Dorothee Wierling in an interview When history can be experienced

Dorothee Wierling
Dorothee Wierling | © Bertold Fabricius

The online archive Europeana 1914–1918 collects personal reports from the time of the First World War. The historian Dorothee Wierling believes this approach is productive, but also problematic.

Mrs.Wierling, people are always particularly interested in history when it is narrated through individual fates, whether real or fictional. Why, for instance, can television series such as Holocaust have an impact that historians never could?

Because they offer the opportunity to put yourself in the place of someone else. An emotional engagement in war is more intense than a purely intellectual one. There are good reasons for historians to make use of this approach on occasion. Much that is presented separately in scholarship coalesces and yields a coherent picture when presented through people’s personal experience.

Was this desire for wholeness the reason that you chose a radically subjective perspective in your book Eine Familie im Krieg (ie. A Family in the War)?

There’s currently a plethora of literature on the First World War. It mainly emphasizes the military, political or cultural sides. But when you proceed from a family, for example, you can see how the military events, the political influences, the cultural background and personal feelings all work together. You better understand why people develop a certain stance in war. This is the insight that can be gained by such an approach.

“I’m bound to look at my sources critically”

Could you give an example?

I’ve reconstructed what the young war volunteer in my book was reading between 1914 and 1918. Based on how he commented on his reading in his letters, I can sketch a much denser picture of what literature signifies in war, apart from the runs of certain books. But I don’t set forth any theses or offer any generalisations. I simply tell a story, even if these people actually lived.

Do historians accept this approach?

I’m certainly moving outside the approaches dominate in historical scholarship. There are historians who would reject my approach as “soft history”. It’s true of course that there’s a certain emotional appeal and opportunity for identification in my book. But at the same time, as a scholar, I’m bound to look at my sources critically.

The approach based on the history of everyday life has proven very popular in the commemorative year 2014; the big online archive Europeana 1914–1918 also rests on it. How do you see this project?

I think it’s very commendable, because it democratises access to history. But such archives have their own problems. They make a promise of authenticity which they can’t keep. Many users see the pictures and diaries and think this gives them an immediate access to the experience of the historical person.

“A huge data reservoir that in and of itself has neither rhyme nor reason”

Isn’t the user being underestimated when we think he believes that this is an objective insight?

We should simply be aware of the fact that we have here to do with a huge data reservoir that in and of itself has neither rhyme nor reason. Significance emerges only with the necessarily selective use by the individual. There’s nothing to object to about this; my point is only that if an historian is going to use evidence from everyday life – and of course such an online archive can be useful for this – he has an additional task, namely that of scholarly interpretation.

Europeana 1914–1918 takes a trans-national approach. Has commemoration been dominated so far by a national point of view?

Absolutely; I notice this very markedly during my research stay in London. Since the first half of 2014 in Great Britain there’s been a downright media overkill with respect to the First World War. Coverage focuses on the positive achievement, the spirit of sacrifice and the ingenuity of ordinary people. In Germany, on the other hand, coverage emphasizes the suffering, the hardship, the dying. The main message is that war is something terrible and should be avoided. But alongside these different national narratives, I see another, one more trans-national.

In what way?

Amongst the European states today there is a strong discourse of reconciliation. Ideas of hereditary enmity and resentments having to do with the war are almost totally extinct. In the presentations of the war here in Great Britain, for example, there isn’t any anti-German tone – the former enemy is now almost depersonalised. And historical scholarship too has experienced a development towards a trans-national point of view. In Germany, young historians now treat more and more the global aspects of German history.
 

Dorothee Wierling is Deputy Director of the Research Centre for Contemporary History in Hamburg (Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte) and professor at the local university. Her research interests are the social history and history of mentalities of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. She has worked intensely on “oral history” and the use of personal memories as historical sources. As Gerda Henkel Guest Professor in 2013/2014, Wierling is doing research at the German Historical Institute (Deutsches Historisches Institut) in London and teaching at the London School of Economics.