In aanloop naar de Historikertag in Münster komende september sprak Antia Wiersma, directeur van het KNHG met de voorzitter van de Duitse zustervereniging Verband Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands (VHD), professor Eva Schlothüber. Zij is, naast haar voorzitterschap, hoogleraar Middeleeuwen aan de Henrich Heine Universiteit in Düsseldorf. In dit interview gaat zij dieper in op de uitdagingen voor geschiedenis en historici in Duitsland, nieuwe ontwikkelingen in het vakgebied en de Historikertag 2018 waar KNHG guest of honor is.
You’ve been President of the German Historical Society (Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands) since 2016. What goals and challenges is the VHD currently facing? Does the VHD have many international members, for example from the Netherlands?
The German Historical Association’s main goals are to strengthen the role of historical science in the academic world as well as in society. We provide a platform not only for discussions in the field, but above all for those taking place in the public sphere, by way of addressing the myriad problems facing the world today. It is in this context that the Association organizes its Biennial Meeting of German Historians (Historikertag). We also hold conferences, meet-ups, and generate policy briefs regarding higher education policy. We’ve established several awards for early-career scholars, such as the Carl Erdmann Award for habilitation theses and the Hedwig Hintze Award for Ph.D. dissertations. We also award prizes for outstanding college-level research and Ph.D. projects during the Biennial Meeting. We do have international members, including a few from Holland, and we hope that more will join us in the future!
What have been the most important issues for you during your term as president? What are the most pressing issues for history in Germany at the moment?
One of the most pressing issues in academia – and hence for us as well – continues to be the difficult employment situation and career prospects for young scholars. We will address this problem during the Historikertag in Münster at a joint Dutch-German Panel as well as in an “Early Career Forum,” where young professionals can network and find out about opportunities in their field.
I am additionally concerned about the situation of the historical sciences in secondary education. Here there are several points we need to focus on. First of all, we must recognize that history as a subject requires constant maintenance and cultivation in our schools. Especially for the upper grades, the links between history pedagogy and historical scholarship are substantial, and the two spheres are dependent on each other.
Related to this, we must ensure that the widening gap between top-level academic research and university teaching on the B.A. and M.A. levels does not continue to grow. This is a problem that we need to address, in fact urgently. Despite – or rather, because – the number of students is steadily declining. Historical knowledge and the humanities play a decisive role in maintaining social cohesion, and we must become conscious again of our shared memory, which is absolutely relevant for any future democracy. How can we teach young people about this? Also, the conditions of employment and of work itself are shifting, not least due to changes brought about by digital technologies. Basically, we need to ask ourselves what the study of historical science should look like in the twenty-first century.
Lastly, like the other humanities, we are now facing serious side effects of the increasing economization of academic disciplines and the reduction of research to economic usability.
As I mentioned before, these changes and challenges are connected with the “digital turn.” First of all, we need to push for sustainable infrastructure for digital projects, and we need greater acceptance for this burgeoning research field in our discipline. I’m not talking about Digital Humanities in general, but specifically about Digital History. Just to mention one point, we need a critical peer review for our “products” and research in this field.
Since 2010 you have been Professor of Medieval History at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Can you tell us something about your current research?
My current research is focused on the history of education and learned knowledge, especially of women in premodern times. A related project deals with letter writing and communication networks amongst women’s religious orders in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I’m also working on the very serious fourteenth-century dispute between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, which inspired the development of new political theories associated with authors like William of Ockham, Marsilius of Padua, Dante, and Petrarch. In general, I’m deeply interested in the interaction of humanism, political philosophy, poetry, and social change.
The Biennial Meeting of German Historians, known as the Historikertag, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. How did this conference evolve? What significance does it have nowadays?
The first Meeting of German Historians, which was organized by a small group of historians in southern Germany, took place in 1893 in Munich, and has been held every two years ever since (with some interruptions between 1933 and 1949). Today, with more than 3000 participants and more than 90 specialist panels, the Biennial Meeting of German Historians is one of the largest conferences in the Humanities in Europe. The Historikertag not only provides a platform for the exchange of German historical scholarship, but it offers the host university, town, and state a chance to present themselves to a wide audience. Through the issues it addresses, it also reaches beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries. Since 1992, each Biennial Conference has had a guiding theme; in 2018 the conference theme is “Divided Societies.” As in past years, this theme emphasizes the great cultural and social significance of history in providing a deeper understanding of our society and the problems we face.
Aside from the academic program, we also offer a great variety of cultural events, such as guided city tours, field trips, and much more.
The Netherlands is this year’s Guest of Honor at the Historikertag. What does that actually mean? And what expectations come with it? What kind of opportunities for cooperation do you see for these two societies?
It is truly a great honor to have the Netherlands as our Partner Country this year. Our Partner Country program was established in 2004, and in 2018 we chose the Netherlands to reflect the close intellectual, cultural, and political relationships between our two countries. The University of Münster has traditionally cultivated close links with the Netherlands; and its Center for Netherlands Studies is the only one of its kind in Germany. It deals with the Netherlands and Germany in teaching and scholarship as well as with the relations between these two countries. The Center, which is located in the House of the Netherlands, will be open to interested visitors during this year’s conference. We’re honored and looking forward to hearing Khadija Arib and Wolfgang Schäuble speaking together on the topic of “Divided Societies” in this year’s opening ceremony.
I hope our cooperation with the KNHG will be continued after the conference. There is much that connects us – not just the structural problems and side effects of a newly aligned university landscape, but our common concerns about the difficulties confronting young scholars. There is also much we can learn from each other, and that’s why we’ve organized a joint session of the VHD and the KNHG on the employment and career conditions of early-career historians in Europe. I’m looking forward to a fruitful discussion with our Dutch colleagues about possible solutions. Another joint session we’re holding this year will be a panel on the Peace of Westphalia; there we’ll discuss the significance of the Peace for the world today and the global challenges it faces.