Thomas Kühne

Thomas Kühne

Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Intellectual and Cultural History

Competition: US & Canada

Thomas Kühne is the Strassler Family Chair in the Study of Holocaust History and the Director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. Trained in Germany as a historian of modern Central Europe, he is committed to an integrative understanding of cultural history and explores how ideologies, symbols, and emotions affect, and are affected by, political institutions, social conflicts, and cultural differences. He is particularly interested in implementing sociological, anthropological, and philosophical approaches to history.

In his dissertation on the political culture of Prussia, the hegemonic federal state of Imperial Germany (1867-1918), he engaged in the controversy on continuities of modern German history by inquiring in the impact of long-term traditions and contingencies on politics around 1900. His thesis elucidates why the Prussian three-class electoral law in Wilhelmine Germany, which even in its time was condemned as socially unjust, could survive for half a century, despite all signs pointing to mass politicization: the three-class electoral law built on and reinforced age-old political traditions, producing a historically and regionally specific political culture that was appreciated in the countryside still after 1900. Submitted to the University of Tübingen in 1992 and published in 1994 (Dreiklassenwahlrecht und Wahlkultur in Preussen 1867–1914), the book was awarded the German Bundestag Research Prize in Parliamentarism in 1995.

Kühne’s research foci then shifted to the history of mass violence in the twentieth century. Taking up strands of previously established Anglophone scholarship, his volume on men’s history (Männergeschichte-Geschlechtergeschichte, 1996) has established this field in Central Europe and stimulated a broad range of innovative studies since then; it was translated into Japanese and Korean. Another German anthology on competing new trends in military history (co-edited in 2000, titled Was ist Militärgeschichte, or What’s Military History) is still the only one of its kind.

Kühne’s second major research project, though, inquired into male bonding and comradeship among ordinary German soldiers before, during, and after the Holocaust. Awarded major grants and fellowships from the German Volkswagen Foundation, and the German Research Council, the book was published in 2006. Covering the period from 1918 to 1995, Kameradschaft asks how the mythical leitbild of comradeship prefigured and shaped war experience, actions, and memory of Hitler’s soldiers. As the book shows, reference to comradeship submerged concepts of guilt and individual responsibility and thus laid the moral ground of genocidal warfare; it also fueled exculpatory strategies of Germany’s collective memory after 1945.

In 2003 Kühne was awarded a yearlong membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Fascinated with the richness, diversity, and vividness of the American academic culture, he decided to accept an offer from Clark University and to stay in the country. His first book in English takes up some ideas of Kameradschaft, but goes much further in encompassing the entire German society rather than only the soldiers. Profiting from approaches offered by cultural anthropologists like Victor Turner, Mary Douglas and Ruth Benedict, Belonging and Genocide. Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945 (Yale UP, 2010) tracks the rise of “shame culture” in Germany after WWI and reveals how the longing for community, the practice of togetherness, and the ethos of comradeship became the basis of mass murder—how an advanced civilian society became a genocidal society.

Although still engaged in the disruptions and failures of modern German and European history, among other by studying the meaning of shame and humiliation during and after the Holocaust, the research project he is pursuing in his Guggenheim years steps into a new field. Since the 1990s, beauty, understood as body aesthetics, has drawn scholarly attention in social sciences and in the humanities, but has escaped closer examination in social and cultural history. Sociology, psychology, literature, and visual arts have focused on hegemonic beauty discourses; few projects, mainly in black studies and gender studies, have investigated non-hegemonic body aesthetics. Struggling for Beauty: Body Aesthetics and Social Conflict in Modern History provides what is missing in current academic and popular discussions: an inquiry in the historical fluidity of competing discourses on body aesthetics from the eighteenth century to now. Which notions of beauty have been constructed by different societies? And what is it that explains such changes? The project will link issues of self and society, body culture and visual culture, regional particularities and globalization to provide an interdisciplinary prolegomena to future inquiries in how and why modern societies, in particular in Europe and North America, struggle for beauty.


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