Dahn on Rüger and Wachsmann, 'Rewriting German History: New Perspectives on Modern Germany'

Jan Rüger, Nikolaus Wachsmann, eds.
Ryan Dahn

Jan Rüger, Nikolaus Wachsmann, eds. Rewriting German History: New Perspectives on Modern Germany. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 336. pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-34778-7.

Reviewed by Ryan Dahn (University of Chicago, CHSS) Published on H-PhysicalSciences (March, 2017) Commissioned by Daniel Liu

Despite the fact that historians of modern science have rightfully placed strong emphasis on the German scientific tradition, historians of science and historians of Germany often remain quite far apart in terms of their interests, historiographical perspectives, and sources. This volume, a festschrift for Richard J. Evans in honor of his retirement as Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, is a collection of essays on German history written by his former doctoral students. Although it never addresses the history of science directly, the diversity and the uniformly high level of quality across the contributions provides a powerful guide to historians of science who work within or adjacent to German cultural history.

Sixteen of Evans’s students contributed to the book, on topics as varied as the painter Emil Nolde’s complicated relationship with the Nazi regime (Bernhard Fulda), the memorialization of Alsatian and Mosellan victims of “forced conscription” by the Nazis (Elizabeth Vlossak), and the “encounters” between British and German expeditions in the Himalayas in the first half of the twentieth century (Tom Neuhaus). Given the variety of the contributions, perhaps the most immediate impression from the volume is that Evans’s pedagogical impact on the field of German history has been no less imposing than that of his legendary scholarly works themselves.

The introductory essay by Geoff Eley is the lone contribution from outside the Evans “school” (and the only one from a contributor based in the United States), as the editors wisely chose to ask one of Evans’s contemporaries to write an overview of his career. Yet Eley went above and beyond the call, producing an essay that both sums up Evans’s remarkable career and also provides a fascinating institutional “history of German history” in the United Kingdom. Eley’s essay is a valuable resource for emerging scholars, as it is the type of behind-the-scenes reflection on the history of the field that often does not make it to print. It is astonishing to realize, for example, how few scholars in the United Kingdom focused on Germany until the 1960s and 1970s (pp. 4-5). Similarly, Eley’s essay clearly elucidates how the British traditions of “history from below” and local history made for fertile ground for Alltagsgeschichte in Britain in the 1970s. This was in stark contrast to West Germany, where heavily top-down, Prussocentric, “state- and elite-driven” (p. 8) history still held sway. Evans, of course, played a key role in this shift: Eley rightfully terms him the “emblematic figure” in the story (p. 10).

As in any edited volume, some essays are stronger than others. Historians of science and medicine will likely find the excellent contributions by Bradley Hart and Victoria Harris most relevant to their research interests. Hart’s essay illustrates the existence of a little-known faction in the British Eugenics Society that—at least at first—believed that Nazi sterilization measures passed in 1933 were “consistent with their vision for eugenics” (p. 234). Harris’s, on the other hand, vividly depicts the complexity of the relationships between pimps, procuresses, and prostitutes in interwar Hamburg in an essay that will surely interest historians of medicine and gender. Environmental historians may also find Neuhaus’s essay on “Anglo-German Encounters in the Himalayas” relevant, as he uncovers a surprisingly nuanced story that emphasizes how British and Germans could feel both “fiercely patriotic, proud of their local and regional heritage, and aware of what united them with travelers from other parts of Europe” (p. 69).

While other essays in the volume may be less directly relevant to history of science, they remain highly valuable studies for those interested in the cultural milieu that surrounded and pervaded the German scientific enterprise. Hugo Service’s essay on the cultural “cleansing” of Germany’s lost eastern territories is especially illustrative in this regard: it reminds one that in that process, two German universities with long scientific traditions—Breslau and Königsberg—were extinguished after 1945. Service’s contribution is firmly grounded in archival sources (see pp. 95-99), particularly contemporary reports to the Polish government on the status of cultural and physical cleansing of the German language in the “recovered territories.” It seems highly probable that Service’s sources would prove fruitful for an investigation focusing on how such “cultural cleansing” impacted the scientific world. What happened to scientific books in university libraries or the libraries of particular institutes? How were the university buildings themselves “de-Germanized”? What was the fate of the scientists—where did they end up in post-1945 Germany? Were some allowed to stay on because they were potentially valuable to the Polish reconstruction effort? In a similar manner, Hester Vaizey’s essay on East German perspectives on reunification brings to mind how much still remains unknown about the nature of the scientific enterprise in East Germany.

Given Evans’s own scholarly oeuvre, it is unsurprising that a majority of the essays in the volume touch in one form or another on what the editors term in the preface the “peculiarities of Nazi Germany” (p. xii). Of these, Stefan Ihrig’s essay is the most fascinating. Ihrig uncovers a heretofore little-known episode in the young Weimar Republic: a massive cross-newspaper debate over the then-contemporary Armenian genocide. When a former Ottoman official was assassinated by an ethnic Armenian on the streets of Berlin in March 1921, the assassin was quickly acquitted by a German court (pp. 221-222). In the following press debate, nationalist German newspapers were forced to acknowledge that the genocide did, in fact, happen, but then “defended and excused” its use against the disloyal Armenians (p. 223). Ihrig makes a convincing case that the debate over the American genocide played a crucial role in “normalizing” (p. 228) genocide as a political tool in the Weimar Republic. As he points out, “Hitler and other leading Nazis lived through a five-year-long media discussion of the Armenian question and the Armenian genocide,” during which “a vocal nationalist segment of German society … openly advanced excuses and even justifications for genocide, in the center of the public sphere, openly, and for years” (p. 227). It makes for an excellent precis of Ihrig’s recent book on the subject.[1]

Here again, Ihrig’s essay—though not traditional “history of science”—demonstrates the degree to which historians who focus on science and its relationship to society can learn from current trends in German political or cultural history. The debate over the Armenian genocide that Ihrig outlines took place at the same time as the first wave of anti-Einstein sentiment was cresting in the early Weimar Republic, often in the pages of the very same newspapers. Were the same authors writing articles on both topics? Did they reference each other?

Bernhard Fulda’s brilliant examination of the postwar “transfiguration” of Emil Nolde is similarly instructive. As Fulda details, Nolde’s works were included in the infamous 1937 Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibit, and he was banned from exhibiting his art or buying materials in 1941. Due to this legacy, and the “unpainted pictures” (p. 180) he secretly painted during the war years, Nolde became in West Germany “the personification of the persecuted modern artist, a model of defiant victimhood” (p. 177). Yet as it turns out, Nolde was far more a failed collaborator than a heroic symbol of artistic resistance: “behind the scenes … Nolde labored hard to get National Socialist authorities to recognize him as a like-minded spirit” (p. 178). Nolde’s story must surely have parallels in the scientific world, and the personal papers of mid-twentieth-century German scientists, increasingly open to researchers, should provide ample source material for similar longitudinal studies. Cathryn Carson’s recent study of Heisenberg’s career in postwar West Germany provides an example of how to uncover similar nuance in the case of a scientist, as does Katherina Zeitz’s work on Max von Laue.[2] Fulda’s essay on Nolde provides a compelling example for how cultural historians have dealt with the myths, partial truths, and reinterpretations of personal histories ever-present in the early Federal Republic; Fulda's case study provides an example for historians of science to examine the many pivotal figures of mid-twentieth-century German science, about whom relatively little is known.

These but a few of the many possible jumping-off points for historians of science prompted by the contributions in this exemplary volume. It provides a superb snapshot of current trends in German historical research, and can be recommended to any historians of science whose interests touch on the German-speaking world.


[1]. Stefan Ihrig, Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[2]. See Cathryn Carson, Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Katharina Zeitz, Max von Laue (1870–1960): Seine Bedeutung für den Wiederaufbau der deutschen Wissenschaft nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006).

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Citation: Ryan Dahn. Review of Rüger, Jan; Wachsmann, Nikolaus, eds., Rewriting German History: New Perspectives on Modern Germany. H-PhysicalSciences, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47882

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