14th Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI

Nov 18, 2005

Award of the Fritz Stern Prize at the GHI | Prize Winners: Jesse A. Spohnholz (Grinnell College) and Eli Rubin (Western Michigan University)

Available in Bulletin 38

Prize Citations

The Stern Prize Selection Committee was composed of Doris Bergen (University of Notre Dame), Edward Ross Dickinson (University of Cincinnati), and Kees Gispen (University of Mississippi).

Eli Rubin (Western Michigan University), Plastics and Dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic: Towards an Economic, Consumer, Design and Cultural History. (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2004; Advisor: Professor Rudy Koshar). For more information on Rubin's dissertation, see his article in the GHI's Bulletin.

Prize citation: Eli Rubin’s dissertation - Plastics and Dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic: Towards an Economic, Consumer, Design and Cultural History - is a model of originality. Rubin uses plastic - something so mundane and ordinary that one tends to forget all about it - as a way of exploring how a specific political, economic, social, and aesthetic culture emerged in the German Democratic Republic over the course of its forty-year existence. Rubin begins with questions about material history - what can we learn from things? - and ends with conclusions about the nature of legitimacy. The broad scope of his investigation, and his success in integrating its various levels of analysis, place Rubin in the forefront of scholarship on the history of consumer society in former East bloc countries such as the GDR. Focusing especially on the role of the plastics industry in shaping architecture, interior design, and furniture, Rubin develops the highly original and persuasive argument that plastic brought together the needs of consumers, designers, producers, and state officials to generate a centripetal force producing its own kind of societal stability. The world of plastics, in other words, generated a kind of consensus, or a community or interest among its various constituencies, which in turn resulted in a type of societal legitimacy. Rubin thus conceptualizes legitimacy horizontally, spreading outward from the center, rather than as the more usual, vertical, top-down or bottom-up arrangement. Rubin uses many different sources, including government documents; design magazines, technical journals, and other popular periodicals; interviews, and the plastic objects themselves. To interrogate his data, he develops a methodology influenced by economic history and the history of technology; Heidegger; art history; cultural studies; and Alltagsgeschichte. Each of the four parts of the dissertation approaches the topic of plastics and dictatorship from a different angle: as a matter of economic planning, as a lifestyle question, as a challenge for designers, and as an object of memories of the GDR. This organization creates a kind of layering effect. The reader comes at the same material from four directions to discover overlapping and contradictory meanings in the GDR’s plastic consumer goods. The author needs a steady hand to hold all of these pieces together, and Rubin proves equal to the challenge. Without engaging in Ostalgie, he manages to show the GDR as a complex, functioning system in which plastics—as products of industrial success, a symbol of national pride, and building blocks of the “1,000 small things of everyday life” - played a central role. 

Jesse A. Spohnholz (Washington State University), Strangers and Neighbors: The Tactics of Toleration in the Dutch Exile Community of Wesel, 1550-1590. (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, University of Iowa, 2004; Advisors: Professors Sarah Hanley (supervisor) and Benjamin Kaplan (principal advisor). For more information on Spohnholz's dissertation, see his article in the GHI's Bulletin.

Prize citation: Jesse Spohnholz’s dissertation - Strangers and Neighbors: The Tactics of Toleration in the Dutch Exile Community of Wesel, 1550-1590 - is a pioneering case study of relations between people of different faiths in the German border town of Wesel in the second half of the sixteenth century. Along with other cities in Northwestern Germany, Wesel was a refuge for Protestants fleeing Spanish persecution in the Netherlands; it was one of a number of towns where Lutherans and Calvinists came to define themselves in terms of conflict and opposition to each other. One broad theme of Spohnholz’s dissertation is the rise of confessional consciousness—how Calvinism and Lutheranism became separate confessions even as they struggled to maintain Christian unity. Its other theme is the complex relationship between groups manifesting both conflict and tolerance. Spohnholz focuses his inquiry on the question of how Christians holding differing beliefs in cities such as Wesel managed to coexist peacefully and avoid violence. Extraordinarily imaginative and impressively thorough in his research, Spohnholz shows how Calvinists and Lutherans in spite of their differences were able to cooperate politically and economically, worship in the same churches, live in the same neighborhoods, attend each other’s weddings and funerals, and participate in the same rituals of communion. He argues that such behavior should be seen, not as the precursor of a modern understanding of tolerance and religious pluralism, but rather as a complex, highly significant paradox that centered on the simultaneity of intense conflict and grudging compromise - strong disagreement coupled with reluctant suffering of difference. The principal mechanism to balance those contradictory impulses was what Spohnholz calls the “tactics of toleration”: a finely calibrated politics of containing and expressing religious differences, which functioned through “careful collaboration, unpunished duplicity, and maintaining the pretense of religious unity.” Based on a vast amount of ingenious research in financial, ecclesiastical and municipal sources, both printed and manuscript, in Dutch, German and Latin, Spohnholz’s dissertation is an outstanding work of scholarship. Solidly anchored in the relevant secondary literature and corroborated by telling detail, this study is eloquently written, effectively organized, and a pleasure to read. Spohnholz has written a micro-history that resonates on a macro-level.