Secularities. Freethinkers in the Context of National Movements and the Rise of Nation States in Europe, 1789–1920s

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “Secularities. Freethinkers in the Context of National Movements and the Rise of Nation States in Europe, 1789–1920s”, which is organized by Carolin Kosuch in cooperation with both the German Historical Institute Rome and the German Historical Institute Warsaw. The event will take place on March 21–23, 2018 at the German Historical Institute Rome.

Please find the program and more information on the workshop here.

Carolin Kosuch graduated from Leipzig University with an M.A. degree in history and religious studies. She received her PhD in 2014 at the Simon-Dubnow-Institute for Jewish History and Culture at Leipzig University. In 2014 she joined the German Historical Institute in Rome as a Research Associate. Her research areas include the history of classical anarchism; European cultural history with an emphasis on the interplay of the religious and the secular in the nineteenth century; Jewish history and culture, and nineteenth/twentieth century German and Italian history. Among her publications are: Missratene Söhne. Anarchismus und Sprachkritik im Fin de Siècle, Göttingen 2015.

Together with Christhardt Henschel of the German Historical Institute Warsaw, you are organizing the international workshop “Secularities. Freethinkers in the Context of National Movements and the Rise of Nation States in Europe”: How did you come up with the idea for this workshop?

Inauguration of the Statue of Giordano Bruno, 1889, Campo de‘ Fiori, Rome.

Christhardt Henschel and I share a research interest for radical democratic and secular movements in the “long” nineteenth century. We decided to host a workshop that would trace the contributions of various freethinker groups to Europe’s forming nation states, including also a Central European and Jewish perspective. Freethinkers challenged the religious tradition; their stances were often agnostic, materialist, scientific or even atheist. With their political commitment in parties and associations and with their extensive publication activity they influenced the notion of the “modern” nation-state. Together with other scholars we aim to study the dimensions and directions this influence has taken from a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective, combining history and sociology.

Working with a global or transregional perspective becomes more and more popular among researchers of the humanities: Why is it still important (or maybe even especially so?) to work on subjects such as the rise of the nation state in the 19th century?

In my view, it is especially important to work on the nineteenth century when it comes to global, transnational or transregional perspectives. The terms we use to describe the specifics of those perspectives – nation, secularity, social mobility, individualization, urbanization, capitalism, industrialization, rationalization, just to mention a few – often date back to developments and structures in the “long” nineteenth century (1789–1918). They ground in and reflect the heterogeneity of the European modernities which evolved in the course of this century. Freethinkers and their approaches stood at the core of this pluralizing trend.

The participants at your workshop come from a wide array of different countries: What are the unique perspectives and insights that one will gain from attending your workshop?

We invited scholars from all over Europe including Central Europe, but also from Israel and the U.S. Not only do they mirror different academic and national backgrounds, but also bring along a broad knowledge in their particular field of study. Our approach is that of “multiple secularities”, that is, the secular takes on different forms depending on the social and religious context it emerges from. We borrowed this concept from the work of cultural sociologist Monika Wohlrab-Sahr who will join our workshop with a lecture and a commentary. During our meeting, we hope to portray and discuss these heterogeneous secularities exemplified by Europe’s freethinker movements stemming from various backgrounds: Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. Together with a historicizing approach towards terms such as “modernity” or “progress” this multitude of perspectives is unique and certainly will enhance our notion of Europe’s secularities and their advocates, the freethinkers.


Citation: “Secularities. Freethinkers in the Context of National Movements and the Rise of Nation States in Europe, 1789–1920s – Interview with Carolin Kosuch”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.03.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/2168.


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