Is history an (a)-political discipline?

German historians are in the midst of a heated discussion about how the professional association of historians should figure in social and political debate. On 14 February the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen (VHD) – the German counterpart of the KNHG – organized a meeting with supporters and opponents in this debate in Berlin. Two hundred historians from the entire country turned up and at some points manifested their agreement with one of the speakers through civilized applause. The central question at this meeting was: Is history an (a)-political discipline?


Following the previous elections in Germany (in the late spring of 2018), in which the extreme right-wing political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) achieved major gains, two historians drafted a text deploring the polarization and rising xenophobia in social debate on subjects such as migration and nationalism. They sent this text to twelve colleagues (who became known as “the twelve apostles”) and asked them to comment on it. The text was subsequently submitted for discussion at the general assembly of the VHD in Munster, held on the 52nd Historikertag, last September. Prior to the vote at the general assembly, the VHD organized several discussions about the text, where supporters and opponents could state their views and propose textual amendments. The resolution should, according to the supporters, be seen as urging historians not remain on the periphery of social debate. In the end, the general assembly adopted the resolution following a public vote, and this is one of the sensitive issues debated.

Supporters and opponents

After the resolution was circulated by the VHD, some of the members contacted the media. In articles featured in highly respected newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the opponents spoke out against the content of the resolution and expression of political opinions by the professional association of historians. Understandably, the supporters of this resolution then replied in kind. All this led the board of the VHD to organize this huge meeting, where supporters and opponents could converse with each other and with the members of the association in the room. “Among those who had drafted the resolution, the prevailing sentiment was that we “had to do something.” As a newspaper reader, I wonder “what” we should do, and “who” should do what? “Is this Zivilcourage?” wondered Thomas Maissen, director of the German Historical Institute in Paris. His discomfort arose mainly from the question as to whether “we [should intervene] out of civic responsibility or as a professional association.” From his perspective – and this sentiment is widely shared among the opponents of the resolution – it is the duty of citizens and not of professional associations to express their opinion through a resolution. After all, he continued, “as an association, we have a vested interest in staying out of politics.” Ute Frevert, who was among the strong supporters of the resolution, reacted by arguing that it would be truly awkward, if historians expressed their views as citizens, while the association remained silent. “We need to take the offensive, but,” she added, “in a deradicalized manner.”

The panel “(Un-)politische Geschichtswissenschaft?”, with: Peter Funke (moderator), Norbert Frei, Ute Frevert, Dominik Geppert, Thomas Maissen, Andreas Rödder and Eva Schlotheuber.

Role of the professional association

The main issue in the debate soon became: what can or may the professional association of historians do? Before this question could be answered, one of the opponents narrowed its scope by arguing that the question should be: “What should the association do?’’ This yielded quite a bit of civilized verbal ammunition, thereby clearly depicting the respective positions of the panel members: those who opposed taking a political stand argued that if historians prescribe what the actions or output should be of historical scholarship, we will soon wind up “in the den of the devil.” They believed that a professional association was supposed to support the interests of the discipline and struggle for public access to archives and sources and independence of researchers. Understandably, the supporters replied that declining to take a political stand on controversial issues was also a political position, and in doing so the association was not neutral or objective but was implicitly taking a stand. During this debate, it became clear that there are two schools with fundamentally different views that experienced no rapprochement at all in this debate.

Hidden agenda

The supporters emphasized that there was no hidden agenda. “Our agenda is the text. We do not want to make the association political. We sensed the general sentiment in the association and acted accordingly. Our very presence here at this point reveals that members are concerned. That is why the resolution is phrased very generally and deliberately does not address a person or organization.” They also stressed that although the resolution was a political statement, it was not intended to serve the objectives of a political party. “Nor does the resolution prescribe how these matters should crystallize in politics.”  The opponents replied that the main duty of historians is to offer substantiated answers to historical questions. Historians may of course express their political views as individual citizens but not as a collective. This brought the debate full circle. Chair Eva Schlotheuber of the VHD responded in her concluding remarks that she had no objection to the professional association taking a political stand, but that it would then have to be willing to debate those political statements internally as well. “We are only beginning to account for our words. This meeting is the first important step to this end.” In her view, the afternoon had been exhilarating and successful.

Antia Wiersma


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