Department of History
Old Horticulture
506 E. Circle Dr
Room 256
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
Main: 517.355.7500
Fax: 517.353.5599
Hours: 8:00-5:00 M-F

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I am a historian of 20th-century Europe and Germany interested in intersections of intellectual history and the history of political culture.  My primary focus is on ideas and practices of democracy after WWII, especially in moments when debate and experimentation intensified (e.g., around 1945, 1956, 1968, 1989).  I also have long-standing interests in memory and representation, in social and political thought, and in historical methods.  My teaching ranges from surveys of the European Union, 20th-century Europe, and modern European intellectual history to upper-level topical courses to a graduate seminar on social theory and historiography.

I recently completed a book that examines the rethinking of democracy in postwar, post-Nazi Germany.  Its focus is a loose, ideologically plural network of public intellectuals and the distinctively German, fundamentally participatory vision of democratic renewal they formulated in the immediate postwar years.  Paradoxically, this project emerged among intellectual elites but sought to revise the conventional elitisms of modern politics.  It ran aground on its own internal tensions and on the upsurging Cold War, but it infused undercurrents of dissent that helped shape later decades.

My second project explores the emergence of Europe’s “first New Left” in the 1950s and its subsequent development.  Especially after mid-decade, diverse groups of intellectuals across Europe gathered to express their rejection of both halves of the Cold War world and revitalize socialism in a “humanist” vein.  What made similar ideas plausible at the same time but in disparate places, in the East as well as the West?  What role did trans-local and cross-border contacts play?  In approaching such questions, I aim to sound out an intellectual history that avoids the double pitfalls of free-floating idealism and sociological reductionism.

I joined the faculty at MSU in 2007, after receiving my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.  Previously, I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  My research has received support from sources including the US Department of Education, DAAD, Fulbright Foundation, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and SSRC Berlin Program.  In 2012-13, I was a visiting Research Fellow at Berlin’s Humboldt University, funded by the Volkswagen and Mellon Foundations.

Current Project

Europe’s “First New Left” and the Subterranean History of the Cold War


German Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democratic Renewal: Culture and Politics after 1945 (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2014)


“Reconsidering the ‘Unpolitical German’: Democratic Renewal and the Politics of Culture in Occupied Germany.” German History 32, no. 1 (2014): 53-78.

“The Promise of Publicness: Intellectual Elites and Participatory Politics in Postwar Heidelberg.” Modern Intellectual History 9, no. 3 (2012): 641-60.

“‘Deutscher Geist’ und demokratische Erneuerung: Kulturbünde in Ost und West nach 1945.” In Rückblickend in die Zukunft: Politische Öffentlichkeit und intellektuelle Positionen in Deutschland um 1950 und um 1930, ed. Alexander Gallus and Axel Schildt, 221-37. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2011.

“Für eine demokratische Erneuerung Deutschlands: Kommunikationsprozesse und Deutungsmuster engagierter Demokraten nach 1945.” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 33, no. 2 (2007): 228-57.

“‘Das Sprachrohr keiner Besatzungsmacht oder Partei’: Deutsche Publizisten, die Vereinigten Staaten und die demokratische Erneuerung in Westdeutschland, 1945-1949.” In Demokratiewunder: Transatlantische Mittler und die kulturelle Öffnung Westdeutschlands, 1945-1970, ed. Arnd Bauerkämper, Konrad H. Jarausch and Marcus M. Payk, 159-89. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005.

“War Commemoration and the Republic in Crisis: Weimar Germany and the Neue Wache.” Central European History 35, no. 4 (2002): 513-49.

Conference Organizing

Democracy and Europe’s 20th Century: Cultural and Intellectual Histories: An International Workshop at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, May 10-11, 2013 (program)

Recent and Upcoming Courses

IAH 221C. The Modern World: Inventing and Imagining Society

HST 110. European Union: History of an Ongoing Project

HST 201. Historical Methods and Skills: Weimar Germany

HST 336. Twentieth-Century Europe

HST 338. Power, Culture, and Thought in Europe: The Modern Era

HST 452. The First World War

HST 483. Seminar: Intellectuals and Politics in 20th-Century Europe

HST 850.  Seminar: Historiography and Social Theory

Sean Forner

Position: Assistant Professor
and Core Faculty, Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies

Field: 20th Century, Contemporary, Cultural, Intellectual

Region: Europe & Russia

Contact Info

Office: 116 Old Horticulture

Office Hours: Tu 2:30-3:30, Th 10:00-11:00 (spring) and by appointment


Phone: (517) 884-4868