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  • Public History in Germany:Challenges and Opportunities
  • Thorsten Logge
Angewandte Geschichte. Neue Perspektiven auf Geschichte in der Öffentlichkeit. Edited by Jacqueline Nießer and Juliane Tomann. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2014. Pp. 143. Paper €22.90. ISBN 978-3506777188.
Digital Past. Edited by Moritz Hoffmann, Christian Gieseke, Charlotte Jahns, Petra Tabarelli, and Michael Schmalenstroer. and
Aus den Akten auf die Bühne. Bremen 2007–.

Public history is coming of age in Germany. Since 2008, scholars in this emerging field have taken initial steps toward its institutionalization, but its scope and nature are still being negotiated. These interdisciplinary and cross-media discussions involve academics in the fields of scholarly history and historical didactics along with freelance historians, museum curators, archivists, and people and institutions in the public humanities more broadly. Though grounded in the traditional work of academics, public historians seek new ways to engage the sometimes imprecisely defined audiences both inside and outside academia using unusual sources and media. Review essays should follow suit. Historical consciousness emerges in a wide range of communication processes—not just scholarly books and articles. Historiography must take into account the full range of historical representations at work in the public sphere ranging from new social media, like websites and tweets, to reinvented traditional media like theatrical performances. If this greatly expands the number of potential objects for review, it reflects the fact that public history is already operating as part of a broader field of public humanities.

This essay will review several explicit and implicit efforts to define the concepts and practices of this emerging interdisciplinary field. First, it will examine contributions to the ongoing academic discussion about public history in Germany from the 2014 printed anthology Angewandte Geschichte. Second, it will review Digital Past, a cross-media project focusing on the end of World War II in Germany that combines Twitter accounts and feeds with a homepage and a printed book. And as a recent example from the public humanities more broadly, it will consider the Bremen teaching and theater project Aus den Akten auf die Bühne, also called Staging Files, which identifies primary sources from the archives and uses them to create theatrical works on stage. These examples are neither exhaustive nor representative; the number of [End Page 141] projects dealing with German history in this broad sense are incalculable. Rather, they illustrate three important trends in the field: they use new techniques or connect new technologies to old ones, they establish new forms of interaction between scholars and the public, and they use the particular challenges of public history to raise critical questions about the theory and method of history more generally.

These interventions do far more than simply legitimize public history for its own sake. They suggest that the work of public history involves both researching the uses of history in publics across time and space as well as actively participating in those publics. Moreover, they suggest that we can dramatically widen the concept of historiography beyond textual forms if, independent of its media and genre, we were to treat history as a performance. When framed as a program for interdisciplinary scholarship in the humanities and social sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), public history holds great potential for promoting critical self-reflection among the producers of both academic and nonacademic history by raising and addressing crucial questions about how history is put into practice in the public sphere.

A wide range of terms are being used in German today to refer to the production, distribution, and perception of history in public; and each suggests a slightly different emphasis as to where public history will fall as an interdisciplinary approach. It may happen that, in a somewhat limited version of Robert Kelley’s classic conception,1 public history will be reduced to a specialized program for landing a job. German departments of history benefit from being a major school subject, many of which educate history teachers for schools. Yet history departments suffer from cuts and lack of funding, and they are often unable to provide sufficient job opportunities for all their graduates within academia. In response to this situation as well...


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