Dr Svenja Bethke

Lecturer in Modern European History

Svenja Bethke Picture

Contact details

  • Tel: +44 (0)116 252 5138
  • Office: Attenborough Tower 604

Personal details


I studied History, Political Science, Law and Eastern European Studies at the University of Hamburg, completing my PhD there in 2014. During my doctoral project I conducted research in archives in Israel, Poland, Germany and the United States and was awarded several grants and fellowships amongst other at the German Historical in Warsaw (GHI) and at the Institute for Jewish Research in New York (YIVO).

2013-2015 I was working as a research associate at the Institute for the History of the German Jews in Hamburg (IGdJ) and taught German, Eastern European and Modern Jewish History at the Universities of Hamburg, Frankfurt Oder and Heidelberg. I was appointed lecturer in Modern European History at Leicester University in 2016. I am a member of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

2019-2021 I am away on research leave from the University of Leicester on a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, funded by the European Commission, for my project Clothing, Fashion and Nation Building in the ‘Land of Israel’. During this time, I am hosted by Dr Anat Helman at the Avraham Harman Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University Jerusalem.


I work on the history of Modern Europe with an emphasis on the Holocaust and Jewish history in a transnational dimension.

My PhD and subsequent research focuses on the history of the Holocaust with a strong interest in the Jewish experience in East Central Europe under German occupation. I am especially interested in everyday life in the ghettos, established by force by the Germans in WW II. In my doctoral project, I examined concepts of criminality and law formulated by the Jewish Councils in the ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz and Vilna. I argue that the dilemma of the Jewish Councils, set up by force by the Germans, condensed in the formation of a highly improvised internal legal sphere within these communities of coercion. My resulting first book was published in September 2015 by Hamburger Edition and it came out as a revised and updated English translation with University of Toronto Press in 2021.

I am currently working on a book project looking at the role of Eastern European and German immigrants in the nation building process in 'Eretz Israel' (late 19th – mid 20th century) with a focus on clothing and fashion as representations and practices of belonging and identification. As part of this, my Marie Curie project Clothing, Fashion and Nation Building in the 'Land of Israel', hosted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2019–21) aims to establish a new field of research by integrating approaches from visual culture and fashion history with the history of nation building. Drawing on multiple Israeli and Central European archives and databases, it explores the influence of diverse European migrant groups in the construction of a Zionist project through the lens of dress ideals between 1850–1948.

My language skills in Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, Spanish and German allow me to approach my research topics from a transnational perspective.


My teaching reflects many of my research interests. I teach on the history of WW II, the Holocaust and its aftermath as well as on topics in Comparative Genocide Studies. Furthermore, I teach furthermore on Modern Jewish History and the History of clothing and fashion in 19th and 20th Century Europe in a transnational context.

Examples of modules I teach:

• HS7037: After the Holocaust: History and Memory in Post war Germany

• HS 3745/46: Genocide and Mass Violence in Comparative Perspective

• HS3681: Clothing and Fashion in Historical Perspective. Case Studies of Modern European History in Transnational Context

• HS 2400: Perceiving The Past. An Introduction to Historiography

• HS2234: Race and Ethnicity: European encounters with ‘others’

• HS1100: People and Places: Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (1877-1944) and the Jewish Councils in the Ghettos during the Holocaust

• HS1016: Europe 1861-1991: Emancipation and Subjugation

• HS1000: Making History: The Jewish Councils in Ghettos during World War II



Bethke (2021) Dance on the Razor’s Edge. Crime and Punishment in the Nazi Ghettos, University of Toronto Press [revised and updated translation of the first monograph].

Bethke (2015) Tanz auf Messers Schneide – Kriminalität und Recht in den Ghettos Warschau, Litzmannstadt und Wilna [Dance on the Razor’s Edge. Criminality and Law in the Ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz and Vilna], Hamburg: Hamburger Edition (Studien zur Gewaltgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts).

[Prizes: Translation Prize of the German Book Trade Association (2017); Irma-Rosenberg Main Prize (2016); Immanuel-Kant Research Prize for outstanding doctoral theses by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media and the Federal Institute for Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe (BKGE) (2014); Research Prize of the Consul General of the Polish Republic in Hamburg for outstanding doctoral theses (2014)]

Edited special issue in peer-reviewed journal

Bethke and Keigel (2019) Special Issue: Clothing and Fashion in Historical Perspective, International Journal of Fashion Studies 6, 2.

Journal articles and chapters

Bethke (2020) Attempts To Take Action In A Coerced Community: Petitions to the Jewish Council in the Łódź Ghetto during World War II, In Wolf Gruner/Thomas Pegelow Kaplan (eds.), Petitions Resisting Genocide: Negotiating Self-Determination and Survival in Societies under Oppression, New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2020, 114-137.

Bethke (2019) How to Dress Up in Eretz Israel, 1880s–1948: A Visual Approach to Clothing, Fashion and Nation Building, In International Journal of Fashion Studies 6, 2: 217-237.

Bethke and Keigel (2019) Fashion and History: There Is No Doubt That Clothes Matter, In International Journal of Fashion Studies 6, 2: 183-191.

Bethke, Breward, Keigel, and Novikov (2019) Fashion Studies, Five Questions: An Interview with Christopher Breward. International Journal of Fashion Studies 6, 2: 193-199.

Bethke (2014) Crime and Punishment in Emergency Situations. The Jewish Ghetto Courts in Warsaw, Lodz and Vilna in WW II – A Comparative Study, In Dapim. Studies on the Holocaust 28, 3: 173-189.

Bethke (2013) Regeln und Sanktionen im Getto Litzmannstadt. Die Bekanntmachungen des Judenratsvorsitzenden Rumkowski [Rules and Sanctions in the Lodz Ghetto. The Proclamations of the Jewish Council Head Rumkowski], In Zeitschrift für Genozidforschung 13, 1/2: 30-52.

Bethke and Schmidt-Holländer (2011), Lebenswelt Ghetto. Raumtheorie und interpretatives Paradigma als Bereicherung für die Erforschung jüdischer Ghettos im Nationalsozialismus [Life World Ghetto. Spatial Theory and Interpretative Paradigm as a Contribution for Research on National Socialist Ghettos], In PaRDeS. Journal of the German Association of Jewish Studies e.V. 17: 35-51.

Book reviews on Holocaust topics and Cultural and Fashion History in German History, Zeitschrift für Genozidforschung, Ukraina Moderna, HSozKult.

Journalistic Publication and expert interviews

(2020) Expert interview with Time Magazine for article on national memories of World War Two in Eastern Europe.

(2019) Expert interview with Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany) on the Jewish Councils in Ghettos during World War Two.

(2018) Article: ‘Poland is trying to Rewrite History with this controversial Holocaust Law’, In The Conversation, Holocaust Law [published 16 February 2018].

(2018) Expert interview with CNN on the 2018 Holocaust legislation in Poland

(2018) Expert interview for Podcast with ABC Radio Australia on Poland, World War II and Holocaust denial


I am keen to supervise undergraduate and postgraduate students working on Modern German, Eastern European and Jewish History, specifically on everyday (Jewish) life during WW II and the Holocaust. I am furthermore interested in taking on students working on topics of Legal History and Fashion History with a geographical focus on Modern Europe and the Middle East (specifically Palestine and Israel). I am also happy to supervise dissertations in Comparative Genocide Studies.

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