Projects per year
I am a historian of modern and contemporary Germany in its European and international contexts. In my work, I have always been particularly fascinated by the implications of the past for contemporary politics, culture and society. After studying history and politics at the University of Göttingen, I obtained an MPhil in Historical Studies from the University of Cambridge and completed my doctorate in modern history at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Before joining Roehampton, I taught at University College London and the University of Oxford.
My research interests focus on themes in modern and contemporary history that place the history of Germany into its wider international contexts. I have worked on competing ideological ideas and the politics of law and human rights during the Cold War, the clash of ideologies of law within the United Nations (UN), citizenship rights and freedom of movement, sovereignty doctrines in the twentieth century, cultural diplomacy and conflicts over German cultural sovereigtny during the Cold War with a particular focus on Sino-German relations, Maoism and its influence on militant subcultures during the 1960s and 70s in context of student protests around “1968”, gender politics of the 1970s, and the history of treason in 20th century Germany.
I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (FRHistS), an Associate Member of the Karl-Jaspers-Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies at the University of Heidelberg, and an Affiliate Member of the Centre for German Transnational Relations at King's College London. I am also one of the convenors of the Modern German History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), School of Advanced Studies, London.
Office: Grove House, Room GH.218
Office hours: Thursdays, 1-2pm and Fridays, 1-2pm
Telephone: +44 (0)20 8392 7377
The politics of law and rights
In my first book titled Legal Entanglements: Law, Rights, and the Battle for Legitimacy in Divided Germany, 1945-1989, for which I received funding from the Karl-Jaspers-Centre/German Research Foundation (DFG), the Fritz-Thyssen-Foundation, the John-Fell-Fund/University of Oxford, and a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Grant (SG141620), I trace the transformation of post-war states’ legal foundations in the aftermath of the Second World War through the lens of Cold War Germany. Bringing together sources from the German Federal Archives, newly-declassified files of the Federal Constitutional Court, the UN Archives, the British National Archives, university archives in the United States and Switzerland, and the collections of West German political parties and the East German government and High Court, the book explores how notions of the Rechtsstaat were transformed in East and West Germany through a constant entanglement of ideologically competing legal spheres. Tracing the opening of German legal tradition and ideas about the law to the international law sphere, citizen-driven notions of law and rights, socialist law, human rights, and new citizen-based concepts of statehood and sovereignty, the book uncovers how law and rights were remade under the pressures of the Cold War in a decolonising world.
National security, state power, and treason in the twentieth century
My second research monograph investigates the history of the modern national security state through the lens of treason in twentieth-century Germany. I explore the transformation and remaking of ideas about national security, state power and political loyalties through a social, cultural and everday legal history of what was perceived of as radicalization under different political regimes. At the centre of the project is an interest in the socially conditioned moral and emotional economies of trust, loyalty, and betrayal at play when people have been accused of treason. Through this social, political, and everday history of treason, the project explores how ideas about state power, national security, and citizens rights have been transformed in the last century. Germany’s changing fortunes during the tweintieth century provide a lens into different modes of government and political cultures from the imperial era into the Weimar Republic to the Nazi dictatorship and the divided Germany. Exploring the history of treason through the prism of individual people’s experience—be it accused of being a traitor or prosecuting or even persecuting disloyal fellow citizens and foreign agents—, this book project revisits the historical development of institutionalized demands for ‘loyalty to the state’, the changing relationship between individual rights and state power, the evolution of the modern surveillance state couched in shifting national security paradigms, the emotional politics of inclusion and exclusion of citizens, and the nature of individual and collective processes of "radicalization" under different political systems as well as their impact on our contemporary world.
The politics of sovereignty, divided nations, and the United Nations (UN)
Growing out of the research for my first book, I am currently preparing and have published a series of articles on the politics of sovereignty, citizenship, and freedom of movement. In the field of the history of sovereignty, I examine ideological clashes over international law and the framing of sovereignty at the UN through the history of ‘divided countries’. National division challenged one of the core principles of the ‘Westphalian order’ that stipulated the indivisibility of sovereignty and sovereign equality of nation-states based on shared nationality. I explore how clashes over the international representation of China and Korea as ‘divided countries’ along the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ in Asia reshaped legal and political concepts of sovereignty and law in both East and West Germany. This research hopes to contribute to scholarship that places the history of Germany during the Cold War no longer predominately into national, German-German, or superpower contexts, but highlights the impact of the politics of decolonization and wider global influences on German history and law in the period between 1945 and 1989. Another aspect of German-German politics of sovereignty, I am currently working on, is the origins of right-wing activism around the legal phrase of 'a continued existence of the German Reich in its border of 1937' under international law that fuels the beliefs of so-called Reichsbürger groups in today’s Germany.
Anti-fascism, anti-rascism and international criminal law
At the United Nations, anti-discrimination paradigms clashed most prominently after the end of the Second World War. While the Holocaust prompted an initial focus on anti-fascism and anti-semitism in international law debates, decolonisation soon pitched a wider definition of anti-rascism against initial codification attempts that many in the global south perceived as Eurocentric. I explore these international criminal law politics in context of fundamental ideological clashes between liberal notions of 'the law' and paradigms of socialist law and legality. The history of Cold War international criminal law shows how international codification efforts became ever-more closely tied to international anti-discrimination campaigns such as the fight against anti-semitism and the anti-Apartheid struggle. With these global campaigns, the pressures on national governments to implement international criminal law norms at home to bolster their ideological legitmacy also grew in the 1960s and 70s. In the context of today's Germany, the very usage of the category of 'race' to define anti-discrimination - a key-term that allowed the anti-apartheid or today's Black Lives Matter movement to make discrimination visible and fight it - has come under pressure and led to initiatives to strike the term 'race' from constitutional law in an attempt to free German law from Third Reich legacies. Exploring these contraditions, this research highlights the importance of Cold War politics and decolonisation as well as local and regional legal traditions for the evolution of the anti-racism discourse in Europe.
Citizenship rights, migration, and freedom of movement
Historians of the Cold War have long acknowledged the repressive citizenship regimes of socialist bloc states between 1945 and 1989. In exploring the history of Cold War travel regimes through the lens of divided Germany, I trace how citizenship rights—and especially the right of freedom of movement—have also been curtailed in Western countries for political reasons. Especially the early Cold War era saw prolonged disputes over limits to the right of citizens to leave their country and return if they had been deemed a risk to national security. Through this perspective, I revisit broader narratives of democratization and liberalization of the Federal Republic of Germany after 1949 in context of evolving transnational travel regimes first organized by the three Western powers and later administered through NATO. Restrictions to freedom of movement went against early Western Cold War rhetoric of "freedom" and "liberty" and played an important part in how ideas about the nature of "the West" were contested. In the second half of national division, such Cold War travel regimes were increasingly superseded by concerns over terrorism threats and unchecked migration that nowadays form part of controversies over the ‘Fortress Europe’ in the post-Cold War era.
Cultural diplomacy during the Cold War
Conflicts between the two German states over the representation of Germany encompassed much more than international diplomacy. In the global battle over legitimacy to represent the idea of what "Germany" was after 1945, language teachers, students, academics and other cultural workers assumed a pivotal role in re-establishing ties to countries to which both German governments could not immediately establish official diplomatic ties after 1949. I explore how both German governments developed cultural diplomacy as a key-part of their international relations strategies based on the heritage of Weimar and Nazi Germany traditions and institutions that had provided networks for auswärtige Kulturpolitik since the 1920s. I investigate how such cultural ‘soft power’ became a crucial means to build new ties to Asian countries on both sides of the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ and thus transported Germany’s Cold War to the Pacific region. In these diplomatic efforts, the idea of German cultural sovereigtny was remade through the ideological global battle between the governments in Bonn and East Berlin.
Political radicalism and gender politics
Since I completed my MPhil dissertation, I retained a keen interest in the history of left-wing radicalism and militancy and state counter-terrorism measures as well gender politics during the 1960s and 70s. I have been especially fascinated by the influence of Third World liberation ideology, in particular 'Mao-Zedong-Thought', on West German and Western European left-wing politics. I am currently working on aspects of state-organized counter propaganda to the influence of Chinese socialism on West German radical subcultures. In particular, I am fascinated by the appropriation of material forms of Maoist propaganda such as the Little Red Book in the attempt to use the expertise of leading legal scholars and social scientists to dissuade left-wing activists from supporting Maoist ideology as part of attempts to pitch a West German constitutional vision of the Rechtsstaat against revolutionary Third World rhetoric in the 1970s.
- 2014-2016: BA/Leverhulme Trust Small Grant 'Divided Germany's Legal Cold War and the United Nations, 1945-1973'
- 2015: John-Fell-Fund & Modern European History Research Centre, University of Oxford, 'Treason in the 20th Century'
- 2015: Fritz-Thyssen-Foundation grant 'Law, (Inter-)Nationalism, and the Global Cold War, 1945-89'
- 2015: John-Fell-Fund, University of Oxford, 'Legal Cultures of the Cold War: The History of Law across the Blocs, 1945-89'
- 2009-2012: Cluster 'Asia and Europe in a Global Context, Karl-Jaspers-Centre, University of Heidelberg, 'Rethinking Trends: Transcultural Flows in Popular Spheres'
- 2009: Heidelberg Academy of Science and Humanities, 'Left-wing milieus and new social movement during the 1970s'
- 2009: Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, 'The Personal is Political: The Interfaces between Politics and Culture Across Europe in the 1970s'
During the academic year 2022-23, I teach the following courses:
- Modern British and European History (1st-year module)
- The Global Economic Order (2nd-year module)
- Treason in the Age of Ideologies (3rd-year module)
- BA Dissertation Module (3rd-year module)
- Texts and Contexts (MA module)
- MA Dissertation Module (MA module)
I welcome enquiries from applicants interested in graduate work (MA and PhD) related to my research interests:
- Cold War history
- History of human rights and international law
- Political radicalism and violence
- Gender politics and left-wing sub-cultures
- History of Germany in the wider world
- Sovereignty, law, and United Nations politics
Royal Historical Society (RHS)
German History Society (GHS)
German Studies Association (GSA)
Verband der Historikerinnen und Historiker Deutschlands (VHD)
Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA)
Co-convenor IHR Modern German History Research Seminar
Affiliated Researcher, Centre for German Transnational Relations, King’s College London
Affiliated Member, Karl-Jaspers-Centre for Transcultural Studies, University of Heidelberg, Germany
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- 1 Finished
The Difficulty of Leaving: Freedom of movement and the national security state in Cold War West GermanyGehrig, S., 3 Jan 2023, In: Journal of Modern European History. 21, 1, p. 133 152 p.
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › peer-reviewOpen AccessFile51 Downloads (Pure)
Dividing the Indivisible: Cold War Sovereignty, National Division, and the German Question at the United NationsGehrig, S., 1 Apr 2022, In: Central European History. 55, 1, p. 70-89
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › peer-reviewOpen AccessFile48 Downloads (Pure)
Deutsche Staatsangehörigkeit und »Deutschenfähigkeit«: Das Teso-Urteil und die Debatten um Migration und bundesdeutsche Selbstbilder in den achtziger Jahren
Gehrig, S., 13 Jul 2021, Beginn der Gegenwart: Studien zur juristischen Zeitgeschichte der 1980er Jahre. Löhnig, M. (ed.). Vandenhoek & Rupprecht, p. 25-62 Translated title of the contribution: German Citizenship and "Characteristics of Germans": The Teso verdict and debate around migration and West German national identity in the 1980s
Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceeding › Chapter
Gehrig, S., 16 Dec 2022, In: Journal of Cold War Studies. 24, 4, p. 112 156 p.
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › peer-reviewOpen AccessFile375 Downloads (Pure)
Gehrig, S., 1 Dec 2018, In: GERMAN HISTORY. 36, 4, p. 574–597
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › peer-reviewOpen AccessFile459 Downloads (Pure)
Commentary: Panel "Post-war Constitutional Visions", Conference: Revisiting the Dark Legacies of Illiberalism: Varieties of Constitutionalism and Legal-Political Practices in Post-Authoritarian Europe, University of Jena, 2-3 December 2022.
Sebastian Gehrig (Advisor)2 Dec 2022 → 3 Dec 2022
Activity: Public engagement and outreach › Other
From anti-fascism to anti-racism: East German legal reform, international criminal law, and human rights norms, Conference: Socialisms and International Law in the Contemporary World, SNSPA, Bucharest, 15-16 September 2022.
Sebastian Gehrig (Advisor)15 Sept 2022 → 16 Sept 2022
Activity: Public engagement and outreach › Other
Of Martyrs, Patriots, and Enemies of the State: Loyalty and Treason in the early Federal Republic of Germany, Oberseminar: Neuere Forschungen zur Zeitgeschichte, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich
Sebastian Gehrig (Advisor)16 Jun 2021
Activity: Public engagement and outreach › Public speaking engagements
Cold War home fronts, Third Reich Legacies, and Building Democracy: Treason in Cold War West Germany, Symposium: Treason. A conceptual and comparative history, 23-24 September 2021.
Sebastian Gehrig (Advisor)23 Sept 2021
Activity: Public engagement and outreach › Workshop and other training