History Department


“A Sacred Space Is Never Empty”


By Mary Elizabeth Malinkin, Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

In continuation of our alumni interview series, we talked with Title VIII-supported Research Scholar Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock to hear her reflections on her fellowship. Dr. Smolkin-Rothrock, Assistant Professor of Russian History at Wesleyan University, is writing a book about the confrontation between scientific atheism and lived religion in the Soviet Union. See the discussion below on religious policy and atheism throughout Soviet history.

History Departments Open House

Welcoming Prospective History Majors

Interested in history?
Considering a history major or minor?

Come to the History Open House!

Meet fellow students and faculty.
Discuss potential careers and enjoy a Pizza Lunch!

Date:  Tuesday, November 3
CSS Lounge, PAC, 4th Floor
12:00 P.M.

History Departments Harvest Social

Join us for the History Harvest Social

Come to meet history faculty and fellow students and,
enjoy some apple cider, hot cocoa, and fall desserts

Date:  TBA
Zelnick Pavilion
4:15 P.M.

Kleinberg’s Essay the Featured Reading Material for Modern Intellectual History Webinar

Ethan Kleinberg

Ethan Kleinberg

An essay by Ethan Kleinberg, professor of history, professor of letters, is the featured reading material for the H-France network’s fall 2015 webinar on “Modern Intellectual History.” H-France’s mission is to promote scholarly work and discussion on the history and culture of the Francophone world through digital form.

Kleinberg also is director of the Center for the Humanities and executive editor of History and Theory.

The H-France webinar will take place at 3 p.m. Sept. 18. Designed particularly for graduate students, H-France webinars are open to anyone. Participants are expected to read Kleinberg’s essay prior to the seminar and consider related questions.

Negro Cloth:  Plantation Provisioning and New England's Industrial Revolution


Professor Seth Rockman
Department of History
Brown University

Tuesday, December 1, 2015
4:15 P.M.
Russell House

Jung ’15 Employs Oral History to Study WWII Memories


Hyo Jeong (Tina) Jung ’15 interviewed more than 40 Korean and Japanese elders for her thesis, “Conversation of Empathy: Understanding Children’s Lives During World War II in Korea and Japan through Oral History.” (Photo by Laurie Kenney)

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.

History Faculty Promoted, Awarded Tenure

The Board of Trustees conferred tenure to Paul Erickson, associate professor of history.

Paul's promotion will be effective as of July 1, 2015.

Paul Erickson
Erickson is a historian of science who offers courses on science and technology policy, the history of rationality, and the economy of nature and nations. He is a co-author of How Reason Almost Lost its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (University of Chicago Press, 2013). He was awarded the Prize for Young Scholars from the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science in 2009 for his significant scholarly contribution to the history of science in western civilization.

Teter’s Talk Opens Symposium on 50th Anniversary of Vatican II Council’s Declaration “Nostra Aetate”

Magda Teter

Magda Teter

In early March, Magda Teter, the Jeremy Zwelling Professor of Jewish Studies, gave the opening talk at a symposium in Poland on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration “Nostra Aetate” issued by the Second Vatican Council, which changed the tone and relations between Jews and the Catholic Church.

Teter spoke on “Continuity and Change in ‘Nostra Aetate.'” Teter also is chair and professor of history, professor of medieval studies.

Teter has been involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Poland for the past three years. Her research into post-Reformation Europe led her to meet with a bishop in the southeastern Polish town of Sandomierz, a town long considered a locus of anti-Semitism due to a painting in the city’s cathedral depicting the “blood libel” of Jews murdering Christian children. Teter and the bishop discussed what to do with the 18th century painting, and how to bring the community together around a solution. The result was a 2013 symposium on the issue, partially sponsored by Wesleyan, that brought together scholars and clerics and led to the decision to unveil the painting, add explanatory signage and convene again. Read more in this News @ Wesleyan story.

In addition to Teter’s talk at the meeting this month, Bishop Mieczysław Cisło spoke on Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Poland, and John Connelly, professor of history at the University of California-Berkeley, spoke about the individuals involved in creating a foundation for the declaration, both in the interwar period and after World War II.

Tucker Explores Photography’s Powerful Role in Our Legal System

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

An essay by Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker is included in The Five Photographs that (You Didn’t Know) Changed Everything, a five-part BBC radio series focusing on historically important yet little-known photographs.

In her segment, The Tichborne Claimant, Tucker tells the story of how an 1866 photograph of a butcher in Wagga Wagga, Australia, played a central role in a case that gripped Victorian Britain and had an enormous impact on our legal system, raising questions about what photography is for and how it should be used. Says Tucker:

“Sometimes even a mundane photograph can have a powerful and lasting historical impact. This is the story of one such photograph—a picture that not only changed the life of the man it showed, but also set in motion the longest and most expensive trial in British legal history, and sparked a national debate over the role of photography as evidence in a court of law.”

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

Teter’s Book Receives Honorable Mention for Jewish Studies Award


A book by Magda Teter, the Jeremy Zwelling Professor of Jewish Studies, received honorable mention for the 2014 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award. The Schnitzer Book Award was established in 2007 to recognize and promote outstanding scholarship in the field of Jewish Studies and to honor scholars whose work embodies the best in the field: innovative research, excellent writing and sophisticated methodology.

Teter’s book,Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation, published by Harvard University Press in 2011, was honored in the Medieval and Early Modern Jewish History category.

In recognizing her book, the Prize Committee wrote:

“In this beautifully written and richly documented work, Magda Teter traces and convincingly demonstrates the interdependence of economic, religious and political motives that animated Polish anti-Semitism in the early modern period. This book also identifies and elucidates significant factors in the history of their formations in East Central Europe, and in the history of the host-desecration charge in early modern Europe.”

Magda Teter

Magda Teter

In post-Reformation Poland—the largest state in Europe and home to the largest Jewish population in the world—the Catholic Church suffered profound anxiety about its power after the Protestant threat.

In the book, Teter reveals how criminal law became a key tool in the manipulation of the meaning of the sacred and in the effort to legitimize Church authority. The mishandling of sacred symbols was transformed from a sin that could be absolved into a crime that resulted in harsh sentences of mutilation, hanging, decapitation, and, principally, burning at the stake. Recounting dramatic stories of torture, trial, and punishment, this is the first book to consider the sacrilege accusations of the early modern period within the broader context of politics and common crime.

To celebrate the honorable mention, Teter is invited to attend the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award Reception Dec. 14 in Maryland.

Teter also is chair and professor of history, professor of medieval studies. She speaks more about the book and her research in this past News @ Wesleyan article.

How facial recognition technology came to be:  The FBI’s astonishing new identification system is the product of 175 years of innovation—and paranoia. A visual history.

By Jennifer Tucker, Globe Correspondent,

Smolkin-Rothrock on Russia’s National Unity Day

Writing in Open Democracy, Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies, offers a historical explanation of Russia’s National Unity Day. Observed November 4, this holiday–based in what many consider “ancient history”–remains a point of confusion for the Russian public, writes Smolkin-Rothrock. Yet, “even if the holiday holds little significance for many Russians, it matters a great deal to Vladamir Putin and it should matter to those concerned with understanding his ideology.”

Schwarcz Addresses Moral Dilemma, Ethics in China in Colors of Veracity


Vera Schwarcz, the Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies, professor of history, is the author of a new book titled Colors of Veracity: A Quest for Truth in China, and Beyond, published by the University of Hawai’i Press in November 2014.

In Colors of Veracity, Schwarcz condenses four decades of teaching and scholarship about China to raise fundamental questions about the nature of truth and history. In vivid prose, she addresses contemporary moral dilemmas with a highly personal sense of ethics and aesthetics.

Drawing on classical sources in Hebrew and Chinese (as well as several Greek and Japanese texts), Schwarcz brings deep and varied cultural references to bear on the question of truth and falsehood in human consciousness. The book redefines both the Jewish understanding of emet (a notion of truth that encompasses authenticity) and the Chinese commitment to zhen (a vision of the real that comprises the innermost sincerity of the seeker’s heart-mind). Works of art, from contemporary calligraphy and installations to fake Chinese characters and a Jewish menorah from Roman times, shed light light on the historian’s task of giving voice to the dread-filled past.

Following in the footsteps of literary scholar Geoffrey Hartman, Schwarcz expands on the “Philomela Project,” which calls on historians to find new ways of conveying truth, especially when political authorities are bent on enforcing amnesia of past traumatic events.

Schwarcz, who was born and raised in Cluj, Romania, was one of the first exchange scholars to study in China in 1979 and has returned to Beijing many times since then.

For more information on the book or to order, visit the University of Hawai’i Press website.

Schwarcz will be speaking about her book at 4:15 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Wasch Center. The event is open to the public.

Interview, Paper by Smolkin-Rothrock, Fusso Focuses on Russian Atheist

Wesleyan faculty Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock and Susanne Fusso are the co-authors of “The Confession of an Atheist Who Became a Scholar of Religion,” published in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Volume 15, Number 3, Summer 2014. The paper is based on an interview Smolkin-Rothrock completed on Russian atheist Nikolai Semenovich Gordienko.

Smolkin-Rothrock is assistant professor of history; assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies; Faculty Fellow Center for the Humanities; and tutor in the College of Social Studies. Fusso is professor of Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies.

Among the most prominent professors of “scientific atheism” in the Soviet Union, Gordienko also was the author of the Foundations of Scientific Atheism textbook and a consultant to the political elite on religious questions. Over the course of his life, he was connected with every institution that managed Soviet spiritual life in both its religious and atheist variants. Read the paper’s abstract online here.

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.

History Department Thesis Colloquiums will be held in PAC, Room 136, starting at 4:15pm on the following dates:  10/22, 10/23, 10/29. 10/30, 11/5, 11/6, 11/12, 11/13, 12/3.  You may refer to the calendar of events for details at Wesleyan Events Calendar.

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


Students Honored For Academic Achievement with Awards, Fellowships

Wesleyan hosted the Academic Scholarships, Fellowships and Prizes Reception for students May 7 in Daniel family Commons.

“We gather today to honor students who represent the highest ideals of Wesleyan University―intellectual curiosity, academic excellence, creative expression, leadership, and service. While celebrating these recipients of awards, prizes, and scholarships, we also honor and thank alumni and friends whose generous contributions make these prizes possible,” said Ruth Striegel Weissman, provost and vice president for academic affairs.