Repetition and Rupture

Historians in the News
tags: philosophy of history, grand theory, modern history, Reinhart Koselleck

Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann is an associate professor of late modern European history at the University of California, Berkeley. With Sean Franzel, he translated and edited Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories (2018), a collection of Reinhart Koselleck’s essays.

In the summer of 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm travelled to the British occupation zone of Germany to re-educate young Germans. A recent graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, where he had also joined the Communist Party, Hobsbawm was working on his PhD dissertation and had just secured his first appointment as a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London. Born in 1917 into a Jewish family in colonial Egypt, Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna, his mother’s hometown, and witnessed the street clashes between Nazi stormtroopers and Red Front fighters in Berlin in the tumultuous last years of the Weimar Republic. His parents had died young, before 1933, but most of his Viennese family was murdered in the Holocaust. The British government didn’t make use of his German during the war, and his career in re-educating postwar Germans, arranged by his Cambridge colleagues, was cut short by the anti-Communist purges of the early Cold War.

A seminar at an imperial hunting lodge in the countryside of Lower Saxony was Hobsbawm’s first encounter with Germans who grew up in the Third Reich. Among the participants was Reinhart Koselleck, then in his first semester at Heidelberg University. Koselleck had joined the Wehrmacht in February 1941, two months before he turned 18. The following year, a German artillery wagon crushed his foot on the march towards Stalingrad, which probably saved his life. Koselleck was sent home before the gruesome debacle of Hitler’s army began. His two brothers were killed in the war – the younger brother during an Allied bombing raid that destroyed the family home, and his older brother, a committed Nazi, in the final weeks of the war; one of his aunts was gassed in the Nazi euthanasia campaign in 1940. In the last months of the war, Koselleck was sent again to the Eastern Front, which by then had reached German territory. His unit fought against the Red Army in Moravia. Captured by the Soviets on 9 May 1945, he had to march on foot to Auschwitz for two days, together with thousands of other German prisoners of war. There he took part in the dismantling of the IG Farben chemical factories, which were sent by train to the Soviet Union for reassembly – the very same factories adjacent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Primo Levi was forced to work until the liberation of the camp by the Red Army in January.


Hobsbawm went on to become one of the most prolific historians of the 20th century, one with a global audience. His writings in social and economic history were crisp and commercially successful, and animated by the belief in the political and moral necessity of an alternative to the catastrophe of capitalism – for Hobsbawm, the systemic cause behind the rise of fascism. For Koselleck, too, the midcentury crises necessitated a new understanding of history. He sketched out his Historik (or historical theory) in the form of elegant, abstract theoretical essays, written over several decades. Koselleck’s work is less accessible than Hobsbawm’s sweeping accounts, but it’s also groundbreaking and has been translated into many languages, especially in recent years. At opposite ends politically, both Koselleck and Hobsbawm pioneered critical approaches to the study of the past, spurred by the crises of their time.

Hobsbawm never left the Communist Party and, after the collapse of global socialism in the 1980s and ’90s, liberal historians such as Tony Judt and François Furet scolded him for his obstinacy. Today, however, Hobsbawm’s prediction of our world of endless wars, enormous inequalities, looming environmental disasters and other ruins of neoliberalism in the epilogue of The Age of Extremes (1994), his history of the 20th century, appears prescient. Koselleck, politically closer to Furet, stubbornly refused to distance himself from Carl Schmitt, the Weimar conservative political theorist and jurist who (without success) tried to impress the Nazis after 1933 with his anti-liberal and thinly veiled antisemitic conceptions of international law. Schmitt became one of Koselleck’s postwar mentors and remained a lifelong influence (their extensive correspondence during 30 years was published in German in 2019). His intellectual affiliation with Schmitt contributed to Koselleck’s reputation as a brilliant yet politically suspicious ‘philosopher of history’, especially in the Anglophone world.

To call Koselleck a suspicious philosopher of history isn’t without irony. Unmasking the dangers of modern philosophies of history propelled him to sketch out a completely new understanding of history. For Koselleck, these modern philosophies were essentially a secularised version of eschatology, that is – theological prophecies of future salvation, an interpretation he adopted from his Heidelberg teacher Karl Löwith. Koselleck aimed for a truly secular history, non-providentially rooted in the evidence of past experiences. Following the catastrophes of two world wars, Koselleck, in 1953, and still at the beginning of his career, postulated that we need to discard the conceptions of history that provided ammunition for the ideological furies of the 20th century – Nazism, but also the dangerous confrontation of Soviet communism and American liberalism in the nuclear age – and start rethinking from scratch what constitute the actual ‘conditions of possible histories’. For Koselleck, all modern ideologies claimed to have the ‘laws of history’ on their side to justify violence by all means. Dismantling the concept of history and coming up with a new theory of how histories actually unfold – chaotic, contingent, messy and ferocious, yet with discernible patterns – was therefore the most important task for historians.

Read entire article at Aeon

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