Research, Reflection, and the Road to Grad School — by Rhiannon Koehler

In my second year of college I enrolled in a research seminar that at once thrilled and terrified me (everyone else was going to be so learned and so old, seniors at least!). The title of the seminar was “Germany in the Age of Total War.” I expected to walk out of the class with knowledge of books that I otherwise would not have been exposed to and perhaps having been a part of some interesting conversations. Instead, after participating in the course and doing research for the final paper, I ended up seriously considering history as a career-path.

The texts that we read in class propelled me to do good research in that seminar. I found that you simply cannot be steeped in monographs like Eric Weitz’s Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience, or William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single Germany Town, 1922-1945 without picking up a few things about how history ought to be done. Between the readings and our class discussions, which were expertly led to integrate historiography into our analysis of political, social, and cultural developments in Germany between 1914 and 1945, I found a research topic.

After reading Koonz and Allen, both of whom detail the change in German women’s lives brought about by Nazi ideology, I decided to write about women who deviated from the standard expectation of acting as wife and mother. But I wanted to do so without sticking to an examination of women in one profession. Rather, I wanted to look at the ways that women carved out space for themselves in a nation that left little room for women to diversify their professional status. I hoped to find out more about women who had joined the industrial sector, women who worked in close political proximity to Reich leadership, and women who had been deeply enmeshed with concentration camps.

I was not interested in looking at women who resisted, but rather at women who chose not to conform to ideological expectations even as they acted on behalf of or were complicit with the regime. I didn’t know who these women were at this point, but my professor pointed me in the direction of some comprehensive secondary sources that I might be able to glean for ideas of individuals to focus on. Texts such as Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland and Alison Owings’ German Women Recall the Third Reich were predictably helpful—but so too were Frank Buscher’s The US War Crimes Trial Program in Germany and David Crew’s Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945.

A close reading of these texts helped me choose the women I wanted to discuss and flesh out the framework for the paper. It became clear, though, that I would need voices from the era to support my arguments. It was at this stage that I actively began tracking down primary sources that would allow me to have an inside look at these women’s lives. I was lucky in that some of the women I chose to focus on, such as Traudl Junge, had left behind first-person narratives. I filled other gaps by examining primary sources such as the laws enacted in Nazi Germany that pertained to gender and records of public presentations about the cult of the domestic, such as those by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. The most helpful resource, though, was an online archive of sorts, maintained by the German Historical Institute in Washington DC, German History in Documents and Images, which allowed me to access legal documents, letters, and photographs from the era without having to travel to a physical archive.

This particular online collection of primary sources was incredibly well organized and abundant, and provided me with much-needed evidence for my paper. The paper that I wrote took longer to write than any paper I’ve written since (I am now a second-year graduate student at UCLA). It was the first time that I had ever engaged with an archive of any sort, the first time that I was writing a paper with a true thesis, and the first time that I was closely reading multiple monographs for my research. It helped that I had fantastic support. I had a professor who was always available and always gave constructive feedback. I had excellent resources, and I had the time to invest. It paid off—researching for the paper gave me skills that I would carry with me into the future, and the paper itself even won an award.

My paper, which I titled “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” paved the way for much of my future research. It also did what the best undergraduate research should do: it gave me the confidence I needed to continue in the direction of graduate school, and it provided me with the skills that I would need for the rest of college. I have siblings, now heading into college, and my main piece of advice is: don’t hold off until you are a senior to take a research seminar. Do it as early as you feel ready, because the skills you will develop in those courses will help you be successful for the rest of your academic career.

Rhiannon Koehler graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2012, with Honors, with a major in History and a minor in Theatre Arts. Her seminar paper, “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” won the 2012 History Department Award for Best Research Paper by a History Major. She is currently a Ph.D. student in American history at UCLA.


CFP: Berkeley Prize for Undergraduate Essays in German

BURG/es is pleased to announce the following opportunity for undergraduates:
The Berkeley Undergraduate Essay Prize is awarded annually by the Department of German for outstanding unpublished papers written during the previous calendar year by undergraduate students enrolled at a North American university/college. Thus the 2015 prize will consider papers written during 2014 on a broad range of topics in German studies. The winning essays carry a cash award of $500 each and will be considered for publication in the department’s electronic journal TRANSIT.

Essays for submission may be written in German or in English; one submission per student. They should be double-spaced, between 3000 and 5000 words in length (including notes and references), and without the student’s name on the paper, since the Awards Committee reads the essays anonymously. A separate cover sheet with the student’s name, major, year of study, title of the paper, address, phone number, e-address, and plans for graduate school (if applicable) should accompany the essay. The essay may be submitted in hard copy or electronically.

The paper has to have been written in the 16 months prior to the essay deadline.

The submission deadline is March 13, 2015; winners announced May 1. Send to:

Undergraduate Essay Prize
Attn: Nadia Samadi
German Department
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3243

On the Benefits of Attending College Next to An Archive — by Nolan Rivkin

As an undergraduate student studying modern German history at Loyola Marymount University, I had the unique experience of studying less than five miles away from the Wende Museum and Archive – easily the largest archive of East German cultural history in the Western United States (if not the entire U.S.) This proved to be an immensely useful resource. Over the course of four years of undergraduate study, I made use of the Wende during my sophomore, junior and senior years. During my sophomore year I participated in a binational (German and American) undergraduate research group and contributed to the Wende’s recently-launched online exhibition (see the previous entries from Elizabeth Drummond about the Wende Museum Project). As a junior I returned to the Wende to comb through their archives for my own research while writing a seminar paper; this seminar paper later formed the basis (and roughly the last third) of my senior-year thesis. While writing that thesis I made use of the Wende’s archives once again and also received hands-on experience of archive work from the “other side” as a research intern. It is safe to say that the proximity to this resource not only strengthened my own research but also guided my academic path, which has led to a doctoral program in history at the University of Tennessee.

If I had to narrow it down, I would say that my work with the Wende taught me two important lessons relevant to my studies in history:

1) How do make use of an archive. Archival research is one of the most basic tools of a historian, but undergraduate students of history rarely get the chance to do it. Admittedly, not every university is conveniently placed adjacent to an archive, but nevertheless, having the chance to conduct archival research prior to entering graduate school was a great opportunity. The Wende Museum’s archive is small by most standards, but it is still cavernous (and cold! The work stations within it were actually equipped with space heaters) enough to earn its nickname of “the Vault.” While working at the Wende, I learned important lessons about how to locate specific documents from within this vast, frigid space and how to handle them. In the case of the Wende, they have a well-organized digital database with all of the collection indexed to a series of tags and with searchable descriptions, thus providing for easy navigation within the archive.

2) How to interpret cultural artifacts. The main goal of the Wende Museum is to archive cultural artifacts and not simply retell the basic history of the German Democratic Republic; therefore, their archives are stocked not with Stasi documents or transcriptions of political meetings but with home magazines, books and consumer electronics (to name a few examples). Artifacts like these have a lot to teach us; they serve as windows into the everyday life (or Alltagsleben, if you will) of a society that, for the most part, no longer exists. Through cultural artifacts, one can determine and analyze a variety of attributes. To use an example from my own research, I used popular antifascist films to examine East Germans perceptions of their role in the Second World War and how the Socialist Unity Party fostered the antifascist foundational mythology of the GDR. I also had the opportunity to work with the East German lifestyle magazine Kultur im Heim. Researching this magazine afforded me the opportunity to look into East German everyday life and consumer culture to analyze issues such as private spaces, East German design philosophy, and how the state’s political agenda was realized through consumer goods. For example, the heavy use of plastic in new toys, tools and cookware was a direct result of the regime’s “pushing” of plastics to strengthen one of the GDR’s strongest domestic industries. Admittedly, not every historian studies cultural history. However, analyzing cultural artifacts is an important and at times overlooked skill, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to develop it.

Every undergraduate student of history should pursue the opportunity to conduct first-hand primary-document research. Of course there is nothing wrong with the classic method of conducting research in the library, writing the paper, and turning it in all without leaving campus; but if the opportunity to go out and conduct history in a “real-world” setting exists, it shouldn’t be passed up. Without the academic foundation that I built up with the help of the Wende’s archives, I likely would not have done the academic work that resulted in my application and acceptance to a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where I am continuing my work on 20th-century Central and Eastern Europe.

Nolan Rivkin graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2013 with a major in History and minors in both German and Jewish Studies. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, working with Dr. Monica Black.