How do historians learn the necessary economics

Contemporary history

Hans Günter Hockerts

To person

Dr. phil., born 1944; Professor of Modern History and Contemporary History at the Department of History at the University of Munich.

Address: Ludwig Maximilians University, Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1, 80539 Munich.

Publications including: Weimar Republic, National Socialism, World War II. Files and documents, Darmstadt 1996; (Ed.) Three ways of German welfare state. Nazi dictatorship, Federal Republic and GDR in comparison, Munich 1998; Reparation in Germany. A historical balance sheet 1945-2000, in: Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 49 (2001).

The scientific publications of contemporary history can only ever reach a relatively small section of the public. Most citizens encounter contemporary history in a different way.

I. Introduction

"Historians hardly ever appear in front of the camera in contemporary documentaries on National Socialism." This finding could recently be read in a specialist journal. The author linked the absence of historians to a ZDF media research study, according to which viewers "least like to learn from conversations with historians" [1]. One might add: the public's aversion would probably be less if the historians were to express themselves in a more understandable and lively manner. But the passage also highlights a fundamental fact that cannot be changed at will: The specialist science can only ever reach a relatively small section of the public; most citizens encounter contemporary history in a different way.

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  • This situation is not fundamentally new. History has never had a monopoly on the teaching of history. Friedrich Meinecke noted in 1908 that "our historical studies no longer have the ear of the nation as they did then, are no longer supported by a more general participation" [2]. By "then" he meant the time when the historical and national political movements were related in the 19th century. The works of historiographical "master narrators" from Ranke to Treitschke were very popular in public opinion at the time. But they too did not determine the picture of history alone. Other forms and instances emerged, such as the historical novel or history painting, and the journalism of the socialist wing of the labor movement presented the course and interpreted the meaning of history quite differently anyway.

    But the competition that the historians' guild faces has become much stronger in the past two or three decades. History is a resource for whose use an increasing number of actors with different goals and interests compete in a growing variety of forms. To clarify, it is sufficient to first refer to the boom in museums, exhibitions and commemorations as well as the widespread introduction of historical topics into the audiovisual media. The history boom has not only reached Germany, it is international. Henri Rousso, a leading French contemporary historian, recently published a book called "La hantise du passé", which could be translated as "obsession with the past". With the conditions in France in mind, he polemics against what he calls "medially prescribed compulsory memory"; he protests against the hustle and bustle of the "memory industry", which exploits the market value of history and thereby obscures rather than illuminates historical knowledge [3].

    Such a book extends the chain of indications that the transmission of history and the examination of it have become more diverse and diffuse. The boom not only encompasses contemporary history, it also extends across the ages. The Stuttgart exhibition about the Staufer era, which attracted an unexpectedly large number of visitors in 1977, is one of the early signs of the boom in Germany. But it affects contemporary history particularly strongly. The proximity to the present intensifies the interest. "Coming to terms with the past" as a medium of political debate and as a touchstone of political culture increases the response. In addition, contemporary history refers to contemporaries who have personal memories and thus a kind of direct access to the recent past; this has a motivating effect and expands the vocal chorus of the interpretation competition.

    It may therefore be useful to gain clarity on some fundamental questions, such as: What approaches to contemporary history are there and how can they be distinguished from one another in a typologic way? What is specific about the historical access? What is "the competition" doing differently and why has it become stronger since the 1970s? What tensions are there between - and possibly also within - the individual domains of conveying contemporary history?