Claudia Koonz knows that talking to her can sometimes be difficult. “Don't talk to a Nazi historian if you want to cheer up,” she cautions with a laugh.
Koonz, the Peabody family distinguished professor emeritus of history, is an expert on women’s roles in German society during the Nazi regime and studies the ways in which popular culture creates and demonizes a group of “others.”
Although most of her research has focused on Nazi Germany, she has also studied contemporary Europeans’ treatment of Muslim immigrants and the rise of “ethnic panic” in countries with large immigrant populations. More recently, Koonz established the DukeEngage Serbia program. After retiring from teaching, she now spends time volunteering with local grassroots political organizations.
Despite her accomplished career, Koonz never expected she would be a historian or an expert on one of the darkest periods in human history. Growing up, all she wanted to do was get out of Wisconsin.
“No plan I had ever worked out,” she said. “Everything I did was the result of a plan going wrong.”
From Madison to Munich
Growing up in Wisconsin, the local library offered Koonz the escape she craved as a young girl.
“When you’re in a little place with people with pretty narrow interests… it's like [the library] opened up this whole world,” she said. Despite her passion for reading, her father, a dentist, wanted her to follow in his footsteps and become a dental hygienist, but her mother encouraged her to continue to study and attend college.
As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Koonz spent her junior year studying abroad in Germany, not knowing that this experience would become the beginning of her life’s work. After graduation, Koonz had no idea where she’d end up or what she wanted to do.
A friend she made studying in Munich suggested taking a freighter ship to Japan, where they lived for a year teaching English, living with a Japanese family and working on applications to graduate school programs. At the end of the year, they considered sailing back on the freighter, but decided after the adventure they’d just had, sailing back would be “so boring,” according to Koonz.
Instead, they decided to hitchhike through Asia to Kabul, Afghanistan.
“We thought we’d be home in three weeks,” Koonz said. “And after about five months, we got to Kabul. And there were letters waiting for us, accepting us into Columbia [University].”
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At Columbia, Koonz chose to study Nazi Germany, specializing in examining the role of women within the Nazi regime. Despite her time spent living in Germany, she had never been drawn to that specific era.
“The Germany I loved was medieval, and I never learned much about the Nazis,” she said. However, once she started her master’s degree at Columbia, Koonz “backed into it kind of by accident.”
“When you discover something new, you go for it,” she said. “And when I got to Columbia, that was the new, interesting topic—so I became a German historian.”
After earning her Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1969, she taught at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA until she arrived at Duke in 1988. She published her first book—“Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics”—in 1986 and released “The Nazi Conscience” in 2003.
Creation of Duke Engage Serbia
Koonz’s expertise on the rise of the Nazi regime inspired her to work in another part of the world dealing with the aftermath of dictatorship. During the Bosnian War, Koonz and Robert Korstad, professor of public policy and history, began to organize trips for students to volunteer in refugee camps through the Refugee Action Program. This led to Koonz leading independent studies each summer in Sarajevo. After Koonz retired from teaching in 2012, DukeEngage directors approached Koonz about establishing a program in Belgrade, Serbia.
Koonz was initially skeptical of students’ ability to make a difference through a DukeEngage program in a young democracy with developing institutions. Serbia experiences some of the worst brain drain in Europe, which creates an aging, shrinking population as well as a higher level of income inequality than seen in every member of the European Union. However, both Koonz and students have found the program incredibly rewarding.
Junior James Toscano appreciated the public policy experience the program gave him, as well as the chance to witness firsthand Serbia’s attempts to join the E.U. Koonz encourages students to learn from the political energy among their Serbian peers as well as recognize the privileges they enjoy as U.S. residents and citizens.
“The young people who are living in Serbia are there because they believe in Serbian democracy, even though they are fighting against such odds,” Koonz said. “Our students every year in Serbia get there, and they discover they have privilege that they didn't even know they had… for most of them, it's really a humbling experience.”
Parallels to today
These days, Koonz is frequently asked whether she sees any comparison between the current state of American democracy and the politics that gave rise to Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s. Although she notices that racially coded language is falling away, with racist speech and actions appearing more frequently and openly, Koonz doesn’t believe the two situations are comparable. She believes the racial history of the U.S. makes a comparison to European fascism much more complicated.
“It's comforting to think of the United States in the context of fascist Europe [and say] ‘that wasn't so bad,’” she says. However, a more accurate comparison lies somewhere else: South African apartheid.
“We're a settler colony. We have two hundred years of not just prejudice, but segregation laws and poverty ingrained in people,” she said. “So, it’s not fascism… it’s worse. Far worse.”
Despite the potentially inaccurate comparison between the United States and Europe, Koonz sees certain phenomena reoccurring as leaders make trade-offs between principles and power. Koonz points to Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the leader of the National Socialist Women’s League and one of the most powerful women in the Nazi regime.
Scholtz-Klink, whom Koonz interviewed for “Mothers in the Fatherland,” was a widow, and therefore exempt from the Nazi belief that women should serve their homes and families first. As a result, she was able to gain authority and rank within the Nazi regime as a reward for her cooperation, even though the Nazi system remained deeply misogynistic.
Koonz sees several figures similar to Scholtz-Klink in the current presidential administration, complicit in the oppression of their own identity groups in exchange for authority.
“[Scholtz-Klink] made that trade-off,” Koonz said, “and it’s that trade-off that I hear today when I’m listening to the impeachment hearings.”
Despite the severity of these comparisons, Koonz remains hopeful.
“Now our only hope is young people, now that we've screwed up the world,” she said. “And, man, we've got to get everyone on this campus out to vote.”
Getting out the vote
When she isn’t on campus conducting research, Koonz is an active volunteer with FLIP NC, a grassroots political organization that works to elect progressive candidates in North Carolina and break the Republican supermajorities in the North Carolina General Assembly. Koonz has volunteered for the past few years by driving voters who otherwise would not be able to get to polling locations—an experience she says helped her engage more deeply with the greater Triangle community.
“I didn't feel I lived in North Carolina until I started driving people to the polls,” Koonz said.
She encourages students to “figure out where we all live” and get out of the Gothic Wonderland by taking the time to get off campus and engage, whether politically or not, with Durham more broadly. Koonz credits this work with keeping her optimistic in an increasingly dire political climate.
“When you think big, it’s overwhelming,” she admits. “And so, for me, my answer was to think really small… and thinking small means to get out the vote in North Carolina. Even then, that’s not that easy.”
Focusing on small acts of positive change, even in the face of oppression and violence has guided Koonz throughout her career and motivates her to keep researching, even though she has retired from teaching. “It seems like we've learned a lot, but we're just finding more questions,” she said.
“That's why I ended up spending my whole life [in academia],” she said. “Every September, going back to school, I got hooked on it. You find one thing and then you go… and you can't resist it.”