Share / Discuss

Spotlight On ... Adam Bisno '06

Adam Bisno ’06, a writer-editor at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., received the Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize for research on “Hotel Berlin: The Politics of Commercial Hospitality in the German Metropolis, 1875–1945.”

What does this honor mean to you?

It means a lot. Writing the dissertation was a long, involved process for me, and the recognition of the dissertation’s merits by people I admire felt like the ultimate reward.

One of the things that made this dissertation a challenge to create was the source base. I stayed in Germany for a year and a half to do my research in the archives. The files I read were a mess. Single folders could contain 40 documents from 4 decades, and none of them related. There were boxes and boxes of files—thousands of pages—on a single transaction that never actually happened. I ended up reading pretty much everything relating to hotels, and a lot more besides, ordering scans of what I thought was going to be useful. Throughout, I was trying to get past the stuff about what rich and fabulous people were seen to be doing. I wanted to know what things were like behind the scenes, what it was like to work for one of these massive enterprises.

I think my commitment to telling this grand story on a human scale comes from my having been raised in a family of hoteliers. My great-grandparents owned a charming hotel in Little Rock, Ark., which they sold in the 1970s, but which I heard all about and continue to hear about. I’ve sifted through letters and papers of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. I knew her as Henrietta, but everyone called her by a German nickname, because she descended from Berliners who came to this country in the first wave of German-Jewish immigration, just after the Revolutions of 1848. She was elegant and decisive and eccentric and funny and organized and impossibly charming—everything a hotelier is supposed to be.

This dissertation isn’t really her story, though—it’s not a dissertation about “good” hoteliers. It’s a dissertation about big business, politics, and German urban society. I ended up using my archive to make an argument for why German businessmen in particular decided that democracy was bad for business. These kinds of decisions, made in the 1920s and early 1930s, were fateful to German and world history, since the failure of democracy in Germany produced the Third Reich and the Second World War.

Having written a dissertation I’m proud of would have been reward enough. But to have my work recognized by the very people whose work inspired and instructed me in my own intellectual development––that’s a great feeling. The talk I had the honor of giving at the German Historical Institute on Nov. 9, 2018, was really fun. Honestly, it felt like my second Bar Mitzvah!

How has Swarthmore shaped your career—and your life?

As a student at Swarthmore, I learned to think big and think with arguments. I learned that you’ve got to be charming, too, when you’re debating things, or no one will want to listen to you. I learned, above all, that learning is a group effort. I made some fantastic friends at Swarthmore, and we helped each other refine our ideas and our approaches in and outside seminars. I did the Honors Program, which was the highlight of my entire education. Carla Heelan ’06 and I could talk about Wilhelmine Germany until the sun came up. Emily Remus ’06 and I had some really fun, low-stakes arguments over whether France really went fascist. Professor Pieter Judson ’78 humored us and perhaps even encouraged us to be like this: to combine passion and humor with curiosity and humility in face of the human experience.

Swarthmore also helped me refine my sense of what’s right and fair and good. I’m still refining it. Swarthmore taught me that that kind of moral education is a never-ending process.

What advice would you give current Swarthmoreans hoping to follow in your path?

My humble advice is to try to get the right amount of sleep and to avoid situations that make you feel as if you need to compete with others in order to stay afloat. In a field as lonely as history research and writing, the way forward is always with people, not against them.