Central European History at Fifty (1968–2018): Special Commemorative Issue
This blog post is taken from the ‘Letter from the Editor’ to the special edition of Central European History published to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Journal.
This special issue celebrating CEH’s fiftieth anniversary is divided into three parts that, together, offer wide-ranging reflections on the past, present, and future of both the journal and the historiography of German-speaking Central Europe as a whole. To that end, more than two dozen senior and junior scholars working in the United States, as well as in Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, kindly agreed to help commemorate this important milestone in the life of the journal by “taking stock” in various ways of it and the field of study to which it is dedicated.
The first part, “Recollections and Reminiscences,” offers a series of personal memories by six individuals who have been intimately involved with CEH in various ways over the past half century: Kenneth Barkin, Doris Bergen, Roger Chickering, Kees Gispen, Konrad Jarausch, and Kenneth Ledford.[i] The second part, “Reflections, Reckonings, and Revelations,” consists of more than a dozen essays that provide historiographical overviews of various subfields and time periods—from the Holy Roman Empire (Joachim Whaley) and the Reformation Era (Helmut Puff) to Habsburg history (Chad Bryant and John Deak) and the so-called Sattelzeit (George Williamson), from cultural history (Celia Applegate and Pamela Potter) to colonialism and postcolonialism (Matthew Fitzpatrick), from foreign relations (William Glenn Gray) to authoritarianism (Michael Meng) and the Holocaust (Mark Roseman). Many of these essays usefully relate the important ways in which CEH has, since its founding, shaped, reflected, and contributed to the historiography of these various subfields. In fact, the ones by Whaley, Puff, Bryant, and Williamson on the pre-nineteenth-century era and on the Habsburg lands make one wonder if the journal’s editors, who have repeatedly expressed regret for not doing enough to encourage or publish work on these important topics and period, doth protest too much…
In addition to the essay by Hagemann and Harsch on gender issues, the first section includes Sandrine Kott’s look at the rich Francophone historiography on modern Germany (and its neglect by many Anglo-American scholars); there is also an overview of book reviews in CEH and especially the increasingly difficult challenges that Julia Torrie, the journal’s current associate editor, has experienced in soliciting them. The third part, “Reveries and Reverberations,” contains reflective essays by five of the field’s most eminent scholars, with Jürgen Kocka looking back at the Sonderweg thesis, approach, and debate; Charles Maier, James Sheehan, and Shelley Baranowski looking forward to the possible future(s) of Central European studies; and Michael Geyer contemplating issues related to sovereignty and “transnationality,” as well as the ways in which a consideration of the Swiss Sonderfall may serve as an impetus for the “future of Gesellschaftsgeschichte.” Almost all the essays in the second part of this issue point out similar suggestions for future themes and areas of research in the various subfields that make up the field as a whole. And some even helpfully point out as well areas where CEH itself can improve as a journal.
It is impossible to do justice to the many insightful findings and observations by those kind enough to contribute to this commemorative issue. There are a few leitmotifs, however, that deserve some emphasis. The specter of the Sonderweg, for instance, haunts these pages—and not just in Kocka’s self-reflective essay. Maier and Sheehan both agree that the old burning questions—above all, those concerning the causes and consequences of National Socialism, i.e., the how, when, and why of where “Germany went wrong,” in Maier’s memorable phrase—no longer dominate the agenda, or at least not to the extent they once did.[ii] The passage of time and generational shifts surely play a role here, as both authors suggest. In fact, another recurring theme in this issue directly related to this is the effect that the first-hand experience of Nazism had on older scholars and their output. Yet another has a more presentist bent to it: the recent election—and behavior—of Donald Trump, the forty-fifth president of the United States. References to Trump and his policies are sometimes obscure in this commemorative issue, but they nevertheless abound. That should come as no surprise, given the recent wave of comments—also by a number of respected historians of modern Central European history—on perceived parallels between current social and political developments in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, and those that took place during late Weimar and the rise of fascism. However appropriate such comparisons may or may not be, they certainly offer a twist on George Santayana’s oft-quoted adage that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It might be the case that even those who do remember the past are condemned to repeat it—which makes one wonder what we practitioners of history might have done differently, and still can do, to convey more effectively the supposed lessons of the past.
[i] The reflections by Barkin and Chickering are reprints of essays that were previously published in CEH. I tried to solicit a contribution by Ursula Marcum and several others, but was unable to establish contact, despite repeated attempts.
[ii] Sheehan also perceptively writes the following in his essay: “If there is a decline in contentious passion among contemporary German historians, it is because we have less in common, not because our views about what matters have become more alike.” If that is true, then one wonders about the future tenor of Habsburg studies, where, as the essays by Bryant and Deak suggest, a new revisionist consensus has emerged, one claiming that nationalism was not the cause of the empire’s ultimate downfall. In other words, will debates about the role of nationalism in the Habsburg lands go the same way one day as those about an alleged German Sonderweg? And if so, what effect will that have on the field of Habsburg studies? Deak and Bryant both address that important theme head-on in their contributions.