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Public history controversy: who's entitled to write history?

Meng Zhongjie | 2014-06-03 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 Since 2005, the exhibition held by the Hamburg Institute of Social Research “Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation, 1941-1944” has toured all around Germany.
Socio-cultural history, an integrated study of life styles, mass culture and social customs, has become a frontier field in the humanities. Within German socio-cultural history, public history controversy may serve as a valuable reference for Chinese history during the transition period.
Professional and public historians
Controversy in public history arises from professional or public historians disagreeing over the content of history, its modes of expression or the influence it has. In Germany, this controversy manifests in three ways.
First, debates among professional historians transcend academia and become topics of public discussion. After World War I, mention of war crimes became a taboo among German historians. A staunchly conservative faction of professional historians fought hard to keep this sort of political topic out of lecture halls. Their efforts failed in 1961 when Professor Fritz Fischer from the University of Hamburg published Griff nach der Weltmacht: die Kriegszielpolitik des Kaiserlichen Deutschland, 1914-18 (Germany’s Aims in the First World War). The work unhesitatingly opened the debate about war crimes and liability. Two years later, Fischer drew extensive criticism, both written and verbal, from fellow academics at the Conference of Historians in Berlin, but he won strong support from the general public during open debates. The “Fischer Controversy”, as this clash was later called, is considered to have initiated a paradigm shift in history research within Federal Germany.
Second, arguments unfold between professional historians and public historians. These controversial topics are originally confined within a professional field, and escalate to become public affairs as public historians take an opposing stance. During the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), works by the historical biographer Emil Ludwig like The Story of Bismarck and William II criticized the German Empire’s role in the break out of World War I, and championed the values of democracy and republicanism. These works were met with scathing reviews from professional historians, who criticized them as amateur, groundless and overly polished in top-level academic journals. Ludwig quickly rejoined that his research was part of a new school, flaunting himself as the rebuilder of a spiritual way of writing history. The controversy over “historical fiction” soon spilled over from academics into politics, where left-leaning and right-leaning politicians clashed over the values in Ludwig’s and other popular biographers’ works. This debate did not end until Ludwig and his peers were exiled by the rise of the Nazis, leaving conservative professional historians the default winners.
Third, sometimes arguments took place between public historians and their supporters. These debates become public as a matter of course because of the participants. Since 2005, the exhibition held by the Hamburg Institute of Social Research “Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation, 1941-1944” has toured all around Germany. Within the academic community, the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht are no longer secrets; however, among the German public, many of whom had family members that had served in the Wehrmacht, rank and file members were still perceived as innocent. The organizer, a scholar in public history education for many years, intended to correct the public’s erroneous view of history. The exhibition naturally triggered extreme discontent from the right wing, in particular eliciting a serious of attempts to oppose it by conservative politicians. These politicians cited their own personal experiences as evidence to refute what they called a “generalized view of history”. By contrast, a large number of young people left supportive messages on the guestbook after visiting the exhibition. The debate over the Wehrmacht’s crimes has since become a topic of congressional discussion.
Struggle for authority in writing history
Public history controversy is also a socio-cultural phenomenon worthy of our attention. It encompasses a wide range of aspects, including self-awareness in history, the struggle for the authority in writing a version of events and the defining of cultural elements for those periods in question.
At the turn of the 20th century, scholars and intellectuals fervently debated whether history is a science or an art. Public history controversy precisely reflects research trends. In a number of controversies in Germany, the authenticity of historical narratives, the possibilities and limitations for using historical materials, as well as the intersection of historical research and political stances, have manifested both in open and implicit forms. These are the entry points for studying public history controversy.
Who has the right to write history? Before history became a profession during the 19th century, it made no difference whether a work of history was written by a trained professional or member of the general public. However, the clash between the professional and public historians increasingly dominated public history controversy. This reflected the decline of historicism and coincided with the post-modern view that “everyone is his own historian”.
Why did controversy appear? Viewed from the evolution of historical thought, most instances of public history controversy in Germany have involved significant questions of historical awareness and specific ethnic groups’ self-understanding. For instance, war crimes of World War I or World War II remain taboo subjects. Whenever someone breaks the “order”, it inevitably leads to a conflict. In particular, with the rise of mass media and its intervention in public discourse, some controversies have turned out to be generated by the media. For example, after the release of the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust written by the American political scientist Daniel Goldhagen in 1996, the deputy editors of Time, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and The Mirror took the lead in hosting discussion and criticism of the book. In the grassroots media era, the expansion of discussion space and the concealment of controversial subjects is not only accelerating the spread of public history controversy but also enhancing its ability to shape socio-cultural psychology. In short, the spirit of the age and the shift in the media’s role can help unveil the mystery of public history controversy.
A valuable reference
In Germany, public history controversy has been a perennial research topic that has generated a substantial amount of papers and books. The Chinese academic community can learn several lessons from this.
Firstly, the German experience gives us insights into how to collect and arrange resources. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, public history controversy usually emerged without the public even noticing it was happening, then ultimately went through a period of diffusion before disappearing from view but continuing to exercise a certain influence. German researchers employ a meticulous process, preserving important controversial texts from different periods, thereby providing indispensible first-hand materials for further research. All of the controversial events mentioned above, for instance, generated related works. Mass media also took an active and notable part in “making” public history controversy by consciously playing the role of commentator. During the Goldhagen affair, Time not only regularly published notes or mid-term reviews by journalists, but later collected all the related essays and published them in a single volume. It is their initiative to explore, search and retain historical materials that we should strive to emulate.
Germany’s experience also provides a reference for how to analyze the background, process and impact of each controversy. Public history controversy is neither a simple academic debate, nor a mono-directional cultural transmission. Instead, it reflects a combination of conflicts and cultural complexity as the prism of society. In the controversy over historical fiction, professional historians worried about the danger of “social sinking”, while in the Goldhagen affair, the German academic community resented the Jewish political and cultural influence prevailing in American society.
Lastly, we can look to Germany to see how it has contemplated the definition and development of emerging disciplines within research on public history controversy. In Germany, this research is far from isolated. Within the framework of socio-cultural history, it provides new perspectives on the old problems passed on by history. Gradually, these efforts have been incorporated into research on the newly established “public history”. For instance, this research field was discussed in four recent history conferences, including “Televisions make history public: the impact on the study of history”, “Reconsider: the changing role of historical images in the public historical consciousness and the demands for education”, and “Intermediary historical curricula: innovation rather than preservation—the media and the history of public rights”. These examples provide a valuable reference for Chinese scholars who are exploring the ways to research public history controversy.
Meng Zhongjie is from the Department of History of East China Normal University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 588, February 12, 2014
Translated by Ren Jingyun
Revised by Charles Horne
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