Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize, 2014

The 2014 Fritz Stern Dissertation Prizes were awarded to Chase Richards (Free University of Berlin) and Ned Richardson-Little (University of Exeter). The award ceremony took place at the 23rd Annual Symposium of the Friends of the German Historical Institute on November 14, 2014. The selection committee was composed of: Jess Spohnholz (chair; Washington State University), Susan Crane (University of Arizona), and Timothy Brown (Northeastern University).

  • Chase Richards (Freie Universität Berlin): "Pages of Progress: German Liberalism and the Popular Press after 1848" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2013)

    Prize citation: Chase Richards's dissertation, "Pages of Progress: German Liberalism and the Popular Press after 1848," offers a cultural, intellectual, and political history of a critical printing genre at the birth of modern mass media. Familienblätter, or "family papers," were general-interest magazines produced for reading at home whose low cost and engaging content attracted millions of readers in the 1850s and 1860s, making them far more popular than any other German media form. Richards uses this genre to investigate German political culture between the failed revolutions of 1848 and unification in 1871. These magazines, he argues, helped shift the minds of those readers whose lack of support was often credited with the failures of 1848. Liberal ideas were able to survive because the audience of the Familienblätter was in the private home. These writings helped marshal a new reading public on unprecedented scales. Yet Richards also shows how the emergent public sphere was subject to a variety of constraints: the limits of their own material textuality, contemporary reading styles, and state censorship. Their publishers and authors operated as cultural middlemen between liberal intellectuals and the bourgeoisie. By examining the publishers (Karl Biedermann, Karl Gutzkow, and Ernst Keil) and authors in these "middle brow" writings, Richards shows that German liberals were not passive after 1848, as often portrayed, but instead found a new audience for bourgeois education. The end result was always beyond publishers' control, however, given the limits of the superficiality of the genre, the markets for popular readership, and the confines of censorship. The period between 1848 and 1871 has often been treated as an epilogue to revolution or a prelude to unification. But Richards treats it as a critical time of change in German public culture on its own terms. He draws on an impressive and intelligently used range of sources from German libraries and archives, including publishers' correspondence, augmented by their diaries, lectures and published writings, as well as qualitative and quantitative analysis of Familienblätter's texts and images. He also uses censorship records to understand the dynamic between the emergent bourgeois public sphere and Prussian attempts to control it. His conclusions are guided by a sensitive and well-informed source criticism, including sensitivity to the gendered interests of domestic readers and the financial realities of businesses struggling to expand their market share. Richards's Pages of Progress is a pleasure to read, thoughtfully conceptualized, well organized, superbly researched, and written with flair.

  • Ned Richardson-Little (University of Exeter): "Between Dictatorship and Dissent: Ideology, Legitimacy and Human Rights in East Germany, 1945-1990" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013)

    Prize citation: Edward Richardson-Little's dissertation, "Between Dictatorship and Dissent: Ideology, Legitimacy, and Human Rights in East Germany, 1945-1990," is an intellectually challenging and beautifully written study of human rights politics in the German Democratic Republic. Upon learning that leaders and supporters of the ruling Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) often invoked human rights, one might be tempted to imagine this practice as a cynical use of rhetoric by a dictatorial government to combat a rival Western vision of democracy and capitalism. However, Richardson-Little persuasively demonstrates that the SED and its supporters convinced many religious leaders, intellectuals, and working class supporters that socialism supported an indigenous brand of human rights superior to the individualistic, liberal version offered by the West. Richardson-Little makes excellent use of a wide range of sources from fourteen German archives to argue that, not only was there a thriving debate about human rights in East Germany, but also that citizens used that discourse to express dissent. Quite early, the SED developed its own Marxist conception of human rights to criticize the West, including the dangers of Western imperialism. The East German regime encouraged its citizens to believe that there could be "no human rights without Socialism." The SED established a Committee for Human Rights, argued for human rights solidarity in the Third World, and used human rights as a basis for international agreements with the West. By the mid-1980s the discourse of human rights fostered by the SED provided peace activists, environmentalists, and advocates of democracy a powerful tool to oppose East German policies as well. The strength of their arguments helps explain the speed of revolutionary impulses by 1989. The SED's use of human rights discourse, Richardson-Little demonstrates, played a critical role in legitimizing its own downfall. The topic of human rights has received a great deal of scholarly attention from recent historians, largely as part of narratives of the spread of Western values. However, as Richardson-Little points out, contradictions between a rhetoric of human rights and political policies that violate those rights characterized Western powers as well. Historians should be no less willing to accept that contemporaries in East Germany could value human rights, even if their envisioned path to achieving those rights varied significantly from their Western counterparts. In the face of continued debates about the limits of the West's commitment to human rights, Richardson-Little's Between Dictatorship and Dissent thus makes a significant and timely contribution, both to the historiography on modern Germany and to the emerging scholarship on human rights.