Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Search for Normality: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Germany since 1800

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Search for Normality: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Germany since 1800

Article excerpt

Berger, Stefan. The Search for Normality: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Germany since 1800. Providence: Berghahn. 1997. 307 pp. $59.95

This is a rich and informative analysis of the obsession of German historians with the nineteenth-century concept of nation as the guidepost for their professional work and identity. The inclusion of "normality" in the title is somewhat misleading: the book is not a treatise on the search for social and cultural normality that has been a preoccupation in twentiethcentury German society and is beginning to be studied as an important clue to the debate about modernization in this country. Instead Berger defines normality as the state of grace to which nineteenth-century historians such as Treitschke elevated their idea of the nation both as the telos of German history and as the rationale of their professional identity, providing a powerful scenario for twentieth-century German historians in their quest for relevance. In this scenario, the year 1945 and the subsequent division of Germany into two states represent the nadir of a nationally conceived historiography while the unification of 1990 allows the reinstatement of traditional conceptions of the "normality" of a unified German nation.

Berger is primarily concerned with the developments in the West German academy since 1945, with valuable insights and an excellent chapter (7) on the fights over the history and historiography of the GDR, the "second German dictatorship." Contrary to the volume's title, national identity and historical consciousness in Germany are not analyzed since 1800 but rather since 1945, with short outlooks on imperial, Weimar and Nazi Germany. Berger makes no bones about his sympathies with the liberal Left in their critique of the national paradigm of the German historical profession which was hardly broken by the impact and aftermath of National Socialism. He assails German historians in their insistence on the supreme relevance of the nation, pointing to the fact that nation is a constructed rather than an "organically" or "naturally" grown unit of social bonding. The historian, instead of propagating and extending the myths of nation and nationalism, should deconstruct them in order to overcome the nationalist obsession that contributed so much to the human misery of the twentieth century. Of course, applying insights from recent research on nationalism risks fostering unhistorical perceptions of historical developments. However, with his focus on post-1945 historians, Berger can draw on the obvious necessity to rethink the national paradigm after its terrible misuse under Hitler.

Berger demonstrates how little historians, in the shadow of Gerhard Ritter and Friedrich Meinecke, re-conceptualized their narrative of the German nation after World War II. He discusses with good arguments how the Fischer controversy in the 1960s-about Germany's responsibility for World War I-triggered a rethinking of the national narrative for which the development of quantifiable social history, lead by Hans-Ulrich Wehler and the Bielefeld School, provided new scholarly impulses.

It is not exactly a secret that the profession of history in Germany, despite its great scholarly tradition, has tended to turn into an academic parasite of political nationalism. …

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