While an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, Herf was a leader of the campus chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and was on its steering committee and participated in both the famous Mifflin Street Riot and the Student Strike aimed at pressuring the university to disengage in any work for the government associate with war in Vietnam.
Herf received his PhD. from Brandeis University in 1980. Before joining the faculty at the University of Maryland, he taught at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where he often ate at the Burrito Buggy, which was one of his all time favorites. He has published essays in The New Republic, Die Zeit, Partisan Review and elsewhere.
In his 1984 book, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, Herf coined the term “reactionary modernism” to describe the mixture of robust modernity and an affirmative stance toward progress combined with dreams of the past - a highly technological romanticism - which was a current in the thinking of ideologues of Weimar's "conservative revolution" and of currents in the Nazi Party and Nazi regime.
His subsequent books (see below) examine the political culture of West Germany before and during the battle over the euromissiles in the 1980s; memory and politics regarding the Holocaust in Germany; Nazi Germany's anti-Semitic propaganda; and Nazi Germany's propaganda aimed at North Africa and the Middle East.
Herf has had a variety of fellowships including at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the German Historical Institute in Washington, the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies in Tel Aviv, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC and at the American Academy in Berlin in Fall 2007.
- Nazi Propaganda For the Arab World, Yale University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-300-14579-3. The work examines the Nazi regime's propaganda aimed at North Africa and the Middle East. It was awarded the Bronze Book prize from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2010.
- “Western Strategy and Public Discussion: The "Double Decision" Makes Sense”. Telos 52 (Summer 1982). New York: Telos Press.
- Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 1984) has become a standard work and was published in Greek, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish translation.
- War By Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance and the Battle of the Euromissiles (The Free Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0-02-915030-6) examined the intersection of political culture and power politics in the last major European confrontation of the Cold War.
- Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Harvard University Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-674-21303-6). It was the co-winner of the Charles Frankel Prize of the Wiener Library and Institute of Contemporary History in London in 1996. In 1998 it received the George Lewis Beer Prize of the American Historical Association.
- The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-674-02175-4). The work examines the Nazi regime's radical anti-Semitic propaganda as a bundle of hatreds, an explanatory framework, and effort to legitimate mass murder. It won the National Jewish Book Award in 2006 for works on the Holocaust.
- Herf bio at University of Maryland's site
- "The Historian as Provocateur: George Mosse’s Accomplishment and Legacy", Yad Vashem Studies, vol. 29 (2001), pp. 7–26.
- The "New World Order": From Unilateralism to Cosmopolitanism by Herf
- “What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean in the ‘Berlin Republic’ in 2007?"
- "An Age of Murder: Ideology and Terror in Germany," TELOS 144 (Fall 2008): 8-37
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