Listen: Historian Pieter Judson ’78 Reflects on Field, Swarthmore Experience

Pieter Judson '78

Pieter Judson '78 at last year's "Queer Histories of Swarthmore: A Panel Discussion."

Pieter Judson ’78 had always wanted a chance to reconnect with students from different generations he taught at Swarthmore who went on to thrive as historians.

“I’ve wanted these great people to come together as a group all at once and to share our work,” he says, “to talk about the intellectual, practical, and personal challenges we face, to explore what it means to be an historian in 2015, to think collectively about how to tackle the horrendous challenges facing higher education today, and to enjoy ourselves the way we did in seminars and classes.”

What better way, then, to honor his contributions to Swarthmore than the all-day symposium held in late May at the College, which featured three panel discussions with alumni and faculty before a farewell reception.

Organized by department chair Tim Burke and administrative assistant Jen Moore, the event spurred rigorous discussions on subjects for which Judson has long wielded influence. But it also gave colleagues and former students the chance to tell the former Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations what he has meant to them.

“This was a wonderful chance to acknowledge the profound ways that Pieter has shaped the outlooks and careers of so many people and to try to give back, if only in a small way,” says Ben Goossen ’13, a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s department of history, who participated in the panel on history as a discipline, empire and nationalism, and gender and sexuality.

“I was delighted to have a chance to thank not only Pieter, whose history of sexuality course introduced me to the field I work in today, but also Swarthmore's History Department as a whole,” adds co-panelist Timothy Stewart-Winter ’01, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. “The department took my interests in LGBT history seriously, at a time when that was not as common a stance among history departments than it would be today.”

Teachers can tell whether a class went well or badly, Judson says, but it’s difficult to measure the impact they are actually having on students. On this day, though, he got to see himself reflected in the observations of others.

“Who gets to experience that?” he says. "It’s a unique experience to hear someone who is herself or himself now a teacher, explaining 10 or 20 years after the fact, exactly how my teaching shaped her thinking, and how it may have helped her to inspire her own students in contexts very different from Swarthmore.”  

Among highlights was the realization that all of Judson’s students in attendance had kept a personal archive of his comments, says Farid Azfar, assistant professor of history, who participated on a panel on 21st century European history.

“It was amazing to hear such a range of stories,” Azfar says, “from his classmates and professors to his most recent students, converging around the same motif in which Pieter's generosity animated his brilliance.”

The event also revealed the kinship between proud alums of the seminar on fascism that Judson started in his first year at Swarthmore in 1993. They shared memories from all over the emotional spectrum.

“As Farid pointed out at the symposium, the amount of laughter that emanated from a seminar room where fascism was being discussed puzzled many observers,” says Judson.

Judson’s full attention now turns to the European University Institute in Italy, where he has been editor of the Austrian History Yearbook and a professor in 19th and 20th century history since January 2014. He relishes the opportunity to contribute to an institution that stresses faculty/student collaboration and places European history in a global context. And, in a rewarding twist, to train Ph.D. candidates.

“It was always hard to see [Swarthmore] students graduate precisely at the point where they had gained the kind of knowledge, experience, and skills to become our colleagues rather than our students,” he says. “So now I will experience the other side of things.”

Judson is navigating challenges like learning a new language; being away from his husband, Charles, for weeks at a time; and functioning in an institution that’s very different from Swarthmore, he says. But the institutions do share some important DNA.

“I’m surrounded by colleagues who are not simply impressive scholars," says Judson, "but great human beings and already good friends."

Audio Transcript

Pieter Judson: You are all so articulate and so generous, and this is a fantasy moment for me. To have all of you here, first of all, is so unbelievably wonderful, and I have no abilities to be articulate. Anyway, luckily, it's incredibly late, so the reception started five minutes ago, so I'm not going to be able to give my remarks and my thanks. Perhaps I can at dinner later. But I will give a few, in terms of thanks.

Of course, I want to thank Tim and Jen for organizing this experience, which it was always my dream to have a fascist reunion, but I never imagined it as something this powerful and remarkable. I want to thank all the panelists who came and shared, not just memories, but their work and their thinking and their insights, which are powerful and which is why it amused me when someone first said there was a Judson mafia. That was already 10 years ago, I think. And I thought, "Right. That's funny," because it gives me credit for the thinking of all of these remarkable people who are here today. And what really matters to me is my relationship to each of you, and for that, I'm really grateful.

I also want to quickly point out there's several people, former fascists, in the audience who are historians and who weren't on the panel, and I'm very grateful that all of you came, some from very long distances. And then I also want to mention a couple of people who couldn't be here, but I need to mention them. Most of you will remember Teri Brown, who now lives in Texas, and I just have to mention her name because without her, I certainly couldn't have been a chair. And then I want to mention three colleagues, also former fascists, who couldn't be here, but wanted to, and that's Caitlyn Murdock, Brendan [inaudible 00:02:12], Helaine Blumenthal. There are many others too. Those are the ones I'm going to mention. So I want to thank all of you.

I have plenty of opinions, as all of you know, about all of the issues and all the questions that were raised. I have lots of answers. I think mine are right. I'm not quite that queer. But there's no time for any of that. I also had some opinions about big history, no time for that, popularization, and to try to explain how, through my new book, I'm trying to take on a lot of the issues that you guys raised today, but no time. I was going to say a few words about what my new life at the EUI is like.

Speaker 2: Well, you have time for a few things.

Pieter Judson: All right, and that there is something I have to say before I say anything about anything else, which is I do think it's really wonderful, but also interesting and important, that no one went into fascism as a field. That fascism was the thing that brought us all together, but we all, I think, in every seminar going back to 1994 or '93, we all ended up agreeing that, as a field, it's over. It doesn't ... Fascism is not fascism, it's the political/cultural/social phenomena that is going on in all of these societies, and many elements going on today, and that's more important than particular regimes.

I'm now a professor at the European University Institute, which is a remarkable place. It's a place where I live nation and empire in daily life. It's a place that's made me come to understand that the distinction between nation and empire, which has been at the heart of a lot of my work is, in fact, I no longer buy as a distinction. In fact, I teach a seminar with a colleague, Lucy Riall, who is an Irishwoman who teaches Italian history, brilliant. And we teach this seminar called "Nations and Empires in Modern Europe," and we both decided this year, nations are gone. It's just empires. There are no nations. There are just empires. The practices of empire, many of which were brought up by many of you, are all the practices of the people in states that call themselves nations.

Anyway, the other interesting thing about the EUI is we are there to forge a common academic community out of people who come from remarkably different academic worlds, and we have to find a way to talk to each other. We use the English language, which makes me feel guilty a lot, but we do. But I noticed this immediately, that all of our students, who are all PhD students, come from such radically different traditions and cultures that mostly what we're doing, in the first two years especially, is learning how to talk to each other and actually communicate, and there's much more to that than I realized or ever thought there would be. I'm advising amazing students who remind my of my Swarthmore students, except it's the opposite of what Tara pointed out. It's true, every year, this year included, I was always sorry that you would graduate and I wouldn't get to work with you later. But now I'm getting all these people I didn't get to work with when they were 18, so I have to kind of ... right.

But I'm advising all kinds of amazing topics from ... One of my Irish students who's writing history, sort of a social cultural history of the gay rights movement in Ireland in the '70s and 80s, to a brilliant Ukrainian student who's writing history of migrant female labor in the 1940s and 1950s. I have a Finnish student who's writing a history of single men and the idea of domesticity in the nineteenth century in Finland. It's an amazing range, and I also feel privileged to be working with them. But I couldn't be working with them if I hadn't have been working with you first.

Okay. It is my belief that in my field, a field I share with many of you, that, as Tara pointed out, we've had a lot of brilliant studies in the last 20 years, but for some reason, and this gets to points many of you raised, they have made no impact at all on the popular narratives of the parts of the world we write about, particularly Central and Eastern Europe. And this was proven, once again, last year with the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, and every single cliché you could ever imagine about the Habsburg monarchy was trotted out again, and everyone still believes them.

So I am trying to see my work as an intervention, in terms of creating a narrative that will be able to encompass all of this amazing work that's been done in the last 20 years, including works by many of you, while being mindful that I don't think we need to have a single narrative, but we do need narrative, and we do need to communicate through narrative. And I think that, it was, as many of you pointed out, incredibly necessary to deconstruct the canon. And I don't want a new canon, but I do want stories that people can tell, and I want them to be persuasive, and I want them to be compelling.

And I feel that the only way to work at the moment is by bringing together the absolute local, the way Seth did, for example, in "The Match Girl and the Heiress," this compelling, unbelievable relationship between two people from vastly different backgrounds, which Seth stitched together from archives as ... I mean, he shared a part of it, but using his historical skills, tells this amazingly important story that on one level is about the British Empire, and in another level is about the difficult and compelling relationship between two human beings. And I think the way of telling the story of Habsburg Central Europe has to involve the kind of tacking back and forth between those levels.

I'm trying to, in my book, which was supposed to be called "Our Empire," except the press doesn't like that name and to sell it's going to have to be called the "The Habsburg Empire," which I can't begin to explain how stupid that is. But, in any case, "Our Empire," the idea was to tell the story of Central and Eastern Europe through questions of commonality, common practices, common engagement with institutions which were common throughout Central and Eastern Europe, rather than starting to tell a story by using the conceptual apparatus of different nations. And we've, I think, had enough nation talk for one day anyway. I'm trying very hard not simply to provincialize Europe, but to make Eastern Europe a part of Europe. I'm trying to work very hard to find a compelling narrative that will not pathologize diversity because that is the story about Central and Eastern Europe. Diversity is a terrible thing because it produces bloodshed, and it's difficult to tell that story in a different and new way.

I'm talking about state-building, but state-building from below, the way in which common people in villages and towns engage with states for their purposes. And I'm trying to think of this in global terms as well. And I think part of the book that Tara and I hope to write about the first World War and this part of the world, is about thinking about what it meant in China or India in the way [Aris 00:10:17] Minella sort of gets at. When the Habsburg monarchy falls, it's the first empire that falls and how does that, then, develop, achieve, a global resonance that lives on very importantly in the '20s, in terms of how people talk about what empire ... Should all empires fall, and what should replace them, and what should our relationships be?

Okay. That's what I'm working on, and it has to be done by July first. And I'm still writing the World War I chapter, so ... But I just want to say that what's so compelling to me is what all of us are working on. And the work that you shared with us today, and from which I have learned so much, and many of you who don't even know, it will be in the footnotes in one way or another. And I agree with Seth, that's how we can validate collaboration at the moment, because we don't have many models for that, and interdisciplinarity isn't even possible, although everyone touts it.

So I want to thank all of you, and I want to thank you so much for this opportunity for me to connect to the many years that I had here to my very dear colleagues who taught me so much. When that "Guardians of the Nation" was still a project, the history department ripped me to shreds in the nicest way, when I presented part of it to them and made me go back and rethink it in really important ways. I so appreciated the collegiality, and if we were all laughing in fascist Europe ... I'll end with that. Thank you so much.