What is a European Classic of Contemporary History?

October 08, 2008
Lunchtime presentation and discussion at the GHI with Dr. Nicolas Berg (Simon Dubnow Institute, University of Leipzig) and Dr. Jan-Holger Kirsch (Center for Contemporary History, Potsdam), chaired by Philipp Gassert (GHI).

Over the last couple of years, the scholarly journal Zeithistorische Forschungen has published a column "Neu Gelesen" (Read Again), which features reviews of classic works of contemporary German and, to a lesser extent, European history. A selection of these reviews was published in a collected volume entitled 50 Klassiker der Zeitgeschichte, edited by Jürgen Danyel, Jan-Holger Kirsch, and Martin Sabrow (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007). The selection of "50 classics" in a field as diverse and as prolific as contemporary history raises some obvious questions. This event offered the welcome opportunity to discuss the concept of a "contemporary classic" with one of the volume's editors, Jan-Holger Kirsch, who is managing editor both of Zeithistorische Forschungen and the Internet Forum H-Soz-U-Kult, as well with one of the volume's authors, Nicolas Berg, Senior Research Fellow at the Simon Dubnow Institute (who contributed an essay on Raul Hilberg's pioneering study The Destruction of the European Jews).

As Kirsch made clear during his introduction, there were many pragmatic reasons why the selection of books to be included as "classics" was made in the fashion that it was. Within contemporary history, the notion of a classic is a difficult one. In a field that is closely related to present concerns, few works can claim to have withstood the test of time. Given the many caesurae in 20th-century history and the continual revisions of historical writing, contemporary historians have resisted the creation of historical master narratives and have found it difficult to accept authoritative definitions of a classic. Still, given the demands of the book market and of university curricula after the implementation of the so-called Bologna Reforms, there seems to be a constant need to present a "best of" to the public. Berg concurred with Kirsch's skepticism but stressed that even though contemporary concerns, including market forces, shape the selection of what constitutes a classic, classics do have certain intrinsic qualities that other historical books do not possess. They tend to have a synthetic quality; their strength is often not the original (archival) research, but the questions they ask. They address a larger problem that has occupied the profession for a while; and they must have a relationship to the society that perceives them as classic. The latter, of course, changes over time.

The ensuing discussion centered on questions of definition and on the particular selection that was made for the book as well as for the column in Zeithistorische Forschungen. As Gassert mentioned at the beginning, seven out of the fifty classics included in the collection were American, one was French, and none were British. A team of U.S. specialists would most likely have come with a very different selection. Thus the focus on German books seemed to mirror the parochial nature of German contemporary history; which immediately raised the question of how understandings of what is a classic might change, when the political culture is increasingly shaped by European and global concerns. Further contributions stressed the peculiar needs of each society in shaping theses selections. There was broad agreement, however, that both the book and the column generated considerable interest and that the GHI would be most willing to help facilitate the internationalization of the "Neu Gelesen" column.

Philipp Gassert