All posts by Tobias Becker

About Tobias Becker

Tobias Becker is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute London, where he is currently working on a history of the nostalgia wave in the nineteen seventies and eighties. He is interested in the social and cultural history of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth century and especially in the history of popular culture, urban history and public history. He has published Inszenierte Moderne. Populäres Theater in Berlin und London, 1880-1930 (2014) and co-edited Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin, 1890-1939 (2014) and Die Stadt der tausend Freuden. Vergnügungskultur um 1900 (2011).

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.


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. []

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.

Brexit, Trump etc.: The Politics of Nostalgia?

This is the beginning of a paper I gave in June at the conference “The Trump Presidency: A Historical Assessment from Europe” at St Antony’s College Oxford, the complete paper can be found here.

Did voters vote for Brexit and Donald Trump because of nostalgia? Does nostalgia help us to understand Brexit and Trump? And what does nostalgia mean? Is it a useful analytical term in this context at all? These are some of the questions I want to address in this paper. I should, however, preface it by saying that my answers I provisional and tentative not least because I’m operating outside of my comfort zoneand my immediate field of expertise and therefore I’m much looking forward to your comments. The research project I’m currently working, looks at nostalgia as a historical phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, it does, of course, derive its questions from our present. And as such it is part of a larger research trend because nostalgia is currently a booming topic, particularly in the fields of literature, cultural, media, film and fashion studies, psychology, anthropology and geography. Apart from some exceptions, historians have contributed little to this research mainly because most of them reject nostalgia as a very opposite of what they are doing, as a falsification of history. However, to understand what nostalgia means—or what we mean when we use the term nostalgia—we have to take into account its conceptual history.

That the term nostalgia is used quite a lot today, there can be no doubt. Like the music critic Simon Reynolds, many critics have drawn on nostalgia to explain pop culture’s “addiction to its own past”, its tendency to constantly remake and recycle older forms. In political analysis and commentary, too, nostalgia has become more and more prominent in recent years. Following the coverage of Brexit and Trump, I was continuously surprised as to the extent to which it drew on nostalgia to explain these political developments. Of course, this could be just a case of déformation professionnelle but it seems to me that nostalgia has become a ubiquitous term—if not a master narrative of our time. This raises several questions not only who is nostalgic, for what and why but also what does nostalgia actually mean. To answer these questions, I will analyse the use of the term in current political rhetoric and analysis. In a first part I will look at the role the term plays in both journalistic and academic texts about Brexit and Trump. I will then give a brief overview of its conceptual history. Building on this I will then analysis and criticise how the term is used today and why it is used. From the title you’ve probably concluded that I’m not convinced nostalgia is a helpful political term and I will show you why I think so.

To read the complete paper click on this link.

New Publication: Rückkehr der Geschichte? Die „Nostalgie-Welle“ in den 1970er und 80er Jahren

Als Karl Heinz Bohrer im Herbst 1975, ein Jahr nachdem er durch einen Coup seinen Posten als Literaturchef der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung an Marcel Reich-Ranicki verloren hatte, als FAZ-Korrespondent nach London kam, stellte er fest: „London swingt längst nicht mehr“[1]. In den fünfziger Jahren hatte der jugendliche Bohrer einige Zeit in der britischen Metropole verbracht und dabei deren kosmopolitische Kultur schätzen gelernt[2]. Trotz Kriegsschäden und anhaltender Austeritätspolitik hatten die Briten damals optimistisch in die Zukunft geblickt. Nun hingegen fand Bohrer überall Symptome einer „Saisonkrankheit“, die „etwas prätentiös Nostalgie genannt“ wurde: in der Popkultur, die Anzeichen einer nostalgischen Melancholie zeigte, im sich deindustrialisierenden Manchester, das der Nostalgie als Mittel zum Überleben bedurfte, auf dem Flohmarkt in der Portobello Road, in den Medien, der Kunst und der Mode[3]. Die von ihm beobachtete Nostalgie führte Bohrer auf den Untergang des Empires und auf einen ausgeprägteren „Sinn für Geschichte“ zurück[4]. Hier sah Bohrer einen deutlichen Unterschied zu Westdeutschland, denn er war überzeugt, „daß die bundesrepublikanische Bevölkerung – ihre Intellektuellen eingeschlossen – über das Jahr 1945 hinaus nicht zurückdenken können“.

Bohrer meinte, dass ihm, dem Ausländer, Dinge auffielen, die einheimischen Beobachtern verborgen blieben. Tatsächlich bemerkten britische Intellektuelle bereits seit den späten sechziger Jahren einen hohen Grad von Nostalgie[5]. Ein Jahr bevor Bohrer auf der britischen Szene erschien, stöhnte der Historiker Michael Wood über „the rampant, ubiquitous, unashamed nostalgia which leers at us these days whichever way we turn“[6]. Und sein Kollege Douglas Johnson wollte in der Nostalgie sogar eine Nationalkrankheit sehen, gab aber zu, dass  sie auch andernorts zu finden war[7].

Und tatsächlich, als allgemeiner kultureller Trend wurde das Phänomen zuerst in den USA diskutiert. Der Futurologe Alvin Toffler machte sich schon 1970 Sorgen über eine anschwellende „wave of nostalgia“, eine Nostalgie-Welle[8]. Doch nicht nur Zukunftsforscher wollten einen neuen Trend erkennen. So kam Newsweek im selben Jahr zu einer ganz ähnlichen Einschätzung[9]. „Everybody’s Just Wild About … Nostalgia“ titelte Life 1972.[10] Schon fragte Time: „How much more nostalgia can America take?“[11] Die Antwort lautete offensichtlich eine Menge, denn die Nostalgie-Welle – oder besser gesagt die Kommentare über dieselbe – ebbten im Lauf der siebziger und achtziger Jahre nicht ab. Bohrers Kritik am fehlenden deutschen Geschichtssinn zum Trotz, rollte sie auch über Westdeutschland hinweg. In einer Ausgabe mit dem Titel „Nostalgie: Das Geschäft mit der Sehnsucht“ machte der Spiegel 1973 eine allgemeine „Passion für das Passé“ aus, die aus den USA herübergeschwappt sei[12]. Und der Kulturhistoriker Wolfgang Schivelbusch versuchte im selben Jahrdie nostalgische Welle“ unter Rückgriff auf die Frankfurter Schule zu erklären[13].

So sehr die anscheinend um sich greifende Nostalgie Intellektuelle in den Vereinigten Staaten, Großbritannien und Westdeutschland in den 1970er und 80er Jahren beunruhigte, so wenig hat sich die Geschichtswissenschaft für sie interessiert. „Unfortunately, this nostalgia wave has all but escaped scrutiny in West German historiography“, meint der Historiker Paul Betts[14]. Ähnliches gilt für Großbritannien, während zum kulturellen und politischen Nachleben der fünfziger Jahre in den USA mittlerweile gleich zwei Bücher vorliegen[15]. Dieser Beitrag versteht sich als eine Genealogie des Nostalgie-Diskurses seit den siebziger und achtziger Jahren. Er fragt danach, wie die Begriffe Nostalgie und Nostalgie-Welle zeitgenössisch verstanden wurde, welche Phänomene und Praktiken als Belege für eine Nostalgie-Welle angeführt und wie diese erklärt wurden. Abschließend diskutiert er, wie sich der Diskurs aus heutiger Sicht einzuschätzen ist und ob er ein Nachleben hatte.

Was immer der Nostalgie-Diskurs sonst noch gewesen sein mag, er war in jedem Fall eine Verständigung über die Zeit. Er ging aus von der Ansicht, dass sich breite Teile der Gesellschaft der Vergangenheit zuwandten. Es liegt deshalb nahe die „Nostalgie-Welle“ im Kontext der aktuellen Zeit-Forschung zu betrachten, der zufolge sich in siebziger und achtziger Jahren die Wahrnehmung von Zeit grundlegend veränderte. Während François Hartog den Übergang von einem zukunfts- hin zu einem gegenwartszentrierten Historizitätsregime beobachtete, machte Aleida Assmann eine generelle Krise des modernen Zeitregimes in den achtziger Jahren aus[16]. Fernando Esposito schreibt neutraler von einer „Transformation des  ‚temporalen Imaginariums‘“, einer „Verdichtungsphase … in einer langen Reihe analoger ‚Zeitkrisen’ seit der Sattelzeit“[17]. Die Zeit-Geschichte hat sich dabei bislang vor allem für die veränderte Wahrnehmung der Zukunft interessiert[18]. Der vorliegende Beitrag fragt umgekehrt, ob und wie sich der Stellenwert der Vergangenheit in den siebziger und achtziger Jahren veränderte. Seine Beispiele bezieht er in erster Linie aus der Bundesrepublik. Da der Diskurs jedoch international war und seinen Ausgang in den USA und Großbritannien nahm und die deutsche Diskussion ohne diesen Einfluss nicht zu verstehen ist, werden auch amerikanische und britische Texte berücksichtigt.

Der vollständige Beitrag ist erschienen in Fernando Esposito (Hg.), Zeitenwandel: Transformationen geschichtlicher Zeitlichkeit nach dem Boom (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017), 93-117 und kann hier abgerufen werden.

[1] Karl Heinz Bohrer, Ein bisschen Lust am Untergang. Englische Ansichten, München 1979, S. 13. Für Anmerkungen und Kritik an früheren Versionen dieses Textes danke ich Fernando Esposito, Daniel Morat, Lutz Raphael, Martin Sabrow sowie meinen Kolleginnen und Kollegen am Deutschen Historischen Institut London.

[2] Siehe Karl Heinz Bohrer, Granatsplitter. Erzählung einer Jugend, München 2012.

[3] Bohrer, Ein bisschen Lust am Untergang, S. 92, 163, 13, 24, 33.

[4] Ebenda, S. 166; dort auch das folgende Zitat.

[5] Siehe z.B. R. W. Breach, A History of Our Own Times. Britain, 1900-1964, Oxford 1968, S. 258f.; David P. Calleo, Britain’s Future, London 1968, S. 24.

[6] Michael Wood, Nostalgia or never: you can’t go home again, in: New Society 7 (1974), S. 343-346, hier S. 343.

[7] Douglas Johnson, Not what it used to be, in: Vole 5 (1978), S. 42-43, hier S. 42.

[8] Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, London, Sydney 1970, S. 407.

[9] Nostalgia, in: Newsweek, 29.12.1970, 30-34.

[10] Life 19.2.1971.

[11] Gerald Clarke, The Meaning of Nostalgia, in: Time, 3.5.1971, S. 37.

[12] Horst-Dieter Ebert, ‚Jene Sehnsucht nach den alten Tagen…’, in: Der Spiegel, 29.1.1973, S. 86-99, hier S. 86.

[13] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Das nostalgische Syndrom. Überlegungen zu einem neueren antiquarischen Gefühl, in: Frankfurter Hefte. Zeitschrift für Kultur und Politik 28 (1973), Nr. 4, S. 270-276, hier S. 270.

[14] Paul Betts, Remembrance of Things Past. Nostalgia in West and East Germany, 1980-2000, in: ders./Greg Eghigian (Hrsg.), Pain and Prosperity. Reconsidering Twentieth Century German History, Stanford 2003, S. 178-207, hier S. 183; siehe jedoch Martin Sabrow, „Erinnerung“ als Pathosformel der Gegenwart, in: ders. (Hrsg.), Der Streit um die Erinnerung, Leipzig 2008, S. 9-24; Mark Rüdiger, ‚Goldene 50er’ oder ‚Bleierne Zeit’? Geschichtsbilder der 50er Jahre im Fernsehen der BRD, 1959-1989, Bielefeld 2014.

[15] Daniel Marcus, Happy Days and Wonder Years. The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics, Piscataway, N.J. 2004; Michael D. Dwyer, Back to the Fifties. Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties, New York 2015.

[16] François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps, Paris 2003; Aleida Assmann, Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen? Aufstieg und Fall des Zeitregimes der Moderne, München 2013, insbes. S. 246; generell zur Zeit-Geschichte siehe unter anderem Rüdiger Graf, Zeit und Zeitkonzeptionen in der Zeitgeschichte, Version: 2.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 22.10.2012, URL:; Martin Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, Göttingen 2012; Chris Lorenz, Berber Bevernage (Hrsg.), Breaking up Time. Negotiating the Borders Between Present, Past and Future, Göttingen 2013; Alexander C. T. Geppert/Till Kössler Zeit-Geschichte als Aufgabe, in: dies. (Hrsg.), Obsession der Gegenwart. Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert, Göttingen 2015, S. 7-36.

[17] Fernando Esposito, Von no future bis Posthistoire. Der Wandel des temporalen Imaginariums nach dem Boom, in: Anselm Doering-Manteuffel/Lutz Raphael/Thomas Schlemmer (Hrsg.), Vorgeschichte der Gegenwart. Dimensionen des Strukturbruchs nach dem Boom, Göttingen 2016, S. 393-424, hier S. 349, 420; siehe auch François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps, Paris 2003 ; englisch als: Regimes of Historicity. Presentism and Experiences of Time. Übers. von Saskia Brown, New York 2015; Aleida Assmann, Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen? Aufstieg und Fall des Zeitregimes der Moderne, München 2013, insbes. S. 246; generell zur Zeit-Geschichte siehe Rüdiger Graf, Zeit und Zeitkonzeptionen in der Zeitgeschichte, Version: 2.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 22.10.2012, URL:; Martin Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, Göttingen 2012; Chris Lorenz/Berber Bevernage (Hrsg.), Breaking up Time. Negotiating the Borders Between Present, Past and Future, Göttingen 2013; Alexander C. T. Geppert, Till Kössler Zeit-Geschichte als Aufgabe, in: dies. (Hrsg.), Obsession der Gegenwart. Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert, Göttingen 2015, S. 7-36.

[18] Siehe etwa Elke Seefried, Zukünfte. Aufstieg und Krise der Zukunftsforschung 1945-1980, Berlin 2015; dies., Reconfiguring the Future? Politics and Time
from the 1960s to the 1980s. Introduction, in: Journal of Modern European History 13 (2015), Nr. 3, S. 306-316; Alexander Geppert, Die Zeit des Weltraumzeitalters, 1942-1972, in: ders./Till Kössler (Hrsg.), Obsession der Gegenwart, S. 218-250.

New publication: “Nostalgia and the Historians” in IHJE

“Is there a trend of nostalgia in our culture today?”, asks Arja Virta. Her essay suggests that she thinks so and she is far from the only one. Indeed, her diagnosis is shared by many observers, especially when it comes to popular culture. Every sequel, every remake triggers complaints about a widespread sense of nostalgia, a yearning for the past. No one has made this case more eloquently than the British music critic Simon Reynolds, whose 2011 book Retromania forcefully argued that pop culture is addicted to its own past. Yet, it is not pop culture that Virta is interested in but rather the heritage industry and the commercialization of history. She specifically mentions “ceremonies and cultural products that describe the past or are derived from the past, the nurturing of heritage objects, or the re-enacting of historical episodes or scenes”, which she calls “nostalgia light”. Again Virta is not the only one to describe such phenomena and practices as nostalgic. Nonetheless, I would somewhat challenge this view. …

The complete text was published in the International Journal for the Historiography of Education and was a comment on Arja Virta, ‘About Nostalgia and Its Consequences for Writing and Using History’ in the same issue.

Kynren — a Brexit spectacle

Anyone interested in Britain’s post-Brexit mood would have done well to visit Bishop Auckland this summer. A small, sleepy market town of about 16,000 inhabitants between Newcastle and Durham, Bishop Auckland seldom makes it into the national news. Between July and September this year, however, it twice weekly attracted an audience of 8,000 with a spectacular outdoor show called Kynren: An epic tale of England. We, too, followed the call of Kynren, curious how its makers had chosen to re-enact the history of England. What we did not expect was a full-on Brexit spectacle.

As soon as we arrived we were impressed by the dimensions of Kynren, which bills itself as the “UK’s most spectacular open-air live action night show since the opening of the London 2012 Olympics”.  What may sound a little grand is, in fact, no exaggeration. Kynren features a cast of around a thousand people, mainly made up by volunteers from the region. A huge auditorium faces an even huger outdoor stage, complete with an artificial lake, out of which a hunting lodge and a fully equipped Viking ship rise during the show. There are fireworks, fountains, projections onto screens of water and what surely must be the fastest sheep in the world. But there is also “the story of us”.


At the beginning of the show we meet Arthur, a young boy from Bishop Auckland, who wants to become a professional football player. When Arthur accidentally kicks his ball through a window of a hunting lodge in the grounds of Auckland Castle, he “encounters the Bishop, who urges him to think beyond football alone, and offers to take him on a journey of 2,000 years of British history, to open his eyes to the greatness of his land.”1

The journey begins with King Arthur and the withdrawal of the Romans, quickly jumping forward in time to the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), when King Harold fights off the Normans, immediately followed by the Battle of Hastings (1066), when Harold is beaten by William the Conqueror. We meet Henry VIII jousting with Francis I in France and Shakespeare flirting with Queen Elizabeth. We visit the Civil War, mourn after the Felling mining disasters of 1811 and celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. We witness the First World War through the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914  and we listen to Winston Churchill’s famous “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech. The play ends with Arthur, now old and frail, speaking directly to the audience bestowing upon it “my love of England, my dear England”. All ages and epochs assemble on the stage to cheer for England. Pomp and circumstance sounds through the loudspeakers. The spectators rise collectively from their seats waving plastic flags.


As spectacle, Kynren was impressive and captivating. But as history, it was as problematic as it was one-sided. While it could not tell the history of England without featuring Romans, Normans, Anglo-Saxons, French and Germans, they all figured merely as fought-back invaders, who had left no mark on the English nation. Scotland, only a two hours’ drive away, was cast much in the same role — no mention of the Union or Britain. No mention, too, that England had once ruled over a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. Only the scene about the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria referred to the Empire — by showing Indian dancers (played by white English women in yellow face) whirling their skirts in celebration of the Queen. There was not a single non-white face in the audience and there would be none on the stage. But then again, this was the story of “us”, people, who had come here so long ago, they had forgotten they were sons and daughters of immigrants too, not of the “others”, the enslaved and exploited.

At any other time, Kynren could have been shrugged off as harmless entertainment, as an innocent eccentricity — but not this year. It was impossible to watch Kynren without thinking of Brexit, especially as the North of England (with the exception of Newcastle) overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union. County Durham, to which Bishop Auckland belongs, was no exception: 153,877 people voted Leave compared to 113,521 votes cast in support of Remain.2

Some commentators saw Brexit as connected to nostalgia.3 Kynren could be seen as evidence for that but it was mainly bad history, history made to serve an agenda. “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum said recently. ((Kate Connoly, Britain’s view of its history ‘dangerous’, says former museum director, Guardian (7 October 2016)) Kynren is a good example for this. It distorts the past, literally whitewashing it. Kynren is an Our Island Story for the twenty-first century, a history of England as those who voted to Brexit would like to see it, and a comforting story about the past to make audiences feel better about the present. But that does not make it any more true. Kynren 2016 is over, tickets for Kynren 2017 have just gone on sale. I wonder if it will feature a new scene: how brave English voters fought back yet another foreign power — the EU.



Stephen Smith, Cue the levitating longboat: the £35m all-singing, all-dancing history of Britain, The Guardian (21 June 2016).

Charlotte Runcie, Kynren, review: a historical epic painted in primary colours, The Telegraph (30 June 2016).

Charlotte Metcalf, Kynren: the live show that tells 2,000 years of British history with a rough-and-ready charm, The Independent (25 July 2016).



  1. []
  2. []
  3. Sara Abbasi, “Nostalgic elderly Brexiters have stolen my future,” Guardian (25 June 2016), Volker Wagener, “Opinion: In Brexit vote, UK nostalgia beat EU dreams,” Deutsche Welle (27 July 2016); Kehinde Andrews, “Colonial nostalgia is back in fashion, blinding us to the horrors of empire,” Guardian (24 August 2016); Ishaan Tharoor, “The other side of the global right-wing surge: Nostalgia for empire,” Washington Post (2 December 2016 []

Review: “Fashioning Memory” by Heike Jenss

In early summer last year I found myself in Newark-on-Trent watching an English Civil War battle re-enactment. Afterwards I interviewed several of the participants. They enthusia51vCgX19EsL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_stically spoke about their life as re-enactors, their interests and motivations and what it is like to take part in a staged battle. Clothes came up in every conversation: what garments they were wearing, what they meant to them, if they had made them themselves or where they had bought them, how much they had cost and how comfortable—or rather uncomfortable—they were and how their clothes transported them back in time. I was reminded of these conversations when reading Heike Jenss’ book on ‘sixties stylers’ in Germany. Sixties stylers are people who collect and wear clothes made in the 1960s, often supplementing what they find on flea markets and in second-hand clothing stores with home-made fashion items based on period patterns and styles. Jenss interprets these practices as a work of memory that ‘bridges past and present’ (p. 1).

Given Jenss’s background in fashion studies and anthropology, she is not so much interested in how retro fashion developed historically (although she has something to say on that too), than in fashion practices today: why and how old clothes come into fashion again and what they mean to the people collecting and wearing them. To this end, she has interviewed a number of German sixties stylers since …

The review will appear in the next issue of German History. For the full text go to

Heike Jenss, Fashioning Memory: Vintage Style and Youth Culture, London: Bloomsbury. 2015.

Review: Michael Dwyer, “Back to the Fifties” and Gary Cross, “Consumed Nostalgia”

On 21 October 2015 people all over the world got together to celebrate the arrival of two time-travellers from the year 1985—this was the day when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in 2015 in the film Back to the Future II.1 As with Orwell’s 1984 and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey it was another instance of yesterday’s future turning into the past before the very eyes. In not just a few cases those eyes were doubtlessly glazed over with nostalgia, nostalgia for the time when their owners, then in their teens and twenties, first saw the film.

Ironically, Back to the Future II foreshadows this very development. After his arrival in 2015, Marty visits a 1980s-style retro café and looks through the shop window of an antiques store, selling such 1980s artefacts as lava lamps, videotapes and a Macintosh 128K. The two scenes neatly link the film to its prequel, in which Marty travelled from 1985 to 1955. This was no coincidence—the 1950s occupied a central position in the nostalgic imagination of the time: indeed, it was the revival of 1950s Rock’n’Roll in the early 1970s that first made nostalgia a household term. [2] It therefore comes as no surprise that nostalgia for the 1950s features heavily in two new books on nostalgia in the United States.

future-1Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 20.47.01

Back to the Fifties by Michael Dwyer not only refers to Back to the Future in its title, it begins with an instructive close reading of the first film of the franchise, paralleling it with the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. (An avowed fan of the film, Reagan referred to it in his 1986 State of the Union address.) Commonly Back to the Future has been seen as an exemplar of what Dwyer calls “the ‘amnesiac’ model of nostalgia” (22). Dwyer rejects this interpretation, arguing “that nostalgia must be understood not as a reduction or denial of history but as a fundamentally productive affective engagement that produces new historical meaning for the past as a way of reckoning with the historical present” (22).

9780199356843Marty travels back in time not to live in the past but to change it in order to correct the failures made manifest in his present (essentially turning his father into the fifties hero he is not). Reagan similarly rewrote history in his speeches, invoking the fifties as a moral compass for the present while ignoring everything that would not fit into his picture of the period. In both instances the past is used to change the present with an eye to a better future. Neither Back to the Future nor Reagan, Dwyer argues, erased history. Rather, they fostered “nostalgic affect prompted by critical reflection on contemporary historical conditions” and promoted “selective versions of the past to suit their visions of the future” (43). In short, their nostalgia was less about wallowing in the past than creating a future.

The second chapter deals with George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti which, thanks mainly to the literary critic Fredric Jameson, is considered the progenitor and archetype of the “nostalgia film”. It is hard to see how anything new can be said about a film over which so much ink has been spilled but Dwyer does so with panache. He argues that the film, though romanticising the 1950s to some extent, treats nostalgia quite critically. American Graffiti “acknowledges the appeal and value of nostalgia, while simultaneously warning of the dangers of overindulgences in it” (74). In the end, the film’s protagonist decides to leave his idyllic hometown—and thereby the 1950s.

Dwyer’s astute analysis of Back to the Future and American Graffiti raises the question whether they can be seen as examples for nostalgia at all and this is exactly his point: nostalgia is much more complex than the common cultural critique of the phenomenon allows. American Graffiti has become a “nostalgia film” not so much because it idealises the 1950s unreservedly. Rather, its subsequent commercialisation, its role in paving the way for a whole new genre and the critical writing on the film have shaped how it is understood today. Dwyer therefore stresses the “importance of analyzing the ways films acquire new meaning and associations as they move through time” (51) and this is what he does in his book.

In the three remaining chapters, Dwyer explores the soundtracks of nostalgia films and the invention of the Oldies as a genre, MTV and the “crossover nostalgia” of Michael Jackson as well as the “star legacies” of James Dean and Sandra Dee. While all these chapters are informative, well-argued and convincing they are perhaps not as significant for general historians as the first two. All in all, however, this book is a compelling read for anyone interested in the 1970s and 1980s and their attitudes towards the past.

Back to the Fifties demonstrates that popular culture was crucial for the perception of the 1950s in the 1980s, and that this perception was far less homogenous than is often claimed.2 Reagan and the New Right’s recourse to the 1950s was only one of many ways to use the period. Since then time has moved on and so has nostalgia. Dwyer ends his book by looking at films about the 1980s since the 2000s, arriving at the conclusion “that for contemporary America, the Reagan Era has become the new Fifties” (181). If this observation should culminate in Back to the Eighties, this reviewer is certainly looking forward to it.

9780231167581While cultural, media and fashion studies have produced a number of books on nostalgia recently, the same cannot be said for history.3 Most historians use the term nostalgia pejoratively to describe an affective, distorting and ultimately false perception of the past. Only a few have deemed the phenomenon worthy of investigation. One of them is Gary Cross. His book Consumed Nostalgia understands nostalgia as a modern phenomenon that “was practically absent from our ancestors two centuries ago” (6). This is certainly true for what Cross calls “consumed nostalgia”, the “longing for the goods of the past that came from a personal experience of growing up in the stressful world of fast capitalism” (10). This form of nostalgia “binds together not community nor families but scattered individuals” (14), it is “less about preserving an ‘unchanging golden era’ than it is about capturing the fleeting and the particular in its ‘authenticity’” (15), it helps “us cope with the extraordinary speed-up of time by letting us return to our childhoods” (16), and is “rooted in special emotions linked to recovering memories distinctive to the objects of childhood and consumerism” (17).

Unlike most books on nostalgia which concentrate on a single subject, Consumed Nostalgia explores these assumptions by looking at a wide range of examples. It covers some of the same ground as Back to the Fifties—films and TV series (chapter 4), radio and pop music (chapter 5)—but also takes into account the collection of objects such as childhood memorabilia (chapter 1) and cars (chapter 2) as well as sites of nostalgia such as heritage sites (chapter 6) and theme parks (chapter 7). This approach allows for a much wider perspective. On the downside, each aspect cannot be explored in the same detail.

More problematically, it becomes increasingly vague what nostalgia means in this book. Instead of questioning whether the chosen examples are demonstrative of nostalgia, Cross assumes this a priori. While nostalgia may often be a yearning for one’s childhood, this does not always have to be the case. The nostalgia for the 1950s, for instance, first became a subject of cultural criticism because it infected a younger generation without recollections of the period. Likewise nostalgia may be a driving force for collecting but not every form of collecting can be reduced to nostalgia.

Cross’ hypothesis that nostalgia is a reaction to social acceleration and fast capitalism has a lot going for it. In fact, the sociologist Hartmut Rosa makes the same argument in his theory of social acceleration. According to Rosa every surge of acceleration is followed by nostalgic sentiments.4 However, Cross does not cite Rosa and neither does he spell out how exactly acceleration and fast capitalism produce nostalgia or how nostalgia helps to cope with their effects. Given the commercial value of nostalgia, his claim that nostalgia “often has been and remains a subtle protest against consumerism” (237) does not seem particularly convincing.

Despite these critical objections, Consumed Nostalgia is an important addition to the growing body of literature on nostalgia. It proves that it is not only possible but instructive to consider different types, forms and examples of nostalgia together to get a broader view of the diversity, complexity and ambivalence of the phenomenon in the twentieth century. Consumed Nostalgia raises many interesting questions in need of further exploration—not least if its findings are applicable to other consumer societies.

Back to the Fifties and Consumed Nostalgia both point out that the academy has long eschewed nostalgia: it “has earned the deep scorn of most intellectuals” (Cross, 12) and garnered “skepticism and disdain from many academics and critics” (Dwyer, 8). Far from defending nostalgia, Cross and Dwyer make a case for taking it seriously as a subject for investigation. Dwyer rightly calls for “thinking—really thinking—about how cultural attitudes toward the past structure our engagements with the present, and how the historical conditions of the present structure our affective engagements with the past” (183). Cross emphasises that “the public understands and uses the past in ways very different from the historian” (13)—and these ways do not have to be bad or inferior. Whatever historians think about real or alleged nostalgic phenomena and practices, they are surely here to stay and they cry out for better understanding and historical contextualisation. Cross and Dwyer demonstrate not only how revealing, useful and necessary such research is, they also show how it can be carried out. This makes both books important beyond their field of study.


Michael D. Dwyer, Back to the Fifties. Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties, Oxford  2015.

Gary Cross, Consumed Nostalgia. Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, New York 2015.

This blog post is a slightly extended version of my review of the two books on H-Soz-u-Kult:


  1. See Sarah Larson, Happy “Back to the Future” Day, in: The New Yorker 21.10.2015,; Hannah Ellis-Petersen, Back to the Future Day: It’s 21 October 2015 – and we still need roads, in: The Guardian 21.10.2015,; Kendra Stenzel, “Back to the Future”-Fauxpas: Willkommen zurück in der Zukunft — schon wieder, in: Spiegel Online 21.10.2015, []
  2. Dwyer builds here on Daniel Marucs, Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics, New Brunswick 2004. []
  3. See []
  4. See Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Translated by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys, New York 2013, p. 41. []

CfP: Pop Nostalgia: The Uses of the Past in Popular Culture

Pop nostalgia, we are told, is everywhere. Our current golden age of television—from Mad Men to Vinyl, Downton Abbey to Call the Midwife—lovingly recreates earlier periods of the twentieth century, while club nights devoted to the 1980s or 1990s allow us to return to our youth. What is more, popular culture is, in the words of music journalist Simon Reynolds, addicted to its own past. It not only reminisces, it revives, reissues, remixes earlier forms and styles instead of coming up with genuinely new. Finally, our most modern technologies are always also time machines: producing sepia-coloured images of the present for an anticipated nostalgic recollection in the future.

15391.books.origjpgThese very different cultural phenomena, which are often subsumed under the term nostalgia, raise a number of still under-explored questions. How new is this development, given that period films are as old as the cinema and that popular culture and music has drawn on earlier periods as long as it exists? Can, contrary to Reynolds’ argument, the recycling of old styles and forms not also be highly creative and result in innovations? Are period settings and costumes, retro and vintage styles as such indicative and synonymous with nostalgia? Is it really nostalgia—a sentimental longing for yesterday—that drives our interest in and our engagement with the past? And if not what other motivations are at play? What role, for example, have media technologies such as film and the internet played in preserving the culture of the past in the present?

These are some of the questions the workshop Pop Nostalgia addresses. It explores the uses of the past in popular culture across all media and genre, from literature, cinema, television, and video games to theme park, club nights and sports events. It is interested not only in representations of the past but also in their production and circulation as well as in audiences and reception. The workshop is particularly interested in the historical dimension of pop nostalgia, namely how it has changed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

We welcome proposals for twenty-minute presentations from all disciplines and particularly encourage comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives. Please submit an abstract of no more than 300 words, along with a short CV, by 30 June 2016 to both Dion Georgiou (BSSH South Sport and Leisure History Network) at and Tobias Becker (German Historical Institute London) at The conference will take place from 10 to 11 November at the German Historical Institute London. Accommodation during the conference will be covered. Up to 100£ of travel costs will be reimbursed to those traveling within Europe; 800£ for those traveling from elsewhere.