Books interview: Ute Frevert

The historian and author of The Politics of Humiliation discusses fairy tales and myths, the history of emotions, and the relationships between victim, perpetrators and onlookers

June 8, 2020
Ute Frevert

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
There were not many books in my lower-middle-class family home. I?grew up with a collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Ludwig Bechstein and Wilhelm Hauff (it?is still on my shelf, with a new binding, and I?read it to my grandchildren). Later, I?was given Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes, about the myths and epics of ancient Greece. I knew them by heart and found them way more interesting than Brehm’s Life of Animals, a zoological encyclopedia. These three books made up my literary universe, and they were all from the 19th century (my favourite historical period even now).

You have just published a study of ‘the politics of humiliation’. Which books opened your eyes to the possibilities and excitements of research about the history of the emotions?
One was the diary of Günther Anders – he was Hannah Arendt’s first husband – written in New York during the late 1940s and published in 1986 as Love Yesterday: Notes on the History of Feelings. He complained that historians had never been interested in emotions, and he claimed that emotions had a history. I?was also impressed by Peter Gay’s volumes on The?Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to?Freud. The first came out in 1984, and I?read it with a mixture of attraction and distance. It was beautifully written, with a wealth of material. But it lacked theory – with the exception of psychoanalysis, which I?do not find particularly helpful in explaining historical processes.

What led you to look at the specific theme of humiliation?
I was thrilled and appalled by the pictures of shorn women in 1944-45 after European countries had been liberated from German occupation. Many people took revenge on women who had had affairs with German soldiers, and publicly cut their hair off. There were similar incidents in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when Catholic women who went out with British soldiers were tarred and feathered. I?wanted to understand why. I?then found other types of humiliation in modern history. What interested me most was the power triangle between victims, perpetrators and onlookers, and how this triangle had, at times, been broken. A book that helped me understand the historical roots of such behaviour was David Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday’s monograph on Cultures of Shame: Exploring Crime and Morality in Britain, 1600-1900.

What book would you recommend for people trying to forge a different kind of politics?
My favourite is Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
My husband got two for his birthday: Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat, and No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, by the Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Susan Lanzoni’s Empathy: A?History, and Dieter Langewiesche’s magnum opus on Europe’s modern wars (available only in?German).

Ute Frevert is managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and director of its Centre for History of Emotions. Her latest book, The Politics of Humiliation: A?Modern History, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Shelf life:?Ute Frevert

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