How historical thinking is done Ruthless Criticism
from GSP 2-19
Professional affirmation

How historical thinking is done:
The meaning and purpose of history in the intellectual life of the nation

The role that history plays in the intellectual life of nations is not minor. It’s part of a nation’s intellectual life to make an argument out of history and to ask about its meaning for “us.” It’s generally accepted that it concerns nothing less than “our identity,” which, as everybody with a history education knows, is “rooted in history.” Challenges that history presents to “us” are identified; lessons are to be learned from history; and “historical rights” are invoked to justify claims and actions that are deemed due today.

In the relevant debates and speeches, arguments are unabashedly made in the name of a “we” and a standpoint that exists in the present, that understands its existence in the present as its home, and does so from a point of view that results from a positive reference to the existing conditions: the nation, the law, the morality that prevails in a democracy like ours, the modern state system, Europe or the West are self-evident values for the members of this “we,” objects that are not only to be appreciated personally, but unquestionably deserve everyone’s.

In the name of the “we”

Everyone who argues in the name of this “we” approaches and enters debate with this legal standpoint that represents the consensus of the community of values – which does not ensure they are united, but gives momentum to the dispute about the correct understanding of nation, democracy, decency, etc. Every party argues for their point of view – on issues such as how to deal with foreigners, with the U.S., with the automobile industry, or with unborn life -– by claiming that this point of view must be recognized as universally binding; and identifies every deviation, not with a violation by an opposing interest, but with a violation of the higher values about which the decent community supposedly agrees, and which are ultimately supposed to constitute the meaning and purpose of its entire project. Here something twofold takes place, namely a competition of political standpoints for the orientation of the nation in fundamental questions arising from its political cause – the assertion of the nation’s economic and other interests at home and abroad – which are to be decided. However, this competition is carried out as a debate about the right understanding of and the correct position toward the higher and highest goods, as well as about the conclusions that are to be drawn from them; whereby one likes to refer to history in order to justify, from the lessons and tasks it gives to “us,” what we owe to ourselves and others (as Germans, Europeans, etc., with this history) in this or that “issue.”

The science of history is based on the intellectual life of a nation so constituted. As an institution committed solely to truth and scientific research, it is recognized and officially responsible for the cause which acts as court of appeal in the national debate. And in its consideration of this cause – history – it takes as self evident the standpoint of a moral community which is omnipresent in the intellectual life of the nation. [1] It is even rather blunt about how it takes this standpoint: it is committed to the “fundamental values of historical thinking.” It self-confidently talks about how its achievement is to process the events of the past so that they become a story that is of importance “for the present,” [2] namely for us. It gives methodological cues that it requires a perspective that consistently subjects the events of the past to the perspective of the present. It insists that it is important to grasp that the significance of past events is what they mean for us. And this is precisely why this science has acquired its three to five theoretical models of argument, which mock any sensible logic.

Noble relations

This brings us to the results of historical knowledge. This consists first and foremost, even before any of the content of the thinking has been given, in the realization that “we” are a product of history and have to understand ourselves as such. What is to be “understood” here is that this “we” is owed to a higher necessity. The point of historical thinking consists precisely in not identifying the meaning and purpose of the collective subject that is assumed in its reflections or even explicitly named, whose fate it traces with intellectual sympathy – “our identity” – not in its present existence and activity, but locates beyond it, in the past. According to the logic of this thinking, the meaning of the community of values, which we can ascribe to ourselves, emerges from history and simply consists in becoming or having become what we are today. The mission of this community of values is to develop and accentuate, has its being in its development, and if one follows the same logic, its justification.

Secondly, with regards to the knowledge about the past that historical thinking is concerned with, this consequently limits itself to appreciating historical events for their contribution to the formation of this wonderful community of values. The affirmation that a historian brings to the present almost by profession is thus transferred to the past which is the subject of his reflections. These scholars, who are evidently not phased by anything, look at the most horrible conditions in which earlier rulers put their peoples, and especially the most brutal forms of power that were exercised by the authoritative subjects in history to advance their cause, to extract the judgment that they produced cultural achievements to which we owe our present existence. [3] A judgment that neither reveals what the protagonists were concerned with at the time and what they did to achieve it, nor what the cultural achievements that are attested to by the historical events – such as the end of serfdom, the unity of the nation, the overcoming of fascism, or the post-war order – actually are in terms of their content. The judgment is based in either case solely on the spirit of affirmation, and it also satisfies no other intellectual need than the apparently abundant need for meaning.

This brings us to the third feat of historical thinking: the observations on the past related by historians ennoble the present conditions. They invite people to see the modern world as an ensemble of honorable achievements and to congratulate themselves on their existence in this world.

Historians unfailingly render this service for all political turning points and times, because the values to which they subscribe owe their existence to the affirmative reference to the respective existing conditions – and not vice versa. They are idealizations of these conditions, into which flow the respective author’s ideological opinions, political preferences, and valid moral concepts; but in whatever ideologically flavored form, they are in any case idealizations of these conditions. So it is not surprising that during Hitler’s time, German historians in droves set to work with the idea that the formation of a völkisch Führerstaat was what should be honored as a cultural achievement of humankind and the final purpose of history, while afterwards they quite quickly shifted to presenting the same history as a triumph of freedom and democracy and to classifying National Socialism as an unfortunate episode in German history on the way to modernity. The logic of historical thinking has proved as useful for one as for the other; its “value reference” turns historians into opportunists out of conviction.

Extraordinary interpretive technique

The intellectual ennoblement of our existence turns out to be all the more impressive, the more comprehensive the arcs of meaning that historians build over centuries and millennia. And so it’s inevitable that even a battle that took place 2,500 years ago in the early summer of 480 B.C. on a small island in the Aegean Sea near Athens is honored as a key event that brought world history a decisive step forward on the way to the democratic culture of the West: “The narrowness of Salamis formed, as it were, an eye of a needle through which world history had to pass, if in it, instead of large monarchically ruled empires, that peculiar people, exotic in appearance from the East, was to play a decisive role, which lived in all sorts of small independent towns, almost everywhere without monarchs, and in many cases already with extensive political participation of broad classes. Thus, John Stuart Mill claimed that Salamis was more important for English history than the Battle of Hastings." [4] And it was not only groundbreaking for English history: “How the Greeks held their ground was of less importance for world politics of the time, but all the more for world history, which advanced a great deal during this time in the Aegean region.” [5]

The art of historical interpretation, especially when it appears so full of meaning and pathos, certainly has its silly sides. However, one should not overlook the fact that the argument on which historical thinking bases its value judgments and on which the meaning it gives to present and past conditions is not so funny. In his further explanations, the historian just quoted unceremoniously gives the idea of political participation the quality seal “historically approved.” [6] And for no better reason than that it has prevailed. He not only mentions it prevailed because of an act of violence, but it is the only thing that one learns about this “idea.” And it is precisely this, according to the logic of historical thought, that gives it dignity, a subject that deserves our respect.

The logic of success

Here one thinks in line with the brutal “logic” of success, which justifies the successful thing. According to the same logic, the fact that the Soviet Union with its socialist bloc of states was successfully pushed back and armed to death in the conflict with the capitalist West, united under the U.S. leading power to form the largest military alliance of all times, and in the end gave up, proves to a historian that the cause of socialism was doomed to failure from the beginning; it proved itself to be "unfit for life" [7] and thus had to perish, while the model of democracy and market economy has proved to be “fit for the future” at the same time. In such judgments, the fact of enforcement or failure is exaggerated into a moral quality of the thing in question. The power of states to prevail becomes an instance that helps a higher moral justice succeed. For historians, therefore, great campaigns of war and battles between nations are not simply incisive events in history through which the political situation in a region of the world or even on the globe as a whole has been changed and decided for subsequent times. Their outcome is tantamount to a judgment that history, the world’s court, pronounces on the nations and peoples involved: "For cultural history, war was significant as a form of communication (...) Of cultural historical significance were Viking voyages and crusades, in which foreign peoples got to know each other. The last wars of this kind were the colonial wars, which proved the superiority of European civilization to the peoples of America, Africa and Asia and thus initiated the Europeanization of the earth (...) War - as Bismarck said - sets the hands of the clock of history right. It is a process of adjustment (...) The wars significant in this sense were not fought between two armies, two peoples or two states, but between two ages." [8]

From the perspective of cultural history, i.e. from the perspective of the present as generally adopted in historical thinking, from which history presents itself as a process that has produced nothing but cultural achievements, the raids of the Vikings and the crusades of western princes only brought the invaded peoples closer to the world; they have, as it were, given them a view of the bigger picture beyond their limited culture. If peoples have occasionally fallen victim to such forms of communication and perished, this only shows the historically-thinking mind that their culture was an inferior one. Their time was up. History corrects such things. Conversely, the “Europeanization of the earth,” i.e. the subjugation of the “peoples of America, Africa and Asia” under the rule of the Europeans brought about in the “colonial wars,” is to be seen as the logical consequence of the “superiority of European civilization,” which the Europeans proved in precisely these wars. This is progress not least for the peoples concerned, for whom the “Europeanization” of their countries has brought participation in a civilization superior to theirs. So goes historical thinking! [9]


[1] In this capacity and with this standpoint, representatives of this discipline see themselves challenged again and again to take a stand on “issues” that are stirring up the national zeitgeist. A prominent example of this is the so-called Historikerstreit in the West Germany of the 1980s, initiated by Ernst Nolte, who suffered from the fact that Germany was caught up in a “past that does not want to pass.” With a fine sense of how national morality and the nation’s real power status are connected, this scholar (and not only him) recognized that it no longer really fit the rank that his nation had conquered that this nation was still demonstrating its moral greatness and exemplary character by confessions of national guilt, that is, by accepting responsibility for the unique crimes of the Nazis. And backed by the authority of his scholarship, he boldly presented the thesis that the allegedly “singular act,” the Holocaust, was not so singular at all; that it was preceded by quite comparable crimes by “the Bolsheviks,” so the question arises whether Auschwitz is not better understood as “the reaction born out of fear of the destructive events of the Russian Revolution.” The fierce opposition that Nolte, Michael Stürmer, and other historians encountered with their attempt to renovate the historical image in a contemporary manner was characteristically borne throughout by concerns about the national self-confidence appropriate to a Federal Republic of Germany. The spokesman for the contradiction at the time was Jürgen Habermas, who insisted on the indispensability of the confession of national guilt for the national identity of the Germans with the following justification: “The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the great intellectual achievement of our postwar period, of which my generation in particular can be proud ... The only patriotism that does not alienate us from the West is a constitutional patriotism. An attachment to universalistic constitutional principles anchored in convictions has unfortunately only been able to form in the cultural nation of the Germans after – and through – Auschwitz. Anyone who wants to make us blush with shame over this fact with a phrase like ‘guilt obsession’ (Stürmer and Oppenheimer), whoever wants to call the Germans back to a conventional form of their national identity, destroys the only reliable basis of our bond with the West.”

Quotes from:
Ernst Nolte: »Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will«, in: FAZ, 6.6.1986
Ders.: »Die negative Lebendigkeit des Dritten Reiches«, in: FAZ, 24.7.1980
Jürgen Habermas: »Eine Art Schadensabwicklung. Die apologetischen Tendenzen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichtsschreibung«, in: Die Zeit, 11.7.1986

[2] Stefan Jordan: Lexikon Geschichtswissenschaft. Stuttgart 2002, p. 263

[3] Under the title “oral history” or “everyday history,” a department in historical scholarship has been striving for a few decades to give ordinary people, the common people, the “social underclasses” (Carlo Ginzburg: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, p. 22) "the right to historical representation" (Klaus Tenfelde: “The history of the worker between structural history and social history,” in: Wolfgang Schieder/Volker Sellin: Sozialgeschichte in Deutschland IV. Göttingen 1987, p. 99). One criticizes official historiography for one-sidedly focusing on the actions of the authorities and the “main and state actions” (Carola Lipp: Schimpfende Weiber und patriotische Jungfrauen. Bühl-Moos 1986, p. 9) and sees a missing appreciation for the role that the little people and the female gender played in history. What was missing: a historiography from below concerned with giving credit to the human material of the authorities who have written history for the progress of humankind that could hardly have broken fresh ground without them.

[4] Christian Meier: Athen. Ein Neubeginn der Weltgeschichte. Berlin 1997, p. 33

[5] Ebenda, p. 284

[6] Ebenda, p. 35

[7] Hans-Ulrich Wehler: Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Bd. 5: Bundesrepublik und DDR 1949–1990. München 2008, p. 424

[8] Alexander Demandt: Endzeit? – Die Zukunft der Geschichte. Berlin 1993, S. 78 f.

[9] Just as bourgeois philosophers of history want to learn from history that it reaches its telos in the bourgeois state, certain critics of bourgeois society who are committed to historical materialism have projected onto history a hope-giving perspective that is extended into the future, according to which history is “a lawful process of development of society from the lower to the higher stage,” a “history of class struggles” in which the party that is on the side of progress prevails until finally reaching communism, the “classless society.” According to them, there is a “historic law” which ensures that history necessarily takes this course. Its content consists in the assertion that the existing relations of production always become a barrier to the development of the productive forces and must then be revolutionized according to the law of progress. The followers of this doctrine, who demonstrated that the existing capitalist relations of production are incompatible with the material interests of those who play the role of the working class under these relations and had perfectly good reasons on their side to recommend that the members of this class should overthrow these relations, did not want to refrain from conferring the consecration of a higher necessity on the practical conclusion which they drew and wanted to see drawn from their critique of capitalism. As if this conclusion can only be well-grounded when it is not only materialistically indicated by the fact that the interests of wage-workers in this system go to the dogs, but is put on the agenda by history itself, they insist that communism is “the historical mission of the working class.”