John P. Eicher, Ph.D.

John Eicher
Assistant Professor, History
Office Phone
Office Location
Smith Building, C129D
Biography

I am a historian of modern Europe and I began teaching at Penn State Altoona in 2017. During the 2020-21 academic year, I will hold a Marie S. Curie Fellowship at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS), in Freiburg, Germany.

From 2016-2017, I was the Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Migration at the German Historical Institute, Washington DC and from 2015-2016, I taught courses for the "German Iowa and the Global Midwest" public humanities initiative at the University of Iowa. From 2014-2017, I also served as a research associate for a global oral history project titled “Seven Points on Earth,” which was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and investigated the environmental and religious factors affecting seven Mennonite farming communities around the world.

Research

Tending towards the comparative and transnational, my research focuses on Europe’s global connections. Areas of special interest to me include medical history, environmental history, colonialism, migration, and religion. I am especially interested in how Europeans created collective narratives as nations, religions, and diasporas and how these narratives influence their understandings of citizenship, race, and ethnicity.

My book, Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2020. It  is a comparative study of two groups of German-speaking Mennonites. One was composed of 1,800 voluntary migrants and the other was composed of 1,500 refugees. The groups originated in 19th century Russia, took separate paths through Canada and Germany, and settled in two separate colonies near Paraguay’s Bolivian border in 1926 and 1930. Along the way, they engaged seven governments and two aid agencies, which either desired or required their loyalty. I show that the pacifist Mennonites drew on a range of national and religious myths to interpret and legitimate their movements. They also applied biblical concepts such as “wandering” and “exile” to their collective narratives, which led the voluntary migrants to more firmly assert their opposition to nationalism and violence and the refugees to reject nonviolence in favor of modern nationalism. My project advances two overarching theses: 1) It argues that diasporic groups harnessed the global spread of nationalism and ecumenicism to secure evolving local objectives and create local mythologies. 2) It argues that governments and aid organizations used diasporic groups for their own purposes by portraying them as enemies or heroes in their evolving national and religious mythologies. My work demonstrates that it is essential to understand the local and religious counter-stories running parallel to nationalist narratives since they help us understand acts of resistance, flight, and dispersion in the modern world.

My second book project concerns how Europe’s Christian clergy and laypeople interpreted the 1918 flu pandemic. The disease killed between 50-100 million people within 18 months, immediately after a global war that took the lives of 20 million people. We know that apocalyptic ideas swept across the Western world during the war, that physicians could not agree on the pandemic’s causative agent, and that Christian leaders supplied religious interpretations to earlier “plagues.” Nevertheless, we know very little about the flu’s religious consequences on European society. Some major questions that this project addresses are: What expectations did laypeople have of religious leaders to aid, or even to cure, flu victims? What stories and metaphors did Christians use to understand the disease and how were microbes, doctors, God, and the church cast as “protagonists” or “antagonists” in the drama? How did global war, postwar population transfers, the ascendance of medical science, and fears of “secular modernism,” figure into Christian interpretations of the flu? How did Christian responses vary between WWI’s belligerent nations, belligerent and neutral nations, and territories within a colonial system? My research compares Christian communities across Central Europe and the British Isles. This project is among the first to situate the pandemic in a comparative, transnational framework and the first to focus on its religious dimensions.

Recent Publications

Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

“Rustic Reich: Nazi Impressions of South America’s German-Speaking Enclaves.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 60, no. 4 (2018): 998-1028.

“Comparative Narratives: Russlanddeutsch Migration Stories.” In Jenseits der "Volksgruppe": Neue Perspektiven auf die Russlanddeutschen zwischen Russland, Deutschland und Amerika. Edited by Victor Dönninghaus, Jannis Panagiotidis, and Hans-Christian Petersen. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017.

“A Sort of Homecoming: The German Refugee Crisis of 1929.” German Studies Review 40:2 (2017).

“‘Every Family on Their Own’?: Iowa’s Mennonite Farm Communities and the 1980s Farm Crisis.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 35 (2017).

Teaching

My teaching interests include the histories of modern Germany, modern Europe, modern Latin America, the German Atlantic world, disease/public health, European nationalism/transnationalism, European colonialism/imperialism, European religious cultures, migration/displacement, and race/ethnicity.

In my courses, students use historical research to develop their discussion, writing, and citizenship skills. They also understand that historical scholarship is a dialogue between scholars, and between the academy and the public over pressing contemporary issues. In 2019, I co-led a committee that brought the nonprofit organization StoryCorps to Altoona to record oral histories from area citizens who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Organized under the title “Divided Societies,” our 30th-anniversary commemoration entailed collaborating with area high schools and civic organizations for a series of campus and public events that reflected on a divided Germany and current political divisions in the US and Europe. I also incorporated the StoryCorps interviews into my courses for a series of oral history assignments, which were subsequently bound and deposited in Penn State Altoona’s Special Collections. In general, my approach to teaching shows students how historians “do history,” even as it prepares them to be engaged scholars and citizens.

Courses

Introductory

  • German America: The Largest Minority
  • Europe Since 1848
  • History of Western Medicine
  • Modern Latin America, 1820-present
  • Western Heritage II, 1500-present

Advanced

  • Europe in the Age of Nationalism
  • First World War: Art, Memory, and the (Re)Making of History
  • Germans Beyond Germany, 1500-1918
  • History, Mythology, and Narrative
  • Holocaust in History and Memory
  • Migrants and Refugees in Modern Europe, 1917-2011
  • Twentieth-century Europe: The Cold War and After