From The Art of History column of the April 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Wise Choices

Jane Caplan, April 2011

How do graduates choose a dissertation project? And how should they? This is not quite the same as the question “Why become a historian?” on which the AHA has published an engaging pamphlet of short essays, even if some contributors link the two questions into an explanation of what motivated them to become a particular type of historian. At one point long ago, at least in Britain, graduate students would have been advised to work outward from the documents: find an unused deposit and let it generate its own questions and tell you its story. There was also a tradition of supervisors dishing out topics, perhaps more common in Germany than in the Anglophone academy, although I remember my surprise at meeting one U.S. student in the archives in the 1960s who was simply working on what had been assigned to him, with little enthusiasm or commitment. Bad old days, no doubt. Nowadays students are exposed as undergraduates to an enormous range of possible fields and types of history, and as graduates are likely to be marched off to the archives equipped with a scaffolding of questions and theories and concepts within which to construct their project. Indeed, they might not even be admitted to graduate programs in the first place without a pretty clear idea to sell to a prospective supervisor. But if you can’t mentally compose a sentence beginning: “I really want to do this research because … ,” you might as well not bother to start.

Enthusiasm alone, however, is not enough. A pleasure in the past may be a necessary motivation, but it is not sufficient to launch graduate research, however elegantly it is articulated. Undergraduates heading to graduate school often need some prodding to grasp this and detach themselves from the subjective expressions of fascination with the past and their grandparents’ stories that powered their college applications. They must learn how to locate these pleasures and motivations in the collective intellectual endeavours they are about to join, which is also the first step towards seeing themselves as writers of history, not just consumers.

Choosing a dissertation topic is more weighty than any subsequent research decision, because it is the means by which graduate students will try out whether life as a historian suits them. And whatever decision is made will accompany them for the next five to ten years of their lives as either welcome partner or intolerable incubus—and it had better be the former. To be sure, the heavy hand of disciplinary reproduction is at work here, claiming initiates as they cross the threshold into the profession. The constraints on imagination that this can impose also need to be resisted by the freshness and intellectual curiosity of new recruits that will help to remake the intellectual agenda.

On the other hand, research is not like a marriage or civil partnership. You have to be committed to your project, but you don’t have to love it. The field I work in, the history of Nazi Germany, is certainly not a fit love-object, and is not the only one of which this could be said. The elusive desire that David Harlan wrote about in his contribution to this series (in the November 2010 Perspectives on History) is also deeply suspect, as Saul Friedländer and Susan Sontag warn; historians need to run a mile from the dubious fascinations of fascism. In any case, negative passion has its own dynamics, and distance is a more productive historical instrument than empathy. But it’s also undeniably more painful. The history of Nazi Germany seems irredeemable, an ultimate negation of Hegelian rationality, a monstrous redundancy stuck at the centre of modern experience and consciousness. In an act of patent and quasi-parental bad faith, I find myself wanting to warn my students away from it even as I remain trapped in its magnetic field.

Graduate research projects are contingent on financial support, especially if they involve long periods of research in foreign archives. I’m not sure I have ever come across anyone who made a calculation about the likelihood of funding into the sole criterion for choosing a particular project, but following the money would not be the worst way to make a decision: we remain the creatures of our research proposals and the beneficiaries of public and private purses, and economic necessity is a powerful driver. I’m writing this essay as I sit in Berlin on sabbatical—one of numerous research visits to Germany over the years, and many of them funded, like this one, by the generosity of German academic foundations. Not for the first time since I started working on German history in the late 1960s, I ponder the breadth of vision of an academic and political establishment that has provided successive generations of foreign historians with the wherewithal to conduct research into this most catastrophic period of German history. And it wasn’t just a question of the money the foundations provided, but a wider sense of intellectual openness that solicited the contributions we might make to a painful postwar project of national self-examination.

Of course all scholarship is international, even if not all national governments are keen to pay foreigners to unearth their murky pasts. But perhaps there are similarly generous funds dedicated to helping foreign scholars probe other difficult national histories—colonialism and slavery on the American continent, or pre-1989 histories in Russia and eastern Europe. It’s scarcely imaginable that the writing of history could be confined within national boundaries; any bookshelf obviously bears this out, as do all the seminars and conferences and congresses that hurtle scholars across one another’s national, continental, and intellectual boundaries. Undergraduates with any spark of interest in countries beyond their own borders should always be encouraged to equip themselves as soon as possible with a working knowledge of the necessary foreign languages, the indispensability of which sometimes seems to escape their notice. (They should also—this is another matter—be warned about the special loneliness of the graduate student abroad, even in the well-regulated archive cultures of Europe: living in cheap housing with never enough money to enjoy the life around them, longing for 24/7 opening hours that would speed the return home, and possibly isolated by language skills more suited to anatomizing the Ottonian monarchy than buying basics at the supermarket.) But, at the risk of a kind of specialist’s solipsism, it has always seemed to me that there was a unique, rather impressive quality to Germany’s—in this case West Germany’s—invitation to non-Germans after the war to join them in what came to be called Vergangenheitsbewältigung: “mastering” or “overcoming” the past. Not to be naïve—this was also a useful form of internationalization under the Cold War Euro-Atlantic umbrella—yet even so this embrace did not have to come at the price of repudiating Germans’ own responsibility for their past.

As graduate students from North America and Britain who opted to do doctorates in German history in the 1960s and 1970s, we were the envy of friends working on the history of countries less generous in their funding or perhaps less interested in what foreign historians might have to say about them. On the other hand, as we confronted living in a country whose immediate past was still so very present, we cast our own envious glances at those whose research topics put them in less dismaying, even pleasurable environments. We spent our days in the archives studying seven types of infamy, and our spare time in public places wondering who above a certain age had believed what, been where when, and done what to whom in their not-so-distant past lives. Yet I also felt there was an inescapable tension between reading that history as Germany’s and as humanity’s—a humble echo, perhaps, of Karl Jaspers’s distinction between the different types of guilt, from the criminal to the metaphysical, that in the end imposed a moral responsibility on everyone. The special gift or burden of doing contemporary history, what Germans after 1945 called Zeitgeschichte, is this persistent, ineluctable testing of the boundaries between record and judgment.

I’m not sure that many of us graduate students in the 1960s would already have come across the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or, if we had, whether it captured our motivation as such. Most of us were drawn, I suspect, by a rawer compulsion to understand Germany’s then still-recent history and its devastating consequences for communities of which we may have felt ourselves a part. But understanding remained an elusive goal. And for this reason Vergangenheitsbewältigung is clearly a process more than a destination; a process, moreover, that—as the circumstances of its coinage in German evangelical church circles in the 1950s suggested—has been as much a political and cultural project as an intellectual one. What historians can contribute is necessary, insufficient, and frustrating. The goal is always mutating in the act of being approached. In any case, I confess that I never felt I made much of a conscious choice about my research field. Even though I can knit together a plausibly rational story of what determined it, the conclusion of that story is always that the field chose me rather than the other way round. I have never, despite repeated detours into other fields, been able to escape it entirely. So: make your choice wisely. You may be living with it for a long time.

Jane Caplan taught history at Bryn Mawr College for over 20 years and currently is a professor of modern European history at the University of Oxford and director of the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s College. Her most recent publications are Nazi Germany and Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany.