In the 1930s, Harvard was joined to Washington, D.C. as it had never been before. It pioneered graduate education in public and foreign policy, offering a tangible credential to political ambition. It formed connections to grant-giving foundations that knitted together university and government. Its professors started to rotate effortlessly between academic and political affiliations. One imagines the architects of this merger as the East Coast aristocracy, those with the means, the connections, and the family names to create a revolving door between Northwest Washington and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that one of the crucial figures in Harvard’s political engagement was an immigrant to the United States from Weimar Germany. This was Carl Friedrich, mentor to Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger when they were Harvard students, avidly modeling themselves on the cosmopolitan glamour of their globe-trotting professor of political theory.

A picturesque city in eastern Germany, Weimar is also a metaphor, its name forever attached to the republic that preceded the Third Reich. Popularly, “Weimar” connotes democratic failure and a culture of macabre innovation, haunted by World War I’s losses, prophetic of the even greater horrors yet to come. “Weimar” appears on stage each time the musical Cabaret is performed, a pop culture synonym for decadence and decline.

In the new book The Weimar Century, Udi Greenberg, a history professor at Dartmouth, turns a well-worn metaphor on its head. His Weimar is not a world of frenetic dissipation but a symbol of democratic continuity. From the Weimar Republic grew the Federal Republic of Germany, Greenberg contends, as well as the transatlantic Cold War alliance: Weimar provided a democratic foundation for later Germanies; this foundation was best preserved, not in Germany itself after 1933, but among those who evaded the direct experience of Nazism. Greenberg substantiates this claim through the Weimar and post-Weimar biographies of thinkers adept at acting on their ideas and especially at finding political applications for them. Greenberg sees a German-American symbiosis in the lives of Ernst Fraenkel, Waldemar Gurian, Karl Loewenstein, and Hans Morgenthau and Carl Friedrich. Access to American colleagues and American funding gave them a unique kind of power, neither purely political nor purely intellectual.

All these men arrived in America with formidable German resumes and international reputations, to which the act of immigration would greatly contribute. Friedrich was a political scientist dedicated to educating democratic leaders, Fraenkel a moderate socialist, Gurian a Soviet expert and Catholic political thinker. Loewenstein was a liberal university professor, and Morgenthau a foreign-policy theorist. They all believed in Weimar’s democratic potential, and this made them personae non grata in Hitler’s Germany. Lucky enough to escape Germany, they all resettled in the United States in the 1930s and began American careers that gave them roles in the construction of a non-Nazi West Germany. Anti-communists to a man, they were the stars of a “democratic Western alliance,” Greenberg writes, the elite of the Cold War elite.

Greenberg’s book opens with Friedrich at Harvard, aiming to replicate there what he had already done in Germany. In the 1920s, Friedrich had envisioned Heidelberg as the cradle of Germany’s democratic elite, presuming that the spirit of the capital city depends on university education. He imported this vision into America, and at Harvard he found a very receptive audience. After the war, he encouraged German Protestants to embrace America’s Cold War foreign policy, lending intellectual stature to a pro-American democracy in postwar Germany.

The others in Greenberg’s cohort pursued the same project by different means. Gurian emulated Friedrich’s efforts with Germany’s Catholics. Fraenkel tried to drain anti-Americanism from Germany’s Social Democratic Party; while Loewenstein espoused “militant democracy,” a policy of excluding democracy’s enemies from political participation, justification for dismembering the postwar Communist Parties of West Germany and the United States. Greenberg’s story comes to a close with Morgenthau, the father of foreign-policy “realism” in international relations, a doctrine that eschewed high-minded idealism for the global alignment of economic and security interests. His disciples would scatter throughout the government and the universities. Yet Morgenthau came to doubt the merits of the Vietnam War, condemning it as idealism of the worst variety. His public dissent from Lyndon Johnson’s Washington prompted young people to criticize the government-academic nexus that he and his fellow German émigrés had labored to build.

America’s policy toward Germany was the foundation of its Cold War success in Europe. Behind this policy were the lives that Greenberg so meticulously documents in The Weimar Century—a coterie whose unblemished ties to the pre-Nazi period gave them real moral authority. They not only referenced German precedent in the fashioning of a postwar German democracy; they personally embodied this precedent. Greenberg’s book is no mere celebration, however. These “white, male, European émigrés” were well suited to the mid-century American establishment. They erected something Greenberg calls “the Cold War University,” which “was not a critical space”: it was, in Greenberg’s view, too beholden to Washington, too ideological in its hostility to communism and too intolerant of unconventional opinions. Their work demonstrates “the harsh limits and brutality of [the] postwar imagination” encoded in the “Cold War consensus” of the late 1940s and 1950s. They were purveyors of “virulent anti-communism,” a common trope of Cold War scholarship and a phrase Greenberg uses frequently in his book. It implies a position that was not necessarily wrong but embraced to the point of perversity, an anti-communism gone too far. Greenberg’s émigrés perpetuated the “Nazi obsession” with anti-communism, abetting the “tragically paranoid” visions of America’s political leaders.

Greenberg’s criticisms are reasonable. The blending of the university with the national security state, initiated in the 1940s, would come back to haunt American political culture in the late 1960s. And anti-communism did invite paranoia; in Latin America and in Indochina it led to multiple foreign-policy disasters. But in adapting the academic cliché of the anti-communist virus (virulent anti-fascism is, by contrast, an obvious oxymoron), Greenberg does something of an injustice to his protagonists. The communism to which they were responding, at mid-century, was that of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union—tyrannical, murderous, and expansionary. Stalin is mentioned precisely twice in Greenberg’s monograph, a point reinforced by the book’s rigidly Western European and American focus. A broader historical horizon would better clarify the difficulty of fostering a European and a German political order that was neither fascist nor communist in hue.

The Weimar Century has one other flaw. First-class intellectual history, it brilliantly evaluates the ideas of its main characters. It gives only a vague sense of these characters as people: their emotions, their life circumstances, their personalities. Of this group, Friedrich was born Protestant. Fraenkel, Loewenstein, and Morgenthau were born into Jewish families, and Gurian came from a family of Russian Jews; it was his parents who converted to Catholicism. Jewish affiliations placed them—Fraenkel, Loewenstein, and Morgenthau at least—within an extraordinary cohort of German-Jewish intellectuals, from Hannah Arendt to Leo Strauss. This wave of émigré talent arrived in the U.S. at the moment when (American) Jewish intellectuals were exchanging alienation for an accepted place in the culture. More attention to the lives beyond the ideas might have united these crisscrossing German-Jewish and the American-Jewish narratives.

These are not major flaws. The Weimar Century is a stimulating, original, and timely meditation on politics and ideas. As the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan unravel into anarchy, Greenberg’s study offers a valuable point of comparison. In 1945, with Germany’s future an open question, the U.S. had the best imaginable representatives of the German democratic spirit at its disposal. They did not have to be invented, just as a democratic Germany did not have to be invented from scratch. Iraq and Afghanistan produced intellectuals enamored of democracy; some, like Kanan Makiya, lived in American exile, forming ties to government and academia; but they had far less to revive, in their respective countries, once the wars were over. The wars themselves were less conclusive than the Second World War and less sustained than the Cold War. Twentieth-century German history is anything but a universal example of tyranny’s transformation into democracy.