AHA Member Spotlight: Waitman W. Beorn

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected or nominated and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Waitman W. Beorn is the Louis and Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has been an AHA member since 2010.

AHA Member Spotlight, Waitman W. Beorn

Alma mater/s:PhD, MA, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; BS, United States Military Academy, West Point.

Fields of interest: modern German history, history of the Holocaust, comparative genocide, historical geography.

When did you first develop an interest in history?
Both my parents are devoted consumers of history. Growing up, I travelled all over the country and Europe. We were the family that spent four hours in a museum reading everything. My family also lived in an old plantation house built in 1740 so I would always be finding pieces of porcelain and iron nails in the yard. I have always felt at home in the past and have always felt a desire to learn more about the people who lived then.

What projects are you working on currently?
I am in the process of completing the final edits on my first book, Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus,which will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall. This project examines the behavior of ordinary German soldiers in the East and the nature of their complicity in the Holocaust at the local level.

I also continue to be involved in the Holocaust Geographies Project, an interdisciplinary group bringing together geographers and historians to ask and answer new questions about the Nazi genocidal project by using tools such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to visualize large amounts of data and also by approaching historical questions with geographic methodologies. I have been extremely fortunate to be a part of this group since 2007 and am very excited about the new approaches we are exploring.

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?
In some ways my interests have broadened, but the historical questions I am interested in have remained the same. To wit, I am deeply interested in attempting to understand how and why individuals behave the way they do in genocidal instances. My research focus remains on the Holocaust but I am also becoming interested in other genocides and in exploring the ways in which comparison can be helpful. Lastly, I am certainly far more interested in the amazing possibilities of geography and the digital humanities.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I am a big fan of listening to podcasts and I cannot recommend enough the BBC series In Our Time (history, culture, science) as well the New Books in History podcast. Both of these are great ways to learn and keep up with developments in the field. I have recently re-read Paul Lerner’s Hysterical Men :War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890–1930, on German psychiatry and combat-related mental trauma from World War I. I was struck by how relevant (and frighteningly similar) it is to today’s discussion of PTSD.

What do you value most about the history profession?
I am very fortunate in that I get paid to explore issues important to me and to teach students. It is a cliché, but one is lucky to truly enjoy one’s work. I love the thrill of research, of unraveling a mystery and putting the pieces together to tell a story or bring an important conclusion to light. Lastly, I am truly blessed by the friends and colleagues I have met along the way at archives, museums, conferences, etc. It is truly humbling to be able to reach out to these people for research help or advice and have them be so supportive.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?  
I don’t have a particular anecdote except perhaps a tale of two AHAs. I interviewed at the AHA annual meeting in Boston in 2010 (unsuccessfully) and then returned to New Orleans this year as a presenter (and with a job). There really are two AHAs and it was very nice to be on the non-job-seeking side, catching up with colleagues, meeting with editors and fellow researchers rather than interviewing.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?
I am an avid traveler and photographer and fortunate in that my wife is an excellent historian in her own right and has much different research interests so I am able to travel with her to some very interesting places. When geography permits, I am also a skier and scuba diver.

Any final thoughts?
I continue to be impressed with the very real role that history (and alternate, often incorrect) interpretations of it are marshaled in support of just about every public debate. To me, one of the most important skills history teaches (to all students, regardless of major) should be the ability to analyze a source for credibility and bias and weigh that source criticism as they come to a reasoned conclusion.

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