GSA Seminar: Biographical Approaches to Germany’s Divided Past

Stefanie Eisenhuth's picture
September 28, 2016 to October 2, 2016
California, United States
Subject Fields: 
Contemporary History, Cultural History / Studies, German History / Studies, Oral History, Public History


  • Prof. Konrad H. Jarausch (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  • Prof. Martin Sabrow (Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam/Humboldt-University Berlin)
  • Stefanie Eisenhuth, M.A. (Humboldt-University Berlin)
  • Hanno Hochmuth, M.A. (Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam)
After decades of focusing on structures and processes, people have made it back into German historiography, and personal stories enjoy an almost unprecedented popularity: autobiographies are listed in all best seller lists, museums increasingly draw on witness testimonies to mediate historical content in a more personal way, and eye witnesses (Zeitzeugen) raise their voices in order to have an impact on the public interpretation of "their" past.
The question at hand is: How should historians react towards this "rise of the personal witness"? While some scholars underline the moral obligation to incorporate victim narratives, others are rather hesitant due to the unreliable nature of memory. The overall increasing personalization and emotionalization of historiography may, on the one hand, lead to more approachable accounts and thus to a greater attention and acceptance by a non-academic audience. On the other hand, historians need to be aware of the problems and dangers that are involved – from the "biographical illusion" (Pierre Bourdieu) to the risk of blurring the lines between facts and fiction, between the scholarly quest for knowledge and the societal demand for moral affirmation.
The seminar therefore seeks to scrutinize the general impact of this development on academic historiography and to probe possible new ways of dealing with autobiographical sources. Each session will address a different perspective: 1) Making Sense of Time: Autobiographical Accounts from Divided Germany, 2) Oral History and the Rising Impact of Witness Testimonies, 3) Beyond History of Great Men: Writing Biographies in the 21st Century.
1st Day) Making Sense of Time: Autobiographical Accounts from Divided Germany
Though not unproblematic, written autobiographies offer access to a popular memory archive, composed of individual life histories ordinarily told as oral stories in the circle of family and friends. Their particular fascination stems from the tension between the narration of earlier events and later reflection about them which provides insights into processes of dealing with one’s past in the intervening decades. In a century of catastrophic ruptures, the presentation of individual life stories demonstrates the disastrous impact of grand history of states on the small histories of ordinary people. Thereby autobiographies provide clues to the conundrum of complicity in dictatorship, war and Holocaust, suggesting motives for a range of responses from fanatical collaboration to courageous resistance. Finally, the comparison between untutored life stories allows fresh insights into the arguments of apologetic victimization claims that contrast starkly with the conclusions of self-critical efforts to learn from past disasters.  

2nd Day) Oral History and the Rising Impact of Witness Testimonies
The historiographical reflection on biographies has its own history. In Germany, biographies of “ordinary” people became widely popular in the 1980s when historians and other interested people started to discover the history of everyday life at universities and at so-called “history workshops”. They established the concept of the “Zeitzeuge” (a personal witness of the past), and used oral history methods in order to record and preserve individual memories of Germany’s recent past. Initially, most oral history projects were exploring personal memories of the Third Reich, thereby paying attention to many different victim groups for the first time. After 1989/90, oral histories of ordinary people contributed to a less normative social history of the GDR that sought to explore the everyday life under a communist dictatorship. Today, oral history is a widely accepted method in German historiography. Moreover, personal witnesses have become important players in German memory culture and satisfy the increased longing for historical authenticity. The proposed 2nd session will therefore discuss the past, present and future role of oral history and biographical testimonies in German historiography. 

3rd Day) No History of Great Men? Writing Biographies in the 21st Century
Many German historians have for a long time been rather hesitant regarding the writing of biographies – for historical reasons, and because of the long-lasting predominance of the Bielefeld School and its focus on socio-cultural developments. The entire genre was considered too backward, too personal, non-empirical, and undertheorized. However, the cultural turn has brought about many biographies by scholars who try to address broader questions by telling the story of one or more individuals and by applying an interdisciplinary mix of methods. This third session thus aims to probe new approaches to an allegedly conservative genre, and asks for the potential benefits and dangers of an increasing



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Application: All candidates should submit their applications directly to the GSA through the online system:
Deadline: 01/28/2016

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