I am a historian of modern Europe, with an emphasis on German-speaking Central Europe in the twentieth century. My work engages themes of democracy, citizenship, and human rights that resonate across the modern world. Who belongs to “the people,” that central imaginary of modern democracy? How are determinations of inclusion and exclusion contested and negotiated? In the history of twentieth-century Germany, and its entanglements with the wider world, I find a vantage point for exploring how modern national and religious identities have evolved against the backdrop of territorial conflict, divided sovereignties, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
I am currently pursuing three streams of research: a book manuscript; a second project in the early phases of development; and a series of articles in intellectual history and social thought. I welcome opportunities to discuss these projects and provide further details on my research.
Reinventing Protestant Germany: Religion, Nation, and Democracy after Nazism
My current book manuscript reexamines the formation of West Germany’s post-1945 democracy through the lens of the German Protestant Church, an institution that underwent a rapid reorientation after the Second World War. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Germany’s Protestant churches had served as strongholds of nationalism and militarism. Church leaders, pastors, and lay activists linked dreams of national and religious revival, culminating in widespread Protestant support for the Nazi “national revolution” and complicity in the Holocaust. Yet by the 1950s and 1960s, Protestant pastors and lay intellectuals emerged as leading figures in West Germany’s earliest human rights movements, including campaigns that fought for the right of conscientious objection to military service and opposed the enactment of emergency laws.
Contrary to prevailing narratives of postwar religious decline, I argue that the transformation of German Protestantism profoundly shaped West Germany’s democratic institutions and political culture, and sheds a wider light on how democracy can take root on the ashes of dictatorship.
Central to this study is my contention that West German democracy emerged less through the repudiation of Nazi legacies than the recasting of longstanding anti-democratic traditions. The pastors and lay intellectuals at the core of the narrative were born around the turn of the twentieth century and served as collaborators, witnesses, and occasional resisters under Nazism. After 1945, they did not reject the antisemitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-liberal traditions of German Protestant nationalism wholesale. Instead, under the pressures of Allied occupation and the early Cold War, Protestant activists reimagined Germany’s Protestant heritage as a fount of democratic, pacific, and humanitarian values. Luther’s Reformation remained central to their story of the nation, but they reinterpreted longstanding religious tropes—the infallibility of conscience, the undeservedness of grace, the imperative of reconciliation—as principles best actualized in a constitutional democracy. By defending democracy as an outgrowth rather than deviation from German history, Protestant church leaders and lay intellectuals galvanized support for the expansion of West Germans’ constitutional rights. At the same time, Protestant narratives of democracy forestalled a forthright reckoning with the Nazi past, not least Christian participation in dictatorship, war, and genocide.
Reinventing Protestant Germany is framed around key political moments at which Protestant pastors and lay intellectuals articulated and sought to implement their visions of democracy. My article in The Journal of Modern History locates the origins of German Protestant human rights politics in the Protestant Church’s postwar campaign against Allied war crimes tribunals. This campaign, I argue, bridged nationalist and internationalist uses of human rights language, enabling Protestants to embrace a new commitment to constitutional democracy without abandoning pretensions to German victimhood. Subsequent chapters explore the Protestant role in West German debates on family and education law; conscientious objection to military service (also discussed in a recent article in Central European History); reconciliation with Eastern Europe; and the legitimacy of emergency laws. The initial chapters trace the formation of the generation at the heart of the book during the Weimar Republic and National Socialism. An epilogue analyzes the legacies of postwar Protestant politics through the end of the Cold War and beyond. By the 1980s, Protestant leaders invoked their contributions to West German democracy in order to question the democratic capacities of Muslim immigrants, helping to inspire exclusionary visions of citizenship that persist in Germany today.
Homelands: German Nationalisms and Contested Sovereignties in the Twentieth Century
My second project, for which I have begun preliminary research, sets twentieth-century German nationalisms in a global context. Provisionally titled Homelands, this study will examine how German-speaking Europeans (including Austrians and Germans abroad) imagined and intervened in conflicts over contested territories across the twentieth-century world. I am especially interested in how Germans projected experiences of territorial conflict and ethnic cleansing in Central Europe to shape key concepts of modern international law, including the “right to the homeland,” “right against expulsion,” and “right of return.”
Legal claims of a “right to the homeland” were born in disputes over the remapping of Central Europe after the First World War, and buttressed Nazi racial imperialism in Eastern Europe. Yet after 1945, following the expulsion of over twelve million ethnic Germans from East-Central Europe, German and Austrian expellee advocates reinvented the “right to the homeland” to link territorial claims in Central Europe with advocacy for the human rights of ethnic minorities in the global South. German-speaking international lawyers, humanitarian advocates, and nationalist activists became key players in the politics of contested territories across the Cold War (and post-Cold War) world, including Israel/Palestine, Nigeria/Biafra, Cyprus, Iraq, South Africa, and the former Yugoslavia. The career of the “right to the homeland” reveals the slippery boundaries of nationalism and internationalism in the twentieth century, as well as an important source for the modern equation of nation, peoplehood, and territory.
Intellectual History & Social Thought
I maintain an active interest in modern European intellectual history, including the implications of historical methodologies for contemporary social theory (and vice versa). Most recently, I published the first English-language review of the German philosopher and public intellectual Jürgen Habermas’s major new work, This Too a History of Philosophy. My essay contextualizes Habermas’s approach to universalism in his postwar German career, and calls for a move beyond Eurocentric framings in the history of philosophy. My article in Modern Intellectual History on the earliest writings of the twentieth-century social theorist Theodor Adorno explores how leftwing cultural critics in 1920s Germany turned to psychoanalysis amidst the failure of Marxist predictions of social revolution. Future plans in European intellectual history include essays on Habermas’s theological interlocutors, Soviet émigré intellectuals in interwar Europe, and (in an entirely new direction that I hope one day to pursue) racial thinking in the German Enlightenment and Idealism.