Professor Monika Baar specialises in the history of East-Central and South-Eastern Europe, with a research focus on the history of disabilities. As Joint Chair, one of her main aims is "to work towards a more diverse and inclusive European history that pays attention to marginalised groups." Simultaneously, she hopes to raise awareness of the status and needs of vulnerable citizens in Europe and beyond.
In an interview, she discussed her background, expectations, and educational goals while at the EUI.
What is your background and how did you become an expert on the topic?
I was born in Budapest, where I studied history, literature and linguistics. During my undergraduate years I also spent one semester at the University of Vilnius and the University of Vienna. I then earned an MA degree at the CEU (then) in Budapest and completed my doctorate in Modern History at the University of Oxford. This was followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, a Teaching Fellowship at Essex and appointments at Groningen University and Leiden University.
Somewhat unusually, my doctoral and post-doctoral work were on a very different topic compared to what I am researching now. I was initially trained as a historian with a focus on historiography, nationalism and political thought in the 19th century. Then, one day something unexpected happened. While taking a flight, I was casually browsing through the in-flight magazine and I came across a short article on guide dogs for the blind. That serendipitous occasion inspired me so much that gradually I transformed my research topic.
At present my research is on the history of people with disabilities in 20th century Europe, while I also maintain a side interest in the history of animals. What gave me the academic motivation to study disability is that it is a rather neglected chapter of European and global history, as was not so long ago the history of women, ethnic and racial minorities, displaced persons and members of the LGBTQI+ communities.
As Joint Chair, what will your role entail? Which areas of work will you be focusing on? What courses will you be teaching?
Both my area of specialisation, the history of East-Central and South-Eastern Europe, and my research topic, the history of disability, have academic and policy relevance.
As member of the Department of History, I will be studying these topics from a historical perspective, while at the Robert Schuman Centre I will be focusing more on the contemporary perspectives and on the policy aspects of these themes. Hopefully the 'joint' aspect of my position will be optimised in this way.
One of the courses I will be teaching at the Department of History is on the history of global health. Health is not merely the absence of disease; it has numerous political, social and cultural aspects and it is also an issue of human and social rights. This course will approach disability not as a medical deficit, but as a condition that is contingent in time and space and that can be a source of a social and cultural identity. I am particularly interested in the protests and social movements of disabled people in authoritarian states, for example, in communist Eastern Europe or under the dictatorships in Latin America. We have the tendency to think of disabled people as passive because of their impairments, particularly if they live in authoritarian states. By contrast, the course will show that in their emancipatory efforts to fight exclusion and discrimination they could instrumentalise a special type of agency, 'the power of the powerless' in very imaginative ways.
At the Robert Schuman Centre, where together with Professor David Levine I will be convening a research seminar, I hope to address topics such as the status of disabled citizens under contemporary illiberal democracies or the problems around the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), about the existence of which many people have not even yet heard. Moreover, I will also contribute to the research clusters that address contemporary developments in East-Central and South-Eastern Europe.
What are your goals during your time at the EUI? What are you most looking forward to?
The Department of History at the EUI is currently in the forefront of an important intellectual discussion: What is European History in the 21st Century? This includes questions such as how to bring to the centre of European history hitherto marginalised narratives, peoples and societies. The notions of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and displacement have already been integrated into these debates and they have acquired representation across the EUI’s intellectual and social agendas. With my focus on disability, I wish to stand for this novel "category of otherness", the relevance of which is not yet self-evident for everyone. In the 1970s some representatives of the feminist movement claimed to write not "history", but "herstory", a playful term they coined to express their wish to integrate the hitherto omitted women’s perspectives. If I take this as a source of inspiration, then I would say, equally playfully, that I would like to write "distory", a new narrative which challenges and rethinks European history through the alternative lens of disability.
In terms of my regional profile, I am delighted with the designation of this new Chair at the EUI, as it acknowledges that the region merits study in its own right and thereby challenges the stereotype that equates East-Central and South-Eastern Europe to a region of 'eternal troublemakers' that is simply a periphery to the 'mainstream' of Europe.
Through my supervisory activities I wish to contribute to the training of a new generation of researchers who are open-minded, multilingual and socially committed and who will one day be in the position to tackle the multiple crises facing our continent. In my service activities I hope to be able to instrumentalise my expertise for the strengthening of the EUI’s agenda of Inclusiveness and Diversity.
Are you working on any research projects or publications at the moment? Or undertaking any grants currently?
I recently completed an ERC research project entitled "Rethinking disability" which studied the question how disability became a global concept and what it means in different parts of the world; be it a European city or an African village. Our research team was extremely lucky because our project was chosen to become part of the ERcComics initiative which exploits the power of webcomics to innovate the way European science is communicated. This meant that our project results were translated into a comic series containing 10 episodes; these form a narrative that acts as a unique interactive educational tool.
Disability can be a rather stigmatised subject, so the 'comic' element was intended to take away this stigma and to inspire the readers to think about the topic in fresh ways. Another educative tool in the making is my forthcoming textbook History of Disability which is intended for undergraduate and graduate students without any prior knowledge in the field.
Last but not least, our research team recently re-designed our "Rethinking disability" Twitter account and I would like to invite everyone to visit it and even follow it. We will use this platform to announce new initiatives in the future, including a European-wide network for the study of disability history.