 165. ISBN 9780844738994.
  9. ^ Himmelfarb 2004, pp. 43, 59–64.
  10. ^ Himmelfarb 2004, pp. 88–111.
  11. ^ Himmelfarb 2004, pp. 51–59, 113–25.
  12. ^ Himmelfarb, Gertrude (2004). The New History and the Old. pp. 96–97.
  13. ^ Himmelfarb, Gertrude (2004). The New History and the Old. pp. 126–138.
  14. ^ Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old, pages 18–21.
  15. ^ Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old, pages 19–20.
  16. ^ Himmelfarb, Gertrude (2004). The New History and the Old. pp. 15–30.
  17. ^ a b Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old, Harvard University Press, 2004 page 193.
  18. ^ Himmelfarb, Gertrude (2004). The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals. Harvard University Press. p. 16. ISBN 9780674013841.
  19. ^ Levin, Yuval (January 31, 2020). "The Historian as Moralist". National Review. Retrieved January 3, 2020.
  20. ^ Martin, Douglas, and Slotnik, Daniel, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Conservative Historian of Ideas, Dies at 97 the New York Times, January 1, 2020, Obituary, section B, page 11
  21. ^ Himmelfarb, Gertrude (1999), "The Victorian Ethos: Before and After Victoria", Victorian England, London: Folio Society.
  22. ^ Himmelfarb, Gertrude (March 24–25, 2007), "The War over Virtue", The Wall Street Journal.
  23. ^ Himmelfarb 2008, p. ix.
  24. ^ Frankel, Oz (2006), "Gertrude Himmelfarb", Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, JWA, retrieved June 30, 2009.
  25. ^ Himmelfarb, Gertrude (2008). The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments. London, England: Vintage.
  26. ^ Brooks, David (December 31, 2019). "The Historian of Moral Revolution". The Atlantic. Retrieved January 1, 2020.