Jeffry M. Diefendorf
Professor of History
College of Liberal Arts
Photographed on June 10, 2004, at his home in Kittery, Maine, overlooking Spruce Creek.
As a junior faculty member in his second year at UNH, Jeffry Diefendorf was a historian specializing in early modern and modern German history when he was asked in 1978 to accompany a group of alumni to Munich, St. Moritz, and Innsbruck as a faculty expert.
To his surprise, questions posed by some of the 120 alumni on the trip have focused his research ever since.
“The first day, we stopped at the main square in Munich, a city badly damaged in World War II, and everyone was admiring the town hall, which has a very famous Glockenspiel. They thought this was a beautiful old building, but right across from it on the main square was a huge concrete department store. They turned to me and said, ‘How could they rebuild this beautiful city and have this ugly concrete building here near this old town hall?’ ” Diefendorf says.
“I had no idea! I had no idea how the city had been rebuilt, who had done it, who had paid for it, how these decisions had been made,” he says, “and I was the supposed expert.”
After searching for information at the town library and coming up with little, Diefendorf’s interest in the topic was piqued and he began focusing his research on how Germany ’s cities were rebuilt after World War II.
“In many ways, it has defined most of my career since then,” Diefendorf says. “Going along as the faculty expert on that tour has turned me into not just a German historian, but an urban historian.”
The author of two books, In the Wake of War: The Reconstruction of German Cities After World War II and Businessmen and Politics in the Rhineland, 1789-1834, Diefendorf has also edited five books, among them Rebuilding Europe’s Bombed Cities and Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945. Now he is working on a comparative study of Cologne, Basel, and Boston in the 20th century.
Diefendorf completed his doctoral work in German history at the University of California at Berkeley and came to UNH in 1976. From 1991 to 1997 he served as the history department chair, and then became a senior faculty fellow in the office of the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts . He teaches courses on the history of Germany, Historical Methods, and the Holocaust. He has recently led a successful drive to establish an endowed fund for Holocaust education at UNH.
Cities define how most people live today, so if a city is destroyed by war, how it is rebuilt is of critical importance. “We go to cities but we often don’t pay attention to how they have evolved under normal and abnormal circumstances,” he says.
In some European cities, bullet marks are still visible on firewalls above the first floor of buildings, Diefendorf says, “but if I ask Germans what they see, they don’t see them. You learn to read a physical city for the stories it tells, and it does tell stories.”
The process of uncovering stories is multifaceted—from architecture and aesthetics to politics and financing—and provides an endless supply of questions. And it is a process that continues. In what used to be East Germany, and in the former Soviet Union, people are still grappling with how to address the damage done by World War II. Damage caused by more recent wars is causing the residents in countries such as Lebanon to cast a critical eye on the process of urban planning and rebuilding, as they try to decide what to restore and what to modernize.
“How do you define what is old? The Germans now are concerned about preserving modern architecture and post-World War II construction,” Diefendorf says. “Cities constantly change, and as people become interested in their past and how they define their identity in terms of the past, they need to understand how both the old and the new work together to make a city livable.”