Research

I am a global historian of the 20th century. I am particularly interested in international institutions like the United Nations and transnational organizations campaigning for specific political agendas in a global space. It is important to understand these institutions and the people and discourses operating in these spaces as they became increasingly relevant for shaping global policies. At the same time, I am interested in the relationship between global institutions and nation states, which remained key entities in the 20th century. I analyze how specific resolutions and sets of policies were translated from an international space into the frameworks of nation states. In my research, I combine archival research with digital humanities methods.

Selected research projects

Human Rights and Population Control. Overpopulation discourse and reproductive policies from 1940–1995 (PhD thesis)
My PhD thesis was a transnational study which took overpopulation discourse and global population control programs as a starting point to investigate human rights claims in reproductive policies. It was based on archival sources of the United Nations, two NGOs (the US-based Population Council and the UK-based International Planned Parenthood Federation), international lawyers, and the international women’s movement. It showed that, in the 1950s and 1960s, claims of an endangerment of human rights by population growth proved to be a key factor for the success of population control programs in a geopolitical setting shaped by decolonization and Cold War conflicts. Notwithstanding this success, the thesis demonstrated that such references to human rights remained contested. While some argued that states have a right to limit couple’s number of children in order to protect human rights for wider communities, others emphasized that couples have a human right to reproductive choices free of state interference. Both sides based their arguments on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Defenders of couple’s choice argued that article 16 declares a human right to establish a family without any limitations. Advocates for restricting the number of children argued that article 29 declares an individual’s duty to the community. Hence, couples must not endanger the human rights of others by contributing to “overpopulation”. To understand the impact of these ambiguous human rights claims for domestic policies, the thesis employed four case studies. It used India, Ireland, the USA, and Yugoslavia as examples to demonstrate how these international debates and human rights resolutions were translated into (sometimes conflicting) policies in countries with diverse political and religious structures and different demographic challenges. The final chapter of the thesis analysed the impact of the international feminist movement on redefining reproductive human rights from the late 1970s onwards.

The thesis touched on wider questions of the role of humanitarianism and human rights for foreign policies, the significance of transnational organizations in setting global agendas, the relationships between international institutions, global discourses and nation states, and the conflicts between individual rights and the role of states as guarantors of public welfare and goods.

Between Activism and Diplomacy. Eleanor Roosevelt and International Human Rights, 1936–1962 (completed 2017)
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, serving from 1946 to 1953. In this research project, I discuss her role for international human rights debates by analyzing her newspaper columns written between 1936 and 1962. The 7,996 columns were analyzed by using methods of digital text analysis. Further, I selected a total of about 2,000 columns for close reading. I show that Roosevelts positions on contested questions of international human rights policies in the 1940s and 1950s reflected US State Department priorities. She argued in favor of the non-binding character of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and defended US policies against critiques from the Soviet Union. Further, in contrast to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, she remained sceptical of defining specific human rights for women.

Simultaneity of Inclusion and Exclusion: Homosexualities between Prosecution and Normalization in Austria in 1971 (together with Barbara Kraml, completed 2016)
In Austria, sexual acts between people of the same gender were illegal until 1971. Although a parliamentary majority was in favor of decriminalization from the mid 1960s onwards, criminal courts still prosecuted homosexual men and women up to the day the legislation was passed. In this research project, we argue that decriminalization reflected a process of normalization of homosexualities. While this meant legalisation of the sexual act itself, other practices were outlawed, like “advertising” homosexuality or campaigning for LGBT issues. Further, we analyzed court cases from the Viennese Criminal Court in 1971 to understand why police brought the sexual behaviour of 106 men and women to the attention of the prosecution.