Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies

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Willms, Kai Johann

Kai Johann Willms, Dr. des.

PhD Student in East European History


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 at the University of Freiburg; 2014–2016, M.A. studies in Modern European History at the Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Warsaw. 2011–2016, scholarship holder of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation (Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes). 2012/13, student assistant at the Chair of Modern and East European History of the University of Freiburg. 2016, Master's thesis "'Détente' versus 'Solidarity'? Media Representations and Political Resonances of the Polish Crisis 1980–1983 in the Federal Republic of Germany". 2016–2019, research assistant at the Institute for the Culture and History of the Germans in Northeastern Europe, Lüneburg; April to September 2017, recipient of the Humboldt Research Track Scholarship. Since November 2017, doctoral candidate at the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies. January to March 2020, Visiting PhD Scholar at the Department of History, Columbia University. Since August 2021, research assistant at the Department of History, University of Basel.


  • 2020 (January-March) ), 2022 (June-July) research grants of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)
  • 2017 (April-September) Humboldt Research Track Scholarship of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
  • 2017 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

Between Integration and Institutional Self-Organisation: Polish Émigré Scholarship in the United States, 1939–1989. In: Stefan Berger, Philipp Müller (eds.): Dynamics of Emigration. Émigré Scholars and the Production of Historical Knowledge in the 20th Century, New York 2022, pp. 124–138.

Das Ende der Imitation oder ein neuer Klassenkonflikt? Zwei paradigmatische Erklärungen für die Krise der liberalen Weltordnung. In: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 47 (2021), No. 2, pp. 320–337.

Weblog entries

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


Jessie Labov: Transatlantic Central Europe. Contesting Geography and Redefining Culture beyond the Nation, Budapest 2019. In: H-Soz-Kult, April 8, 2021. URL:

Łukasz Mikołajewski: Disenchanted Europeans. Polish Émigré Writers from Kultura and the Postwar Reformulations of the West, Oxford 2018. In: Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas / jgo.e-reviews 10 (2020), No. 3, pp. 60–62.

Ralph Schattkowsky: Osteuropaforschung in Polen 1918–1939, Wiesbaden 2019. In: H-Soz-Kult, June 30, 2020. URL:

Maria Zadencka, Andrejs Plakans, Andreas Lawaty (eds.): East and Central European History Writing in Exile 1939–1989, Leiden 2015. In: Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas / jgo.e-reviews 8 (2018), No. 4, pp. 83–87.

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.

Conference reports

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)


Presentation of the doctoral project. Colloquium of the Chair for Modern and East European History, Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg, June 14, 2022.

"Transkulturelles Wissen über Ost und West: Polnische Emigranten in der amerikanischen Osteuropaforschung (1945–1989)." German-Swiss Study Day for East European History, Buchenbach, May 5, 2022.

Presentation of the doctoral project. Colloquium of the Chair for East European History, Justus Liebig University of Gießen, February 1, 2022.


"Polish Émigré Scholars in Cold War America: Between Preserving the Interwar Scholarly Tradition and Creating Spaces for Intellectual Exchange." Online Panel "Knowledge in Exile? Forced Migration from Eastern Europe in a Cold War World", Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, November 17, 2021.2021

Presentation of the doctoral project. Colloquium of the Chair for the History of Eastern Europe, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, February 3, 2021.


"'Kosmopolacy': Das polnische Exil zur Zeit des Kalten Krieges und die Idee des Kosmopolitismus." Colloquium of the Chair of East and Southeast European History, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, June 3, 2020.


"The Polish-Jewish Past in the Discourse of Polish Émigré Scholars in Cold War America." Workshop "New Perspectives in Memory Studies" – Joint Workshop of the University of Cambridge and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Cambridge, December 17-19, 2019.

"Between Integration and Institutional Self-Organization: Polish Émigré Scholarship in the United States, 1939–1989." Conference "Dynamics of Emigration, Epistemic Repercussions. Émigré Scholars and the Production of Historical Knowledge in the Age of Extremes", Bochum, September 19-21, 2019.

"Knowing the Enemy: Polish Émigré Scholars in American Sovietology after 1945." Conference "Transcultural Knowledge" – 1st Young Scholars Conference of the European Society for the History of Science, Paris, September 10-12, 2019.

"Poland as a Postcolonial Society? Reflections on Centre-Periphery Relations among Polish-American Scholars after 1945." Workshop "New Perspectives in the Historical Research of Empires" – Joint Workshop of the University of Cambridge and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Munich, July 11-13, 2019.

"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" at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, University of Erfurt, July 12, 2019.

"Redrawing the American Mental Map: Polish Émigré Scholars in American Research on Eastern Europe, 1939–1989." Conference "Global Cultural History": 12th annual conference of the International Society for Cultural History, Tallinn (Estonia), June 29, 2019.


"An Old Stereotype in a New Environment? The Impact of Polish Émigré Scholars on American Sovietology after 1945." Conference "Studying East and Southeast Europe as Area Studies: Paradigms - Themes - Methods for the 21st Century", annual conference of the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies, Munich, October 25.-27., 2018.

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

"Area Studies und migrantisches Wissen. Polnische Exilanten in der amerikanischen Osteuropaforschung nach 1945." Conference "Dynamiken des Wissens. Historische Perspektiven auf das Verhältnis von Wissen und Migration vom 20. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart", Berlin, May 2-3, 2018.