Fellow of the Volkswagen Stiftung and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
August 2018 – September 2019
Insurance Against Total Destruction: A Postwar History of German Plans to Save the World
Jennifer Allen's project analyzes postwar German efforts to archive the raw materials needed to rebuild national and international cultures after total catastrophe. As the Cold War intensified, both sides of the Iron Curtain sought new ways to protect themselves against a possible hot war. Europe’s leadership recognized its relative powerlessness against the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons. Their pessimism about the future led them to plan seriously for the possibility of absolute destruction and its aftermath. But what might that disaster look like? And how could the world actually be pulled back from the brink of annihilation – not only atomic destruction but also climate catastrophe, even Malthusian collapse? Who would bear the burden or the privilege of such work? And what kind of humanity would they rebuild? As the frontline of Cold War antagonism, Germans – both East and West – were particularly motivated to engage these questions. To examine diverse answers Germans offered over the past half-century, Allen’s project brings together an unlikely pairing of postwar narratives: the history of West German efforts to preserve German cultural heritage and the history of East German efforts to preserve biodiversity through gene banking. She examines the range of catastrophes imaginable in postwar Central Europe and assesses what the blueprints for rebuilding whole cultures from scratch tell us about the shifting values of European institutions of cultural power during and after the Cold War. Her project brings together scholarship on future studies, environmentalism, decolonization and the relationship of the developed world to the Global South, and the cultural implications of actuarial science to examine how both sides of Cold War fought to preserve their self-conception as protectors of civilization.
Jennifer Allen received her Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015. She is currently an assistant professor of history at Yale University. Her research and teaching areas include modern German history, cultural history of modern Europe, theories and practices of memory, grassroots activism, the politics of space, and Europe after the Cold War.