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  • So, What Difference Does It Make?
  • Cord Arendes (bio)

The question I raise in the title of my response to Juliane Tomann and Jacqueline Nießer's article on public and applied history in Germany appeared as the name of the third single by the British rock band The Smiths back in 1984. The band's lyrics gave a simple but concise answer: "It makes none."1 However, this answer is likely to be too simple with regard to the contextualization of public and applied history both within the German higher education system as well as in relation to history as a business or history as a variation of citizen science. Should we simply accept that there are at least two "indicators of change in German historical sciences,"2 or should we deny any possible differences and instead refer to public and applied history as (one and) the same thing? In this short commentary, I will discuss the strong image chosen by Tomann and Nießer of public and applied history as "two sides of a hinge."3 By doing so, I will argue that public and applied history—at least in the specific German context characterized by a short history of existence and a broad field of experts outside the profession—have more than just a common core and could or should, therefore, be used interchangeably.

Like the two authors, I am writing as a participant observer of the rapidly growing field of public history in Germany. The designation of my own professorship at Heidelberg University, "Applied History and Public History," follows the double denomination that characterizes the German field.4 As a field of academic teaching and research, public and applied history in Germany owes its [End Page 51] establishment, on the one hand, to the so-called Bologna process5 and, on the other hand, to current responses to the still existing gap between history (Geschichtswissenschaft)and history teaching(Geschichtsdidaktik). The seven German professorships are divided between history departments (in Heidelberg and Hamburg), and history education departments (in Cologne, Flensburg, Munich, Bochum, and Tuebingen).6 Even though not all of the professorships mentioned above have their own master's degree program, they are nevertheless hot spots of a consolidating or, depending on the perspective, an expanding area of research and teaching.7

Thomas Cauvin and Ciaran O'Neill recently defined the three overarching main principles of public history as the "focus on non-academic audiences, an interest in the present-day uses and applications of the past, and the development of collaborative practices."8 This concern for the transfer of historical knowledge has always been a general issue within the historical sciences and, at the same time, has formed the heart of the field of history teaching at German universities. Niefier and Tomann rightly argue that public and applied history have recently "emerged somewhere in between the frontlines" of history and history education.9 The emergence of a new subsection does not necessarily indicate an urgent need for self-positioning or even a fundamental change of attitude towards one's own field of work. However, it at least highlights a kind of dissatisfaction with traditional lines of argument regarding the relationship between history and the German public.

In summary: The actual place of public and applied history at German universities is marked by several fields of tension: theory versus practice, history versus history education, global aspiration versus local realities, to name just a few. Sharp-tongued critics may argue that acting between the lines in the worst-case scenario can mean staying forever in a kind of no-man's-land. I think quite the opposite is true: In Germany, public and applied history is in a good, perhaps even a very good, starting position to react to the new requirements of today's higher education and science system and to changes in the historical sciences. With regard to the fields of tension, public and applied history hold [End Page 52] a position of mediation: they are able to build the necessary bridges between the many institutions, subdisciplines, and agents involved.

Tomann and Niefier's image of public and applied history as two inherently interconnected sides of...


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