Research project
„,Who deserves our sympathy?' Victims of Terrorism and Society in the Modern Age“

- funded by the „Zukunftsdiskurse“ programme of the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony (MWK) -

Project outline

The threat of terrorism – understood as systematically prepared, shocking violent attacks against a political order from the underground – is considered one of the most urgent challenges of our time. But it is by no means a new phenomenon. Since the 19th century, societies have been confronted with this special form of violence which degrades its victims to a sheer vessel of the terrorist message. Terrorism is a political communication strategy that seeks to generate shock, fear and outrage on the one hand and sympathy and solidarity on the other.
Given the fact that the terrorist selection of targets is arbitrary in principle, historical research on terrorism has so far focused primarily on the perpetrators. However, not least because of the growing awareness for the repercussions of violence and the often lifelong impact on the survivors and victims’ families, new questions to history have arisen. This project wants to address these questions.

Who is perceived as a victim to mourn and to suffer with? Who are ‘legitimate’ targets for the sympathizers? And how does the state react to victims who only exist because it, the state, is the real target? Victims of terrorism, it must be said, are far from simply being there. Rather, they are “made” by media-driven political acts. Our first objective is to historicize these acts.

On the one hand, there is evidence that a history of the victims of terrorism is a history of multiple instrumentalizations overlapping each other: Pre-existing social hierarchies are being reproduced and reinforced in dealing with victims of terrorism. On the other hand, recent examples show that some victims of terrorism benefit from a grown awareness for victims of violence and can, under certain circumstances and thanks to powerful allies, develop a remarkable amount of agency of their own.

The perspective on the victims aims to enable diachronic and synchronic comparisons between different historical contexts and forms of terrorism. These comparisons are no longer focused on the motives and legitimization strategies of the perpetrators in the first place. In doing so, transnational developments as well as national path dependencies come into focus, but situational dynamics have to be taken into account as well. In terms of methodology, recent impulses from the history of moralities and the history of emotions will be adopted.

Despite the long global history of terrorist violence, current debates on terrorism and its control are mostly reduced to the national level and are often lacking historical foundation. For this reason, the second objective of this project is to initiate a public dialogue between national and international historians and relevant social actors. This dialogue will focus on the perspective of the victims and the responsibility of the state and society. We are planning conversations with scholars from multiple disciplines, journalists, lawyers, politicians, representatives of NGOs and the survivors themselves.

This dialogue will primarily be made accessible via a podcast. In this way, we intend to deepen the understanding of the complexity of social negotiation processes of victimhood, to make the historical dimension of today's problems visible, and to raise awareness of the fact that the status of victims of terrorist violence is and will remain precarious as a matter of principle. The answer to the question of who deserves our sympathy, to whom it is granted and from whom it is withheld, depends on many factors, which in themselves are historically variable.