After Literature – Some Comments on the Current Boom in History

Sometimes memories throw long shadows into the future – as in the case of the commemoration of the First World War. Long before the anniversary of its inception in August 1914 the first books on the subject appeared in the stores. A very special one is the view of Philipp Blom on Europe from 1900 until 1914. The tumbling of a continent, he calls his impressions, which he skillfully unfolds before us. He takes them from reports from former newspapers, contemporary novels and essays and interprets them with a whole armada of secondary literature. The result is a panorama of an era, which, according to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, “was remarkably similar to the our’s”.

This assessment describes pretty well the thrill which this “wonderful book” (Der Spiegel) causes with us, reading it. The author is aware of our own hopes and fears, if he invites us to his “experiment”: Forgetting the First World War, to read the years after 1900 as if it had never happen. The result is astounding – at least for those three generations of readers who have learned in school, that this war was inevitable: imperialism and militarism would not have admitted any other “solution”.

That was not so, Blom says, in any case: not only. Of course, the preparation of a possible war is to be found with him also. But the naming ceremony of the Dreadnought, an 18,000 ton battle ship, in 1906 in Portsmouth, England, went wrong. The bottle of champagne that King Edward swung did not break at the ship’s bow, but entangled a garland of flowers. With an abundance of such impressions from business, politics and culture Blom allows us to immerse in a world that actually always had an “open future”.

So we are to see the years 1900 to 1914 without the “long shadow of their future” of the war. This plot of the historian and writer Blom is reminiscent of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who wants very similar to convey to the reader the feeling of “1926”, this year on the edge of time as he called his book. The projects of both authors therefore are successful if the reader forgets that he does not live in 1914 or 1926. Past is present and, with them, history literature. The book by Florian Illies, 1913 – The summer of the century, belongs to this genre, too.

“Widening of the present” could be called this phenomenon of cultural historicization provisionally, designating it to Gumbrecht. The material base for this would then perhaps be the search of media and publishing houses for convenient stories. The digital revolution deprives them of resources, so they would rely on publicly available information that can easily be prepared to stories – without much effort on original research. The reference to the actuality, the reason for the publication often is an anniversary, then. But this shows that the boom in history must have other motivations, too. Otherwise, the public would be tired of the many anniversary posts since a long time.

The preliminary finding therefore is the following: The acceleration into the digital age dominates our thoughts and feelings. We cherish old ties and foster new hopes, move between the longing for the familiar, since years assembled and the demands of technological hyper-reality. The digital sense overtakes life-world experience. Nothing sets itself. This liquid feeling creates a tension which is captured by the cultural production. Stories let us not forget that we have a past, whose future had once been open. The books mentioned fit almost perfectly within this context between history and literature. They show, in real time, how the raw material of history is turned into culture, in a network of knowledge and experience that provides our lives with meaning and perhaps support.

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This text has first been published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Decemember 27, 2013 under the title Zum Boom der Geschichte – Kulturelle Historisierung und die Suche nach Erklärungen für die Gegenwart.

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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