“Conflicting interpretations”: historians’ conference in Munich

18 Jun 2021

The German Historians’ Congress is one of Europe’s largest conferences in the Humanities. The next meeting, organized by scholars at LMU, takes place in October – primarily online.

The partnering country Israel finds itself at the center of conflicting interpretations. Holy places in Jerusalem. | © IMAGO / Winfried Rothermel

The 53rd Conference of German Historians was actually scheduled for last year, but the coronavirus pandemic forced its postponement. This year, the organizers of the meeting – the Association of German Historians (VHD), the German Association of History Teachers (VGD) and LMU Munich – wisely decided to hold it largely online. In the following interview, the members of the local organizing committee – Dr. Denise Reitzenstein and Professor Martin Zimmermann of LMU, together with Professor Eva Schlotheuber (Chairperson of the VHD), discuss the planning, thematic orientation and program of the upcoming digital conference. Its motto is “Conflicting interpretations”.

What specific challenges has the planning phase presented?

Zimmermann: When the first lockdown took us by surprise in the spring of last year, planning for the Congress in September 2020, which was scheduled as a face-to-face meeting, was essentially complete. Its content – including a total of 450 talks – had been agreed and the program had already been printed. Perhaps the most urgent task at that point was to ensure our funding also for 2021. The costs of the Congress are not fully covered by the fees paid by the participants, and the total cost is on the order of half a million euros. In 2020 we had received support from foundations, as well as from LMU. The University not only supported me personally as Coordinator of the Congress, it also financed a dedicated Conference Bureau. – And when it became clear that the meeting would be an online event, LMU again came through and extended that funding for another year. LMU’s Congress Center also provided valuable assistance in setting up the digital platform for the meeting, and its highly experienced staff contributed tips and advice on a week-to-week basis.

Reitzenstein: At first, we were quite confident that this year’s meeting could be held as a face-to-face event. However, in the latter half of 2020 it became clear that this would not be possible. In consultation with all parties involved, the decision was then taken in December to hold the Congress largely online. If the pandemic can be kept under control and legal regulations allow us to do so, the planned hybrid segments will make it possible to integrate some face-to-face sessions into the program, albeit on a reduced scale.

What does the detailed planning of such an event entail?

Reitzenstein: We have arranged approximately 160 separate events, and engaged 450 speakers to give talks in 100 thematically defined sessions. Each of these elements must be properly prepared. On the Tuesday, when the conference gets underway in earnest, the program includes approximately 65 individual events. For each one, a webinar must be organized, and measures must be taken to ensure that the technology works every time, so that all registered participants have unhindered access to the digital conference platform. We hope to hold portions of the program in the Great Aula at LMU, which will be recorded and streamed. All registered participants will be able to put questions to the speakers on the podium. In addition, exhibitors will have the opportunity to present their offers and services on the platform, and there will be a digital library featuring new publications. Virtual meeting rooms will be set up for one-on-one conversations, which will provide some substitute for personal encounters and discussions.

How much room for interpersonal exchanges does the digital format allow?

Schlotheuber: The Congress has always been an occasion that brings the scholarly community together. It’s where our field itself is constantly being discussed and redefined. I’m convinced that, as a forum for intellectual exchanges, the online format will work well, though we will be missing the personal meeting and of the direct interaction a lot.

Zimmermann: It’s important to keep in mind that this digital conference was born out of sheer necessity. We have done our best to create a perfect platform for the conference, which at least offers opportunities for virtual one-on-one exchanges. But one shouldn’t forget that the format also has one crucial advantage – a digital platform expands the geographical range of the event. This makes it possible for a much larger audience to take part, and there are no expenses for travel or accommodation. Moreover, history students have the chance to hear a week’s worth of lectures at minimal cost.

The motto chosen for the Congress is “Conflicting Interpretations”. Was this theme chosen as a particularly apposite reflection of the current state of our society? If so, where are these conflicts currently most apparent?

Schlotheuber: At the moment, there are many signs that democracies are under severe pressure. Public debates are becoming more and more contentious, even though the process of finding a consensus position is a crucial element of all democratic societies. The significance of conflicting interpretations is all too obvious in the debates on the role of fake news, for instance. When a society can no longer agree on what is true and what is false, or on the status of scientific findings, the situation becomes even more complicated. The Covid debate is another good example. What role can and should science play? Who should be involved in the making of decisive decisions? A second example of conflicting interpretations can be found in the debates on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The controversy over Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s offer to resign, and Rome’s refusal to accept it, demonstrates how issues are now treated in the public sphere. Are we really interested in clarifying what actually happened in the past? What is the status of the Church in this context? To what extent can the State intervene in the matter?

Zimmermann: The motto of the last Historians’ Conference, held in Münster three years ago, was “The Divisions in Society”. In a certain sense, the motto “Conflicting Interpretations” takes up the theme in a different key. The term is associated with disputes that are fought with no holds barred. One possible outcome of the upcoming meeting and its efforts to debate contested issues in an agreed historical framework is that such conflicts can be profitably discussed in more appropriate communicative contexts.

Reitzenstein: In collaboration with the third organizer of the forthcoming conference, the German Association of History Teachers, we have organized special events for history teachers as well as for pupils, which will look at the specific problems posed by conflicting views on how best to teach history and communicate historical themes in schools. For instance, there will be workshops for school classes on topics such as extremism in schools, and on racism and discrimination in sport.

Israel is this year’s partnering country. How is this linked to the theme of conflicting interpretations?

Schlotheuber: With regard to its highly complex geopolitical position, our partnering country Israel finds itself at the center of conflicting interpretations concerning not only historical and political, but existential issues. Israel has a multifaceted history, as a multi-ethnic society that goes back to Classical times. At the moment, we are witnessing a significant political change in the country. Netanjahu is no longer Prime Minister and an ideologically heterogeneous coalition of parties will now govern the country. This will certainly have repercussions throughout the region. Prior to that, Trump was replaced by Biden, and this switch also has important implications for the conflict in the Near East. During the Congress, together with our Israeli participants and guests, we will reflect on the deep historical roots of the present impasse. Without well-founded knowledge of the long trajectory of historical developments that underlies them, it is impossible to understand the current conflicts in the region.

Zimmermann: Of course, the idea of choosing Israel as our partner for a conference of historians to be held in Munich has to do with the significance of the location itself, with the vitality of Jewish Studies at LMU, with the Israeli Consulate-General and the Jewish Community in Munich, with the NS Documentation Center in the city – and the particular role of Munich in the history of National Socialism.

The Program for the conference has now been published. What are your major highlights?

Schlotheuber: On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the Association’s foundation, the meeting will include a staged presentation of highlights of its history. – A review of 125 years in the course of 20 minutes – that’s something to look forward to!

Zimmermann: We have selected a range of texts from the Association’s files on which Sapir Heller, a young stage director with Jewish roots, is now working, together with members of the ensemble of the Volkstheater in Munich.

Schlotheuber: I am particularly looking forward to meeting the Israeli author David Grossman, who will read from his own work and respond to questions from the audience. His novels and stories deal with the complicated relationships between Israel and its neighbors from the point of view of a literary artist. A very different topic, which however will be of great interest to all researchers on temporary contracts, is the situation in archives and libraries during the pandemic. The problem here is that many fixed-term research projects could not be completed on time, because libraries and archives were inaccessible. This is also related to the question of the role of digitalization in the historical sciences in the post-Covid era? In the context of the planned National Infrastructure for Research Data (NFDI), Association of German Historians (VHD) has started an initiative called nfdi4memory, the aim of which is to develop a blueprint specifically tailored to the needs of historians, archives and libraries.

Zimmermann: One aspect of the upcoming conference which deserves greater emphasis is the sheer diversity of topics and approaches represented on the program. It underlines the breadth and depth of interest the motto elicits within the scientific community. I find it tremendously heartening that so many topics, epochs, and interconnections are now being analyzed in the quest for compelling interpretations of historical phenomena. A stroll through the various thematic sections of the conference will reveal an astonishing range of new perspectives.

Reitzenstein: The range of topics is indeed extraordinary. The program is so densely packed that, at times, there are as many as 12 sessions going on in parallel. The attendees will have a hard time choosing from the rich menu! Personally, I‘m looking forward to the section on Ancient History that deals with the prospects for Arab-Israeli collaborations in the field of Classical Studies, and the challenges faced by those involved.

PD Dr. Denise Reitzenstein teaches Ancient History at LMU and served as General Manager of the 53rd Congress of German Historians.

Prof. Dr. Eva Schlotheuber holds a Chair in Medieval History at Düsseldorf University and is Chairperson of the German Association of History Teachers (VHD).

Prof. Dr. Martin Zimmermann holds the Chair of Ancient History at LMU and served as Coordinator of the 53rd Congress of German Historians.

You can consult the program and obtain further information concerning registration on the Conference Website

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