Politics and Contemporary History in Germany – Panorama

“Yearning For History” – An Interview With Historian, Martin Sabrow, On The Boom In “Public History”

Logo des Zentrums für Zeithistorische Forschung; © ZFFMartin Sabrow; © ZZFWe have never been so obsessed with history. Martin Sabrow, historian and director of the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (Centre for Research on Contemporary History) in Potsdam, sees the reasons for this boom in history as the result of society’s lack of utopian vision of progress and its ever growing need to look back and remember – the culture of remembrance. In order to satisfy this demand for history, the Freie Universität Berlin (Free University of Berlin) is now offering a Masters degree course in “Public History”. A course for up-and-coming historical event managers.

Professor Sabrow, in view of the countless historical events taking place this year, like “60 Years of the Federal Republic of Germany” or “20 Years After the Fall of the Wall”, it seems as if history has finally made it to the mainstream. Today history is there for anybody to come along and make use of. As a historian would you not like to see a few limits set here?

From the historian’s point of view this “eventism”, as it is called, represents a problem – it chops up historical subjects and complex theories in order to satisfy the whims of an isolated historical interest. At the same time, however, it also provides an opportunity to use the anniversary to bring historical issues to the fore again and to initiate a public debate.

Affirming the past instead of assuring the future

Logo of the Centre for Research on Contemporary History; © ZZFAnd that seems to be taking place these days more and more in the form of a media extravaganza. What do you attribute this boom in history to?

One of the reasons for this history boom is that we seem to have lost our optimistic vision of progress and confidence in the future. They have been replaced by orienting ourselves more to remembering and affirming the past. The current debate, for example, on the reconstruction of Berlin’s historic district would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. It is easier for us to project the visions that move and interest us in the here and now into the past rather than into the future.

Can this boom in history also be ascribed to commercialisation? “Hitler sells”, Steven Spielberg once said. The same applies to films like “Ship of no Return: The Last Voyage of the Gustloff”, “Valkyrie” or even “Sonnenallee” (Eng. title – Sun Alley).

Of course one would be justified in saying that commercialisation is a driving force behind this interest in history, but it does not adequately explain why there is such a yearning for it. The history boom is a clear expression of our social, political and cultural identity orienting itself to a great extent to understanding the past and drawing its emotional strength from it. Interestingly when people look back today, they do not do it in a nostalgic or retrogressive way. You can vote for the Green party or the Socialists and still be in favour of rebuilding the Garrison Church in Potsdam or the Berlin City Palace.

Don’t over-dramatise a poor knowledge of contemporary history

In contrast to the history overkill in the media many young people seem to know very little indeed about history. Schoolchildren and young people in vocational training know – almost - nothing about the Nazi period, the holocaust or, more topically, the GDR past. What can this be put down to?

The survey, carried out by Klaus Schroeder, that you are alluding to does not give very good marks to pupils from both East and West when it comes to their knowledge of GDR history. It has to be mentioned, however, that since the 1950s and 1960s there have been these surveys and they almost always turned out the same results – pupils have always had only a rudimentary knowledge of contemporary history. It is not particularly gratifying, I know, but nevertheless I do not think we have to be overly worried about it. A concentrated effort has to be made, making full use of the syllabus and history teaching methods, but we should not over-dramatise it.

Teachers and educational policy makers see it somewhat differently. They speak of loopholes in the education system that lead to prejudices, intolerance and right-wing extremism.

Whether education saves people from intolerance is an interesting question. Irrespective of that, however, for quite some time now school history lessons have not represented the most decisive factor when it comes to educating people about history. This role has been taken over more and more by the media. Without wanting to diminish the problem of the frightening historical knowledge deficit among young people, I still think that the way people develop their political and cultural values in Germany is stable enough to ensure that the generations to come will be integrated in the basic anti-totalitarian consensus.

New spheres of activity for historians

Logo of the Public History course; © FU BerlinIn 2008 the Freie Universität Berlin introduced its two-year Master’s course in “Public History” which prepares historians for more public-oriented fields of work. Is this new course a reaction to the history boom?

This new course was triggered by various impulses; for example, the collaboration between a university institution, the Freie Universität, with a non-university institution, the ZZF, (Centre for Research on Contemporary History). This interaction between institutions of a different type is a boon to research and helps to generate new topics and ideas.

Why was this new access path to the study of history necessary?

Universities have always traditionally focused on training historians to become teachers and researchers. However, due to the rapid increase in society’s demand for history, the subject has become more and more diversified. That is why there is a lack of courses for historians who are specialising in all the new and different spheres of activity – in publishing houses and newspapers, for example, in the realm of the visual media, in museums, in memorial sites or even in the private economy. In the face of the aforementioned history boom it is particularly necessary to set up courses that can supply this demand in a hands-on way and, at the same time, still be able to reflect on theory.

The historian as a player, observer and recipient

Are you not horrified by the idea of “Public Historians” working for companies on the development of some kind of corporate history project for the sake of public relations, instead of getting down to some good old research and study of sources?

In view of the fact that the study of history is both a friend and foe of public memory culture and that the historian has become a player, observer and recipient, all at the same time, then the way we train our historians has to be taken into account more. Only then will we be able to competently answer questions like, “How much ideology is behind this history boom?”, “What is good and what is bad about Guido Knopp’s history shows on TV?”, or “How do we deal with the role of the contemporary witness or a historical perception that has undergone changes?”

Shouldn’t every historian be able to answer these questions? Critics of the new Master’s course fear that, by the end of the day, the universities will be churning out only “PowerPoint whizzkids with short-term memories” or “historical event managers” who will make it big in the media world.

Anybody who thinks that only conformist, unaware servants of the history boom will be produced has completely missed the point of the “Public History” course. The aim is a re-adjustment of the course and training objectives for “Public Historians” so that they can become players and observers of memory culture, able to intervene in a constructive way.

Rolf Lautenschläger
The author is an art historian, journalist and editor for art and culture at the newspaper taz.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2009

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