James Retallack

James Retallack

Department of History

Faculty of Arts & Science


James Retallack obtained his BA (1978) from Trent University, and his DPhil (1983) from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He was a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Stanford University (1983-5) and a Mactaggart Fellow at the University of Alberta (1985-7) before joining the University of Toronto in 1987.

Despite a lifetime spent on crutches (and now in a motorized wheelchair), Professor Retallack has based his prolific research on extensive work in archives and libraries of East and West Germany, Austria, Great Britain, and the United States, where he accessed previously untapped archival evidence to support his pathbreaking work in the field of modern German history. His first book, Notables of the Right (Unwin Hyman, 1988), was followed by Germany in the Age of Kaiser Wilhelm II (Macmillan, 1996), which was commissioned for graduate seminars. Imperial Germany 1871- 1918 (Oxford University Press, 2008) drew on his ability to attract top-shelf experts for a collaborative project as part of the Short Oxford History of Germany series: it has been widely adopted for undergraduate teaching. In 2008, he compiled and edited a digital history anthology on Bismarckian Germany: it appeared as Volume 4 of German History in Documents and Images – an immense collaborative project (on whose editorial board he sits). According to tracking indicators studied by the project director, the primary sources Professor Retallack curated are used globally by K-12 teachers, university faculty and students, and the lay public.

In the 1990s, Professor Retallack was one of the first non-German scholars to discover the riches of the Saxon State Archive in Dresden, formerly behind the Iron Curtain. This research was aided by a Research Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1993-4), a Friedrich-Wilhelm-Bessel Research Prize (2001) also from the A.-v.-Humboldt Foundation, and a Research Fellowship from the Gerda Henkel Foundation (2006-8). It produced a battery of essays and Red Saxony: Election Battles and the Spectre of Democracy in Germany (Oxford University Press, 2017). Red Saxony won the 2019 Hans Rosenberg Book Prize (Central European History Society of the American Historical Association) for the Best Book of 2017. Previously, Professor Retallack won the Hans Rosenberg Article Prize (2018) for the Best Article of 2015 or 2016, for an essay that illuminated 19th-century gerrymandering.

Professor Retallack’s prodigious output has led one reviewer to write that he is “one of the most profound scholars of Imperial Germany writing in either English or German” (Central European History 51/2, 2018). His oeuvre rests on three pillars of innovative research. First, his writing illustrates that German conservatism in the 19th century holds fundamental insights into the big questions about what went so terribly wrong with German society and government in the 20th. Second, his publications make a powerful case for placing local, regional, and national histories within a single interpretive frame. They also reflect his efforts to build research communities. Third, Professor Retallack is now at the forefront of international scholars testing and re-testing interpretative paradigms about the longue durée of German history. He is noted for successfully fighting against the “rosy revisionism” of post-1980 scholarship on Imperial Germany which overplays the Empire’s dynamism, pluralism, and modernity.

Professor Retallack is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2011). He delivers invited keynote addresses (Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin, 2017), publishes in German-language books and journals (including a forthcoming German edition of Red Saxony), and holds memberships on prestigious boards (General Editor of Oxford Studies in Modern European History; Director, Friends of the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC).  Professor Retallack holds a Killam Research Fellowship (2015-7), a John Simon Guggenheim Research Fellowship (2017-8), and a SSHRC Insight Grant (2017-22), which supports his current research on the German Social Democratic leader August Bebel.