Dora Vargha awarded AAHM Prize

Dora Vargha has been awarded the 2016 J. Worth Estes Prize by the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM). Dora received the prize for her paper “Between East and West: Polio Vaccination Across the Iron Curtain in Cold War Hungary”, published in the Bulletin for the History of Medicine (Summer 2014).

This award was established in honour of J. Worth Estes, M.D., in recognition of his many invaluable contributions to the American Association for the History of Medicine and to scholarship in the history of medicine. The award is made annually for the best published paper in the history of pharmacology during the previous two years, whether appearing in a journal or a book collection of papers.
Congratulations, Dora!

Conference Report: “Debating the Cold War” 

February 5, 2016 at Birkbeck College, University of London

Report by David Bryan and Francesca Piana 

Debating the Cold War

The Debating the Cold War workshop took place at Birkbeck College, University of London, on Friday, 5 February 2016. It involved around 35 scholars from Europe, the United States, and Asia, who took part in a day of lively debates about some of the ‘myths’ of the Cold War, reflecting on current developments and future directions in the historiography, and their implications for research and teaching.

The first panel discussed the global nature of the Cold War. Although the Cold War is still commonly understood in terms of a US-Soviet binary, the impact of the conflict was felt in all corners of the globe. Anne Deighton (Oxford) argued, however, that there was not a single global Cold War and that we needed to think about the multiple ‘global histories’ of the conflict. The challenge for historians was to both tease out these histories and integrate overlapping developments which took place during the period, from the Sino-Soviet split to decolonisation and changes to the global economy. Many participants argued that these overlapping histories called into question traditional periodisations of the Cold War. The relationship, for example, between communism, decolonisation and development both began before and continued after the Cold War era. Much of the discussion focussed on the idea of the Cold War as a conflict between multiple competing models of modernisation or development, taking place within a post-war global economy in which western capitalism both adopted ‘socialist’ practices, and exerted increasing influence over the internal dynamics of communist states.

The second panel examined the role of ideology in the Cold War, and in particular the traditional binary between the ‘ideological’ East and the ‘non-ideological’ West. Most of the speakers focussed on the complex role of ideology in everyday life in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Ideology, whether defined in terms of ideas, language or everyday practices, was a transformative force which helped to shape socialist societies and individuals within them. Its impact varied over time and place, but did play an important role in the construction of communist societies in post-war Eastern Europe, re-mobilising Soviet citizens during the 1960s and 1970s, and shaping educational practices during the apparently ’apathetic’ period of late socialism. Despite the unwillingness of historians of Western Europe and the West to engage with ‘ideology’ as a category of analysis, some of the speakers aregued that such ideas and practices shaped life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Dina Fainberg (Amsterdam) showed how journalists from the United States and the Soviet Union who covered the two systems were both producers and products of ideology, engaging in forms of comparative writing which invited readers to contrast the Cold War ‘other’ with an idealised version of their own country. Anatoly Pinsky (St Petersburg/Helsinki) argued that the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a turn towards a romantic interpretation of Marxism in the Soviet Union which drew on shared intellectual traditions between Russia and the West.

The third panel addressed the role of the state through the lens of welfare in the Cold War, and how citizens both in the East and in the West understood, appropriated, and reshaped questions of national security, education, welfare, social mobility, and consumption. Sandrine Kott (Geneva) argued that, in order to understand the socialist bloc we should use the language of the ‘social state’ in which social expenditure was higher than in the West. Dean Vuletic (EUI) argued that it was more productive to think in terms of national frameworks in the Eastern Bloc rather than generalisations about the region as a whole. On this, Vuletic was joined by Peter Romijn (Amsterdam), who reflected on the national reconstruction projects in Europe after WWII and on the different ways societies returned to ‘normality’, through humanitarian programmes, and economic and political recovery. The discussions that followed focused on exchanges between the two blocs, often through the circulation of expertise, and interest in ‘models’ which at times cut across the Iron Curtain.

The forth panel reflected on science during the Cold War, and particularly on the idea of a fundamental difference between scientific practices in the two blocs. Moving away from the highly researched issues of nuclear power and the atomic bomb, the panelists brought a set of different sciences into the discussion, from mathematics to social sciences, medicine, psychiatry and technology. Some of the speakers focussed on the role of ‘pure’ science in shaping the Cold War. Alma Steingart (Harvard) discussed the role of mathematics and of scientific rationality in the battle of the Cold War, reflecting on how science influenced the Cold War and vice versa. Waqar Zaidi (Lums) stressed the importance of the Cold War in encouraging ‘big science’, such as electronics, satellites, computers, and internet, through the examination, scrutiny, collection and dissemination of data, often connected to state-driven and military efforts. Much of the discussion focussed on the connections among scientists, the circulation of expert knowledge and data, the ‘language’ of sciences, and the role of translation in enabling scientists to access foreign-language research from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The workshop ended by addressing the legacies of the Cold War, and asking how we understand and communicate its history to younger generations who did not directly experience it. Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College) highlighted the violent legacy of the Cold War in 1990s Yugoslavia, the way it has shaped current ideas about the efficacy of ‘peoples’-led’ revolutions such as the Arab Spring, and its effect on current notions of freedom and the promotion of democracy. Angela Neilson-Nagy (Blackheath High School / Birkbeck MA student) provided a fascinating insight into the extent to which new historiographical approaches have informed, or, more frequently, failed to inform, current teaching materials and curricula in UK secondary schools. The challenge, panellists agreed, was to integrate the complex, heterogeneous and multi-centred historiography of the Cold War, showcased during the workshop, into a narrative which remained comprehensible and engaging for students and the general public.



Launching the Centre for the Study of Internationalism

We are delighted to launch a new Centre at Birkbeck. The Centre for the Study of Internationalism’s inaugural lecture, entitled “The Age of Questions”, will be given by Prof Holly Case (Cornell University) on Monday, 23 May at 6pm, followed by a drinks reception.

The lecture is free and open to all, please reserve your place here.

Announcing 2016 Visiting Fellows

We are very excited to welcome two visiting fellows in May, Holly Case and Heidi Tworek.

Holly Case is Associate Professor of History at Cornell University. She is a historian of Europe, specializing in modern East-Central and Southeastern Europe. Her work focuses on the relationship between foreign policy, social policy, science and literature as manifest in the European state system of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her book, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during WWII, was published in May 2009. She is currently working on a history of the emergence of ‘questions’ (the Eastern question, Jewish question, Polish question, woman question, worker question) in the nineteenth century, as well as a history of the role played by consuls and consular reform in transforming the international system over the course of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

Heidi Tworek is Assistant Professor of International History at the University of British Columbia and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University. She is a historian of communications and international organizations. Her current projects include the history of health communications, the history of news agencies, and the role of women in founding the United Nations. Tworek’s work has appeared in numerous journals including Journal of Global History, Business History Review, German History.

We look forward to welcoming the fellows to London, and to spending a productive summer of discussions and collaborations with them. Our new round of visiting fellowship applications will open in the autumn.

Podcast: ‘Debating the Cold War’

We are happy to share with you the podcast of the Debating the Cold War workshop, which took place at Birkbeck College, University of London, on 5 February 2016. (The recordings can also be found, complete with panel descriptions, via the workshop webpage).

Friday, 5 February 2016

Birkbeck, University of London

9.30am                Introductions

For podcast click here

10 – 11.30am      1. How global was the Cold War?

For podcast click here

Research on the Cold War as a global phenomenon has been growing, but the majority of narratives and frameworks are still focused on the relationship of the United States and the Soviet Union. The aim of this panel is to take stock of the contributions of global history to Cold War historiography. What conventional Cold War concepts does a global approach reinforce, which ones does it contest? What are the conceptual and methodological challenges of constructing a global history of the Cold War? How does shifting perspectives away from the US-Soviet binary change our understanding of the Cold War, its stakes and the relationship of the two superpowers? To what extent can we leave the binary behind at all?

Julia Lovell (Birkbeck)

Anne Deighton (Oxford)

Jussi Hanhimaki (Geneva)

Oscar Sanchez-Sibony (Macau)

Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck), chair

11.45am – 1pm  2. Did ideology matter?

For podcast click here

This panel explores the common juxtaposition between the supposed waning significance of ‘ideology’ in the West with the overly rigid ideological regimentation of the East; the notion that while ideology permeated every aspect of private and public lives in the East, the Western private self was shielded from ideological influences, or that there was no dominant political ideology in the West. It also revisits other, partially contradictory themes from established Cold War narratives: the rejection of Marxism in Eastern Europe (esp. among intellectuals) after the major disappointments of 1956 or 1968; the idea that Marxism was never genuinely adopted except by a small number of brainwashed party cadres. It probes into the roles played by dissidents to maintain and amplify this binary.

Polly Jones (Oxford)

Anita Prazmowska (LSE)

Diana Goegescu (SSEES)

Dina Fainberg (Amsterdam)

Anatoly Pinsky (St Petersburg/ Helsinki)

Ana Antic (Birkbeck), chair

2 – 3.30pm         3. Was there a Welfare State in the East as well as the West?

For podcast click here

This panel explores the thesis, proposed by Jan Gross, Timothy Garton Ash and others, that Communism was based predominantly on repression, the abuse of political power, and a lack of popular legitimacy and ‘freedom’. The panel examines potential points of comparisons between Western and Eastern states and their responsibilities for their citizens, including interpretations of social security, education, welfare, health care, social mobility, and taxation, and asks about effects and consequences of similarities and differences. As part of this comparative perspective, the panel looks at how Communism was experienced and lived in Eastern Europe, and asks questions about legitimacy and dissent in both East and West.

Sandrine Kott (Geneva)

Dean Vuletic (EUI)

Kristy Ironside (Manchester)

Bela Tomka (Szeged)

Peter Romijn (Amsterdam)

Johanna Conterio (Birkbeck), chair

3.45 – 5.15pm    4. What was Cold War Science?

For podcast click here

Histories of Cold War science and medicine have focused on Big Science, nuclear and atomic science, and space exploration. But science in the two blocks has featured in the historiography in very different terms: on one side stand accounts of Western science funding, the relationships of science and the military, and health effects of nuclear programmes and accidents; on the other, studies of a terrain where science was led astray and corrupted by politics, and marked by crippling shortages of materials and expertise. A “declensionist narrative” of decline, desiccation and degradation (borrowing a term from the environmental historian Diana K. Davis) can be found in accounts of Eastern, but rarely of Western, approaches to knowledge and science. This panel will seek to identify possible ways of comparison, and consider the significance of collaborative projects, shared research agendas and other contact points between scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Can we talk about ‘Cold War science’?

Alma Steingart (Harvard)

Jonathan Oldfield (Birmingham)

Jon Agar (UCL)

Iris Borowy (Shanghai)

Sarah Marks (Cambridge)

Lukasz Stanek (Manchester)

Waqar Zaidi (Lums)

Dora Vargha (Birkbeck), chair

5.15 – 7pm          5. The Cold War that never ended, and the Cold War in the

For podcast click here

Piers Ludlow (LSE)

Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College, NY)

Angela Neilson-Nagy (Blackheath High School/ Birkbeck)

Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck), chair

Conference Report: ‘Thinking about Health and Welfare in (Eastern) Europe and Beyond’ – by Tamara Scheer

Report by Tamara Scheer (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Social Science History/Institute for East European History/University of Vienna)

Thinking about Health and Welfare in (Eastern) Europe and Beyond

July 1-3, 2015 at Birkbeck College, University of London

Co-organised by the German Research Foundation Network ‘Social Welfare and Health Care in Eastern and Southeastern Europe during the Long 20th Century’ (Regensburg University, Germany) and ‘The Reluctant Internationalists’ (Birkbeck, University of London)

Our joint network meeting aimed to discuss the current research of our members, with a special emphasis on sources related to health and welfare. Although the geographical focus was on Eastern, South Eastern and Central Europe, most of the 19 papers drew attention to global transfers and networks by discussing a period stretching from the 19th century up to recent contemporary history. The workshop included two key notes, one by Paul Lerner on “War Trauma and the Historiography of Psychiatry”, the other by Marius Turda on “Health and Social Welfare in Southeastern-and Eastern Europe: A Troubled Relationship”.

The Regional and Transnational Character of Health and Welfare

All papers drew attention to the importance of the state and region in which the research topics are placed but at the same time pointed to the impact of global trends and the inter- and transnational character of debates and ideas. Marius Turda emphasized: “A regional focus is by is nature comparative, while at the same time placing emphasis on trans-national and global interconnections, a regional approach encourages us to historize different aspects of the pasts and revisit existing paradigms and chronologies.” He added that even dealing with a certain state is always somehow comparative as states consist of different parts shaped by nature, different historical background, social structures as well as ethnicity and religion. Therefore it was of importance if an illness or a social issue appeared only in some regions and affected only parts of the population or was a widespread phenomenon.

Throughout the 19th century until the 20th century a growing internationalization and mutual influence was also inherent in all papers discussed. Sometimes going international was state driven but sometimes it was driven by private associations or personal (academic) relationships. Maria Zarifi highlighted for Greece the knowledge transfer with Germany between 1870s up to 1945. Germany was codified as being modern. More and more people studied abroad and brought ideas back to their home countries. David Bryan described the example of establishing a health insurance system in Franco Spain. Commissions were sent to Europe (he emphasized Slovakia, Romania, and links with Nazi Germany and  fascist Italy). Germany was seens as the home of social insurance. Ana Antic presented “cold war exchange”. The countries behind the iron curtain were influenced by changes in  child education in Europe and the United States. In Yugoslavia state efforts were not only directed against traditional patriochal structures but also against Sovjet Russia.

After the First World War Polish scientists from Austria-Hungary and Russia settled in Warsaw. Different cultures merged aiming to create a “Polish health” which met political interests to build up a Polish nation, as Katrin Steffen argued. Dora Vargha pointed to the virologist Albert Sabin’s international network skills, which influenced his career positively. Nevertheless, although ideas were transferred to another country and discussed they needed a certain starting point where they fitted into state policy to become reality. Even when a state closed ist borders for foreign ideas transfer took place. Johanna Conterio shows that in Soviet Russia, journals from Germany and the UK dealing with natural healing were available in institute libraries. Fanny Le Bonhomme described psychatry in the GDR. Even in the 1960s, the director of the Charité came from the West and was not a party member. She also pointed to the fact that the sources show that discussions in the GDR did not differ much from contemporary discussions in France.

The Variety of Agents involved in Health and Social Welfare           

All papers draw attention to the importance of the specific actor or agent who or which dealt with questions of health and social welfare. An agent doesn’t necessarily have to be a certain person but can also mean institutions or even objects.

Jessica Reinisch showed through the example of UNRRA relief work how individuals shaped humanitarian work in the field. She started by explaining how field workers were recruited and how their personal and political interests influenced their work. She also asked which role the receiving countries played. This additional focus on the state’s interest was also part of Friederike Kind-Kovacs paper on the example of post World War I Hungary, when international relief was gained for malnourished children. Andre Thiemann questioned the role of personality in assessments of a family’s social status and therefore their need for help among Serbian social workers.

Francesca Piana works on Dr. Ruth Azniv Parmelee, who came to central Turkey with the Hoover organisation and was there when the Armenian genocide took place. Women’s work was in the margins, and Parmelee was critized for her lack of own experience with children as she was single. In Jessica Reinisch’s case the motivation for women to apply as UNRRA relief workers was a great chance for women to be professionally engaged in a foreign country, in contrast to their career chances in their own country. War often implied the opportunity for women to engage in official positions (doctors and nurses). On the other hand Paul Lerner stated that war was not necessarily a motor for severe changes in the way of thinking as in his case World War I did not really change (academic) conceptions in German psychiatry

Under the zeitgeist keyword of “modernism” new international and national institutions popped up throughout the late 19th century. Johanna Conterio showed that in a short period of time in the 1930s eleven institutes for natural healing were founded in the Soviet Union. Whole new groups of agents were created. On the example of Russian railway workers Angelika Strobl showed that they became a “railway population” inside the Russian empire. The railway company  started a process of statistification as an overall health care had become necessary to guarantee the physical condition of specialized professionals. Modernization therefore was characterized by efforts to bring health and welfare efforts to the masses, including mass injections aimed to regulate and control the people’s bodies. Through exhibitions, posters and booklets, the state expected the enlightenment of the massess. Justyna Turkowska presented exhibitions in Poznań (today in Western Poland) where the contact zone of Russia and Germany created an additional kind of racial propaganda. Poles were mentioned in a way that they more tended to alcohol abuse in contrary to Germans.

When health and welfare measures were discussed by states and scientists this always implied that certain groups were left out. This marginalization played an important role, regardless of whether these people were part of an ethnic minority or a distinct group apart from the majority. Eszter Varsa pointed to the selective nature of pronatalism. Hungary legalized abortion already in the 1950s. Physicians argued that abortion would harm the Hungarian nation, as only the wrong women would make use of it, that is, upper class women, rather than Roma. Educating the population was not only directed to adults but also to children. Ana Antic described in the example of Yugoslavia in the 1960s that children were seen as key figures for the long-term transformation of society. They would later become the agents for the Yugoslav version of socialism.  Indira Durakovic focused on the role of marginalization in late 19th century Serbian public health. The newly independent state aimed to have a healthy population not only to have wealthy tax payers but also to marginalize all groups which did not meet the aim of an ethnic, homogenous society, such as female prostitutes and homosexual men.

In Sara Bernasconi’s case the “agent” had been the midwives’ cases in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The so called kofer was interpreted as a symbol for modernization and state’s control by the Austro-Hungarian occupation administration in Bosnia-Herzegovina and therefore as an imperial tool. On the other hand it supported the professionalization of a woman’s job and it had an afterlife as it was used even after the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy.

Critical Assessment of Health and Social Welfare Terminology and Visualization

Friederike Kind-Kovacs argued for tracing the “origin of terminology”. When were terms first used and in which context, but by taking into account that even in the same time people or state’s used them differently. Heike Karge argued for a normalization of several terms such as  “East” and “Balkans” which were often used by contemporaries to draw a distinctive line between themselves (modern) and the others (backward). She showed through the example of post World War II Yugoslavia that these parts of Europe went congruent to discourses in the so called West. Socialism meant something different in Yugoslavia than in Romania. A distinction should also be made between early and late socialism. Esther Wahlen compared measures directed to alcoholics in Romania and Chechoslovakia. She  described the change from early socialist interpretation about the reasons for alcoholism (poverty) to the late socialism where it was seen as the problem of an indivuum. The term modernization played a key role. All actors – regardless of the country – understood the 19th century as a period of modernism. But we have to ask what this term meant for whom and when and why the usage ended after 1945? In the 20th century modernization was enriched by nationalist prospects of a healthy nation.

Another periodization was connected to science. The period until the First World War was called by scientists as a “nervous era“ (Paul Lerner). In the late 19th century until 1945, as Maria Zarifi argued, among Greek officials modernization implied an effort to step away from any Ottoman tradition, by tracing back to ancient times, and to Europeanize. Modernization was synonomous with Westernization.

Also terms related to health and welfare have to be taken critically into question such as “backward”, “poor”, “educated”, “ill,” “healthy,” or even “failure”. Failure of a relief mission, as Jessica Reinisch argued, is always declared by individuals, often linked to political changes.

Health and Welfare are usually not only written words in political or scientific papers but often materialized in exhibitions or pictures. Pictures of childrens‘ coffins were used for public exhibitions (Turkowska) or to gain international attention on malnourished children (Kind-Kovacs).  Dora Vargha presented a post card where a child was dressed up as a syringe or a picture where children thanked Albert Sabin for rescuing them from polio. The late 19th century was also a time of increasing publishing of educational booklets for the masses and public lectures. Indira Durakovic pointed to booklets which aimed to fight venereal diseases. In the case of the Austro-Hungarian army these booklets were printed in the languages of all nationalities living in the monarchy with the same content (Tamara Scheer).


For this workshop researchers gathered who are only on the first sight dealing with different topics. What quickly became obvious was to what extent to which we are all challenged by the same questions. One is that even when states close their borders, agents of health and welfare, ideas and debates are crossing borders. A mutual influence was even traceable for restricted countries such as Soviet Russia and the GDR. In each case we have to ask to what extent the regional (not state) social and cultural situation influenced ideas and debates. The other challenge is how to use terms such as Western, Eastern, Europeanization or modern. For each case researchers have to ask if and how these terms were used by historical actors, in different languages and countries, in the same period. The importance of tracing ideas and debates back to single personalities was also highlighted. Often actors brought in personal interests and prejudices, which influenced the outcomes of their activities. The theme of engaging the masses or directing health and welfare measures toward the masses also appeared repeatedly in our discussions. This engagement shaped thinking about health and welfare in Europe in the 19th century up to contemporary history.

Teaching the history of internationalism in schools, by David Bryan

Woodlands pupils at the graduation ceremony at King's

Woodlands pupils at the graduation ceremony at King’s College London

In the summer of 2015, the Reluctant Internationalist group’s David Bryan teamed up with the educational charity The Brilliant Club and Woodlands School in Basildon to design and run a course on the history of internationalism for a group of twelve GCSE pupils. In September the pupils, who are just beginning year 10, attended a graduation ceremony at King’s College London after completing a course of university-style tutorials and producing a final assignment aimed at A-level standards.

The Brilliant Club places doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in non-selective state schools to deliver university-style tutorials based on their own research. The organisation aims to help pupils develop the knowledge, skills and ambition to secure places at top universities. Their focus is on those groups most underrepresented at such institutions, particularly pupils with no family history of higher education and those eligible for free school meals.

The course at Woodlands comprised six tutorials spread over the summer and autumn terms. The first tutorial formed part of a visit to Newnham College, Cambridge where pupils met with university students and widening participation staff to discuss university life, study skills and the benefits of pursuing higher education. The course ended with the graduation ceremony at King’s attended by pupils, teachers and family members. In between pupils were required to attend five tutorials in school and to complete a 2000 word assignment which was given a university-style grade.

The twelve Woodlands pupils followed a bespoke course on the history of internationalism and international organisations since the First World War. Covering the emergence and development of internationalist ideas and practices through the prism of the League of Nations, the United Nations and the European Union, the course aimed to prepare pupils for the demands of the new GCSE curriculum with its requirements for thematic, longer-term studies of European and world history. It also provided an opportunity for pupils to discuss current debates around the EU, global migration and the refugee crisis in their historical context, and to engage with some of the ideas covered in the Citizenship curriculum.

All of the Woodlands pupils performed extremely well on the course, achieving a 100% pass rate and engaging enthusiastically with some very challenging ideas and material. Special congratulations to Rose and Isobelle who received distinctions for, respectively, their outstanding final assignments and contribution to tutorials.

We hope this will be the first of a number of activities aimed at making the research produced by the Reluctant Internationalists group accessible to secondary school pupils and teachers.

Do the Russians Love Their Children, Too? Vaccination Research during the Cold War

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Dora Vargha has published a piece on suspicions, distrust and conspiracy theories concerning Polio research and practice behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Cold war conspiracies and suspect polio prevention,’ on, as as part of a special feature on the website edited by the organizers of a related conference, Suspect Science: Climate Change, Epidemics, and Questions of Conspiracy, to be held at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), 17-19 September. Dora will present her paper, ‘The Russians love their children too?: Cold war Conspiracies and suspicions in polio prevention’ at the conference on September 18. For a full schedule and more information about the conference, click through.


The Perils of Peace in Open Access

Perils of Peace

Jessica Reinisch’s The Perils of Peace has just been published as an Open Access monograph. You can download the full pdf from the OUP catalogue, here:

In The Perils of Peace Jessica Reinisch considers how the four occupiers – Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States – attempted to keep their own troops and the ex-enemy population alive. While the war was still being fought, German public health was a secondary consideration for them: an unaffordable and undeserved luxury. But once fighting ceased and the occupation began, it rapidly turned into an urgent priority. Public health was then recognized as an indispensable component of creating order, keeping the population governable, and facilitating the reconstruction of German society.

But they faced a number of problems in the process. Which Germans could be trusted to work with the occupiers and how were they to be identified? Who could be tolerated because of a lack of alternatives? How, if at all, could former Nazis be reformed and reintegrated into German society? What was the purpose of the occupation in the first place?

This is the first carefully researched comparison of the four occupation zones which looks at the occupation through the prism of public health, an essential service fundamentally shaped by political and economic criteria, and which in turn was to determine the success or failure of the occupation.


Conference Report: The Black Sea in the Socialist World

By Philippa Hetherington

Reposted from Cosmopolites: The Blog of the Laureate Research Program in International History at University of Sydney.

Early last month, Laureate postdoctoral fellow Philippa Hetherington took part in an intellectually rich conference on the comparative and connective history of the Black Sea region at Birkbeck, University of London. The workshop was convened by Johanna Conterio, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, and part of the Wellcome Trust-funded project “The Reluctant Internationalists: A History of Public Health and International Organisations, Movements and Experts in Twentieth Century Europe, led by Dr Jessica Reinisch. The February event, ‘Landscapes of Health: the Black Sea in the Socialist World,’ brought together historians working on both the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and explored the idea of the Black Sea region as a particularly important node in the geography of socialism. Coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference (4-11 February 1945), the conference highlighted the unique position of the Black Sea in international history, as well as in the economic, social and cultural history of tourism, health, and migration in the region. Mirroring the international focus of the conference, speakers came to Birkbeck from across the world, including Russia, Australia and Switzerland as well as Texas, California and Illinois.

The opening panel explored the singular trajectory of the Black Sea in the Cold War. Samuel Hirst (European University, St Petersburg), spoke about the shared antipathy of both Soviet and Turkish policy-makers towards Western economic dominance in the 1920s. As Hirst explained, for a brief moment in the interwar period, anti-Westernism and economic cooperation bound the Soviet and Turkish states into an unlikely trans-Black Sea alliance. In her examination of the transnational politics of Soviet deaf activism, Claire Shaw (Bristol) turned from Turkey to France, exploring the sites of miscommunication and misunderstanding between French and Soviet understandings of welfare and support for deaf communities. Finally, Stephen Bittner (Sonoma State), discussed the visit of international wine experts to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, on the invitation of the Soviet wine industry. As Bittner outlined, definitions of ‘taste’ and ‘quality’ vis-à-vis wine proved fundamentally untranslatable, as wine occupied a different social role for the Soviets and their guests. All three papers emphasised the contingent nature of cross-cultural cultural and economic ties between the Soviets and their neighbours, and highlighted the importance of attention to the ruptures, as well as the points of connection, produced by trans-national ties.

The second panel discussed population mobility on the Black Sea, through the prisms of both short-term travel (for tourism) and long-term departure (emigration and defection). Diane Koenker (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) explored the particular place of Black Sea tourism in the internationalization of Soviet culinary tastes. Any visitor to the former Soviet Union will notice the ubiquity of Georgian cuisine across the region: Koenker uncovered the longer history of this love affair with shashlyk, which she explained was complicated by fears of Caucasian ‘danger’ alongside a desire for ‘Eastern exoticism.’ Mary Neuberger (University of Texas, Austin) gave the first paper of the day focusing on Bulgaria, tracing the highs and lows of the country’s Black Sea resort industry since 1949, and particularly the initially highly successful Balkanturist state tourism agency. Erik Scott (Kansas) explored the politics of the Turkish-Georgian border in the post-war Soviet Union, highlighting the importance of studying immobility alongside mobility in the migratory dynamics of the region. He then discussed a notorious example of a defection from Georgia, on a plane traveling from Tblisi to Trabzon, and the long lasting effects of this event on the imagination of the space between Turkey and Georgia. Finally, Philippa Hetherington (Sydney) spoke about the importance of the Black Sea as a ‘laboratory of mobility’ in the interwar period, and in particular the special place occupied by displaced Russians crossing the sea in the refugee regime instigated by the Nansen Office at the League of Nations.

The final panel of the first day focused on a topic particularly close to the heart of the Reluctant Internationalists project: the Black Sea as a site of experimentation in health resorts after 1945. Juliana Maxim (San Diego) discussed the architecture of early Romanian socialist resorts from the perspective of art history, arguing that the bright new seaside resorts of the late 1950s operated as vehicles of cultural engineering, turning a ‘backward’ region into a hub of socialist modernity. Johanna Conterio (Birkbeck) emphasised the Black Sea as a site of aesthetic exchange, through which the Soviet authorities learned a new architectural language of ‘mass healthcare resort’ from their Bulgarian and Romanian neighbours. As she pointed out, examples such as this are an important corrective to a historical narrative that assumes the Soviet Union always imposed its political and aesthetic preferences on the rest of the Eastern Bloc. In the third paper, William Nickell (Chicago) examined the instrumental use of Sochi as the ‘model resort’ within Russia and the Soviet Union since the 1930s, and its role as a palimpsest serving as a paradigm of both socialist and capitalist development. Arguably, it was more viable in the former incarnation than in the more recent latter, and Nickell ended by speculating that new development plans in the city would be undermined by their decidedly un-democratic nature.

Day two of the conference opened with a rich panel on mapping, both literal and imaginary. Kelly O’Neill (Harvard) discussed a remarkably diverse set of maps inspired by the archeological exploration of the Russian/Ukrainian Black Sea Coast since the eighteenth century. As she argued, maps of the Black Sea, and visualizations of its archeological riches, could convey highly disparate ideological messages, from presenting the coast as a sum of its ports, to highlighting the great distances between the origin point of archeological treasures and their homes in museums. Susan Grant (University College, Dublin) explored the production, and sometimes unraveling, of Sochi as the ideal ‘place of rest’ through the perspective of the ‘middle’ health care workers, the nurses and feldshers who tended to patient needs for health through ‘cultured rest’ from the 1930s to the 1970s. Finally, Ruxandra Petrinca (McGill) introduced conference participants to 2 Mai and Vama Veche, two Romanian socialist-era resorts that she argued were ‘oases of individual freedom’ for the middle-class holiday-makers in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, participants learned about the various ways in which the Black Sea Coast was imagined as site of historical authenticity, idealized space of health, and even rare arena for political freedom, in the context of socialism(s).

Rounding off the conference, three distinguished discussants summed up the weekend’s proceedings and pointed to directions for future research. Diane Koenker (Illinois, Urbana Champaign) highlighted the need to pay more attention to both gender and class in our analyses of the region, and to question whether we are writing specifically connective histories of the different national spaces around the Black Sea, or more comparative ones. Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College) reminded participants that the Black Sea historically was not only a space of mobility and freedom, but also a space of Communist careerism, political posturing and the socialisation of Communist elites. Further, he raised the question of whether the socialist model of interconnectedness across this space was distinctive. Valeska Huber (German Historical Institute, London), meanwhile, called speakers’ attention to the need to think about the space of the sea itself, and not merely the coastline, and thus to engage with maritime historians who have discussed the social and cultural role of water. She also reiterated the need to historicize not only the dynamics of movement across the region, but also of immobility – moments of acceleration and deceleration in population and cultural exchange, as well as points of flow and spaces of blockage.

Ultimately, this conference sought both to place the Black Sea region in the burgeoning scholarship on global and transnational history, and also to problematize both comparative and connective perspectives on the region. Participants agreed that thinking more broadly in terms of the region as an ‘inter’ or ‘trans’-national space, albeit one ideologically divided at specific moments along nationalist lines, was enriching for scholars of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. However, many participants also felt that it was important to remember how national boundaries were also reified at various points in the twentieth century, and processes such as cultural, economic and population exchange could sometimes serve to concretize imagined notions of essential difference, rather than break them down. Podcasts of the discussions at the conference are available here; readers are also encouraged to look out for the proceedings of the conference, which are to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Slavonic and East European Review.


Upcoming Talk: Atina Grossmann on Jewish Refugees in Soviet Central Asia, Iran and India

Atina Grossmann will give a talk entitled “Remapping Survival: Jewish Refugees and Rescue in Soviet Central Asia, Iran and India” on January 28, 2015. In this lecture, Professor Grossmann addresses a transnational Holocaust story that has been marginalized in both historiography and commemoration. The majority of the c.250,000 Jews who gathered in Allied Displaced Persons camps following World War II survived because they had been “deported to life” in the Soviet Union. Moreover, Iran became a central site for Jewish relief efforts and thousands of Jewish refugees, “enemy alien” as well as allied Jewish refugees in British India, worked with the Jewish Relief Association in Bombay.

Professor Grossmann seeks to integrate these largely unexamined experiences and lost memories of displacement and trauma into our understanding of the Shoah, and to remap the landscape of persecution, survival, relief and rescue during and after World War II. She also asks how this “Asiatic” experience shaped definitions (and self-definitions) as “survivors” in the immediate postwar context of displacement and up to the present globalization of Holocaust memory.

The talk will be held at the Great Hall, British Medical Association House, Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9JP, from 6:30-8pm. This event is organized by the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck and the Institute for Historical Research. For more information and to register, click here.

USSR Now (1958) – Film Screening

Shortly after Stalin’s death, a British television company, Associated Rediffusion, established the first television exchange between Britain and the USSR (ruffling feathers at the BBC). Partnering with the Moscow Television Studio, during the fall of 1957, the company produced a documentary film, USSR Now. The 1958 film is a tour of the USSR that reaches from the Far North to the Black Sea, and is a look inside a country that had been largely closed for two decades. A 35 mm print from the British Film Institute National Archive will be screened.

The film will be introduced and discussed by Ian Christie, Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck in the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Raisa Sidenova, a PhD Candidate at Yale University, who discovered the film while conducting dissertation research. The discussion will be moderated by Johanna Conterio, Postdoctoral Research Associate at Birkbeck in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

This event is being held in conjunction with the workshop, “The Black Sea in the Socialist World,” which is supported by the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies, the Wellcome Trust, the Society for the Social History of Medicine, and the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. The screening is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a wine reception. We hope to see you there!

6 February 2015 at 18:00
Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square, London

Registration essential – book your place here.

Beyond Camps and Forced Labour Conference

beyond-camps-+-forced-labour-722x270 (1)Jessica Reinisch is on the organizing committee of the Fifth international multidisciplinary conference on current international research on survivors of Nazi persecution, “Beyond Camps and Forced Labour,” which will be held at the Imperial War Museum in London, on 7-9 January, 2015.
The preliminary conference programme is available and registration is now open.

The aim of the conference is to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines who are engaged in research on all groups of survivors of Nazi persecution, including Jews, Roma and Sinti, Slavonic peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, political dissidents, members of underground movements, the disabled, the so-called ‘racially impure’, and forced labourers.

Nikolaus Wachsmann, Professor of Modern European History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London, will give the keynote lecture, “After Liberation – Legacies of the Nazi Concentration Camps,” at 7pm on Wednesday, 7 January in Macmillan Hall, Senate House, University of London.

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