This forum explores from multiple perspectives the often stated impression that the nineteenth century is “vanishing” from German and European history. It asks how one can explain this trend, what consequences it has for the development of historiography and public historical knowledge, if and why the nineteenth century matters for the present, and what the future of nineteenth-century history might be. Fourteen experts on different regions and historiographical approaches to European history from the United States and Germany discuss these questions. We sought contributors from these two countries in order to illuminate differences in the historical profession on either side of the Atlantic, and are sure that a broader regional comparison would point to more varieties in the state of historical research on the nineteenth century.
The first six contributions focus on regional historiographies. David Blackbourn and James M. Brophy discuss the situation in German Central European history. Pieter M. Judson explores the state of the history of Habsburg Central Europe. Alexander Martin looks at Russian history, Lloyd S. Kramer at French history, and Alex Chase-Levenson at British history. With this selection, we wanted to focus on the historiography of five large European nations and empires of the nineteenth century. The next five contributions focus on particular historiographic approaches or subfields of history. We decided here to combine traditional fields, such as military history and Jewish studies, with more recent approaches, such as cultural history, women's and gender history, and colonial history. Here, too, our selection does not claim to be in any way comprehensive. We could have included other important fields, e.g., political history, social history, or the history of emotions. Roger Chickering discusses the situation in military history, Simone Lässig in Jewish history, Suzanne Marchand in intellectual and cultural history, and Karen Hagemann in women's and gender history. The final three contributors offer reflections on the forum as a whole from the perspectives of their respective fields of expertise: Birgit Aschmann from European history, Jürgen Osterhammel from global history, and Andrew Zimmerman from transatlantic history.
“Honey, I Shrunk German History” was the title David Blackbourn gave to his luncheon address at the 2013 annual conference of the German Studies Association (GSA).1 In his presentation, Blackbourn eloquently described the diminished place in American scholarship of German Central Europe to which the nineteenth century had been relegated, and that it still seems to occupy. In addition to the dramatic decrease in the number of completed doctoral dissertations and advertised positions in nineteenth-century history, indicators of this trend include the century's shrinking place on the program of the GSA's annual meetings—from 32 percent of the papers presented in 1991, to 20 percent in 2010 and 5 percent in 2017—and in the book review section of Central European History (CEH): in 1998, 38 percent of the monographs reviewed in CEH dealt with the nineteenth century. This declined to 20 percent in 2010.2
Specialists in other branches of European history on both sides of the Atlantic have observed similar developments in their fields. They emphasize that the interplay of the distinct development of regional historiographies, field-specific factors, and external influences has determined the shifting position of the nineteenth century in European history.3 In general, as Blackbourn and James M. Brophy argue in their contributions to this forum, we as historians have to accept the obvious: “time has moved on.” What we are witnessing is a pattern with a long history in our discipline. With access to new archival sources, new periods and topics become more interesting, not least to scholars at the outset of their careers. Especially important in this regard is the end of the Cold War and, with it, the increasing interest in post-1945 history. This development received an important boost from the opening of East German and Eastern European archives in the early 1990s. In several cases, archives broke with—or were forced to break with—the usual thirty-year waiting period before making records accessible, thereby inviting historians to approach contemporary history as the direct prehistory of the present day. Furthermore, generational change in the history profession has played an important role in all fields. New cohorts of historians always want to work on new subjects. In addition, paradigm shifts and academic fashions, along with changing political landscapes and the neoliberal demand for the immediate usefulness and relevance of historical research and teaching, have had an enormous influence in all fields of European history. The move away from the nineteenth century has also been compelled by the market-driven demands of publishers and by the politics- and fashion-driven funding policies of foundations and other institutions that support research.
The decline in attention to the nineteenth century in European history has not, however, followed the same course on both sides of the Atlantic. In the field of Central European history, for example, it has been less marked in Germany than in the United States. Like its American counterpart, the German historical profession has seen a clear shift of research toward the open territory of the recent past and newly accessible archival sources. Major research institutes like the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, founded in 1992, complement the numerous university chairs in contemporary history established in Germany since the 1990s.4 As in the case of the GSA's annual meetings, the overwhelming majority of proposals for panels at the biennial meetings (Historikertage) of Germany's historical association, the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands (VHD), deal with topics in contemporary history, but earlier periods, including the nineteenth century, are still well represented.5 The “decline” and the “crisis” of that century do not seem to have progressed as far in Germany as in the United States. Nineteenth-century history is more regularly taught at German universities, and more studies on the nineteenth century are still published, also by younger historians. Specialists in nineteenth-century history also seem to be holding their own in the competition for professional recognition. One indicator of this are the VHD's prizes for published doctoral dissertations and Habilitationsschriften.6 To be sure, works on contemporary history won the lion's share (six of eleven) of the Hedwig Hintze Prizes for published dissertations in the period 2002–2016.7 But more Carl Erdmann Prizes for Habilitationsschriften were awarded to studies on the nineteenth century (five of twelve) than to works on any other time period.8
The difference here between the United States and Germany can be attributed, in large part, to several structural factors. One important element is the more limited influence of the market on German academia. Universities are solely state-funded in Germany, and history is still an important discipline in the university training of schoolteachers. As a result, the needs of state-defined school curricula contribute decisively in shaping the content of history teaching at German universities. State funding of higher education plays a less important role in the United States than in Germany, even for public institutions. Thus, the demands of tuition-paying students and powerful donors, together with ever louder calls for higher education to become more “useful” for professional training, are also important elements in the United States. The interplay of these factors has led to a broad decline of the study of history and other humanities in the United States. In the American history profession, the public call for research to be “relevant” for the present has further encouraged the move to contemporary history because it is perceived as “pertinent.”9 Market considerations similarly affect academic publishing more deeply in the United States than in Germany. German historians, including the authors of dissertations and Habilitationsschriften, can easily find a publisher—provided that they can pay the subvention that is usually requested. In the United States, historiographic fashion and assumed public interest tend to limit scholars’ publication opportunities.
Field-specific factors have also contributed to the changing position of the nineteenth century in historical research. In German Central European history, for example, the overshadowing dominance of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and the shift of the “vanishing point” in research on the era from 1933 to 1941, have played an important role, as both Blackbourn and Brophy argue.10 The nineteenth century became seemingly less relevant when the Holocaust and post-1945 memory of it replaced the search for the roots of National Socialism in the century before 1933 as the focal point of research. This trend was reinforced by the general rejection of the Sonderweg thesis by the generation of historians who entered the profession beginning in the late 1980s.11 As a result, it apparently become less necessary to study the nineteenth century if one wanted to understand the “Age of Extremes.”12
The nineteenth century has nevertheless been and remains of critical importance in particular thematic and historiographic subfields of Central European history, as several of the forum contributors note. This is the case, for example, in military history, Jewish history, intellectual and cultural history, as well as women's and gender history, which Roger Chickering, Simone Lässig, Suzanne Marchand, and Karen Hagemann discuss here, respectively. All four scholars call attention to exciting and innovative work on the nineteenth century, published since the 1990s, that not only questions old master narratives but also challenges the common characterization of the century as “dull.” With such research in mind, Marchand argues that it is imperative for historians of the nineteenth century “to combat with all of [their] strength and imagination the lines of thought which label the nineteenth century as boring [and] irrelevant,” and that measure it by today's political standards.13
Scholars of other regional fields of European history have observed a similar decline in interest in the nineteenth century. Lloyd Kramer, writing on French history in this forum, notes that “the world in which historians work has moved away from many of the concerns that shaped an earlier generation of historical scholarship and led people to the nineteenth century … Since historians are always drawn to subjects that seem important and relevant to their own concerns, a resurgence of interest in nineteenth-century France seems unlikely, at least in North America and probably in Europe and elsewhere too.”14 Historians who seek to address the most pressing issues of the present—from economic globalization and growing social inequality, to humanitarian crises and the resurgence of populism and authoritarianism in many regions of the world—increasingly focus on the twentieth century, in particular the period after 1945. They seem not to see the complicated and often ambiguous entanglement of long-term continuities and short-term changes, and thus tend to ignore the importance of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century developments for the present.
The trend toward presentism in research varies considerably, however, among the regional fields of European history. For example, in the historiography of Habsburg Central Europe, a field with flexible geographical, political, chronological, and topical boundaries that started to flourish in the last decade, the nineteenth century holds an increasingly important position, as Pieter M. Judson argues in his contribution. Interest in the century, he explains, was fostered “by the simultaneous opening of archives in the former East bloc states” and “the rise of histories that took up transnational topics and modes of analysis.”15 In Russian history, too, there is still considerable interest in the nineteenth century, as Alexander M. Martin observes in his contribution: “The Western historiography of Russia in the nineteenth century presents a mixed but mostly encouraging picture. The end of the Cold War led to quantitative shrinking, but also to an exciting reorientation that produced high-quality scholarship capable of reframing our understanding of Russian, European, and even global history.”16
Britain's nineteenth century, Alex Chase-Levenson notes in his contribution to this forum, “has not seen anything like so dramatic a level of defection in terms of hiring, research, or interest.” One reason for this difference, he argues, is the rise of global and colonial history. Britain, the largest empire during the long nineteenth century, was the earliest and is still the most important subject of research in colonial history.17 Sebastian Conrad likewise emphasizes, in his contribution on colonial history, the revitalizing effect of postcolonial studies for nineteenth-century history. But, as much as this new field has helped to keep the nineteenth century on the research agenda of European history, Conrad argues that it also has contributed to a reperiodization that works to the detriment of the nineteenth century: historians of the twentieth century increasingly tend to incorporate “the 1880s and 1890s into their interpretation of the twentieth century. Formerly the very model of a short century, extending from 1914 through 1989, the twentieth century has itself expanded, at both ends.”18
Marchand offers a more critical reading of the impact of the colonial turn on the study of the nineteenth century. She argues in her contribution that the “failure to emphasize and appreciate the relevance of the nineteenth century is strongly related to our recent infatuation with postcolonial and poststructuralist thinking.”19 Both schools of thought emphasize what she calls “‘the glass-half-empty’ view of modernization, in which the Enlightenment simply created hypocritical institutions and disciplines that enslaved us in discourses, ‘projects,’ and identities; both taught us to keep our critical distance from triumphalist narratives produced by post-1945 politicians, scientists, and social activists.”20 She agrees with Chase-Levenson and Conrad that the colonial turn was and is important but, at the same time, she observes that, in academia today, “we have become so accustomed to being negative or even dismissive of ‘the modernization project’ that we tend to forget the extent to which modernization has also liberated us from evils such as legal inequality (including slavery and serfdom), religious discrimination, and subsistence agriculture.”21 Such a one-sided negative perception, which does not acknowledge the parallel positive developments, is indeed problematic because it weakens our ability to defend important civil, social, and political rights that were won through arduous struggle during the long nineteenth century and that are today under attack by right-wing populist movements and governments. To be sure, the ways those rights were defined were often flawed, and rarely were they extended to all individuals equally. But too many people fought too long and too hard for those rights for historians of the twenty-first century to allow their achievement to be forgotten, or for these rights to be lost without any intellectual defense or political fight. As Andrew Zimmerman argues in his comment, there is still much to learn from nineteenth-century social movements like the anti-slavery, labor, and women's movements. He notes that those struggles seem indeed to be of growing interest to our students in light of today's fights for racial, social, and gender equality.
We thus argue with this forum that it is time to reinvigorate the study of the nineteenth century and make clear its continued relevance by taking up new questions, perspectives, and approaches. One important reason for this argument is that the major present-day challenges usually considered to be phenomena of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries actually have their roots in the nineteenth century: the challenges arising, for example, from industrialization, urbanization, large-scale internal and cross-border migration, or from new conceptions of state, nation, citizenship, and rights. Other issues that link the present to the nineteenth century are the rise of nationalism, militarism, colonialism, empire-building, and, last but not least, the dichotomic notion of a gender order, which is based on heterosexuality and the male-breadwinner family that defines the economy, politics, the military, and war as male “spheres,” and home and family as female “spheres.” Despite the long struggle for gender equality and all the legal, social, and cultural changes, this notion is still influential.22
If we historians want to understand the nineteenth-century roots of these developments, and if we want our students and the public to understand them as well, we need to bring, as several discussants in this forum argue, new questions and concepts to the study of this century. The decline in the interpretive power of conventional periodization, historiographical master narratives, and binary concepts, demands more complex and entangled histories of nineteenth-century Europe. This starts with the periodization of the nineteenth century. Several of the contributions highlight the trend toward shifting boundaries of the nineteenth century. Depending on the region, field, or conceptual approach, this period is differently defined. It can reach back into the eighteenth century and/or forward into the twentieth, or it might also be significantly shortened.
The innovative research discussed in several of the contributions similarly challenges traditional master narratives by approaching the century from comparative, transnational, transregional, and global perspectives, and by utilizing multidisciplinary approaches that combine the perspectives of political, social, military, cultural, and gender history. Building on that work, we need more studies that adopt a long-term perspective and that explore continuities and changes from the eighteenth century far into the twentieth. Such longue durée studies will demonstrate the importance of precisely that period of the long nineteenth century that has “vanished” most from recent research, namely, the “transitional time” between 1750 and 1850 that German historian Reinhart Koselleck labeled the Sattelzeit and conceptualized as an “epochal threshold” (Epochenschwelle) between early modern and modern history.23 The Sattelzeit concept, even though it has been criticized, might nevertheless be helpful in revitalizing the study of the period between 1750 and 1850.24 Recent work on the European history of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries points to the central importance of this time for several fundamental economic, political, and social developments in the long nineteenth century. It also makes clear that many people who lived then, much like many people today, saw their times as a period of dramatic change that gave rise to widespread anxiety and “feelings of dispossession.”25 A better understanding of the emotional, social, and political responses to the sense of “crisis” during this era might help surmount some of the challenges we face today.