Focal points of my work
I am a historian of modern Europe. My research focuses on the cultural and social history of Germany, with an emphasis on the era of the World Wars and the decades immediately after 1945. A lot of my work has centered on National Socialism, especially the ways it built on existing aspects of German culture, the ways its practices and rituals were gradually absorbed into daily life, and what happened to it after 1945.
I have tended to approach my work as a project of historical ethnography, aimed at recovering histories of daily life. I am interested in the changing ways people live, work, think, feel, and act, and what the ephemera of daily existence reveal to us about the past in a broad sense. My work is often concerned with the moral worlds human beings make and inhabit, mostly without our being fully aware of doing so. Such worlds take an endless variety of historical forms, even within the course of what is superficially a single national history, like that of Germany.
The often unconscious qualities of cultural change interest me most, but they are challenging to get at. It helps to look in unexpected places. It helps to look at the random, accidental, strange, and apparently inconsequential.
I have written about death and funerary rituals, and magical and "folk" healing in 20th-century Germany, alongside a variety of other topics that touch on popular religious life and practice. I have written also about the historical nature of ghosts, encounters some people had with vampires after WWII, and other phenomena that belong to the realm of what could be called everyday otherworldliness. My thinking about the past has been influenced by anthropology as well as by folklore and the study of historical memory. I am especially fascinated by the role of rumors and oral lore in history. My work frequently intersects with the history of war (and more particularly with the ways culture shapes war and is in turn reshaped by it). Of late I have been most interested in histories of sickness and health, and I am reading my way deeper into the fields of moral anthropology, medical anthropology, religion and medicine, social suffering, and social psychology.
A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, & the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany
... will be published by Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt in 2020.
The book examines a number of striking phenomena from early post-WWII history in (West) Germany. These include the career of a messianic faith healer, magical healing practices, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, popular apocalypticism, exorcisms, and accusations of witchcraft, among others. These unexpected and largely unremembered matters have become for me an opportunity to examine some of the complex and subterranean processes through which German culture and society changed after the war and after Nazism.
While the book focuses on Germany’s past, it also engages broader issues of humanistic inquiry demanding attention in our global present: the intertwining in society of knowledge, authority, trust, and morality; the enduring associations among sickness and health, sin and suffering; the enduring legacies of genocide and fascism; theodicy, and how we think about misfortune and evil in the modern world; the psychology of guilt and atonement; and the fragility, rather than the triumph, of democracy. The study also aims to contribute to a broader trans-historical and trans-cultural conversation about what has it meant to be ill, suffer, and heal and to know “what is right” and “what is true” in various historically-contingent contexts and in the wake of massive social dislocation.
I first began working on this project as a Fellow at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University in 2011. It has been funded by the American Academy in Berlin (where I was in residence as the John P. Birkelund Fellow in the Humanities in fall 2014), the American Council of Learned Societies, and an inaugural Donald S. and Jacquelyn L. Denbo Humanities Faculty Fellowship from the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee.
Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany
Death in Berlin was published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press. It describes Berliners’ evolving relationship to death and traces transformations in rituals of burial and mourning in the city over three turbulent decades. It received the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History (2010) and the Hans Rosenberg Prize (2011). It was based on my dissertation, which was awarded the Fritz Stern Prize of the Friends of the German Historical Institute (2007).
Russian edition: Смерть в Берлине: от Веймарской республики до разделенной Германии (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie / New Literary Observer, 2015).
Revisiting the "Nazi Occult": Histories, Realities, Legacies
Revisiting the "Nazi Occult" is a volume Eric Kurlander (Stetson University) and I co-edited. It appeared with Camden House in 2015. There is a long-standing idea—in popular culture and beyond—that certain esoteric or occult philosophies, "secret cults,” or millenarian networks influenced the history of Nazism. The volume's contributors explore some of the sources of this "Nazi occult" idea, ask what realities, if any, lie behind it, and inquire into the forms it might have taken after 1945. The volume also goes one step further in examining the present-day obsession of some people—among them, video game designers and popular musicians—with the "Nazi occult."
Eric and I hope the volume prompts a reconsideration of the idea that there is some connection between Nazism and the occult by expanding on and also transcending the traditional range of themes and fields of inquiry associated with this topic. The volume's perspectives have been shaped by many influences, but all reflect a greater sensitivity to historical context than the subject has tended to receive.
Selected articles, book chapters, and short pieces
Click to hear an NPR Berlin podcast of “The Berlin Journal,” in which Wolf Schäfer & I talked about early West German history.
Click to hear Marshall Poe and I talk about Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany on New Books in History.
Since early 2013, I have had the great pleasure of interviewing some wonderful historians about their recent work for New Books in History. These interviews are available as podcasts.
Culture in Modern German History
Under contract with Bloomsbury Academic (History of Modern Germany series, Jennifer V. Evans, Matt Fitzpatrick and Daniel Siemens, eds.)
Kultur might be the hardest-working and most protean concept in German history. Though the term “culture” certainly exists in other languages, some of Kultur’s German meanings are so singular, it has sometimes been claimed, that the term is almost impossible to translate. Kultur has served as an ideal, a standard of measurement, a form of currency, a diagnosis. It helped generations of Germans define and redefine their collective selves, while almost never meaning quite the same thing twice. The concept’s enormous power resides in the fact that while it has often described a supposed essence, it has simultaneously assumed many guises.
From the late eighteenth century to the present, Kultur has performed all kinds of work in German history: solidifying a meaningful sense of collective self; articulating differences (political, ideological, gender, religious, class, and racial); building scientific legitimacy; justifying imperial conquest; memorializing the past. It has indicated “what we do” and “how we think,” “what we like” and “who we are.” All kinds of people have put the concept to use: not just philosophers, artists, university professors, and cultural critics, but also etiquette-book authors, civil servants, party propagandists, pedagogues, historical preservation specialists, and tourism bureau directors. These actors have embodied a range of political perspectives—from socialist to liberal to fascist. From its origins as a key motif of the nineteenth-century Bildungsbürgertum, or society’s cultivated middle ranks, through the early twenty-first century, Kultur has been used variously to define a cosmopolitan realm of arts and letters, a racial nation of blood, and a culturally plural, even “post-national,” republic.
As befits a book called Culture in Modern German History, this one takes a cultural-historical approach to its subject. Rather than seeking to pin Kultur down by elaborating some lasting definition of the idea, it instead traces its changing meanings and uses among Germans—mostly within German-speaking lands, but sometimes also outside them—from the Enlightenment era to the present. By looking at how a variety of actors in given moments put Kultur to work, the book aims to retrieve a spectrum of the concept’s meanings over time. As elastic as Kultur has been, across many generations and around the world, Germans have often seen it as the thing that defined them, made them distinctive. The goal of this book, then, is to trace the career of a changing-but-seemingly-permanent idea and ideal, one whose abilities to shape-shift while providing continuity may actually make it more “essential” than we imagine.
I teach readings courses on modern European and German history; I have on occasion taught our department's "introduction to graduate study in history" course, which for me involves an attempt to historicize the discipline and some of its major philosophical questions over roughly two centuries. I have also taught a course on writing the history of everyday life for graduate students.
In spring 2017, I taught a new course, "Spiritual Medicine in European History, ca. 1600-present." My students and I read histories that related health and illness to ideas about the sacred and the supernatural, good and evil, morality and suffering, sin and guilt. By reading works that span several centuries, we were able to begin historicizing some of the meanings of health and sickness over time and their evolving relationship to religion and ideas of mind, soul, and spirit. We also talked about the historical phenomenology of illness and health — that is, the changing way people experienced these states. The course was heavily interdisciplinary, examining approaches from literature, psychology, folklore, religious studies, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology.
At UT-Knoxville, I teach large surveys; upper-division courses in modern German history; my capstone seminar, "The Supernatural: A Global History"; and an upper-level course on medicine in the Third Reich.
In Fall 2019, I am teaching a new honors course called "Kultur in Modern German History."
Employment / Professional
I am the Editor of Central European History (Twitter: @CentralEuropea2) a journal dedicated to the history of German-speaking Europe, medieval to modern. I have been a member of the history faculty at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville since 2010. Before coming to UT-Knoxville, I taught at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina and at the University of Virginia.
I did my undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (BA, History, with a minor in German) and my graduate work at the University of Virginia (MA and PhD in History).