Ute Frevert: "Internationally and nationally, we made quite a splash here."

June 27, 2024

Interview with Ute Frevert on the occasion of the conclusion of the research center for the History of Emotions – with an additional video on YouTube

Ute Frevert, this year your research center is coming to an end after 16 years at the MPIB. Your closing event took place under the motto "Abschiedsschmerz und Aufbruchstimmung" ("Parting pains and the spirit of new beginnings"). Which is prevailing at the moment?

The spirit of new beginnings relates somewhat more to the young researchers whose contracts are ending on 30.06 and who must (and want to) reorient themselves; many have already found desirable positions in Germany and abroad. I’m very pleased about that. For me, the pain of parting is mixed with melancholy, but also with anticipation for the new book that I will write in the coming months.

In the late 1990s, you were one of the first female historians to put emotions at the forefront of your research. What was behind this shift in focus, and how did the scientific community around you react? 

It started with Günther Anders…. In 1986, the philosopher and ex-husband of Hannah Arendt published a slim book entitled "Lieben gestern. Notizen zur Geschichte des Fühlens". I read it two years later and was triggered. It included sentences such as - history has "always proceeded as a history of changing emotions", and historians should also write history as a "history of emotions". That hooked me. It also fit very well with my existing research interests and topics: the history of social classes and gender, the history of cultural forms. How did colleagues from my discipline react? Rather skeptically, or disparagingly - „typical woman“, „what’s she up to now then“, „what’s the point“?

Right before you came to the Institute you spent several years as Professor of German History at Yale. How did that experience influence you and your perspective on German academia?

It was an eye-opener in several regards. For one, I had to reinvent myself as a historian of Germany and Europe. Teaching German history in the US is totally different from teaching German history in Germany. Here you work with students who have already been exposed to the central narratives of German history, either in their families or at the latest at school. In the US, you encounter complete different levels of pre-existing knowledge and comprehension. That means, for a start: building bridges, translating the foreign, bringing it closer without denying its foreignness.

I also got to know a completely different academic system. Students at Yale were the crème de la crème and understood each other as such, they were „hungry“ and challenged teachers accordingly. I was particularly impressed by the approach to doctoral students: they were seen as colleagues-to-be and treated as much, eye-to-eye, not hierachically. I took note of that.  

In 2007 the MPG appointed you the first female director at the MPIB, which had existed for almost 50 years by then. Your research center was also a novelty at the Intitute. Can you tell us about the early days at the Institute?

Folk wisdom has two relevant sayings here:  "A magic dwells in each beginning" versus "All beginnings are difficult". In my case, both were true. I was excited by the opportunities that building a new research center offfered - the development of a complex research program, the targeted (but not without surprises) recruitment of employees, the formation of a team that would come together without too much effort. At the same time, I felt like I was constantly being watched - would I pull it off? In my mind, there were an infinite number of observers: myself, my colleagues at the MPIB, my colleagues outside the MPG. A crazy number - and I could fail in front of them all. That was a huge stress factor.

You dedicated your newly founded research area to the "history of emotions“. What were your goals and expectations and to what extent have they been met?

In 2007/2008, I had the impression that the history of emotions would be a new and compatible area of research – a perspective that historians could share with other disciplines, above all with psychologists, who back then made up three-quarters of those at the MPIB. I hadn’t just marked "emotions“ as a "black box" of historical study, but also as a bridge to psychology. After all, psychologists were the appointed experts on emotions, their origins and forms of expression. In practice, however, it turned out that this bridge was rather weak. What interests historians about emotions – their historical and cultural embeddedness, how they are learnt and how they are practiced in specific historical contexts – is not necessarily what psychologists find exciting about them. Furthermore, the ways we work, our methods, even the way we organize our research, is different: from the timelines to the publication tempos. Accepting and respecting these differences, and still finding a way to productively generate new perspectives together and out of them, new sparks – that was something we at the Institute all failed to achieve.

Our success in the historical sciences was all the more gratifying in light of that. Internationally and nationally, we made quite a splash here.  

How has your Center for the History of Emotions influenced history and related disciplines?

Though many fellow historians initially turned their nose up at it, predicting a short lifespan for our research center, the mood changed surprisingly quickly. The history of emotions has since "arrived" at universities too and is hugely popular among students and young researchers. This is not least because emotions are very present in our current time and are publicly perceived and discussed as such - in politics and business as well as in private relationships. This raises questions about the historical conjunctures of emotions and their causes.

In the last 16 years your research center has realized numerous publications, projects and events, among them many joint projects. Which have particularly stuck in your memory and why?

Again: "A magic dwells in each beginning“… Our first common project (a genre unusal for scholars in the humanities) was called "Gefühlswissen“. We spent months pouring over encyclopaedia and historical dictionaries in order to reconstruct contemporaneous knowledge about emotions, passions, sensations, desires, affects – and then to bring it together with the general "signatures of the time“. It was incredibly time-consuming – but worth it. 

In your successful exhibition "The Power of Emotions 19|19“ you highlighted 20 emotions with a view to their influence on Germany history over the course of the 20th century. In your opinion, what emotion is representative of the present moment?

Fear. A lot of fears. The fear of social decline meets the fear of losing out in the future. Our timelines seem to be narrowing, doomsday scenarios are gaining the upper hand. Many people react to this with uncertainty and look for fixed anchor points; more and more are finding them in populist parties who profit from these fears.

You have often contributed to commentary on current societal debates. What is important to you and what drives you?

I am an academic but I am also a citizen – one who doesn’t see her "civic duty" as merely paying taxes and going to vote. I consider myself a political person in the broadest sense and want to have a role in shaping the society in which I live. History helps me do that, as an instrument of "political enlightenment“.

You are an extremely successful woman in academia and have always taken a stand on gender equality issues. What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a career in academia?

First: it’s worth it. Second: don’t let yourself be discouraged. Third: find yourself the right partner, the right "network“. 

Finally, would you like to share your plans for the future with us?

To write a new book (on "Constitutional feelings“). To campaign for academic freedom and sound humanities research at the Max Weber Foundation. To work within and without the MPG on strengthening German-Israeli relations, especially in these difficult times and despite this atrocious Israeli government. To play piano more and better. To cultivate old and new friendships. To spend lots of time with my grandkids. And even more time with my husband.



<span>This year marks the end of Ute Frevert&#39;s research centre History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (MPIB) after 16 years. Together with Ute Frevert, we look back on her research and her time at the Institute.</span>

„Tschüß, bis dann und auf Wiedersehen“ – Questions for Ute Frevert on the occasion of her retirement

This year marks the end of Ute Frevert's research centre History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (MPIB) after 16 years. Together with Ute Frevert, we look back on her research and her time at the Institute.
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