Professor Jane Caplan

Professor Jane Caplan is Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, University of London, and Emeritus Fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She is a world-renowned historian specialising in Nazi Germany and the history of the documentation of individual identity.

Prior to her position at Birkbeck, Professor Caplan was a Professor of Modern European History at the University of Oxford and Director of the European Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. She previously taught for 25 years in the USA, at the Pennsylvanian women’s liberal arts college, Bryn Mawr, and at Columbia University, New York. In her first academic role, as a Fellow of Newnham College Cambridge, she was involved in establishing one of Britain’s first university courses in women’s studies.

Professor Caplan has published an extensive and varied range of books, chapters and articles. Her work as editor includes the following books: Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History (London/Princeton 2000), Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (with John Torpey, Princeton 2001), The Women’s Camp in Moringen: A Memoir of Imprisonment in Germany (Oxford/New York 2006; German edn. 2009), Nazi Germany (Oxford 2008) and Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories (with Nikolaus Wachsmann; London 2010).

Professor Caplan is an editor of History Workshop Journal and founding editor of Signum: The International Society for Mark Studies. She has also been on the editorial boards of other academic journals including the American Historical Review, German History and the Journal of Modern History. She is a seasoned public speaker, having delivered invited public lectures at universities, research centres and museums across four continents. In 2008-10 she convened IdentiNet, an international network of scholars researching the history of identity and identification, funded by a grant to the University of Oxford from the Leverhulme Foundation.

Professor Caplan describes herself as “an eclectic historian”:

“… not someone who is committed to only one way of thinking and doing the subject. I think this reflects an attempt to integrate all the ways in which a sense of history has influenced me – my childhood fascination with the past; a rather formal 1960s Oxford training in empirical history; my time as research assistant to Arnold Toynbee; an involvement in political activism of various kinds, from political parties and trade unions to the feminist and gay movements; a developing consciousness of the history of popular politics; and a scepticism and irreverence for dogmatic excess, which I hope isn’t incompatible with a firm commitment to certain principles of justice and humanity. Since I hope that these will be better practiced in the future than they have been in the past, it has always seemed to me to be very instructive to study how (to paraphrase the words of a famous historian) we do make our own history, yet not under conditions of our own choosing but always with the weight of the past upon us. To me this means that if we can understand that past we may also free ourselves from some of its burdens.”

Her series of four lectures took place in June 2014 and was collected under the title, How do I know who you are? Proving identity in English and European history.
Professor Caplan said of the series:

"The lectures will focus on three signs or marks of identity: the personal name, handwriting and the signature, and the tattoo. Through these lectures, I will present the historical dimension of identification which is so often missing from current debates on identification, documentation and security".

All of Professor Caplan's past Gresham lectures can be accessed here.

Latest lecture

Tattoos are one of the ‘distinguishing marks’ specified in police descriptions, and long recorded on British passports. They have also often been seen as a form of writing on the body t...