Where and when was German History?
What are the chronological and geographical boundaries of German history? How far back can we go? Does it make sense, for example, to push that history from the present back to the age of Rome? If so, how would we narrate it? If not, what are the chronological boundaries? Moreover, what relationship do they have to geographical ones? Rome keeps us in Europe, for the most part, but how much of Europe can we include? Should we include all the German-speaking lands? What about areas of German settlements in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia where Germans were minorities? If we make that move, if we follow language and settlements, how do we accommodate the rise of nation-states and their borders, which, in the German case, shifted frequently over time? Must those national borders dictate the parameters of modern German history, and should their transformations punctuate our narratives? Moreover, if we are all global historians now, as C. A. Bayly quipped over a decade ago in his The Birth of the Modern World, how can we delimit and narrate a global German history? How can we accommodate, or should we even attempt to accommodate, Hansa tales from the early modern era or accounts of financial and trading houses in Bremen and Hamburg that, as Michael Miller shows so well in Europe and the Maritime World, were based well into the twentieth century on cosmopolitan connections, transnational lives, multilingualism, and cultural hybridity? In short: how do we articulate the boundaries of German place and space over time?
Who is part of German History?
If we accept Germans rather than the state as the center of German history, what are the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion? Who do we include before the age of nation-states, and how much do we allow the governments of nation-states to determine those parameters after they arise? Many have been perplexed by such questions. Does a woman who loses her German citizenship through marriage in the 1920s stop being German? Was Franz Kafka German? If so when and how? Such questions of belonging certainly occurred to many West German guest workers at the end of the twentieth century who, despite living, working, and paying taxes there for decades, and raising children fluent in the German language, were unable to become citizens. Indeed, those questions became particularly pointed as they watched hordes of ethnic Germans flow into the newly unified German state after the fall of the Soviet Union to receive citizenship along with basic language classes. Similar questions likely occurred to German Jews who fled National Socialism for Central America in the 1930s only to find themselves rounded up and interned in camps in the United States during World War II as suspected members of a putative fifth column. When do people and communities become or stop being part of German history? Can we include the “nationally indifferent” in our national narratives? If we include the transnational actors who lived lives in the United States and Germany during the nineteenth century, do we also include their family members in the American Midwest if they continued singing German hymns in Lutheran Churches, building their barns in a recognizably German fashion, and marrying amongst each other? If these people are, at least initially, part of German history, at what point are they not? Would our answers be different if they were Mennonite, Catholic, Jewish, or Free Thinkers? If they worked in finance or industry, lived in urban neighborhoods rather than isolated agricultural settings? What markers of inclusion and exclusion should govern our narratives of the German past?
How do we do German History?
In the beginning, there was the archive. Or was it the orally-transmitted legend? The medieval chronicle? Perhaps it’s best to leave points of origin out of it and instead simply ask: How do we do history, and does it matter to the answer if the history in question is German? A generation ago, Konrad Jarausch argued that German history’s heavily empiricist tradition made our field reluctant to acknowledge the challenge of deconstruction. Others have suggested that the short duration of Germany’s overseas empire made us slower to grasp the importance of postcolonialist methods, or that the deeply conservative nature of the German academy made it harder for queer and feminist methodologies to gain traction. On the other hand, German history moved quickly toward transnational methods, and the darker side of German history long has made it compelling to students and a larger public alike, with the Holocaust a particular magnet for interdisciplinary innovation. Digital methods are making inroads, with obvious synergies between mapping and the “spatial turn.” How do we gain from new methodologies without losing sight of the not-yet-exhausted potential of the most “traditional” sources and methods? How do we address methodological challenges in graduate training, in light of both intellectual priorities and institutional constraints such as declining resources, pressures on time to degree, and concerns about employability? Does thinking about methodology help us to address the “Relevanzfrage” in undergraduate education or the public sphere? We propose not a session on “the crisis of the academy/the humanities/German studies,” but rather a productive discussion about the challenges and opportunities of methodological diversity as Germanists – both intellectually and institutionally.