Racism and Historiography

This text by Christina Morina and Norbert Frei was first published, in German, on the L.I.S.A. blog of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. It was translated by Jenny Price.

Where are you from. Here we go again, I thought, and answered: Tricky question! It depends on what you mean by where. The geographic location of the hillside on which the maternity ward stood? The national borders at the time of the last contractions? My parents’ background? Genes, ancestors, dialect? Whichever way you look at it, your origin is a construct! A kind of costume that you are forced to wear for the rest of your days once it has been fitted. And thus a curse! Or, with a bit of luck, a fortune, derived not from talent but adorned with benefits and privileges.

Saša Stanišić, Herkunft (2019)

At the end of the day, the shelf life of a text on contemporary history, especially one that intervenes in current affairs, depends on the pace at which present events unfold and respond to it.

When the AfD entered the German Bundestag in September 2017, we considered it to be a turning point for core understandings of our democracy as well as for our self-understanding as historians. Zur rechten Zeit (‘At the right time’), which we co-authored with Franka Maubach and Maik Tändler, was therefore intended as a contribution towards an historically-informed debate on right-wing politics, nationalism and racism since 1945. Just a few months prior to its release, the Historikerverband (Association of German Historians) had also responded to the growing strength of right-wing populism by passing a motion entitled ‘Resolution on Current Threats to Democracy’ at its bi-annual meeting in Münster.1 Little and much has changed since.

A Pointless Resolution?

Whilst the ‘post-Münster’ debate on whether a professional body should indeed comment on (current) political affairs has since abated, there is a growing demand in our discipline—as in substantial parts of politics and society and even within the Bundesverfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution)—for a systematic examination of extreme right tendencies to prevent longterm damage to our democracy. As is common practice in our profession, academic discussion circles, project groups and even partially institutionalized research networks were formed; in the political and social sciences, a journal on research on right-wing extremism is in the pipeline.2 However, since the Covid-19 crisis, the deep concern that could previously be heard at many conferences, on podiums, in lectures, and in the corridors is hardly to be discerned anymore. The expected boost in academy activity on the topic became pre-empted. Focussed attention is a scarce ressource, even in academia, and even more so in times of an historically unparalleled fractured public.

But then we witnessed the harrowing video of 25 May 2020, and now the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis may well be a turning-point: the beginnings of a US-led and soon world-wide protest movement, and a (in many ways) ‘global’ debate that, by being genuine, diverse and—as remains to be seen—persistent, sparks hopes of marking a moment of cultural transformation. Faced with this situation, we believe that we should not simply wait and see but should rather ask ourselves what we, especially in Germany and as German historians, can do to ensure that this moment takes on a truly transformative effect.

Racism as Our Problem

Of course, by ‘our’, we mean our entire discipline as well as every single individual. Most of all, however, we mean ourselves. For we do not wish to make yet another appeal for the thorough investigation of right-wing populism, right-wing extremism and racism in our society. Rather, we are calling for a fundamental change of perspective that would influence our own work and which can be illustrated by a self-critical look at the prementioned book: the events in Halle, Erfurt, and Hanau, but likewise in Charlottesville, Christchurch, Minneapolis, and all the other sites of right-wing violent crimes and anti-democratic movements, have forced us to accept that our account of reality was at least partially skewed.

When our book went into print in December 2018, we argued that right-wing populism had pushed authoritarianism, nationalism and xenophobia into the center of German society. In political terms, this is still an adequate way of describing the increase in votes for the AfD. But this intepretation fails to take into account that the AfD electorate are by no means on the fringes of our society. On the contrary, their ideas are widely accepted—and therefore also mobilizable—in the center of our society. Varying dosages of prejudice, stereotypes and racism can be found in all modern societies. In fact, racism, as a ‘social relation’,3 is so common and widely practised that you may well hope to be a ‘university without prejudices’, as an initiative at Bielefeld University is called, but it would be more honest and realistic to state that the university strives to limit prejudice. The extreme right takes traditional patterns of stereotypical thinking and remodels and radicalizes these into political programmes, practices, and justifications for violence, which are clearly at odds with the German Basic Law.

To state that racism is omnipresent is neither to raise a blanket suspicion nor to relativize it. But it could open a door to some much needed reckoning with the rules of everyday social interaction, especially in our academic work. To put it clearer and firmer than it has generally been done before, it is about making the experience and knowledge of students and colleagues with international or immigrant backgrounds visible and heard within the academic and public sphere. The attempted antisemitic massacre in Halle and the mass murder in Hanau of people with diverse roots, but who were overwhelmingly born here or have lived here for many decades, and whose life stories are closely intertwined with the history of Germany’s transformation into an open, diverse and pluralistic country, was and remains a monstrous event. But the carelessness that soon returned after the first shock of the murders had passed spoke volumes. It seemed to say: We will not let racistly motivated crimes put a downer on the carnival season; in the Tagesschau newsroom, the images of mourners in Hanau were seamlessly followed by those of singing revelers.

Contemporary History as the Social History of Knowledge

Our role in teaching, research, and public outreach—particularly as contemporary historians—is not only to disseminate our comparably ‘old’ knowledge about the emergence, dynamics, and aftermaths of racially organized societies in a much clearer and firmer way than we have before, but also to look historically at the relatively ‘new’ knowledge of the human genome and the complete repudiation of racist ‘theories’, which were empirically disproven only at the beginning of this century.4 The Jena Declaration of 2019 should become standard reading in higher education, not only in seminars on contemporary history and the history of knowledge. Societies learn, but they learn slowly. Perceptions, discourses and practices, which developed hand in hand with modern science over the course of many centuries, and which laid the groundwork for our current work, can only be successfully deconstructed if we first acknowledge the incredible intellectual and social efforts required for such a learning process to take place.

Since George Floyd (and still more black US citizens since) was murdered by the police, much has been set in motion in our discipline, leading us to believe that this will surely have an impact on history as an academic and professional field in the Federal Republic as well. Earlier this year, on June 3, the American German Studies Association set up a Committee for the Initiative on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, and on the very same day, the British Royal Historical Society, whose Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion Working Group was established in 2017, declared: ‘Racial and ethnic inequality is a pressing issue facing the historical discipline.’5 In 2018, the Royal Society had already published a Race, Ethnicity & Equality Report on the practice of History in the United Kingdom, the only report of its kind to date. Its depressing conclusions were paired with a clear course of action: ‘In UK universities, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and staff in History have disproportionately negative experiences of teaching, training and employment. [..] Our recommendations are based on the premise that the best way of tackling systemic racism within academia is to accept that it exists and that we are all responsible for playing a role in securing racial equality.’6

The aforementioned statements at the start of the summer prompted various email and Twitter requests calling on German colleagues to declare antiracism and decolonisation an institutional challenge in this country as well. And rightly so, for it is not only a matter of abolishing the lasting structural, i.e. political, economic, social and cultural effects of slavery and colonialism right up until the present day. It is also a matter of eliminating forms of racism and historically evolved racial discrimination that can be found everywhere—including in our own (academic) world. The pledge made by the Association of German Historians in the autumn of 2020 during two online panels with American colleagues on ‘Racism – Crisis – Memory’, that they would ‘start a dialogue on exclusion from education, competing narratives on memory, state violence and protest movements’, is only a beginning; it is still a far cry from the institutional and systematic shift in perspective that can already be seen elsewhere.

Of course, historical research in postwar (West) Germany, which was increasingly conceived as critical research and teaching in the spirit of liberal democracy, has from its beginnings focussed on the racist and antisemitic crimes of the ‘Third Reich’, even though the postwar society of the 1950s rather spoke of ‘race delusion (Rassenwahn)’ (as a way of distancing itself) than of racism per se. And yes, eventually, the comfortable illusion that antisemitism, racism and the social exclusion of minorities had ended with the war began to be unwritten. But how long did it take, for example, for the racist, anticommunist, homophobic and anti-minority exclusionary reparations regulations, that were written up only at the suggestion of the allied forces, to become effectively criticized and thoroughly researched? Despite a boom in the historiography of West and East and now also of reunified Germany, hardly any studies in contemporary history shed light on how persistent and retrievable lasting authoritarian and racist dispositions are; this field is covered mainly by demoscopic analyses and studies undertaken in the social and political sciences. In other words, German historiography still has a lot of work to do on the history and legacies of racism and colonialism, let alone on the entrenchment of right-wing extremism and terrorism throughout modern German history.

Personal, Professional and Institutional Consequences

This not only concerns our historical research. It also applies to our teaching practice, our professional environment, our lectures, conferences, and research networks, in which some people experience discrimination on a daily basis without the general public – both within and outside of the university – even noticing. But, as the founding statement of the Committee for the Initiative on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion puts it plainly: ‘Universities, which we claim to be our professional homes, do not exist in societal isolation’.7 If we open up to this perspective and invite students in the Corona-semester of 2020 to a conversation about everyday racism in the university—as chance would have it, during a seminar on the origins of the modern-day concept of ‘race’—, a short exchange was enough to bring to light some sad realities: students at the next table drawing swastikas, invasively ‘asking’ a recently married German-Kurdish student whether she was now living in a ‘forced marriage’, and fears of gender and/or ethnicity biases in exam situations. Even at an institution like Bielefeld University, which developed a comprehensive diversity strategy and completed one of only a few studies on experiences of discrimination at university,8 bachelor and graduate students alike do not know who they can turn to for help and which concrete rules and procedures are in place to counter discrimination. For that very reason, we desperately need more conversations of this kind, with institutional backing and funding, in and beyond the relatively safe space of the university. We need this kind of teaching practice not least because it raises awareness of racism in an entirely different way than even the best specialist lecture.

A change of perspective is not brought about by controversy itself but by a shared willingness to reflect. However, those of us who consider themselves part of the majority should think especially hard about their own influence on and interaction with colleagues, students and researchers, who (are forced to) identify as minorities: those with other ethnic or cultural backgrounds, who frequently face great difficulties in asserting themselves and in gaining due respect—not rarely paying the price by having to recount their humiliating experiences word for word, only to then be accused of ‘playing the victim’. As the political scientist Nikita Dhawan puts it, it ultimately comes down to being able to recognize the unequal distribution of ‘vulnerabilities and privileges’.9

We have to take an active interest, both as humans and as institutions, in the inequality of opportunity in our (academic) society. And we have to take action against it, personally and structurally, through task forces and focussed mentoring, empirical studies and personal conversations, formal rules and professional commitment.

About the Authors

Christina Morina is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Bielefeld. Norbert Frei is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Jena.

Feedback and Contributions

This text is part of a series on Race, History, and Academia. Would you like to contribute to this dialogue? On this occasion we invite contributions from external authors in the form of blog posts of no more than 1,500 words relating to race, racism, and (German) academia. Please contact the editor for further details or to submit a proposal.

  1. Resolution des Verbandes der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands zu gegenwärtigen Gefährdungen der Demokratie’, Münster, 27 September 2018. []
  2. Zeitschrift für Rechtsextremismusforschung, in: H-Soz-Kult, 29 May 2020; it is curious that the editors of the planned publication have not discussed how their journal—given its title—relates to others with a similar topical range, such as the Jahrbuch Extremismus und Demokratie. []
  3. Manuela Bojadžijev, ‘Konjunkturen der Rassismustheorie in Deutschland’, in: Naika Foroutan et al. (eds.), Das Phantom ‘Rasse’: Zur Geschichte und Wirkungsmacht von Rassismus (Vienna/Cologne/Weimar, 2018), 62. []
  4. Eric S. Lander et al., ‘Initial sequencing and Analysis of the Human Genome’, in: Nature, 409/6822 (2001), 860–921; the genetic evidence presented at the time simply demonstrates that, until then, racist ‘theories’ had not yet been disproven. []
  5. On 3 June 2020, it also tweeted: ‘The RHS encourages, facilitates & supports work towards greater equality, inclusion & representation in historical practice, research & teaching. We believe that #blacklivesmatter.’ []
  6. Hannah Atkinson et al., Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History (London, 2018), 7, 73. []
  7. ‘Universities, which we claim to be our professional homes, do not exist in societal isolation. Racism poisons academia, it perpetuates academic structures: from recruitment and retention of students, faculty, and staff of color, all the way to the dismissal and marginalization of rigorous and important research and teaching on colonialism and racism.’ []
  8. Wilhelm Berghan, Madlen Preuß & Ulrich Dubbert, Diskriminierungserleben an der Universität: Wahrnehmung von und Erfahrungen mit Diskriminierung an der Universität Bielefeld, Bielefeld: Institut für interdisziplinäre Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung, (Bielefeld, 2016). A follow-up study was undertaken in 2019, the results of which are currently being analysed and which will be presented to the public in October 2020. []
  9. Nikita Dhawan, ‘Ignoranz gegenüber der eigenen Ignoranz’, DLF Tacheles, 27 June 2020. See also Nikita Dhawan (ed.), Decolonizing Enlightenment: Transnational Justice, Human Rights and Democracy in a Postcolonial World (Opladen, 2014). []