Sine Ira et Studio: British Historiography and Contemporary Narratives of German History (Symposium)

Margarete Tiessen's picture
Call for Papers
March 22, 2019
United Kingdom
Subject Fields: 
German History / Studies, Intellectual History, Modern European History / Studies, Nationalism History / Studies, Public History

When Joachim Whaley and Peter H. Wilson published their studies on the Holy Roman Empire a few years ago, some reviewers expressed surprise that there was anything to be gained from the German model of federalism for the future of the European Union. Whaley and Wilson were pointing to a model of flexibility and stability long vanished from the collective memory or, if at all, remembered as a deficient structure. When, shortly afterwards, Christopher Clark published his study on the European crisis of 1914, the German public eagerly read a book that suggested that the German Empire had not solely been responsible for the catastrophe of the First World War, and one could sense their relief: perhaps the centenary would not be dominated by yet another discussion about Germany’s path into the Third Reich.

The success of Clark’s study in Germany proved that the German public still agonises over the focus on their past having caused two World Wars and inflicted endless suffering on the European continent. Clark, whose sleepwalking Europeans have meanwhile become a common point of reference for those who admonish inconsiderate politicians, was promptly given the opportunity to speak to the German public ‘directly’: one wanted to hear more from the man who had successfully challenged the consensus of blame and guilt. This showed again the degree to which the public discourse of twenty and twenty-first-century Germans has become burdened with the quest for national identity.

In this context, recent ‘outsider’ studies of German history had a significant influence on the German public by underlining that 1914 and 1939 are not the only keys to understanding the German past, and that there are stories to be told beyond the ones Germans have become accustomed to telling themselves. Of course, the view that the history of modern Germany can be narrated from without a teleological, traditional historiographical framework is not new among German scholars. The period of the Historikerstreite may well be over and it has become possible to write about German history without normative judgements and moralising advice for future conduct. Yet sometimes the German public seems to be more willing to accept unconventional or controversial perspectives from Anglo-Saxon historians.  

By debating narratives of German history in light of recent British and German historiography we want to examine the mental, intellectual and structural continuities of German history. Besides nationalist and völkisch thinking these might include ideas such as federalism, European exchange and interconnectedness, cultural and economic liberalism and internationalism or religious tolerance. This also includes discussing the interconnections between British and German scholarship historically as well as placing historiographical methodology within its philosophical and political contexts.  

We invite contributions from both early-career and senior scholars who are engaged in historiographical research that is broadly related to these themes and to one or more of the following questions:

  • If we follow Heinrich August Winkler’s argument that Germany overcame its supposedly exceptional position among western democratic states with the unification in 1990, to what extent was recent historiography able to establish new narratives beyond the Sonderweg? What is the focus of such narratives? How, if at all, did approaches by British historians differ from those of their German colleagues in this context?
  • The recent studies of Clark, Whaley or Wilson are first and foremost major works of synthesis. Very few German studies have made the same impact on the German public. How can their success be explained? Can we pin down differences between historical research in Germany and the United Kingdom that may explain their differing reception by scholars and the public?
  • In which ways have recent studies by British historians prepared a new direction for national remembrance in Germany, recognised by the political leadership in Berlin through the appointment of Neil MacGregor as advisor to the curators of the Humboldt Forum, a project designed to ‘reconcile the Germans with their past’?
  • Is it still sensible to speak of British or German historiography, or has historical scholarship on German history become an international affair? How do distinct traditions in the historical profession and different working conditions at universities in both countries affect the study of German history? 
  • How have historical and political particularities such as the nineteenth-century discourses of nation building and empire shaped German and British historiography, respectively? To what extent do they continue to influence differing narratives of German history?
  • What impact has the shifting and often difficult relationship between Britain and Europe had on British narratives of German history? How did this relationship influence British views on Germany’s role in the European integration process?  
  • Both German and Anglo-Saxon commentators have described the current focus of German historiography on post- and transnational themes as escapism and self-denial. To what extent is this view justified? To what extent and in what ways did post- and transnational perspectives in recent historiography contribute to new narratives of German history?
  • How do we evaluate Anglo-German relations historically and in light of recent political shifts? How can historians contribute to British-German exchange and relations in a post-Brexit political order? If we believe MacGregor that Berlin and London are the ‘liveliest European cities’ today, the cities where Europe is ‘redesigned’, the relevance of this endeavour cannot be overestimated.

To participate, please send proposals of up to 500 words and a brief biographical note by 1st August 2018 to:

Contact Info: 

Thomas Dahms, Faculty of History/ Darwin College Cambridge,

Margarete Tiessen, Department of German/ Magdalene College Cambridge,

Contact Email: