Minerva Research Focus "Oncomotions. New Perspectives on 20th Century Cancer History"

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Susan Sontag, 1978)

Cancer has been (and remains), in many respects, the paradigmatic disease for what it meant to fall ill in the 20th century Western world. Not only has it become one of the most common causes of death over the course of the past 100 years, but the encounter with cancer has also, like a magnifier, shaped debates and experiences about the emotional undertones in talking about, explaining, and holding citizenship in what the US-American intellectual Susan Sontag qualified as the kingdom of the sick. Emotions came into focus at different times and at different levels – be it as possible causes of cancer, as the way one should deal with one’s own or someone else’s illness, as part of treatment and coping strategies, in defining issues related to quality of life (and death), in legal discussions about disclosing the “truth”, as well as in psychological and theological reflections about giving or dashing hope. Fear, of course, was central to these debates – but it was nowhere near the only feeling that was a part of the emotional history of cancer in the 20thcentury. Grief, pain, anger, hope, curiosity, despair, cowardice, shame, pride, and dignity were and are equally bound up with this history.

The focus of the research is on Germany, taking transnational discussions and cooperations into account. The project draws on a broad range of sources, such as selected newspapers, autobiographies, novels, films, exhibitions, and especially journals from a variety of disciplines like medicine and psychosomatics, psychology, care studies, law, and theology. It also utilizes a wealth of archive material from health authorities, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies. In focusing on cancer from a history of emotions perspective, the project sheds new light on an array of questions that has been fundamental for the 20thcentury history of the self and the body, for the history of death and dying, and for medical ethics in general.


In the Media


  • Interview with Bettina Hitzer and Andreas Ströhle, "Ein universelles Gefühl", 2017 ("An universal Emotion", project of the German School for Journalism, in German)
  • Interview (in German) with Bettina Hitzer, Tagesspiegel, 30 December 2016, Sind wir die Angsthasen Europas?
  • Interview (in German) with Bettina Hitzer in Pohls Praxis Pause, Ausgabe April 2015, pp. 12-13 "Was erforschen Historiker an Gefühlen?"