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  • What Public History Do We Want?Views from Germany
  • Thomas Cauvin (bio)

Jacqueline Nießer and Juliane Tomann's article demonstrates a "change in German historical sciences" through the growth of public and applied history.1 More broadly, the article reflects both the current internationalization of public history and global questions about the changing role of historians. For instance, the International Federation for Public History (IFPH), created in 2011, has tried to connect historians with each other, and has encouraged conversation about new courses and programs in public and applied history all around the world.2 However, as Nießer and Tomann's article explores, this internationalization triggers questions regarding the definitions, approaches, and limits to the field.3

The reactions to, and the development of, public history around the world are very interesting as they tell us about specific national contexts and historiographical traditions, in this case, about Germany. The article proposes an extremely rich bibliography to study in order to understand the rise—and limits—of public history as an official academic discipline in Germany. In comparison with North America, the German—but also broadly European—debates focus more often on historiographical and epistemological issues. In that spirit, the authors connect the rise of public and applied history to older research on cultural representations and to memory studies. An interesting bridge between this older and more recent work could be to compare the latter with David Glassberg's article (and the following discussion in The Public Historian) on the relations between public history and memory.4 Another [End Page 42] point that I find particularly interesting is the authors' discussion of the links between public history and didactics, in other words, how public history and teaching methodology connect. In a similar vein, a few months ago, Joanna Wojdon and David Dean published an article on public history and history didactics.5 The relations between historians/researchers and historians/teachers shed light on internal tensions and development on the different ways to apply history outside academia. I would even invite the authors to clarify and distinguish between public practices and university training.

For instance, the view that public history is an "American phenomenon" is not new—French historian Henry Rousso expressed a similar understanding in his 1982 article—but should be refined.6 Actually, historians' public practices were neither brought to nor received in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s; they had been around for centuries but were not called public or applied history. What developed since the 1970s is merely the institutionalization of public history in academic and professional programs. The distinction—and the fact that many historians were doing public history without calling it that—may contribute to explaining current debates on how to better connect historians and audiences.

The authors' arguments over the terminology—in this article between public and applied history—are symbolic of debates over the implementation and development of the field. Similar discussions took place at the origins of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) as well as during the first conferences of the IFPH. These discussions are necessary, but the article could be placed in a longer and broader context. The authors are right in saying that public history is, globally, much more often used than applied history. However, centers of applied history exist all over the world, in Australia, in Russia, and in the United States.7

It is very interesting to read about the development of applied history in early twentieth century Germany, but this was not unique to the nation and in fact was part of broader trend in making the social sciences utilitarian. For instance, Harvard University developed the business history movement in the 1920s to apply history to contemporary economic issues. Even the term applied history existed. Rebecca Conard has explained how some historians such as Benjamin Schambaugh developed and used applied history as early as the 1900s in the United States.8 Applied historical studies also developed in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s and resulted [End Page 43] in the first conference of public history in Europe (Rotterdam, Holland, 1982).9 Interestingly, unlike what the authors find in the German case, public history...


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