What I’m Reading: An Interview with Tara Zahra

tags: interview, Tara Zahra

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.

Tara Zahra is a professor of history at the University of Chicago whose research focuses on the transnational history of modern Europe, migration, the family, nationalism, and humanitarianism. She is currently working on two book projects: a history of deglobalization in interwar Europe and a history of the First World War in the Habsburg Empire, co-authored with Pieter Judson. Zahra is the author of The Great Departure: Mass Migration and the Making of the Free World (Norton, 2016) and Objects of War: The Material Culture of Conflict and Displacement (Cornell, 2018), co-authored with Leora Auslander. Her previous books include The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe's Families after World War II (Harvard, 2011) and Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands (Cornell, 2008).

What books are you reading now?

I am preparing to teach a graduate course on the history of globalization in the fall with my colleague Jon Levy, so I am preparing for that: Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists; Heidi Tinsman’s Buying into the Regime; and Adam Tooze’s Shock of the Global are among the books on the list.

I read a lot for pleasure when I have time. I am enjoying Caroline Fraser’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Prairie Fires). Recently I really liked Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Meg Wolitzer’s Female Persuasion and Tom Rachmann’s The Italian Teacher. I am pregnant and have been grateful for Emily Oster’s Expecting Better, which is one of the most sensible pregnancy books I have found.

What is your favorite history book?

It is really difficult to name a favorite. I admire so many books and historians for different reasons. But a recent book I don’t get tired of rereading and teaching is Kate Brown’s Plutopia. It is politically significant, research-driven, and beautifully written –the kind of history I hope to write. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

I have always been drawn to history at an imaginative level (I read a lot of historical fiction growing up). But I didn’t think of history as a potential career until my senior year at Swarthmore when I was taking a course on fascism with Pieter Judson (who now teaches at the European University Institute in Florence). That was when I realized I might be interested enough in history to keep at it for a long time. I think I was drawn to the unique way that history enables you to combine storytelling with political and social analysis. Before that I seriously considered becoming a dancer, a journalist, or going into public policy.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Good historians have many different qualities, but I think imagination and empathy, determination, and the capacity to work independently/alone help enormously.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

I keep returning to the period between 1900-1950. I suppose a lot happened during that period in European history…

Who was your favorite history teacher?

Not surprisingly, I have to say Pieter Judson, who got me into this field in the first place.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

I’m interested in seeing the fields of world/global and social history come into closer conversation; more histories that look at the intersection or interaction of global forces with local and everyday life. Aside from migration history it sometimes seems hard to bring those scales of analysis together.

I believe that historical scholarship is almost always generated by and speaking to present-day concerns, but I also think that this is a particularly critical moment for historians to reflect on and intervene (where possible) in contemporary debates.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I am not really a collector. I do have a poster of a 1930s child welfare campaign of the Czech Provincial Commission for Child Welfare. Maybe as I get older some of the books and objects that I own will become collectible!

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I feel extremely fortunate to have a job that I love, and to have had support that has enabled me to pursue the research that interests me, regardless of where it takes me. I really enjoy teaching and find it rewarding when I can see that students are discovering new ideas. And I find writing very rewarding as a creative process and outlet.

As someone who teaches graduate students, I find it frustrating that it is so hard for really talented teachers and scholars to find good jobs. I also find it frustrating to see how little progress history seems to have made as a field in terms of the inclusion and advancement of minorities and women, because I think it makes a difference in terms of the quality and kind of knowledge we produce. And I also worry about trends in higher education, particularly the shift toward more corporate models.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

Not many people were thinking transnationally when I started graduate school in 1999; most people were still working in national silos. That has obviously changed enormously. The field of east European history has also shifted a lot, as we’ve moved solidly beyond Cold War frameworks.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

This one stumped me. I don’t have a favorite saying or motto, but maybe I need one.

What are you doing next?

I’m working on a book about deglobalization in interwar Europe. It is obviously inspired in part by current events. I’m trying to think about the history of globalization as a non-teleological process, and also to understand the ways in which populist politics on the right and left in the 1920s and 30s were animated by anxieties about globalization, including migration, trade, and the loss of sovereignty.

I’m also writing a co-authored book with Pieter Judson about the Habsburg Empire during the First World War.

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