The Loser's Edge: Writing from the Vantage Point of the Vanquished, 1918-1945

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My dissertation, The Loser’s Edge: Writing from the Vantage Point of the Vanquished, 1918–1945, examines how the experience of defeat became a unique source of epistemological insight in literature and historiography between 1918 and the beginning of the Cold War. Taking my cue from historian Reinhart Koselleck’s polemical claim that history may well be made by the victors but is in fact written by the vanquished, I argue that experiences of defeat triggered a singular mode of historical reflection that was substantially marked by aesthetic innovation. In three exemplary case studies – focusing on the German defeats in World War I and World War II, and each staging a dialog between two writers – I show how Koselleck’s anthropological account of history-writing as a reversal of the victor-vanquished dialectic not only provides an unconventional framework for making sense of Germany’s historical role in European modernity. It also captures a striking modernist constellation that linked historiography, storytelling, and future-oriented thinking. Koselleck’s wager was to assume that the situation of greatest existential upheaval, namely, being defeated in a conflict, paradoxically generates the deepest epistemological insight by enabling the vanquished to radically reexamine their world view. This is because the experience of defeat massively widens the gap between lived experience and what Koselleck called Erwartungshorizont (horizon of expectation), severing all conceptual ties between experience (Erfahrung) and expectation (Erwartung) and foiling any attempt at subsuming experience under available conceptual models. Rather than seeing this gap as problematic, Koselleck embraced it, arguing that its constitutive incongruence made historiography dynamic and political, endowing it with an epistemic power that elevated it above the simple gathering of facts about the past. As I show, the work of storytelling implied by this historiographic model is aesthetic at its very core. It provides trenchant analytical categories for appraising the experiential negotiation of defeat in works by Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, and Ernst Jünger.
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231 pages
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Defeat; German Literature; Historiography; Modernism
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McBride, Patrizia C.
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Traverso, Enzo
Fleming, Paul A.
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Germanic Studies
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Ph. D., Germanic Studies
Degree Level
Doctor of Philosophy
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Government Document
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dissertation or thesis
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