ISHASH Member interview: Carolin Kosuch

In the seventh installment in our series of interviews, Anton Jansson interviews Dr. Carolin Kosuch, who is the editor of an international research volume concerning Freethinkers in Europe 1789-1920.

Hello Carolin, and congratulations to the forthcoming book Freethinkers in Europe! First of all, could you introduce yourself briefly, including your academic career path up until today?

Hello Anton, thank you, and thank you also for having organized this interview. I’m a historian interested in the cultural and religious history of Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries. Already during my studies at the Universities of Leipzig and Cracow, questions of secularism, atheism and religious/non-religious minorities were key. I did my doctor’s thesis at Leipzig’s Simon-Dubnow-Institute for Jewish History and Culture (today: Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow). The resulting book Missratene Söhne: Anarchismus und Sprachkritik im Fin de Siècle came out in 2015. It deals with German-Jewish intellectual history and offers an interpretative path of jointly reading Fritz Mauthner’s atheist philosophy of language and the anarchist philosophies of Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam. For historians of secularism, this anarchist theory has particular appeal because, although atheistic, it is filled with religious references from the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. For my postdoc-project which combines the history of secularism with aspects of the history of technology and the history of death in modernity I stayed for several years at the German Historical Institute in Rome. Currently I’m working at the chair of Rebekka Habermas (University of Göttingen), financed by the German Research Foundation, where I hope to complete this project.

You are the editor of Freethinkers in Europe: National and Transnational Secularities, 1789−1920s, which is out on De Gruyter in August, and includes chapters from a dozen researchers. Could you tell us a little bit why you decided to put together this edited volume, and how it came about?

The book was the result of a workshop held in Rome in 2018. The idea for a workshop on historical freethinkers in transnational perspectives was a joint venture of the German Historical Institutes of Rome and Warsaw. It seemed a great opportunity to combine a Call for Papers with the research-networks of these two institutes to look at the topic not only from German, French or British, but also Central and South European perspectives. From my time in Leipzig I was familiar with the work of the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”. I thought it could be interesting to combine empirical-historical research with a theoretical approach by discussing Monika Wohlrab-Sahr’s idea of the “multiple secularities” in contemporary modernities also in their historical dimensions and additionally including Detlef Pollack’s longstanding sociological research on secularism and secularity. And the workshop worked very well, in my opinion. It is not always the case that a group of international scholars coming together for the first time get along so well and develop a really productive and profound dialogue right away. This is why I decided to continue our lively discussions in written form – the basis for the book was set.

What would you say are the most interesting and important aspects that this volume taken as a whole brings to the research field of the history of secularism and freethought?

This volume brings together for the first time case studies on secularists of the 19th and early 20th centuries in national and transnational perspectives using examples from all over Europe. It locates the roots of secularism in a certain time, a particular mindset and a specific social milieu and clearly points to the transnational intertwining of the various secularist enterprises regarding, e.g., song-culture, a certain secularist canon or a shared set of secularist heroes. But it also reveals the diversity of secularist approaches regardless of these commonalities. In this polarity, secularism and its agents, the historical freethinkers, seem to mirror the ambivalences of modernity itself. The study of their balancing act between a shared agenda and the national, cultural, sometimes even local particularities, between cultural programs and political missions, between cooperation and distinction, even competition, is an important contribution to the field this book offers. Besides, some chapters look into concrete secularist practices and undertakings such as civil baptism, the organization of international conferences or initiatives to leave church. They draw attention to the practical dimensions of secularism next to intellectual discourse and help to complete our picture of historical secularism.

Absolutely, and, you here say “historical”, let’s stay there shortly. Because in your introductory chapter to the volume, you point out how there has been a recent boom in the field of “secular studies”, which however has been mainly contemporary, and less historical. Why are also historical studies of secularism, freethought, atheism, etc., important, in your opinion?

As much as we profit from anthropological, ethnological and sociological research, I think we sometimes tend to forget that the concepts of secularism, secularity and “the secular” as an epistemic category have concrete and often conflictual histories. Daniela Haarmann’s chapter on the history of concepts such as atheism, freethought or secularity, which opens our book, reminds us of this impressively by analysing the corresponding entries in a number of historical reference works from many European language areas. Secularism in particular is a politically and ideologically charged idea deeply rooted in Western European modernity. From there it spread rapidly to other parts of the world, where particular secularisms developed, which in turn influenced European secularisms back. Whenever we use these concepts without reflecting on their history and the related agenda of the early secularists, we run into danger to forget their implications as worldview. By contrast, a historical approach to these concepts, as pursued, e.g., in the works of Manuel Borutta, Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser, Lisa Dittrich, Todd Weir, and in our volume, helps us to historicize these ideas rather than seeing them as a neutral category of description.

That is very true. You have already hinted at some aspects of secularism which is included in the book. To give a somewhat richer picture of the content, however, could you exemplify with one or two chapters and tell us a little more about them?

Well, this seems like the perfect opportunity to turn tables and ask you, Anton, as one of the contributors of the book about your chapter on Swedish secularism. To my knowledge there is very little research done on this subject in English and I consider myself very lucky that your work complements our volume so well. For me it fits perfectly with the first section of the book, which brings together Italian and Polish secularisms with their Catholic imprints and Swedish secularism with its Protestant background to illustrate secularism’s diversity. But perhaps you can tell us a little about the research you have included in your chapter?

Sure! While Sweden counts as one of the most secular countries in the world, as you say, there is virtually no research about the Swedish history of secularism, freethought, and atheism in English. And, even more surprising, very little in Swedish! That was one reason I got interested in the topic. I was very happy to be able to attend the workshop, to present what was essentially a pilot study for a bigger project on the history of atheism and secularism in Sweden. In the resulting chapter, I focus on a very lively period in Swedish political and cultural life, a decade or so around 1890. This was a time when new popular movements were formed, which came to take an important role in Swedish modernization. One of these was the socialist/social democratic labour movement, and they from the start struggled with how to relate to Christianity. With a materialist worldview and a critique of the church, they were secularists, and many, such as the leader Hjalmar Branting, were outspoken freethinkers. They however tried to balance this, as not to scare religious workers, or use too much energy on this cultural issue, and declared religion a private matter. This came to its head in a polemic with a man called Viktor Lennstrand. He was close to the social democrats, but aimed at starting a mass movement of freethought, which he called “utilism”. Lennstrand and his more aggressive utilism challenged the secularism of the social democrats. This was fought out in newspapers, but also in a large debate between Lennstrand and Branting in Stockholm in 1890. Departing from this debate, and these “two secularisms”, I try to capture this formative period of Sweden’s secularist history. I hope this fit in quite well with the theme of the book, as it is a specific national variation of an inter- and transnational topic.

But now I have taken up too much room in this interview! I have a couple of question left for you. A volume such as this cannot cover everything, and is of course conditioned by the interests of the researchers involved. But if it would have been possible to add one chapter, dealing with an aspect which was not included in the book as it turned out, about a phenomenon, national or transnational context, or so – what would that be?

I would have liked to add a chapter on secularism and feminism to the volume. Aside from Laura Schwartz’s great book Infidel Feminism, which deals with the British context, and Joan Wallach Scott’s fascinating book on Sex and Secularism, offering reflections on more theoretical grounds, there is little work on the subject. I hope that this will change soon, because this is a promising topic at local, national and transnational levels and deserves further study.

I totally agree, I think a gender aspect could be productive in various ways in the field. Last question: You have written a rich and important introductory chapter in this book, which provides a great introduction to relevant historical and theoretical contexts, but no empirical chapter of your own. However, I understand that you have worked for some time with a project, which touches on the cremation movement in Europe, which I find very interesting. Could you elaborate shortly on this, especially how this movement intersects with the history of secularism?

You are right, I deal with secularism in its intertwining with technology and the natural sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries. Cremation is one aspect I’m looking into. The idea of burning the dead body dates back to antiquity, but was banned because it was considered by Charles the Great to be incompatible with the Christian faith. But the concept was revived in a secularist and culture-war context: the French Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento, in particular. It merged with the modern discourse on hygiene, infinite progress and technological advancement and quickly spread throughout Europe, the USA and elsewhere. Cremation maintained its secularist tone in various contexts and became part of a secularist worldview and agenda alongside civil baptism, civil marriage and religious disaffiliation. My interest in this secularist enterprise led me to publish this volume, and I hope to discuss it in detail in my next book.

I am very much looking forward to that! In the meantime, we have the book you have now edited. As mentioned, it is out on De Gruyter in August. At their homepage, one can read the table of contents to see more in detail what it includes. It is also possible to pre-order it – why not ask your university library to buy it? I feel honoured to be included in the book, and look forward to reading the rest of the chapters in the final volume. Thank you Carolin for this interview, and good luck with your future work!

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