By Brendan W. Clark ’21
Editor; History Major
Aidan Turek ’20 is the President’s Fellow in Political Science and a senior thesis writer in the History Department. History@Trinity’s Brendan Clark spoke with Aidan to ask him a few questions about his thesis and his experience with the History Department.
1. Describe your research topic in two minutes or less (let’s say 200 words or less).
My thesis is a study of Albert Speer, the famed Nazi architect, designer, and industrial genius who was Hitler’s right-hand man and a possible successor. Specifically, I’m examining his life and legacy through the lens of biographization—how historical memory is constructed and deconstructed. Speer was intimately involved in the functioning of the Third Reich, and yet at Nuremberg he successfully presented himself as an apolitical technocrat, and in doing so escaped the executions that befell his colleagues. In his hugely influential autobiography, Speer basically set the tone for Nazi apologists, manipulating his own life and historical fact to prove his own innocence. While more recent biographies have gone back and seriously questioned his life, to this day Speer still guides the discourse surrounding him, and thus Nazism more generally. My goal is to reopen some of the areas neglected by Speer and his biographers, to explore interesting facets of his life that reveal the true extent of his moral culpability and the criminal nature of his actions. I think that researching Speer allows me to delve into fascinating ethical questions while also exploring and illuminating just how history gets constructed.
2. What specific aspects of your academic career at Trinity and your personal historical interests led you to select this topic?
This actually all started after watching a YouTube video about one of Speer’s projects. I figured myself an amateurish expert in World War Two, but Speer’s name had only come up in passing, and none of it dealt with his unique contributions to fascism. And then there’s the fact that he died so recently—in 1981—which got me wondering how Nazis could stick around and have a say for that long. Personally I was drawn in by this muddle of philosophical and historical trends, but I gained quite a bit from Trinity as well. I have an avid interest in political science and German studies, and Albert Speer and his life have actually come up quite a bit. I’ve encountered scholars in classes that discuss the direct historical background, like Weimar Germany’s political culture, alongside literature on the authoritarian capacity of architecture. I was also fortunate enough to travel to Berlin with Trinity to get a hands-on look at what I’ve been researching.
3. How has the History Department assisted with your research and how have you conducted research personally or in conjunction with a faculty member?
I’ve been working with the academic giant of the Trinity History Department, Sam Kassow, and his contributions have been tremendous. It would take me a lifetime to get anywhere near his encyclopedic knowledge of the period, and he’s been an asset par excellence for my project. Speaking more generally, though, I’ve received a lot of support from other Professors in making my project a reality, particularly Professors Bayliss and Elukin. There was an amount of hesitancy on the part of the Department to let me go ahead, and with their support I was able to structure a really meaningful project.
4. What challenges have you come across as you have commenced work on your thesis?
It’s been very difficult to stay on task with this thesis, in the sense that I want to explore a thousand different things across a thousand different places. Especially with someone like Speer who’s had a great amount written about him, it’s hard not to explore interesting tidbits and tangents. So, I’d say the biggest challenge is maintaining focus on the point of the project and not getting sidetracked with tens of pages on the design aesthetic of the Bauhaus, or theory on urban design.
5. What else are you up to in the world of history?
I’m also writing work on history for the political science department—though I’ve had to camouflage it with mountains of theory. I’m working on the French Revolution, in particular the Reign of Terror and theories of violence. Working with Professor Kete’s helpful advice, I’ve been trying to explain the tragic conclusion to the excitement and expectations that surrounded the Revolution in its early days. Like with Speer, there’s far too much to talk about, and certain economies of time have to be maintained, but all in all it’s a deeply rewarding field of research.
6. What advice would you give prospective history majors?
I think there’s this perception that history is either boring or useless or both. So, my advice for a prospective history major would be to go into the field with the intention of carving out your own area of expertise. At Trinity, you’re given a huge amount of freedom in terms of how you want to construct your history major, which let me bounce around from Chinese history to Germany and the Great War. And on top of that, there’s the thesis, which lets you basically build your own class—your topic, on your terms, with your books. Make your own history major—it’s a lot of fun.
7. If you could be one figure from history, who would it be and why?
Theodore Roosevelt, hands down. He was President, Rough Rider Colonel, explorer, naturalist, cowboy, political revolutionary—and most importantly, a historian. You could write books about all the stuff he got up to, and people have. I recommend Edmund Morris’ trilogy. It’s some of the only history books you can read as an adventure as much as a work of non-fiction. He bounces around the Dakota Badlands, Yosemite, the interior of the Amazon, the heart of Africa, Washington D.C., San Juan Hill, etc., etc. The man did it all, and it’s inspiring just to read about him. And on top of that he left us some powerful phrases you could get tattooed on yourself that are so insightful. So, if I could be anyone I’d be the quiet man with the big stick.