Extraordinary events, ordinary people

Northeastern University history professor Tim Brown isn’t interested in studying the actions of statesmen and governments. Instead he takes a bottom-up approach, uncovering the hidden or neglected history of people who drive popular movements.

His interest began in graduate school at the University of California, where he studied the mass politics and movements of post-World War I Germany, when Nazis and Communists clashed, both in the streets and at the ballot box. Today, he focuses on 1960s countercultural movements in West Germany, when student demonstrations and mass protests rocked that nation and the world.

“I’m not just interested in the student movements,” he said. “I’m interested in the radical actions of everyday life. Culture and politics were so deeply intertwined in 1968 . . . I want to widen the lens to look at the whole range of activities in the arts and popular culture as well.”

Brown, recently promoted to associate professor of history, joined the Northeastern faculty in 2005. He has written extensively on radical political, social and cultural movements in twentieth-century West Germany, publishing many journal articles, book chapters and encyclopedia entries, as well as two books.

His forthcoming third book, scheduled for publication next year, is a case study of West Germany’s countercultural movements and their connections to other radical movements around the world during the tumultuous 1960s. This was an era of cultural globalization that saw increased mobility of people, goods and ideas, he said. The book, “1968: West Germany in the World” will discuss how globalization and the advances in communications, such as television, helped spur the New Left in Germany and many other nations.

“I use West Germany to think about the way in which ‘1968’ was not just a national event, but a global event,” said Brown. “I’m concerned with how that globality concretely manifested itself.”
He shows this by analyzing cultural forces in West Germany — ranging from student movements to radical daycare centers — to show the “active face” of the transnational connections that helped fuel the global countercultural movement of the 1960s.

His research, for example, highlights the formation of a radical print culture that brought counterculture books by the likes of Alan Ginsburg and Frank O’Hara to West Germany for the first time. The underground printing houses also republished works of socialist theory that had been banned by the Nazis.
“They were finding materials that were no longer available and making them available,” Brown said. “They were going out into the world and finding what was interesting and bringing it to Germany.”

Brown’s books represent a chronological and a thematic progression. The first, “Weimar Radicals: Nazis and Communists between Authenticity and Performance,” which developed out of his PhD thesis, deals with the period between the world wars, an era of mass politics and mass parties.

His second book, a co-edited volume — “Between the Avant-garde and the Everyday: Subversive Politics in Europe, 1957-Present” — is an essay collection dealing with the history of subcultures in Europe from 1957 to the present.

“Radical movements need to be studied,” said Brown. The sixties, for example, “dealt with issues that are still unresolved and often misrepresented because of partisan politics . . . The impetus towards truth-telling, creating their own initiatives, and not just accepting what was given to them — creating their own life. It’s still important.”