“Geschichte wird gemacht” — am 15.11. in Bonn

Am 15. November nehme ich an einer Podiumsdiskussion von Geisteswissenschaft im Dialog “Geschichte wird gemacht” über Public History in Bonn statt. Mehr Informationen gibt es hier. Und hier geht es zu einem Interview das GiD mit mir führte und das im Folgenden zu lesen ist.

Am 15. November ist Dr. Tobias Becker Podiumsgast bei unserer Diskussion zur Public History zwischen Fachdiskurs, Politik und populärer Vermittlung. Er ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Deutschen Historischen Institut in London und arbeitet dort an seinem Forschungsprojekt über Nostalgie seit den 1960er Jahren.

Herr Becker, in Deutschland gibt es mit „Bares für Rares“ eine Fernsehsendung über Antiquitäten, die hohe Einschaltquoten einfährt. In Großbritannien gibt es mit der Antiques Roadshow schon seit 1979 etwas Ähnliches, können Sie erklären, warum beide Fernsehsendungen so gut ankommen?

„Kunst und Krempel“ könnte man noch nennen. Die Sendung läuft auf dem BR seit 1985 und ist direkt inspiriert von „Antiques Roadshow“. Der Reiz dieser Shows liegt wahrscheinlich auf mehreren Ebenen, so dass für alle etwas dabei ist: da ist zunächst mal die Geschichte des jeweiligen Gegenstands, oft verknüpft mit einer Familiengeschichte, dann die Erklärung der Expertinnen und Experten und die bange Frage, ob es sich nun um Kunst oder Krempel handelt, was bzw. ob das Ding überhaupt etwas wert ist. Wieder andere finden das alles vielleicht gar nicht spannend und konsumieren die Sendung als Beruhigungsmittel vor dem Einschlafen.

Wie erforscht man Nostalgie? Im Alltagsgebrauch ist es ja ein nicht gerade trennscharf definierter Begriff?

Das ist die zentrale Frage meines Projekts. Als ich damit anfing, wollte ich herausfinden, wie wir uns Vergangenheit nostalgisch aneignen. Ich meinte eine recht klare Vorstellung davon zu haben, was Nostalgie ist. Doch je mehr ich las, desto mehr schwand meine Sicherheit. Deshalb beschloss ich, zunächst den sich ändernden Bedeutungen von Nostalgie und der instrumentellen Verwendung des Begriffs nachzuspüren. Sehr oft ist Nostalgie eine Zuschreibung von außen, die die Komplexität der damit bezeichneten Phänomene und Praktiken gar nicht erfasst. Anstatt zu fragen, wie und mit welchen Motivationen wir mit der Vergangenheit umgehen, wird kurzerhand von Nostalgie gesprochen. Mein pragmatischer Lösungsversuch besteht darin in jedem Schritt zu hinterfragen, ob wir es wirklich mit Nostalgie zu tun haben, welche andere Aspekte eine Rolle spielen und warum und wie der Begriff verwendet wird. Dadurch hoffe ich, zu einem besseren Verständnis von Nostalgie vordringen zu können.

Liegt das breite Interesse an Geschichte hauptsächlich an nostalgischen Erinnerungen? Welche Rolle spielt Ihrer Meinung nach zum Beispiel Geschichtspolitik?

Historiker*innen haben sich lange Zeit vor allem mit Geschichtspolitik beschäftigt. Diese ist natürlich nicht unwichtig, für mich ist sie aber weniger relevant. Das breite Interesse an Geschichte erklärt sie sicher nicht. Dasselbe gilt für Nostalgie. Natürlich gibt es nostalgische Erinnerung, aber Nostalgie ist nur ein Aspekt, nur eine Motivation. Warum wir uns für die Vergangenheit interessieren — vor allem wenn wir keine Historiker*innen sind — ist für mich zunächst mal eine interessante Frage, auf die es mehr als eine Antwort gibt und sicher keine definitive. Die Vergangenheit hat zugleich etwas Exotisches — Vieles ist uns fremd — und birgt zugleich ein Stabilitätsversprechen — wir wissen wie die Geschichte ausging. Oft geht es vielleicht gar nicht so sehr um die Vergangenheit, wie wir uns das als Historiker*innen vorstellen. Die Populärkultur benutzt sie — im Retro ebenso wie im „period drama“ — primär als Reservoir an Stilen und Stories. Historiker*innen mögen das kritisch sehen, aber sie müssen sich die Konkurrenz gefallen lassen und profitieren ja auch von ihr.

In Ihrem Blog haben Sie vor kurzem beschrieben, wie schwer es ist, zum Beispiel Quellen der Popkultur zu finden und wie sehr Historiker*innen darauf angewiesen sind zum Beispiel mit Fans zusammenzuarbeiten. Wie sieht für Sie die ideale Zusammenarbeit zwischen „Laien“ und Forschenden aus?

Die Zusammenarbeit zwischen Historiker*innen und Enthusiasten wird immer problematisch sein, weil sich beide Gruppen für unterschiedliche Dinge interessieren. Die einen wollen zelebrieren, die anderen kontextualisieren. Fans interessieren sich gewöhnlich nicht für größere historische Fragen und müssen es auch nicht. Historiker*innen, die zur Populärkultur arbeiten, profitieren dagegen sehr oft von der Arbeit der Fans, die oft in mit einer Detailliebe und Ausführlichkeit Dinge sammeln, katalogisieren und aufzeichnen, wie wir dies gar nicht könnten.

“Vom Ereignis zur Dekade” — am 10.11. in Potsdam

 Auf der Konferenz “Die Zeiten des Ereignisses. Neuvermessung einer historischen Kategorie” am Zentrum für Zeitgeschichte in Potsdam halte ich am 10.11. einen Vortrag über “Vom Ereignis zur Dekade: Zeitrechnung in der Zeitgeschichte”.

„Decaditis“ taufte der Journalist Ferdinand Mount in der Besprechung eines Buches über „die fünfziger Jahre“, die verbreitete Neigung, das 20. Jahrhundert in Jahrzehnten zu messen. Wann begann man eigentlich zu glauben, so der merklich gereizte Rezensent, die Vergangenheit in Zehnjahresabschnitte zu unterteilen sei eine nützliche Sache? Tatsächlich sind Kürzel wie „die zwanziger Jahre“, die „fünfziger“, „sechziger“, „siebziger“ usw. Jahre, eine feste, nicht mehr wegzudenkende Größe. Und das auch und gerade in der Zeitgeschichtsschreibung, die, ähnlich wie Mount, regelmäßig beteuert, dass das Jahrzehnt keine hilfreiche historiographische Zeiteinheit ist und die zu Behelfskonstruktionen wie „den langen sechziger Jahren“ greift.Anstatt jedoch zur Unmutsliteratur über die „Decaditis“ beizutragen, will mein Vortrag den Wurzeln und Funktionsweisen dieser merkwürdigen „Krankheit“ nachspüren. Seit wann und warum denken wir in Dekaden anstatt in Regierungen, Jahrhunderten oder Labeln wie „Zeitalter der Revolutionen“ oder „imperiales Zeitalter“? Und ist dies überhaupt tatsächlich der Fall? Vor allem aber interessiert er sich dafür, wie aus dem Ereignis (bzw. den Ereignissen) eine Dekade wird. Denn unsere Vorstellungen von Jahrzehnten ist offensichtlich stark von einzelnen Ereignissen dominiert. Die „goldenen zwanziger Jahre“ werden oft vom Schwarzen Freitag 1929 und vom Jahr 1933 her gedacht, die „sechziger Jahre“ kreisen selbstverständlich um das Jahr 1968 und die siebziger, zumindest im deutschsprachigen Raum, um das Jahr 1977. Zweitens fragt der Vortrag nach den Grenzen des Ereignisses: rechnet die Zeitgeschichte etwa deshalb in Dekaden, weil Ereignisse an Bedeutung verloren oder ihre volle Reichweite erst in der langen Rückschau offenbaren? Oder weil das – zumindest in der Wahrnehmung – exponentielle Anwachsen der Ereignisse und der Berichterstattung über dieselben, die Bedeutung einzelner Ereignisse relativiert? Und drittens diskutiert der Beitrag, wie Jahrzehnte erinnert werden. Zwar werden auch heute noch einzelnen Ereignissen – dem Kriegsausbruch 1914, der Reichskristallnacht, dem Fall der Mauer etc. – gedacht, es ließe sich jedoch argumentierten, dass gerade die populäre Erinnerung viel stärker in Jahrzehnten misst.

Nazi-Nostalgie? — am 7.11. in Jena

Wie Horst Ehmke Helmut Kohl dazu brachte, Nostalgie im Brockhaus nachzuschlagen, warum im Herbst 1977 Spiegel,Konkret, PardonParis Match und L’Express Hitler auf dem Cover zeigten und wieso die Bundesrepublik in den siebziger Jahren über eine Welle von “Nazi-Nostalgie” diskutierte—das sind Fragen, denen ich in meinem Vortrag “Nazi-Nostalgie? Rückblick auf die ‘Hitler-Welle’ der 1970er Jahre” im Zeitgeschichtlichen Kolloquium am Jena Center Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts am 7.11. nachgehe.

Sammelrezension: Geschichtstourismus

Wo auch immer Sie diesen Sommer in Urlaub waren, vermutlich haben auch Sie Kirchen und Museen besichtigt, sind auf Türme und Burgen gestiegen, haben an Stadtführungen teilgenommen, sind durch Freilichtmuseen spaziert und haben vielleicht sogar ein Reenactment besucht. Wenn Sie mindestens einer dieser Tätigkeiten nachgegangen sind, dann waren Sie in „Retroland“. So nennt der Luzerner Mediävist Valentin Groebner in seinem neuen Buch den Geschichtstourismus, und dieser dürfte – abgesehen vielleicht von reinen Natur- oder Strandaufenthalten – Teil so ziemlich jeder Urlaubsreise sein. In dasselbe Land führt die amerikanische Kommunikationswissenschaftlerin Christina M. Ceisel die Leserinnen und Leser mit ihrem Buch „Globalized Nostalgia“. Ceisel und Groebner teilen den ethnographischen Zugang und die eher unkonventionelle Darstellungsweise in der ersten Person. Statt akademischer Monographien haben wir es im einen Fall mit „einer Art Reisebericht“ zu tun (S. 13), im anderen mit einer „autoethnography“ (S. 10). Allerdings funktioniert dies bei Groebner wesentlich besser als bei Ceisel.

Der Titel „Retroland“ lässt vielleicht vermuten, Groebner rechne damit ab, wie der Geschichtstourismus die Vergangenheit ausbeutet und verzerrt. Das wäre nicht weiter überraschend, denn wie er selbst anmerkt: Den „meisten Historikern ist diese touristische Nutzung der Vergangenheit eher unangenehm oder gar peinlich, weil sie ihnen die begrenzten Möglichkeiten ernsthafter Wissenschaft vor Augen führt“ (S. 11). Anders jedoch als Simon Reynolds’ Buch „Retromania“, das Groebner en passant erwähnt, und Zygmunt Baumans Essay „Retrotopia“, mit dem es in der Presse in Verbindung gesetzt wurde, ist „Retroland“ erfreulicherweise kein kulturpessimistisches Manifest.[1] Groebner kennt natürlich die kulturkritischen Analysen des Tourismus, aber: „originell ist das nicht“ (S. 32). Nein, Groebner ist sich nicht zu fein für die Niederungen seines Gegenstandes, er möchte das „Banale am Tourismus nicht abtun, sondern anschauen“ (S. 14). Diesem Anspruch wird er gerecht. Er macht keinen Hehl daraus, dass er auch selbst gelegentlich Tourist ist und als solcher Geschichte konsumiert, sich dem Histourismus also nicht nur im Interesse der Wissenschaft und seiner Leser/innen ausliefert. Seine Fragen stammen nicht aus Büchern, sondern aus der eigenen Anschauung.

Doch um welche Fragen geht es? Um die zentralen des Geschichtstourismus: Warum suchen wir auf Reisen so gern Orte mit Vergangenheit auf, und was genau suchen wir dort? Groebner nähert sich diesem Thema auf unterhaltsame Weise, indem er immer wieder eigene Erlebnisse einfließen lässt: von Reisen durch die Schweiz, nach Italien, Spanien, Griechenland, Sri Lanka. Mehr noch als mit Orten beschäftigt sich Groebner mit der Zeit, insbesondere jener Zeit, die sich an touristischen Orten konkretisiert. Er sieht den Tourismus als „Zeitwiederbeschaffungsmaschine“ (S. 16) und ordnet sein Buch ganz klassisch chronologisch. Auf eine konzeptionelle Einleitung folgen vier Kapitel, von denen das erste in Mittelalter und Frühe Neuzeit zurückführt, als die Pilger heutigen Touristen in manchen Dingen gar nicht so unähnlich waren. Das zweite Kapitel beschäftigt sich mit dem 19. Jahrhundert, in dem der moderne Tourismus und seine Infrastruktur – Eisenbahn und Reiseführer, Postkarte und Grand Hotel – erfunden wurden. Das dritte Kapitel deutet das 20. Jahrhundert als Zeitalter der „Postproduktion von Geschichte“ (S. 12), während das letzte Kapitel der für Geschichte ebenso wie für den Tourismus zentralen Kategorie der Authentizität nachgeht.

Es versteht sich, dass ein derart weitgespanntes Panorama zu Unschärfen im Detail führen muss. Die longue durée ermöglicht es, langfristige Entwicklungen, Ähnlichkeiten und Unterschiede in den Blick zu bekommen, doch wer sich vor allem für Geschichtskultur und -tourismus im Heute interessiert, müsste das 20. und 21. Jahrhundert stärker akzentuieren. Was Groebner auf die Zeit um 2000 datiert, hat sich bereits seit den 1960er- und 1970er-Jahren ausgeprägt, als der Massentourismus im heutigen Sinne entstand und parallel dazu neue Formen von Aneignung und Kommerzialisierung des Historischen aufkamen.[2]

Zudem ist die Kernfrage – gemessen an der Vielfalt der Phänomene und Praktiken und der Masse derjenigen, die an ihnen teilnehmen – zu groß, als dass sie letztlich beantwortet werden könnte. Warum lockt uns die Vergangenheit so? Weil sie „die einzige Zone [ist], in der wir uns halbwegs ausgekannt haben, und deswegen wollen so viele Leute wieder dorthin zurück“, wie Groebner schreibt (S. 126)? Gewiss, die Vergangenheit kann vertraut wirken, weil wir, anders als bei der ständig im Fluss befindlichen Gegenwart, wissen, „wie es ausging“. Aber ist sie nicht ebenso oft, wie in im vielzitierten Bonmot des britischen Schriftstellers L.P. Hartley (aus dem Roman „The Go-Between“, 1953), ein fremdes Land, dessen Sprache wir nicht beherrschen, dessen Gepflogenheiten und Rituale uns oft erstaunen und manchmal abstoßen? Der kanadische Schriftsteller Douglas Coupland bezeichnete den Geschichtstourismus als „historical slumming“. Ihm zufolge besuchen wir historische Orte vor allem, um „die anschließende Erleichterung“ zu genießen, „in ‚die Gegenwart‘ zurückkehren zu können“.[3]Derartige Kritik verfängt allerdings nur bedingt, da Groebners Buch nicht auf ein akademisches, sondern auf ein breites Publikum abzielt. Und so ist es schade, dass es nicht schon früher erschienen ist als Mitte August. Kurzweilig geschrieben, taugt es zur Urlaubslektüre. Wer es reisend liest, kann Groebners Beobachtungen und Befunde direkt mit der eigenen Praxis verknüpfen und vergleichen.

Obwohl Groebner immer wieder Gefühle und deren Bedeutung für den Geschichtstourismus hervorhebt, erwähnt er die Nostalgie, die die Zeitdiagnostik à la Reynolds und Bauman gerade wieder einmal umtreibt, nur ein einziges Mal. Bei Christina Ceisel dagegen taucht sie bereits im Titel auf. Allerdings ist auch nach der Lektüre ihres Buches schwer zu sagen, was damit eigentlich gemeint ist, wer wonach nostalgisch ist und warum. Die Autorin scheint unter Nostalgie jedenfalls weniger die Sehnsucht nach der Vergangenheit zu verstehen als das Verlangen nach und die Vermarktung von Authentizität – im vorliegenden Fall von „authentischen“ galizischen Speisen, Wein und Kultur.

Auch Ceisel erkundet das Phänomen des Tourismus also anhand von konkreten Destinationen, vier in ihrem Fall, die alle im Umkreis von Santiago de Compostela liegen, woher ihre Familie stammt und wo sie ein Jahr als Austauschstudentin verbrachte. Dieser Ansatz ist ebenso legitim wie derjenige Groebners – da die globale Tourismusindustrie überall ähnliche Mechanismen anwendet, muss sie nicht unbedingt global untersucht werden. Ob die Kathedrale von Santiago oder die Kapellbrücke von Luzern: Hauptsache, es gibt sie als Kühlschrankmagnet und Schneekugel.

Zunächst wirkt es auch durchaus charmant, dass Ceisel keine konventionelle Dissertation vorgelegt hat, sondern in der Darstellung experimentiert. Schon beim Durchblättern sieht man, dass das Buch weniger aus Kapiteln als aus Passagen besteht: Reiseführer-Auszüge, Flyer touristischer Attraktionen, Protokolle von Führungen, Beschreibungen von Besuchen in Museen und auf Festivals, persönliche Eindrücke, sogar erfundene Dialoge. Beim Lesen führt dies jedoch zu wachsender Frustration, da diese Schnipsel mehr präsentiert als analysiert werden, sodass das Buch nicht wie eine Monographie, sondern wie ein ins Reine geschriebenes Feldtagebuch wirkt.

Schwingt sich die Darstellung doch einmal zur kommentierenden Analyse auf, kippt diese schnell in Jargon oder Klischees (Beispiel: „libraries are sites where knowledge is collected and collated“, S. 18). Wenn Groebner schreibt, dass das, was „im Namen der Identität aufgerufen wird […], trotz anderslautender Bekundungen […] nicht der Stolz auf die eigene Herkunft, sondern die Angst vor Verlust“ sei, ist das originell, weil es einen Gemeinplatz in Frage stellt. Nichtssagend ist es hingegen, wenn Ceisel schreibt, „the cultural construction of identity is manifested through experience“ (S. 71). Wo Ceisel Konzepte wie „Identität“ und „Authentizität“ als selbstverständlich hinnimmt und damit essentialisiert, hinterfragt Groebner sie. Und während Groebner seine eigenen touristischen Erfahrungen einbringt, um etwas über den Tourismus herauszufinden, hat man bei Ceisel den Eindruck, dass sie ihr Thema benutzt, um über sich selbst zu sprechen. Und so hilft das Buch nicht dabei, die Nostalgie oder den Tourismus wirklich besser zu verstehen.

Wer von hier aus weitergehen will, muss vielleicht das Phänomen des Geschichtstourismus noch einmal genauer im Lichte seiner beiden Teile betrachten: dem der Geschichte und dem des Tourismus. Denn natürlich ist das Retroland größer als der Tourismus – man muss nicht in den Flieger steigen, um in die Vergangenheit zu reisen; es reicht schon, den Fernseher anzuschalten oder im eigenen Lebensumfeld den (unterschiedlich aufbereiteten) Spuren des Historischen nachzugehen. Umgekehrt zieht keines der beiden Bücher in Erwägung, dass die vielen vorgeblichen Geschichtstouristen möglicherweise gar nicht nach Geschichte suchen. Manche, die nicht ohne Arbeit sein können, machen aus dem Urlaub eine kulturelle Arbeit. Andere besuchen Museen, weil es regnet, weil sie die Zeit vor dem Abendessen überbrücken müssen oder weil es dort Angebote für Kinder gibt. Wieder andere folgen vielleicht nur den Anweisungen im Reiseführer, der ihnen nahelegt, welche Sehenswürdigkeiten sie abzuklappern haben. Was auf den ersten Blick also banal erscheinen mag, ist ebenso komplex wie schwer zu erklären – das zeigen beide Bücher. Umso wichtiger sind wissenschaftliche Expeditionen ins Retroland. Wer nach einem Reiseführer zum Einstieg sucht, wird bei Valentin Groebner fündig.

Rezensierte Bücher:

Valentin Groebner,  Retroland. Geschichtstourismus und die Sehnsucht nach dem Authentischen. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer  2018.

Christina M. Ceisel, Globalized Nostalgia. Tourism, Heritage, and the Politics of Place. London: Routledge  2018.

Anmerkungen:
[1] Simon Reynolds, Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, London 2011; Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia, Cambridge 2017, dt.: Retrotopia. Aus dem Englischen von Frank Jakubzik, Berlin 2017; Nils Markwardt, Sehnsucht nach Retrotopia: Nostalgie, in: ZEIT, 30.08.2018, https://www.zeit.de/kultur/2018-08/nostalgie-vergangenheit-politisierung-trend/komplettansicht (23.09.2018).
[2] Małgorzata J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive. Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, Chapel Hill 2017; Tobias Becker, Rückkehr der Geschichte? Die „Nostalgie-Welle“ in den 1970er und 1980er Jahren, in: Fernando Esposito (Hrsg.), Zeitenwandel. Transformationen geschichtlicher Zeitlichkeit nach dem Boom, Göttingen 2017, S. 93-117, https://zeithistorische-forschungen.de/sites/default/files/medien/material/2009-3/Becker_2017.pdf (23.09.2018).
[3] Douglas Coupland, Generation X. Geschichten für eine immer schneller werdende Kultur. Roman. Aus dem Englischen von Harald Riemann, Berlin 1994, S. 21.

Die Rezension ist erschienen bei H-Soz-Kult, 23.10.2018, <www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/rezbuecher-29618>.

Research trip to the USA

In September I took part in a seminar on popular culture at the annual conference of the German Studies Association in Pittsburgh. The seminar felt a bit like being back at university—only that everyone had read the text and engaged in the discussions. The gap between literature scholars and historians in evidence at other events at the GSA, was not a problem for us because we all felt like outsiders in our respective disciplines and faced similar problems not least the difficulties in finding sources. Popular culture isn’t preserved in the same way that high culture is and therefore poses a unique problem for researchers. We all felt thankful to the fans and enthusiasts, who had collected material that became our sources and without whose work ours would have been impossible.

The conference also provided a welcome opportunity to do some research in archives and libraries in Washington and New York, the United States have become increasingly more important to my project. After three days in Pittsburgh I took an early Amtrak train to Washington. In search for coffee I stumbled upon the observation car. Gazing out through the large windows, I thought of Marguerite Yourcenar’s afterword to Hadrian, where she recalls writing crucial parts of the novel “alone in the observation car of a Santa Fé limited, surrounded by black spurs of the Colorado mountains, and by the eternal pattern of the stars”.1 Sadly, I was too late for stars and there were no mountains. But the view onto the Potomac and the forests of West Virginia was pretty impressive, too. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a raft with beaver-hatted pioneers floating down the river. As the train moved eastwards at a leisurely pace, I felt like travelling back in time. 

Eventually we arrived in Washington. On the following day, I had the good fortune of meeting a German colleague on the bus bringing researchers from the imposing building of the National Archives near the National Mall to a less imposing outpost some 45 minutes away in Maryland. She explained to me how the National Archives worked—so similar in many ways, every archive, every library has its own very distinctive ways of doing things—which saved me a lot of time. Still, I frantically filled out call slips for some fifty boxes. In a rare case of archival luck, the very first box contained exactly what I was looking for.

What I was looking for was some proof for the assumption that the American National Trust of Historic Preservation—chartered by Congress in 1949—was modelled on the British National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, founded in 1895. The literature did imply this without, however, going into detail or giving any examples. Now I had them in front of me neatly filed: a speech by the British diplomat Sir John Balfour about the National Trust in 1947, a digest on the British National Trust from 1948 and plenty of mentions of the British National Trust—and preservation provisions in other European countries—in the minutes of meetings and conferences.

The next days I spent in the Library of Congress, ploughing through three decades of Historic Preservation, the journal of the National Trust as well as many other books and treatises on historic preservation. I also went to the National Gallery, where most of the inaugural meetings of the National Trust had taken place and which, in 1985, had shown an exhibition on “The Treasure Houses of Britain”, a sort of pendant and American follow-up to the British “Destruction of the Country House”-exhibition of 1971 (see blog post).

From Washington I took the bus to New York, the last stop of my trip. Some friends, I had outlined my itinerary to, asked, somewhat sardonically I couldn’t help noticing, “and this is for research, too?”, implying my reasons to go to the big city weren’t entirely academic in nature. To those doubters let me say that yes, New York also has a role to play in the history of historic preservation. In Britain, the destruction of the first Euston Station and particularly the big arch in front of it in 1962 had a galvanizing effect on the preservation movement. Nearby St Pancras Hotel and Station—desitined for the same fate—were saved by listing in 1967. A similar story unfolded in New York in the very same years. In 1962 it was announced that Pennsylvania Station would be demolished and moved underground, to be replaced by the new Madison Square Garden. In the aftermath, New York passed the Landmarks Preservation Act in 1965. Thanks to it, Grand Central Terminal, also scheduled to be demolished, was declared a landmark in 1966 and survived. Examples like these show how attitudes towards the past shifted during the 1960s. Initially accused of nostalgia, preservation gained a wider following and began to prevail over modernist planners and architects.

Pennsylvania Station
Madison Square Garden

On my last day in New York I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. This museum shows what it was like to live in a tenement in the early 1900s as if frozen in time. In 1935, its owner, rather than modifying the building to conform to new laws, decided to evict the residents and to rent out only the ground-level shops. As a consequence, the flats above were preserved in the state the tenants left them. In 1988 the building was discovered by two women, who went on to found the museum. In 1994 it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Trust in 1994, making it also a good example for the work of the Trust.


  1. Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian: And Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 275. []

History Comes Alive reviewed

When, back in the 1970s, intellectuals observed a “wave of nostalgia”, they were thinking first of retro trends in popular culture and then of what they saw as a generally increasing interest in the past: the growing number of museums and museum visitors, the popularity of books, films and television programmes set in the past, the conservation movement, historical re-enactments and family history. Most intellectuals did not take seriously these phenomena and practices because they didn’t understand them as serious forms of history. To them they were sentimentalising and distorting rather than exploring the past. Describing them—and the people taking part in them—as nostalgic was a way of undermining and discrediting them.

When historians realised such practices were here to stay, they began to re-examine their ideas about them. A new term, public history, emerged to describe the multiform ways, in which people outside of academia engaged with the past as well as the study and teaching of such practices at universities. As an academic subject public history often tends to concentrate on the here and now: current television, exhibitions, events and so on. However, public history practices have been evolving and changing over a long time and need to be seen in a more long-term perspective.

This is what Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska’s book History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s does. It uses the nostalgia discourse of the 1970s to capture a moment of cultural change. Yet, rather than accepting the contemporary interpretation, she questions it. For Rymsza-Pawlowska, nostalgia does not cover what was going on as

“Americans in the 1970s were doing more than longing for bygone years … they were relating to and identifying with particular expressions of history in novel ways, looking to place themselves directly into the past, to know and feel experiences of historical individuals as well as to see them. … What was described by some as the ‘nostalgic impulse’ actually bound up diverse perspectives and resulted in multiple types of historymaking that cannot be defined simply as wistfulness for a lost past.”1

What at the time was described as nostalgia, then, was a much more complex transformation in people’s relationship to the past. The old “logic of preservation” was replaced by a new “logic of re-enactment”.2 People did not stop to collect and preserve the historical remains, of course, but they sought new ways to engage with the past—less distanced and intellectual and more direct, personal and emotional.

History Comes Alive charts this transition through a number of case studies. The first chapter looks at how the presentation of history on television changed from the 1950s and 1960s to the 1970s. Here the United States Bicentennial already plays a role, which comes up again and again throughout the book, connecting the different case studies. It is most prominent in the second chapter, which looks at the commemoration of the bicentennial in 1976.

The following four chapters deal with historic preservation, museums, re-enactments and archives—all of which confirm the general thesis of a more immediate and affective engagement with the past: preservation established “connections between communities of the past and communities of the present”, museums allowed for “new, embodied interactions with the past” and re-enactments weakened the “barrier between actors within the space of the ‘past’ and audiences as spectators”.3

Like their predecessors in the 1970s many historians today will perhaps be critical about such approaches, preferring what they know best, the analysis of sources and the crafting of narratives in the form of books. Rymsza-Pawlowska takes a not uncritical but more openminded position: “While I believe that re-enactment has both positive and negative aspects and that it must examined critically,” she writes in the conclusion, “I resist positioning reenactive and affective engagement in contrast to some other, more objective, practice of history.”4 Indeed, historians do not own the past. There are different ways to engage with it and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. The sharp lines drawn between history and public history in the 1970s have increasingly started to fracture.

History Comes Alive is an important contribution to the field of public history—showing how practices we encounter today have developed over time and putting them in a historic context—as well as to the field of nostalgia studies as it demonstrates that contemporary allegations of nostalgia need to be taken with more than a grain of salt.

History Comes Alive is about public history in the United States. Yet, the changes the book describes happened almost everywhere. Transnational contacts between public history practitioners naturally lead to exchanges. The first open air museum, founded in Sweden in 1891, was copied all over Europe and in the United States. The National Trust in the United States was inspired by its British namesake. Re-enactments, on the other hand, first became a popular pastime in the United States and from there inspired many followers across the globe.

Such similarities and exchanges raise a number of questions namely why history became so popular and why at this very moment. Was it a reaction to accelerated social and cultural change as is often claimed? Was it part of an overall changing “regime of temporality” as François Hartog has argued? Or is the answer more banal, rooted in social changes such as the expansion of education and the growth of wealth and leisure time?

Rymsza-Pawlowska argument about the 1970s as a crucial period of transformation is convincing. At the same time, many of the practices discussed here can be traced back to the nineteenth century and sometimes even to earlier periods. The postmodern historymaking of the twentieth century sometimes doesn’t look that dissimilar from the historicism of the nineteenth. It would be interesting, therefore, to widen the historical perspective even further.

M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2017.

  1. M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2017, 4-5 []
  2. Ibid., 6 []
  3. Ibid., 82, 117, 122 []
  4. Ibid., 169 []

Labour’s Nostalgia — Review

Richard Jobson’s book Nostalgia and the Post-War Labour Party: Prisoners of the Past looks at the ways nostalgia has been used in conflicts within the Labour Party from the 1950s almost to the immediate presen. I reviewed the book for the History Workshop Journal.

Nostalgia has become a pervasive term in politics. Both Brexit and Trump with their demands to ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ have been described as nostalgic projects, driven by outmoded and anachronistic values and ideas. For obvious reasons, right-wing and conservative parties and causes are more prone to accusations of nostalgia than left-wing ones, who on first glance at least seem to look to the future rather than the past. The phrase ‘politics of nostalgia’, so popular today, was first used by the liberal American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr in the mid 1950s to describe the New Conservatism. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher’s endorsement of ‘Victorian values’ in the 1980s sparked accusations of nostalgia from the left. And yet, the left has not been immune from the charge, as shown by the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who is frequently portrayed as an anachronistic relic, hell-bent on returning Britain to the 1950s.

This is where Richard Jobson’s book on nostalgia and the Labour party sets in. As it turns out, Jeremy Corbyn, whose face adorns the cover, is by no means the first Labour politician to be accused of nostalgia. In fact, as Jobson shows convincingly, discussions about Labour’s past and how to engage with it in the present – which parts of it to preserve and which to discard – have played a central role in internal struggles over the party’s identity and policies ever since the 1950s. Surprisingly, even New Labour with its marked progressive, modernizing stance and its impiety towards cherished Labour values was not as straightforwardly anti-nostalgic as it may seem.

To read the whole review click here.

Sir Roy Strong, country houses and heritage

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing Sir Roy Strong for my book. Sir Roy was director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1967 to 1973 and of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1974 to 1987. Striding into the café of the National Gallery in a richly patterned, powder-blue suit and a beard reminiscent of a sixteenth-century Spanish grandee, Sir Roy looked less like a former museum director than a hipster. Now 82 years old, the man who as a research student blew part of his grant on a Teddy Boy coat, remains true to himself.

A leading figure in the museum’s world during the 1970s and 1980s, Sir Roy Strong would be an interesting person to talk to anyone interested in museums in this time, especially as he introduced many things to Britain we now take for granted such as friends of the museum organisations and third-party sponsorship. I was particularly interested in an exhibition he initiated soon after the became director of the V&A. The Destruction on the Country Housetried to mobilise public opinion to save Britain’s stately homes from demolition. Increasingly hard to maintain since the First World War, they faced a new threat in the 1970s in the guise of a proposed wealth tax.

Conceived as a polemic—one room showed pictures of destroyed houses on a crumbling portico, while their names were being read in the background—the exhibition naturally faced a lot of criticism. It hasn’t fared much better in historiography. Patrick Hewison calls it “a covert piece of propaganda against the wealth tax and a lament for the disappearance of a genteel way of life”.1 Peter Mandler sees it as an expression of “the mood of the V&A’s director Roy Strong, who like many of the younger fogeys had played a part in the light-hearted nostalgia boom of the late 1960s but was beginning to sour on modern life and, indeed, to find refuge in the better world of Brideshead”.2

I can see Hewison and Mandler’s point. Browsing through the exhibition catalogue, I was struck by how hideous many of the destroyed houses were. Some heirs were only too glad to get rid of their impractical, draughty inheritance. Many houses also didn’t predate the nineteenth century and therefore could hardly claim much historic worth. Not to mention that many of them were built on the back of slavery and exploitation. However, an occasionally country house tourist myself, I can also see the point of those, who wanted to preserve them.

The Roy Strong of the 1970s and 1980s wanted to make the museum more democratic and to defend the country’s heritage from destruction. “One of the burning reasons for wanting to direct the V&A”, he recalls in his edited diaries, “was the passionate belief that a huge threat was on the horizon for everything that we now categorise as ‘heritage’, and that that museum under my directorship could play a crucial role as a vehicle in its defence.“3 In doing so, he brought about what those he calls “the Antis”—Robert Hewinson, Patrick Wright, David Lowenthal—termed the “heritage industry”. Once retired from the V&A, Sir Roy soon sounded more like an “Anti” himself, lamenting “this country’s addiction to heritage”.4 Today he criticises the commercialisation of the museum that in his eyes has gone too far. In the end, however, it was probably not an either/or question: commercialisation was the form the democratisation of the museum took.

  1. Robert Hewison, Culture and Consensus: England, Art and Politics since 1940(London: Methuen, 1997), 193. []
  2. Mandler, Peter, The Heritage Panic of the 1970s and 1980s in Great Britain, in: Peter Itzen, Christian Müller (eds.), The Invention of Industrial Pasts. Heritage, Political Culture and Economic Debates in Great Britain and Germany, 1850-2010 (Augsburg: Wißner, 2013), 58-69, here 64. []
  3. Roy Strong, The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-1987(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), 121. []
  4. Roy Strong, Strong Points(London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 70. []

Nostalgia in Contemporary Culture, University of Southern Denmark, 4-5 June

Last week I attended  a conference on “Nostalgia in Contemporary Culture” at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense organized by Rune Graulund, Niklas Salmose and Eric Sandberg. They are members of the project Nostalgia in Contemporary European Culture hosted by the University of Oulu, Finland. With participants from all over Europe as well as the United States, Turkey, China and Japan and with colleagues from literature, film and media departments, the conference was both extraordinary international and interdisciplinary. The topics of the papers were equally wide-ranging touching on poetry and crime fiction, autobiography and Ostalgie, digital kitsch and the Gothic (for the full conference programme click here). Yet, as broadly as nostalgia was used at the conference, it provided a common theme that helped to bridge the divides between disciplines and allowed for many interesting discussions and conversation. I was speaking
in the only panel directly dealing with politics, which shows that nostalgia studies are still primarily focused on culture—literature, film, TV, the internet etc.—rather than politics. However, Trump and Brexit were mentioned by many papers throughout the conference, which might suggest that nostalgia studies are increasingly discovering politics and the relationship between politics and culture. Whatever road nostalgia studies may take, I enjoyed the conference very much, all the more because I returned with two gifts: Analoge Nostalgia in der digitalen Medienkultur by Dominik Schrey and Once Upon a Time: Nostalgic Narratives in Transition edited by Niklas Salmose and Eric Sandberg.

 

New publication: Forum on nostalgia in History and Theory

The June edition of History and Theory includes a forum on nostalgia with papers by Achim Landwehr, Patricia Lorcin and myself.

TOBIAS BECKER, The Meanings of Nostalgia: Genealogy and Critique (232-248)

Nostalgia has become a new master narrative both in public discourse and academic research, serving as an explanation for trends in fields as different as popular culture, fashion, technology, and politics. This essay criticizes the wide-ranging use of the term. It argues that nostalgia often does not adequately describe the diverse uses of the past to which it is applied. It does this by historicizing the nostalgia discourse with particular emphasis on the 1970s, when dictionaries first noted a semantic shift from homesickness to a sentimental yearning for the past, and intellectuals discussed a widespread, pathological “nostalgia wave.” After the introduction, the second section looks at the changing meanings of nostalgia, the third examines how the “nostalgia wave” was seen to manifest itself and who was thought to be afflicted by it, and the fourth discusses contemporary explanations. Building on this, the final section critically examines the nostalgia discourse before evaluating its continuing influence.

ACHIM LANDWEHR, Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Times (249-266)

The concept of nostalgia has an invaluable advantage: In contrast to other cultural concepts, it has an exact date of birth. It was in 1688 when the medic Johannes Hofer published a thesis in which he described an illness he termed with the neologism “nostalgia.” But instead of following the academic and larger cultural discourses that evolved from this starting point until the present, the question that deserves some attention is which temporal setting goes along with the concept of nostalgia. Most of the experts on nostalgia as a sickness during the last three and a half centuries did not diagnose themselves but others, quite often patients from rural areas who had to leave home to work abroad, where they became nostalgic. With this diagnosis these experts also established a certain time-model, because they separated a “modern” time-model of irreversibility from a “nostalgic” time-model of reversibility. If we take a closer look at the nostalgia diagnosis and its consequences, we might also gain some ideas for our thinking about the theory of history.

PATRICIA M. E. LORCIN, The Nostalgias for Empire (267-283)

The aim of this article is to explore the theoretical and practical differences between colonial and imperial nostalgia. It opens with a substantial theoretical discussion of the relevant scholarship followed by an analysis of the nostalgias of empire. Nostalgia, in relation to empire, is usually analyzed as a longing for a period of former imperial and colonial glory, thus blurring the various hegemonic practices associated with empire. This elision arises out of the fact colonialism was integral to European imperialism. Yet there is a significant distinction between imperial and colonial nostalgia. With its main focus on postcolonial society in France and Britain, the article will theorize the differences between them, arguing that one is connected to the loss of global power and the other to the loss of a socioeconomic lifestyle. It will explore the way in which these two types of nostalgia are constructed and historicized, examining their differences from historical memory through the responses of both former colonizing and colonized individuals or groups. It will demonstrate that collective nostalgia is not merely a “feel-good” sentiment about an idealized political or socioeconomic past, but can be readily connected to coming to terms with past trauma(s) thus being a mechanism to elide violence experienced and violence perpetrated by highlighting one to the detriment of the other.

Paper on “Nazi nostalgia” at UCL IAS

On 21 March, I’m giving a paper on “Nazi nostalgia? Looking back on the 1970s Hitler Wave” at the  Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, IAS Seminar Room 20, First Floor, South Wing, Wilkins Building,21 March, 5pm

In the historiography of the German engagement with the Nazi past, the 1970s are usually a blank space, especially when compared to the 1960s and 1980s. However, the 1970s did see a major debate about the Nazi past under the title of the “Hitler nostalgia wave” (or “Hitler wave”). Fed by the omnipresence of Hitler in the mass media and popular culture as well as the simultaneous rise of neo-Nazi groups, it was less concerned with Nazi crimes and retribution than with the representation of Hitler and the Nazi period in the mass media and the question whether Germans were still susceptible to fascism. By reconstructing the discourse about the “Hitler wave”, by examining its manifestations and by critically evaluating contemporary interpretations and putting them into historical context, my paper makes a case for taking this debate more seriously.

“Zu Asche, zu Staub”: Babylon Berlin and Weimar Nostalgia

The new German television series Babylon Berlin, the most expensive ever to come out of Germany, has been a popular as well as critical success, celebrated for its high production values and style. Based on a series of detective novels by Volker Kutscher set in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, it has raised questions about the German past and the way it is represented today. Why does a television series like this come out now? And what does this say about our world today? These were questions, I was asked recently by the Wall Street Journal about the series. For me, Babylon Berlin raises another issue I’ve long been interested in, the question of Weimar nostalgia.

Personally, I always had a soft spot for the Weimar era, partly thanks to reading novels and autobiographies from the time at an impressionable age. But although I would like nothing better than walk the streets of 1929 Berlin for a day, I’m not sure this qualifies as nostalgia. The only time I went to a 1920s retro parties, I felt extremely uncomfortable. The whole event struck me as inauthentic and impious, well fed millennials trying to impersonate 1920s Bohemians. But isn’t that how nostalgia always works: singling out a positive aspect in what is otherwise unremarkable or even terrible?

If so, this is not the case when it comes to Babylon Berlin—or our obsession with Weimar in general. We know that whatever we may cherish or adore is ultimately doomed. The metaphor of the dance upon the volcano is so ubiquitious in the Weimar literature, it hardly bears repeating. In Babylon Berlin, the dance hall is on top of a seedy brothel, the pleasure hiding a world of poverty, prositution and political corruption.

Weimar has long become a myth—a myth historians are trying hard to debunk: the history of Weimar should not be reduced to the contrast of glitter and doom, the history of Weimar should not be written from its end, the history of Weimar began long before 1918, they say. And of course  they are  right.1 All the same, the myth has, as Babylon Berlin shows, endured. This raises the question when and how this myth developed and why it has proven so indestructible. To answer this question, we would need a history of Weimar’s afterlife.

Though buying into the myth, Babylon Berlin does something interesting: instead of striving for complete accuracy and authenticity, like most period dramas, it consciously throws them overboard at times. For instance, instead of using songs from the 1920s, the producers decided to give the soundtrack a more contemporary feel. This is never more obvious than in the dance hall scene at the end of the second episode. Not only does it mix up all kinds of Weimar clichés—nude dancing, Josephine Baker’s banana skirt, Bauhaus decoration—it mixes them up with contemporary elements. The dance hall is closer to a techno club than the original Moka Efti and the robot moves of the singer are more reminiscent of Kraftwerk than any interwar dances. These are, of course, conscious decisions by producers, who are on record for saying they aimed to avoid the usual “papier-mâché retro nostalgia”. In addition to the dark tone of the series this refreshing approach may explain, why Babylon Berlin is not discussed in terms of nostalgia like other period dramas. Indeed, the term hardly comes up in any of the reviews.

Finally, something people often forget when it comes to Weimar nostalgia is that Weimar, despite its association with modernism, was itself a rather nostalgic place for many people. The belle epoque became really belle only in the rearview mirror. After the war and in a present characterized by political and economic instability, the pre-war era suddenly looked rather bright. This nostalgic logic is best exposed in Midnight in Paris (2011), where a nostalgic writer time travels to 1920s Paris only to learn that people there are pining for the 1900s, where, as it turns out, artists are glorifying the renaissance—a reminder that nostalgia is a yearning that can never be satisfied. Those who are not satisfied after watching Babylon Berlin, may be interested in Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which has just come out in a new translation. It was first published in 1929 and it is no coincidence that Babylon Berlin begins in that year.

Links

Lars-Olav Beier, Schluss mit Pappmaché-Retro-Nostalgie! Tykwer, Handloegten und von Borries über “Babylon Berlin”Der Spiegel (12 October 2017)

Anja Samy, Where to go in Berlin for a taste of the Weimar Republic, The Local (18 October 2018).

Kate Connolly, Babylon Berlin: lavish German crime drama tipped to be global hitThe Guardian (29 October 2017).

Siobhan Dowling, Sex, Drugs and Crime in the Gritty Drama ‘Babylon Berlin’New York Times (7 November 2017).

Tobias Grey, A Hit Drama in Germany, ‘Babylon Berlin’ Crosses the AtlanticWall Street Journal (28 January 2018).

Lars Weisbrod, How Babylon Berlin Turned 1920s Germany Into a Wild, Historical-Fiction Fantasy WorldVulture (12 February 2018).

Adrian Daub, What Babylon Berlin Sees in the Weimar RepublicThe New Republic (14 February 2018).

  1. Jochen Hung, Godela Weiss-Sussex, Geoff Wilkes, Beyond Glitter and Doom: The cCntingency of the Weimar Republic (München: iudicium, 2012); see also Jochen Hung, “Bad” Politics and “Good” Culture: New Approaches to the History of the Weimar Republic, Central European History 49 (2016), 441–453. []

The Wigan Pier Heritage Centre

Fifteen miles west of Manchester, seven miles south-east of Wigan, Leigh is the opposite of a tourist destination: a working-class town without any sights. Under a dreary, dark-grey, drizzling December sky, Leigh appeared to me less like a Lancastrian than a Lovecraftian town—only that there was no sea, no nature, nowhere to escape, just street after street of terraced houses. What once must have been a lively town centre felt like a cemetery. Of the Victorian and Edwardian music halls, cinemas and pubs only empty husks remained, standing around forlorn and decaying, only one of them housed lonely, desperate looking betting shop. Life has flown to the outskirts, where huge shopping centres and supermarkets vie for customers. The only lively, welcoming place in Leigh’s centre is its public library, a surprisingly well-designed Brutalist building. Here Leighites come for help with council services, for evening classes, to use the internet or simply to chat.

Among the Leighites I was sticking out like sore thumb—a sore German thumb at that—something I never feel in London. Later in the archive, an elderly woman came up to me to ask where I came from. Not satisfied with the answer “London”, I reluctantly and, for whatever reason, embarrassedly admitted my nationality. She said, she forgave me. In contrast to Manchester but like most of surrounding Lancashire, the people of Leigh overwhelmingly came out for Brexit. It’s hard to blame them. They are not exactly the winners of modernity. In a place like this, every change must seem like a change for the better. Only I think the people here, having had to shoulder the burden first of industrialisation and then of deindustrialisation, will find whatever change may come from Brexit will not be to their advantage.

What brought me to Leigh was the old town hall. It houses the archive of the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, of which Leigh is a part of, including the papers of the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre, which will be one of the case studies in my book. Opening in 1986, the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre occupied a central space in—and might even be said to have triggered—the so-called “heritage debate” or “heritage panic” of the 1980s.1 Robert Hewison used it as point of departure in his book The Heritage Industry (see my blogpost from Januar 2016). In his eyes, Wigan Pier created “not so much an informative, as an emotional experience, a symbolic recovery of the way we were”.2 It did not educate about history, it sold nostalgic escapism. Hewison was not the only one to think so. In a review of Hewison’s book in the Guardian, the art historian Waldemar Januszczak took the same line: “The new Wigan Pier’s Cousin is not the museum but the fairground. By building a fantasy of the past we avoid the reality of the present.” Like Hewison, Januszcazak believed heritage’s interest in the past was driven by “a nostalgic longing for non-existent better days”.3)

Hewison and Januszczak certainly had a point and I will deal with their critique at length in my book. At the same time, it doesn’t feel entirely fair when two London-based middle-class academics with easy access to museums, galleries and plenty of other cultural offerings lambast the north for wanting a piece of the pie. Going through box after box of newspaper articles about the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre I was struck by how much pride Wiganers took in it. There were about a dozen articles on Hazel and Ian alone, a young couple from London, who had won a trip to Wigan and were welcomed enthusiastically as the town’s “first tourists”. Reading these articles, I couldn’t but share into the Wiganers optimism. Soon I was sharing their heartbreak, too. After a great start with half a million visitors in the first year, Wigan Pier had to deal with decreasing visitor numbers and rising costs before long. It managed to limp on till 2007, when it was closed. Today the building of the heritage centre stands deserted and unused next to the old canal, wedged between two busy roads.

This clip gives a good impression of the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre:

Peter Lewis, the first director of Wigan Pier Heritage Centre, or “piermaster” as he liked to call himself, understandably took offense with the attacks on his brainchild. His defence, though, also partly confirmed Hewison’s critique. For all his insistence on “quality of life of local people”, “employment” and “tourism”, he said rather little about history. Still, Lewis eloquently exposed Hewison’s polemical use of nostalgia and simultaneously defended the emotion:

Nostalgia was once a perfectly good word. Now it’s a stick used by those who consider themselves superior to beat the emotions or experiences of others. Of all the words we use, however, it is the one which properly understood, conveys most. It means to look back—to seek a return but with a sense of pain. It is not sentimental or cloying. If anything it is what we most want our visitors to experience. As individuals and communities we have a deep need and desire to understand ourselves in time. The way we are, the way we will be, is the direct result of the way we were. I am not ashamed that my colleagues and I try to convey the spirit of people now past. The thoughts, the attitudes and memories of them, our parents, grand and great grandparents, are ingrained in us far more deeply than we realise.4

I cannot end this post without mentioning George Orwell. Orwell lived in Wigan for a couple of months in 1936 to research the life of the working class and particularly the unemployed. This research became Orwell’s most personal book The Road to Wigan Pier. It is made up of two parts: the first a reportage about Wigan, the miners and the unemployed, the second an autobiographically informed, self-critical discussion of the British class system and socialism. Orwell might also help us to understand what is often discussed in terms of nostalgia. In The Road to Wigan Pier he writes:

Moreover, even in the worst of the industrial towns one sees a great deal that is not ugly in the narrow aesthetic sense. A belching chimney or a stinking slum is repulsive chiefly because it implies warped lives and ailing children. Look at it from a purely aesthetic standpoint and it may have a certain macabre appeal.5

Even at Orwell’s time it was possible, then, to block out the squalor and look at the industrial landscape from a purely aesthetic angle. Now that the hardships of industrial life are safely in the past—or rather equally far removed in countries on the other side of the globe—this has become even easier.6 This is born out not least by publications in the local history section of the public library like Nostalgic Wigan or Golden Years of Wigan. For today’s visitors to former sites of hardship—coal mines and collier’s cottages—part of the “macabre appeal” may lie inrealizing that they have escaped this world. The writer Douglas Coupland called this “historical slumming”: “The act of visiting locations such as diners, smokestack industrial sites, rural villages—locations where time appears to have been frozen many years back—so as to experience relief when one returns back to ‘the present’.”7 What brings us to such places is not nostalgia for the past than gratefulness for living in the present.

Understandably, the Wiganers have a complicated relationship with Orwell: he might have made their city famous but what he made it famous for was industrial squalor. This issue came to a head in 1984, when Orwell was celebrated up and down the country. Would Wigan join in? While some on the town council opted to ignore him, others wanted to use him for publicity. The latter faction won and Wigan got back at Orwell in a very 1980s, Thatcherite way. It exploited Orwell to advertise the heritage centre—the pub attached to which was called “TheOrwell”—and sell merchandise. There was even a Big Brother beer. To this day, Wigan’s attitude to Orwell remains divided. When I visited the Museum of Wigan Life, a local history museum located in the old public library, the lady at the entrance pointed out that Orwell had been here during his stay in Wigan. However, when I looked for his book in the museum’s shop it was nowhere to be seen. For me, the Orwell connection was the highpoint of my visit. When discussing the Wiganer’s attitude to him with the very helpful archivist in Leigh, he asked me if I would like to see his signature in the visitor book of Wigan Public Library. Hardly containing my excitement, I said I would. Two minutes later I had it in front of me. There it was, the sixth entry for 13 February 1936: E. A. Blair.

  1. See Robert Lumley, The Debate on Heritage Reviewed, Roger Mildes, Lauro Zavala (eds.), Towards the Museum of the Future. New European Perspectives (London 2002), 57-69; Peter Mandler, The Heritage Panic of the 1970s and 1980s in Great Britain, Peter Itzen, Christian Müller (eds.), The Invention of Industrial Pasts. Heritage, Political Culture and Economic Debates in Great Britain and Germany, 1850-2010 (Augsburg: Wißner, 2013), 58-69. []
  2. Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry. Britain in a Climate of Change (London 1987), 21. []
  3. Waldemar Januszczak, Romancing the Grime, The Guardian (2 September 1987 []
  4. Peter Lewis, Wigan Pier Strikes Back, John Iddon (ed.), The Dodo Strikes Back (London: Strawberry Fair, 1988), 13. []
  5. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Penguin, 2014), 100. []
  6. See Tim Strangleman, “Smokestack Nostalgia,” “Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The Role and Meaning of Deindustrial Representation, International Labor and Working-Class History 84 (2013), 23–37. []
  7. Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (London: Abacus 1992), 13. []

The Politics of Nostalgia: New books by Augé, Bauman and Lilla

For researchers of nostalgia, 2017 was an interesting vintage as “the politics of nostalgia” were frequently evoked in public discourse with regard to Brexit and Trump as well as political developments in Russia, Turkey, India and elsewhere (see September’s blogpost). A couple of new publications touched on this theme among which three stand out. Though varying in degree, they all share an alarmist view of the extent and effect of nostalgia on contemporary societies and politics.

Let’s start with the anthropologist Marc Augé’s memoir-cum-reflections on aging, time generally and our times particularly Everyone Dies Young: Time Without Age as it came out late in 2016 and devotes only one chapter to the subject. It is mainly interested in nostalgia as something individuals experience, especially as they get older, remembering their childhood and youth, as Augé does his own in this book. Soon, however, Augé strays from his main point to reflect on nostalgia as a (dangerous) political collective emotion:

 

“Nostalgia is a powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, force. It can fuel the most instance and most reactionary passions. Today we find some ‘nostalgia’ for the Third Reich among young men whose image of it obviously comes from others. A past one has not known is the easiest kind to claim and reconstruct. In a more general way, political nostalgia marks a third category that is as distinct from nostalgia that focuses on a past that might have been. Traditionalists and reactionaries are combatants of the imaginary, utopians devoted to a past as illusory as the utopia of progressives, but those of the former category are more hypocritical, founding the new order to which they aspire on a nonexistent or shameful past.” (78)

As many have done before him, Augé likes to distinguish between political camps by their relationship to time: the right—traditionalists and reactionaries—is looking back to the past nostalgically, the left—utopians and progressives—are looking to the future so as to build a new society in contrast to a present and past they reject and turn against. Augé seems to see both attitudes as equally foolish. But what are we to do with the past then—or nothing at all? Augé doesn’t tell us.

On the face of it nostalgia—and the politics of nostalgia—plays a bigger role in Zygmunt Bauman’s last book Retrotopia, published shortly before his death in January 2017. It begins with an introduction on “The Age of Nostalgia” and makes out a “global epidemic of nostalgia” (4). However, the book has disappointingly little to say on nostalgia. The term hardly crops up again after the introduction. This gives the impression as if Bauman rather lazily adopted the popular term without in any way conceptualizing it—or explaining how it is connected with the phenomena Bauman is really interested in what he sees as regressive tendencies in politics, especially political and nationalistic tribalism.

According to Bauman the present nostalgia epidemic is a reaction to the “epidemic of progress frenzy”, the twentieth century witnessed earlier. (4) Like Augé, then, Bauman views a struggle between those, who are looking forward and those who are looking back. However, while Augé sees the two embraced in a struggle since the French Revolution, Bauman views it as two historical phases. The belief in progress, once dominating political thinking, has given way to nostalgia. Bauman doesn’t really go into when any why this happened. Like the French historian François Hartog, Bauman seems to distinguish between two “regimes of historicity”. In any case, the time of utopias has irrevocably ended. Instead we are living in an age of “retrotopias”: “visions located in the lost/stolen/abandoned but undead past, instead of being tied to the not-yet-unborn and so inexistent future“. (5)

Finally, The Shipwrecked Mind by the political scientist Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University. Lilla, too, is not really concerned with nostalgia but with political reaction:

„The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile. The revolutionary sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him. The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified.“ (14)

A—in all its sadness—beautiful picture. And who of us hasn’t at some time in their lives felt like standing at that shore watching the debris flow by. Yet, what Lilla says here of the reactionary in some measure applies equally to the utopians, at least to the utopian socialists and even to Karl Marx. For all their orientation towards the future, the future they were looking to often looked a lot like an idealized past. True, unlike the reactionary, they believed in the possibility of change and a better future. But are the reactionaries satisfied with admiring the past? If that were the case, they wouldn’t cause progressives sleepless nights. What gives them nightmares is exactly the reactionaries intend to shape the present and the future. Like Bauman, Lilla sees nostalgia as a natural, understandable and not necessarily despicable reaction to change. What makes nostalgia dangerous is that it can be easily exploited by reactionaries:

„Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.“ (15-16)

Now, as straightforward as all this sounds it is not particularly original, which is somewhat disappointing for thinkers who have given us concepts such as “liquid modernity” and “non-lieu”. The idea that nostalgia is a reaction to change has been put forward time and again since Alvin Toffler, Fred Davis or Hermann Lübbe first did so in the 1970s. This does not mean that it is wrong but it certainly raises some questions today’s nostalgia critics are either not aware of or evading. Has what they are describing been going on since the 1970s? Has it intensified? Or are we witnessing a new phase of the so-called “politics of nostalgia”.

I’m still not convinced that what we are witnessing can be at all explained by drawing on nostalgia. And, surveying current politics from birds-eye view, none of the authors explain who exactly—apart from very abstract reactionaries—is nostalgic, for what and why. I’m not even sure if “reactionary” is a helpful term for a politics driven by very little knowledge at all—whether of the present or the past—but by outright egoism and hate. Finally, the three authors—like many nostalgia critics—could be accused of engaging in exactly what they are criticizing. By describing our own time as characterised by nostalgia—by an epidemic of nostalgia even—they imply that there has been a golden age before nostalgia came to dominate society, culture and politics. Are they not nostalgic for a time when progressivism was the undisputed paradigm? To be continued…

Works cited:

Marc Augé, Everyone Dies Young: Time Without Age. Translated by Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

Mark Lilla, Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now: On the Politics of Nostalgia, Harper’s (September 2016), 49-53. [https://harpers.org/archive/2016/09/only-an-apocalypse-can-save-us-now/]

Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (New York: New York Review of Books, 2016).

Conference on “Cultures of Conservatism”

From 14 to 16 September 2017 the GHI hosted a conference on the “Cultures of Conservatism in the United States and Western Europe between the 1970s and 1990s”, organised by  Martina Steber (Institut für Zeitgeschichte München-Berlin), Anna von der Goltz (Georgetown University, Washington, DC) and myself and was funded by the Thyssen Stiftung. The conference did not directly deal with nostalgia but the question if nostalgia is indicative of a conservative mindset or, vice versa, if conservatives are more nostalgic than liberals or the left has been around for a while and was touched on by several papers. Here is a short description what the conference was aiming to do:

The decades from the 1970s to the 1990s are often seen as a time of revolutionary change triggered by economic crises, in which the parameters and conditions for our present times were set. Conservatism looms large in this narrative; after all, the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the United States and in Britain implemented economic and social policies that fundamentally changed the welfare state economies of the boom years. Conservatism is therefore often interpreted as neoliberalism in conservative guise, as the defining political ideology of finance capitalism. However, conservatism was a much more diverse phenomenon than these interpretations suggest. While economics and politics were certainly crucial in the fashioning of a new conservatism in Western Europe and the United States, conservatism was also a diverse cultural phenomenon, which is not adequately reflected in historical research to date.

The conference “Cultures of Conservatism in the United States and Western Europe (1970s-1990s)” seeks to fill this historiographical gap by questioning the primacy of economics and debating alternative interpretations of this age of change. Focusing on cultures of conservatism, the conference rethinks the general contours of conservatism. It pays close attention to the intersection of culture, politics and economics, in order to broaden our understanding of the processes of change that have unfolded since the 1970s.

For the conference programme click here.