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Central European History since 1989: Historiographical Trends and Post-Wende “Turns”

  • Andrew I. Port (a1)
Abstract

In a luncheon address at the annual meeting of the German Studies Association in 2013, David Blackbourn delivered an impassioned plaidoyer to “grow” German history, i.e., to rescue it from the temporal “provincialism” that has, he believes, increasingly characterized the study of Germany over the past two decades. Blackbourn was critical of the growing emphasis on the twentieth century and especially the post-1945 period—not because of the quality of the work per se, but rather because of the resultant neglect of earlier periods and the potential loss of valuable historical insights that this development has brought in its wake. There have been other seemingly seismic shifts in the profession as a whole that have not left the history of Germany and German-speaking Central Europe untouched: greater emphasis on discourse analysis and gender, memory and identity, experience and cultural practices (i.e., the “linguistic turn” and the “new” cultural history). Accompanied by a decline in interest about Germany exclusively as a “nation-state,” the last decade in particular has seen a spike in “global” or “transnational” approaches. And, like other fields, the study of Germany has also witnessed greater interest in the study of race, minorities, immigration, and colonization—what Catherine Epstein referred to as the “imperial turn” in a piece that appeared in the journal Central European History (CEH) in 2013.

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References
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1 Blackbourn's talk was subsequently published as “Honey, I Shrunk German History,” in German Studies Association Newsletter 38, no. 2 (Winter 2013–14): 4453.

2 For a general overview of historiographical trends since the 1960s, see Eley Geoff, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).

3 One notable example is the 2011 Oxford Handbook of Modern German History, which its editor describes as a “novel attempt to place German history in a deeper international and transnational setting than has hitherto been the case.” See Smith Helmut Walser, “Introduction,” in The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History, ed. idem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1.

4 Epstein Catherine, “German Historians at the Back of the Pack: Hiring Patterns in Modern European History, 1945–2010,” Central European History (CEH) 46, no. 3 (Sept. 2013): 631–35. On the “rapidly” changing nature of the field, also see Barkin Kenneth D., “Thoughts on Thirteen Years of Editing CEH,” CEH 37, no. 4 (2004): 499.

5 Donna Harsch, “The Historiography of German Social/Societal History since the Wende,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the German Studies Association, Kansas City, MO, Sept. 2014. Harsch systematically examined the journals Geschichte und Gesellschaft and Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, and found publication trends that are, in many ways, similar to the ones presented here for CEH. On the “weakening” of class “in its persuasiveness as a master concept,” see Eley, Crooked Line, 90–102 (quote on p. 100).

6 For Stalin's colorful epithet, see Tucker Robert C., Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928–1941 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 155.

7 Blackbourn, “Honey,” 49.

8 See “From the Editors,” CEH 1 no. 1 (March 1968): 3; as well as Unfug's introductory statement preceding the “Index to Volumes 1–20: 1968–1987,” CEH 20, nos. 3–4 (Sept./Dec. 1987): 3.

9 Blackbourn, “Honey,” 45–47.

10 Over the past decade alone, seventeen articles have appeared about the Federal Republic, thirteen about the GDR, and three about 1989 and unification.

11 See Jarausch Konrad H., After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945–1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Andrew I. Port, “Democracy and Dictatorship in the Cold War: The Two Germanies, 1949–1961,” in Smith, Oxford Handbook, 633–35.

12 See Barkin, “Thoughts,” 499; Ledford Kenneth F., “From the Editors,” CEH 38, no. 1 (2005): 2.

13 See Smith Helmut Walser, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race Across the Long Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

14 Epstein, “Back of the Pack,” 630.

15 Similar figures for the 1970s and 1980s are also cited in Ibid, 625.

16 See Eley Geoff, “Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte: Experience, Culture, and the Everyday—A New Direction for German Social History?,” in Journal of Modern History 61 (June 1989): 297; Canning Kathleen, “The Politics of Symbols, Semantics, and Sentiments in the Weimar Republic,” CEH 43, no. 4 (2010): 567–80.

17 See the articles in Special Issue: German Histories: Challenges in Theory, Practice, Technique,” CEH 22, nos. 3–4 (1989).

18 Unfug Douglas A., “From the Editor: Notes on Central European History,” CEH 23, no. 4 (Dec. 1990), 383–84. Also see the exchange between David Abraham and Gerald Feldman in CEH 17, nos. 2–3 (1984): 159–290. Two senior scholars, Henry A. Turner of Yale and Gerald Feldman of Berkeley, accused their younger colleague, Abraham, who was an assistant professor at Princeton at the time, of extremely shoddy and deceptive research practices in a monograph he had published on the collapse of the Weimar Republic. For a (not entirely impartial) overview of the “Abraham affair,” see Novick Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 612–21. Abraham was a former student of Novick.

19 Blackbourn, “Honey,” 44. More generally on the return of the “long term” and a critique of the “spectre of the short term,” see Guldi Jo and Armitage David, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

20 Quoted in Port Andrew I., Conflict and Stability in the German Democratic Republic (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), v. The robust response to Guldi and Armitage's The History Manifesto also makes this point, among many others. For a searing critique of the Manifesto and a reply by its authors, see Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, “The History Manifesto: A Critique,” and Armitage David and Guldi Jo, “The History Manifesto: A Reply to Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler,” in American Historical Review 120, no. 2 (2015), 530–54. Also see the vigorous online discussion at http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/forum/history-manifesto/.

21 See Barkin, “Thoughts,” 499.

This is a revised and expanded version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the German Studies Association in Kansas City, MO, in September 2014. I would like to thank Frank Trommler for his invaluable feedback at the conference, as well as Julia Torrie for her careful reading and extremely useful suggestions for improving the written version.

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Central European History
  • ISSN: 0008-9389
  • EISSN: 1569-1616
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