Share Tweet Share Email

Heide Fehrenbach: History maker

March 26, 2012
Heide Fehrenbach

Heide Fehrenbach

Heide Fehrenbach is reshaping history – how it’s researched, how it’s written and even how it’s taught.

A historian of modern Europe, Fehrenbach has spent her career asking provocative questions, using photography and film in her scholarship and illuminating aspects of history that have been largely overlooked or even uninvestigated.

She is internationally recognized for groundbreaking work on the social and cultural effects of World War II and military occupation on Germany and other nations – and her books on those topics are being taught in advanced courses at leading universities worldwide.

She has explored the postwar processes of democratization and Americanization, and shed new light on transitions in racial and gender ideologies in post-fascist Germany. She was among the very first historians to examine the persistence of racial thinking in Germany in the post-war era. And her work probed the consequences of a thorny issue for Americans: The military that came armed to democratize Germany was itself racially segregated.

More recently, her research has branched out to issues involving the emergence of international social work for refugee women and children after WWI; the humanitarian origins of international adoption; and the role of photography in international humanitarian advocacy.

Claudia Koonz, Peabody Family Professor at Duke University, calls Fehrenbach “a brilliant scholar, articulate lecturer, lucid writer and original thinker” who ventures into bold new projects and fosters collaboration across continents.

Indeed, Fehrenbach has been invited to speak at the London School of Economics, the Contemporary History Institute in Potsdam, the Warren Center at Harvard, UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. She has been instrumental in organizing workshops and conferences worldwide.

Fehrenbach has published four books (with two more in the works), as well as a dozen refereed chapters and articles. She also has written essays for American and German media and served as historical consultant on documentary films. She has won most of the major fellowships for historians, including the coveted Guggenheim Fellowship and an appointment as a Haniel Scholar at the American Academy in Berlin.

She shows no signs of slowing down.

“Her latest project, on the role of photography in international humanitarian movements, will further enhance her reputation as a scholar whose work is original, interdisciplinary, brilliantly written, theoretically sophisticated and highly influential,” says NIU History Chair Beatrix Hoffman.

Fehrenbach brings equal rigor, focus and innovation to the classroom, where period film and photography often find their way into lessons and stimulate discussions on the role that visual media and representation play in understanding of the past.

Since joining the NIU faculty in 2001, Fehrenbach has taught 16 different courses at all levels, including courses developed from her own research, such as the history of humanitarianism and human rights.

“Passion, commitment and hard work result when students are intellectually stimulated by something new or unanticipated that sparks their curiosity and motivates them to dig deeper,” Fehrenbach says. “This nudge away from the predictable is the first step to intellectual passion and creativity.”

Her methods work, according to students.

History Ph.D. candidate Laura Iandola took Fehrenbach’s seminars on photography and history and used the opportunity to expand her own research on the Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966 to include visual and media analysis. Iandola ended up presenting her research at Yale University’s Center for Genocide Studies.

“Professor Fehrenbach is a masterful discussant leader, always well-prepared with provocative questions and encouraging her students to read and respond critically,” Iandola says. “Her intellectual excitement is contagious.”