In memoriam Jan Plamper 1970-2023

Juliane Fürst, Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam

On 30 November 2023, our colleague and friend, the historian Jan Plamper, died following a more-than-year-long struggle with cancer. The news rippled through his circle of friends and colleagues, reaching the Slavic community assembled at the ASEEES convention in Philadelphia, and was soon lamented on social media by fellow historians, former students and the many other people that Jan touched during his life.

Those who have been keeping track of the numerous posts and obituaries published since then know that Jan was not only an excellent historian of Eastern Europe but also a Mensch in the Yiddish sense of the word. Indeed, his scholarly and social engagement can hardly be separated. All his books are infused with a deep humanity and compassion for his topic and the people connected to it. At the same time, he shared his intellect generously with friends and kin. Jan never aimed to live in the ivory tower of academia. He did not separate his scholarly endeavours from his strong and uncompromising moral outlook, forged in the West German 1980s, when his generation became engaged in a variety of causes that shaped Jan’s outlook to the very end. His transnational life made him a cosmopolitan who was very aware of the power of roots; he was an inveterate defender of, and fighter for, national and cultural tolerance and generosity. The many languages he spoke perfectly and his skills of impersonation testified both to the breadth of his experience and his mischievous, polyglot humour.

Jan grew up in the university town of Tübingen. He broke the mold of a German Bildungsbürgertum upbringing by completing his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University in Boston. The fact that he chose a university deeply connected to the Jewish community was no coincidence. For him late twentieth-century Germanness was embedded in guilt for the Holocaust and other German mass murders earlier in the century. It called Jan to live and shape a different kind of Germany and German identity – a practical and intellectual desire that found its culmination in his latest book “Das Neue Wir” (2019), in which he sketched out a usable past for a future Germany comfortable in its skin as a hybrid society shaped by migration. In 1992 he went for his civil service (an alternative to the then mandatory German military service) with Aktion Sühnezeichen to St. Petersburg, where he looked after elderly Holocaust and Leningrad blockade survivors. It was during this time that he also forged a strong and enduring bond with the Memorial society and its St. Petersburg founding member Veniamin Ioffe and his wife Irina Flige. Until the very end of the society’s existence in Russia, he collected and organized donations on a yearly basis. Jan never paid just lip service to the causes he believed in, but actively forced himself and his friends to turn our words into actions. He made us carry cash envelopes across borders, tirelessly reminding us that we have a responsibility towards the society we study.

Jan continued his career in American academia by pursuing a PhD at Berkely, where Reginald Zelnik became another important mentor. His PhD dissertation on the Stalin cult was concerned with the power of seduction into political submission as well as the mechanisms of cultural production, both of which created the conditions in which great things could be achieved and terrible crimes committed. The histories of both Germany and the Soviet Union resonated strongly in these deliberations. Jan was never a subscriber to the lone dictator idea but painfully aware that both his own society and the society of his chosen subject were complicit in the crimes committed in their name and with their help, just as he had no illusions later about the role of Russian society in Putin’s style of fascism. His insights into the construction of authoritarianism led to his relentless warnings against xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other societal ills. He truly lived the slogan of our youth ‘Wehret den Anfängen’ without compromise and care for his own career.

All of this gives the impression that Jan was a serious guy with a mission. But he was also full of positive feelings, laughter and mischief. He loved his topics, the field, the Russian language (and not in an imperialist but simply a cultural way). He was infused with enthusiasm for his and other people’s work, endlessly supportive and always willing to share. He was also one of those rare creatures in the field who could make light-hearted fun of many things including himself and his failures. Even more rare, he was someone who never hid the many rejections of academic life, but was upfront about them, making light of them in jokes or self-deprecating comments, while not hiding the gravity of the injury. One could hence come to him with one’s own failure, which he would situate in a context of general imperfection, giving everyone the certainty that they were not alone in their struggle to survive. This skill was much tested, especially in Germany where successive universities passed over Jan’s brilliance because he did not fit the rigid framework of what a German university career should look like. The hurt from these multiple rejections accompanied Jan literally to his grave.

After graduating from Berkely, Jan returned to his hometown of Tübingen, where he held a post-doctoral position from 2001-2008. He turned his PhD into a beautiful book, “The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power”, which was published by Yale University Press (after having experienced the devastating indifference of another press that shall remain nameless here). Unsurprisingly he became an inspiring and dedicated teacher, drawing a great many people into the orbit of Soviet history. His historical interests, however, were not to be contained by geographical borders. The question of why people do what they do – and implicit in this, the question of why people are capable of great acts of selflessness and beauty, on the one hand, and terrible and shameful atrocities or cowardice, on the other – took him down the path of the history of emotions.

When he discovered that there was not yet a work that gave a comprehensive overview over the tools available to conduct a history of emotions, he took it upon himself to write such a book. The result, “The History of Emotions: An Introduction”, is a clearly and beautifully written guide for assembling and evaluating different approaches and theories. In the process of researching and writing the book, Jan became a Dilthey Fellow of the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, and moved to the Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung at the Free University of Berlin, where he worked with Ute Frevert. The book did not open the gates of German academia to Jan, but made him an indispensable advisor to anyone who also concluded that history cannot afford to ignore the most important driver of human action. Jan himself became occupied by scholarly analysis of the emotions prevailing in young men of combat age: fear and trauma. Here too he was not only acutely aware of a hidden corner of the history of masculinity, but also prescient of the forces shaping society again.

In 2012 Jan found refuge at Goldsmith College in the UK, which, as an institute famous mainly for its prowess in design and artistic subjects, possessed a quirky and experimental history department. Jan threw himself into the cultural struggles that soon engulfed UK society, not least when a small majority voted for a British exit from the European Union, adding and exacerbating the painful debates raging around the value of humanities in this brave new world. At the same time Jan, whose multi-national family continued to reside in Berlin, was much aware that German society was equally engaged in an existential debate, which had much to do with how it saw itself in history. When Germany took in more than one million Syrian refugees, this debate came to the boil. Once again, Jan’s moral calling to write a book he considered urgen, rather than the conventional scholarship that the field expected of him, led to his last book – “Das Neue Wir” – The New Us. Jan drew heavily on his own experience of creating multi-national families and partnerships in multiple nations. The love and pride of how much his family members have contributed to German society shines through on every page and makes the book both a riveting and personal read. It is a brave history of the integration of people who were once considered alien by the mainstream but soon comprised indispensable parts of German society: Huguenots, Silesian and Sudetendeutsche refugees, Turkish Gastarbeiter, Soviet Kontingentflüchtlinge. While a tour de force of modern German history, the book really was about offering a hopeful future in which being German did not have to be exclusive but could be hybrid, mixed, easy and relaxed.

In these things, Jan was undoubtedly an expert. He spoke and wrote from the experience of a life that always stretched across several national boundaries. Germany, Britain, Russia, the USA, and eventually Ireland. The need to translate, find compromise, let live, and concentrate on the human was not only an intellectual compass for Jan but lived experience. He stood firm for the things he believed in: justice, equality, rights, the humanities. His involvement in saving the latter in the UK precipitated his move to Ireland in 2019 just as his non-hierarchical mode of working and thinking, honed at Berkeley, had once driven him away from Germany. He was never shy to confront when principle was at stake, but he was also never shy to see and admit mistakes and apologize for them. His honesty was unrivalled in the academic world.

Like so many of us he also experienced 24 February 2022 as a traumatic caesura when something he knew and deplored – the slide of Russia into proto-fascism and very real imperialism, terror, and cultural and spiritual chauvinism – broke into a full-scale war against Ukraine that claimed and continues to claim hundreds of victims every day. Jan had no doubt that this was not the time to be drawing equivalents between victim and aggressor or losing sight of the simple fact that Ukrainians did not deserve to be killed for their national identity. He did not cling to versions of absolute pacifism which reward social-Darwinist behaviours. As before, Jan took a clear moral line in support of Ukraine, understanding that any loss of access, archives and collaboration we had as scholars of the post-Soviet space paled in the face of death and atrocity. Even when already terminally ill, Jan continued to write analyses of the situation which he hoped would produce a better future.

To the very last moment he took care of his friends, consoled them, advised them, joked with them and made sure that every single one of them got a personal and heartfelt farewell. Our discipline has lost a Mensch – indeed one of its best both intellectually and in terms of human compassion. Thankfully and typically, Jan left behind a great deal to nourish our intellects and our spirits.

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