Kai Johann Willms

Dr. des. Kai Johann Willms

Assistent für Osteuropäische Geschichte (Professur Schenk)


Hirschgässlein 21
4051 Basel


Büro 409

Kai Johann Willms

Curriculum Vitae

Since 02/2024: Postdoctoral assistant at the Chair for East European History, University of Basel

11/2023: Defense of the doctoral thesis "Transkulturelles Wissen im Ost-West-Konflikt: Das polnische Exil und die amerikanische Osteuropaforschung, 1939–1989" [Transcultural knowledge in the Cold War: Polish émigrés and East European Studies in the United States, 1939–1989] at LMU Munich

08/2021–01/2024: Doctoral assistant at the Chair for East European History, University of Basel

01–03/2020: Visiting PhD Scholar at the Department of History, Columbia University, New York

11/2017–07/2021: Research associate and doctoral candidate at the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies, LMU Munich

09/2014–12/2019: Research assistant at the Institute for the Culture and History of Germans in Northeast Europe (Northeast Institute), Lüneburg

10/2015–02/2016: Exchange student (Erasmus) at the University of Warsaw

04/2014–10/2016: M.A. studies in Modern European History at HU Berlin

10/2012–02/2013: Student assistant (tutor) at the Chair for Modern and East European History, University of Freiburg

10/2010–09/2013: B.A. studies in History and Political Science at the University of Freiburg

Current research project (second book)

Metropolises of the Periphery: Imperial Visions and Local Dynamics of Urban Modernisation in Vilnius, Tbilisi and Tashkent, 1865–1914

Since 2022, Russia's war against Ukraine has led to a fundamental reassessment of established paradigms of East European studies and imperial history. Starting in the 1990s, the paradigm of 'New Imperial History' had attempted to emancipate historical research on empires from a critical theory of 'imperialism': From this perspective, empires should not be seen as 'prisons of nations' but rather as at least temporarily successful models of organising economic and cultural interaction under the conditions of ethnic heterogeneity. Today, power asymmetries between the centre and the peripheries of empires as well as the role of political violence in maintaining imperial rule are increasingly coming into focus again. Furthermore, many historians of Eastern Europe have argued under the heading of 'decolonisation' that the historiography of empires should pay more attention to the perspectives of people at imperial peripheries instead of focusing on the discourse of elites in the centre.

My second book project draws on these recent impulses by aiming to shed new light on the history of urban modernisation in the late Russian Empire through a comparative study of developmental dynamics in three cities at different imperial peripheries – Vilnius, Tbilisi, and Tashkent. In contrast to traditional approaches, I understand 'modernisation' not as a linear process with a clearly defined goal but as a discursive construct that was of central importance for strategies of legitimation – as well as delegitimation – of imperial rule: Actors of the imperial centre used successfully implemented urban development projects as evidence for their purported civilisational superiority and thus for the legitimacy of their rule. This could amount to an equation of 'modernisation' and 'Russification'. Peripheral actors, on the other hand, could challenge these discursive hierarchies by constructing their local cultures as superior, by pointing to their own initiatives of 'modernisation', or by criticising the concept of 'modernisation' itself. In connection with this level of discursive history, the project examines practices of urban 'modernisation' which developed in the often conflict-ridden interplay of central and local initiatives and included political/administrative as well as economic/infrastructural and cultural aspects.

Completed research project (PhD thesis)

Transcultural Knowledge in the Cold War: Polish Émigrés and East European Studies in the United States, 1939–1989

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.

  • Urban history of late Imperial Russia
  • Nation-building in the borderlands of the Russian Empire
  • History of migration and exile from East Central Europe
  • History of the humanities and social sciences in East Central Europe
  • History of East European Studies and Western imaginations of "Eastern Europe"
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: Berghahn Books, 2022), 124–138.

"Das Ende der Imitation oder ein neuer Klassenkonflikt? Zwei paradigmatische Erklärungen für die Krise der liberalen Weltordnung", Geschichte und Gesellschaft 47:2 (2021), 320–337.

Blog entries:

"Die Atombombenabwürfe auf Nagasaki und Hiroshima im August 1945: 'Global Moments'? Teil 1", Zeitgeschichte online, 1 April 2017, http://www.zeitgeschichte-online.de/themen/die-atombombenabwuerfe-auf-nagasaki-und-hiroshima-im-august-1945-global-moments (with Martin Wagner, Susanne Quitmann and Helge Jonas Pösche).

Book reviews:

Jessie Labov, "Transatlantic Central Europe: Contesting Geography and Redefining Culture Beyond the Nation" (Budapest: CEU Press, 2019), H-Soz-Kult, 8 April 2021, http://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-28966.

Łukasz Mikołajewski, "Disenchanted Europeans: Polish Émigré Writers from Kultura and the Postwar Reformulations of the West" (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2018), Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas / jgo.e-reviews 10:3 (2020), 60–62.

Ralph Schattkowsky, "Osteuropaforschung in Polen 1918–1939" (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019), H-Soz-Kult, 30 June 2020, http://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-29533.

Maria Zadencka, Andrejs Plakans, Andreas Lawaty (eds.), "East and Central European History Writing in Exile 1939–1989" (Leiden: Brill, 2015), Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas / jgo.e-reviews 8:4 (2018), 83–87.

Benjamin Conrad, "Umkämpfte Grenzen, umkämpfte Bevölkerung: Die Entstehung der Staatsgrenzen der Zweiten Polnischen Republik 1918–1923" (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2014), Nordost-Archiv 26 (2017), 185–187.

Conference reports:

"Physical Violence and State Legitimacy in Late Socialism: Final Conference" (Berlin, 27 February – 1 March 2014), H-Soz-Kult, 23 June 2014, http://www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-5436 (with Jane Freeland).

"Biopower and Physical Violence: Embodied Experiences in Communist Europe" (Potsdam, 24 January 2014), H-Soz-Kult, 15 April 2014, http://www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-5308.


British Association for Slavonic and Eastern European Studies (BASEES), Associate Member

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde e.V. (DGO)

Schweizerische Akademische Gesellschaft für Osteuropawissenschaften (SAGO)

Osteuropa-Forum Basel



Johann Gustav Droysen Award of the Department of History at HU Berlin for the Master's thesis


2020, 2022

Short-term grants of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for archival research in the United States and Canada


Humboldt Research Track Scholarship, funded by HU Berlin


Erasmus+ grant for an exchange semester at the University of Warsaw


Scholarship of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation (Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes)