PETER GAY, THE distinguished intellectual historian of the Englishtenment and the Weimer Republic, is currently at work on a large cultural history of the imperial Germany of the 19th century. Freud, Jews and Other Germans, consisting of essays related to that subject, can be seen as a trial run for the larger work to come. There is nothing tentative or disconnected about it, however, and it succeeds admirably in whetting one's appetite for more on the same theme.

The central concerns which bind together these studies of such diverse figures as Freud and Brahms are the nature of modernism and its relationship to German Jews and anti-Semites. For one of the the charges most frequently leveled at Jews in the early 20th century was that in their rootlessness they were undermining the traditional cultures of the European countries they inhabited and were paving the way for a decadent, disruptive and morally anarchic modernism deeply repugnant to gentile Germany.

In a classic no-win situation, Jews who resisted assimilation into the national culture were accused of being arrogant and stand-offish, while those who attempted assimilation were pushy, self-seeking and slickly clever.

In exploring the roots of German anti-Semitism, Gay puts before us a glittering but dismaying series of paradoxes. Without Jews to hate, the anti-Semite would founder in usually justifield self-loathing. The leading principle of modernism is hatred of the modern world. The revolutionary Jew Freud was an "irreproachable bourgeois" who resisted as long as he could the implications of his discoveries, and was as appalled as any of his contemporaries by his research into infant sexuality and the sexual genesis of neurosis. He is a heroic figure because he steadfastly insisted on looking full in the face facts which pretty much everbody else chose to ignore. The Protestant Brahms, today considered an archconservative in music, was during his lifetime ignored, misunderstood and reviled as a blazing modernist and was considerably less popular than the supposedly more "difficult" Wagner. One wishes that Gay had also considered here the profoundly ambiguous and suggestive case of Mahler.

Above all, Gay finds that most German Jews shared the conservatism of the gentiles, were as blindly patriotic in World War I, and in their contempt for their Eastern European co-religionists - and in their self-hatred - often outdid or at least anticipated the gentiles in anti-Semitism.

One such figure, both tragic and ludicrous, whom Gay treats in depth as a paradigm for many other Jews of the period, is the period is the great conductor Hermann Levi. Levi tried all his life to convince his rabbi father of the moral as well as the musical greatness of his idol, the viciously anti-Semitic Wagner. His neurotic self-abasement made Levi the perfect Wagner acolyte, and he took all kinds of abuse from the despicable Bayreuth circle. On his side, Wagner needed Levi as the most talented exponent of his works, and found himself in the paradoxical situation of persuading Levi to conduct the premiere of his most "Christian" opera, Parsifal.

Yet in all this morass, Gay points out, Levi always resisted Wagnerian deeply yearned for acceptance. Furthermore, neighter he nor other Jews were unique in abandoning theselves to the Wagnerian spell - one need only think of the demeaning services the young Nietzsche so willingly performed for the Master. But like most anti-Semites, Wagner found some of his best friends and most devout admirers among Jews.

In dealing with the scabrous anit-Semitic productions of both Jews and gentiles, Gay cautions us that "the historian must note that gestures and remarks we would today brand as tasteless, tactless, or bigoted, did not in those years necessarily bear the burden that events in our century have placed upon them." In other words, he resists the benefits of hindsight, noting at the very outset that: "To say that the Third Reich was grounded in the German past is true enough; to say that it was the inescapable result of that past, the only fruits that the German tree would grow, is false."

Nevertheless, he paints in these pages of lucid scholarship so black a picture of the German spirit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - and amasses such grim evidence of an almost total moral and spiritual bankruptcy - that it is difficult to conceive of any other solution than the "final" one envisioned and eventually put into practice by the Nazis in their "calculated and massive barbarity." Perhaps a more positive side will emerge from the larger history which he is writing. I, for one, eagerly wait its appearance.