Sean Forner

Sean Forner

I am a historian of 20th-century Europe and Germany interested in intersections of intellectual history and the history of political culture, or political imaginaries.  My primary focus is on ideas and practices of democracy after the World Wars, 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.

My first book examines the rethinking of democracy in postwar, post-Nazi Germany.  Its focus is a loose, ideologically plural network of public intellectuals and the fundamentally participatory, distinctively German 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 later legacies.  Especially after mid-decade, clusters of intellectuals at sites across Europe came together around a shared discontent with the technocratic aspect of the postwar world and a shared desire to 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 terms of method, I aim to sound out an approach that avoids the double pitfalls of free-floating idealism and reductive materialism – a “post-idealist” intellectual history, one could call it.

I received my B.A. from Stanford University and my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.  I joined the faculty at MSU in 2007, after teaching 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.  I have also been a visiting Research Fellow at Berlin’s Humboldt University, with funding from the Volkswagen and Mellon Foundations.

Current Project

The Political Imaginary of Europe’s “First New Left”; or, High Modernism and its Discontents


German Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democratic Renewal: Culture and Politics after 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2014; paperback 2017)

(Listen to a podcast interview about the book at New Books in History.)


“Imaginary Intellectual History and ‘Managerialism’ in 1950s West Germany.” In Ideengeschichte: Traditionen und Perspektiven, ed. D. Timothy Goering. Bielefeld: transcript, forthcoming 2017.

“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, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, May 10-11, 2013

Recent and Upcoming Courses

IAH 221C. Inventing and Imagining Society

ISS 325. Revolutions and the Modern World

HST 110. European Union: History of an Ongoing Project

HST 201. Historical Methods and Skills: Weimar Germany

HST 336. Europe, 1870 to the Present

HST 338. Power, Culture, and Thought in Modern Europe

HST 415. The First World War

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

HST 814. Seminar: Historiography and Social Theory

HST 850. Seminar: Intellectual History: Readings and Approaches

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

Field: 20th Century, Contemporary, Cultural, Intellectual

Region: Europe & Russia

Office: 116 Old Horticulture

Office Hours: on research leave (until fall 2017)


Phone: (517) 884-4868

Book Cover German Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democratic Renewal: Culture and Politics after 1945