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 post-1945 period.
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 can 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.
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.
I like stories and have a great respect for what they do—their power to make things, make things happen, and explain what has happened. I think of that as a defining feature of my approach to the craft of history writing.
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 translation: 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 (History Department, 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 will prompt 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
“Witchdoctors Drive Sports Cars, Science Takes the Bus: An ‘Anti-Superstition’ Alliance across the Cold War Divide,” in Paul Betts and S.A. Smith, eds., Science, Religion and Communism in Cold War Europe (Routledge, 2016).
“A Messiah after Hitler, and His Miracles: Postwar Popular Apocalypticism,” in Monica Black and Eric Kurlander, eds., Revisiting the 'Nazi Occult’: Histories, Realities, Legacies (Camden House, 2015).
“The Ghosts of War,” in Michael Geyer and Adam Tooze, eds., Cambridge History of World War II, Total War: Economy, Society, Culture at War, Vol. 3, Total War; Economy, Society, and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
“The Cure Bringer,” The Berlin Journal (November 2014).
“Expellees Tell Tales: Partisan Blood Drinkers and the Cultural History of Violence after WWII,” History & Memory 25:1 (Spring/Summer 2013): 77-110.
Discussion Forum, “Cultural History and the Holocaust,” (co-edited with Jennifer V. Evans), German History 31:1 (March 2013): 61-85.
“Miracles in the Shadow of the Economic Miracle: The ‘Supernatural 50s’ in West Germany, Journal of Modern History 84:4 (December 2012): 833-860.
“Смерть в Германии Между Двумя Мировыми Войнами” (Death in Germany between Two World Wars), Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie / New Literary Observer, Special issue: “Semiotics of August in the XXth Century: The Impact of Global Cataclysms on Everyday Practices,” Vol. 116 (September 2012): 308-324.
“The Supernatural and the Poetics of History,” The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture 13:3 (fall 2011).
“Death and the Making of West Berlin, 1948-1961,” German History 27:1 (January 2009).
“Death in Berlin, 1933-1961,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 42 (Spring 2008).
“Reburying and Rebuilding: Reflecting on Proper Burial in Berlin After ‘Zero Hour,’” in Between Mass Death and Individual Loss: The Place of the Dead in Twentieth-Century Germany, Alon Confino, Paul Betts, and Dirk Schumann, eds. (Berghahn, 2008).
NPR Berlin podcast, “The Berlin Journal,” aired on January 6, 2015 (a conversation between Wolf Schäfer & me about faith healer Bruno Gröning & early West German history).
A discussion with Marshall Poe about Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany, New Books in History, April 27, 2012.
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.
Alice Weinreb, Modern Hungers: Food & Power in Twentieth-Century Germany
William Davenport Mercer, Diminishing the Bill of Rights: Barron v. Baltimore and the Foundations of American Liberty
Eric Kurlander, Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich
Luke E. Harlow, Religion, Race and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880
H. Glenn Penny, Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800
Karrin Hanshew, Terror and Democracy in West Germany
Evil after Nazism: The Demons of Postwar Germany
...is the provisional title of a book I am writing, which examines a number of striking phenomena from the first post-WWII decades in what was then 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 often subterranean processes through which German culture and society rebuilt and 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, and morality; the enduring associations among sickness, health, and notions of good and evil; the legacies of genocide and trauma; the psychology of 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. It endeavors to contextualize fully the meanings of health, illness, and suffering in a society that, under Nazism, placed enormous cultural value on the stoic acceptance of bodily and emotional pain.
I first began working on this project as a Fellow at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University in 2010-11. The project 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.
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 will teach a new course, "Spiritual Medicine in European History, ca. 1600-present." The course looks at histories that relate 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 will historicize some of the meanings of health and sickness over time and their evolving relationship to religion and ideas of mind, soul, and spirit. We will think about the historical phenomenology of illness and health — that is, the changing way people experience these states. We’ll also examine approaches (from readings in literature, psychology, folklore, religious studies, anthropology, philosophy, sociology) that can be applied to histories of experience widely.
At UT-Knoxville, I teach large surveys, upper-division courses in modern German history, and my capstone seminar, "The Supernatural: A Global History." In fall 2016, I taught a new honors course on the social and cultural history of medicine in the Third Reich. I am planning to expand this course into a study-abroad trip.
I was educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (B.A., 1998) and the University of Virginia (Ph.D., 2006).
I was born in High Point, North Carolina and grew up there and nearby. I have been a member of the history faculty at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville since 2010. Before coming to UT-Knoxville, I taught at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina and at the University of Virginia.
The photograph at the top of this page shows a WWII-era flak tower in Vienna—I think it's the one in Arenbergpark. The photo was taken by my friend Dan Burkhalter in 2006. The photo below I took (I think: though Dan may well also have taken this one) in a cemetery in Vienna, probably the Zentralfriedhof.