Exploring the Saxon-Bohemian Borderlands: Caitlin E. Murdock

Dealing with the history of Central Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Caitlin E. Murdock is one of the leading international experts on the history of the German and Czech-speaking lands in this period. Holding, among others, a Ph.D. from Stanford University, she is Professor of History at the California State University in Long Beach, California.

Martin Munke: Dear Professor Murdock, thank you very much for your willingness to answer some questions on your research on Saxony. A first one: What are the special points of interests in your research on the history of the region?

Caitlin E. Murdock: My first book project focused on the Saxon-Bohemian borderlands from the Reichsgründung to the Second World War. I was interested in exploring the ways in which regional dynamics shaped national identity, migration and demographic change, citizenship and the emergence of modern states on both sides of the border. Saxony’s rich industrial and trade history as well as the state’s distinct identity within the German Empire made it an especially interesting place to explore such borderland issues. The book was published in 2010 as “Changing Places. Society, Culture, and Territory in the Saxon-Bohemian Borderlands”.

Saxon-Bohemian border region near Joachimsthal/Jáchymov, 1914 (SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek, Lizenz: Freier Zugang – Rechte vorbehalten)

My current project, entitled “Radiant Health,” also had its starting point in Saxon history and especially in the Erzgebirge. Learning about the history of uranium mining in the region, the legacy of Wismut since 1990, and, simultaneously, the tradition of radium/radon spas in Saxony made me think about how understandings of health change over time. This project isn’t focused only on Saxony, but Saxony is a very important part of the story. I am examining how popular and state understandings of radiation and its health effects changed in Germany and Central Europe, especially in Austria and in Czechoslovakia, over the course of the Twentieth Century. From radium spas to the Wismut cleanup efforts of the 1990s, radiation has been transformed from something assumed to promote health in almost all cases, to something that can be deadly and yet continues to play an important role in some areas of medicine and therapeutic practice. This shift was driven not only by advances in science, but by commercial developments, politics (especially during the Cold War), popular opinion, and regional governments. As in my first project, I continue to be interested in the interplay between official knowledge, state policy, and local practice.

Wettinquelle at Bad Brambach, c. 1920 (SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek, Lizenz: Freier Zugang – Rechte vorbehalten)

MM: Are there any connections to your other fields of research?

CM: I find Saxon history interesting in itself because it offers an important, and somewhat different, version of modern German history than that of Prussia or Bavaria—cases that have long dominated the English-language literature. Saxony also offers an important case study for some of the most important developments in modern Germany—industrialization, nationalism, fascism and communism (among others). I have been lucky enough to find rich archival resources in the Saxon archives. But my research into Saxon history certainly contributes to my broader interest in the diversity of the modern German experience and in the complex relationship between state and society in modern states.

MM: What first sparked your interest in the history of Saxony?

CM: I first became interested in Saxon history when I arrived as a Fulbright student at the TU Chemnitz in 1994. I knew very little about Saxony at the time, but there I was for a year. I wanted to learn to do archival research, and I was especially interested in labor history. It made sense to learn about the place where I was living. I focused much of my reading and research on the late-nineteenth century, a moment when Saxony played an important role as an industrial and manufacturing center.  But of course, I learned a lot about the region by traveling and a lot about the DDR and the Wende by talking with people about the huge changes of the time.

MM: Are there any notable memories of your research visits in Saxony?

CM: I lived in Chemnitz for a year in 1994-1995 and in Dresden for a year and a half in the late 1990s. Both extended visits were important for me as a person and a scholar. In those periods and since I have been fortunate to be able to conduct research in many Saxon archives and libraries: in Dresden, Chemnitz, Leipzig, Bautzen, and Freiberg. And there are more I would like to visit if I have the chance. I have benefited from the mentorship of Prof Rudolf Boch who held the chair for Social and Economic History at the TU Chemnitz until 2018 and from the help of many archivists and librarians. In addition to finding the state’s history interesting, I have learned a lot from witnessing the resilience with which Saxons have tackled historical changes in the period since my visits began.

Publications by Caitlin E. Murdock as listed in the “Sächsische Bibliografie”

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