S. Berger (Hrsg.): The Engaged Historian

The Engaged Historian. Perspectives on the Intersections of Politics, Activism and the Historical Profession

Berger, Stefan
Making Sense of History 37
New York 2019: Berghahn Books
Anzahl Seiten
VIII, 313 S.
$ 130.00; £ 92.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Benjamin Zachariah, DFG-Leibniz-Forschergruppe „Vergleichende Zeitgeschichte der modernen Geschichtswissenschaften“, Universität Trier

At a time when the historical profession is suffering to some degree from a crisis of purpose and coherence, and when various specialisations are scarcely able to talk to one another, it is refreshing to come across this book, which provides a strong perspective on the imperatives of historians to engage in the public domain, even as it flags the difficulties of doing so. Inevitably, the tension between the emergence of professional history as allegedly disinterested scholarship and the demands of political relevance placed on public intellectuals forms a core concern of the volume.

Stefan Berger’s introduction guides us into what he sees as the interlocking fields of the history of historiography, studies of social movements, and memory studies, encouraging us to accept that historical scholarship has always had a politics, even if this has sometimes been disavowed. It is by no means clear that all engaged historians have been, in their own perception of their role or in the perception of their colleagues, contemporary or retrospective, „progressive“. Nor have all intellectuals who thought with history in public been professional historians. While many historians have been prominent intellectuals, „histories of intellectuals rarely engage with historians“ (p. 3). Berger outlines „the relationship between professional history writing and civic engagement from the Enlightenment to the present day“ (p. 4); it might be argued that his chronological markers could have looked different from another starting-point in conceptual or geopolitical location.

Of particular interest to present-day debates is the contention that history is, sometimes, the enemy of reconciliation. This raises uncomfortable questions about the role, since at least the formal dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, of „truth and reconciliation commissions“, making as they do several compromises on truth in the interests of reconciliation. And this of course contains the question of what connections truth has to history, a question that the volume does not attempt to address directly, and upon which it is unlikely that all contributors could find common ground.

The first three chapters deal with the relationship between history and political engagement (Jörn Rüsen, Martin Wiklund, Kalle Pihlainen). Rüsen contends that there are no non-engaged histories, though the engagement is not always political and could, for instance, be aesthetic instead. Wiklund asks what sort of ideal of justice historians who act as public intellectuals have and takes us through differing (historical) understandings of justice; he also asks what specific competence historians can provide in their role as intellectuals who are also historians (p. 47). Pihlainen revisits various positions on history and „narrative communication“, inviting us to play with Hayden White (and a few others) yet again.

The chapters that follow, with the exception of an idiosyncratic contribution that makes lists of political leaders who were historians or were „historically informed“ (Antoon De Baets, p. 81), and one on the challenges to historians of archiving, communication, preservation, memory, access, and navigation, provided by the digital age (Effi Gazi), are geographically specific. For the uninitiated, they provide glimpses into different historical cultures and political spaces.

Three chapters on Greece illustrate the contested nature of history-writing there. Emilia Salvanou writes on Greek refugees from former Ottoman territories after World War One recording memories, turning them into histories, and thereby inserting themselves into historical narratives of the Greek nation. Manos Avgeridis focuses on Greek responses to the British historian CM Woodhouse’s talk in 1957 in Munich at the Institute of Contemporary History (Institut für Zeitgeschichte) on the history of the Resistance in Greece during the Second World War, which was seen to underplay the Greek resistance during the Axis occupation. Vangelis Karamanolakis, writing on the destruction of police surveillance files on citizens in Greece in 1989, asks a vital question: „what is the role of historians when a society confronts its traumatic and sometimes ‚unwanted‘ past?“ (p. 238). Part of the process of „reconciliation“ after 1989 was to destroy this conflictual record. The aftermath of the Greek Civil War (1946–49), which established Greece as a „western“ power in the Cold War, also established a deep anti-communism as „a dominant element of political legitimacy“ (p. 238). The (almost ritual) destruction of the files, described by Karamanolakis, also showed how historians’ expectation of an important role in public life was a somewhat vain hope against the realities of power: it was a left-right coalition government that made the destructive decision. A fourth chapter that is also set in Greece looks at „street history“ (Antonis Liakos) during the series of protests in Athens from 2008 onwards, one of whose themes was the wiping clean of a historical situation and the opportunity to start afresh, which nonetheless coexisted with a sense of a usable past.

There are two chapters on Brazil, one (by Nina Schneider) focusing on the apparent dichotomy between professional history and an engagement with human rights issues, set against Brazilian Truth Commissions to deal with the legacies of the dictatorship (1964–1985). Another text (by Meize Regina de Lucena Lucas) is on the past in Brazilian cinema censorship during the dictatorship era, which notes that the censor board was particularly sensitive to matters of history, popular social movements, and „Marxism“.

Two chapters on East Asia provide material familiar to readers of historiographical and political trends in the twentieth century from slightly less familiar contexts. Xin Fan writes about the Zhangguo Ce clique of historians in China in the 1930s and ‘40s, (correctly) seen as fascists by intellectuals of the Chinese Communist Party. The clique was influenced by Oswald Spengler and saw (Chinese) culture as a „living organism, with all cultures following the same cycle of life: birth growth, decadence and demise“ (p. 142); they stressed the necessity of war and the supremacy of the nation state. Michihiro Okamoto writes on the journal Social Movement History (1972–1985) in Japan as itself a social movement. Part of the „history from below“ trend, it involved Marxists of the New Left, and was also influenced by Annales ideas of sociabilité and mentalité, Eric Hobsbawm, and EP Thompson. Nina Witoszek writes on historians as dissidents in late communist Poland, whose worldview to some extent created the Solidarity movement, but also on a young Oxford student called Timothy Garton Ash, who she describes as being „slowly entranced by the eros of intellectuals“ (p. 166).

The volume, which is dedicated to the late Georg Iggers (1926–2017), whose portrait can be seen on the cover, ends with Iggers’ own autobiographical reflections of a life in historiography and as an engaged intellectual, where he attempts to contextualise the one in the light of the other. Each reader might have wished to see specific themes better dealt with in this volume – gender or race, inevitably, or the geopolitical assumptions of history-writing – and a stronger critique of institutionalised historical professions and their means of reproducing themselves would have been more than welcome (especially in the light of Berger’s tantalising reference to professorial „charisma“, p. 7). It is also curious that apart from Iggers, one gets very little sense of the interconnectedness between the (presumably engaged) historians writing in this volume and their own political commitments: what they describe is mostly – at least rhetorically – kept at arm’s length from themselves. Perhaps one of the most unconventional ideas of this volume is an authored index (by Jannik Keindorf, Sebastian Braun and Riccarda Schirmers), which hints at a larger politics of knowledge production. I do get the impression, however, that this is the beginning of a set of debates that will continue to have resonances.