By J. Laurence Hare and Fabian Link
Studying history can be a lonely enterprise. While historians in the United States eagerly cultivate a sense of community through conferences, working groups, and edited volumes, their moments of cooperation are few and far between, at best bringing like-minded peers together only a few times per year. As the saying goes, it may take a village to study the past, but the work of the villagers too often unfolds in isolation. Across the Atlantic, the German history research landscape seems more open to collaboration. Some of the most interesting projects today center on standing working groups, state-supported research centers, and university consortia. To name just one example, the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge connects scholars in a number of subfields to a multidisciplinary network that aims to foster a broadly-conceived area of inquiry. In this way, scholars are able to move beyond the confines of the university, working more closely with like-minded peers, pooling resources, and thereby lending their labors to large questions and innovative new approaches.
The American academy could certainly learn from the German example, but the more individualistic habits of American scholars are also instructive for their European counterparts. One of the drawbacks of the institutionalized and systemic model of collaboration in Germany, for instance, is its tendency to create hierarchies and impose a collective intellectual rigidity, the fruits of a habitus against which Pierre Bourdieu famously warned in Homo Academicus. Such bad habits, masquerading as objectivity, can and do inhabit the historical discipline in the U.S., but the American scholar may feel more liberated to pursue a research topic with less regard for ideological or political positioning. A more deeply-incorporated liberal mindset typically means that U.S.-based historians may investigate a wide variety of topics, even those that might be politically controversial, while their German peers tend to choose subjects prescribed by the authorities in the intellectual field.
Inevitably, such observations invite exaggeration, but when we––two historians of modern Germany working on both sides of the Atlantic––embarked upon our own shared research projects, we found that the differences in our respective orientations warranted consideration. They created challenges, but they also presented remarkable opportunities for rethinking our approaches. At the same time, they showed us that the benefits of joint research and co-authorship are undervalued in both American and European historical practice. For our colleagues in the natural and social sciences, joint work is the norm and is seen as essential to tackling the conceptual and empirical difficulties of contemporary science. For historians, however, it is a rarity. In part, this stems from institutional obstacles. With the exception of some digital humanities scholarship, few history programs incentivize collaborative projects, and many explicitly warn scholars that joint authorship on research publications may be viewed as unproductive on the tenure track. At the same time, there are methodological difficulties unique to history. The challenge of tracking patterns and piecing together narratives across texts requires habits of reading that are tough to communicate with a partner, yet we have found that cooperation has a tremendous value for interpreting empirical findings. This is especially the case when historians from different backgrounds bring together their unique perspectives and approaches to sources.
These observations became clear to us through our independent research into the history of academic networks and cooperation in the social sciences, which led us to reflect on our own practices. Moreover, we were influenced by the nature of our historical training, particularly with the help of a shared mentor, Konrad H. Jarausch, who at the time was both Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina and Director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany. Jarausch has long been highly respected as a transatlantic scholar, and his research and teaching have done much to foster transatlantic networks within the field of German history (see Meng/Seipp 2018). While studying in Chapel Hill with Jarausch, we discovered that we were pursuing the same topic––the history of archaeology in Germany––but from very different angles. Link’s project, which studied the development of research on medieval castles in the era of the Third Reich, relied upon an intensive study of sources connected to relatively narrow temporal and thematic parameters (Link 2014). Hare’s work adopted a more macroscopic view of archaeology and museums as instruments of nationalist movements and political conflict in northern Germany and Denmark over two centuries (Hare 2015). In some ways, the two books that emerged from these projects reflected prevailing attitudes within the contemporary German and American academies. Where the former connected Link very closely to social science approaches and detailed debates about the quality of nationalist, so-called völkisch research in Germany during the mid-twentieth century, the latter maintained a more narrative, humanities-oriented approach intersecting meaningfully but loosely with broader concerns about the process of identity creation, the representation of cultural memory, and the dynamics of conflict and cooperation in borderlands.
We chose to work together to extend our previous research along a new line of questions and thereby reframe the assumed parameters of the academic conversations in which we were engaged. For instance, where Link inquired into the degree to which völkisch scholarship was methodologically innovative beyond its odious content, and where Hare explored the ways in which archaeologists balanced their nationalist perspectives with their commitments to international academic norms, we could now ask more generally about the changing parameters of acceptable science over time. With this in mind, we embarked on a collaborative venture that produced two jointly authored essays. Each utilized a broad time scale combined with close consideration of key texts or scholarly projects. The first of these was a reconsideration of the notion of pseudoscience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By specifically examining the Nazi-supported archaeological excavations at the medieval Viking trading village of Haithabu in Schleswig-Holstein, we were able to tie the assumptions of German archaeologists in the 1930s to older traditions in scientific practice, and in so doing we showed how postwar dismissals of Nazi scholarship as pseudoscientific were connected to a broader move to narrow the confines of “normal” scholarship (Link/Hare in Black/Kurlander 2015). Following up on this work, we then tackled the larger völkisch research complex, a conglomeration of academics and investigations cutting across the social sciences and humanities, which were closely tied to right-wing nationalist movements after the end of the First World War. We wanted to understand how the scholars working within this complex oriented themselves to the evolving terrain of mainstream science. To accomplish this, we focused on the ways in which they approached a common domain of inquiry, the concept of Volk, which denoted both physical and spiritual membership in an ethnic or national community. We traced scholarly attempts to define and reify the idea of Volk back to the late eighteenth century, when the crystallization of the Volk as a philosophical concept first made it a subject of academic study. As we showed in our article, the possibility of empirical inquiry remained consistently tantalizing but ultimately irreconcilable with the inherent “ontological dilemma” that posited the concept as both material and transcendental. As the notion of Volk became increasingly tied to national belonging in Germany during the late nineteenth century, its allure as a transcendental inspiration for scholarship increased, even as the narrowing confines of post-Darwinian science forced scholars to define their subject in more materialist terms.
Among the fruits of our research was a revised timeline for the development of völkisch research. Instead of centering analysis on the interwar period, which witnessed the most prolific production of völkisch scholarship, we shifted the narrative back to the nineteenth century, during which time the early conceptual space for the field steadily eroded and drove scholars into ever more untenable accommodations. This helped us understand why so many scholars aligned their work first with nationalist movements and later with the Third Reich. It also explained why these fields vanished so thoroughly after the end of the Second World War, leaving behind only the empirical methodologies that have so intrigued contemporary historians.
As the historical profession steadily increases its reach, eclipsing the spatial, temporal, and thematic boundaries that formerly defined the field, it is worth thinking about how future jointly-authored projects can similarly expand history’s methodological horizons. In practical terms, it makes sense for teams of historians to consider article-length projects, which may in the short term be more palatable to skeptical peers than monographs. In any case, we hope that the interpretative success that we have enjoyed in our joint work might inspire others to reach out to colleagues across the Atlantic or to other parts of the world to seek a fresh perspective or to generate new historical questions. At the same time, we would hope that such work might come to be discussed and debated, but also accepted and valued, within history programs everywhere.
Laurence Hare is Associate Professor of History and Director of the International & Global Studies Program at the University of Arkansas. He holds a Ph.D. in modern European history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of Germany and Scandinavia. He is the author of Excavating Nations: Archaeology, Museums, and the German-Danish Borderlands (Toronto, 2015) and Essential Skills for Historians: A Practical Guide to Researching the Past (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Fabian Link is associate professor in the Department of History at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main. His major research fields are modern German intellectual history, the history of the humanities and social sciences, and the history of science from the Enlightenment to the Cold War. He is the author of Burgen und Burgenforschung im Nationalsozialismus: Wissenschaft und Weltanschauung 1933-1945 (Vienna: Böhlau, 2014), “Castle Studies and the Idea of Europe,” German Studies Review 38, no. 3 (2015), and, together with Mark. W. Hornburg, “’He Who Owns the Trifels, Owns the Reich’: National Socialist Medievalism and the Creation of the Volksgemeinschaft in the Palatinate”, Central European History 46, no. 2 (2016). He is currently completing a monograph on the history of the social sciences in Cold War West Germany.