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  • Contemporary History:Reflections from Britain and Germany
  • Jane Caplan (bio)

A few years ago, in an attempt to lure suspiciously conservative audiences into programmes of twentieth-century music, the Philadelphia Orchestra dreamed up the slogan 'All music was once new music' – a claim somehow as unreassuring as it was incontrovertible. But can we say that all history was once contemporary history? In one way, obviously: every era has had its recent past, its history of 'our' time. In this sense 'contemporary history' is unlike other periodizations, whether grand ones like 'the Renaissance' or more modest chunks of time like 'the interwar period'. Its dates pin down a moving target rather than a fixed set of book-ends. It denotes a succession of periods that are conventionally identified as that which lies within living memory, the outcome of which is not yet known. We even have an official [End Page 230] ratification of 'living memory' in the thirty-year rule that has governed the delivery of official documents to the Public Record Office (now the National Archives) since 1967.1

At this level, then, the proposition looks straightforward enough; but maybe it is not so simple. At any given moment several generations of living memory coexist, along with more than one perspective on the past. What is it that makes one more definitional than another? It cannot be simply a matter of annual shifts of gear. In historical rather than natural time and as with any periodization, it's the events (or some representation of them) that really define the generations, not the other way round. In the case of contemporary history, the foreshortened perspective of natural time does mean that the periodization will present itself in sharper focus, measured in years rather than decades or centuries. For this reason, it has been argued that the concept of contemporary history is likely to be most meaningful wherever history offers sharp contrasts and ruptures, rather than presenting something like a seamless story of continuity.2

Reflection on the definition and meaning of contemporary history has been peculiarly intense in Germany, which was not only the site of twentieth-century Europe's most shocking historical rupture but was also the nineteenth-century birthplace of history as an academic discipline. The German term is 'Zeitgeschichte', and it is perplexing word. In English we already have one kind of paradox – how can something be both 'contemporary' and 'history' at the same time? – and the German word, composed of Zeit (time) and Geschichte (history), presents its own puzzle. Since all history deals with time, what precisely is meant by the 'time' of Zeitgeschichte?3 And does contemporary history obey the same methodological rules as all history, or does it dance to a different drummer? In a now canonical essay, the German historian Reinhard Koselleck has addressed these questions through a deep excavation of the historical meaning of 'the present', with its permanently self-effacing character and its plural status. In his model there is not only the present present, but all conceivable past presents and future presents, each with its own relationship to its own past and its own future, to the already known and the as-yet unknown.4

Even without these philosophical riddles, locating the term in the history of concepts of time and of 'history' yields another paradox. Before the nineteenth century, all history was understood as in a sense the history of the present, meaning both present time and what was always there. To tell it, closeness was preferable to distance, eye and voice to written document; the best guarantees of authenticity were presence, participation and witness. Then these propositions were reversed by the great upheaval produced by 1789 – what Humboldt called the French revolution's 'speed-up' of history – and by the emergence of a historical discipline capable of explaining this. A narrative of uniqueness, change, novelty, development and progress, a concept of historical time as open-ended movement with [End Page 231] unknowable and open futures, replaced the Christian sense of an essentially unchanging duration with one inescapable eschatological conclusion.5 The modern discipline of history established itself as that species of knowledge which could assemble the most accurate accounts...


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pp. 230-238
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