Tag Archive for History Department

Grimmer-Solem’s Research Continues to Have Impact on the Ground in Germany

Associate Professor of History Erik Grimmer-Solem investigated the story of a celebrated German General during World War II, uncovering new evidence that he cooperated in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. His research has made national news in Germany, where the government is now responding to revelations about the General's legacy.

Associate Professor of History Erik Grimmer-Solem investigated the story of a celebrated German General during World War II, uncovering new evidence that he cooperated in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. His research has made national news in Germany, where the government is now responding to revelations about the General’s legacy.

Associate Professor of History Erik Grimmer-Solem’s research on a celebrated German general, known as an “anti-Nazi,” is continuing to have an impact on the ground in Germany today. Over the past year, Grimmer-Solem’s findings have ignited a public debate in the country over General Hans von Sponeck’s place in history—a debate which has now turned to the matter of a commemorative stone honoring him.

Since World War II, von Sponeck had been celebrated in Germany with an Air Force base, city streets and other monuments named after him. All this has changed since Grimmer-Solem’s research shed new light on the General’s reputation as a “good general” who was court-martialed and imprisoned for refusing to follow Hitler’s orders during a major Soviet counteroffensive on the Crimean Peninsula in 1941 by withdrawing his troops from Kerch, likely saving the lives of thousands of soldiers.

A personal connection involving his grandfather drew Grimmer-Solem to study von Sponeck. A detailed investigation of von Sponeck’s military career in the German Military Archives turned up evidence that the general’s record was far from spotless: The records showed close cooperation between the military unit von Sponeck commanded and the SS in committing numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity in the southern Ukraine and Crimea in 1941.

The research was covered in major German news outlets and sparked a national debate and parliamentary discussion about von Sponeck’s legacy. The latest impact has been on a Stolperstein (German for “stumbling stone”) commemorating von Sponeck. More than 48,000 of these granite cobbles are installed in locations around German cities, each with a brass plaque inscribed with the names and fates of victims of Nazism. According to Grimmer-Solem, while they began as an artist’s project, the Stolpersteine project has taken on a semi-official character in recent years as the stones are set in cooperation with German city governments and supported by many local commemorative and historical societies.

Since last year, the German city of Bremen has been grappling with the question of what to do with the stone honoring von Sponeck—a victim of the Nazis who was also a perpetrator. The stone was first set into the pavement in 2007, before Grimmer-Solem’s findings, published in the peer-reviewed military history journal of the German Armed Forces in December 2013, changed public perception of the General.

“Since then, any official commemoration of Sponeck in Germany has become controversial and has led to a debate about what to do about street names, monuments, and of course, the commemorative Stolperstein,” said Grimmer-Solem. “Sponeck’s Stolperstein is particularly problematic as it erases a line between the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust,” a point he made in the conclusion of his article.

When Gunter Demnig, the Cologne-based artist behind the Stolpersteine project, learned of Grimmer-Solem’s findings, he demanded that the city of Bremen remove the Stolperstein immediately, or else he would no longer sanction the project in Bremen, the home of more than 600 stones. Removal of the commemorative stone was controversial, however, and Bremen project leaders insisted on a public discussion about the matter.

“As the project has gained popularity and sanction as a semi-official memorial, removing Stolpersteine is awkward new territory lacking precedent let alone any procedures,” Grimmer-Solem explained.

On March 3, the Bremen State Central Office for Political Education hosted a podium discussion titled “Grauzonen. Stolpersteine für Wehrmachtsgenerale” (“Gray Zones: Stumbling Stones for Members of the Wehrmacht.”) It was ultimately agreed that the Stolperstein should be officially removed.

“But, to everyone’s surprise, thieves had beaten them to it,” Grimmer-Solem said. At some point, unknown people had excavated and stolen Sponeck’s Stolperstein, and police are now investigating.

The debate is now extending to the legacy of the German military resistance to Hitler in contemporary Germany. As an editorial in the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung (TAZ) noted recently, the debate about von Sponeck has spread well beyond Bremen and now extends to reassessing such postwar German national icons as Claus von Stauffenberg, who is remembered for his failed assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944.

“Stauffenberg, too, has a Stolperstein… and he, like many of his military co-conspirators, was involved in war crimes. Sponeck was shot after the failure of the plot, though he did not belong to it—his evolution from perpetrator to victim corresponds exactly to the ambivalence of this group,” the newspaper wrote.

This increasingly critical view of the July 20 conspirators marks a substantial shift in Germany. In the early years of the Federal Republic, Germans found it difficult to honor “traitors” like Stauffenberg, but he took on an increasingly central place in the “democratic” identity of West Germany’s armed forces, and since the 1960s, in German perceptions of themselves as opponents and victims of the Nazi regime.

“It is a sign of the maturity of German democracy that it is now slowly coming to terms with the complex legacy of men like von Stauffenberg,” Grimmer-Solem said.

Read more about Grimmer-Solem’s research on von Sponeck here.

Tucker to Study Victorian Sustainability, River Pollution Prevention Reform as Visiting Fellow

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker is associate professor of history; associate professor of environmental studies; associate professor of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies; associate professor of science in society and faculty fellow in the College of the Environment.

As a 2015 Humanities Research Centre Visiting Fellow, Associate Professor Jennifer Tucker will study Victorian sustainability, photography, law and river pollution prevention reform at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia.

Her appointment will be May 15-July 15.

Tucker’s ongoing research, tentatively titled “Science Against Industry: Photographic Technologies and the Visual Politics of Pollution Reform,” traces the historical roots of the use of visual evidence in environmental science and pollution reform. Using nearly 300 visual representations (drawings, engravings photographs, and graphs) from archives and libraries, many of which have never previously been studied, she analyzes the scientific impact of new forms of visual representation in chemical climatology and examines the presentation and use of specific visual exhibits in Victorian courtroom debates over air and river pollution.

The research addresses current questions that lie at the heart of several fields and disciplines, including environmental history,

Smolkin-Rothrock Receives Honorable Mention for Distinguished Article Prize

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

An article by Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock received honorable mention for the Distinguished Article Prize from the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture. Smolkin-Rothrock is assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies and tutor in the College of Social Studies.

Her article, titled “The Ticket to the Soviet Soul: Science, Religion and the Spiritual Crisis of Late Soviet Atheism,” appeared in Volume 73, Issue 2 of The Russian Review and was selected from among 22 entries. The honor comes with a $200 award.

Smolkin-Rothrock’s article examines the confrontation of Soviet scientific atheism with religion as it played out on the pages and in the editorial rooms of the country’s primary atheist periodical, Nauka i religiia (Science and Religion). It follows a story that begins in the 1960s, when the journal tried to change its title to Mir cheloveka (The World of Man) to reorient itself from the battle against religion towards the battle for Soviet (and therefore atheist) spiritual life. Smolkin-Rothrock argues that while the Khrushchev era is the point of origin for much of late Soviet policy on religion and atheism, it is only with the Brezhnev era that we see understandings of religion move beyond ideological stereotypes. New conceptions of religion, however, forced atheists to consider Communist ideology in unexpected ways, and led to revealing discussions the Soviet state’s role in providing spiritual fullness. The story of Nauka i religiia is a microcosm of Soviet ideology in that it reveals the boundaries and contradictions of the material and the spiritual in the Soviet project.

History Faculty Participate in American Historical Association Meeting

Screen shot 2015-01-06 at 12.52.34 PMFour faculty from the History Department participated in the American Historical Association Meeting in New York City Jan. 2-5. The topic was “History and Other Disciplines.”

Professor of History Ethan Kleinberg presented “Just the Facts: The Fantasy of a Historical Science.” Kleinberg also is the director of the Center for the Humanities, professor of letters and executive editor of History and Theory.

Assistant Professor of History Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock spoke on “From a Society Free of Religion to Freedom of Conscience: How Toleration Emerged from within Totalitarianism.” She also is assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies and tutor in the College of Social Studies.

Professor of History Magda Teter spoke on roundtable panel on “Jewish History/General History: Rethinking the Divide.” Teter also is the Jeremy Zwelling Professor of Jewish Studies, professor of medieval studies and chair of the History Department.

Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker was a commentator on a panel titled “The Photographic Event,” which reexamined the question of an “event” by looking at various visual technologies and texts, whether sketches, paintings or films. Tucker also is associate professor of environmental studies, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor of science in society and a faculty fellow in the College of the Environment.

Twagira’s Paper on Cosmopolitan Workers Published in Gender & History

Laura Ann Twagira, assistant professor of history, is the author of an article titled, “‘Robot Farmers’ and Cosmopolitan Workers: Technological Masculinity and Agricultural Development in the French Soudan (Mali), 1945–68,” published in the November issue of Gender & History, Volume 26, Issue 3, pages 459-477.

In 1956, Administrator Ancian, a French government official, suggested in a confidential report that one of the most ambitious agricultural schemes in French West Africa, the Office du Niger, had been misguided in its planning to produce only a ‘robot farmer’. The robot metaphor was drawn from the intense association between the project and technology. However, it was a critical analogy suggesting alienation. By using the word ‘robot’, Ancian implied that, rather than developing the project with the economic and social needs of the individual farmer in mind, the colonial Office du Niger was designed so that indistinguishable labourers would follow the dictates of a strictly regulated agricultural calendar. In effect, farmers were meant simply to become part of a larger agricultural machine, albeit a machine of French design. Read the full article, online here.

British History Class Takes Field Trip to Yale’s British Art Center


On Oct. 7, students enrolled in the course HIST 269: Notes from a Small Island — Modern British History, 1700 – Present, visited the Yale Center for British Art.

The class, taught by Alice Kelly, visiting assistant professor of history, toured the center’s two current exhibitions, “Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837–1901” and “Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in 18 Century Atlantic Britain.”

“Seeing history through a different lens — art and sculpture — really aided their understanding of some of the class readings, and we were able to find a number of similarities, particularly in the Figures of Empire exhibition,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s course offers a survey of the political, social, economic, and cultural history of Britain since the beginning of the 18th century and traces the movement into modernity. Topics covered include the Acts of Union, the Jacobite Rising, the Napoleonic Wars, imperial expansion, the Slavery Abolition Act, the Industrial Revolution, the development of mass literacy, the Edwardian era, the First World War, the Second World War and the Blitz, the end of empire, the Sexual Revolution and the Swinging Sixties, and contemporary multicultural Britain. Read more about the HIST 269 course here.

Erickson Co-Authors Book on Rationality during the Cold War

Paul Erikson

Book by Paul Erickson.

Paul Erickson, assistant professor of history, is the co-author of How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality,” published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.

In the United States at the height of the Cold War, roughly between the end of World War II and the early 1980s, a new project of redefining rationality commanded the attention of sharp minds, powerful politicians, wealthy foundations, and top military brass. Its home was the human sciences—psychology, sociology, political science and economics, among others—and its participants enlisted in an intellectual campaign to figure out what rationality should mean and how it could be deployed.

How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind brings to life the people—Herbert Simon, Oskar Morgenstern, Herman Kahn, Anatol Rapoport, Thomas Schelling, and many others—and places, including the RAND Corporation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Cowles Commission for Research and Economics, and the Council on Foreign Relations, that played a key role in putting forth a “Cold War rationality.” Decision makers harnessed this picture of rationality—optimizing, formal, algorithmic, and mechanical—in their quest to understand phenomena as diverse as economic transactions, biological evolution, political elections, international relations, and military strategy. Erickson and the other authors chronicle and illuminate what it meant to be rational in the age of nuclear brinkmanship.

Order the book online here.

Teter Co-Edits Book on Jewish-Christian Relations in Art

New book, co-edited by Magda Teter.

New book, co-edited by Magda Teter.

Magda Teter, the Jeremy Zwelling Professor of Jewish Studies, professor of history, professor of medieval studies, is the co-editor of a book titled, Jewish-Christian Relations in History, Memory, and Art: European contet for the paintings in the Sandomierz Cathedral, published in Polish by Wydawnictwo Diecezjalne, Sandomierz in 2013.

A large painting known as Infanticidium on the western wall of the Cathedral church in Sandomierz, Poland depicting scenes of Jews killing Christian children, has been frequently viewed as an example of Polish anti-Semitism and a troubling symbol of Jewish-Catholic relations. The painting became a site of memory (lieu de mémoire), crystalizing in one object the memory of Jewish-Christian relations in Poland, and a source of protests and tensions between the Catholic church and the Jewish community. The richly illustrated book, edited by Teter and Urszula Stępień, presents the Sandomierz paintings in their broader European and local artistic, historical and historiographic context.

The controversial Sandomierz painting belongs to a broader series of sixteen paintings known as “Martyrologium Romanum.” The first two essays address the question of Jewish-Christian relations. Teter discusses the history of these relations and the role historians have played, and continue to play, in shaping the understanding and perception of these relations. Teter also points to visual influences of European iconography of the so-called “ritual murder” on the Sandomierz paintings, especially the iconography of Simon of Trent.

Grimmer-Solem’s Scholarship on Nazi Officer Discussed in German News

Erik Grimmer-Solem

Erik Grimmer-Solem

The historical scholarship of Erik Grimmer-Solem, associate professor of history, was discussed at length by Klaus Wiegrefe in a Dec. 21 issue of Germany’s largest-circulation news weekly, Der SpiegelAs reported by the magazine, Grimmer-Solem uncovered evidence that a general currently honored as an anti-Nazi by the German Federal Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) was involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity during the German invasion of the Ukraine in 1941.

In an article published in the military history journal Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift, Grimmer-Solem revealed the close cooperation between units of the Wehrmacht commanded by General Hans von Sponeck and the SS in atrocities committed against Jews in the southern Ukraine and Crimea between June and December 1941. Currently, a German Air Force base in Germersheim and streets in Bremen and Germersheim have been named in honor of General von Sponeck. Memorials to him have likewise been erected in these and other cities in Germany.

Schatz’s “Barons of Middletown” Published in Historical Journal

Ron Schatz, professor of history, tutor in the College of Social Studies, wrote an article on Middletown that was recently published in Past & Present, a prestigious English historical journal.

The article, “The Barons of Middletown and the Decline of the North-Eastern Anglo-Protestant Elite,” appeared in the March 2013 issue. Schatz uses the story of the transformation of the leadership of the city since the early 20th century as a microcosm of the United States during the past century. Wesleyan is mentioned several times in the 36-page article, including when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Middletown in 1936.

“Although quite liberal today, Wesleyan University was not friendly territory for liberal politicians back then. A chemistry professor chaired Middletown’s Republican Party Committee, the university’s president James McConaughy sat on the Connecticut State Republican Party’s central committee, and the bulk of the students favoured the Grand Old Party. According to a straw poll taken by the college paper three days before Roosevelt’s visit, Wesleyan students favoured [Alf] Landon over FDR by nearly three to one,” Schatz wrote in the article.

“The research required a great deal of work but was a lot fun too,” Schatz said.

Read the full article online here.

Twagira Awarded Young Scholar Book Prize

Laura Ann Twagira, assistant professor of history, received the 2013 ICOHTEC Young Scholar Book Prize from the International Committee for the History of Technology. The ICOHTEC is interested in the history of technology, focusing on technological development as well as its relationship to science, society, economy, culture and the environment.

Twagira was honored for her Rutgers University dissertation on the study of women’s development of food technology in early 20th century colonial west Africa, Women and Gender at the Office du Niger (Mali).

“Twagira’s dissertation successfully characterizes and contextualizes the technological gestalt of a mundane and routine, but absolutely necessary task: putting acceptable food on the family table. She sets this daily chore, for which historically women in Niger/Mali were responsible, not only into what she calls the ‘foodscape’ of the natural environment, but also into the context of efforts at colonial development that mainly targeted men’s activities,” said Rachel Maines, chairwoman of the ICOHTEC.

“Twagira makes us sharply aware that cookware, containers, heating equipment, and agricultural hand implements, plus the tacit knowledge of how to make successful products using these tools, is no less a technological system than is farming with a tractor or the manufacture of semiconductors. Twagira’s work is exemplary in its framing of women as decisionmakers and significant actors under a colonial regime that recognized economic and technological development only in male-dominated forms of work.”

The award will be bestowed in Manchester, United Kingdom in July.

At Wesleyan, Twagria teaches “The Environment and Society in Africa” and “Gender and Authority in African Societies.”

Tucker to Study Modern Visual Evidence as Fulbright Fellow in England

Jennifer Tucker is chair and associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor of history, associate professor of science in society.

Jennifer Tucker is chair and associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor of history, associate professor of science in society. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Associate Professor Jennifer Tucker has been selected for a Fulbright-U.S. Scholar Award, through which she will spend eight months at the University of York in England.

Tucker is a historian of British science, technology and medicine, specializing in the study of the connections among British science, photography and the visual arts from 1850 to 1920. At the University of York, she will complete work on her second book, tentatively titled, Facing Facts: The Tichborne Cause Célèbre and the Rise of Modern Visual Evidence. She also plans to begin preliminary research toward her next book project, which will trace the social history of Victorian scientific and popular visual depictions of the ocean life before and after the HMS Challenger expedition (1872-1876), which laid foundations for the modern science of oceanography.

The Fulbright Scholar Program, the U.S. government’s flagship program in international educational exchange, was established in 1946. It aims to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” According to its website, it has provided more than 300,000 participants with an “opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.” Read more about the program here.

“I’m thrilled,” said Tucker. “The Fulbright is a research award in the History of Art Department at York, and the timing could not be better.  I am glad for this chance to complete my current book project and begin a new one in dialogue with several specialists whose interests dovetail so closely with mine.”