Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies

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Willms, Kai Johann

Kai Johann Willms, M. A.

PhD Student in East European History


Graduate School for East and Southeast European History
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Maria-Theresia-Straße 21
81675 München

Phone: +49 (0)89 / 2180 - 1330

Doctoral project

The Frontier of Western Civilization. Polish Émigré Scholars and the Imagination of Eastern Europe in Cold War America

The beginnings of the Cold War posed a challenge to political decision makers in the United States: Until World War II Eastern Europe had been a marginal field of research in American academia. In order to overcome this lack of expertise, new institutes and research centers for Eastern European Studies were established and generously funded. Since there were only few domestic experts, émigré scholars from Eastern and Central Europe constituted a vital human resource in this field. Many émigré scholars gratefully accepted these career opportunities, but they did not confine themselves to the role of knowledge suppliers for American politics; in many cases they pursued an agenda of their own. Already during World War II Polish émigré scholars founded research institutions and created transnational networks in order to promote their own historical narratives and mental maps within the public spheres of the Western world. Drawing on the expanding research on the significance of migration for the production and circulation of knowledge and ideas, the project analyzes the role of Polish émigré scholars in the US as agents of a cultural transfer: What influence did they exert on the American image of Eastern Europe in the context of the Cold War? To what extent did they adopt, while assimilating into American society, ideas and knowledge from their new environment? How were the émigré scholars’ activities perceived in Poland before and after 1989? By pursuing these questions, the project contributes to a better understanding of the role of intellectual border crossers at the time of the Cold War and at the same time reflects on the epistemological question how the scholarly production of knowledge is shaped by the writer’s social context.

Curriculum Vitae

2010–2013, B.A. studies in History and Political Science in Freiburg; 2014–2016, M.A. studies in Modern European History in Berlin and Warsaw. 2011–2016, scholarship holder of the The Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes – German Academic Scholarship Foundation. 2012/2013, student assistant at the Chair of Modern and Eastern European History of the University of Freiburg. In 2016, Master's thesis "'Détente' versus 'Solidarity'? Media Representations and Political Resonances of the Polish Crisis 1980–1983 in the Federal Republic of Germany". Since December 2016, research assistant at the Institute for the Culture and History of the Germans in Northeastern Europe, Lüneburg; from April to September 2017 scholarship holder of the Humboldt Research Track Scholarship. Since November 2017, research associate and doctoral candidate at the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies.


  • 2017 (April-September) Humboldt Research Track Scholarship of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
  • 2016 Johann Gustav Droysen Prize of the Department of History at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin for the master's thesis
  • 2011–2016 scholarship holder of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes – German Academic Scholarship Foundation

Positions, Assignments and Memberships


Journal Articles and Book Chapters

With Martin Wagner, Susanne Quitmann und Helge Jonas Pösche: Die Atombombenabwürfe auf Nagasaki und Hiroshima im August 1945: "Global Moments"? Teil 1. In: Zeitgeschichte online (13.04.2017). URL:


Benjamin Conrad: Umkämpfte Grenzen, umkämpfte Bevölkerung. Die Entstehung der Staatsgrenzen der Zweiten Polnischen Republik 1918–1923, Stuttgart 2014. In: Nordost-Archiv 26, 2017 [2019], pp. 185–187.

Further Publications

With Jane Freeland: Physical Violence and State Legitimacy in Late Socialism – Final Conference, 27.02.2014–01.03.2014, Berlin. In: H-Soz-Kult, 23.06.2014. URL:

Biopower and Physical Violence – Embodied Experiences in Communist Europe, 24.01.2014, Potsdam. In: H-Soz-Kult, 15.04.2014. URL:

Presentations (selected)


"Inventing East Central Europe: The Transnational Experience of Polish Émigré Scholars in the United States after 1945 and its Epistemic Repercussions." (Workshop "South/Eastern and Central European Histories of Science and the Humanities" am Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies der Uni Erfurt, 12.7.2019).

"Redrawing the American Mental Map: Polish Émigré Scholars in American Research on Eastern Europe, 1939–1989." ("Global Cultural History": 12. Jahreskonferenz der International Society for Cultural History, Tallinn (Estland), 29.6.2019).


"Area Studies und migrantisches Wissen. Polnische Exilanten in der amerikanischen Osteuropaforschung nach 1945." (Tagung „Dynamiken des Wissens. Historische Perspektiven auf das Verhältnis von Wissen und Migration vom 20. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart“, Berlin, 2.5.–3.5.2018).

"An Old Stereotype in a New Environment? The Impact of Polish Émigré Scholars on American Sovietology after 1945." (Jahrestagung der Graduiertenschule für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien "Studying East and Southeast Europe as Area Studies: Paradigms - Themes - Methods for the 21st Century", München, 25.-27.10.2018)

„Constructing (East) Central Europe in Exile: The Scholarly and Political Activities of Polish Émigré Scholars in the US after 1945“ (Lecture at the Conference "(De-)constructing Central Europe: From Mitteleuropa to Visions of a Common Europe, 1918–2018", 18.-20. October 2018 in Frankfurt (Oder)/Slubice)