Von Antia Wiersma |

German historians are in the midst of a heated discussion about how the professional association of historians should figure in social and political debate. On 14 February the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen (VHD) – the German counterpart of the Royal Netherlands Historical Society (KNHG) – organized a meeting with supporters and opponents of this debate in Berlin.

Two hundred historians from the entire country turned up and at some points manifested their agreement with one of the speakers through civilized applause. The central question at this meeting was: Is history an (a)-political discipline?


Following the previous elections in Germany (in the late spring of 2018), in which the extreme right-wing political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) achieved major gains, two historians drafted a text deploring the polarization and rising xenophobia in social debate on subjects such as migration and nationalism. They sent this text to twelve colleagues (who became known as “the twelve apostles”) and asked them to comment on it. The text was subsequently submitted for discussion at the general assembly of the VHD in Münster, held on the 52 nd Historikertag, last September. Prior to the vote at the general assembly, the VHD organized several discussions about the text, at which supporters and opponents could state their views and propose textual amendments. The resolution should, according to its supporters, be seen as urging historians not to remain on the periphery of social debate. In the end, the general assembly adopted the resolution following a public vote, and this was one of the sensitive issues debated.

Supporters and Opponents

After the resolution was circulated by the VHD, some of its members contacted the media. In articles featured in highly respected newspapers such as the FAZ, the opponents spoke out against the content of the resolution and the expression of political opinions by the professional association of historians. Understandably, the supporters of this resolution then replied in kind. All this led the board of the VHD to organize this huge meeting, where supporters and opponents could converse with each other and with the members of the association in the room. Among those who had drafted the resolution, the prevailing sentiment was that we “had to do something.” As a newspaper reader, I wonder “what” we should do, and “who” should do what? “Is this Zivilcourage?” wondered Thomas Maissen, director of the German Historical Institute in Paris. His discomfort arose mainly from the question as to whether “we [should intervene] out of civic responsibility or as a professional association.” From his perspective – and this sentiment was widely shared among the opponents of the resolution – it is the duty of citizens and not of professional associations to express their opinion through a resolution. After all, he continued, “as an association, we have a vested interest in staying out of politics.” Ute Frevert, who was among the strong supporters of the resolution, reacted by arguing that it would be truly awkward if historians expressed their views as citizens, while the association remained silent. “We need to take the offensive, but,” she added, “in a deradicalized manner.”

Role of the professional association

The main issue in the debate soon became: what can or may the professional association of historians do? Before this question could be answered, one of the opponents narrowed its scope by arguing that the question should be: “What should the association do?” This yielded quite a bit of civilized verbal ammunition, thereby throwing the respective positions of the panel members into sharper relief. Those who opposed taking a political stand argued that if historians prescribe what the actions or output of historical scholarship should be, we will soon wind up “in the devil’s lair”. They believed that a professional association was supposed to support the interests of the discipline and promote public access to archives and sources and independence of researchers. Understandably, the supporters replied that declining to take a political stand on controversial issues was also a political position, and in doing so the association was not neutral or objective but was implicitly taking a stand. During this debate, it became clear that there are two schools with fundamentally different views that failed to reach a rapprochement in this debate.

Hidden agenda

The supporters emphasized that there was no hidden agenda. “Our agenda is the text. We do not want to make the association political. We sensed the general sentiment in the association and acted accordingly. Our very presence here at this point reveals that members are concerned. That is why the resolution is phrased very generally and deliberately does not address a person or organization.” They also stressed that although the resolution was a political statement, it was not intended to serve the objectives of a political party. “Nor does the resolution prescribe how these matters should crystallize in politics.” The opponents replied that the main duty of historians is to offer substantiated answers to historical questions. Historians may of course express their political views as individual citizens but not as a collective. This brought the debate full circle. Chair Eva Schlotheuber of the VHD responded in her concluding remarks that she had no objection to the professional association taking a political stand, but that it would then have to be willing to debate those political statements internally as well. “We are only beginning to account for our words. This meeting is the first important step to this end.” In her view, the afternoon had been inspiring and successful.

Dieser Beitrag ist zuerst am 26. Februar 2019 auf dem Blog der KNHG erschienen.

Antia Wiersma studied history at the University of Groningen. She is currently the director of the Royal Netherlands Historical Society (KNHG). Previously she was deputy director of Atria, Institute on Gender Equality and Women’s History, and before that she worked in PR & Marketing and education for two renowned Dutch museums. She is currently also a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen. There she conducts (biographical) research on Dr. W. H. Posthumus-van der Goot (1897 – 1989), the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in economics in the Netherlands and also one of the founders of the International Archive for the Women’s Movement.