SUNY Potsdam Associate Professor of History Dr. Axel Fair-Schulz grew up in East Germany during the Cold War and traveled to many Eastern bloc countries during his youth. His adolescent experience spent behind the Iron Curtain—so different than that of many of his American-born professors and students—gives him a unique outlook on the world, and especially on European history.
Having seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then following the immense societal change that followed, Fair-Schulz strongly believes that it is important to try to understand all versions of history as they were lived and experienced by the people in those times. Having lived through epochal change in his own lifetime, Fair-Schulz says that it is “impossible” to avoid history, so “why not study it systematically?” Axel's research interests stem from his own background.
Perhaps for this reason, even as Fair-Schulz traveled to the United States for his academic studies, he was drawn to studying modern European history, and the history of the German Democratic Republic in particular.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history and anthropology from Brigham Young University, he went on to get his master’s degree in European history from BYU, writing his thesis about the East German dissident scientist Robert Hageman, a chemist and critical Marxist who was first condemned to death by the Nazi regime and then persecuted by the East German Stasi (State Security).
Fair-Schulz went on to pursue a Ph.D. in German history at the University at Buffalo, where he studied with the renowned historiographer Georg Diggers. He wrote his dissertation on three case studies of reform-minded Marxists in the GDR, which gave him the opportunity to meet with and interview several key figures in East German history.
Now, Fair-Schulz is the co-editor, along with Mario Kessler—himself based in Potsdam, Germany—of a new volume, “East German Historians Since Reunification: A Discipline Transformed,” which was recently published by SUNY Press. The unique book features essays from both “younger historians [secondary sources] who provide a critical perspective, as well as older historians [primary sources] who have experienced the events” described. The volume attempts to get at the “untold truths” about the German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Along with editing the volume, Fair-Schulz also wrote one of the essays, about the dissolution of the Institute for Economic History at the former GDR Academy of Sciences.
When discussing the contents of the book, Fair-Schulz called the term “unification” a misnomer, describing the post-Cold War reunification of Germany as “one country that swallowed up the other country… an opportunity for renewal and reform for both East and West that was, unfortunately, wasted.” The book itself is based on a conference organized at SUNY Potsdam by Fair-Schulz and Kessler in 2008, and features themes and essays presented at the conference, as well as more recent writings.
In addition to his interest in the former East Germany and the monumental changes that took place after reunification, Fair-Schulz also professes a natural lifelong interest in the preceding events of the 20th century—World War I, World War II and the Cold War. He has taught a number of different courses centered on different events during modern European history, and says he always tries to underscore something new in each class.
“I try to emphasize things that students have not been exposed to as much,” such as the conditions on the Eastern front during both World War I and World War II, Fair-Schulz said, once again exhibiting his conviction that all viewpoints must be analyzed. At the same time that the professor exposes his students to a unique perspective on history, he also tries to stress interconnections within historical time periods. When teaching the history of the aftermath of the first World War, for instance, Fair-Schulz likes to link the European history with what was happening in the United States. “Lots of Germans who opposed the rise of Nazism ended up as exiles in the United States, for example, so I elaborate on that as well,” he said.
As a professor, Fair-Schulz is a vehicle of knowledge, allowing stories of the past to be conveyed to others. He says what he loves most is being able to communicate his knowledge and research to students. Because he developed a love of history at such a young age, he emphasized the importance of loving what you do, and doing what you love.
“You shouldn’t do it if you don’t like to do it, but if you really like to do something, then you have to commit yourself to it,” Fair-Schulz said.
His newest book reflects Fair-Schulz’s belief that it is of the utmost importance that people of all backgrounds, ages and points of view come together to discuss history and pass on the knowledge of the past to others. His interest in looking to the past to build a better future has also affected the courses he teaches, and wishes to teach.
Fair-Schulz expressed an interest in teaching a course on fascism in response to rising right-wing movements. With aspects of fascism returning to the mainstream in the United States and Europe, Fair-Schulz believes it is important for people—especially young people, who hold so much power for the future—to learn about the history of fascism and its effects, in order to analyze the potential consequences of its rebirth.
To learn more about the scholar faculty in SUNY Potsdam’s Department of History, visit www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/History.
—Article by Elizabeth Stargiotti ’18, Photos by Emily Leonard ’17