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  • Public and Applied History in GermanyJust Another Brick in the Wall of the Academic Ivory Tower?
  • Jacqueline Nießer (bio) and Juliane Tomann (bio)

German university history departments typically hire two types of historians. Under the roof of history departments, historians research the past and produce historical narratives (Geschichtswissenschaft), whereas professorships with an appointment in history teaching (Geschichtsdidaktik) deal with the practice and the theory of history. Both professors of history and professors of history education teach and research in their related realms. However, with this division of labor between historical research on the one hand, and the practice and theory of history on the other hand, these two stakeholders of the discipline of history in Germany are in friction. Public and applied history have emerged somewhere in between the frontlines.

In this article, we argue that public and applied histories are indicators of change in German historical sciences.1 We will describe the phenomenon, explain why there are two terms for publicly engaged history in Germany, and describe the change that is underway. This article is written in the spirit of a field report by two participant observers. It describes coming to terms with a phenomenon for which various actors in the field offer different paths. All people writing about public and applied history are part of the phenomenon that they describe, including the two authors of this text. Therefore, our observations are neither exhaustive nor fully objective but rather, they are self-critical.

Public history and applied history can still be considered relatively new phenomena for historical sciences in Germany. This is in spite of the fact that the terms have been increasingly employed in the discourse about public representations and uses of the past for the last decade. In a landmark article in 2010, historian Irmgard Zündorf described public history as an American phenomenon that had impacted German universities through the establishment of new courses, yet noted that it had not yielded institutional change, such as new professorships, within the [End Page 11] established historical sciences at that time.2 The resonance of these terms, however, indicates a broadening of focus in historical science that takes into consideration nonacademic, public uses of the past. This widening of the historical research agenda has been aligning with an increasing public interest in history, historical knowledge, and historical products since 1970, in Germany as well as worldwide. Also, the late 1960s student revolt in West Germany reverberated in the historical sciences; students protested elitist and traditional historical research that emphasized victories of powerful men. Their protest led to reform. Reform first occurred in the subdiscipline of history teaching. The terms "historical culture" (Geschichtskultur) and "historical consciousness" (Geschichtsbewusstsein) henceforth enlarged the realm of research well beyond the classroom. According to Jörn Rüsen, "historical culture" means in a nutshell, "all cultural practices using the past in order to adjust to the present, and by providing future perspectives for human action."3 Historical consciousness matters in civic education, museums, and archival practice as well as other media.4 A discussion evolved around the concepts of historical culture and historical consciousness about how to analyze public representations of the past. However, this discussion remained an expert discourse within the circles of history teaching and only occasionally spread into other historical subdisciplines.

Since the 1990s, the political use of history for legitimizing power and for constructing continuities of social groups has been analyzed in the realm of memory studies. With the "memory boom" (the growth of the scholarly study of memory), the concept of "remembrance culture" (Erinnerungskultur, or in English simply "memory") became popular in German historical sciences, overlapping with the already existing concepts of historical culture and historical consciousness.5 For certain reasons the conversations about historical memory and about historical consciousness did not develop a productive exchange and have been existing in parallel ever since.6 This "doubled structure" of the discourses on memory and of [End Page 12] historical culture has shaped the emergence of applied history and public history in the German context.

Historical representations have also been rapidly diversifying since the 1990s. Established institutions such as museums, historical sites, and memorials and forms such as books...


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