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Boston University Arts & Sciences

History News
Newsletter of the BU History Department


Last month, Professor Brooke Blower won the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Society for French Historical Studies. The prize, awarded for Blower’s 2011 book, Becoming Americans in Paris, recognizes the best book published, in any time period, on the history of France and the Americas. Blower’s achievement completes an impressive hat trick of book prizes in 2011/12, joining earlier awards for books by Arianne Chernock and Jim Johnson. And that’s not all! Professor Jim McCann won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to support his research on malaria and agricultural practices in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, this April, the department launched a new series of public events for alumni, students, faculty, and friends. Commemorating significant anniversaries of key events, “Landmarks” presents interesting new angles on pivotal moments in world history. The series began earlier this month, when Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Taylor reexamined the War of 1812 after two hundred years. His public lecture, “ The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies,” took place on Wednesday, April 18, in the BU Photonics Center. Please mark your calendars for October 17, 2012, when a distinguished panel revisits the Cuban Missile Crisis from all sides, and March 19, 2013, when David Chappell reconsiders the legacy of Martin Luther King fifty years after the March on Washington.


History Bibliographer Donald Altschiller reports on recent developments in Mugar Library’s history resources:


Do you read e-books? Do you want the library to order history titles in this format? Would your students prefer print or e-books? The media frequently report the growing number of titles published as e-books and the sizable consumer demand for e-book readers. But does this trend accurately reflect the preferences of college and university students and faculty?

My assumption—and please correct me if I’m mistaken—is that most historians would prefer to read a print volume, rather than an e-book. I’m not sure whether it is a generational phenomenon or the nature of the subject matter. I do understand the popularity of e-books for fiction, but do most readers have the patience to read and scroll through an academic history book on a computer terminal or tablet?

I was particularly struck by the findings of a 2010 study of University of California student attitudes towards print and e-books: “Of the survey respondents who indicated a preference (n=2410), 49% prefer print books, 34% prefer e-books, and 17% had no preference or described a preference that is usage-dependent.” “Undergraduate students indicated the highest preference for print books (58%); many undergraduate respondents commented on the difficulty they have learning, retaining, and concentrating while in front of a computer.”

Fascinating! These undergraduates were brought up since childhood using computers! So what do you think? Again, my hunch is that many library users would prefer we buy print books in history, in addition to the other broad humanities disciplines. Since I want to make sure my history purchase decisions reflect the views of the faculty and students, I would be very grateful if you could send me a short email indicating your preference for either print or e-books. Of course, your comments will be strictly confidential.

Please send your comments to me at donaltsc@bu.edu.

Books about historians:
In recent years, I’ve been actively purchasing biographies and autobiographies of historians. These books can be found under the following subject headings:

Historians—United States—Biography
Historians—Great Britain—Biography

The subjects include Allan Nevins, Carter G. Woodson, George Mosse, C. Vann Woodward, H.R. Trevor-Roper, among many others. I also recently ordered the following title on U.S. college history departments:
Palmer, William, 1951-
From Gentleman’s Club to Professional Body: The Evolution of the History Department in the United States, 1940–1980
Mugar E175.4 P35 2008

Primary sources:
The library has been adding many primary source databases. In case you are not aware of some of the sources, I have compiled the following partial list. You can access these sources from the BU library databases page at http://www.bu.edu/library/eresources/index.html.
Boston Globe Historical, 1872–1979
Early American Newspapers, 1690–1876
Early English Books Online
Harper’s Weekly, 1857–1912
Historical Chicago Tribune, 1849–1987
New York Times Historical, 1851–2009
(most recent editions available in Lexis-Nexis Academic)


During the 2012 spring semester, four members of the faculty conducted research across the Atlantic. In the latest update, Jonathan Zatlin reports from the German capital:

The last time I lived in Berlin for any length of time, I was somewhat out of step with the city. I was focused on the communist past, which had just come to a crashing halt, while almost everyone else was excited about the prospect of returning Berlin to its former splendor as one of Europe's most vibrant cities. Today, I'm happy to report that Berlin has increasingly become the heart of Europe, while I am, in some respects, more out of step with present concerns than ever. The city remains divided in many ways, but it has become less provincial yet more charming, less grumpy and yet more bankrupt than ever—"sexy but poor" as the mayor recently put it. If Berlin is working hard to realize that (financially flush) future, my research is more preoccupied with its past than ever.

After beginning my career as a historian by working on the most recent past, my current work has taken me much farther back in time, beginning with Imperial Germany and moving through the Third Reich. And instead of concentrating on the category of class, as befits a book on East Germany, I have become more interested in how racism shapes economic behavior—and, in particular, the argument that Jews somehow possess an affinity to money.


Jonathan and Max Zatlin share lunch at the Brasserie.

The notion that Jews confuse spiritual with material values is quite old. With the rise of capitalism in nineteenth-century Germany, however, the accusation took on increasingly menacing overtones. After 1933, the Nazis used allegations of Jewish avarice and exploitative business practices to justify their despoliation of the Jews. In other words, the Nazis committed a bold act of communal theft, all the while blaming their victims for necessitating it.

The high point of anti-Semitic hypocrisy was a little-known episode in the Holocaust that I have been researching with the help of several colleagues here in Berlin: the so-called "retirement home contracts" (Heimeinkaufsverträge). By 1942, when the German government was organizing the first deportations of German Jews to concentration camps, the Nazis had already confiscated most Jewish people's wealth. Yet some German Jews—mostly the elderly—still had some savings, life insurance policies, or retirement funds. To gain control of these assets, the SS showed up at the houses of elderly Jews (I'm concentrating on those who lived in Berlin). The SS appealed to both their fear and generosity, saying that their payments would guarantee them room and board at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia that acted as a collection point for deportees on their way to the death camps, and help defray the costs of room and board for those Jews who could not afford it. After "convincing" these elderly people to sign over their possessions, the SS went to the banks, insurance companies, and retirement funds, and, using actuarial tables that claimed the average life expectancy was 85 years, produced the retirement home contracts to obtain the money. Of course, these elderly Jews never received the "room and board" promised them; almost all of them were murdered in Auschwitz.

I suppose you could argue—and I probably will—that the way in which racialized stereotypes shape economic behavior is very much relevant to the German—and for that matter, American—present. Germany is host to millions of Turks and Arabs who are only partially integrated into German society. Even in cosmopolitan Berlin, you can still hear Germans voice their fears about Turks, Arabs, and Afro-Germans in the subway and the marketplace in objectionable terms. But there are also Turkish moderators on television, Afro-Germans on soccer teams, and baklava in many bakeries. Things have definitely changed in the last 15 years, all for the better.


  • On March 30, doctoral student Ellen Wald delivered a paper titled, “A Cooperative Endeavor: Aramco and U.S. Government in the Desert Frontier, 1950–1955” at the Business History Conference in Philadelphia.
  • Professor James Johnson gave four public lectures in March, the first on “Schubert’s Vienna” at a “One-Day University” sponsored by Rockport Music in Rockport, Massachusetts, and the others in Boston and New York City on his recent book, Venice Incognito. Professor Johnson writes: “The organizers of one of my talks in New York insisted that I put on a mask. I wasn’t alone, as the occasion was a masked ball. I did my best to resemble an eighteenth-century Venetian and told them stories about Casanova.”
  • The Armenian Radio Hour, a New Jersey-based program, interviewed Professor Simon Payaslian on issues related to the human rights situation in post-Soviet Armenia since 1991 and the role of the diasporan communities in strengthening civil society organizations in the republic. Payaslian was also the keynote speaker at the panel discussion titled “Challenges to Human Rights and Rule of Law in Armenia.” The event was held at St. Leon Armenian Church, Fair Lawn, NJ, and it was sponsored by the Armenian Bar Association, Armenian Human Rights Advocates, Armenian National Committee (ANC) of NJ, Armenian Society of Columbia University, Knights of Vartan, New York Armenian Students Association (ASA), Policy Forum Armenia, Rutgers Armenian Club, Tekeyan Cultural Association, Engineers and Scientists Association (ASEA) of NY/NJ, and the Tufenkian Foundation.

    More recently, Payaslian presented a paper titled “Perilous Sovereignty: Human Rights in Armenia,” at the Symposium on the Contemporary Caucasus, at Harvard University.
  • In late February, recent PhD David Mislin presented a paper titled “‘Were Jesus here today...he would announce some common ground’: Interfaith Ambitions and the Protestant-Jewish Goodwill Movement of the 1920s” at the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. He also received word that his article “‘According to His Own Judgment’: The American Catholic Encounter with Organic Evolution, 1875–1896” has been accepted for publication in Religion and American Culture and will appear later this year.
  • Professor Eugenio Menegon took a break from his Roman archival research in March to attend a series of workshops and seminars. On March 9, he presented his current research at a workshop on the Portuguese Empire in early modern times, organized at the European University Institute in Fiesole, near Florence. He went on to present his work at a seminar on Asian-European relations at the University of Seville (Spain) on March 13. In Seville he also had a chance to visit the Archivo General de Indias, one the richest repositories for the history of the early modern overseas Spanish empire. He finally discussed current Chinese ways to conceive world history at a symposium on “Historiographical horizons and practices of world history” held at the Department of History, Cultures, and Religions of the University of Rome “La Sapienza” on March 16.
  • Doctoral student Kate Hollander has been accepted into this summer’s session of the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research, held at Harvard. The seminar is a two-week intensive program that gathers faculty and advanced graduate students together with leading scholars who work on theater and performance history and practice for workshops, archival work, lectures, and seminars.
  • A new article by Professor Jon Roberts, “American Liberal Protestantism and the Concept of Progress, 1870–1930,” appeared in British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History, ed. Donald A. Yerxa.
  • On March 21, doctoral student Gareth McFeely presented a paper on cinema exhibition and audiences in Ghana in the 1940s and 1950s at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference, held in Boston this year.
  • Professor Arianne Chernock delivered two public lectures on the “King and Queens of England” at the Wilmington Public Library (in Wilmington, MA) on March 22 and 29. The first lecture was on the Glorious Revolution, and the second, on Queen Victoria and modern constitutional monarchy.
  • Doctoral student Patricia Peknik presented a paper titled “Historical Perspectives on American Privacy: Anonymity, Surveillance and the Supreme Court” at the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference in Albuquerque.

Keep Us in the Loop

Let us know about news or upcoming events. Please send news items to history@bu.edu.

Boston University

Boston University
Department of History
226 Bay State Road
Boston, MA 02215
Telephone: 617-353-2551
Fax: 617-353-2556
E-mail: history@bu.edu