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'It will define the field for years to come': U of T historian wins prize for book on Germany

Professor James Retallack won the Central European History Society's Hans Rosenberg Book Prize for a 2017 book that explores the connections between political modernization and authoritarianism in Germany (photo by Diana Tyszko)

James Retallack, a professor in the University of Toronto's department of history, has been awarded the Central European History Society’s Hans Rosenberg Book Prize for his 2017 book, Red Saxony: Election Battles and the Spectre of Democracy in Germany, 1860-1918.

Awarded annually, the Hans Rosenberg Book Prize honours the best book on central European history published in English by a permanent resident of North America.

“It’s rewarding to have the feedback and acknowledgment of my peers,” said Retallack, whose latest accolade bookends his Hans Rosenberg Article Prize win from last year.

“It’s especially rewarding in the sense that two different prize committees, comprised of three people each, both found something interesting in my work.”

Retallack, who is also cross-appointed to the department of Germanic languages and literatures, is a renowned expert on German society and politics between 1740 and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Red Saxony, published by Oxford University Press, explores the reciprocal relationship between political modernization and authoritarianism in Germany over the span of six decades. It illustrates how Germans grew to fear the idea of democracy, paving the way – after many twists and turns – for Hitler and the Nazis in the 1920s.

The Hans Rosenberg Book Prize committee commended Retallack’s research, analysis and argumentation throughout the 700-page work. "Red Saxony is a powerful contribution that calls into question long- and widely-held assumptions while establishing new ones: it will define the field for years to come,” the committee wrote.

Now Retallack is ready to reach a new audience with the forthcoming translation of Red Saxony into German.

While he’s quick to acknowledge the challenges in translating the text – like having to track down some original German quotations that had been translated into English – he also notes that it will be satisfying to reach German colleagues and scholars who may not have read the English-language book.

“I don’t expect to win any prizes,” said Retallack of the translated work. “But I will be very happy if Red Saxony contributes to advancing German-language scholarship, too, in the field of Imperial German history.”

Retallack has received grants, fellowships and research prizes from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Jackman Humanities Institute.

His latest project – a biography of the founder and leader of Germany’s social democratic movement and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, August Bebel – won him a Killam Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2015.

Retallack hopes prizes like the Hans Rosenberg Book Prize will lead to new readers.

“I’m very lucky that my publisher decided to nominate it,” said Retallack.

“In our world of scholarly activity, you almost know everybody in the field. Maybe someone who wouldn’t ordinarily look at it might pick it up.”