Distinguished Professor in the Humanities | European History
My research looks at how people in daily life have dealt, historically, with some of humanity’s most enduring, essential, and existential questions: questions about life and death, good and evil, the knowable and the unknowable. I am interested in how those questions shape moral worlds—worlds that determine collective senses of right and wrong, justice and purity, ugliness and offense, worth and value. Of particular interest to me are the unspoken and often unconscious rules that guide daily life and sustain the social order—structures of time and space, values and norms, customs and classifications, and how communities understand themselves in relation to a cosmic order.
Germany in the era of the World Wars—or more precisely, 1918 to the decades following 1945—has been an extraordinary laboratory for these kinds of interests.
My first book, Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2010), reveals just how much cultural information can be unearthed (if one will) by studying how people bury their dead. From the aftermath of World War I to the building of the Berlin Wall, in an era stamped indelibly by the horrors of mass death, genocide, and total war, Berliners made caring for the dead a powerful source of cultural durability and identity.
A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany (Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt, 2020), deals with the spiritual, psychological, and social effects of defeat in WWII and the subterranean legacies of Nazism in the early Federal Republic of Germany, as viewed through the prism of mass supernatural phenomena. Among the book’s meta-themes are the connections among religion, culture, and medicine; the relationship between trust and knowledge; the difference between facts and meaning; the uses of theodicy in everyday life; the embeddedness of religious ways of thinking in an apparently secular society; and the past’s habit of lingering in the present, no matter how studiously we ignore it.
Death in Berlin was awarded the Fraenkel Prize (2010) and the Hans Rosenberg Prize (2011). It was based on my dissertation, which won the Fritz Stern Prize of the Friends of the German Historical Institute (2007). A Demon-Haunted Land has been translated and published in Dutch, German, Polish, Russian, and Chinese (complex characters). It is forthcoming in a Brazilian edition and in a second Chinese edition (simplified characters). In 2022, Germany’s Office for Political Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung) selected the book for publication in a special edition to promote civic education in the Federal Republic.
In 2014, I was awarded the Berlin Prize by the American Academy in Berlin. I have also been a fellow of Princeton University’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center. The American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities have supported my research.
I was elected to the executive board of the German Studies Association in 2022. Since 2019, I have served as editor of the journal Central European History, and since 2021 as review editor for the American Historical Review. I am an advisor to the George L. Mosse Series in the History of European Culture, Sexuality, and Ideas of the University of Wisconsin Press. I am a member of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee T on college & university governance. From 2021 to 2023, I served as Associate Director of the University of Tennessee’s Humanities Center (UTHC).
Increasingly, I am immersed in environmental history, which often touches on themes that have always been part of my work—questions of life and existence and their continuation under ever-evolving and highly complex conditions. In 2023, I launched the Scholars Collective on Mortality, an interdisciplinary pilot program of the UTHC. The Global North’s attitude of limitlessness vis-à-vis the environment and some wealthy societies’ collective estrangement from the reality of human life’s finitude have had catastrophic consequences for our shared planet. The Scholars Collective on Mortality’s intention is to generate a space where people can reflect on this and many other facets of mortality from various disciplinary perspectives, with the hope of lessening our alienation from the reality of our deaths—and indeed from life in general.
PhD, University of Virginia
BA, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill