Research

Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

This book is a comparative study of two groups of German-speaking Mennonites, one composed of refugees and the other composed of voluntary migrants. The groups inhabited Russia until the 1870s, but fled separately to Canada and Germany. During the interwar years of the twentieth century, they resettled next to each other in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco. Both colonies drew on their identifications as industrious farmers and “civilized” Germans to secure safe territories. They also shared a common German culture, language, and religion. Nevertheless, the groups negotiated radically different relationships with the Paraguayan government, the Weimar and Nazi governments in Germany, and aid organizations in Germany and North America. The voluntary migrants rejected national citizenship and outside associations while the refugees embraced these affiliations as essential to their survival.

I argue that Mennonites, like other migrants and refugees, drew on national and religious myths that legitimated their movements and articulated their histories as “tragic” or “comic” plot progressions. Governments and NGOs likewise identified the groups as “insiders” or “outsiders” in their evolving mythologies of national and religious cohesion. Thus, each colony’s different interpretations of religious texts and German history led to vastly different understandings of “Germanness” and divergent relationships with Germany, host governments, and NGOs. Exiled Among Nations demonstrates how European-style nationalism was disseminated globally and accepted or rejected by overseas populations locally.

This work has significant implications for how we conceive of and write German, European, and transnational history. First, it shows that religion was a principal vector for establishing transnational German networks and creating heterodox ideas of “Germanness.” Second, it demonstrates that overseas Germans created a range of national mythologies and collective chronologies that relied more on local knowledge than on events in Central Europe. Third, it shows how European settlers deployed and denied their nationalities to appeal to the prejudices of host governments and secure evolving, local objectives. Fourth, it demonstrates that national prejudices circulating in Europe and the Americas before WWI guided the formation of the international refugee regime during the interwar period. Altogether, my work shows how European migrants used nationalist means to secure what were often nationally indifferent ends.

The Sword Outside, the Plague Within: Influenza, War, and Religion, 1918-1920.

This book project focuses on the cultural impact of the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic in Europe. Accompanied by common strains of bacterial pneumonia,  within eighteen months, the 1918 flu sickened over a billion people and killed upwards of 50-100 million individuals worldwide (2.5-5% of the world’s population). It caused the greatest loss of life within the shortest time in human history. Notably, the pandemic occurred amidst Europe’s increasingly urbanized and “rational” social landscape and in the final months of a global war that took the lives of twenty million people.

The Sword Outside uses a transnational, comparative framework to uncover rural perceptions of science and religion in Europe at the beginning of western medicine’s twentieth-century “golden age.” We know that apocalyptic ideas swept across the northern hemisphere during and after WWI, that physicians could neither cure the disease nor agree upon its cause, and that Western Christians supplied religious interpretations to earlier “plagues”—from the “Black Death” to syphilis. We also know that 95% of Europeans were Christian and approximately 65% lived in towns with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. However, we know almost nothing of how the 1918 flu was received by Europe’s rural, religious population. 

This project is timely. In the last decade, the exponential growth of human and domesticated animal populations, growing human interference with wild animal populations, new outbreaks of previously controlled diseases, the dramatic increase of drug resistant microbes, the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, the global increase in documented and undocumented travel, and the emergence of new political movements that are defiant of international cooperation, create the optimal environmental, medical, and social conditions for a new and unprecedented outbreak. Given that the vast majority of humans hold religious beliefs and that scientific consensus declares a future pandemic to be inevitable, we must understand how humans square faith and science when the stakes are life and death.