Ronald Smelser (born 1942) is an American historian, an author and a former professor of history at the University of Utah. He specialises in modern European history, including the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. He is the author, together with the historian Edward J. Davies, of the 2008 book The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture.
Smelser obtained his M.A. in history in 1966 and his Ph.D. in history in 1970 from the University of Wisconsin. Concurrent with his education in the United States, he also attended two German universities: University of Marburg and University of Bonn. After finishing his doctoral work, he was appointed as an assistant professor at Alma College (Michigan) and was a visiting professor at Iowa State University. In 1978, Smelser was appointed an associate professor at the University of Utah; he became a full professor in 1983. Concurrently with his role at the University of Utah, he taught classes at the Free University of Berlin during the summer. He retired from the University in the 2010s, and, as of 2016, is Professor Emeritus at the school.
Smelser is a historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. He is the author of several books including The Sudeten Problem 1933–1938: Volkstumspolitik and the Formulation of Nazi Foreign Policy and Robert Ley: Hitler's Labor Front Leader. Both books have been translated into German. He has also published seven edited or co-edited books and numerous articles. Smelser is the former president of the German Studies Association and the Conference Group for the journal Central European History, as well as a former member of the American Advisory Board of the German Historical Institute in Washington. D.C. In 2001, Smelser brought the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Nazi Olympics exhibit to the University of Utah as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Smelser is the co-editor of four prosopographic anthologies, in which he and his co-editors compiled biographical essays on leading figures of the Nazi movement and the Nazi state, authored by a variety of historians. The first in the series was the 1989 work The Brown Elite I, co-edited with Rainer Zitelmann, with twenty-two biographical sketches of leaders of the Nazi Party and of functionaries of the military and the Nazi regime of World War II. In 1993, Smelser published The Brown Elite II which contained twenty additional sketches of the same orientation, co-edited with Enrico Syring. The 1995 volume included essays on the military elite of Nazi Germany, which included twenty-seven sketches specifically about military leaders of the Reichswehr/Wehrmacht during the 1930s and 1940s. The 2000 volume Die SS: Elite unter dem Totenkopf: 30 Lebensläufe ("Elite under the Skull") contains thirty biographical sketches of the thirty leading members of the SS. Smelser's works are included in libraries worldwide.
Smelser established the annual Holocaust “Days of Remembrance” programming the University of Utah, directing the program for 21 years. He has worked closely with the Holocaust Educational Foundation and is the editor-in-chief of the Learning about the Holocaust: A Student Guide. Based on the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, the four-volume work presents the events surrounding the Holocaust to high school aged children in the language they could understand.
Smelser has also studied the cultural impact of the Holocaust—from the marginal topic that it was in the 1950s and 60s to the event, in Smelser's words, that has "practically absorb[ed] the war". His research has focused on how several counter-balancing narratives of the World War II and the Holocaust can co-exist, with the goal of demystifying and explaining their impact on the popular culture.
Together with the historian Edward J. Davies of the University of Utah, Smelser is the author of the 2008 book The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture. It discusses perceptions of the Eastern Front of World War II in the United States in the context of historical revisionism. The book traces the foundation of the post-war myth of the "clean Wehrmacht", its support by U.S. military officials, and the impact of Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS mythology on American popular culture, including the present time. The book garnered largely positive reviews, for its thorough analysis on the creation of the myth by German ex-participants and its entry into American culture. Several reviews noted limitations of the book in its discussion on the myth's role in the contemporary culture and the extent of its impact on wide popular perceptions of the Eastern Front, outside of a few select groups.
The Foreign Affairs magazine called the book a "fascinating exercise in historiography", highlighting the authors' analysis of how a "number of Hitler's leading generals were given an opportunity to write the history of the Eastern Front (...) provid[ing] a sanitized version of events". Military historian Jonathan House reviewed the book for the The Journal of Military History, describing it as a "tour de force of cultural historiography" and commending the authors for "hav[ing] performed a signal service by tracing the origin and spread of this mythology". House recommends that military historians not only study the book, but "use it to teach students the dangers of bias and propaganda in history".
A review published in the journal History provided a critical assessment of the book. While it complements Smelser and Davies for setting out the main myths concerning the Eastern Front, the review argues that they did not provide convincing evidence to support their argument that most Americans accept such an account. It concludes that "the book therefore delivers a rather weak conclusion, which dilutes the impact of the useful analysis earlier in the book..." Likewise, American historian Dennis Showalter acknowledges that the romanticised views described in the book exist, but argues that they remain limited in their impact on the wider popular culture: "Eastern Front enthusiasts—who buy a disproportionate number of the books romanticizing the Eastern Front—are a minority within a minority, and, as a rule, are at some pains to deny sympathy with the Third Reich". The reviewer concludes that opening of the Russian archives since the fall of the Soviet Union has enabled "balanced analysis at academic levels", leading to a new interest in the Red Army operations from the popular history writers and the World War II enthusiasts.