Understanding Our Own History by Learning about Another’s
Social Historian, Franziska Exeler has focussed much of her research on the Soviet Union and the Second World War but at HSE she is asking students to find out what happened in other countries to try to understand the Soviet experience in a global context. She talked to the HSE English News website about teaching and researching at the International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences, about discovering Moscow’s architecture and about her life as an academic in Russia.
— You joined the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences last year. How did your cooperation with the HSE begin and how has it evolved?
— I had heard really good things about the Centre, and was of course familiar with my future colleagues’ work, although we had never met in person. When I was deciding between different fellowship offers, several factors played a role in my decision to join the HSE, among them were a significant overlap in research interests with my future colleagues, close proximity to my main archives (very important for historians!), and the chance to return to Moscow. Above all, however, I had the sense that the Centre was an exciting place to be — and I haven’t been disappointed. I really enjoy being a part of the HSE’s History Department and in particular of the Centre. There is certainly a strong feeling of “we are creating an intellectual community together”, which I find very productive for my research.
— Your course is called 'War, Violence and Societies. The Second World War and its Aftermath in Europe and Asia'. How would you evaluate the interest of young people in Russia and in other countries in this issue?
— My impression has been that the students were very eager to learn more about comparative, transnational and global approaches to the study of the war. In Europe, including Russia, there is a strong tendency within the historical profession to focus primarily on the study of one’s own state — and the university curriculum, of course, both demands and reflects this focus on national historiographies. As a result, history students usually know a lot about their own countries, but putting that knowledge into a broader perspective is not always encouraged.
My class on “War, Violence, and Societies” was somewhat experimental in nature and driven by my own strong research interest in comparative, transnational and global approaches to the history of war. In my understanding, these three are not exclusive methodological approaches but rather complement each other, depending on what questions we ask and what issues we are interested in. The main question that my class discussed was: How is extreme violence created and how does it transform states and societies? We examined the Second World War and its aftermath from the late 1930s to the present day. The geographical focus was on Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union and the Balkans) and East Asia. Usually not studied together, the wartime histories of these regions in fact had much in common: They experienced severe occupation regimes (above all German and Japanese, but also other Axis powers), extreme violence, and guerrilla/partisan warfare. At the same time, there were of course also significant differences: the Nazi regime was genocidal, the Japanese state was not. However, the aim of the class was not to analyze each individual article or book that we read for similarities and differences between these regions; that approach would quickly have felt too rigid. Rather, comparative, transnational and global perspectives were interwoven into our class discussions. Ultimately, the idea was to bring two regions into conversation that so far are largely studied separately — which also included discussing whether it actually makes sense to analyze their wartime and postwar histories together.
— 2015 is the 70th anniversary of Victory in the Second War. What are your plans and goals as a researcher at the Centre for this year?
— Apart from revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, I am currently working on several projects for articles. One of them investigates the link between Moscow’s international and domestic legal reckoning with the Second World War. More specifically, I am exploring the connection between the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg 1945-46, and a series of domestic military trials that took place at the same time in the Soviet Union. These trials fell into two categories: trials of German soldiers accused of what could be called war crimes, and trials of Soviet citizens accused of treason. What my research so far suggests is that for the Soviet Union, international and domestic justice, and for that matter politics, were inextricably linked — which can be traced in the legal reckoning with the war.
— You devoted a previous research paper to what citizens had done under Nazi occupation in Belarus and used memoirs of Holocaust survivors. Will that be a chapter of the book you are working on now 'Reckonings. Disentangling Nazi Occupation in the Soviet European Borderlands'? Could you please tell us more about the book?
— Yes, that research paper forms part of the larger book project. In my work, I analyze the choices that inhabitants of the Soviet European borderlands made and were forced to make under Nazi wartime rule, and examine their political, social and personal repercussions. “Reckonings” tells the fate of local communities torn apart by occupation, shows how individuals sought justice, revenge, or assistance from their neighbors and courts, and assesses the role of the Soviet authorities in the processes of retribution and reconstruction.
Research on the impact that the Second World War had on the Soviet Union has so far either examined regions that had been Soviet for two decades before the war (like East Ukraine, Russia or East Belorussia) or that were only annexed in 1939/40 (like the Baltics, West Belorussia or West Ukraine). Focusing on Belorussia makes it possible to study an old Soviet region together with a new one, which in turn allows us to understand how the Soviet state was able to rebuild its capacity under very different political circumstances — even though Moscow remained profoundly ambivalent about the ghosts of wartime behavior that continued to haunt it.
As I am revising the manuscript, I am in particular working on bringing my Soviet case study into conversation with research on the German occupation of non-Soviet Europe and the Japanese occupation of much of East and Southeast Asia during World War II. The aim is to locate Soviet history firmly within the larger, indeed global postwar moment of justice, punishment, and retribution.
— How do you find living and working in Moscow as an international expert? What's difficult and what encouraging? Have you had a chance to travel across Russia and what are your favourite places in Moscow?
— I really enjoy being in Moscow — I have lived here before, and am happy that I got the chance to return for a while. I think Moscow is a very energetic, lively place. The city’s sheer size can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, and I still somehow manage to underestimate the time it takes to get from one place to the other, but the metro makes everything so easy. I love photography and am doing a photo blog on Moscow, so I am spending a lot of time on walks through the city, trying to capture the little things in life, the everyday.
I am also very interested in architectural history, and am always on the lookout for examples of Russian constructivism. Richard Pare did a beautiful book on Soviet modernist architecture from 1922 to 1932 (the title is “The Lost Vanguard”) and thankfully provided the addresses of the buildings that he documented, so my goal is to visit and photograph as many of them as possible. My favorite neighborhood is probably Kitai-Gorod, it is so charming and has all kinds of hidden corners that one would not expect to find in the very center of such a large city. Conference and research travels this year will probably take me to St. Petersburg and Perm, and hopefully also Kazakhstan, which I am really looking forward to.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News Service
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