Jürgen Kocka (1941) is one of the best exponents of the renewal of German social history, as part of what is known as the Bielefeld School. His research concentrated mainly on the history of German and American workers and on the history of the European bourgeoisie, especially with regard to German industrialization. In the second half of the 1980s, he was actively involved in the Historikerstreit, a debate brought forward by German intellectuals (Kocka, Jürgen Habermas, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and others) against Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, among others, on the interpretation of the Shoah, the ways of understanding Nazi Germany, and the public use of history. In recent years Kocka devoted himself to reflections on global history and the history of capitalism. Fellow of the Center for Contemporary History of Potsdam, Permanent Fellow of the Humboldt-Universität, former president of the International Committee of Historical Sciences and member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, in April 2016, Professor Kocka was invited to give a series of lectures in Argentina by the Instituto de Altos Estudios Sociales of the Universidad de San Martín, the Programa de Estudios de Historia Económica y Social Americana of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Argentine Association of Researchers on History, and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was in this context that the Argentine section of the editorial committee of the magazine interviewed him in Buenos Aires. The lingua franca for dialogue was English.

Social history in Germany

—  What’s your opinion of the Sozialgeschichte project, how would you evaluate it, in hindsight, from today’s historiographical context?

— The rise of social history in Germany and in other European countries was certainly a matter of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I studied in the 1960s and started to teach in the University of Bielefeld in 1973. At that time, we saw social history as a progressively revisionist project. As such, it would change the historical profession at large, by stressing structures and processes instead of events and persons, by stressing analytical matters, including some help from the social sciences, instead of just hermeneutic methods of narrating, by stressing society and economy, not so much political factors or history of ideas, which had been strong over the decades. In this mood, those who advocated the rise of social history were also committed to social and political causes in one way or the other. Many of us did not only want to reform the profession, but hoped to contribute to reforming the society in which we lived. There was a certain affinity between the stress on social history as an academic enterprise on the one hand and some kind of engagement in search of social and political aims, like more honesty or more democratization or more emancipation.

— Do you think that your project contributed to that aim?

— In both respects, looking back from now, it did not reach the aim of really changing the discipline. It changed the discipline, but not totally, of course. And since the 1980s, other things became important, like the rise of cultural history. But inside Germany there was a move towards more democracy, towards a more honest dealing with our catastrophic past under National Socialism, and certain steps towards a more open civil society, including more in terms of distribution and class relations. This had many reasons, but to a small extent, what we did as young historians contributed a little bit, particularly with respect to the interpretation of Germany’s National Socialist’s, totalitarian, fascist, past. Because after 1945, at the end of World War II, there wasn’t, in the 50s, much open debate, but many people had been involved and were not interested in an open discussion of crimes and victims. It was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s that things changed. We arrived at a bit more honest, open, self-critical interpretation of our past. This is the place were historians contributed most.

— The rise of German social history, as you said, took place in Bielefeld, where you were teaching. At the same time, in Bielefeld, another historical tradition emerged, which was different from social history, and also with a different political outlook, Begriffsgeschichte. How were your relations with Reinhart Koselleck’s group?

— The so called Bielefeld school of social history had its model figures, like Hans Rosenberg, who was an émigré in the 1930s and taught at UCLA, Berkeley, before coming back as a retired person to Germany. He stood for a certain critical tradition of German history. In the Bielefeld school, we stretched very much the overlap with certain traditions in the social sciences: Marx on the one hand, Max Weber on the other hand, we did not see a contradiction between them. So we called history of society our kind of social history, meaning we did not want to concentrate only on mobility, or family, or migration, but talk about the whole thing from analytical concepts and in cooperation with the social sciences. But you see, at the same time, there were other streams of emerging social history. For instance, Werner Conze, in Heidelberg, and Koselleck had been a close cooperator with Conze. But in fact there was much overlap. Conze had founded a working circle for social history in the 1950s, which still exists now, and that is rare. We were members of this circle and Koselleck was one of the intellectual founders of the University of Bielefeld, so his office and my office were on the same floor for a decade, we had close relations, I admired him and I still do. He was a historian who politically was different. At the same time, he was strongly in favor of theoretical approaches to history, and this was something the history of society people had in common with Koselleck and his group. Theory oriented, highly reflective writing of history. In both cases, we were convinced that history has purposes, functions, outside the profession as well. So in reality there was much cooperation and we even made a journal together, Geschichte und Gesellschaft: he was one of the editors and so was I. Despite the political differences, there were some points of historiographical agreement and there were also distinctions. Koselleck moved to cultural history much earlier, and basically he was a philosopher: he was much less interested in strict historical empirical work. He wrote an important book of this sort, his book on Prussia is very interesting1. And he had to do it because Conze pushed him into history, away from theorizing. So, this was a distinction. In style there was one, also. Some students worked with Koselleck, some others worked with me and other colleagues, and these groups separated from one another. It was an interesting situation.

Professional historians: East, West, and the universities

— Can you evaluate East German historians and their research before and after reunification?

— There were long debates about that. I was reading today an article by my colleague and friend Georg Iggers, who is in his mid-80s and is writing about that. One of these people, Helga Schultz, just died. She was an interesting figure, among several. She was an East German professor, a member of the Institute of History in the Academy of Sciences. She was a Marxist and she was not a dissident. She managed, already in the 80s, to write historical analysis about the port city Rostock and about the relationship between handcrafts and merchants, and so on, which was very good. After the reunification, the institution where she worked disappeared, but she was lucky enough to get a new professorship at the University of Frankfurt Oder, and she continued writing important things on the history of socialism, an excellent book on the history of communists and socialists, and other things. Georg Iggers writes now about what happened to East German historiography before 1989, and what happened afterwards. On the other hand, different from Schultz, Stefan Wolle was academically less strong, but in 1989-1990, he was a member of the Federation of Independent Historians, he was very active in the public space. He got a job at a research institute dealing with the history of Stasi, and he continues writing. Others have however disappeared from academic life, and they have become disappointed and embittered. Helga Schultz belonged to the handful of exceptions, who were professors before 1989 and continued to be so afterwards. Many others lost their jobs. They did not starve, they did not disappear as historians. They formed groups, like the Leibniz Sozietät, a kind of substitute academy with some public funding. And there is some cooperation with them as well, but of course at the funeral of Helga Schultz there were people who had lost their positions and belonged to the losers of reunification.

— Regarding the relationship between history and public sphere, on the one hand it opens the field of historical analysis and intervention, but on the other hand we historians know how to do research, how to write articles and books, but we are not really prepared to intervene in newspapers, television, etcetera. What do you think about the challenges this imposes for the formation of historians at university?

— This is very important. Only a minority of professional historians engage in public debates. Most of us do not. Only a few of us combine high standards of professional work with effective intellectual work in the public sphere. The majority of the historians do not like to do that, and this is because we are not trained to do it, we are not selected on this basis when we apply for a job. There are these distinctions between the logic of professional research and teaching on the one hand, slow, differentiated, self-critical (you have to revise yourself if you find a new source or a better argument), specialized; while in the public sphere you have to speak out, you cannot be too self-critical, you must show yourself, you have to over-do the argument to become visible, you have to simplify and be polemical. How do you do this? Some people have both talents. But secondly, good journalists know this tension and try to help you when they interview you, they act as interpreters, they translate without distorting. There is also a trend towards medialization going on. Our perceptions of reality are strongly determined by the interpretations of media, much more than when I started working as a historian. It belongs to the logic of medialized discussions to simplify, to over-do, to look for a traumatic clash, a contradiction, a fight. Reality is stylized in these directions. I am not positively impressed by this, so I think that we as historians have the duty, the task, of balancing this. When we are interviewed, we should say that it is not an “either… or”, but a “both… and”, we should insist on ambivalence as a principle, we should contextualize, relativize the importance of each single event. Most phenomena can be interpreted in different ways. This kind of historization is something that historians can deliver better than other social scientists, or writers of novels and drama. We should stress central elements of our professional logic but addressed to public debates.

— Do you think that the university formation of historians provides the tools to intervene in the situation of media hegemony that you described?

— Yes, to some extent, we have now, here and there, curricular and master courses in public history. Several colleagues in Germany are devoted to this, for example in Köln and other places. This is a response. It’s not only public debate, but also training for preparing museums, and things like that. Also we have in Germany the field of the didactics of history, which doesn’t exist in the Anglo-American world. It’s not only about techniques to teach in the classroom, but also the problem of the function, possibilities, and limits of the intervention of historians in the public sphere. These are two spaces in our universities where these things are now taught.

German historians in the public sphere

— In German historical culture there were many public debates that made that historiography peculiar. In other contexts, like France or the United States, you cannot find so many debates, particularly from the Historikerstreit onwards2. What’s the reason for that?

— You are right. Particularly the so-called Historikerstreit of the mid-1980s. But again and again, also with respect to the outbreak of World War I, in the 1960s, we had the so called Fischer Debate, which did not only involve professional historians, but also the public at large3. So historians, again and again, have played a larger role in public debates, as public intellectuals, than for instance in the US, and certainly also more than in the United Kingdom, not sure about France. Why? There is an old German tradition, dating to the nineteenth century. Nation building, in the German case, had a lot to do with history, and the rise of history as a profession had a lot to do with intellectual and cultural nation building. Talking about an alleged or real German tradition, reaching back into the Middle Ages, was an important argument in favor of uniting the nation, and to found a nation state, from the 1840s on. So history has always played a major role in public debates. At that time, however, not in a critical sense, but in an affirmative sense. Secondly, you have in Germany, more than in the US and the UK, a certain kind of intellectuals (authors, journalists) who think they should be critical. Public criticism is seen as a major field in which intellectuals should engage. They shouldn’t praise and be positive, but be critical. There have been periods in German history which were far away from this, of course, but in the second half of the twentieth century this came back. Appreciation for public criticism is part of our media, which invite historians to engage in these discussions. The Historikerstreit, in the mid-1980s, clearly was not initiated by historians, but journalists called, so there was, as usual, an interplay between the media and the profession. Once you have a history like the one we have, with the catastrophe of National Socialism and the second dictatorship in the East, you have a lot of problems to talk about. Maybe some histories are less problematic, and so invite less critical interventions.

— You mentioned that you did not, as historians, promoted the Historikerstreit yourselves, but you were asked by journalists to intervene. Was there any sort of communication between you and the other participants in the debate, besides the ones that are public, or was it mostly an individual effort?

— The whole atmosphere was such that people my age, the historians of my generation, and historians with some commitment would be very interested in these topics, and agitated by them. These were public debates. Many of us had given lectures and interviews at the same places. We knew each other, we had friends in common. It was in the air to have such a debate, but there was no conscious planning. There was a lecture by Hans Nolte, in which he argued for the comparability of Hitlerism and Stalinism, and more than that, he interpreted the fascist project as a response to a previous Leninist, Asiatic as he said, challenge. So he was near to a sort of historical justification of German fascism. At least that was how we read it. This is where Habermas came in and responded. Habermas, however, was closely befriended with Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Wehler probably helped him to identify historians that could participate in the debate. From this, the media picked up and offered many of us to write articles on the matter, so it came forth, and accumulated. It was more a wave than a plan, and as many media waves, it disappeared after a while.

— I would like to ask you to reflect about a concept that Habermas coined in those circumstances: “the public use of history”.

— This group of historians we are now speaking of (Wehler, was probably the most important, the Mommsen brothers, Heinrich August Winkler, myself, a few others, Karin Hausen, in Berlin, who was among the pioneers of women’s history and feminist history), we all were convinced about the public tasks of history. Much more so than historians in our days. The young historians, at least in my country, these days, in the wake of global history, are much more disengaged from present public debates than we were. Apart from some historians in the left, of course, hardly communists I must say. Communism was extraterritorialized from West Germany and had become the guiding ideology in the smaller East German state: this helps to understand why communism has been much weaker among revisionist and reformist historians and intellectuals in Germany than for instance in France or in England. So not many communists, but social democrats, left liberals, with a commitment left of the center. We stressed, I still do, the possibilities of historians and historical reasoning to help clarify and explain the present situation to the citizens, so that we can develop a reasonable form of public responsibility, so an important contribution to what in German we call Aufklärung, enlightenment (not in the sense of the historical epoch, but the function of critical self-understanding and self-explanation of society). You cannot do this without a historical dimension, this is why historians are so important for a civilized enlightened form of living together. On the other hand, there is also a contribution of these public debates to the advancement of professional scholarship. After all, where do we get our questions from, where do we get our viewpoints from which to study the past. It helps if you are engaged in the present time to formulate important questions. That’s what you can learn from Max Weber, who has made this point brilliantly. But there is also a distinction between the professional field of argumentation, research, criticism, professionalism, and politics, ideological debates, a competition of ideas in the present time, interests, struggles. These are two separate fields, but they are also related, by the contribution of the professional historian to a reasonable form of political debate and by the fact that historians and social scientists can find important questions and viewpoints in the sphere of politics. The logic of scholarly argumentation differs from the logic of political argumentation, but there is also a close affinity.

— After Germany’s reunification, you also intervened in the public sphere in another way, with the organization of the Historical Museum in Berlin. What could you tell us about that experience?

— Actually, the debate about the German Historical Museum had already started in the mid-1980s, before unification. Helmut Kohl and his conservative government had the idea of creating a national historical museum. This was born in a situation in which the German nation state did not yet exist again. Kohl and many others argued that we needed a historical museum, particularly since we had lost the nation state, for a while, at least. It was originally the idea of a conservative government, in the sense of moving towards national identity building. In the situation of the Federal Republic in the 1980s, you had to get the support and the cooperation of historians to do that, and public opinion was skeptical, fearing an ideological cleaning up. This was an interesting situation for a few of us. We developed a written plan, which would prepare a permanent exhibition on German history in its European context, considering the many internal differentiations as well. This group of historians was relatively autonomous, the government would not intervene in detail. So, the plan was not bad. Then, ironies of history, the architectural plan of the building was already agreed upon by 1988, an excellent plan by the Italian architect Aldo Rossi (who designed a building that fitted perfectly with the main ideas we had developed), but it became the building of the Chancellery after the reunification. So, you see, reality overtook planning and the museum moved into another place, more old-fashioned, in Unter den Linden street. Then, the museum was built step by step in a way that has become… acceptable. But it neither has realized all the fears many people had, that it would be a factory for national identification, nor has it realized all the hopes that some of us had of creating a new form of didactic, a new form of presentation. But it was an important experience and, basically, a success.

— How do you think that the current museum failed to fulfill your expectations?

— It has become much more conventional, much more routine than we had thought. How can you translate critical, pluralist, debating history into an exhibition? How do you present to alternative views of one event? We had some ideas. You can work with location, confront sources, include debating elements in the architecture of the museum. This has become much less the reality of the place. Rossi had invented certain spaces of reflection: after showing a phase, you would enter a small arena for reflection before moving to a different place. But the museum had to be moved to a Baroque building, with different purposes, so this has not been realized. In any case, it is a popular place, tourists come, school classes come. It’s not propagandistic, it changes, we have many exhibitions, a beautiful modern annex has been built, by the same architect who built the pyramids at the Louvre [Ieoh Ming Pei]. So it is very acceptable. But unification meant of course something different. Then we had again many occasions for public debate. I was involved in evaluating the East German institutes for history, letters, philosophy, and humanities in general. The East German structure for scientific institutions was very different from the western one: a large academy of sciences, with many institutes under the roof, apart from the universities. The way unification took place, the system of West Germany was extended to the East, with some modifications. This was a big enterprise, from 1990 to 1995, and I was involved in that. I could help founding new institutions, for instance the Institute for Contemporary History in Potsdam. This was an attempt not only to dissolve all the existing institutes of East Germany, but to build something new. This was also related to the public debates about the meaning of this second German dictatorship, which had just ended.

— After the reunification there has been a very strong memorial trend in Germany. There has also been a great deal of debate regarding new memorials and spaces of memory. What can we learn from this debates and the tendency to memorialization?

— Memory has become nearly an obsession. There is such a multiplication of memorial places. It could be good in places. For instance, the Monument remembering the Murder of the European Jews next to the Brandenburg Gate, in a very central place in Berlin, caused other groups to demand, with good reasons, to be commemorated as well. It’s interesting that the Slavic victims, of which there were millions, are much less commemorated. So once you start with that, you have no criteria of justice. How could you only commemorate one or two victim groups? This is not fading away. The commemoration of the communist dictatorship in East Germany, also with a lot of victims, has not replaced the commemoration of the first German dictatorship. How similar or different are these two dictatorships? I would certainly stress differences. So these places of commemoration… I am chair of a circle of supporters and friends of the memorial in Sachsenhausen, a memorial in what used to be a Concentration Camp near Berlin. Until recently, victims used to come, annually, at symbolic dates, but now they don’t come anymore. So how do we interest the younger generation? But it’s not really dying out at all. If we really get a right wing backlash, which we may, this may change; but at the moment this is beyond party lines, it’s a general consensus that this needs to be remembered. There is also a permanent debate regarding the fact that many concentration camps created by the Nazis were later used by the soviets for the same purposes in the first years after 1945. The victims of Nazism don’t like it at all when the places and ceremonies commemorate both facts. The East German tradition, in this respect, of course did not talk about the camps between 1945 and 1950, but they had a lot of commemoration of what this war and what the Nazi dictatorship did to the Slavic group. Russia was the country with the largest number of victims. This was very present in the public commemoration of East Germany. In a way, they were better in this respect than we were in the West. Of course, they stressed the victory of the Soviets more. It is possible now to talk about the cruelty of the German invasion of Russia, but of course the situation of the Jews is, by far, more commemorated. That has to do with the history of West Germany after 1949, with the political constellation of the present, and not just with the gravity and the weight of the past. This couldn’t be different. You have this reaction to these masses of migrants now, since September 2015, for a few months, a million moved into Germany. In that, Germany differed from all other European countries, which step by step managed to avoid this incoming stream or close their borders. Including Sweden. We didn’t. This is changing now. Practically, there are new borders in Turkey and the Balkans. But the government doesn’t close doors, although it makes it more difficult. Germany is not an immigration society. There are several reasons for that. Economically, Germany is doing very well. We are also aging, and we need younger people. But also, I believe, it is this commemoration of the past, which is not limited to small groups and intellectuals, but in a way has defined asylum so much as something necessary if you want to overcome the Nazi period. In a way, these last months, show that commemoration of the past, if it is relatively honest and self-critical, can aspire to the aim to build a better Germany, as a form of learning from history. This has not reached everybody. There are right wing groups. But Merkel got a lot of support for her way of dealing with the situation. In other countries, it’s different. So, if I am right, you see the practical importance of this use of the past, which was not created only by professional historians, although they participated in that process.

Unfold notes and references
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Preußen zwischen Reform und Revolution. Allgemeines Landrecht, Verwaltung und soziale Bewegung von 1791 bis 1848, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1967.

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Regarding this debate, see Geoff Eley, “Nazism, Politics, and the Image of the Past: Thoughts on the West German Historikerstreit”, Past and Present, 121, 1988, p. 171-208, and Richard Evans’ book: In Hitler’s Shadow. West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape the Nazi Past, New York, Pantheon, 1989.

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The “Fischer debate” emerged from Fritz Fischer’s thesis, which argued that the bulk of the responsibility for World War I belonged to Germany, whose leaders triggered the conflict as part of an aggressive foreign policy, comparable even with Hitler’s in the 1930s. See Fritz Fischer, Germany and the Origins of the First World War, London, Chatto & Windus, 1967 (originally published in German in 1961). On the subsequent debate, see Annika Mombauer, “The Fischer Controversy 50 Years on”, Journal of Contemporary History, n° 48, 2013, p. 231-40.