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Personal profile

Biography

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. 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 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, the politics of sovereignty, cultural diplomacy during the Cold War with a particular focus on Sino-German relations, militant subcultures and gender politics during the 1960s and 70s in context of student protests around “1968”, 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, 11-1pm

Email: Sebastian.Gehrig@roehampton.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)20 8392 7377

Research interests

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 to international law, 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 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. Germany’s changing fortunes during the 20th 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. 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 Germany, 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.

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.  

Research projects

  • 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'

Teaching

During the academic year 2021-22, I teach the following courses:

  • Modern British and European History (1st-year Module)
  • Treason in the Age of Ideologies (3rd-year Module)
  • Dissertation Module (3rd-year Module)
  • Texts and Contexts (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

Professional affiliations

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

Network

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