Tuesday, January 10, 2012

January 2012 Graduate Student of the Month: Benjamin Thorne

Benjamin Thorne
Department of History
January 2012 Student of the Month

IU History Graduate Student Ben Thorne

IU History Graduate Student M. Benjamin Thorne is a 2011-12 Harry Frank Guggenheim Dissertation Fellowship recipient for the current academic year. The award supports students in the dissertation writing stage who have researched problems of violence, aggression or dominance.

The award is prestigious because the competition comes from all over the world. Applicants may be citizens of any country, conducting doctoral research at colleges or universities in anywhere in the world, so long as the student’s research relates to the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation’s concern with violence. Thorne’s dissertation The Anxiety of Proximity: The “Gypsy Question” in Romanian Society, 1934-1944 and Beyond looks at the uneasy relationship Romania has had with its longtime Roma residents.

“Romania had and still has today the largest population of Roma, also known as Gypsies, in Europe. Their history in Romania is somewhat unique because they were enslaved there for close to 500 years. They were emancipated in the mid-nineteenth century roughly around the time slaves here [in the United States] were emancipated,” he said.

Romania in the 1930’s and 1940’s was 90 percent peasant and the nation was eager to promote the image of a modern, civilized nation, Thorne said. In the eyes of many nationalists, the Roma complicated this vision. The Roma population was “partly nomadic, largely illiterate, and impoverished, although that had as much to do with racism and Romanian society as their own culture.”

It also didn’t help that in memoirs written by West European travelers to Romania, writers would seize on the image of the ‘savage gypsy’ to the point that it became a kind of symbol of Romania. This was not the image Romanian intellectuals wished to promote, Thorne said.

“A debate developed as to how to best deal with this population. My dissertation looks at the origins of this debate, and then at how Romanian society became increasingly radicalized over the course of the 1930s and 40s. Eugenics came to dominate this debate and Roma were perceived as a biological threat and a problem that required a solution rather than a population that could somehow be embraced or Romanian-ized or assimilated,” he said.

“[Romania] began deportations during WWII to a region of Ukraine that Romania occupied called Transnistria. It’s difficult to assess exactly how many, but at least 25,000 were deported, quite possibly more than that. [I researched] what it was like for the Roma in Transnistria, what the camps were like for them there, what strategies they employed for survival.”

Not all of the Roma were deported, but Thorne believes there were plans to deport more, possibly all of them.

“But as the tide of the war changed—Romania was allied with Nazi Germany— the leader of Romania, Ion Antonescu wanted to modify his policies in the event he had to switch alliances. He eventually tried to pursue this option, but was deposed by a coup in August of 1944. That new government did switch their allegiance to the allies that same day.”

“The ‘anxiety of proximity’ [in the dissertation’s title] refers to the anxiety about Romanian identity that was posed by Roma in Romanian society,” Thorne said. “What does it mean—Romanian nationalists asked themselves—when we’re trying to promote ourselves as a modern society and we have these nomads running around our country?” Thorne said some Romanians were also anxious about their identity because it wasn’t always clear who was Romanian and who was Roma.

“Roma were starting to assimilate during [the interwar period]. Nomadism was in decline and more of them were settling on the outskirts of villages, and as a result you had some intermarriage. So if someone had a darker complexion, then you might think that person is really Roma. With the deportations, this is one of the reasons that they stopped is because it really brought these anxieties to the forefront. People began to complain to the government because their husband or wife or brother or sister had been deported and they’d say, no, we’re ethnic Romanians, what are you doing? You’re picking the wrong people,” he said.

It’s not a question that has faded into the background since WWII. Last year, France and Italy both expelled Roma from their borders and destroyed Roma settlements, and similar actions were taken in Hungary, Sweden, Denmark and other countries.

Choosing Romania

Thorne’s interest in Russia and Eastern Europe began when he was very young. His parents watched the news religiously and he said he was curious as to why Ronald Reagan talked about the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” His interest continued into college where as an undergrad at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, Thorne took courses in Russian and Eastern European history and did a semester abroad in Warsaw, Poland.

“It’s funny,” he said, “because when I got to Guilford, I knew I wanted to major in history and English—I wanted to be a double major—but very quickly I realized I also wanted to specialize in Russian and East European History. I thought I was going to work on probably Poland, but then I started to think about it my senior year and I thought, you know, lots of people work on Poland and Czechoslovakia. I want to do something different. That’s about the same time I became interested in Roma and the Holocaust.”

Thorne took a year off to consider what country he wanted to specialize in and he joined AmeriCorps.

“Then I started teaching at a high school and one year turned into three, and then I was in my fourth year and I thought if I don’t do this now, it’s never going to happen. I buckled up and did my research and decided I wanted to focus on Romania because the history of the country is fascinating, particularly the Roma element of it,” he said.

“Once I knew that, really, there are only a few universities that have a specialization in Romanian studies – IU, Pittsburgh and Illinois. All three are good programs, but I knew I wanted to be at an institution where my advisor had interests similar to my own because I thought that level of guidance and support was important,” he said.

“I visited the IU campus and met with several faculty members and with graduate students, I toured the library and its resources for Eastern Europe, and the Russian and East European Institute (REEI), and I was blown away by everything that IU had to offer. Historically IU has always had a strong program in Eastern European Studies and in Romanian Studies in particular, and I felt like it would be a tradition I would be proud to be a part of.”

Thorne started his graduate studies in Fall 2003, and at the time, he had not yet been to Romania, despite his knowledge of its history. He had, however, been to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and the summer before he completed intensive Romanian language training at IU as part of the Summer Workshop on Slavic, East European, and Central Asian languages (SWEESL), which is “the largest program of its kind in the country, certainly one of the oldest,” he said. Once established in his degree program, Thorne was able to visit Romania for intensive language training the following summer, and, as he puts it, to “sort of get his feet wet in the archives.”

Later he spent five months researching at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Raul Hilberg Fellow, followed by nine months in Romania doing research thanks to fellowships from Fulbright-Hays and the Social Science Research Council, and from IU—the Sarah & Albert Ruben Scholarship for the study of the Holocaust from Jewish Studies, and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the History Department, among others. Last year Thorne received a Dissertation Completion Fellowship in East European Studies from American Council of Learned Societies.

“The year before I went to Romania when I was applying for research grants, I applied to six major external fellowships and I used the IU GradGrants Center. I went at least two or three times and I attended IU’s Fulbright workshops too. My advisor and other faculty also looked at my project statements, and I actually got every single grant I applied for, and I think that’s pretty rare,” he said. “I got quite lucky, obviously, but my success speaks to the quality of the programs and faculty here at IU. Without them, none this would have been possible.”

Thorne is currently on the job market and on January 13, 2012, he will defend his dissertation.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Thorne said. “This is a moment that I’ve been working towards for so many years, and I think it’s going to be a great conversation with my committee members. Once you leave graduate school, the opportunities you get to have that much concerted attention on your research are few and far between, so it’s definitely a moment to cherish while you have it.”

Contact: Erika Lee, The University Graduate School, ebigalee@indiana.edu.