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Historical Slumming in the North of England

St. Mary’s Church York — The National Coal Mining Museum — Quarry Bank Mill — St. Michael’s Church Chester — Black Country Living History Museum

Comes over one an absolute necessity to move … and even when not: the National Archives in Kew only go so far which, with a topic like heritage, is not very far at all. So, last October, autumn holidays, we donned our hiking boots and backpacks and caught a train to the North.

First stop: York. York because it was here that one of the first “heritage centres” opened in 1975. After fighting many an uphill battle against “the planners” after the Second World War, the conservation movement in the end won the war. The 1975 European Architectural Heritage Year acknowledged the importance of historic preservation and triggered a flurry of grassroots activities across Europe and nowhere more so than in Britain. It also turned “heritage” into a household term and led to the creation of heritage centres, museums on local history based not on historic artefacts but organised around exhibitions and displays. Often, they were housed in disused churches such as St. Mary’s Church in York.

For the critics of heritage in the 1980s, the heritage centre was one of the worst outgrowth of what they called the “heritage industry” although it is not easy to understand why today. This criticism or, reversely, the lack of advocacy from academics, may have contributed to the demise of the heritage centre as it was once conceived, with rising costs in all likelihood a more decisive factor. Few of the original heritage centres survive and what calls itself heritage centre today is often simply a glorified gift shop, peddling localised merchandise. St. Mary’s Church is used as an exhibition space today.

Second stop: the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Not far from York in Overton is the National Coal Mining Museum. The first colliery opened here in the late eighteenth century. Miners went down for the next two hundred years digging ever longer tunnels with ever more advanced technology until they had to leave it all behind—the machinery, their livelihood, their culture—when the mine closed in 1985. In 1988 it became the Yorkshire Mining Museum renamed the National Coal Mining Museum in 1995. Today it is part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage that links the North of Britain with heavy industry areas in Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere.

After ambling through the exhibition, we went on a tour down the shafts guided by a former miner who taught us about the history of mining from Victorian times to the 1980s, when he had worked there. It didn’t seem to make anyone yearn for the past—even in the bigger tunnels we felt cramped and claustrophobic and we were much relieved when the tour ended and we returned from the coal face to the face of the earth. Leaving the museum, I noticed a bright red steam train named “Progress”—the proud self-confidence of Victorian times today’s museum piece.

Third stop: Quarry Bank Mill. Steam trains were one thing you needed coal for, another was the growing textile industry. So, it was only natural that our route would lead us to a mill next, though the mill we went to, Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire, was water powered when it opened in 1784, a steam engine was added only later. In 1939 the mill was donated to the National Trust though it continued to run till 1959. Like the mines, the mill today only exists for us to learn what industry once was. It makes one looking forward to a future when the same will have happened to the mighty institutions of our age, when you go to a bank not to get money or a loan but as a tourist, guided by a former banker wearing an anachronistic bowler hat, much like John Gandy painted the recently completed Bank of England as a ruin.

The exhibitions in the various parts of the mill cover many aspects: the history of the industrial revolution and the textile industry, the cotton plantations in America and the slave trade, the working conditions and the life of the employees. Because Quarry Bank Mill heavily drew on child apprentices—often orphans from workhouses in London, Liverpool and the surrounding region—child labour is a particularly prominent theme. It also helps to address the most important clientele of any museum: families with children. That the theme struck a chord with them was evident from a big brown board which invited visitors to leave comments.

If anything, the comments spoke of nostophobia rather than nostalgia: “My name is Kay I am 60 years old, and I used to work in a Cotton Mill. I used to run the machines. The ‘good old days’ eh!!” This was a general theme. To the question posed by the museum “Why does this matter today?” one visitor answered: “To make us appreciate what we have today”, “So glad I was born in 2004!” another. If this was the opposite of nostalgia, it was at least as problematic. If nostalgia, as is often argued, makes the past better as it was, here the past was made worse to make us feel better in the present.

It was a case “historical slumming” as the writer Douglas Coupland calls it: “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’.”1 Yet, there were also visitors whose answer would do any teacher of history proud: “Do you know how the clothes you wear today are made? And by who?” asked one, “A reminder that these are still conditions in which people are working today” another. History may not life’s teacher anymore, but it still has some lessons for us.

Fourth stop: St. Michael’s Church Chester. And so, we came to Chester, like York founded in Roman times. Chester also shares with York that it had one of the first heritage centres in Britain in a former church. Whether the first or the second, it, too, later folded, making way for an exhibition space. I found much more material on this heritage centre in the local archives than in York. Historic conservation is taken very seriously in Chester probably because there is so much to conserve.

Fifth stop: The Black Country Living Museum. The Black Country Living Museum, an open-air museum west of Birmingham, is rather tricky to get to if you do not have a car. The nearest train station is Tipton and from there you have to take the bus, especially if you carry a lot of luggage—as we generally do—and it is raining cats and dogs—as it did on the day we went.

After a twenty-minute wait at the bus stop in the cold and damp, both of which seemed to be increasing disproportionately with every passing minute, the mood of some of us—me—had deteriorated so far that that  this minor inconvenience became a potent symbol of the state of post-Brext Britain. Thus, I grumbled under my breath, oblivious to an elderly lady also waiting for the bus.  When it finally—miraculously—arrived after another fifteen minutes, she got back at me in the most elderly ladylike way by insisting on giving us a packet of biscuits. There was no way to refuse—especially as we were all famished and I’m rather fond of biscuits.

Thus, I was doubly shut up, embarrassed and chewing. Put in my place, I settled into it, pretending to enjoy the scenery, though there wasn’t much to enjoy in the Thatcherite-ravaged landscape of take-away shops and small houses and smaller hopes, made even drearier by the rain. However, this was not the end of the story because the kindness of the old lady had not escaped the attention of the bus driver. Nothing could have pleased him more: the old lady had done herself, him and the whole Black Country proud, confirming his belief in the general kindness and hospitality of Black Country folk. “That’s how people are here in the Black Country,” he said. I’m sure he was rightly proud and yet such pride, it seemed to me then, it seems to me now looking back, has something treacherous: while it may help to weather events like deindustrialisation, it also threatens to keep people back from rising above themselves and from demanding something better even than a museum commemorating a time of a different pride as well as different hardships.

When we finally arrived at the museum, the rain had stopped. By now we only had two hours left but this was enough to get a general overview of the site and visit some of the 50 shops and houses on the site. What impressed us most was a conversation with the pawnbroker who really brought to life the economy of a Victorian village. After that, there was just enough time for a pint at the museum pub before we caught the bus back to the train station to return to the present.

  1. Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (London: Abacus 1992), p. 13. []

A kind of historical metaphysic

This is a follow-up post to the preceding one on W.G. Sebald, this time looking at the experience of time in his book Austerlitz.

Like any good novel, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is at heart a thriller. But though part of the book is set in one, this is not The Murder at the Vicarage and though Jacques Austerlitz wanders through libraries and archives, it is not The Body in the Library. The victim is not a well-to-do minister, manufacturer or widow, the victims count in the millions, Austerlitz’ parents among them. And Austerlitz, too, robbed of his mother and father, his childhood, his identity, the gradual, painful recovery of which forms the backbone of the narrative.

Memory and history are central themes in all of Sebald’s texts and so is nostalgia. Sebald didn’t use the term but his writing is suffused with it and he has given us a beautiful description when he writes about “a kind of heartache which … [is] caused by the vortex of past time” or “an overwhelming sense of the long years that had passed”. The nostalgia in Austerlitz is of three kinds. At the beginning memories catch Austerlitz unawares just as nostalgia jumps out at us when we might least expect it (think of Proust’s famous Madeleine); when Austerlitz begins to seek out these memories, they are tender and affectionate but overshadowed and suffused with unbearable pain; and, finally, Austerlitz is suffering from the transience and impermanence of life of which memory and history can save only fragments of. In an entropic view of history he regrets

how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.

In nostalgia we realise how time is ruthlessly removing us—has removed us—from everything we ever held dear. This constitutes its famously bittersweet character: the more delightful the moment we remember, the deeper the pain that we can never return to nor recover it. Nostalgia, then, is deeply bound up with the modern understanding of time as dynamic and linear that, striving towards a point in the future, kills the past behind it and has frequently been described as a rebellion against it.

Time plays a central role in Austerlitz. Austerlitz gives, the narrator tells us, a “disquisition on time” that, over the years, amount to “a kind of historical metaphysic”. The narrator first meets Austerlitz under the clock inside Antwerpen-Centraal station, “the governor of a new omnipotence“ ranging even above the state. When, years later, they wander to Greenwich observatory, Austerlitz notes how time is “by far the most artificial of all our inventions” (134). “Could we not claim, said Austerlitz,” writes Sebald, “that time itself has been nonconcurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything.“

For Austerlitz time as we experience and understand it today is not timeless, eternal but a modern invention that has a beginning—in time and place—from where it has spread out. And, indeed, before the introduction of steam trains which required a precise timing twelve o’clock in London was not twelve o’clock in Birmingham and even in two neighbouring villages the church bells didn’t ring out noon at the same moment. Time, or, more precisely, the measurement of it literally oriented itself at nature, whereas today it is artificial, underscoring the artificiality of time in a larger sense. But even modernity could not completely eradicate all deviations,

Even in a metropolis ruled by time like London, said Austerlitz, it is still possible to be outside time, a state of affairs which until recently was almost as common in backward and forgotten areas of our own country as it used to be in the undiscovered continents overseas. The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals, and they are not the only ones, for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future.

This is what has happened to Austerlitz. His misfortune of being born at a certain moment of the twentieth century as the child of Jewish parents who did not manage to escape but managed to get him out on the Kindertransport has cut him off from his past and from any future he may ever have had. Grown up without knowledge of but a dread of the past, Austerlitz has for many years scrupulously avoided it. He doesn’t even own a clock because

A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and neverending anguish.

The idea of time as simultaneous rather than linear strikes Austerlitz as both attractive and monstrous. If “time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like”, then Austerlitz could return back home, back to the past, back to the parents he cannot remember or only glimpses of. But this would also mean that torture and murder are still ongoing, drawn out and repeated in eternity, the chains still clanking, the chimneys smoking, the pain never-ending.

Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them than the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

Austerlitz himself seems to have such appointments. Without knowing why, he feels himself drawn time and again to return to Liverpool Street Station. One night, on a whim, he follows one of the cleaners only to find himself in the old Ladies’ Waiting Room— literally finds himself: the young boy he sees sitting on a bench, waiting to be picked up, is a memory of himself just arrived on the Kindertransport. Time becomes full circle, closing in on itself. Yet, this chance encounter, this sudden memory does not mark the end of the story but its beginning, triggering Austerlitz’ search for his past and his parents.

On another occasion, on one of his night walks through London, he sees “a man in a top hat, a woman wearing the costume of the 1930s”. Are they his father and mother or some other ghosts of the past? For Austerlitz, the past is not over, past and present not separate entities. As long as Austerlitz tried to ignore the past, it constantly chanced upon him, haunting him; when he seeks it out, it evaporates: he learns little more about his parents’ fate than that they most likely died in the death camps. At the end of the book, Austerlitz himself vanishes. Has he gone to the past? Has he become a ghost himself? Can we still see him today, prowling the nightly streets of London?

On the road with W.G. Sebald

Comes over one an absolute necessity to move—when reading Sebald. Sebald’s writing may be a lot of different things but whatever it is, it is definitely writing on the move. Perhaps that is one reason why he is better-known in Britain than in Germany, where travel writing is less of fixture, as is Sebald. Given a famously ambivalent attitude to his country of birth—perhaps another reason—his literature, too, was roaming in more sense than one, obviously so in The Rings of Saturn—subtitled An English Pilgrimage—though hardly less in Vertigo or Austerlitz, where both the eponymous character and the narrator are constantly on the move. Perhaps this restlessness is the flipside of a constant contemplation of death, a subconscious attempt to escape the Grim Reaper who, in Sebald’s case, caught up with him fittingly, though tragically, on the road.

Now artists are writing and walking in Sebald’s footsteps. Iain Sinclair reconstructs the nightly London walks of Jacques Austerlitz, Teju Cole makes a pilgrimage to Sebald’s grave and Grant Gee reconstructs The Rings of Saturn in his film Patience (After Sebald). Such accomplished company luckily does not deter lesser Sebald fans to seek out the places of his books, though what really is sought is harder to say. Visiting the places mentioned in his books is like visiting The Old Rectory in Poringland, where Sebald lived, or the cemetery in St. Andrew’s Churchyard, Framingham Earl where he is buried, as I did on a sunny day in September 2017: as little as this grey slab of stone tells us about the man whose name and dates of birth and death it carries, as little does walking through Suffolk or the East End bring us closer to The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz—closer than reading them, I mean.

At least this was the feeling I had when visiting Somerleyton Hall with my daughter. Unlike Sebald, we did not climb the wall (my daughter, who is very moral, would never have stood for that) but walked all the way around the estate and, after dutifully paying the entrance fee, through the front gate. From the description in Rings of Saturn, I imagined an eccentric, fairy-tale like place, forgetting that Sebald notes how it “strikes the visitor of today no longer as an oriental palace in a fairy tale“ (54). I’m not sure what I expected to feel or to find but certainly something else than just another stately home with a maze and a gift shop. Reading the passages on Somerleyton in Rings of Saturn, I imagined the place in a sepia-tinted haze, as melancholic and decaying, whereas on that day in September 2017 it was—really quite lovely.

Similarly, the Sailor’s Reading Room in Southwold which I visited four years earlier—also in September—when I stayed with two friends in a cottage not far away for a couple of days working on a collection of essays. Labouring over commas and footnotes during the days, we used the late afternoons and evenings to explore the coast. I had bought The Rings of Saturn expressly for this trip though I didn’t—on that occasion—get much further than Southwold. The Sailor’s Reading Room, however, I liked very much and I couldn’t have agreed more with Sebald that it is „better than anywhere else for reading, writing letters, following one’s thoughts, or in the long winter months simply looking out at the stormy sea as it crashes on the promenade“.

In March of this year, a friend and I met at Liverpool Street Station to retrace the footsteps of Jacques Austerlitz from the station to which he returns again and again drawn by a subliminal urge to his house in Alderney Road (Alderney Street in the book). Today a monument by Frank Meisler, who escaped Germany on one a Kindertransport and whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, commemorates the survival of almost ten thousand Jewish children, a singular bright spot in an otherwise starless night. A monument in two parts, its other half stands next to Friedrichstraße railway station in Berlin. The Ladies Waiting Room where, as a child, Austerlitz was picked up by an austere couple, a Welsh minister and his wife, does not exist anymore, but parts of the old station are still visible in what is now a W.H. Smith and a Starbucks like a Victorian painting half covered by the trappings of late capitalism.

Halfway between Liverpool Street Station and Alderney Road we stopped at the disused Jewish Cemetery on Brady Street. It is not mentioned in the book, but it is part of the long Jewish history of the East End which is probably the reason why Sebald had Austerlitz live in this part of London. Austerlitz’ own house borders on a “brick wall on the right, about fifty yards long and as tall as a man“. Behind this wall, unbeknownst to Austerlitz for many years, lies Alderney Road Cemetery, the oldest Ashkenazi Cemetery  in the United Kingdom, founded in 1697 as he tells the narrator on their last meeting.

“And I should not omit, he added,” Austerlitz says, Sebald writes, “to ring the bell at the gateway in the brick wall adjoining his house, for behind that wall, although he had never been able to see it from any of his windows, there was a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried ever since the eighteenth century, including Rabbi David Tevele Schiff and Rabbi Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London. He had discovered the cemetery, from which, as he now suspected, the moths used to fly into his house, said Austerlitz, only a few days before he left London, when the gate in the wall stood open for the first time in all the years he had lived in Alderney Street.”

This wall was too high for us to peer over and peering through the letter box we could only see a plot of grass and some withered grey gravestones in the back. We took a photo of the adjacent houses, the first of which is Austerlitz’ former dwelling, fortified ourselves with a half pint at the pub at the top of the street and walked on to our next stop, the former—everything on this tour seemed to be a former something—St. Clement’s Hospital. The decaying hospital, where Austerlitz finds himself after his breakdown has now been converted into (for once not luxury) flats. From one of the windows of the hospital Austerlitz was starring for hours on Tower Hamlets Cemetery below. This was our last stop. In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked along the paths of the cemetery as Austerlitz and the narrator did before us.

“In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked along the paths of the cemetery, past monuments erected by the Victorians to commemorate their dead, past mausoleums, marble crosses, stelae and obelisks, bulbous urns and statues of angels, many of them wingless or otherwise mutilated, turned to stone, so it seemed to me, at the very moment when they were about to take off from the earth.”

In fact, the twilight was falling pretty briskly and I became increasingly frantic to find the statue of the white angel on the pedestal saying “Until the Day Break, and the Shadows Flee Away”, Sebald incorporated in the book. As it turned out, of course, as it always turns out, it was not far from the entrance through which we had come and we would have come across it had we, by chance, taken not the first but the second path on the left. When I chanced upon it, as I felt certain I would, shortly before giving up because it had become almost dark by now, it looked very differently from what it looks in the book. The angel, already frail-looking back then, no longer stands proudly on the pedestal but to the left of it. On its right a holly bush, absent in the original picture, has grown and threatens, in time, to overwhelm the grave. Next year it will be twenty years Austerlitz was published, will the angel still be there in another twenty? Will someone keep looking out for it?

I said that visiting the places from Sebald’s books does not bring us closer to them, that such visits necessarily lead to disappointment and, indeed, the colourful stalls on Whitechapel Road, the green of the grass on the cemeteries and the blue, red and pink of the East End front doors somehow looks strangely drained and unreal compared to the sepia-tinted images Sebald paints in his books. And yet, paradoxically, by not bringing us closer to whatever elusive goal we may have had in mind, by simply giving us a reason to get up, get out and get going and by providing opportunities for meditation and digression, such pilgrimages are, after all, nothing if not Sebaldian.

See also: John Rodgers, East End Walk following W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz,

New review: Thomas Dodman, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire and the Time of a Deadly Emotion

Thomas Dodman’s book explores how nostalgia was understood in various contexts from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Nostalgia was not thought of as yearning for the past we know today, but rather as homesickness. Dodman’s book begins with the year 1688, when the otherwise unremarkable Alsatian physician Johannes Hofer published a medical dissertation on the topic. Not that homesickness had not existed before, but Hofer was the first to give it a proper medical name by cobbling together the Greek words for home (nostos) and pain (algos). The term, and thereby the condition, which was seen as a very serious and potentially deadly disease, quickly caught on in medical circles with professional opinion divided on whether it was a physical illness or rooted in the imagination of the patient or a mixture of both.

For the full review click here to get to the European Review of History.

Review of Thomas Dodman, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire and the Time of a Deadly Emotion, Chicago, London: Chicago University Press, 2018, in: European Review of History

CfP | Chronopolitics: Time of Politics, Politics of Time, Politicized Time

London, 7-9 May 2020 | Deadline: 31 April 2019

Time is so deeply interwoven with all aspects of politics that its fundamental importance is frequently overlooked. Building on the work of Charles Maier and Christopher Clark, we define chronopolitics as research into ‘how politics is about time’ as well as what kind of time is ‘presupposed by politics’ (Clark), how the perception of time and change affect decision-making and how concepts of time and history give meaning and legitimacy to political actors, groups and ideas. However, instead of taking time as a given, we set out to analyse how it is socially and culturally constructed through political and scholarly practices.

On first glance, politics and time coincide as policy makers are constantly making decisions in the present, against the background of a past and in the name of a future. Yet, in order to scrutinize the nexus between time and politics more closely, it is necessary to differentiate. We are looking for submissions on the following dimensions/aspects of chronopolitics:  

(1) The time of politicsrefers to the arena of the decision-making process and to the changing rhythms and durations within which politics take place. As George W. Wallis argued, the time of politicsis a ‘time of transition’ in which political players lay the foundations of tomorrow or forgo doing so. It is subject to formalizations such as terms of offices or legislative sessions; its configuration is radically altered if the present is perceived as crisis, and it is structured by expectations and fears. 

(2) The politics of time on the other hand refers to the regulation, synchronisation and allocation of time by politics. The object of this chronopolitical dimension is an allegedly objective, physical ‘clock time’, whose measurement and standardization both on national and global scales have lately been drawing much attention, as have also debates about calendar reforms, daylight saving time or the length of the working day. In the latter cases time figures as a ‘scarce social resource’, as Charles S. Maier notes, usage of which can be contested and distributed.

(3) Politicized timeis time employed as a weapon of politics, as a means of legitimising one’s own programme, challenging and discrediting political opponents or opposing political views. Whether advocating change or continuity, politicians refer as much to the past for orientation and legitimation, as they outline futures. Progressive versus conservative – the very categories of political differentiation since the French Revolution are temporal ones. Recently, Brexit and Trump have both been portrayed in terms of a temporal politics, as indicative of ‘being stuck in the past’ or the nostalgic yearning for a Golden Age.  

(4) A subset of politicized time poses particularly pressing questions we hope to discuss, i.e. the politics of (de)synchronisation. Civilizing missions, development and modernizing projects – in the colonial periphery as well as at the nation’s margins – were based on a temporalization of the other that Johannes Fabian aptly named the ‘denial of coevalness’. Yet, while temporal exclusion and stratification lay at the heart of ‘modern’ chronopolitics, it also comprised the promise of coevalness. Chronopolitics was about fighting anachronism, making history and accelerating its course.

(5) When it comes to chronopolitics, historians as well as scholars of further ‘historicist’ disciplines such as anthropology neither were nor are mere observers. In fact, these disciplines are among the main producers of ‘the characteristic images of history and temporal order’ (Maier) that both inform chronopolitics and constitute its very object. Thus, we would like to critically reflect these images and – following the lead of Reinhart Koselleck, Achim Landwehr, Ethan Kleinberg and others – discuss alternatives to more or less hegemonic historicist temporality. We invite scholars to explore concepts such as pluritemporality but also to historicise chronopolitics of ‘pre-modern’ periods and to reflect the pre-occupation with modernity and the emergence of modern time regimes. We are particularly interested in case-studies probing into the coexistence and clashes of different temporal imaginaries and postcolonial, feminist or queer temporalities, and in papers explicitly addressing the modern/pre-modern dichotomy.

Organized by Tobias Becker, Christina Brauner and Fernando Esposito for the Arbeitskreis Geschichte + Theorie in conjunction with the German Historical Institute London, the international conference aims at bringing together scholars from across different periods and disciplines (such as history, art history, philosophy, anthropology, ethnology, sociology, economics, literary, cultural, gender and queer studies). We invite proposals for presentations (20 min) that combine an interest in theory with empirical case studies.

Please submit an abstract of no more than 500 words, along with a short CV, by 30 April 2019 to The conference will take place at the German Historical Institute from 7 to 9 May 2020. Subject to a successful funding bid, costs for travel and accommodation will be covered.

Eine kleine Geschichte der Nostalgie—anhand des Merkurs

Aktuell wird auch in Deutschland verstärkt über Nostalgie diskutiert, nachdem dies in Großbritannien und den USA mit Blick auf Retrotrends einerseits und Brexit/Trump andererseits bereits länger der Fall ist. So meinte zu Beginn diesen Jahres Jürgen Kaube in der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitungen, Nostalgie klinge zwar harmlos, gegenwärtig verbreite sich aber „eine giftige und hochinfektiöse Form dieser Krankheit“.

Ganz ähnlich machte im August Nils Markwardt in der Zeit, angelehnt an den Soziologen Zygmunt Baumen, eine Sehnsucht nach Retrotopia ausgemacht: „Die Zukunft zeigt sich nicht mehr im Aufbruch in ein verheißungsvolles Morgen, sondern in der Rückkehr zu einem nostalgisch verklärten Gestern.“ Und vor kurzem kam eine Bertelsmann Stiftung zu dem Ergebnis, „a majority of the European public can be classified as nostalgic“.

Alle diese Beiträge sind überzeugt, Nostalgie sei ein junges Phänomen, eine Reaktion auf die Beschleunigungserfahrung der letzten Jahre und Jahrzehnte. Sie alle meinen, dass Nostalgie schlecht und gefährlich ist, eine falsche Einstellung zum Leben, ein Sich-verkriechen vor den Problemen der Gegenwart. Tatsächlich jedoch ist dieses Argument sehr alt und die Nostalgie-Kritiker erscheinen oft als die eigentlichen Nostalgiker, da ihre Diagnose impliziert, es habe eine Zeit gegeben, in der die Menschen nicht nostalgisch gewesen war.

Ein Blick auf die Geschichte der Nostalgie-Debatte ist daher das beste Mittel um die gegenwärtigen apokalyptischen Diagnosen zu relativieren. Die Geschichte der deutschen Nostalgie-Debatte lässt sich auf vielfache Weise schreiben. Eine führt entlang der Zeitschrift Merkurs, der Deutschen Zeitschrift für europäischen Denken und ältesten Kulturzeitschrift Deutschlands.

Im Merkur erschien 1962 zwei Artikel von Helmut Plessner und Theodor W. Adorno, in der die „Legende von den zwanziger Jahren“, die damals gerade im Entstehen war kritisierten und sie zu entlegen versuchten, indem sie sie mit ihren eigenen, dunklen Erinnerung an die Weimarer Republik konfrontierten. Der Begriff Nostalgie stand ihnen damals noch nicht zur Verfügung. Stattdessen schrieben sie auf Englisch von „Revivals“ und Adorno an einer Stelle, ebenfalls auf Englisch und in Anführungszeichen von „nostalgia“.

Unter dem Einfluss der Nostalgie-Debatte in den USA, nahm der Begriff Nostalgie um 1970 herum seine heutige Bedeutung an. Zugleich kam es nun auch in der Bundesrepublik zu einer verstärkten Debatte über das bzw. die Phänomene, die er beschrieb. Der Merkur war wieder vorne mit dabei. Hier erschien 1976 eine „Deutung der Nostalgie“ des Soziologen Arnold Gehlen sowie, im selben Heft, Überlegungen zu einem „Phänomen ohne Theorie“ des Pädagogen und Jugendforschers Dieter Baacke, der in ähnlicher Form in Meyers Lexikon erschien.

In den 1980er Jahren erlahmte die Nostalgie-Debatte ein Stück weit, um dann in den 1990er Jahren nach der Wiedervereinigung wieder Fahrt aufzunehmen. Noch ehe im Merkurvon Ostalgie die Rede war, veröffentlichte dort der Althistoriker Christian Meier 1994 einen Beitrag, in dem er die viel weniger diskutierte Westalgie thematisiere und als eigentliches Problem beschrieb, es gäbe „eine BRD-Nostalgie, von der man weniger spricht, die jedoch bedeutsamer ist“. Der jüngst verstorbene Schriftsteller Michael Rutschky, erkundete im folgenden Jahr in geradezu ethnologischem Duktus „Wie erst jetzt die DDR entsteht“. Rund zehn Jahre später, nutzte Jens Bisky die Seiten des Merkurs, um unter dem Titel „Zonensucht“ eine „Kritik der neuen Ostalgie“ zu entfalten. Vergessen war da, dass die Bundesrepublik da bereits zwanzig Jahre lang über Nostalgie diskutiert hatte. Und auch dem Hinweis von Christian Meier folgten die wenigsten. Nostalgie war zu einem rein ostdeutschen Phänomen geworden.

Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken

Auch in der aktuellen Debatte ist der Merkur wieder vertreten. So verzeichnete Cornelia Koppetsch jüngst in der Soziologiekolumne eine „Welle der Nostalgie“ und berief sich dabei auf das letzte Buch Zygmunt Baumans Retrotopia. Der Blick auf die Geschichte jedoch, dass diese Nostalgie-Diagnose weder neu, noch besonders hilfreich ist. Oft genug erscheinen die Nostalgie-Kritiker als die eigentlichen Nostalgiker. Denn ihre Kritik an der Nostalgie als Gegenwartsphänomen impliziert, es habe eine Zeit vor der Nostalgie gegeben. Historisch aber sind diese Debatten äußerst interessant, da in ihnen Gegenwartsprobleme und der Umgang mit der Vergangenheit verhandelt werden. Zusammengenommen bilden die Nostalgie-Debatten so etwas wie eine Mikrogeschichte der Bundesrepublik. Wer mehr dazu wissen möchte, kann meine “Kleine Geschichte der Nostalgie” lesen. Erschienen ist sie, wie sollte es anders sein, im Merkur.


Helmuth Plessner, Die Legende von den zwanziger Jahren, in: Merkur 16 (1962), S. 33-46.

Theodor W. Adorno, Jene zwanziger Jahre, in: Merkur 16 (1962), S. 46-51.

Arnold Gehlen, Das entflohene Glück. Eine Deutung der Nostalgie, in: Merkur 30 (1976), S. 432-442.

Dieter Baacke, Nostalgie. Ein Phänomen ohne Theorie, in: Merkur 30 (1976), S. 442-452.

Christian Meier, Am Ende der alten Bundesrepublik, in: Merkur 48 (1994), S. 561-572.

Michael Rutschky, Wie erst jetzt die DDR entsteht, in: Merkur 49 (1995), S. 851-864.

Jens Bisky, Zonensucht. Kritik der neuen Ostalgie, in: Merkur 58 (2004), S. 117–127.

Cornelia Koppetsch, Soziologiekolumne. Eine Welle der Nostalgie. Die akademische Mittelschicht und die illiberale Gesellschaft, in: Merkur 2018, S. 51-58.

Tobias Becker, Eine kleine Geschichte der Nostalgie, in: Merkur 72 (2018), S. 66-73.

“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.

[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, (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, (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, <>.

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.