Welcome to my personal homepage here at UMass-Amherst. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of History. My primary research interests involve issues of memory and historical consciousness in modern Germany, especially in post-1945 East Germany. I am currently working on revising a manuscript for publication that looks at how the East German regime attempted to manipulate popular perceptions of the past as a means to legitimize its control over society.
In particular, I look at the areas of monuments, museums, and commemoration festivals and have found that a sort of mutual dependency existed between the communist party and those who worked as sculptors, curators, and event organizers (or as participants in the commemoration festivities). Unlike in West Germany where wealthy benefactors still commissioned large works of art, in East Germany it was only the state that had the necessary resources to hire sculptors who specialized in monumental art. Likewise, there were no private museums - if you wanted to be a museum curator you were forced to work for the state. Finally, the only way to organize a formal commemoration event in public (one that wasn't seen as a protest) was to gain permission from and work in cooperation with the state. Despite the appearance of a one-way dependency within an authoritarian society like East Germany, the state was also dependent on those very same artists, curators, and participants - without their cooperation the state could also not achieve its goals. Thus, I have found that in each case that I studied, there was a process of negotiation and compromise that often created an outcome with which neither the state nor the creators were completely happy.
My teaching interests build on my areas of research. I teach courses in our Public History program (primarily at the graduate level) that deal with new media, digital history, and theories of memory culture and historical consciousness. I also teach courses on German and European history at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
As a student, I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I earned a B.A. in German, Russian Studies, and History at St. Olaf College in 1993. After my undergraduate studies I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Mannheim. I then continued my studies at Georgetown University, earning an M.A. in German and European Studies. During the years 1997 & 1998 I was a fellow of the Robert Bosch Foundation in Germany, which allowed me to work as a speech-writer and advisor to Markus Meckel - a member of the German Parliament and East Germany's last Foreign Minister. Mr. Meckel was at the time his party's (the SPD) spokesman on a special parliamentary commission looking into the crimes of the East German dictatorship. I also worked at the Haus der Geschichte on the planning staff for a new museum (Zeitgeschichtliches Forum) in Leipzig, Germany that focuses on the history of East Germany. Following my stay in Germany I returned to the U.S. to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I completed my Ph.D. in German history in 2004.
Before coming to UMass I was a post-doctoral fellow at George Mason University, where I also was the editor of an online e-learning project commemorating the 1989 revolutions of Eastern Europe. You can visit that site here. I have also held Visiting Assistant Professor positions at the College of William and Mary and at Texas Tech University.
I spend my summers in the Northwoods of Minnesota, where I am the director of Waldsee, the German language and cultural immersion program of Concordia Language Villages.
Jon Berndt Olsen
Department of History
161 Presidents Drive
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Amherset, MA 01002