Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Present Times Concerning Things Past: On Recent Conceptions of Memory

Zoltán Hidas

Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Institute of Sociology


„Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren
Sich weiß Rechenschaft zu geben,
Bleib im Dunkeln unerfahren,
Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.”

J. W. v. Goethe

After sketching modern experiences and visions of historicity, the present study outlines two fundamental modes of our relationship to present time and memory. In an ideal typical way, two theoretical conceptions are contrasted for this purpose. A radical system theory of time presumes that there has been a rupture in the human temperament, which has opened our understanding of time functionally by focusing in an accelerating manner on the future. The cultural memory paradigm asserts the existence of the individual as a genuine part of remembering communities, who draws orientations from the past. In the terms of the Hegelian philosophy of history, we have here the pragmatic representation of the past for the sake of efficiency on the one hand and the search for an internal order of the most heterogeneous events for the sake of discovering continuity in human activity on the other.

Keywords: philosophy of history, system theory, cultural memory, relation to the past, presentism

In this essay, I pose questions concerning time and, more narrowly, the ways in which, recently, we have come, essentially, to relate to our memories. I begin with a presentation of the modern shift in historical conciousness (1) and then, based on a theoretical design outlined by G.W.F. Hegel in his philosophy of history (2), offer a discussion of two fundamentally different concepts of time and memory which strive to grasp in a consistent ideal-typical way the potentials of the modern era for assessing perspectives of time. Both take the present as their point of departure, but they assign different roles to the past. One presumes that there has been a rupture in the human temperament (3), while the other firmly asserts the existence of the individual as a genuine part of communities (4). Among the ways in which we relate to past, a third possibility also recurringly appears, but it seeks a radical withdrawal from the world of events.

Modern Experiences and Visions of Historicity

In an era marked by a seemingly infinite proliferation of differences which, according to diagnoses based on the most varied approaches, break the inner and outer human world into spheres that seem increasingly independent of one another, a longing for continuity and interconnection among the pieces emerges with renewed strength. In a life-world of “contingency” and “fragmentation”, which on a temporal horizon that has been brought into motion both sensually and spiritually strike an era named (without any classification of events based on content) modernity, the search for orientation falters between the present and the past in order to gain perspective for the future, which is regarded as open. But neither the present, which is permanently in motion, nor the past, which is seen as inexhaustible, offers any certainties that seem beyond doubt.1

Of course, these empiric and semantic changes of historicity only cause problems of immediate urgency for a manner of relating to the world that seeks to situate itself in time, as it were. Greek antiquity significantly aspired to attain solid models (“ideas” and “forms”) considered eternal and therefore worthy of imitation, so that it could realize them in evanescent time. The Judeo-Christian notion of divine “providence” sacralized some of the events of the world into a story of redemption, but it could only give them religious significance with the appeal to faith in the idea that “nothing happens except by the will of God.” For the early Christian, the existence of the Roman empire was for the most part an uninteresting contingency: the “heavenly city” was an inner issue.2 The man of the time did not have a developed sense of the theological significance of the prevailing order of the imperial milieu, much as there was no real recognition of the thought of the broad historical horizon and the fertile social soil as a potential sociological precondition of the spread of the new religion. Anticipations aligned with the presence of the “end of times,” which seemed to be prefigured and were indeed institutionally represented. The primary reference points of memory, however, were given by the correlation of the history of the Jewry, which was led by God, to the events of the last days in the life of Jesus as promises fulfilled.

As the Western world becomes increasingly open to purely secular approaches (on the basis in part of its own—political, scientifical etc.—efforts and in part of the gradual consent of religion),3 for a long time people thought to find valid handholds in time, seeing themselves on the heights of development as they progressed along a path from a rudimentary but clearly identifiable past to a valuable near-future, designated from the outset. The philosophy of history projects of the modern era unfold the large-scale whole that continues to hold together the spheres of the world that function according to independent principles: global economic growth, global political unification attains in the universal world history the consummation of the principles of humanity that are claimed and hoped to be general. History understood in the singular, as the notion of a unity that goes beyond the multitude of separate histories, can develop as the horizon of humanity, rich with meaning.4

From a rather formal perspective (in other words beyond geographical, historical, economic, and ideal elements), the birth of “modernity” seems just to begin with the discovery of temporality, understood in the strict sense: the future can be filled with acts that are seen as not bound to the past, in terms of the experience and anticipation of a kind of “never has been before.”5 The logical foundation of this idea and also its philosophical-historical cornerstone is an understanding of the original temporality of human existence. All this attains its fully developed form in the existentialist projects of the “moments” that require life-shaping decisions and personal “life plans,” as the task of the person “thrown into the world.”

Of course, the rise of a genuine historical consciousness always sees the phenomena of culture either as in an incipient form or in decline and ruin. The search for that what is generally valid is thrown into suspicion afresh by the always possible critique that can on its own terrain attack reason and rationality as the supposedly highest authority. Herder’s caution was made at a time when the most ambitious world history projects were forming: “in a certain respect, every human perfection is national, secular, and, if most closely considered, individual.”6 Thus, the questions concerning “essence” are replaced by the question concerning “formation” and “development”: metaphysics loses its priority of place to geneaology. The longing for the unified and the unconditional have ever since been washed away again and again by the unpredictable whirlpool of history, from which religious faith, which is increasinly considered irrational compared to the rationalities of the world, continues to seek a way out, stepping from the familiar relevances of the world of everyday life into other worlds of meaning.7 Reflection taken to the power of infinity has captured the generalness of principled thinking, and in its cunningness and refinement it is capable of finding—i.e. “reflecting”—everything in everything. The strength of and hope in unity is shattered by plurality, both in the inner and the outer worlds. What was once held to be the unity of reason unravels into a diversity of rationalities, which remain a worthy object of renewed attempts to make rational insights.8

The formula offered a century ago by Jacob Burckhardt, who pondered the nature of world history, today is only occasionally overwritten by visions of history garbed in scholarly guise: “history, that is coordination, is not-philosophy, and philosophy, that is subordination, is not-history.”9 Every exit from this circle of thought is “transcedence” in the most original sense of the word. Intellectual efforts to join the various worlds are given new momentum again and again by the human will for comprehensive unity and meaning.

The impossibility of an inner-worldly desertion from time, in other words the impossibility of a perspective that allows for total overview, makes reality accessible only through mediations and furthermore makes knowledge of that what happened a process that can never come to conclusion. Giving up on post-metaphysical aspirations that are bound to theories of knowledge or to the clarifying of the capabilities of human reason, the craft of interpretation, which comes near to the status of an art, gains ground under the label of “hermeneutics”. In the process of thinking on thinking, the one-time and present sights of the world appear as “concepts” or “visions” of the world. The relationship between facts and interpretations is increasingly reversed: according to the most logically consistent formula, “there is no such thing as a pure fact” and every fact is an interpretation from the outset.10 For reason, which itself is becoming a historically situated phenomenon, progressively unfolding world-understanding consistently proves to be renewed world-interpretation. Knowledge put into human molds is a world-transforming achievement. Thus, sources also do not speak for themselves, but always wait to be called on by the present to speak. Perspectives are offered by our own subjective relevances: setting out from them, the infinite plenitude of events, which in itself is structureless and unbroken, takes form. The way in which one relates to the past is always established in the present, and this makes it impossible, for reasons of principle, for consciousness today to draw a clear line between the two. If now it is not the past—the pure past, as it existed before it was discerned—that survives for the actual present, then the “enigma” of time is centered in the present, instead of the historical-philosohical future, which bore the hypothetical potential of fulfilling everything.

Saint Augustine’s famous arguments, which in his thinking still fit in the context of the development of an inner man who maintains a direct relationship with God, preshadow with a force that lasts to the present day our most modern way of relating to time: „But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present concerning things past; a time present concerning things present; and a time present concerning things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is sight; the time present of things future is expectation.11

According to this understanding, past, present, and future are three aspects of a present in which difference has arisen even with regards to itself. If time, as the “expansion of the soul”, is an inner matter for man, there is in principle nothing to prevent the internal rift of “time present concerning things present” from becoming deeper, and the reflective-intellectual work of centuries does indeed attain this. The transformation of the idea that everything has an ordained time and that the rhythm of events beats at a consistent tempo, into an eternal-human “form of observation” (Kant) was crowned by the notion of time as a continuously shifting pattern of human relations and our shared simultaneities and non-simultaneities as a well-articulated symbolic order.12 The present, which had once been regarded as a direct given, thus becomes the present of the “contemporary-world” (“Mitwelt”), invested with meanings, while the past that is suited to the present is a “predecessor-world” (“Vorwelt”), ever more distant in the generational chain and continuously shifting in its significance.13 The relationship to the past is humanly nurtured “culture”; the ever shifting manner of dealing with time is a question of “strategy.” According to this, the main question concerning our current manner of relating to the past—beyond the idea of mere mapping, which increasingly counts as little more than an illusion—is not the dependency of historical knowledge on point of view, but the actual weight of the present in comparison with what has taken place, or, conversely, the power of historical awareness to shape the present.

A Hegelian Typology of Grasping History

In the introduction to the most broad philosophical world history ever written, Hegel offers an overview of the possible ways of writing history. Thus, “reflexive history” goes beyond the naïve primitiveness of the great masters of history writing, who dissolved in their own present. This reflexive history extends from the simple anachronism through a pragmatic representation of the past to the search for the internal order and unity of events in a given circle of humanity. The philosophical approach, which supposes a reasonable progression of events, steps up onto the highest rung of history so that its presupposition prove necessarily true in the coherent progression of events and their presentation.

The treatment of the past, which was becoming a matter of scholarship, seeing the a-historical unfairnesses and totalistic consequences of absolute measures, devoted itself increasingly to the partial interconnections of inner-worldly events, and, in the thrall of “pure facts,” for a long time it considered the discovery of the “actual” events its primary task. Science, which was more sensitive to differences, ruptures, and ommissions, demonstrates the fictional nature of the intellectual edifices of unity. However, for self-reflective historical consciousness, a reading of the memory traces that have palpably survived increasingly proved a form of reconstructive work done on the basis of the sources. The abstractive gestures of science proceed from the primary constructions of the everyday world, constructions with which the debate community, which is skeptical of everyday evidence, is incapable of breaking entirely, its experience in practical “disinterestedness” notwithstanding.14 Because of the uninterruptible dialectic of terms and events, history writing that aspires towards universality itself remains in part in the sphere of influence of the retrospective “mastering of the past.” Any deposit of the past, whatever form it takes, cannot be definitive.

Regarding the hierarchy of cognizance established by Hegel, the paths to direct accessibility of events and the discernment of their necessity in the meantime have been obstructed. Two possible procedural perspectives remain in the potential spaces of recollection, more narrowly understood: the effectiveness of memories correlated to particular (economic, political, religious, or even artistic) partial presents in the respective environment and, on the other hand, the horizon of meaning of the commemorated past, again and again contoured from the present. Although both projects use the implements of historical criticism, the focus of the first is actuality, which ensures functionality, by excluding memories that are dispensable to this. The focus of the latter is the manifold presence of guarded and concealed pasts, and the derivation of the future from some kind of origin.15 As we will see, all this is not independent of our possible ways of relating to ourselves either.

According to an originally sociological insight, the sense of acceleration which comes from the proliferation of groups which transect one another in a single individual brings a new rhythm to the succession of events in the past and the succession of events today. The apocalyptic attitude bound the fulfillment of promises to the merciful arrival of the end times and the unexpected curtailing of history. Among the driving forces of the acceleration, which is also self-propelling, the faith in the expedient transformability of a progressive world is intertwined with the intensification of traffic and the proliferation of contacts. The increase in contents of consciousness for a single unit of time and the rapid change in patterns of behavior and associations have brought about an “intensification of sensed-life” and in general a fundamental transformation of human time.16 In any case, the shocking experience of the compression of the present, which is experienced as something in a continuous state of acceleration, assails with tremendous force the tradition of learning from continuous narratives.17 History loses its quality and role as teacher: expectations concerning the future cannot be derived on the basis of acquired experiences. The new present—according to the first project, which is becoming more and more dominant—selects the requisite accessories of functioning in the spirit of efficacy, if necessary even from the distant past. Our strategic use of time fits well into the frameworks of a manner of relating to the world based on domination—while in the servile dialectic of human and time it is increasinly difficult to find a handhold.

The Forgetful Memory of Efficacy

Let us consider for a moment the first option: systems theory sociologist Niklas Luhmann has provided the most consistent theoretical examination and at the same time self-reflective look at the pragmatic perspective. Each of the social system-worlds, which are increasingly separating from one another, is built on a particular distinction: according to a bivalent code, it selects or—more precisely—creates its own elements, events, and borders in its separation from its immeasurable environment. Science selects truth, economics selects the profitable, religion selects the transcendent in the face of falsehood, the unprofitable, and the immanent, and so on and so on in each of the various systems of the system-worlds. In the meantime, communication embraces the systems, which are closed within themselves, i.e. they are “self-referential”: the borders of the social world are denoted by the borders of communication. If continuity is thus nothing more than the bearing of the systems on themselves, then the task is the connection of the communicative acts that are just taking place to the previous ones in the interests of maintaining the own system.

The system functionings, however, are no longer structured into a unity by any central ordering project. In Luhmann’s model, the systemic place of identity is occupied ever more consistently by difference: the abstract and paradoxical fundamental principle is “the difference of identity and difference”.18 Correspondingly, the divergent motions, which since they were first discerned have been expressed with metaphors of “fragmentariness,” “fluidity,” and “mobility”, find structured theoretical form as “differentiation”. The systems, which become independent without any internal relation, live their own, separate times, so to speak, which for the personal experience of the world finds manifestation in the impossibility of harmonizing individually and communally the spheres of life. Various system times of varying pace and rhythm come into being between the cosmic world-time and the personal lifetime, which are of differing scales from the outset. The simultaneous multitide of non-simultaneous system presents compete for the inclusion of the communicating participants—i.e. even for their creation as communicational partners. For “psychical systems” (which were once called “consciousnesses”), which also count as independent (because they function within their own spheres of thought), participation in the various projects renders establishing and ordering themselves within the temporal differences of the many kinds of present an increasingly unmanageable task: hindering the dispersion of differentiation, in other words synchronizing the presents, is a challenge that puts the “psychical system” to the test. The increasingly fast-paced differentiation of the systems, which by this time are preoccuppied with themselves, place our own observational position (which distinguishes the task immediately to be performed from all tasks that must be neglected) under ever stronger pressure to select. “Not to act is lost time.”19 Complexity, which continues to build with ongoing differentiation, features the omitted selections as postponable. But while the future which belongs to the prevailing present becomes unattainable, as it were (and bears an ever larger quantity of decisions),20 it contracts and becomes increasingly short because of the increasingly uncertain expectations. The evolutionary logic of the process of variation, selection, and stabilization may imply temporality, but the necessity of maintaining the system does not tolerate delay.

In the present which has become permanent not only the “future cannot begin,”21 the continuous communicational uncertainties of the continued functioning of the systems make uncertain the status of the past. For the systems, “now”, which becomes ever shorter in the difference between “before” and “after”, borrows a kind of eternal present tense without duration: the diminuation of the duration of the elements to a point—already ephemeral in their moment of coming into being—is an elementary interest adequate to the irreversibility of time.22 If the present is now the paradoxical unity of the difference of the past and the future, the possible point of origin of novelty,23 then for the assurance of functionality the past appears less and less as the present reality of what has taken place. The past which has been chosen by the system as its own (a past which for a long time was called “tradition”) thus can reach the present, but its contents, depth, and pace contuinuously change according to the exigencies of the given present. For the time of the everyday, the ever-developing technology of data storage, which is increasingly incapable of forgetting, tends to account for historical time, while the appeal to history becomes an incidental question. For the principle of functionality, the historical-causal continuity of the past is merely a question of expedience. Because of the inexhaustibleness of causal interconnections, the selection of reasons that would be worthy of being taken into consideration in a given case falls, furthermore, to the incidental observer.24

If, however, in the compression of time the present continues to lose its expansure, how does the space for memory take form? The re-use of successful experiences—in other words the selection of what has been selected before, the repetition of tried and tested differentiations—of course is possible anytime under favorable circumstances; in this way, the self-regulating system wins time, so to speak. The intensification of complexity, however, increasingly hampers a purely redundant self-creation. Thus, according to the explanation given by the systems theory sociology of knowledge, instead of a differentiation between the tranquility of eternity and the restlessness of change, a model origin and uncertain transformations, in the historical approach of the modern era a temporalized self-description of society appears and comes to culmination. As we already know, history “comes into being if observation of socially important events is made with consideration of the difference of before and after.”25 Historical consciousness lets the present emerge out of the past, but—paradoxically—it founds the only possible identity on constantly shifting differences. Instead of spatiality, the semantics of temporality corresponds well to the functional differentiations of the social world: the sense for “formations” and the “processes” that gave rise to them (instead of the “essence” of “things”) and “originality” (instead of “origin”) become information for the present. Memory does not seek orientation simply in historical succession, but rather it makes its way towards an understanding of the past which makes the present visible as a “space for action,” in which the novelty of the future can be born of novelties past. The problems of the actual present are none other than the always peculiar differences between the past and the future. Seen from the perspective of systems theory, the demand for continuous rewriting of the past (a demand striving for originality) stems from the search for novelty hidden in the one-time evolutionary variations, i.e. ruptures.

Given all this, it is hardly coincidental that Luhmann closes his presentation of the eventually timeless evolutionary logic of systems with a discussion of memory.26 The presentism of system memory that prevails in the name of functionality makes selections from the endless material with consideration of the functioning of the given system: it forgets anything and everything that it doesn’t happen to need at the moment and remembers only the one thing that gives continued momentum to communication. Thus, the primary function of memory is, paradoxically, forgetting, even if the self-description of society continues to the present day to be wrong about this. The stakes are not the coherence of events, but rather the consistency of the systems which is open to new impulses and disturbances—a consistency, which in the social world sometimes can even be served by historical coherence. However, with the obstruction of forgetting, the culmination of earlier results into “identity” can lead to the destruction of the system. Recently, the concept of “culture” has been called on, as the horizon of comprehensive comparisons (instead of stable identity), to ensure at least similarity, in spite of every difference. Culture, as a vessel that is formless in and of itself, is supposed to receive world contents, but at most it is capable of duplicating them by their external observation. Today’s “culture” of the past is the memory of the social system, which of course is quite aware of its character as memory. This twofold reflection, the consideration of what has been bequeathed as tradition, sheds light on the double contingency of the particular past: that it could have evolved differently, and something else could have been selected. With ordered remembering (for instance the guidance of historical comparisons), culture tries to adapt to the increasingly complex social system-world. Systems thinking instead calls on us to observe “who uses what differentiations in order to offer his past for the future.”27

In society understood as communication, instead of the bearer of memory, whether personal or group, the media of memory become important.28 Writing steps past the narrow sphere of oral communication, which is bound to rites and formulas, and the potentials of repetition as means of maintenance. With its tremendous power to record, it makes the improbable probable and ensures the connection of the communicational events that are just beginning with those that preceded them. If time can no longer be organized by acts committed eye to eye, then “previous” events can be taken from the most distant past if a written trace of them has survived. Concrete time, wich comes into being in the duality of events transpiring and events completed, point-like and continuous, and is considered essentially spatial, is succeeded by the abstraction of the distance between eternity and temporality: the increasing validity of the increasingly distant texts thus creates transcendence. In the wake, however, of the process by which the revival from the archives of contents that were recorded earlier (in other words memory) becomes increasingly independent of the circumstances of their birth, not only do untouchable canons come into being, but, ever more distant from the sacral centers, the arbitrary application of the written word becomes possible. In recent times, the increasingly independent systems of the mass media have realized this potential, which was always inherent in writing, amidst circumstances of increasingly open access. Since everything that ever happened and is now happening can be present in an accessible manner for anyone in timeless simultaneity, the past counts exclusively as re-presentation. The communications that exist in a continuous present increasingly distinguish the information of “novelty” from the redundancies of that which is “old,” which is why it is increasingly difficult for the past to find any settled form.

Naturally, the logic of differences does not leave the deliberate observer (the participant in and observer of events) untouched. What was once “man” proves to be a plethora of systems: the internal life of his consciousness separates from his social participation in communicational systems on the basis of principle. Only the self-interpretations of eras that were built on less efficacious differentiations (up/down, us/them, man/world) could cling to the idea of the unified consistency and continuous content of people and groups.

The Committed Remembrance of Significance

Turning now to one of the characteristic recent versions of some internal order and unity of events, admidst the newest precepts of thinking concerning the possibilities of cognition, even the project of “cultural memory” can no longer abandon the perspective of the present. In an era of intensifying differences, however, the overview of the present can be ensured not only by the pragmatics of systemic persistence but also by passing the temporal paths that lead to us. By abandoning any unconditional cognition for its own sake, we make the past that is significant for us the object of our own perspectives. The designated objects are selected by interest that is alleged to be shared from the endless quantity of material. We mold the phenomena that surround us into some kind of unity with regard to their antecedents. In our time, with its eminent interest in history, the things that are thus uncovered also play a role in the memory of the world that lies beyond the scientific world, namely as a story built into the present. The present acts of memory in this approach evoke historical determinations or at least conditions. Jan Assmann opposes his own project of “cultural memory” with the presentism of forgetting, on the basis of the “non-simultaneity of that what is simultaneous”.29

“Tradition” is one of the antecedents of the search for historical continuity, i.e. the notion of preserving and passing on the bequeathed. The modern project of education and refinement (Bildung) as omni-sided self-development establishes as its goal both reception of the broadest register of cultural phenomena and the creative transformation of the world, seeking a balance between the two that is not defined from up close.30 For philosophical history, which in the end strives to seize the indispensable whole of past, present, and future, “self-conscious rationality” is nothing other than the setting for rational development, “the saint chain that crosses events past.” Tradition understood thusly gushes onward across shared material and intellectual/spiritual edifices.31 However, this totality, though in motion, proved impossible for humankind to carry.

For the doubts concerning the transfer of what has been entrusted to us and the questions of content concerning balance continue to proliferate if transience assails the reliability of the processes of cognition at the roots. The clarification of knowledge, which is to say the movements of the modern era that seek to lay its general foundations, throw into question first and foremost the original prestige of ancientness and the higher value of historical developments, in the midst of the external breaking of the old orders. The fundamental operation of reliable foundations and at the same time free self-determination will be an abstraction increasingly independent of contexts. However, at almost the same time, adherence to transformations characterized as “organic development” and the consciousness of crisis, which because of the uncertainties has come to rule, raises the value of the ideal of tradition. The counter-movement of historical Romanticism in the end undertakes the creation of tradition, expecting an artificial stability even from invented traditions.32 In the end, however, the consequentiality of dehistoricization can unveil every order of historical interconnection as mere construct.

With the reappraisal of the techniques of hermeneutics, a lastly philosophical project came into being that—reckoning with the inaccessibility of “the world as it is in itself”—seeks knowledge amidst the recent conditions of mediatedness. In accordance with the genuine interpretedness of our manner of relating to the world, the interconnections of meaning or “webs of significances” (C. Geertz) end up in the competencies of man analyzing the stock of historical tradition, and himself mirrored in it. The art of hermeneutics, which presupposes ambiguity, developed into a comprehensive interpretive culture. For Gadamer, the last stop of the search for a path in multiplicity, which could be reached by the bypass of “foreignness,” was the “fusion of horizons”: “even where life changes violently, as in ages of revolution, far more of the old is preserved in the supposed transformation of everything than anyone knows, and combines with the new to create a new value.”33 The culture of hermeneutics, the roots of which lie in the sacred texts of the Western world (and which became a proper way of life because of continuous and inevitable translation work), presents connection with the ever increasing rows of traditions and the bearers of tradition as unavoidable.34 The fact that even reason becomes first historical and then linguistic shows the enormous power of history over our thinking.

“Narrated” or “remembered” pasts strive ever more to compensate for the present’s loss of orientation.35 Disenchanted history in singular proliferates into histories of meaning. Identity must draw its limited substance from stories that establish a future, at the risk of untranslatability and un-interpretibility. Both anxiety and foresight motivate the manner of relating to the world (which is increasingly resigned, even in despite of any engagement), which takes on the particular having-become as its own past. Time is not a constant category of human reason, but rather a form of meaning with varying rhythm and density which, against the background of intended and unintended events, is formed by common interpretations.36

For the memory paradigm of coherence, the adequate manner of relating to the past is a continuous reconstruction of the interconnections of meaning of events bearing on us. According to the memory sociology of Maurice Halbwachs, which became something of a project paradigm itself, this task, which is indispensible from the perspective of the present, was always guided by the prevailing demands of groups. Time, born as social reality, is organized by the present, commonly lived and inhabited by the members of the group: thus everything falls out from it that, lacking meaning, does not settle within the actual referential frameworks of group life. The force of memory derives not from the past, but from the need for belonging. The place won in the community of memory, which is born as a community rooted in common sentiments and dispositions, ensures everyone who belongs to it spatial substance and temporal content.37

Jan Assmann regards the past that is embedded in face to face contact, i.e. the vistas of communication that can be seen for three generations, as the broadest possible accessible situation of “culture.”38 The present of cultural memory can relate not only to the recent past of which account is held in immediate social interaction, but also to the “groundwater-deep”39 past that is preserved (or, even on the contrary, not preserved!) in memory.40 With the passing of the participants in conversations about things lived as experiences, the process of the condensation of meaning begins, a process that never comes to a close: “there is no such thing as original memory.”41 “Objective” culture, which has been placed in formed configurations (in other words, culture that has been objectified and institutionalized, the historicized successor to the “objective spirit” of philosophical history), is not an unambiguous message, but rather an intricately manifold world of symbols. The ever changing horizon of meaning of a given life (acts and experiences) comes into new connections again and again with past events in order to nourish the present with (his)stories of origins, i.e. history made into myth by memory. Acts and experiences take place within the frameworks of the historical world of meaning, which are always in motion.

The memory of the most ancient groups, preserved in rituals and linguistic formula, connected experiences to the foundational mythical ancient time with little more than a few mediatory chain links, thus creating and maintaing their ties and engagements.42 Festive gatherings lend the significant cadence, which is significant because it always returns as common experience. Writing lends true depth to time, which thus passes less and less in the spirit of the eternal and unchangeable repetition of everything. In contrast with the bards, who are interested in memory literally repeated, the faith of the literate man insists not on the unerrability of what is recited, but rather on some kind of meaning in what is written. Instead of volatile words, re-readable writings contain the treasure chest of meaning, which for groups comprised of individuals is opening to be ever more broad: the contents that can be revived, i.e. that are hoped to be alive. The administrative tool of writing, which in all likelihood was created for everyday storage, becomes a tool for orientation in the cosmic world, which is identified with its own world. In other words, it becomes the setting for culture, understood as cultural memory. This is how writing dons the sanctity of a solemnity that goes beyond the everyday.

Regarding the new manner of relating to time, the fact that writing can be resumed, continued, or forgotten and lost of course induces change, and makes us more sensitive to change. In the emerging written culture, a veritable stream of texts begins to flow in the ceaseless rewriting, writing anew, and continued writing towards inundation. While the ever growing distance of what has been recorded makes it possible to step out of the direct bonds, it also sanctifies unmoveable and inviolable canons. In other words, it designates obligatory points of reference for every cultural practice, which then, driven in part by the fear of the passing of the community of its origins, are taken in hand by the activity centered on the cultivation of meaning, which is tailored to the exigencies of the changing present. The sharpness of the borders drawn in the world of the mentality depends mostly on the intensity of the external or internal threats to the culture perceived as one’s “own” and the experiences of rupture. Actual conflicts and sharper differentiations can be projected on each other with increasing intensity. And if history begins to become temporal, the counter-realities that are excluded with counter-concepts can be characterized as belonging exclusively to the past, which from time to time degenerates into their expulsion from the present.43

In the end, however, it is not the “spirit of writing” that decides our relationship to events. Slowing the pace of change and maintaining momentum are both cultural accomplishments. One of the functions of the Egyptian list of kings was to show that over the course of the millennia that had passed since the end of the era of the gods nothing worthwhile had happened. The need for power to rest on descent or inheritance could find a strong buttress in the notes of the initiated specialists of memory, notes which were intended either to give an impression of timelessness or to serve forgetfulness. In contrast, individualities and particularities that were considered significant gave impetus to the institutionalization of movement: this intellectual attitude, which served essentially as the foundation for historical consciousness, can be tied most adequately to expectations and hopes of oppressed situations.

The newest form of a genuine relationship between memory and identity is the attempts to draw ourselves from historical time: immersion into ourselves is also immersion into histories. Our culture has thus widely become a culture of memory, in which the self-image of the people and collectives remembering is formed by the events that have taken place involving them and the narratives of these events. Historical memory has become the primary forum for self-assertion and self-preservation, which makes historical developments (which always demand reconstruction) internal. It is not simply that “we are what we remember,” but rather, according to the consequentiality of the idea of historicity, because of the fundamentally temporal nature of our being, we strive to acquire knowledge of ourselves first and foremost by narrating histories. In the orderly system of narratives, we assure ourselves again and again of “our own roots and goals, truths and dreams.”44

Historical memory borne in communities of meaning is thus called on to mediate between “facts” and “reconstructions”: to create, through rereading, the order of common experiences. Giving up on grand narratives, it strives to look both forwards and backwards in histories that can be narrated, driven by the compulsion for ever-changing re-narration. Today, historical scholarship is also taking part in the debates concerning the work of memory, with greater sensitivity to ruptures instead of continuity and plurality instead of unity. This distinctive positive reassessment of history is tied to precursors from cultural Protesantism. Christianity understood as cultural history seeks to convince itself of its own absoluteness in the face of the relativizing force of history: we should become that which the fertile forces of the West enable us to be.45

However, according to Assmann’s exemplary case study, the more distant socio-cultural precursors of our preeminent culture of memory are to be sought in the biblical narrative: the primal model and foundational story for our historically based culture of memory is the story of the exodus from Egypt.46 For Israel, the meaningful form of time is determined by the significance-rich stories of the wanderings with God. The anthropological-cultural factor of memory here is filled with significant contents not by the closedness of a cosmic order, but rather by a process guided by the divine. The compactness of culture, in which power and salvation, truth and righteousness come together in a unity that in principle cannot be broken,47 breaks open in ancient Israel. The plethora of inscriptions recording the behavioral prescriptions in the late Egyptian temple protect the ancient Egyptian regulations of life from change, even in the midst of threats and experiences of foreignness.48 In contrast with the community that has been anchored in the cosmos and with its self-image, which in the end has become iconographically stabilized, the notion of continuity developing in created and creating time is an achievement of world-historical importance. The narrative books of the biblical redaction draw the bearings of the own essence and proper action not from some unhistorical primal time, but rather from the datable past. The commandment to remember in Deuteronomy is a paradigm of unity and belonging that is drawn from the events of this world (significant time-myths). In the soil of political vicissitudes and historical traumas, in the wake of the unraveling of the framework-precepts of the old order of meaning, they recall the memory of a covenant that was reached with a divine party but which in the meantime has been forgotten.49 God remains faithful to the people led out of the counter-world of Egypt and keeps his promise to its descendants. According to the account, which is of dubious historical credibility, the book of the covenant, which unexpectedly rises from oblivion, prompts the shaken king Josiah to return to Yahweh. The powerful stories of sinfulness and liberation become symbolic figures of memory, which originally were born by a kingdom striving to assert legitimacy and a small monotheistic religious movement. In opposition to the terror of forgetting, it becomes necessary to develop a technology of memory that chisels into the heart.50 The history is made theology by the counter-stories of figures of commemoration of liberation. The event of the covenant between God and his people demands ceaseless “chiseling into the heart, confirmation, and teaching”:51 the prophets read the twists of fate as consequences of faithlessness; the everyday order of reviving memory is canonized by the continuous editorial work of the priesthood.

At the same time, Assmann performs a backtracking of the memory traces which are often beneath the surface, unconscious, or simply suppressed, by ascribing them to the primary differentiations of our own culture. Thus, light is also cast on their unfortunate consequences, consequences which intellectual attempts were made again and again to interrupt, for instance by appealing to a counter-history. The very influential counter-memory of the cosmo-theist unity set in opposition to the monotheist unity, the figure of the “Egyptian Moses,” always reemerges from memory,52 which then seeks a broader Ecumene than the Mosaic distinction between true and false religion. The outlines of the structural intolerance lurking in monotheism’s demand for exclusiveness emerge out of the contrast of a counter-world based on a divergent principle (compactness in the absence of differentiation), the serious precondition of which is that the conquered are willing to correspond to the dominant pantheon, organized according to similar functions.

The theoretical withdrawal from a history highly significant for us (taken backwards in time) leads to a fundamentally different world, the time structure of which presents a different model. For the order of time valid for the world that preceded and surrounded the biblical world (i.e. for the traditional consciousness of time in ancient Egypt), the present was nothing more than the past, present in the present.53 In every ruler, the predecessors continued to function in that the ruler kept both the country and the world as a whole in momentum, linking tomorrow to yesterday. The individual human life takes place with its back to the future, gazing towards the past. Gratitude felt for good deeds links it to the community, while with its acts it builds its own monument. According to morality inherent to time, the real sin is not breaking the promise concerning the future, but rather forgetting the past.54 The distance from the era of mythic ancient images does not grow smaller with the passing of time. A past, strictly understood, is only supported by an unexpected break of what was, until it was ruptured, a whole. For Egypt, the foreign rule of Assyria and Persia meant the intrusion of chaos.

With regards to the aspects of time of the cultural memory of the West, in its biblical framework, the impossibility of ever bringing retrospection to a close implies a past that is always to be understood in the plural. Myth “is renewed together with every shifting present, which wins a new tinge of meaning out of it.”55 Myth wins its uninterrupted renewal from the wealth of versions of memory and counter-memory, since in this wealth old and new, disclosed and obstructed, built and buried, canonical and apocryphal, orthodox and heterodox come into tension with one another.56 Fundamental dualities run throughout the biblical text itself: the desert in contrast with the city, Israel in contrast with Judea, the state in contrast with religion, prophets in contrast with priests, the exclusiveness of Exodus in contrast with the universality of creation. If the subversive and excluded remain part of memory (which is often beneath the surface), then the articulation of contents bursting from the unconscious and the vanishing of narrative contents into the background never come to an end. “Even that which is new can only appear in the form of the reconstructed past.”57 The alternative past, which creates a contrast with the present, creates non-synchronicity, in which the primary present can be turned out of its corners with “saving” counter-stories.58

As a countermove to the overly strong demand for coherence, the work of drawing nigh and distancing is constantly underway: in the process of narrating ourselves, we present ourselves as if in a mirror in a new history again and again. Although the project of “cultural remembering” speaks about and to the person living the present together with others as it unfolds in histories, our validities are always tied to given groups and their narrations of history, which immediately throws their origins into uncertainty. Origin as some kind of “other” who can and should be addressed is always, superfluously, at our disposal, as it were. In this model, this is the legitimate place for the intrusion of novelty. In spite of the openness to the future, this future, which structures itself through memory, is not the future of the promises of progress, but rather the future of conjurings of the past. Here, the weight of presentism rests on the present concerning things past.

The paradigmatic story of Exodus, of course, is also the Western story of the shared search for freedom.59 The flight from the symbolic space of “Egypt” is the break from the bad order of servitude and the entry into the order of freedom. This revolutionary story, which is always available for retelling, is the tradition of self-liberation, the roots of which lie in tradition.

In front of finitude, commemoration pulls lines of origin towards its plans, which with regards to the handling of time is a strategy of deceleration.60 The present, which bears histories, can become overburdened at any time, of course: sometimes with the tremendous compulsion of the past, sometimes with the contingency of its handholds. As a possibility that lies outside the inner-worldly transcendence of the past, the step from the changes into a transcendent state above or beyond time remains. This is an allegedly unbounded project with an existentialist self-projection into the future, in a religious or a secular manner.

A Concluding Remark

On the basis of a still usable typology of G.W.F. Hegel concerning the writing of history in modernity, we have discussed two systematic theoretical attitudes to memory with very opposite relations to the past. The first one is centered preferably around forgetting for the sake of a functional efficacy, while the second draws on significant pasts for the sake of creative stability. Both theoretical programs are marked by a high grade of intellectual consistency and can thus serve even empirical investigations into our modern stance, as consistency, according to Max Weber, “has and always has had power over man, however limited and unstable this power is and always has been in the face of other forces of historical life”.61


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Assmann, Jan. “Erinnern, um dazuzugehören. Schrift, Gedächtnis und Identität.” In idem. Religion und kulturelles Gedächtnis: Zehn Studien. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2000,

Assmann, Jan. Ägypten. Eine Sinngeschichte. Munich: Fischer, 1996.

Assmann, Jan. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.

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Assmann, Jan. Herrschaft und Heil: Politische Theologie in Altägypten, Israel und Europa. Munich–Vienna: Hanser, 2000.

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Assmann, Jan. “Was ist das ‘kulturelle Gedächtnis?’.” In idem. Religion und kulturelles Gedächtnis, 11–44.

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Assmann, Jan. Exodus: Die Revolution der Alten Welt. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2015.

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Burckhardt, Jacob. Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen. Stuttgart: Kröner Verlag,1963.

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Elias, Norbert. Über die Zeit. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1984.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Gesammelte Werke 1. Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1990.

Gert, H.H., and C. W. Mills, eds. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York–Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1946.

Graf, Friedrich W., and Hartmut Ruddies. “Ernst Troeltsch: Geschichtsphilosophie in praktischer Absicht.” In Grundprobleme der großen Philosophen, edited by Josef Speck. Philosophie der Neuzeit 4. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984.

Halbwachs, Maurice. La mémoire collective. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950.

Halbwachs, Maurice. La topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre Sainte. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1941.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie 1. Werke 18. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.

Herder, J. G. “Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit (1774).” In idem. Sämtliche Werke. Vol. 5. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1891.

Hobsbawm, Eric. “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914.” In The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 263–308. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Hobsbawm, Eric. “Inventing Traditions.” In The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 1–14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Koselleck, Reinhard. “The Historical-Political Semantics of Asymmetric Counterconcepts.” In idem. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, 159–97. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2004.

Koselleck, Reinhart. “Historia magistra vitae: The Dissolution of the Topos into the Perspective of a Modernized Historical Process.” In idem. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, 26–42. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2004.

Koselleck, Reinhart. “Neuzeit: Remarks on the Semantics of Modern Concepts of Movement.” In idem. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, 222–54. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2004.

Koselleck, Reinhart. “Gibt es eine Beschleunigung der Geschichte?” In idem. Zeitschichte: Studien zur Historik, 150–76. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2000.

Koselleck, Reinhard. “Zeitverkürzung und Beschleunigung.” In idem. Zeitschichten: Studien zur Historik, 177–202. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2000.

Luhmann, Niklas. Die Realität der Massenmedien. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1995.

Luhmann, Niklas. “Kultur als historischer Begriff.” In idem. Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik 4, 31–54. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1995.

Luhmann, Niklas. “Temporalisierung von Komplexität: Zur Semantik neuzeitlicher Zeitbegriffe.” In idem. Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik: Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft 1, 235–300. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1980.

Luhmann, Niklas. “The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society.” In Social Research 43 (1976): 130–52.

Luhmann, Niklas. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1997.

Luhmann, Niklas. Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1984.

Makropoulos, Michael. Modernität und Kontingenz. Munich: Fink, 1997.

Marquard, Odo. “Zukunft und Herkunft.” In idem. Skepsis und Zustimmung, 45–58. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1994.

Menke, Christoph. “Die Lehre des Exodus: Der Auszug aus der Knechtschaft.” In Merkur 70, no. 1 (2016): 47–54.

Nyíri, Kristóf. “Historical Consciousness in the Computer Age.” In idem. Tradition and Individuality. Essays, 75–83. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992. 

Reinhard, Wolfgang. “Die hermeneutische Lebensform des Abendlandes.” In Sakrale Texte: Hermeneutik und Lebenspraxis in den Schriftkulturen, edited by idem, 68–119. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2009.

Ritter, Joachim. “Die Aufgabe der Geisteswissenschaften in der modernen Gesellschaft.” In idem. Subjektivität, 105–40. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1974.

Rosa, Hartmut. Beschleunigung: Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2005.

Rüsen, Jörn. “Was heißt: Sinn der Geschichte.” In Historische Sinnbildung: Problemstellungen, Zeitkonzepte, Wahrnehmungshorizonte, Darstellungsstrategien, edited by Klaus E. Müller and Jörn Rüsen, 17–47. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1997.

Rushkoff, Douglas. The Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Current, 2013.

Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954, 53–57.

Schnädelbach, Herber. Vernunft. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2007.

Schütz, Alfred. “On Multiple Realities.” In idem. The Problem of Social Reality, 207–59. Collected Papers 1. Dordrecht: Springer, 1972.

Schütz, Alfred. Strukturen der Lebenswelt. Konstanz: UVK, 2003.

Simmel, Georg. “Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben.” In idem. Brücke und Tür, 227–242. Stuttgart: Koehler, 1957.

Simmel, Georg. Philosophie des Geldes. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1989.

Troeltsch, Ernst. Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Religionsgeschichte. Berlin–New York: de Gruyter, 1998.

Walzer, Michael. Exodus and Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1985

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 2002.

Weber, Max. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie. Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1980.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987.

Yerushalmi, Yoseph Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewisch Memory. Seattle–London: Univ. of Washington Press, 1996.

1 See e.g. Makropoulos, Modernität und Kontingenz.

2 Augustine: De Civitate Dei, Books XVII–XVIII. Important exceptions include Origen (III) and Orosius (IV–V).

3 On these processes, see Max Weber’s study on Protestant Ethic.

4 See Koselleck, “Historia magistra vitae,” 26–42.

5 Idem, “Neuzeit,” 222–54.

6 Herder, “Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit,” 509.

7 Schütz, “On Multiple Realities,” 207–59.

8 Schnädelbach, Vernunft, 137.

9 Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, 17.

10 For the most extreme position, see White, The Content of the Form. According to White, the same series of events can be narrated legitimately in the most varied genres, from the satire to the tragedy, the comedy, and the romance.

11 Augustine, Confessions, Book XI/20.

12 Cf. Elias, Über die Zeit.

13 Schütz, Strukturen der Lebenswelt, 129.

14 Ibid., 245–59.

15 On the latter thought see Marquard, “Zukunft und Herkunft,” 45–58.

16 See Rosa, Beschleunigung, 243. Koselleck, “Gibt es eine Beschleunigung der Geschichte?,” and idem, “Zeitverkürzung und Beschleunigung,” 150–202. Simmel, Philosophie des Geldes, 696, and idem: “Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben,” 227.

17 See Rushkoff, The Present Shock. Nyíri, “Historical Consciousness in the Computer Age,” 75–83. 

18 See Luhmann: Soziale Systeme, 26.

19 Idem, “Temporalisierung von Komplexität,” 280.

20 Idem, Soziale Systeme, 70.

21 Idem, “The Future Cannot Begin,” 130–52.

22 See idem, “Temporalisierung von Komplexität,” 242, 296.

23 Idem, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 1004.

24 Ibid., 1011.

25 Ibid., 573.

26 Ibid., 576.

27 Luhmann: “Kultur als historischer Begriff,” 41, and idem: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 587, citation 593.

28 On the undermentioned, Luhmann, Die Realität der Massenmedien, and Esposito, Soziales Vergessen.

29 Assmann, “Nachwort,” 400–14.

30 See for instance Friedrich Schiller’s letters on Humanism and aesthetic education in: Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education, 53–57.

31 Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie 1, 21.

32 See for instance Hobsbawm, “Inventing Traditions,” and idem: “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914,” 1–14, and 263–308.

33 Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, 286.

34 See Reinhard, “Die hermeneutische Lebensform des Abendlandes,” 68.

35 On the notion of compensation see Ritter, “Die Aufgabe der Geisteswissenschaften in der modernen Gesellschaft,” 105–40.

36 See Rüsen: “Was heißt: Sinn der Geschichte, 17–47. Assmann touches on this: Ägypte, 11.

37 Assmann on Halbwachs for instance, “Erinnern, um dazuzugehören. Schrift“ 101–23. Halbwachs on time, La mémoire collective, Chapter 3.

38 In his last book touching on this Halbwachs also makes this step, which covers some two-thousand years: La topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre Sainte.

39 Cf. Thomas Mann’s famous opening sentence in his Joseph-tetralogy: „Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit.”

40 Assmann devoted a separate book to Thomas Mann’s religious theory “book of time,” Joseph and his Brothers.

41 Assmann, Exodus, 101. Also Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 40.

42 On the following see Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 29–160, and idem: “Was ist das ‘kulturelle Gedächtnis’?,” 11–44.

43 On the latter idea see Koselleck, “The Historical-Political Semantics of Asymmetric Counterconcepts,” 155.

44 Assmann, Exodus, 10.

45 In one of the most determined projects of prevailing over historicism within history, theologue Ernst Troeltsch claims to find the indisputable superiority of Christianity in his comparative study of the whole of history. At this point, Christian theology becomes cultural scholarship. See Troeltsch, Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Religionsgeschichte, and Graf–Hartmut Ruddies, “Ernst Troeltsch: Geschichtsphilosophie in praktischer Absicht,” 128.

46 Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 196–228, most recently in idem, Exodus.

47 Idem, Ma’at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten, 177, and idem, Herrschaft und Heil.

48 Idem, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 177.

49 See for instance Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, 257.

50 See Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewisch Memory.

51 Assmann, Exodus, 117, cf. Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization. 79, 196, and 272.

52 Idem, Moses der Ägypter, and idem, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung.

53 On the following see idem, Steinzeit und Sternzeit, 261.

54 Idem, Herrschaft und Heil, Chapter 7.

55 Idem, Exodus, 101.

56 See idem, “Was ist das ‘kulturelle Gedächtnis’,” 38.

57 Idem, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 42.

58 Ibid, 78, and 222, with reference to the concept-formation of Protestant theologue Gerd Theißen, “contra-present memory”.

59 See Walzer, Exodus and Revolution; Menke, “Die Lehre des Exodus: Der Auszug aus der Knechtschaft,” 47–54.

60 See A. Assmann, Zeit und Tradition.

61 Gert and Mills, ed., From Max Weber, 324.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTSVolume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


A Gaze Focused on Itself: On the Perception of Time in the Writing of the History of the Present

Zsombor Bódy

Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Institute of Sociology


“Since the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.”

Alexis de Tocqueville: On Democracy in America


Following in the wake of Reinhart Koselleck’s analyses of historical time, the study examines the contemporary history’s perception of time. Comparing it with the perception of time in earlier classical periods of historiography and looking at problems of historical memory, the analysis comes to the conclusion that, in the recent development of historiography and particularly in the writing of the history of the present, a new presentist perception of time has become dominant which differs radically from the structure of the perception of time based on a horizon determined by experience and expectation, on which history as an academic discipline was established. Therefore, the writing of the history of the present is no longer a continuation of the roughly 200-year-old story of history as an academic discipline, but a new practice, whose internal characteristics and position among other disciplines which study the society of the present from different perspectives (such as sociology, political science, etc.) cannot yet be regarded as fully clarified.

Keywords: history of the present, contemporary history, perception of historical time, memory, Koselleck


Timothy Garton Ash, recalling how he witnessed an event of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, mused that no historian would ever be in a more advantageous position than he to report on the events taking place in front of him, thus enabling him to acquaint himself with them directly, in contrast with historians who would subsequently try to reconstruct the developments based on partial sources.1 Koselleck, on the other hand, demonstrates with a specific example that in the early nineteenth century, serious historians rejected a proposal to write an extensive work of history going up to the present. According to the counter-arguments, the conditions of the present were changing too quickly, and they were too rudimentary for historians to capture. Furthermore—and this is the essential point—the appropriate perspective for the study of events was lacking and could only be created through the passage of time.2 The difference between the two approaches is obvious. The example cited by Koselleck is related to the naissance of history as a field of study. The question is whether Timothy Garton Ash’s suggestion, representing a contrasting approach, signals the end of the roughly 200-year-old era of history as an academic discipline. In other words: can contemporary history be considered history at all?

The question might sound surprising at first, as one is aware that there are many historians conducting research concerning the history of the present, much as there are many studies of this area in historical periodicals.3 However, many researchers embarking on the study of the history of the present have encountered uncertainties or crisis symptoms when attempting to identify the characteristics and position of this discipline.4 The writing of the history of the present seems to be more obviously problematic in Central and Eastern Europe than elsewhere.5 The fact that the history of the present is somehow weak compared to the various forms of memory and non-academic representations of history is shown by the long list of complaints raised by professional historians against the memory market.6 There seems to be an endless supply of various forms of remembrance, and the demand for them is also inexhaustible in Central and Eastern European societies.7 Professional histories of the present often seem lost in the flood of historical memory and popular history.8 Against an abundance of amateurish historical books, historical television programs, magazines, traditionalist associations and movements, an abundance of state-initiated (or party-initiated) remembrance policy drives, festivals and other programs organized as part of historical and cultural tourism, the publications written by professional historians seem pale and ineffective. Furthermore, they reach a far narrower audience.9 Why does history—and in particular the history of the present—sound like a faint voice in the current polyphony of the study and representation of the recent past? I contend that there are two interrelated reasons for the fact that the history of the present is weak and lacks authority. One of these lies in external (cultural, market-based, and political) challenges which have a particularly strong impact on the history of the present in Central and Eastern Europe. The variety of challenges faced by professional historians raises the question of the status of memory in contemporary history and other questions, such as how testimony puts pressure on other types of historical sources, to what extent historiography as academic practice is counter-memory, and how new media have changed the power relations of memory-related and scholarly discourses.10 It would also be worthwhile to analyze methodically changes in the position of professional historiography in the academic and cultural/political sphere. I cannot embark on such an enterprise of the sociology of science here, I would note that in the twentieth century, historiography played a role outside of the academic sphere considerably larger than the role it has at the present. Both before 1945 and in the socialist era, in Hungary, people in leading positions among professional historians were in many cases influential politicians as well. Kúnó Klebelsberg in the 1920s and Erik Molnár in the 1950s actually guided the work of talented young historians as ministers, guiding them to pursue various fields of research which they considered as important. This would be inconceivable today. Professional historians were often involved in political tasks in the twentieth century, e.g. in areas of cultural policy and undertaking background work for foreign policy during World War II. They also determined or at least influenced the topics of public discourse, and in many cases they simply became politicians. One could cite numerous examples of this from period of the 1989/90 change of regime. Meanwhile, the discourses of history remained strictly academic according to their own norms, and this included the exclusion of texts that did not fulfill the criteria of the discipline from the academic register. Today, in contrast, the borders between historical and political discourses seem to be sadly permeable, primarily from the direction of the latter. Politicians play significant roles in the inner world of academic historiography, for example founding new institutions the function of which is to shape the picture of the past, while historians play hardly any role in politics or in the public sphere.11

But beyond these questions of external challenges, which a reflective history of the present has to face, the main internal reason for the weakness of the writing of the history of the present lies in the implicit premises of history of the present, primarily in its perception of historical time, and in its—actually paradoxical—academic self-definition.12 Although the problems of the history of the present may be particularly obvious in Central and Eastern Europe, where political actors have often tried to shape the field of the history of the present more directly than in other countries, these internal reasons are of a universal nature and not tied to this region.

Looking through the history of historiography, one finds several key paradoxes. In the nineteenth century and even later, for instance, historiography considered itself an objective academic discipline while at the same time it was one of the implements of the project of nation-building. These paradoxes can actually have a seminal and incentive effect.13 However, the paradox on which contemporary history is based leads to a misunderstanding which in the current cultural-political constellation makes it ineffective compared to other forms of studying and presenting the recent past. This misunderstanding is related to the foundations on which the history of the present wants to build its authority outside of the narrower circle of professional historians. In this sense, the weakness of contemporary history is not the internal weakness of scholarly production. The history of the present can undoubtedly boast a number of excellent, innovative research projects, and there are productive debates going on within the profession, for instance at conferences and in journals. However, this research and these debates have a very modest authority, persuasive power, or transmissibility to a wider audience.14 But the crucial point is quite simply that the various players studying and representing the past don’t seem to be willing to accept the claim of professional contemporary history to be the judge of the validity of knowledge of the recent past. In certain countries (for example, in Germany), professional contemporary historians seem to hold stronger positions, but elsewhere, they seem to be as weak as their Central European counterparts. In France, according to the diagnosis established by Pierre Nora, history is on the brink of collapse against the flood of the various forms of remembrance.15 Francois Hartog speaks about the impotence of history replacing the former omnipotence of history.16 We believe that the root of the problem lies in the transformation of the perception of historical time, which has removed the earlier foundations—a certain structure of historical temporality—to which contemporary history refers, while still defining itself as part of history as an academic discipline.

Perception of Time, Scholarly History, and Contemporary History

Contemporary history as a historical discipline is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nora notes that when he was studying at university, you couldn’t write a dissertation on a post-1918 topic.17 Gérard Noiriel said that in England, before World War I, no scholarly historical works were written on topics from the period after 1837, the year of the first electoral reform. Historical research on the French revolution began in roughly 1889, a century after it broke out. Although the concept and era of contemporary history—which in France still actually started with 1789 and in the United Kingdom originally with 1837—has existed since the beginning of the twentieth century, historians initially were rather reluctant to write about the present, which has been understood as an era the contemporaries of which are still alive.18 Then, beginning in the 1970s (although not without some precursory works), research on the present era spread very quickly among historians, simultaneously with the rapid expansion of the concept and practices of historical memory. Today, it is no longer surprising if someone writes a historical study about a topic from 20–25 or even only 10 years ago. Memory studies have almost grown into an independent discipline.19 To understand the reasons and nature for the emergence of contemporary history and the trend of memory, we need first to consider why historiography was earlier reluctant to approach the study of the present.

It is obvious, even on the basis of only superficial knowledge of the historiographers of earlier periods, that historians were not always reluctant to study contemporary events. On the contrary, as Koselleck, who is admirably knowledgeable about the classical authors, demonstrates, historians, from Herodotus to the historians of the eighteenth century, for the most part studied the events of their own eras. This was due primarily to methodological reasons. The present was directly accessible, as the historian himself was an eyewitness or at least could rely on eyewitnesses. If handled with the appropriate caution, eyewitness testimony was considered more reliable than fragmented old documents, which were easy to forge.20 By the end of the eighteenth century, a contrary approach had taken predominance. As shown by the example cited by Koselleck, by then, historiography had become the discipline of the study of the completed past. Of course, contemporary history continued to exist in the nineteenth century, but only as an inferior field of endeavor in the shadow of history as an academic discipline. It was practiced by journalists and publicists, who, while wanting to take a position amid the complications of the present, also ventured to make forecasts about the future, in an obviously unscientific manner.21 Historiography, which regarded itself as an academic discipline, considered it impossible to study the present.

It was in the spirit of this (now outdated) perception of history that Nora, the prestigious initiator of research on historical memory, declared in the 1970s that history of the present does not exist. For him, this is history “sans objet, sans statut et sans définition.”22 Nora’s statement cannot be ignored, as it is based on a definition of historiography that was valid for a long time. Historians moved beyond Nora’s objection without considering its real weight, i.e. without assessing the change that the emergence of contemporary history brought by disrupting the earlier order of historiography and the perception of historical time. So far, the epistemology of contemporary history has hardly been made a subject of methodical study.23

Historians who reflect on and write the history of the present tend to define their discipline as one of the branches of historiography, but they must also consider their place alongside other disciplines concerned with the study of the present, such as political studies, sociology, and ethnology. Furthermore, they must address and at the same time differentiate themselves from non-scientific representations of the recent past, often grouped under the term “memory.”24 These definitions of the history of the present implicitly continue to consider as valid the older premises of historiography, on which history as a discipline was established. The strange situation arises because, while the study of the history of historiography has long historicized these premises, i.e. it has explored their origins and analyzed their time-bound operation, whenever these premises are not the subject of study, they are still—half-explained or implicitly—considered the foundations of professional historiography. 25

There is essentially a consensus that the self-definition of academic, professional historiography in the nineteenth century was based on four interrelated premises. The most important one was the presumption of the reality of history as a linear process in time which can be scientifically examined. The second one was the presumption of a dividing line between past and present. The concept of the fundamental difference between past and present was based on the linear perception of time, in which development—or at least change—makes the earlier conditions obsolete and creates a different present, which in turn is open towards a future as yet unknown. From the perspective of the present, the past—since it has already passed—can only be understood through a methodical processing of the sources remaining from earlier times. The third was the assumption that there is a methodology which enables the historian to bridge the distance between present and past by deciphering the sources originating in the past. The fourth premise was that historiography was born as a national science, and this premise provided a fundamental frame of reference or range of interpretation for the findings of historians.26

Of these premises, the first and the second are obviously the most interesting from the point of view of the perception of the history of the present. We know from Koselleck’s analysis of the space of experience and expectation that the “temporalization” of history took place around the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This created a perception of past, present, and future that made it possible to look at historical time in a linear perspective. It also created the possibility of the idea of progress; as expectations for the future were based on the conviction that the future can be different, the future has to be different to what has been experienced in the past. However, from the point of view of this discussion, the way in which this influences historical cognition is more important.27 The idea that events appear different to historians from different perspectives has been well-known since the sixteenth century. Now, the idea of perspective has gained a temporal dimension. A theory and practice of historical cognition has been created in which temporal distance is a decisive factor, which makes cognition possible.28 This was only possible if historiography placed itself at least partly outside of history, or rather at a point beyond the past. Assuming a gap between past and present—the second premise—ensured that the past subjects of study had an existence independent from the present. Phases of history which were already completed could exist as external objects for the historian’s scrutinizing gaze in the present. The distance between the historian’s present and the fundamentally different past was required for the historian’s methodology to work.

It followed from the fundamental difference between past and present as perceived by historiography that the future was also open to change. The present, as the past future of an earlier period, was also unforeseeable once, just as it is impossible to predict the future from the present. This belief in historical change, in which the horizon of expectations for the future was put at a distance from the space of experience, was lacking from the earlier perception of time, which did not expect the ongoing events to bring qualitative changes into the world of people and things.29 Only at the end of the eighteenth century, as people started to experience the present as radically different from their earlier experiences and had expectations for a future that would be different from the present, could historiography emerge as a discipline of change, which studied the completed past, which was therefore unalterable, dividing it into periods and interpreting it from a perspective of the present that was external to the past. This historiography could not embark on a historical analysis of the present, as its gaze was only suitable for the study of the completed past.30 As Arthur C. Danto expressed, especially in response to the complaint that historians couldn’t experience the events they are studying, “the whole point of history is not to know about actions as witnesses might, but as historians do, in connection with later events and as parts of temporal wholes.”31

However, in the emergence of historiography, it was not only the relationship between past and present that mattered from the triple structure of past, present, and future. Expectations for the future made the evolution of historiography possible not simply because without them the dissimilarity between past and present would have been inconceivable. The study of the past was not independent from the horizon of expectations, because the gaze of the historian studying the past was directed by expectations concerning the future. This is not to say that expectations for the future were always fulfilled, in fact, they were rarely met, nevertheless, according to Koselleck, the horizon of the future still contributed to determining the present and thereby also to determining what event of the past seemed worthy of study to the historian in the present. However, the future was capable of orienting the historian’s work not as a general future, but as the future of something, specifically of the community to which the historian belonged and whose past he was researching. The concept of history would have been inconceivable without the subject of history, and it was most often the nation which had a history. If the historian’s gaze had a wider scope, then it was the history of the West.32

The practice of contemporary history, I contend, is not based on the four abovementioned premises of classical historiography or the triple time structure of past, present, and future. Its emergence—along with the memory boom—means precisely that this time perception and these premises have become outdated. It is therefore possible, however, that history of the present misunderstands itself when it perceives itself as a subdiscipline of history and places its own activity in the line of the history writing founded in the early eighteenth century. The emergence of contemporary history “in a sense ... meant a rehabilitation of the tradition from before 1800.” 33

From this point of view, it is questionable, whether the old historiography itself, in which history was based on the connection between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation described by Koselleck, has by now lost some of its persuasive power. Has it not become increasingly meaningless for today’s audiences because the validity of the perception of time on which it was based has become highly questionable? Even more questionable—and this is the focus of this discussion—is whether the history of the present was ever related to the earlier triple time structure which served as the foundation for historiography.

This question is important in the cultural landscape of today, because several defenders of history criticize—in the name of contemporary history, which they still perceive as part of classical historiography—the unprofessional treatment of history, and they continue to attempt to create the legitimate foundations of this criticism by citing their own methodical procedures. On the part of professional historians, the lack of appropriate methodology remains the most important criticism of unprofessional historical representations. Unprofessional museum displays, monuments which evoke the wrong context, distorting documentaries, pathetic ceremonial speeches which draw their expressive force from references to (what is alleged to be) history, and weak historical novels are all criticized for lacking the methodology to create an appropriate context for the recalled elements of the past.34 But is this an effective way of defending professional history against the challenges of non-professional uses of the past? On what is this defense based, when the foundations of the methodology (which is based on the perception of time and which once made professional historiography able to interpret the phenomena of the past) are also questionable or, rather, according to several diagnoses, have become history and belong to the past? The rise of memory and the more recent studies of historiography make this question unavoidable.

The Expansion of the Memory Market and the Reactions of Historians

It is worth dwelling on the issue of the trend of memory for a while because it is one of the phenomena which shows how the classical concept of history has become questionable. There have been numerous studies of the evolution of the concepts of historical memory—and historical heritage—and the related phenomena, which spread particularly beginning with the end of the 1970s, and they are usually considered a kind of phenomenon of crisis.35 There are also numerous analyses describing the trend of remembrance using images of disease, abuse, and natural disasters, such as flooding. These analyses definitely tend to characterize the increased demand for historical memory as a danger for professional history, or they consider it one result of the crisis of professional historiography.36 This is a very old contrast; Halbwachs, one of the founders of memory studies, contrasted history with memory, primarily based on their different relationship to time. The latter is always related to the living human community, while the former stands outside of all possible communities, and its job is not to remember, but to analyze.37 Memory maintains an experience of time through which the remembering community lived, while the historian’s task, according to Halbwachs, is to reconstruct the temporality of the past, which is independent from any experienced time and from the present as well. Halbwachs believes that if the historian strays into the territory of memory, he will cease to be a historian.38 Thus, the conflict between historiography and memory was already expressed in the first analyses between the two world wars, and the problem was rediscovered again around the turn of the millennium.

Historiography fundamentally responded in two ways to the memory boom. It either entered the memory market, widening its audience and, naturally, giving its activity a slightly new direction, or it adopted a defensive position. The negative position underlined the fact that the questions of history writing are not asked by politicians, communities expressing their own needs of remembrance, or the media. If historians settle for positions as servants of the memory market, this might well compel them to abandon their academic principles, even though they appear to gain in terms of the size of their audiences and access to research funding. These views, which are critical of memory, criticize forms of remembrance—such as expositions, rites, memorials, texts, etc.—which seem inaccurate and unreliable from the point of view of academic historiography. There are numerous negative reactions of this kind, representing different attitudes, but similarly conservative in their approach to history as an academic discipline.39 Péter Apor very clearly pointed out certain characteristics of the concept and cult of memory from the theoretical point of view. He highlighted the tendency of memory studies to lead often to a circulus vitiosus. According to the general approach borrowed primarily from anthropology, the identity of a community is determined by its collective memory, while memory in turn depends on identity itself.40 Other authors—in accordance with Nora—consider academic historiography merely a kind of remembrance,41 which, under given cultural constellations which are in the process of vanishing, enjoyed a leading role for a while in shaping the image of the past. From this point of view, the vanishing of the conceptual foundations of classical historiography is not a loss from the perspective of our understanding of the past. Apor, however, disagrees with the idea that any form of memory could represent a more authentic relationship to the past than historiography based on analysis, methodical source criticism, and rational evidence, and he emphasizes that the questions addressed in the historiography do not originate directly in the needs of social communities or contemporaries’ interpretations of past experiences. He continues to insist on the scholarly ideals of source criticism, rational verification, and the interpretation of documents in the correct context, which would not retain a secure position in historiography considered as a form of social memory.42

Placing emphasis on the latter scientific approach to history, which assigns a critical role to historiography based on the procedures of traditional methodology, proves ineffective in itself against the demands of memory. As Gábor Gyáni points out, source criticism and other scholarly procedures are not sufficient assurances of authenticity. For our knowledge of the past to be valid, the present must be able to accept it as its own knowledge, which means that it must meet demands from outside the professional community.43 The space in which the voice of professional contemporary history needs to assert itself and the knowledge generated by historiography needs to have itself accepted as authentic is constituted by representations of what is known as experiences of historical agency and the discursive practices related to the past maintained by the multiplayer memory market.44 The contemporary history of eyewitnesses and memory takes no interest in the premises and lacks the perception of time on which academic historiography is based.45 This presents a challenge to contemporary history, which cannot be surmounted simply with insistence on the academic conception of history. But it is also not clear whether contemporary history resting on scholarly foundations moves in the dynamics of past, present, and future, in which professional history once moved, or this time structure has lost its validity even in professional contemporary history. If so, the classical perception of time and the methodology on which it is based no longer provide a reliable foundation for historical knowledge, in which case one may well ask why the historical methodology would ensure a base for the defense of professional history against the memory market.

Has the Past Come to an End?

Renowned historians and thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Reinhard Koselleck, and Francois Hartog have all diagnosed a fracture in historical time and time perception. In a study analyzing the relationship between past and present, Arendt made the following statement about the loss of the continuity of historical time: “[W]ithout tradition—which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is—there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it.”46 Her statements made an impact among historians several decades later, after Koselleck’s works drew attention to the time structures on which historiography is based. On the basis of Koselleck’s initiative, Francois Hartog embarked on an exploration of the various orders of historical temporality (regimes d’historicité). Researching the history of experience and expectation horizons—although the scope of his inquiry extended over more distant ages and geographical areas as well—he primarily explored the changes which took place in the perception of historical time in the twentieth century. Hartog concludes that as long as the relationship between the horizons of experience and expectations is maintained through the present by the subjects of history possessing an identity, and thus what could be seen from the past was what the future of the “nation”, “society”, “country”, or “the West” (or possibly the “proletariat” or the “race”) threw its light upon, there was a space for historiography. Although expectations for the future rarely shaped the future efficiently—and then mostly only as self-fulfilling prophecies—still they substantially contributed to shaping the intellectual/cultural landscape of the present and thereby to the study of the past as well. However, by the last decades of the twentieth century, the horizons of experience and expectation permanently began to diverge, eliminating the time structure which constituted the conditions for historiography. Hartog says this resulted in an expanded, eternal, and directionless present, which has nothing to do with the past and is not clearly oriented towards any future.47 We might add to this—and Hartog does not emphasize this—that at the same time the categories which earlier had functioned as the subjects of history have also disintegrated. If today we want to examine the past of the “nation” or the “West” or the “working class” or the “bourgeoisie,” we keep running into question marks: what is it we want to examine? These categories have been broken down by historical analysis, and their constructed nature has been exposed by conceptual history studies. Thus, if somebody wants to look into his or her future, all one can see on the horizon is obscurity, as the existence of these concepts has also become questionable in a constructivist approach. Historiography has often shown that they are unsuitable as a framework for analyses, and historiography has tended first to transcend the history of any nation by allegedly crafting a European history or a transnational history, and then to transcend European histories by narrating global histories.48 The often-cited disintegration of the “grand narratives” actually results from the disintegration of their subjects as the actors of history. At the very least, the “nation,” “society,” and various social groups (and more recently the frequently mentioned “West” itself) no longer function as subjects which could organize historical narratives and secure the unity of historical time through their existence, pointing from the past towards the future.49

This disintegration of the subjects of history and of historical time is partly the result of historiography itself. It has become clear partly from the works of Foucault that historical cognition has become an activity, in which research on the origins of phenomena destroys the picture of a uniform past.50 Genealogy—the method of understanding which approaches phenomena in their historical aspects, by exploring their origins—exposes as false the origin stories on which the existence of the subjects of history is based, and thereby the “grand narratives” of which they were the subjects also fall apart.51 Earlier, this genealogical approach as historical method of understanding did not necessarily involve the disintegration of uniform history. Exposing certain origin stories served precisely to allow the events of genuinely foundational importance to stand clear or to create opportunities for new foundations. However, these applications of genealogy definitely had some kind of vision and expectation horizon.52 Only after the horizon of the future became obscure in recent decades did it begin to seem—not independently of the impact of Foucault’s works, but as a consequence of probably far broader changes—that no genealogy is possible other than the kind that destroys uniform history, and only then did it begin to seem that, at the same time, the continuity and unity of historical time also cease to exist. Efforts to reinstate history into its earlier position and recreate the dynamic space of experience and expectations, in which historical time can again move from the past towards the future, are therefore seeking categories which could help transcend the postmodern state and create “grand narratives” again.53 However, it is not obvious that it is possible to recreate a teleological history or to have some kind of philosophy of history generally accepted. Teleology cannot be established intentionally, i.e. with the intention of creating teleology. The last such theories relating to the end of history—late reflections of Hegel’s philosophy of history—were spectacularly short of persuasive power. Fukuyama’s concept seems to want to rescue the West as the subject of history by stopping historical time. If history comes to an end, the West remains unchanged, and its identity is no longer questionable.54 It is not in this sense that the often-diagnosed predominance of the present means the end of history. Instead, it delegitimizes and even eliminates the idea of history so far, rather than completing the process of history. We could say that the expansion of the present puts an end not to history, but to the past. More precisely, it dissolves the past in the present.55

Consequences: Contemporary History in the Present

In light of this evolution of present-centeredness, the rise of contemporary history is an entirely logical development; in fact, it is an adequate response from historiography to the changes in historical time structures. After all, amid the fading of historical time, it is increasingly difficult to write about the history of earlier periods in a manner that allows narratives of the past to be interpreted in the light of the present or in a way that suggests that past phenomena throw light on the present. The growing interest in the contemporary is shown by the fact that H-Net, a central website for the humanities and social sciences, offers 6,811 findings for the search expression “medieval,” which was once the main territory of historical research, in contrast with the 22,365 search results for “contemporary.”56 In fact, it is the legitimacy of the history writing of earlier periods that is gradually being called into question.57 More precisely, outside of professional circles, events of earlier periods can only be interpreted as exampla for the present—not as part of a continuity—in the sense described by Koselleck as the operation of the “Historia est magistra vitae” principle, which was eliminated precisely by the emergence of academic historiography at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.58 We can see traces of the return of the exemplum whenever present phenomena are interpreted through past events without the existence of any causal relationship or more distant, but content-based connection between the two. The past is often recalled in this manner in politicians’ speeches and newspaper articles in order to throw light on current processes, from global politics to local events.

Thus, amid this present-centeredness, it is no wonder that many historians turn towards the study of the present, where the legitimacy, meaningfulness, and importance of research topics is not called into question, and which also meets with far more interest among far wider audiences. However, the present-centeredness of contemporary history means that most of the premises defining historiography in the classical way fail in this case. The necessity of the historical methodology is not self-evident, because there are other ways to access the recent past. If one still wishes to apply the historical method, this requires special explanation, because—unlike in the case of earlier periods—the historical methodology is only one of several possible alternatives. But perhaps most importantly, the classical modern concept of history, in which past, present, and future were simultaneously connected and separated by the linear flow of time, has become empty and lost its meaning. Once the notion has gained currency that the existence of a history in this sense is a question of belief, this history ceases to be a certainty.59 The place of the past as a linear process, which can be observed from the present and scientifically analyzed and understood, has been taken, as is well known, by the concepts of memory and heritage. The dominance of the concepts of memory and heritage means that rather than analyzing—based on historical methodology—the process of historical time considered as real, the past is becoming only accessible for the present as heritage or through memory. Hence, one must be faithful to heritage and preserve memory.60

Modern historiography was born in a somewhat autonomous system of academic institutions in the sociological sense, which was also the medium upholding the system of rules on the basis of which a specialist work is classified as good or bad. In the classical period of historiography, historiography was connected to non-academic spheres by the teleological approach and the national frame of reference, which also shared these ideas. Today, this is no longer the case. Nation as a frame of reference does not work consensually. Nowadays, though history exists within autonomous academic institutions which function on the basis of certain professional rules, the communication between the historical profession and the broader public sphere is hindered not only by the fact that, outside of this medium, the rules governing the sciences do not apply, but also by the absence of a commonly shared teleological approach or national thinking. This should not be misunderstood as an appeal to bring nation back in the form that in which it used to operate, nor indeed would this be possible. Furthermore, historians cannot artificially create a new teleology, which would go from the past to the future through the present. The potential subjects of such a history (not only the “nation” but also the “West” as subjects of history) were also deconstructed with the emergence of a transnational global history.61 Hence, it is no use wishing for a return of the earlier methods of cognition in the absence of the foundations and wider intellectual framework on which they were based. Thus, using an argument drawn from the sociology of knowledge, we can say in this case that what was classified as rational methodology—proposed for example by Apor62—within the earlier framework and of classical historiography has lost its foundations and, hence, its persuasive power. As can be seen, alternative approaches are highly attractive.

So, historiography is only one of several possible alternative approaches to the study of the present, and the application of its methods is no longer self-evident. But furthermore, its tools do not seem strong compared to those of its competitors. Why would there be any need for the use of historical methods in connection with a period for which the issue is not the interpretation of the remaining sources, but what eyewitnesses can remember of it? The sources are not part of a remote past, which is only accessible through the use of special methods. Rather, they have meanings which are considered self-evident for people living today. Why should professional historians—practitioners of a specific methodology—alone be competent as interpreters of the history of the present, when this present (or at least the sources to which it has given rise) is still accessible in our everyday culture?63 It is obviously impossible to understand events or processes which took place two hundred years ago without special preliminary training. This is basically accepted by everyone interested in history as non-professionals. This is the consequence of the principle of the historical perspectivity, on which historiography was based. However, in connection with periods from which there are still living eyewitnesses or which still have a living collective memory, this is not self-evident. Of course, professional history possesses an analytical force compared to everyday thinking. But anthropology, fictional literature, films, journalistic works, exhibitions, etc. can be just as competent as interpretations of various phenomena of the present as historiography. Literary works such as Péter Esterházy’s Harmonia Caelestis (Celestial Harmonies, available in English translation by Judith Sollosy) and Javított kiadás (“Revised Edition”) are arguably important works in Hungary for readers interested in the socialist era, even though by genre they are novels. One could also mention Péter Nádas’s Egy családregény vége (The End of a Family Story, available in English translation by Imre Goldstein), not to mention numerous other authors of works of fiction of lower quality but some significance.

As a consequence of the absence of the earlier dynamics of past, present, and future from the study of contemporary history, the history of the present stands in many ways closer to literary fiction or film on the one hand and, on the other, to other contemporary studies than it does to the historiography which is focused on earlier periods.64 Of the contemporary disciplines, it is currently obviously closest to anthropology, although, in theory, it could well move closer to sociology or political science, but for the moment there are no signs of this. In any event, the history of the present thus communicates more with other ways of thinking directed at the recent past than it does with the historiography of earlier periods. This is reflected, for instance, by the extent to which many historians of the present are unable or unwilling to connect the phenomena they are studying with events preceding them in time, and they hesitate to place them into context as part of a longer (for example, mid-term) continuity. This mainly happens in the culturalist versions of histories of the present. In Hungary, there are hardly any historians who research both periods before and after 1945, and it may well be true that in most Central and Eastern European countries historians are split into two distinct groups, those studying eras before 1945 and those pursuing research on the post-1945 era, without knowing much more than the educated non-professional about earlier periods.65

Of course, the history of the present is a meaningful intellectual activity, which can apply various cultural techniques, but it seems questionable how much it is indeed a continuation of historiography when the premises which once defined historiography are now lacking. At the same time, of course, the history of the present can be pursued well or badly. But the difference between a good work of history on the present or a good exhibition on the history of the present and a bad one does not necessarily lie in the fact that one applies the scientific methodology of historiography well and the other one does not. Nobody would argue with Esterházy in the name of scientific rigor about the fate of the aristocracy after 1945 or the work of the secret service of the party state as portrayed in his literary account of his father’s activity as an agent. His novel and similar fictional accounts are very good books of their own kind. A historian of the present can enter into a dialogue with these works precisely because—although they are specifically not works of historiography—they are intellectual efforts directed at the same object with which the historian is dealing. However, if the historian of the present does not criticize good writers from the point of view of science, then bad writers and poor museum exhibitions should not be criticized from a so-called scientific point of view either.

It follows from this that the criticism by good historians of the present of poor representations of memory, poor museologists, and the designers of bad monuments should not be legitimized with the academic authority of historiography. Calls for adequate source criticism or appropriate contextualization, which cite the old methodology of historiography, are ineffective in themselves. Contemporary history cannot successfully defend itself against these challenges in this manner. In spite of its internal colorfulness, the voice of contemporary history is lost in the polyphony of other contemporary studies, the memory market, and political uses of the past because it tries to base its position and authority on something which one can hardly expect to be appreciated in the present-centered present. In this sense, the history of the present may not be what it claims to be. However assiduously it applies new concepts (for instance transnationality, which has been prominent in the past two decades), it often makes no impact on other contemporary studies or the wider public, and it is often unable to connect with the demand for forms of remembrance. Thus, in the current intellectual sphere, historians of the present are not in the same privileged position as historians dealing with earlier periods which are clearly divided from the present. They argue in vain that they are more competent than others thanks to their use of a historical methodology. The historical perspective, which legitimizes the historical methodology in research on the earlier past, does not provide a solid base for research which is focused on the present, and it definitely does not provide a position of authority which would give historiography a special role among other forms of reflection directed at the present.66 Thus, in the absence of the dynamics of time, the history of the present is in fact based on the paradox of the gaze looking at itself, which makes it weak compared to other approaches to the study of the present, which do not draw their analytical power from the temporal perspective. This paradox also leaves the history of the present devoid of tools in comparison with remembrance, from which it does not effectively differ, since, through the latter, the person who remembers can also project himself into the events recalled.

Historians of the present who are doing a good job from the intellectual point of view should reflect on what their activity comprises and the foundations on which it is based. They should also consider the criteria on which any distinction between good and bad history of the present could be made, or between a good exhibition or historical monument and a bad one. They should work out the foundations on the basis of which contemporary history communicates with other academic and non-academic forms of understanding the present, and they should also reflect on and articulate the premises on which they base assertions of the validity of their own procedures. According to Nora’s proposition, the first step in this direction should be to acknowledge that contemporary history is not a temporal appendix at the end of the long process of history. In fact, it is not even history. More precisely, he believes it is a history which differs from the notion of history as it is normally understood (a means of seizing an understanding of earlier periods).67 History as a discipline established on the basis of a linear notion of time was based precisely on the exclusion of the present.68 Thus, the history of the present can only be constructed on foundations which differ from those of classical historiography, and which give rise to different rules. This construction would be necessary to provide effective protection against a flood of low-quality works and against the memory market, where according to the dominant view everyone has his or her own memory and his or her own history, which is immune to criticism, if one relies solely on the old rules of historiography. This is why it would be urgent to find a definition of a history of the present which preserves the values of historiography upheld by the professional community and still holds meaning for non-historians, i.e. is still able to communicate—on the basis of some kind of new foundations—with other social spheres. Of course, the question Nora asked forty years ago concerning the historians of the future who will write on their present remains open: “Mais faut-il encore l’appeler historien?”69


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1 Ash, „Introduction.”

2 Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft, 335–36.

3 For an overview of contemporary history by countries see Nützenadel and Schieder, Zeitgeschichte als Problem.

4 van Laak, “Zeitgeschichte und populaere Geschichtsschreibung.” According to Nützenadel and Schieder: “[es gibt] noch keinen allgemein anerkannten Konsens über die epochale Abgrenzung, thematisches Profil und methodische Grundlagen der Zeitgeschichte.” Nützenadel and Schieder, “Einleitende Überlegungen,” 8.

5 See the studies in Apor and Sarkisova, Past for the Eyes.

6 Gérard Noiriel complains that certain institutions of contemporary history research the history of large companies on behalf of the corporations, and the companies use the results in their own internal training to create loyalty among employees. Obviously, this does not reflect the strength of the autonomy of science. Noiriel, Sur la “crise” de l’histoire.

7 While in East-Central Europe the political challenges seem to be more severe, in Western Europe the economic challenges—or temptations—seem to be dangerous. See: Kühberger and Pudlat, Vergangenheitsbewirtschaftung.

8 Korte and Paletschek, Popular History Now and Then.

9 This fact induces many historians to embark on enterprises on the new market create by the demand for history. See: Hardtwig and Schug, History sells!

10 These questions are discussed by the studies in Takács, Mémoire, Contre-mémoire, pratique historique. See “Présentation” by Takács.

11 Looking at the conditions of contemporary history specifically, János M. Rainer believes that the profession is unable to earn more room for maneuver for itself on its own unless the social and cultural/political environment changes. Rainer, “…az emlékezet is konfrontálódott a történetírás múltképével ….” General overview: Berger, “Professional and popular.”

12 Jaap den Hollander expressed the paradoxical epistemology problem of contemporary history as follows: “Can we describe our own Zeitgeist, or would that amount to a kind of bootstrapping à la von Münchhausen?” Hollander, “Contemporary History,” 52.

13 Berger, The Past as History, 140–224.

14 For a summary of the problems of historiography with respect to memory and the political utilization of the past, see Gyáni, “Történelem, vagy csupán emlékezet.” Although Gyáni considers the internal changes of historiography necessary if it is going to prove able to respond to the challenge of memory, on the whole he remains optimistic with regards to its potentials.

15 Nora: “L’histoire au péril de la politique.” In Nora’s interpretation, the political use of the past is not only associated with politicians, but includes references to the past by civil movements.

16 Hartog, Croire, 29.

17 Nora, L’histoire au péril de la politique. Jaap den Hollander also notes that in the early 1960s, he was not taught about the preceding fifty years at school. Hollander, “Contemporary History,” 55.

18 Noiriel, Sur la “crise” de l’histoire, 45–47.

19 Keszei, “Az emlékezet rétegei.”

20 See Lessing’s famous formula: “Überhaupt aber glaube ich, dass der Name eines wahren Geschichtschreibers nur demjenigen zukömmt, der die Geschichte seiner Zeiten und seines Landes beschreibt. Denn nur der kann selbst als Zeuge auftreten.” Quoted by Hollander, ibid., 55.

21 Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft. 335–36.

22 “Tant qu’il n’est d’histoire que du passé, il n’y a pas d’histoire contemporaine. C’est une contradiction dans les termes” Nora, “Présent,” 467.

23 According to Jaap den Hollander “the theoretical status of contemporary history [is] enigmatic” and “deserves more theoretical reflection than it has received up to now.” Ibid., 51–52.

24 Metzler, “Zeitgeschichte.”

25 Iggers, Deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft. Koselleck, Vergange Zukunft.

26 On the foundations of historiography see Hölscher, Die Entdeckung der Zukunft, 9–10, and Etzemüller, “Ich sehe das, was Du nicht siehst.” On the nation as a frame of reference see Berger, The Past as History.

27 “Die Lehre von der geschichtlichen Perspektiven legitimiert den historischen Erkenntniswandel, indem sie der Zeitfolge eine erkenntisstiftende Funktion zuweist. Geschichtliche Wahrheiten wurden kraft ihrer Verzeitlichung zu überlegenen Wahrheiten.” Koselleck, Vergange Zukunft, 336.

28 In the words of Michel de Certeau, time has become object and measurement tool at the same time for historians. de Certeau, Histoire et psychanalyse, 89.

29 See for example Danto’s analyses of Thucydides’ perception of time, Analytical Philosophy, 22–23.

30 See Etzemüller op. cit. and Jung: “Das Neue der Neuzeit ist ihre Zeit.”

31 Danto, Analytical Philosophy, 183.

32 Berger, “Introduction.”

33 “[C]ontemporary History finally became an academic subdiscipline, complete with its own chairs, journals, and research institutes. In a sense, this meant a rehabilitation of the tradition from before 1800.” Hollander, “Contemporary History,” 55.

34 For example, Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.”

35 On heritage, see Sonkoly, Bolyhos tájaink, 17–33. On heritage in Central Europe, see Erdősi and Sonkoly, “Levels of National Heritage Building.”

36 Gyáni, “Történelem, vagy csupán emlékezet” ; Rainer, “…az emlékezet is konfrontálódott a történetírás múltképével…”; K. Horváth, Az emlékezet betegei; Todorov, Les abus de la mémoire ; Revel, “Le fardeau de la mémoire.”

37 According to Pierre Nora, the turnaround whereby historiography abandoned its functions of memory and assumed a critical function—basically associated with the emergence of the Annales school—took place precisely during the period when Halbwachs’s analyses concerning memory were being written. Nora, “Pour une histoire contemporaine.”

38 Halbwachs, La mémoire collective, 122–35.

39 Romsics, “Új tendenciák” ; idem, A múlt arcai; Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.”

40 Ibid., 164–66.

41 Burke, Varieties of Cultural History, 40–59.

42 Apor wants to enforce the evidence-based methodology supported by rational source criticism, on the basis of which historiography can judge the authenticity of representations of the past falling in the category of non-academic historiography. Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.” But from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge, we can state that there is no rationality or epistemology independent from space and time. The earlier scientific point of view did not come into being in a vacuum; it is not an embodiment of an abstract rationality. So, the validity of this epistemology may not be considered as self-evident in other historical situations than the one in which it was born.

43 Gyáni, “Miről szól a történelem?.”

44 Frank, Der Mauer um die Wette gedenken.

45 Wieviorka, L’ere du témoin.

46 Arendt, “The Gap Between Past and Future,” 5.

47 Hartog, Régimes d’historicité.

48 Buruma and Margalit, Occidentalism.

49 As K. Horváth points out, just as Hartog, Niklas Luhman also emphasizes, there can be no continuity or even chronology without identity. K. Horváth, “Betegségek, pszichopatológiák és időstruktúrák.” On the end of the “grand narratives,” see: Takács, “A történelem vége.”

50 Bódy, “Michel Foucault: A szexualitás története.” Burke said that in foundation myths, unintended consequences of past actions are considered conscious aims of the one-time actors. It is the duty of historiography to destroy these myths and thereby to remind us of the fragmented nature of history. Burke’s examples are Durkheim and Weber, as the founders of sociology, and Luther, as the father of Reformation. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History, 58–59. Thus, according to Burke, historiography in a critical sense will itself perform a remembrance function, although what constitutes the foundation for this remains unexplained in Burke’s works.

51 Ádám Takács pointed out that it is not history that ends with the end of the “grand narratives,” but only the more or less clearly outlined social/political alternatives. Takács, “A történelem vége.” Translating this into Kosellecki’s terminology, we could say that it was these alternatives that were earlier outlined on the horizon of expectation, and historical time was moving in their direction.

52 As Schwendtner shows, even the Nietzschean genealogy had an orientation towards the future in this sense. It analyzed what originated from the past precisely in order to open a path towards the future. It is even more true of the genealogy perception of Husserl and Heidegger that they also aimed to lay the foundations for new identities or recreate the foundations of old ones, and at the same time to exit the present and create new, future opportunities by examining past events that were of foundational importance from the perspective of the present—while thereby relativizing their own present. Foundation or connecting with foundations were definitely considered possible. Schwendtner, Eljövendő múlt.

53 Baschet, “L’histoire face au présent perpétuel.”

54 Fukuyama, The End of History.

55 One could say that from this point of view that all of the past has been dissolved in the present and thus the problem of historical distance does not exist and never existed. “The past only ever appears in our present beliefs; it is never given at a distance,” Mark Bevir confidently declares, as if he thereby transcended earlier errors related to this. Bevir, “Why historical distance is not a problem,” 25. Bevir here does not acknowledge the fact that the idea of a past independent from the present was at least as real in the beliefs of the one-time presents, as real as today’s post-foundational ideas. See Gumbrecht’s analyses of the “chronotopes” and, among them, a description of the “historicist” chronotope, which lost its validity around the 1970s to give place to our broad present. Gumbrecht, Unsere breite Gegenwart.

56 While for the search expression “middle age,” 1,671 items appear on the web-site H-Net, the search term “contemporary history” yielded 2,577 findings, and in addition, one can find another 246 items for “present time.” The French expression “moyen age” yields only 104 results, while the French world “contemporain” yields 420. (These searches were done on May 15, 2017.)

57 Hochmut stated, for example, that “Public History in den Berliner Museen ist vor allem Public Contemporary History.“ Hochmut, “HisTourismus” 177.

58 Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft.

59 So believes Francois Hartog, who thinks that for our current thinking, only the ever-wandering present remains, and the past can only be interpreted as recollection and heritage, rather than as history. Hartog, Croire en l’histoire, 281–82.

60 Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 1–30.

61 On the website H-Net, the expression “global History” yields 2,415 items and “transnational history” yields 1,449. These two numbers indicate the popularity of these research fields. (These searches were done on May 15, 2017.) However, transfers, interactions, networking, and other key concepts of transnational history are not suitable as historical subjects, or at least not as subjects with which readers can identify. Wehler, “Transnational Geschichte”; Conrad, What is Global History, 185–203.

62 Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.”

63 This is also essentially the direction in which the arguments of Timothy Garton Ash point when he questions the privilege of professional historiography in researching the history of the present and undertakes to defend his own journalistic methods and writing. Ash, “Introduction.”

64 See for example the Sándor Horváths’ work Feljelentés, which offers a detailed historical account of the life of a totally insignificant agent of the Hungarian political police, which throws more light on the history of the state socialism than any analyses of the social and political structure of the era.

65 The problem is diagnosed and the need to examine continuities across the boundary of 1945 is suggested by Bódy and Horváth, “1945 és a háború társadalma,” 7–12.

66 Nora believes that the historian’s function regarding the present time is ground down against journalism and contemporary studies such as sociology, anthropology, economics, and geography. Nora, “Présent,” 471.

67 “[L]’histoire contemporaine … n’est pas le simple appendice temporel d’une histoire sure d’elle-meme, mais un histoire autre et que l’exclusion du contemporain hors du champ de l’histoire est précisément ce qui lui donne sa spécificité.” Ibid., 467.

68 Ibid.

69 Nora, “Présent,”472.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS

pdfSocial Demand and the Social Purpose of History: What is Missing from Alun Munslow’s Classification of Historiography?1

László Vörös

Insitute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences2

Alun Munslow proposed a threefold classification of historians’ approaches to the writing of history. According to Munslow, every historian is either a reconstructionist, constructionist, or deconstructionist, depending on his/her fundamental epistemological/ontological beliefs concerning the possibilities of studying and representing the “past” in the form of narrative. I suggest that the category of constructionism as defined by Munslow is based on a priori presumptions about historians’ alleged beliefs in the ontic nature of the “before now” and its knowability. The actual practice of scholarly history writing allows for a more nuanced typology. I argue for a looser association of formal and methodological criteria with the basic ontological/epistemological positions of historians. I also argue that Munslow’s category of constructionism should be split into two ideal-typical categories: constructionism-proper and constructionism-improper. His deep insight into the formal aspects of history representation notwithstanding, Munslow’s theory fails to explain why there are such diverse and completely contradictory epistemologies within a single discipline. Neither does it explain the seemingly paradoxical continued domination of (in Munslow’s view) two fallacious epistemologies: the reconstructionist and the constructionist. Why has reconstructionism, the most obsolete of the three epistemological positions, not vanished after many decades of intense criticism? I suggest that we should look for answers in the extra-disciplinary domain of the social functions of history. I argue that the social purpose of the knowledge produced by historians and the interaction between historians and the public have a decisive formative influence on both the theory and the practice of the discipline. Historians who fit into the epistemological categories of reconstructionism and constructionism-improper are able to provide accounts that legitimize social institutions, political regimes, economical systems, social orders, etc. Even more importantly, the histories constructed by this kind of historian often serve to anchor narratives (of self-identification) connected to referential social groups and categories. I suggest that reconstructionist and constructionist-improper historians can serve these societal functions because their accounts are based on realist-empiricist epistemologies congruent with naïve perceptions of the “past.” Furthermore, the constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians not only do not offer legitimizing or identification narratives, their narratives of history are based on counterintuitive epistemology informed by constructivist social scientific theory. Their analyses often deconstruct the very notions upon which legitimizing and anchoring discourses are based. I suggest that the social functions of historical knowledge are thus an aspect that must be incorporated into epistemological studies of history and historiography.

Keywords: Social functions of history, Alun Munslow, epistemology, reconstructionism, constructionism, deconstructionism, self-identification, anchoring

In his works,3 philosopher of history and historian Alun Munslow has masterfully introduced the main themes of the philosophy of history in the past half-century. Taking first and foremost the ideas of postmodernist and narrativist philosophers of history as his point of departure, he argues coherently against the tenets of traditional historiography concerning the object of historical studies, the practice of historical research, and the results of the scientific practices of historians. He proposes a threefold classification of epistemological approaches which should be applicable everywhere where the European model of history writing functions in an institutionalized form. In Munslow’s view, each and every historian follows either the reconstructionist, constructionist, or deconstructionist approach to the study of the past and the writing of history.

Like any classification or typology, Munslow’s has been subjected to various critical assessments. Munslow’s classification does indeed have weak points. However, the gravity of these weaknesses depends on the perspective from which we approach his typology of historiographical epistemologies and the purposes to which we wish to use it. Several authors, approaching it from the perspective of the philosophy of history, ontology, and epistemology, have expressed objections. I will briefly mention one of them. These objections concern definitional problems with the category of constructionism, and they in no way belittle Munslow’s work. They merely amend it.

However, Munslow aspires to do more than merely contribute to the philosophy of history. His main goal is to promote the deconstructionist approach to pursuing research on the past and the writing of history. The reconstructionist/constructionist epistemology in his view has fundamental problems. Historians falling into these categories are, according to Munslow, living in an illusion according to which they (and historiography in general) are producing truthful scholarly knowledge. Munslow (and he is far from being alone) thinks that the writers of history and history writing in general need to disabuse themselves of this delusion.4 Thus, his threefold classification is meant to be more than a mere disinterested taxonomy; it is supposed to be used as an analytical tool to help achieve this goal. From this perspective, I think his classification suffers from several deficiencies and omissions which are much weightier. Though I agree with major parts of his reasoning, I am skeptical about the analytical strength and potential of his threefold classification. The first weak point in this respect is the same as the shortcoming mentioned above: the category of constructionism is based on mistaken definitional premises. Moreover, to speak only about constructionism is an oversimplification. One can conceptualize at least two ideal-typical versions of constructionism, both on epistemological and on practical bases. The second weak point is that Munslow uses a rather narrow conception of epistemology. He makes the central reference point of his classification the question of the ontic status of the past and historians’ presumed belief in or skepticism concerning its objective form.

From philosophical point of view, this might be legitimate and unobjectionable, but if the goal is to study and understand the professional (scholarly) history writing in its complexity, some other aspects need to be taken into consideration. For instance, Munslow’s classification cannot explain why there are within one discipline such diverse and completely contradictory epistemologies—a rather unique occurrence even within the humanities, let alone the social sciences. Nor can it explain the seemingly paradoxical continued domination of (in Munslow’s view) two fallacious epistemologies: the reconstructionist and the constructionist. And particularly, it fails to explain why reconstructionism, the most obsolete of the three epistemological positions, did not vanish after many decades of intense and plausible criticism coming not only from philosophers of history, but also from historians themselves.

In the case of the humanities and particularly historiography, the social purpose of the knowledge produced by scholars and the interaction between scholars and the public have a decisive formative influence on both the theory and the practice of the discipline. The purpose and social functioning of historical knowledge is thus an aspect that must be incorporated into the epistemological studies of history and historiography. Munslow’s classification is useful because, even if with some flaws, it comprehensively identifies what we are dealing with when we speak about the fundamentals of history writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Munslow reveals the problems and offers remedies, but he is not paying adequate attention to the question “why?” Munslow’s classification fails to offer any explanation (nor does it attempt to offer any explanation) of why the “problematic epistemology” (i.e. reconstructionism) remains dominant, despite decades of persuasive critiques of the premises on which it rests. Thus, it remains little more than an inspiring but imaginative and exceedingly ideal-typical typology with a rather limited potential as an instrument in the analyses of historiographical practice past and present.

The most elementary question of the epistemology of history is ontological: What is the object of historical study and how does it exist? If the object of historians’ interest is the “past,” or, more specifically, “the connections between events and human intention or agency in the past,” how does this past exist in the present?5 There is a consensus that the “past” (what happened “before now”) is non-existent in any present, however, there are material remnants in the form of sources. This consensus, nevertheless, begins to show fissures when the following questions are raised: is the past in any way objectively structured? Are historians really studying the “past,” or are they “merely” studying people’s ideas about what happened? What about chronological ordering, historical fact, and historical event? Are these natural “building blocks” of the “past,” i.e. manifestations through which one can shed light on its otherwise hidden structuring? Or they are rather the constructs of historians? Are the sources repositories of truth about the past? Is there an objective, i.e. observer-independent truth which can be discovered by historians and told (narrated) to others? Is there a direct correspondence between the events of the past and the narratives (i.e. history) about them? Is the language used by historians a transparent tool for conveying information, or does it have a formative influence, whether historians are conscious of it or not? Does the way the narrative is told have any formative impact on its meaning? Does the subjectivity of historians (the social, cultural, educational, and psychological determinants) influence their narratives of the past? If so, is it possible (or necessary, or desirable) to eliminate or at least regulate these determinants and influences?

These are some of the questions that have preoccupied philosophers of history over the course of the past half-century. The answers historians have given to these questions place them into one of Munslow’s three categories (or genres) of history writing. In the following, I will offer a brief outline of Munslow’s threefold classification and some of his main points.

Reconstructionist historians presume (usually implicitly) that what happened in the past had a given form which is discoverable and can be truthfully represented through narratives. In principle, if the conditions are right (i.e. if there are sufficient sources and the researchers are skilled and adequately trained), historians should be able to uncover and reconstruct the course of events and narrate them objectively “as they actually happened.” Munslow characterizes the reconstructionists as hard-core empiricists and (naïve) realists. The former means that reconstructionist historians consider the sources remnants and specimens of the past which contain self-evident facts about the past. Historians merely use their talents and abilities to extract and process these facts, putting them into the correct order and thus arriving at a disinterested and truthful interpretation of what actually happened. The absolute primacy of the study of sources is informed by a realist vision of the past: “Realists … [are saying that] … the past must exist regardless of whether there are any historians just as mountains exist regardless of whether there are mountaineers or geographers.”6 In other words, reconstructionist historians, whether consciously or unconsciously, are objectifying/reifying the “past.” They tend to think about “historical events” as if they were objective entities, unique and fixed, observable and describable. It should come as no surprise, then, that reconstructionists endorse a concept of truth that is congruent with the correspondence theories of truth, meaning, and knowledge. Reconstructionist historians also look with suspicion on interdisciplinary imports into the workings of historiography. Social theories used in historical research are viewed as deviations which artificially try to force “structures,” “regularities,” or “laws” upon the past. The use of theories leads to violation of the past “reality,” deformations of heuristics and interpretation, and eventually the ideologization of history.7

Theory, or no theory? The answer given to this question is what differentiates the constructionist historians from reconstructionist historians the most. According to constructionists, human acts and behavior in the past are too complex to be interpreted correctly without a proper conceptual apparatus and theoretical background. The Annalistes, the Marxist/neo-Marxist schools, and the various schools inspired by theories of modernization are, according to Munslow, constructionists.8 Constructionist historians, in contrast with reconstructionists, do not endorse the correspondence theory a-critically: “Constructionists generally are aware that their narratives do not automatically mirror the reality of the past and that objectivity (at least as understood by reconstructionists) is impossible.”9 Yet, there is a crucial point on which constructionists are in agreement with their reconstructionist “cousins,” as Munslow labels them,10 and that is the belief in the objectivity of the past. In other words, even if constructionists admit that we might never know “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” they insist there is one ultimate truth about the past. According to Munslow constructionists believe in the existence of objective structures and patterns which can be studied and revealed with the help of social theories and models. This very much reminds one of the reconstructionist objectification/reification of the “historical facts” and “historical events.” Similarly, the constructionist understanding of the ontology and epistemic value of the sources resembles the reconstructionist views. In fact, Munslow often treats both categories as fundamentally one: “reconstructionist/constructionist.”11

Deconstructionists pay much more attention to the person of the historian and the factors which determine him/her. There is no inherent meaning hidden in the sources, nor is there a truth about the past. Historians do not observe and reconstruct the events of the past. On the contrary, they construct narratives about events or aspects of events which took place in the past. The writing of history is essentially a process of literary representation, not an unbiased objective description of how things actually happened. This does not mean that the deconstructionists would deny that there is information in the sources. The deconstructionist “argument is that knowing what happened does not tell you what it means.”12 And it is in the process of giving meaning, i.e. representing, that the subjective, contingent, ideological, and fictive elements enter the narrative of history. “The point of deconstructionist history is the challenge it throws down to the idea, which reaches its ultimate expression in hard-core constructionism, especially of the statistical variety, that there are essential (true) patterns ‘out there’ to be discovered in the past.”13 According to this view, the past can be best understood as an inherently meaningless unbounded heterogeneous stream of happening within which human action unfolded.

The historical facts are far from having an inherent true meaning decipherable on the basis of the sources. Nor are “historical events” the natural constituents of the past, as the reconstructionists and partly constructionists prefer to see them. Both facts and events are constructions, parts of the history discourse, not real and observer-independent entities. However, the most significant argument of deconstructionists and the one that is still provoking bitter responses from practicing historians concerns the language and the form in which history is represented. With the exception of very traditional reconstructionists, most of the actors in the discipline to some extent acknowledge the subjectivity (i.e. bias stemming from social, cultural, ideological, and other determinations) of the historian as a formative factor in the writing of history. The deconstructionists go further in their claim that, in addition to the preconceptions, prejudices, and biases as influences which can never be entirely eliminated, the language and the particular rhetorical mode predominantly used by historians to represent the past (the narrative) exerts its own influence on the meanings of these representations, an influence which is beyond the control of historians. At this point Munslow, draws heavily on the works of philosophers of history Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit, Hans Kellner, Jörn Rüsen, Keith Jenkins, Louis Mink, Paul Ricoeur, and their followers. The way in which historians arrange the facts and thus create an emplotment for the story (the historical representation) bestows the narrative with meanings at a very fundamental level. According to Hayden White there are four elementary kinds of emplotment: romantic, comic, tragic, and satiric.14 Thus, the histories written by historians are, as far as the form of the narrative is concerned, either romance, comedy, tragedy, or satire. In theory, every past event can be emploted (narrated) in each of the four ways. The question of which is used is most often not the conscious choice of the historian, but rather the outcome of other discursive determinants.15

This is one of the strongest arguments of the deconstructionists in favor of the relativist, non-objectivist, non-empiricist epistemology of history, yet it is also one of the most misunderstood and ignored by historians. The human act is in itself valueless. It is neither tragic nor comic. It can be viewed as such only from a certain perspective. Every historian speaking about past events is doing so from a particular position which is determined and influenced by many discursive and non-discursive factors.16 The truthfulness of various interpretations is relative to the “regimes of truth” within which they come into being. Thus, it is not merely correspondence with the facts in the first place that serves as the basis for deciding whether a narrative is true, but the ideological background, preconceptions, and, as I will argue, the purpose the narrative of history is intended to serve.

In his Deconstructing History (first published in 1997), Munslow did not offer any concrete examples of deconstructionist historical writings. He did so seven years later in the reader The Nature of History, which he co-edited with Keith Jenkins.17 There are excerpts from the works of ten authors. Two selections are from the writings of philosophers (Hayden White and Jacques Derrida), while the remaining eight examples (from works by Greg Dening, Walter Benjamin, Richard Price, Robert A. Rosenstone, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Sven Lindquist, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Iain Chambers) differ in style and form, but they are similar in the conspicuous absence of fluent linear narrative (this does not mean, however, that they are non-narrative) and stylistic experimentation. As the editors put it, the chosen excerpts are “texts which undercut the idea of the narrator as nobody and stress the author’s creative role. Dispensing with linear narratives in favor of multi-voiced, multi-perspectival, multi-levelled, fragmented arrangements… [these authors play] …with the possibility of creating new ways of representing and figuring ‘the before now’.”18

Obviously, Munslow’s “reconstructionists,” “constructionists,” and “deconstructionists” should be perceived as ideal-typical categories. As such, they are utopias, and they can hardly be found in their pristine form in reality.19 Nevertheless, if ideal types are to be properly operable in the work of analyses, they need to be plausibly constructed. In the following, I argue that Munslow makes several assumptions which render his threefold classification problematic, especially for analytical use in the study of historiographical practice. I draw attention to some of the weak points of Munslow’s definitional approach, and I then suggest a redefinition and split of his category of constructionism into two subcategories.

Munslow places considerable emphasis on the ontic status of the past as perceived by historians, making it a sort of primary epistemological reference point of his classification. This is his most decisive criterion, through which he defines the two opposing camps: reconstructionist/constructionist vs. deconstructionist. At the same time, he downplays the importance of other factors and categorical attributes (such as research practice, methods, and approaches), reducing them to mere secondary features. For Munslow, the methods of research and the ways of acquiring knowledge serve merely as secondary “markers” with which to identify the primary epistemological feature. This is particularly noticeable in his definition of constructionism. Munslow simply assumes that historians working with theories and concepts from the social sciences believe in the objective past, much as reconstructionists do. The only easily identifiable attribute that distinguishes Munslow’s constructionists from the reconstructionists is the former’s use of social theories. At the same time, the principal feature which differentiates the constructionists from the deconstructionists is the constructionists’ alleged belief in the existence of objective (i.e. discoverable) social, economic, cultural, political, etc. patterns in the past.

For Munslow, the fact that someone conceptualizes of him or herself as a social historian who works with sociological, anthropological, psychological, and other theories to gain knowledge about various aspects of human life in the past, simply in itself serves as a decisive defining marker of the historian’s epistemological/ontological belief about the nature of the past and its knowability. The definitional tying together of these features, making one the indicator of the other, is aprioristic and exceedingly reductionist.

Another problematic aspect of Munslow’s strict classificatory approach concerns the manner in which he singles out and overemphasizes a narrowly defined criterion. Historians’ ideas regarding the ontic status of the past (past events, social phenomena etc.) often cannot be conclusively identified. Undoubtedly there are cases in which an author’s epistemological position can be safely inferred from his/her textual output. But in many cases, unless a historian makes an explicit statement about his/her standing as far as the knowability of past events is concerned, an inference will remain just a guess. Thus, it is not at all surprising that most of the authors whose writings Munslow (and Jenkins) uses as examples of reconstructionist, constructionist, and deconstructionist historical accounts made their epistemological stance explicitly clear either in the texts quoted or somewhere else.20 Only few practicing historians make an explicit statement about their epistemological points of departure, particularly concerning the very issues Munslow make a decisive definitional factor. The search for answers to such elementary ontological/epistemological questions still does not belong to the mainstream theoretical and methodological principles of the discipline. Most practicing historians do not consider raising and answering these questions a necessary prerequisite of good historical scholarship.

One might therefore have doubts about the general validity of Munslow’s three epistemological positions (genres), since their construction is based on limited and specific empirical material: the writings of historians who, by the very virtue of the fact that they have made their claims about the ontic status of the past and its knowability explicit, represent a rather rare kind. One might ask whether the validity of Munslow’s threefold classification isn’t indeed limited to the historians whose writings he analyzes. Though in the same breath I must add that my skepticism does not go that far.

Arguably it is safe to presume that most of the traditional style historical accounts which indeed are narrative (or at least largely narrative) and which deal with national histories, important figures of national history, and so on can be safely categorized as reconstructionist. The same cannot be said, however, about the histories which are informed by social theories, even if they are partly or even in large part narrative. For Munslow, such histories are constructionist and thus based on objectivist epistemological premises, very much like the histories of reconstructionists. But many historians who fit into Munslow’s category of constructionism simply because they use social theory, adopt with the theoretical body they borrow from sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists, and colleagues from other disciplines, very strong social constructivist epistemological propositions which are in stark opposition to naïve realism and acritical empiricism of the sort that Munslow ascribes to reconstructionists and constructionists. Philosopher of history Eugen Zeleňák makes a similar point and proposes an elegant solution to the contradictions stemming from Munslow’s rigorous definitional approach.

Zeleňák21 considers Munslow’s a priori judgement about constructionism as “essentially a subspecies of reconstructionism”22 untenable, since he finds it difficult to justify such a close association of constructionists who use social scientific concepts, theories, and hypotheses with a-theoretical reconstructionism. He points out that many historians working with critical social theories and an analytical conceptual apparatus are aware that they are working with constructions which are not derived from the past but, on the contrary, are applied to (or in Munslow’s words, imposed on) the evidence.23 Following Munslow’s own argumentation and examples, Zeleňák suggests that Munslow is in fact speaking about at least two types of constructionism, one which indeed is close to reconstructionism (constructionism-I) and another which is much closer to the deconstructionist ideas about the ontic status of the past and the possibilities of knowing about the past (constructionism-II).24 Were the classification strictly based on general epistemological and ontological assumptions, Zeleňák claims, it would be more adequate to reduce the three categories to two basic epistemological types which he labels direct realism and impositionalism. Reconstructionists and constructionists-I are direct realists, since their epistemological fundaments are based on the idea that they are discovering the objective (i.e. observer independent) knowledge about past events. Deconstructionists and constructionists-II are impositionalists because they deliberately and, in accordance with the rules of scholarly conduct, impose concepts, theories and models on the information about past happenings which they are able to derive from sources, thus creating knowledge about particular aspects of past phenomena. Impositionalists do not consider this knowledge a mirror image of past events “as they actually happened.” They are aware that what they write is in many ways contingent and dependent on perspective.25

Though Zeleňák’s reduced epistemological classification might seem too general, simplicity is its advantage. If we keep the secondary “markers” of Munslow’s classification,26 strip it of its unsubstantiated assumptive aprioristic ontological/epistemological primary definitional criteria, and replace it with Zeleňák’s basic twofold categorization, we get the skeleton of a much more workable ideal-type classification.

Consequently, a readjustment of Munslow’s classification in this vein must include a reassessment of his category of constructionism/constructionist historians. If this category is to be salvaged as an analytical concept which also refers to the scholarly practices of historians, it needs to be split into at least two types, as has been already suggested. Not every historian working with social scientific concepts and theories does so in a competent way. To infer the epistemic position of a historian on the basis of a simple presence of sociological, psychological, etc. terminology or references and allusions to grand theories of social sciences in his/her writing would merely be another aprioristic mistake. In other words, some of the historians who use social scientific terminology have not adequately mastered the theory itself, let alone the episteme upon which the given theory rests. I label this category of historian constructionist-improper historians. I will return to this category later. First, let us examine the second type of constructionism, which I label constructionism-proper, in greater detail.

As already stated, constructionist-proper historians are full-fledged social constructivists. These historians usually recognize the difference between ontological and epistemological objectivity and the subjectivity of facts and observations, and they are aware of the constructed nature of social reality and the specific ontic status of social and institutional facts. They reject the Rankean “wie es eigentlich gewesen” kind of (direct realist) creed and are aware that their accounts are but contingent representations constructed from a certain perspective. At the same time, however, this kind of historian accepts the reality of cause and effect, the reality of human action and institutional agency, and the reality of social relations in the past. These things may not exist now, but they existed once. And even if it is nonsensical to think that there can be a “true reconstruction” of these events, this does not mean we cannot attain valid knowledge about social phenomena in the past by studying sources. In fact, accounts of this kind by constructionist historians are not histories in the traditional sense anymore. It is more appropriate to look at them as forms of historical sociology, historical anthropology, historical economy, historical political science, etc., as is reflected in the names of some of the historical schools and subdisciplines.

When I propose the adoption of the term constructionist-improper historians to denote a category of historians one of whose defining features is a relative inability (in no way permanent or inherent) to work properly with social constructivist theories and to grasp fully the epistemic bases of such theories, I do not mean to suggest any lack of intellectual capacity. Historians themselves never independently developed theories of social life that would become transdisciplinary because they never had to. Professional institutionalized scholarly history writing started in the nineteenth century as a discipline the primary function of which was to “discover” and “describe” the past of “nations” and the deeds of the great men, leaders, representatives of nations, etc. It was not the goal of historians to study psychological, social psychological, social, cultural, economic, political, or other general human-related phenomena. Thus, historiography did not manage to evolve into discipline that would inspire sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, etc. in their research strategies and agenda. It was, rather, the other way around. Some historians adopted or were inspired by concepts, theories, and methods used in other disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. However, this process of drawing inspiration from and/or adopting approaches, theories, concepts, and research strategies from other disciplines never became a general feature of historians’ training. Often, a historian develops an ability to work properly with theories and concepts from other disciplines only because of his or her determination and study. In many cases, historians who accept (or have been socialized into) the constructionist idea according to which past human phenomena are too complex to be correctly interpreted without a proper conceptual apparatus and theoretical background are for various reasons not able to work properly with social theories.

Perhaps surprisingly, this phenomenon is not unique to historiography. In the early 2000s, sociologist Rogers Brubaker critically remarked that the social scientific discourse about ethnicity, race, nationalism, and identity is plagued with an “intellectual slackness” which he labels “complacent and clichéd constructivism.”27 The most characteristic feature of clichéd constructivism is intuitive and superficial use of complex concepts and theories (e.g. that of “social identity”),28 which very often leads to serious fallacies, notably essentialism and reification. In historiography, in particular the concepts of ethnicity, ethnic and national identity, ethnic group, nation and nationalism, race and racism, social group and collective action, and collective memory (to mention only a few) often fall prey to clichéd constructivism. Naturally, one can distinguish various degrees of inadequate and uninformed use of scholarly (social scientific) concepts, from the most vulgar, when historians blatantly essentialize for instance “ethnic” or “national identity” (i.e. either explicitly or implicitly they treat “identity” as an inherent feature of a historical actor or entire aggregates of the population) and/or reify social groups, categories, or classes (i.e. they endow them with ontological objectivity, speak about them as acting entities, and treat them as natural, not social, phenomena) to more sophisticated cases, when analyses which are informed by essentialist and reifying presumptions and misconceptions are concealed behind a constructivist rhetoric. I label this practice of pretended constructivism “constructionism-improper.”29

As I implied above, from an ontological/epistemological point of view each of the two categories of constructionism suggested by me is congruent with Zeleňák’s dichotomy of direct realism and impositionalism. Constructionist-improper historians will probably though certainly not exclusively be direct realists, while constructionist-proper historians will probably be impositionalists.30

So far, I have argued that if Munslow had merely typified various epistemological positions currently prevailing in historiography, his classification would count as (perhaps with some amendments, such as the one made by Zeleňák) a valuable contribution to the epistemology of history. However, since Munslow’s ambition has been to propose a general classification of the historiographical practice with special regard to elementary epistemological positions of historians, he included and aprioristically tied together features such as the use of theory in the works of historical interpretation and methods of research. I pointed to the problematic aspects of this approach, and I deconstructed the category of constructionism, splitting it into two ideal-type subcategories. Now I turn to the last question I have asked in the introduction of this paper: why did the direct realist (reconstructionist/constructionist-improper) epistemological position not vanish after many decades of intense and justified criticism, and indeed why does it arguably remain, this criticism notwithstanding, the mainstream episteme within history writing globally?

Well-known historians from renowned schools such as the Annales, Begriffsgeschichte, the Cambridge school of the history of political ideas, Marxist/neo-Marxist schools in Great Britain, France and elsewhere, Microhistory, and New cultural history, to mention only a few, are perceived as the elite of the discipline, at least within the European and transatlantic Anglophone historiographies. These historians are cited and referred to far more frequently than most.31 Nevertheless, though they have existed for decades and have undergone a process of progressive development, the schools represented by these historians (and some other schools) remain in the position of an avant-garde. The ways of thinking and working adopted by these historians, i.e. their impositionalist epistemological points of departure have not been incorporated into the discipline’s general theoretical and methodological framework, and this is also true of their methods, theories, and the themes of their research. Why have respected authors, whose scholarship and work is highly esteemed, petrified in the position of a special elite sub-genre? Why did the constructionist-proper and deconstructionist approaches to research and history writing not become (or became only to a limited extent) integral parts of the standard training of history students?

Obviously, there is no simple answer to these questions. Several closely related determinants—of a cognitive, social-psychological and social, political, cultural (ideological), economic, and institutional nature—are at play. But factors such as the outdated history education system, structural peculiarities of personal reproduction within the academic sphere, lack of resources, political/ideological influence and limitations on freedom of research etc. are secondary (not in importance, but in effect) to cognitive, social-psychological/social, and power-related (political/ideological) determinants, or to put it in other words, to the social functions and purposes of professional history writing (historiography). I contend that we should start to look for new understandings of and explanations for epistemic positions in historiography in the domain of the functionality of historical knowledge in society.

So far, following Munslow’s threefold categorization, I have been paying attention to professional historians: their ideas about the past and its knowability, their scholarly practice, and the outcomes of this practice in the form of written histories. Now, we need to turn our attention to the consumers of history, in particular the non-professional public. I believe it is relevant to ask why people need history, why it makes sense to read and remember history, why is important to teach histories in an institutionalized and controlled manner. In the following, I consider the functions of history in modern societies. I argue that it is important to consider both the epistemological/ontological positions of historians and the intuitive (pre-theoretical) epistemological/ontological assumptions of lay readers, listeners, and viewers of history when studying the practice of history writing. Both the social purpose of historiographies and to a considerable extent the practice of the discipline as such is determined by the social functioning of the socially relevant narratives about the past, which is in turn largely determined by the cognitive modalities of perception of the “before now” by human beings, at least in modern societies.

There are many conceptualizations and typologies of the functions of history in everyday social life. For instance, G. E. R. Lloyd identifies eleven aims or agendas which historians set for themselves: (1) entertainment, (2) memorializing or commemorating, (3) glorification/vilification or celebration/denigration, (4) legitimization of regimes, (5) justifying past actions and policies, (6) explaining why things happened as they did, (7) offering instruction on the basis of past experience, (8) providing records for administrative use, (9) warning, admonishing on moral or prudential grounds, (10) criticizing others’ interpretations, and (11) “just” recording the past, saying how it was.32 John Tosh or Enrique Florescano propose similar lists of the “uses” and social functions of history.33

I reduce Lloyd’s points to three general functionalities.34

The first of these is the Historia magistra vitae est function (which, I admit, is perhaps not the most fortunate label to use in this context). History, or more precisely, knowledge about some aspects of past human phenomena serves as a source of learning for present practical purposes. Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe might be mentioned as one of the early prototypical examples. Machiavelli referred to particular deeds and strategies of past rulers, conquerors, commanders, and politicians to provide examples in support of his own observations regarding the nature of domination and power. Machiavelli’s approach was purely utilitarian; he analyzed past events and actors (causes and factors) in order to suggest the best course of action or a strategy for the present and future. On the other end of the spectrum are the modern scholarly works, which study past social, political, economic, etc. phenomena in order to gain critical knowledge for a better understanding of present processes and developments. Very often, these kinds of historical accounts are also intended to serve as an admonishment or warning. Not surprisingly, this tendency is most apparent in the contemporary history writings dealing with non-democratic regimes, power and domination, stereotyping and discrimination, war and genocide, crisis and collapses, etc. However, any kind of practical learning from accounts of past events and the deeds of historical actors fit under this deliberately broadly defined category, including learning about ethics and morality, social norms, etc.

The second general functionality is the legitimizing function. When speaking about legitimization through history, most informed people think first and foremost of political ideologies and the historiographies of non-democratic regimes in the first place. Marxist-Leninist, national socialist, fascist, or traditional nationalist historiographies are but the overtly explicit forms of history writing with the purpose of legitimizing. A great deal has been written about the entanglement of historiographies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and even in earlier periods) with ideologies, regimes, and social and political movements.35 However, legitimization is not necessarily (even if it is frequently) ideological in the traditional political sense of the word. There are much subtler forms through which historical accounts legitimize or delegitimize ideas, ways of thinking and living, political regimes, economic systems, policies, reforms, wars, borders, claims for individual or collective rights, claims for territories, and so on.36 Theological modes of narration, reification of social concepts and categories, essentialist social stereotypes and naïve theories about motivations and conditions, common sense assertions concerning necessity, inevitability, the beneficial or deleterious effects of an act, an event, or an actor or groups or entire categories and aggregates of population (to mention just a few) are semantic constituents which serve in historical narratives as vehicles of justificatory and legitimizing meanings.

The third functionality is the anchoring function. Most people, including historians, have a tendency to “anchor” themselves in (identify with) historical narratives (usually reduced to simplified stories or bits of stories) about referential groups of which they consider themselves members. Obviously, most often the historicized referential group is a “nation” or “ethnic” or “racial” group. However, this should be considered a universal cognitive phenomenon that forms an important part of the process of an individual’s practices of identification with social or categorical groups in general.37 This social function of history was heavily institutionalized in the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, and it became an important factor in the processes of secondary socialization. Most of the fallacies and misconceptions (which the constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians try so hard to deconstruct) occur in writings which serve this function, whether intentionally or not.

The legitimizing and anchoring functionalities of history (knowledge about past) seem to be indispensable and permanently present in social life. Both functions are best viewed as epiphenomena of the political and social organization of modern societies. Studies on collective memory and remembrance and studies on the politics of memory deal primarily with these two social functions of history.

An important specification needs to be added concerning the three point typology of social functionality of history proposed above. Not all the writings of historians and probably not even the majority of them actually function in the sphere of social life in one or more of the above outlined ways. There are history studies and books which will probably never have a readership larger than a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred readers. And there are studies and even books that most probably will be read exclusively by fellow scholars. Several factors determine what kinds of histories and historians will reach a larger public. Formal criteria are obvious: an accessible narrative form and socially relevant or in some other way appealing topic are probably necessary attributes of a text if it is going to reach a wider readership and audience. Other factors (closely related to the aforementioned) include institutional backing and market determinants. There is, however, another indispensable precondition to the writing of a historian ever reaching a large readership: in order to reach “the masses,” a history (whether in form of written text or vocal or visual performance or artifact) must be at least on a basic level compatible with the epistemological and ontological preconceptions of (non-professional) consumers.

In the Introduction to his The New History (2003), Munslow remarks that it is widely assumed that the reconstructionist direct realist epistemology is in fact congruent with the “common sense” approach to understandings of reality: “it is seen in the popular imagination as the only way to re-animate the past and, therefore, know what it means.”38 However, Munslow is dismissive of this idea. In his view, there is nothing natural or inevitable in the realist-empiricist epistemology. He might be right; nevertheless there seems to be strong evidence suggesting that, at least in Western cultures, people’s thinking about the past is naïvely realist, acritically empiricist, and formally narrative.39 Individual memory and remembering and the processes of construction, reconstruction, and maintenance of biographical self-narratives are based on an objectifying/reifying realist perception of past: “Memories may be the result of many retranscriptions over time, but at any given time the rememberer typically experiences them as unproblematic structures or as facts, and as external to the rememberer.”40 Individuals acquire and process semantic memories (or “reported events,” of which histories are a form) through the same cognitive operations and following the same epistemological and ontological presumptions through which they acquire and process episodic memories (or “experienced events”).41

Indeed, what Munslow calls hard-core realism-empiricism (i.e. a position characteristic of reconstructionist historians) is in my understanding nothing but an intuitive commonsense approach to thinking about “before now.” Thus, put in a somewhat simplified manner, probably most future historians begin their study of history at a university as direct realists (reconstructionists). They bring to their studies an intuitive commonsense “epistemology.” Whether in their future careers they tend towards an impositionalist position and became constructionists-proper or deconstructionist historians or remain reconstructionists or constructionists-improper depends on many factors.

At this point, we need to keep in mind that cognitive fallacies and specifically cognitive fallacies typical of the reconstructionist and constructionist-improper type of history writing are indispensable features of everyday social practice. It is a well-documented phenomenon that the human mind has an intuitive capacity to reify (i.e. objectify) particular (socially important) abstractions, social relations, and institutions. Nations, races, classes, religious denominations, and other categorically defined aggregates of people are among the most reified social entities. In the realm of the scholarly (social scientific) production of knowledge, reification and other cognitive modalities of dealing with the complexities of human societies and everyday social practice, such as essentialism, stereotyping, and entitativism, are regarded as serious mistakes and methodological failures. However, as cognitive and social psychological research suggests, these cognitive biases are practically inevitable in and indispensable to everyday social practice.42

The idea of nation as a deep historical egalitarian community of shared language, territory, customs, and culture and of a common fate would be impossible without the capacity for essentialist and reifying thought. A reifying concept of nation as an objective historical entity, an essentialist concept of nationality/ethnicity/race, and what Munslow calls a hard-core empiricist-realist vision of the past and history are all necessary components of national histories which enable them to function effectively and “naturally” as referential frames of self-identification. In other words, both cognitive fallacy and the propensity to think about the past in the same way (in the same terms and categories) as the present are necessary to bring about a sense of the fundamental realness of the historically represented past.

Constructionist-proper historians design their methodological measures and adopt critical social theories to eliminate reifying and essentialist conceptions and stereotypical notions and naïve theories from their history writing. In other words, they deconstruct the cognitive fallacies that are indispensable to the legitimizing and anchoring functionality of history. This renders the writings of many impositionalist historians difficult to read and understand to the non-professional or uninformed consumer of history. Constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historiographies are (unlike reconstructionist history writing) quite counterintuitive, and they require prior familiarity with philosophical and social scientific theoretical knowledge if one seeks to understand them fully. This usually also means that the histories written by constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians operate outside and even in opposition to the historical discourses that fulfil (or at least have the potential to fulfil) the legitimization and anchoring functions of history.43 Reconstructionist and to a varying extent inadvertently also constructionist-improper historians serve a purpose that constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians cannot.44

In this paper, I have argued that Munslow’s threefold classification suffers from a priori presumptions about the elementary ontological/epistemological positions of historians. This is most evident in his category of constructionism. Munslow defines each of his three historical epistemologies or genres very narrowly on the basis of historians’ alleged beliefs about the ontic nature of the “before now” and its knowability. He proposes several secondary criteria (most notably the use of critical social theories by constructionist historians) that would indicate the belonging of a historical text and its author to one of the three epistemological types. I argue for a looser association of formal and methodological criteria with basic ontological/epistemological positions of historians. Furthermore, I argue for a more flexible approach to defining those positions, in which respect I find the solution proposed by Eugen Zeleňák (two rather general categories: direct realism vs. impositionalism) more workable.

It is necessary to differentiate between historians whose accounts are almost entirely narrative or partially narrative and analytic or entirely non-narrative or narrative, but in an atypical, experimental way; between historians whose interpretations are a-theoretical and historians who use social theories. However, it is also important to draw distinctions between the ways in which historians operate with theories. The depth to which historians acquaint themselves with social theories (and their epistemic background) and the degree of adequate operationalization of theoretical and conceptual apparatuses in the writing of history are, in my assessment, relatively robust epistemological definitional criteria that cannot be ignored. Following this line of reasoning, I propose split Munslow’s category of constructionism into two types. Constructionism-improper is characterized by an inadequate mastering of theories and the “contamination” of these theories through cognitive fallacies such as reification, essentialism, entitativism, stereotyping, misleading generalizing, etc. This usually goes hand in hand with a failure to adopt social constructivist epistemological points of departure that inform most of the current critical social theory. Presumably, most of the constructionist-improper historians will be direct realists. Constructionism-proper is in fact formally congruent with the category of constructionism as Munslow originally defined it, but with an important distinction as far as the elementary ontological/epistemological position of historians falling into this category is concerned. The successful adoption of critical social theory alongside social constructivist epistemological presuppositions would indicate an impositionalist epistemological position. To put it metaphorically, a constructionist-improper historian is someone who abandons the reconstructionist positions and sets out to become a constructionist-proper type of historian, but who for some reason gets stuck somewhere on the road.

I realize that this seems an arbitrary split, and perhaps several other subcategories of constructionism could be delineated. I also admit that, like Munslow’s categories, at first sight my categories might also seem too ideal-typical for analytical purposes. Their full potential reveals itself when another important factor, which Munslow omitted altogether, is considered: the social functions of history. I argue that particular functionalities of knowledge about the past (of which historians are the primary producers and, in principle, the guarantors of its truthfulness) in the social lives of modern societies are dependent on naïve realist and acritical empiricist (direct realist in Zeleňák’s terms) thinking. Moreover, I argue that national histories in the traditional sense necessarily must be narrative, since narrative is the “natural” form through which people are inclined to make sense of their being in the past, present, and future. Furthermore, to function as natural frames of self-identification, national histories need to be based on (among other things) a reifying concept of nation and an essentialist concept of nationality, ethnicity, race, and other related social categorizations. I suggest that there is a direct connection between the social functionalities of history and the continued prevalence of the direct realist, i.e. reconstructionist and constructionist-improper modes of history writing. By including in our studies of epistemology in historiography in connection with the practice of scholarly history writing the non-professional person as a consumer of history and the social functionalities of history (and the institutionalized modes of realizing these functionalities), we can potentially gain entirely new perspectives on certain intra-disciplinary phenomena, such as the continued thriving of an obsolete epistemology despite decades of intense and plausible criticism.



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1 The research and writing of this paper were supported by the Slovak Research and Development Agency under the contract No. APVV-14-0644 – Continuities and discontinuities of political and social elites in Slovakia in 19th and 20th centuries; this paper is in part a product of the project Methods of investigation of the phenomena of nationalism in historical research (Interdisciplinary inspirations), which enjoys the support of the Institute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences, P. O. Box 198, Klemensova 19, 814 99 Bratislava, Slovakia.

2 Senior researcher, Institute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences, P. O. Box 198, Klemensova 19, 814 99 Bratislava, Slovakia; e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

3 Munslow, Deconstructing History; idem, The Routledge Companion; idem, The New History; Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History.

4 It has been half a century since Hayden White gave historians the following warning in one of his famous early studies: “[One] must be prepared to entertain the notion that history, as currently conceived, is a kind of historical accident, a product of a specific historical situation, and that, with the passing of the misunderstandings that produced that situation, history itself may lose its status as an autonomous and self-authenticating mode of thought.” White, “The Burden of History,” 29. Reader edited by Keith Jenkins offers a useful overview of similar positions: Jenkins, The Postmodern History.

5 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 4.

6 Munslow, The New History, 9.

7 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 39–60.

8 Munslow categorizes several well-known historians (sociologist-historians and anthropologist-historians) as constructionists: Norbert Elias, Robert Darnton, Marshal Sahlins, Perry Anderson, E. P. Thompson, and even Anthony Giddens. Munslow, Deconstructing History, 21. For exemplification of reconstructionist, constructionist, and deconstructionist historians see also Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History Reader.

9 Munslow, The New History, 15.

10 Idem, Deconstructing History, 25; idem, The New History, 6.

11 Idem, Deconstructing History, 39–60.

12 Ibid., Deconstructing History, 83.

13 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 70.

14 White, Metahistory. The narrativist argument was further developed (partially independently, partially following White) by other authors as well, most notably Paul Ricoeur, Hans Kellner, and Frank Ankersmit.

15 In White’s view, the mode of emplotment the form of the historians’ explanation (formist, organicist, mechanistic, and contextualist), and the ideological dimension of a historical account (anarchist, conservative, radical, and liberal) are predetermined by the tropological prefiguration of the text (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony). White, Metahistory, 7–38. For an accessible introduction into White’s thinking see Paul, Hayden White.

16 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 61–81.

17 Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History, 115–239.

18 Ibid., 115. Despite what has been said, the narrative form is dominantly present in the cited writings of the authors listed above. The use of figurative language, the tendency to quote primary (i.e. archival, iconographical etc.) sources, and the relative lack of systematic analyses resembling analyses in the social sciences make them appear at first sight closer to the reconstructionist “style” as characterized by Munslow. On the other hand, most of the authors characterized in Jenkins and Munslow’s reader as deconstructionist are evidently well-acquainted with critical social and culture theories and accept works by social theorists and consider constructionist historians as plausible (quotable) sources of knowledge, which draws them much closer to the constructionist “camp” (e.g. compare with the articles and books by Greg Dening, Richard Price, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Sven Lindqvist, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Iain Chambers cited in the reader; Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History, 117–34, 142–55, 171–81, 182–90, 191–97, 214–24 respectively).

19 I borrow the designation of ideal-types as utopias from the creator of the concept himself; see Weber, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science,” 90.

20 See the reader Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History.

21 Zeleňák, “Modifying.”

22 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 24.

23 Zeleňák, “Modifying,” 529.

24 Ibid., 527–30. The labels constructionism I and constructionism II are mine. I introduce them here for the sake of the clarity of the later argumentation.

25 Ibid., 530–35.

26 These secondary markers are the following: (1.) the form (whether a historical writing is narrative, partially narrative, or non-narrative, descriptive, or analytical, etc.); and (2.) the research practice and methodology adopted by the authors (whether the historian’s interpretations are informed by social theory or are a-theoretical, etc.).

27 Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups, 3 and 38. Ian Hacking voiced similar criticism of the devaluation of the concept of social construction in his: Hacking, The Social Construction of What?.

28 Brubaker, “Beyond ‘Identity’.”

29 Obviously even this split of Munslow’s homogeneous category of constructionism might seem insufficient. Several other subcategories could be delineated. For instance, there are historians whose use of critical social theory concepts is not flawed, incompetent, or “clichéd,” but also is not consequential or thorough. To put it metaphorically, for various reasons these historians merely scratch the surface and do not fully realize the potential (at least from social scientific point of view) of their data, sources, and hypotheses in the context of the theoretical background from which they depart or to which they refer. Certainly, a handful of subcategories of this sort could be (and as a result of empirical research should be) pinned down. I propose splitting Munslow’s original concept of constructionism into “merely” two types (based not so much on Munslow’s primary epistemological/ontological criterion as on the methods of attaining knowledge) to make Munslow’s classification more concrete, yet at the same time general enough for broader analytical application.

30 Though here I would like to repeat the point I made earlier about the complexity of determining the epistemological positions of historians concerning the ontic status of the “past” and “history.” There are cases in which even Zeleňák’s general dichotomy (direct realist vs. impositionalist) needs to be applied cautiously. Presumably, every historian departs, whether intuitively or consciously, from a certain epistemological/ontological position, but this theoretical stance is not always identifiable beyond all doubt in his or her written or spoken output. In some cases, it is not possible to decide conclusively without further focused investigation (e.g. by interviewing the historian) whether the author believes in the objectivity of the “past” and the existence of an ultimate truth about past events or not.

31 At this point, I would like to emphasize that I am speaking strictly about the intra-disciplinary status of the leading historians of the schools listed. It is important to distinguish between the image of influence based on scientometric data (which might have relevance in an intra-disciplinary context) and the actual social impact (which is very difficult to quantify in objective terms and for which the data provided by scientometrics has little or no relevance).

32 Lloyd, Disciplines in the Making, 60.

33 Tosh, “The Uses of History,” 29–57; Florescano, “The Social Function of History,” 41–49; Florescano, La función social de la historia.

Also see older but still relevant studies by Hobsbawm, “The Social Function of the Past”; Mommsen, “Social Conditioning”; Schieder, “The Role of Historical Consciousness”; Faber, “The Use of History”; Finley, The Use and Abuse of History. Also see an inspiring article by A. Dirk Moses on the possible implications of Hayden White’s views on the purpose of history for the study of nationalist conflicts and the utilization of history in them. Moses, “Hayden White.”

34 I have no ambition to propose an exhausting overview of the public uses of history. I omit some of Lloyd’s points—particularly (8), (10), and (11) —that primarily do not refer to the social functions of knowledge about the past. Also, given the spatial limitations of this inquiry, I am not paying particular attention to phenomena like “public history,” “living history,” or history reenactments, which, however, can be considered via the three general categories of history’s social functionality that I am proposing.

35 Berger and Lorenz, Nationalizing the Past; Berger, Writing the Nation; Ferro, The Use and Abuse of History; Davison, The use and Abuse of Australian History; for premodern periods see an inspiring volume Hen and Innes, The Uses of the Past; and Ianziti, Writing History in Renaissance Italy. Recent social psychological research also offers crucial insights into this functionality of discourses on the past. See a very useful introductory study to the thematic issue of the journal Culture & Psychology by de Saint-Laurent et al., “Collective Memory and Social Sciences”; Obradović, “Whose Memory and Why.”

36 I am referring to Hayden White’s concept of the “ideological implication” of historical narratives White, Metahistory, 5–7, 22–29, passim. For a lucid overview introducing the wider context of White’s thinking concerning ideology and history see Paul, Hayden White, 22–24, 69–74, 116–127. Also see Stråth, “Ideology and History.”

37 Indeed, not only social groups but any social entities in the most general meaning of the word (i.e. also communities, towns and cities, institutions, and organizations, including firms and companies). Histories of towns, companies etc., are often not written by historians out of scholarly interest, but rather in response to an initiative or a call issued by the representatives of the “entity” which desires “a history” as an indispensable part of its “identity.” Linde, Working the Past; also see Zerubavel, Time Maps.

38 Munslow, The New History, 5.

39 On the narrative structure of autobiographical and narrative (i.e. collective) memory and the cognitive and cultural aspects of their construction see Brunner, “Life as Narrative”; Fentress and Wickham, Social Memory, 51–75 and 87–143; Nelson, “Narrative and Self, Myth and Memory”, 3–28; McAdams, “Identity and the Life Story”; Fleisher Feldman, “Narratives of National Identity”; also see the recent research by de Saint-Laurent, “Personal Trajectories, Collective Memories.”

40 Quote from Prager, Presenting the Past, 215; for further elaboration of this point also see King, Memory, Narrative, Identity, 2–7 and Chapters 1 and 2; and Gergen, “Mind, Text, and Society.”

41 There are differences in how well this information is remembered and operationalized in social life. Larsen, “Remembering without Experiencing”; Neisser, “What is Ordinary Memory the Memory of?”

42 For basic information about reification see Fenichel Pitkin, “Rethinking Reification”; also see the classic Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, 88–92. On essentialism see: Gelman, The Essential Child; Gelman, Coley and Gottfried, “Essentialist Beliefs in Children”; Hirschfeld, Race in the Making.

On stereotyping and entitativity see: Lickel et al., “Varieties of Groups”; Yzerbyt, Corneille and Estrada, “The Interplay of Subjective Essentialism and Entitativity”; Crump et al. “Group Entitativity and Similarity”; Sherman and Percy, “The Psychology of Collective Responsibility.”

43 It is not hard to see the correlations between the functionalities outlined above and the epistemological positions of historians. Presumably, the legitimizing and anchoring function is dominantly fulfilled by the output of reconstructionist/constructionist-improper historians. The constructionist-proper/deconstructionist histories dominantly fit into the category of Historia magistra vitae est functionality of history.

44 For instance the monumental Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (vols. 1–8, 1972–1997) by Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, Reinhart Koselleck and their colleagues, like Quentin Skinner’s Liberty before Liberalism (1998), Lynn Hunt’s Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984), or the classic by Eugene Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen (1977), not only do not offer legitimizing or identification narratives, but on the contrary analyze the contingent nature of social concepts and categories, the functionings of power, identity politics and construction of identity discourses, and legitimizing discourses.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Memory and the Contemporary Relevance of the Past

András Keszei

Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Institute of Sociology

As products that can be sold and bought, elements of the recent and more distant past become more and more important from the point of view of consumption, a process which adheres to the logic of commercial culture. At the same time, academic history is becoming less relevant as a source of authentic images of the past. As a result of the arbitrary selection of sources for different purposes and needs, the past has moved into our neighborhood (i.e. it has become an omnipresent part of the jumbled image repertoire of our everyday lives), and as a consequence, we find ourselves surrounded by a rather eclectic type of history. The past has become a commodity, and it has acquired a new valence as a source of collective and personal identity. Societies relate to their own pasts through the mechanisms of memory. Collective memory, as a source of social and personal identity, is partly a kind of history appropriated by the different groups of contemporary society. The manner in which this appropriation is effected highlights the potential role of academic history as a critical observer of relevant social processes in the past (and present).

Keywords: contemporary history, appropriation of the past, collective memory, social and personal identity

The past is made into history – constructed into analysis, narrated into interpretation, fashioned into stories, made serviceable as assumptions and ideas, which are then released into public circulation – in many different ways, only some of which remain susceptible to the professional historian’s influence or control. Indeed, the legitimacy of the latter’s authority has arguably become far less secure and generally acknowledged than before. As images of the recent and more distant past teem ever more chaotically across the public sphere, emanating from all manner of sites of cultural production (for example from television, advertising, magazines, museums, cinema, exhibitions, reenactments), which only rarely include universities, then the academic historian’s particular voice easily becomes drowned out, a fate which the performative successes of a few celebrity exceptions tend only to confirm.1

In 2011, the British historian Geoff Eley published an article in The Journal of Contemporary History on the changing relationship of history, memory, and the contemporary. Summing up the essence of these changes, he arrived at the conclusion cited above. According to his rather pessimistic opinion, history as a discipline can do little to prevent the commodification of the past. Seen as products that can be sold and bought, elements of the recent and more distant past become more and more important from the point of view of consumption, a process which adheres to the logic of commercial culture. The role of academic history is becoming less relevant as a source of authentic images of the past.2 Together with the changes that are taking place in the nature and sources of public culture, the use of the past to suit particular needs is a widely observable and experienced practice in an era in which the alleged validity and authenticity of history is used to secure value for an array of products. The past, not so much in the form of professional history but rather as something resulting from the arbitrary selection of sources for different purposes and needs, has moved into our neighborhood, and as a consequence we found ourselves surrounded by a rather eclectic type of history. There were of course significant variations in the aforementioned changes depending on the history of different countries.

East-Central European communist regimes strictly controlled publicness and the production of historical knowledge. On the basis of the dominant ideology, renderings of the past primarily emphasized “progressive” elements of national history which proved adaptable to relevant political needs and self-images. Control over the past was exercised through institutions which filtered the content of the history that was offered to the public. After the change of regimes, the newly established democracy, with its economic equivalent (a market economy), opened the public sphere to reevaluations of history, and alongside the clearly positive ones (removing former ideological constraints) this had some negative consequences as well. No longer under the supervision or even influence of academic history, the past suddenly began to appear in various forms and according to various, sometimes clearly biased interpretations. From the point of view of memory studies what happened came as no surprise. It was the logical result of the liberation of the past for the purpose of identification. Free access to the public sphere created a wide range of newly rediscovered elements and narratives of history for different Hungarian social groups. Instead of being the product of scientific study, theories, and methods, the past became a commodity, and it received a new valence as the source of collective and personal identity.3 Knowing for instance Hungarian society’s general indifference to and ignorance of its own past, we could add: at least for those who cared about grounding their identities in the past. Yet, although not in an explicit way, when defining themselves as members of groups (nations, confessions, ethnicities, or other kinds of social groups, for example the middle class) people always use elements taken from their collective past, known as history.4 There are important questions yet to be answered. How do people inform themselves or learn of (or devise or refashion) parts of the past that are relevant to them? Are there any specific institutions and mechanisms that help provide historical knowledge for a wider public? What kinds of roles does memory play in this process? And finally, how can we interpret the relationship of memory, history, and the contemporary in light of the problem of identity and identification in an ever-changing present? Before I try to formulate answers, I will turn to the general conditions of history and memory.

According to literary theorist Andreas Huyssen (whose opinion is very similar to that of Pierre Nora), as a necessary consequence of modernization the dissolution of the culture of unified common memory has changed the way in which people relate to the past.5 The general speeding up of life, the flow of information, and the growing frequency of motion (vertical and horizontal mobility) has increased our distance from the past, which we could consider our own, as a dimension in which we could easily navigate. Broadening the horizon of the present paradoxically has meant tightening it at the same time.6 Modern techniques can bring different parts of the world close to one another at a very rapid pace, creating a kind of synchronicity. The ever expanding horizon of the present is changing more and more quickly in accordance with the needs of the news industry and show business.7 Modern life is changing so quickly that we can hardly realize it, and the moment is over, it has become past.8 Because of this incertitude, people turn to the harmonic unity of a past allegedly governed by traditions, which does not necessarily correspond to any historical reality, though this is not really important from the point of view of the psychological need for security. A second relevant factor here is the consequence of modern urbanization. As Paul Connerton claims in a recent book, the production of urban space produces cultural amnesia. Spaces and places in modern cities are becoming more and more homogeneous and less memorable as a consequence. It is hard to anchor memories that could preserve (or be used to fashion the illusion of) stable identities in spaces in which functional requirements of traffic and dwelling prevail. Change, speed, and the deeply human psychological need of attachment to place and the preservation of identity with the help of memories—all these factors are relevant when we try to maintain an appropriate relationship with the past. As Pierre Nora observed more than 30 years ago, there are no longer milieus, which is why we need to create lieux of memory.9

First, one must consider basic differences between history and memory, as they are of particular relevance here.

Community, Emotions, Identity

Much as individuals construct their identities in the form of autobiographical memory through narratives, communities also construct narratives of self-interpretation.10 To maintain continuity and coherence, collective identity needs effective preservers and mediators.11 Because of our innate group instinct and our constant need of reliable attachments, we can consider culture as a chance to belong somewhere and not as a burden, as has been claimed by Nietzsche and Freud.12 The emotional character of memories can be partly explained by the successes and failures of the human striving to achieve appreciation, attention, and attachment. To a considerable extent, the aims and plans of our working selves concern these goals to realize a kind of social embeddedness. At the birth of communicative memory, the emotional valence of relations among individuals plays a very important role.13 Feelings of love, the longing for attachment, hate, anger, distrust, pain, shame, and guilt are inseparable from memory—indeed they are defined by memories. The role of emotions is supported by empirical results concerning autobiographical and more particularly flashbulb memory: memories accompanied by strong emotions are likely to remain more vivid than more general and less emotional memories.14 We cannot remember everything, recollection is guided by emotional relationships concerning past events. Emotional relevance creates the structure of communicative memory in the case of images and narratives.15 The desire to belong somewhere makes the individual participate in an identity mediated by collective memory. Social values and norms are written into the minds of the members of society, producing a super ego which controls their acts, constantly confronting them with social obligations.16

Extending to three generations and approximately 80 years, communicative memory survives with the help of social relationships, mediated and provided with means of preservation by society. Socialization is both the cause and effect of memory according to Assmann. However, on the long run and for larger communities it is not enough. They need a more durable form of memory on which to base their identities, namely cultural memory, which mediates the contents of the official canon.17 In this case, society reaches back to a “reality” beyond communicational memory, a “reality” that is not necessarily a truthful one, because “truth” could make identification problematic. Compared to the relativistic view of history, taking into consideration different perspectives on the past, myths, legends, and only partly true renderings of the past in the form of memory, they have basically only one valid interpretation, namely, how emotional loading and identification can connect to each other.18 Memory has only one valid perspective on the past. It cannot bear multiple interpretations.19 Usually, we choose exemplary, patriotic ancestors with which to identify. Recalling the past as cultural heritage has the aim of promoting identification instead of the impartial study of the national past. The national past as common heritage serves present centered purposes: to convince, to strengthen and to mobilize.20 Memories of historical events may generate strong emotions, whether or not these memories are connected to personal experience. A couple of days after the assassination of president Kennedy as it could be reconstructed from the conversation between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, the time had come to have the Civil Rights Act (supported by Kennedy) accepted in the context of collective national mourning.21 Emotional reaction can serve as a dangerous weapon in the hands of political manipulation. The politics of identity can use history to produce an emotionally affected or manipulated community. We use our original essentialism, that is to say our innate disposition to attribute some unchangeable inner essence to individuals and groups.22 Considering the inner essence as a kind of an innate core can lead to a perspective from which other groups are easily be seen as so closed and strange that this perception precludes any kind of possible cooperation. There is no need to warn against the potential dangers of an identity politics based on essentialism after the tragic events of the 20th century. These dangers are all too familiar. Totalitarian regimes often used exclusion based on essentialist ideology in order to maintain the feeling and image of coherence. Whether the narrative trying to produce this coherence functions according to racial, ethnic, or class ideology is of secondary importance. The stranger is essentially a stranger by his/her race, ethnicity, or class. In the 1950s, exclusion from the working class meant a secondary social status.23 The events of 1956 could serve as very effective counter-memories of the victory and betrayal of truth and freedom. Myths of cultural memory function differently in closed, dictatorial systems and in open, democratic societies. The relationship between the archive and the canon can change with time, the former being the passive contents of cultural memory, the latter the actual cultural memory.24 Every system needs stability, which is partly provided by regularly held commemorative ceremonies (according to the calendar of national celebrations). The content of the canon, that is to say the actual cultural memory, depends on the prevailing ideology and character of the political system.25 Commemoration can be considered successful if it strengthens the feeling of collective belonging.26 Society too is able to remember, and practices of commemoration have important roles in maintaining continuity with the past and strengthening a sense (or illusion) of community, which is the main source of identity for the individual.

The Birth of History

Will an event become a chapter or only a footnote in future books on history? Spectacular events sometimes survive as chapters and sometimes only as footnotes. Why and how are they preserved (or rather fashioned as artefact, commodity, or political implement) by posterity?27 How can social memory influence the writing of history? The transmission of tradition once cultivated as living memory became more and more problematic due to radical social changes initiated by industrialization and urbanization. Society became separated from its own (vision of the) past, which returned in the form of national memory and history. The two were often intermingled in the service of identity politics. As Nora claims, with the proliferation of lieux de mémoire and communities of memory, the canon of a unified national past disintegrated.28 According to Ágnes Heller, it is due to its versatility and rejection of orthodoxy that modern civil society cannot have real cultural memory. Following the logic of identity politics, the state is trying to appropriate particular events from the past.29 Since it has become a national holiday in Hungary, October 23 (1956) has ceased to be a counter-memory. It has lost its oppositional value and people are much less aware of what they are celebrating. The more real communities there are in society, the more complicated it is for the official national canon to integrate the common past into a unified cultural memory. Professional historians have a choice: either they stay within their own territory and continue to render impartial, objective accounts of the past (or least accounts that are as impartial as their institutionalized positions as the proprietors of scientific discourse allow), or they serve memory.30 The historian is guided by the past, more precisely a certain memory of the past. He or she cannot get rid of his or her own past, in which socialization took place, neither can he/she remain unaffected by questions of identity. Even the most objective historical works attest these influences, as one immediately sees when one considers the questions and research topics which are accorded the status of “relevant.” As far as the choice of the professional historians is concerned, certainly we cannot speak of total independence or isolation from the context of national identity. However we can expect a historian to reflect on her/his own position, method, and narratives.31

History as preserved in memory can easily serve ideology and identity politics, which is why we should take a closer look at the selection of past events. Perhaps there are events that prove more significant for society as a whole.32 Even the historian is picking elements from the past in a selective way, keeping in mind the relevance of the past for the present and the future. In Hungary, for example, the tragic fall of the Hungarian State in the battle of Mohács against the Ottoman Empire in 1526 was reevaluated after World War I and the Treaty of Trianon, which was a comparable loss. However, the history of the multiethnic Hungarian kingdom can easily connect the two events, because the consequences of the first, which included changes in the ethnic structure of society, clearly contributed to the second.33 We cannot separate ourselves from the present or from those elements of the past that in the course of history became relevant for society as a whole. The need for identity both at the collective and the individual (which are interrelated) levels necessitates memory. Individual identity is always part of a greater group-level identity.34 Although perhaps not in the form of a unified, closed system of cultural memory (as Heller pointed out), but modern societies and historians as members of these societies can still have a “stock” of common memories that can be considered the basis of identification in some way or another. From the point of view of national history, the narrative positing a connection between the battle of Mohács and Trianon is partly the result of an actual widespread self-interpretation (Hungarians have endured great losses), which was supported and even fueled by the prevailing political power.

How can society select from among different historical events? What meanings will be attributed to September 11 a few decades from now? Will it be a main chapter in the books on the history of the 21st century or only a footnote? According to the findings of research concerning events of the past, there is a kind of social dynamics working in communities which make memories durable.35 Generally, we can better recall unexpected, spectacular, shocking events, but only events which remain relevant endure as memories because they brought about significant changes in people’s lives and they have been used in the fashioning of a positive image of the community.36 According to the results of a follow up study in the US, in the future September 11th is more likely to be considered an important chapter in history than the Gulf War, which did not prove to be that significant after all, despite the overall effect of the media coverage of the war. The streets of American cities were empty because people stayed home and watched the war on TV. In the beginning, it seemed (at least according to the official rhetoric) that an international coalition emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union which would fight for freedom, justice, and democracy. One year later, however, the troops returned home, Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq, and there was no consensus on the part of the democratic powers about the aim of the war. Were they fighting for oil or democracy? To sum up, as far as its consequences were concerned this war was not significant.37 At the same time September 11th, in addition to being directly relevant to many people, produced very strong negative emotions, fear, worry, and incertitude in American society. Based on the analysis of 75,000 blogs, scholars claimed that after the first shock people were seeking the company of family and friends and tried to share their experiences in order to distance themselves from the experience. As a result, it became a shared, collectively formed, and later collectively recalled common memory, thus more and more a real collective memory.38 Switching to a “we mode”, people more frequently used the personal noun “we”, and they were more attentive to each other. Conversely, we have ample evidence of the fact that the lack of mutual support after a tragic event produced negative effects, for instance in Chicago after the 1871 fire or in Dallas after the assassination of Kennedy, events which were followed by a significantly higher death rate. For those who were directly affected by a shocking event it was more difficult to get over it. They faced the difficulty of finding an appropriate form of communication for traumatic memory. I would make one last point concerning the audience. If there is a compassionate, attentive audience then it is always easier to communicate shocking experiences as memory narratives.39

According to psychological research, past events can be best integrated into memory between the ages of 13 and 25. Adolescence and early adulthood are particularly important from the point of view of identity formation.40 We retain significantly more memories from this period than from other periods. For those who experienced World War II as young adults, September 11, 2001 was less significant than it was for younger generations. There are differences concerning possible future communicative memories as they have been theorized by Halbwachs and Assmann. They are not equally suitable as potential cultural memories. Events and celebrated personalities once considered significant might loose their appeal for society. Some of them become marginal, since they cease to be the source of consensus because they are highly disputed. Instead of symbols, they are rather seen as burdens. One could take Christopher Columbus as an example. First, he was celebrated as a hero. Then, his fame was overshadowed by new discoveries, but in the mid-16th century he began to become popular again. In the 18th century, he was considered a national hero in the United States, but by the end of the 19th century he was simply associated with important discoveries. At the same time, in France Columbus was seen as one of the greatest Christian missionaries. By the middle of the 20th century, however when the colonial past had become a burden for democratic societies, his name was frequently used in the context of imperialism and even genocide. No surprise that the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas was not really celebrated and indeed was almost ignored.41

The same events can be remembered in different ways. World War II is generally evaluated negatively by Poles and neutrally or positively by Russians (mainly members of the older generations). According to the American psychologist James Wertsch, there are schematic narrative templates which represent a general view of history and guide the interpretation of national history without going into details. Russian history, for example, is represented in the minds of ordinary Russian people according to the following simple schema: Russia was always a peaceful country, which was suddenly invaded by foreign powers and suffered huge losses; through heroic fights, Russia finally triumphed over its enemies. We can discover elements of academic history in this scheme, though in a very simplified form. The public use of history reminds one of the functioning of memory: it is constructed by the needs of identity. The Hungarian version of the schematic narrative template reflects another narrative deep structure of collective memory which is centered around losses and inevitable failure. Collective identity is strengthened by mourning, which can be dangerous if a society has not worked through earlier experiences. Continuous reliving of the past can produce an inflexible identity firmly attached to the past. What is the relevance of the schematic structure when we try to concentrate on memory, history, and the contemporary?

For me, the schema represents the contemporary intersection of history and memory in the service of identity. Professional history, in addition to producing and reconstructing data and facts in a scientific way and establishing the interrelationships among facts, perhaps in a less scientific manner often provides a kind of a raw material for the public. In order to be applicable to the purpose of identity construction, history is used in a highly selective way. The source of selection is identity. The collective self-image of societies and of respective social groups cannot do without reliable historical material because to some extent it has to be anchored in real events and places. The meaning of these events and places is not determined by history alone, it can change according to eventual identity claims. Contemporary relevance necessarily results in oversimplification. Objective, impartial accounts of the past are problematic because they cannot always be easily integrated into personal and collective identity, which are better adapted to the schematic interpretations of history. As I mentioned earlier, identity as a multi-layered phenomenon has more facets. The historical layer, which become manifest in the form of narratives, is the eminent source of identity as a collective entity. This collective identity seeks a favorable self-image and, as a result, has a highly selective, perspectival character, playing down aggression, for example, on behalf of the state and community. A narrative deep layer of Hungarian history’s collective memory emphasizes pointless struggle and inevitable failure.42 Considering the great endeavors in Hungarian history, this picture is not unrealistic. Collective identity can be mainly strengthened on the basis of common mourning for the past 500 years. Again, if a society has not worked through its past, excessive mourning can lead to ceaseless reliving and to an inflexible identity that rigidly adheres to the past.43

20th-century history is a huge repository of traumatic events. There is much to mourn. In Hungary (as in many other countries, especially in those of the multi-ethnic region of Central Europe), there are hardly any social groups which did not suffer considerable losses over the course of the previous century: wars, genocide, executions, the Treaty of Trianon, deportations, population exchange, violent collectivization – mainly as a result of political regimes based on ideologies. Ethnic, confessional, and social groups of a great variety fell victim to these powers and ideologies.44 As many 20th-century biographies indicate, losses and traumas are here to stay in the aloof and isolated victims and in their offspring.45

For the time being, traumatic experiences have more real consequences at the level of personal traumas. In an atmosphere of mistrust, they cannot become common cultural traumas which are widely admitted in society after the act of self-inspection, which potentially can lead to a clearer social conscience, stronger social solidarity, and perhaps even the transformation of collective identity. This is not an easy task, however, because it is often hard to find an impartial “third side” that would create the necessary condition for the social interrogation of the traumatic events by providing objective information on these events for a wider public.46

Groups, Pasts, and Relevance

With the changing relationship between history and “truth,” academic history has become merely one version among many, and it is less and less suitable for the purpose of identity politics. Fueled by the singular emotional perspective of collective memory, identity can renew itself also on the basis of losses and mourning. As society is broken up into several memory groups, macro level inquiries are likely to give way to micro level investigations. With the increasingly widespread confession and recognition of sufferings and losses, and with their increasingly central role in history and international relations, the micro level gains ascendency over the super-individual, and this makes it possible for professional history to connect individual and collective history with the mediation of microhistory.47 This is increasingly seen as a moral duty for academic history.

The real significance of an event taking place in a society unfolds only afterwards, depending on whether or not it has the potential to change society as a widespread communicative memory. It is also important to know how a given community is characterized by the memories that anchor our collective identity. Flashbulb memories, identified in the late 1970s by researchers, are the consequences of the very exact and detailed recollection of extraordinary events. These types of memories are particularly vivid regarding the time and circumstances of certain events, events that were extremely important for the subject even in the moment in which they happened, as if someone actually had turned a light on to see things better. Flashbulb memories, however, do not have equal relevance for each social group. As it turned out in the 1970s, when this type of memory was discovered, the assassination of Martin Luther King was much more of a flashbulb memory for African Americans than it was for others. The same applies to September 11, 2001 in an international context: US citizens were much more affected than others. 48 Being closed within their ingroups, people react differently, and they are prone to overlook the faults of the members of their groups more easily than they will overlook the faults of members of so-called outgroups.49 Given this bias, one of the most important social functions of memory would be to remind us to our duties, which we can construe as obligations which provide us with what we as communities tend to allege as moral character. 50 As we have seen, alongside notions of past glory, tragedies can also be subjects of social memories. The result is more or less the same in both cases: strengthening group solidarity, emphasizing the mutual commitments of members and the outlines of the group itself. Our victories and our sufferings are construed as unique, and they belong only to us, no one else can possibly understand them.51 Recently, the growing wave of apologies on the international scene directs our attention to the potentially positive consequences of giving up rigid “ingroup positions” and emphasizing the importance of a notion of the mutually accepted common fate of the international community.52 In order to create peaceful relations, we surely have to begin working through our (real or imagined) grievances. It is not clear, however, whether our incorporated conscience (which has a deep social origin in the form of common rules) would be willing to undergo an overall self- inspection, or only a limited one relating to the past of its own society.


The interrelated nature of memory, history and identity is one of the most important phenomena for every past and present society and consequently also for those studying social groups in the present and the past. As for the future, this interrelation seems to be so deeply rooted in human nature that we are hardly able to get rid of it. It is an interrelation which is highly relevant both for the social sciences and the humanities. Using the results of psychological and anthropological research, we can better understand the role memory and identity have played in historical processes both at the national and the international level. Interdisciplinary cooperation of the social sciences (above all psychology and anthropology) and history can help us make sense of the way people as members of groups relate to one another in time by the means of memory and through identification.

After these general statements, I should return to the problems I originally raised, namely the relationship between history (historical writing) and memory (individual, collective and cultural). Following a functional approach, one can identify one of the main tasks of memory as providing a tool with which to travel, mentally, in time, i.e. a means of summoning (or crafting while appearing to summon) information from the past.53 Past knowledge can serve many practical purposes in our everyday lives, but humans have one particular need that we cannot do without as individuals living in societies: identities. Some information from the past is only relevant for us because it concerns who we are. Self-definition and self-image have more than a merely decorative role here. In order to be able to live in society, we need to have a coherent self consisting of more or less reliable self-knowledge provided by our memories of ourselves in earlier times.54 This view can be considered general among psychologists. As it was formulated by neuroscientists:


We are not who we are simply because we think. We are who we are because we can remember what we have thought about. ... Memory is the glue that binds our mental life, the scaffolding that holds our personal history and that makes it possible to grow and change throughout life. When memory is lost, as in Alzheimer’s disease, we lose the ability to recreate our past, and as a result, we lose our connection with ourselves and with others.55


If memory is so important in the life of the individual it surely has some significance in the lives of social groups as well. The overlap of personal and collective, historical, cultural memories in the course of self-definition, for example in the case of defining ourselves as individual members of a national and/or a religious community, highlights the interconnected nature of individual and collective identity as a result of their common supra-individual sources for identification, consisting of history and, broadly speaking, cultural memory. 56

Considering the issue from the perspective of history writing and, more particularly, contemporary history, one is prompted to ask whether or not there are any relevant consequences. The notion of the present as having a constantly moving horizon can lead to definitional problems and eventually to impasses.57 Either we live in the eternal present or, seen from the opposite extreme position, there are only vanishing seconds for the present between past and future. Accepting a realist view of time, with duration and succession, we can attempt to conceptualize and reconstruct past, present, and future. We can speak about past pasts, presents, and futures, present pasts, presents, and futures, and of course of future pasts, presents, and futures as well, based on the mutual relationship among these time dimensions.58 Using this conceptual tool, we can avoid the traps of the eternal presentism of our own time without losing the advantage of being able to study every historical period as contemporary history with possible perspectives from the past and the future. The problem, however, with the actual present in which we live and the contemporary history of this present is its unsettled, unfinished character, which makes it very difficult to interpret in clear cut time dimensions. So the question—and it is a very troubling question indeed—is whether or not we can identify our present position. I think that the functional approach to memory both at the individual and the social level can help solve this problem. If we take the general human need for self-consistency into consideration, the interconnectedness of memory and identity shed light on the overall context of historical writing. Actual self-definition and future planning serve as the basis of society’s interpretation of its own past. However, society in itself cannot produce these interpretations without historical contents formulated by the science of history. Political forces and influential intellectuals exert a kind of distortion when they use the “raw material” of academic history for the purpose of strengthening identity and feelings of belonging. Professional historians, mainly those who research the recent past, often feel obliged to react to out-of-context interpretations and distortions in order to defend their position as the legitimate producers of historical knowledge. Since history in its scientific form is less appropriate for identity purposes, we can claim that there is a necessary inconsistency between the two.59 The actual present helps orient people with the support of common historical, cultural memories. It provides a kind of anchor for definitions of the present through memories and a point of departure towards the future. The context of contemporary history is heavily influenced by the past in the form of memories, both for the wider public and for historians. The influence is manifold, for it reflects social needs and political aspirations, as well as the research areas of the study of history.

These interrelationships notwithstanding, there are significant differences between public and scientific interpretations of the past. Defined by the brokered memories of professional historians, history is expected to be reflective at least, i.e. to reflect on its own topics, methods, and narratives, as well as its position and functions within society. With the help of social scientific concepts and methods, which are especially relevant in the case of contemporary research, history can strengthen its position as a practice of critical observation of social processes and production of scientific knowledge.


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1 Eley, “The Past Under Erasure?” 555.

2 Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, 396–97.

3 About the past being “improved” for present purposes, see: Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited, 497–584.

4 The most seminal works on the relationship between social groups and memory are of course Les Cadres Sociaux de la Mémoire and the posthumous La Mémoire Collective by Maurice Halbwachs. Based on Halbwachs’ notion of social memory (but stressing mainly the role of long term cultural memories and, from this perspective, the relationship between social groups, memory, and identity), see Assmann, “Globalization, Universalism, and the Erosion of Cultural Memory,” 123. On the significance of the interpretation of memories as a dynamic process and the entangled, relational nature of remembering, see: Feindt et al., “Entangled Memory,” 27.

5 Huyssen, Present Pasts, 1–29; Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy, “Introduction,” 6–8; Csáky, “Die Mehrdeutigkeit von Gedächtnis,” 2; Nora, “Between Memory and History”; Hartog, Regimes of Historicity.

6 Huyssen, Present Pasts, 22–24.

7  Hartog, Regimes of Historicity, 113.

8  Connerton, How Modernity Forgets, 139.

9  Nora, “Between Memory and History.” This meant an explicitly presentist view of history, as reflected in the writings of Nora and the series Les Lieux de Mémoire, see: Hartog, Regimes of Historicity, 141.

10  Williams and Conway, “Networks of Autobiographical Memory,” 41–46; Wertsch, “Collective Memory,” 132–35.

11  For a social level application of Conway’s self- memory-system: Wessel and Moulds, “How Many Types of Forgetting?, ” 290–91.

12  Assmann, Religion, 6.

13 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 185–91; Lambert et al., “How Does Collective Memory Create a Sense of the Collective?,” 198–99; Assmann, Religion, 3–4.

14 Christiansen and Safer, “Emotional events,” 223, 238; Robinson, “Perspective, meaning,” 199–200. Barclay, “Autobiographical remembering,” 123: “Life is meaningful when experiences can be tied to functional affects and emotions, and one’s self is sensed as coherent when there is a useful temporal-spatial system for organizing, interpreting, and explaining life events.“

15 Assmann, Religion, 3.

16 Ibid., 6–7.

17 Assmann, “Canon and Archive,” 104–05.

18  Nora, “Between Memory and History”; Assmann, “Transformations,” 65.

19  Winter, “Historians,” 267; Wertsch, “Collective Memory,” 126–27.

20  Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 88–172.

21  Lambert et al., “How Does Collective Memory Create a Sense of the Collective?,” 213.

22  Haslam, “Natural Kinds”; Gil-White, “Are Ethnic Groups Biological ‘Species’”; Mahalingam, “Essentialism.”

23  Standeisky, “A kommunista polgárellenesség.”

24 Assmann, “Canon and Archive,” 101–02.

25 Connerton, How Societies Remember, 83–88. Connerton used the notion of “habitual memory” when analyzing rites in society. Memory is written into the body so to speak. It is most effective when there is other communal, family relevance as well. See e.g. July 1 reminding people of the losses of World War I: Winter, “Historians,” 266.

26 Assmann, Religion, 11.

27 Emphasizing the role of media: Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning,” 189–95. We can formulate the following question: how would collected memories become collective memory? The emphasis is on its processual nature See: Olick, “From Collective Memory,” 155–59; Wertsch and Roediger, “Collective Memory,” 319–20.

28 Nora, “Between Memory and History.”

29 Heller, “A Tentative Answer.” E. Esposito holds a similar opinion concerning collective memory in the more and more complex societies: Esposito, “Social Forgetting,” 183–84.

30 In Hungary Gábor Gyáni wrote about the phenomenon. See: Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt, 68–84; 85–102.

31 See e.g. Wilson, “A Critical Portrait,” 34–35; Jenkins, “Introduction.”

32 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 172–75; Blatz and Ross, “Historical Memories,” 226.

33 On the tragic image of Mohács: Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt, 117–33.

34 Somers, “The Narrative Constitution.”

35 Erdelyi, “Forgetting and Remembering,” 276.

36 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 171–93.

37 Ibid., 172.

38 Ibid., 179–83.

39 Ricoeur, History, Memory, Forgetting, 505; Heller, Trauma, 14; Erős, Trauma, 23–26.

40 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 173.

41 Ibid., 187–88.

42 The social psychologist Ferenc Pataki about the deep layer of hungarian memory in a wertschian manner, stressing the role of inevitable failure. Pataki, “Kollektív emlékezet.”

43 Ricoeur, History, Memory, Forgetting, 79. Erős, Trauma, 17–20: About the consequences of collective traumas.

44 See e.g.: Argejó, “A hatalomnak alávetett test”; Bögre, Asszonysorsok; Braham, A népirtás politikája; Matuska, A megtorlás napjai; Ö. Kovács, “‘Ekkora gyűlölet még nem volt a falunkban, mint most’”; Pető, “Budapest ostroma”; Saád, Telepessors; Standeisky, “A kommunista polgárellenesség”; Szederjesi, Megtorlások évszázada; Tóth, Hazatértek.

45 Losonczi, Sorsba fordult történelem, 294; Erős, Az identitás, 117–18.

46 Giesen, “Social Trauma.”

47 Gabriel, “Introduction,” 4. About the danger of leaving history to non professional historians and history serving the purpose of identity, eventually the marginalization of academic history: Levi, “Historians,” 85–86.

48 Roediger, Zaromb, and Butler, “The Role of Repeated Retrieval,” 150–53.

49 Blatz and Ross, “Historical Memories,” 227–29.

50 Poole, “Memory, History,” 162–63.

51 Blatz and Ross, “Historical Memories,” 230.

52 Ibid., 230–34; Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt, 373–74.

53 For the functional approach and the need to study memory in an interdisciplinary way, see: Boyer, “What are Memories for?”

54 Conway, “Memory and the Self,” 597.

55 Squire and Kandel, Memory, IX.

56 See e.g. Assmann, Religion, 6; Wertsch, “Collective Memory.”

57 Koselleck, Zeitschichten, 247–48.

58 Ibid., 249.

59 See e.g. Wertsch, “Collective Memory and Narrative Templates,” comparing history and memory.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


The Heads and the Walls. From Professional Commitment to Oppositional Attitude in Hungarian Sociology in the 1960–1970s: The Cases of András Hegedüs, István Kemény, and Iván Szelényi

Ádám Takács

Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest

In most of the state socialist countries in Eastern Europe, sociology remained a perpetual source of ideological quarrels from the beginning of the 1960s to the mid-1980s. With this context in mind, this paper offers an analysis of some of the decisive aspects of the development of Hungarian sociology from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. In particular, the discussion focuses on three central figures, András Hegedüs (1922–99), István Kemény (1925–2008), and Iván Szelényi (1939), and their intellectual developments from committed and professional sociological work to the adoption of a deeply critical attitude towards socialist social development. An examination of the similarities in their intellectual development, especially as far as their political confrontation with the regime is concerned, offers a context for a discussion of some of the topical issues of the professional, institutional, and ideological aspects of academic work in state socialist Hungary and the ways in which genuine scholarly achievements could give rise to oppositional attitudes and social dissidence.

Keywords: Kádár era, Sociology, Social Criticism, Oppositional Attitudes, András Hegedüs, István Kemény, Iván Szelényi

In most of the state socialist countries in Eastern Europe, sociology remained a perpetual source of ideological quarrels from the beginning of the 1960s up to the mid-1980s. Even if party and state authorities often recognized the usefulness of sociology for their purposes, especially in periods when economic and social reforms were on the agenda, the sociological approach to the study of society never ceased to be regarded as a challenge to Marxist-Leninist ideology. The critical potential of sociology lay precisely in the fact that concrete and empirically grounded research devoted to the social facts of labor conditions, housing, lifestyle, healthcare, education, poverty, etc. tended to reveal the less familiar and gloomy side of the building of socialism. At the same time, sociology could also challenge communist ideology on its own level, namely by calling into question the social model which had been officially proposed under the label of “advanced socialist society”. By adopting sociological perspectives in their critical work on social conditions, social scientists started to discover and examine networks of relationships among social forms, stratifications, and developments which until then had gone largely unnoticed, as well as hierarchical relations of particular social strata existing and acting within the conditions prevailing under socialism. In doing so, they not only sought to rearticulate, if not explicitly to call into question, the Marxist conception of class system, but also to reconsider the Marxist-Leninist economic and social principles of the socialist model in the name of new strategies of social modernization. Thus, by the end of the 1960s, progressive Marxist sociologists in several Warsaw Pact countries, supported by reform-communist circles, tended to envisage themselves as the genuine mediators in the regime-society relationship. By taking as their starting point the empirical analysis of the given social reality, they were advocating a critical reappraisal of the ideological principles of the sate socialist regime itself.1

With this context in mind, I aim in this paper to provide an analysis of some of the decisive aspects of the development of Hungarian sociology from the early 1960 to the mid-1970s. In particular, I focus on three central figures: András Hegedüs (1922–99); István Kemény (1925–2008); and Iván Szelényi (1939). Their otherwise somewhat disparate intellectual trajectories from committed and professional sociological work to the adoption of a deeply critical attitude towards various elements of sate socialist social development and politics played fundamental roles in the subsequent formation of the profile of the cultural and political opposition, both within and beyond the social sciences in Hungary.2 I offer a comparative study of the work and careers of these scholars, whose critical attitudes towards the regime were acknowledge by the mid-1970s at a minimum with their dismissal from their academic jobs. What makes this subject worth studying is also the fact that, unlike other groups of scholars who played decisive roles in the newly forming democratic opposition in Hungary (for instance members of the “Lukács school” in the 1960–70s3 or the so-called “reformist economists” of the 1980s4), the sociologists in question never in fact formed a group. Rather, they had different backgrounds, different academic affiliations, and often contradicting views on the role and design of sociological research. Yet there were also striking similarities in their intellectual development, especially as far as their political confrontation with the regime is concerned. A comparative study of their careers and contributions, thus, offers a perspective from which to examine (1) the modes by which professional, institutional, and political aspects of academic work could play formative roles in the development of a social critical approach to state socialism; (2) the ways in which genuine scholarly achievements could influence the birth of oppositional attitudes and social dissidence; (3) the forms of comportment among party authorities, with regards to which the limits of political tolerance and the effectiveness of reprisals were always dependent on a certain ideological flexibility adapted to academic situations and on a network of formal and informal institutional and personal relations.

From Reformism to Revisionism: The Case of András Hegedüs

In the interviews he gave in the 1980s, András Hegedüs often described his political and scientific attitude in the period following his return from Moscow in 1958 as entirely “apologetic.”5 To be sure, after being prime minister in the last eighteen months of the Hungarian Stalinist regime marked by the dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi, Hegedüs hardly seemed like someone who would have this attitude. In fact, as he reaffirmed in his memoirs, he was apologetic not only toward the socialist system that came in the wake of the events of 1956 in Hungary, but also toward the new political line represented by the Kádár regime itself. This apologetic attitude was certainly facilitated by the fact that, unlike most of the Rákosi regime’s political leaders, Hegedüs was neither expelled from the communist Party nor subjected to any disciplinary proceedings. There are reasons to believe that Kádár and his inner circle considered Hegedüs a possible ally in the fight against the revisionist tendencies within the Party, represented by the remaining followers of Imre Nagy. In 1961, Hegedüs was offered the position of Vice-President at the Central Statistical Office. It would be difficult to interpret this transfer as anything other than a reward for his loyal attitude toward the new regime. As a matter of fact, this attitude found clear expression in his post 1956 publications.6 Nevertheless, instead of taking the position, Hegedüs expressed his desire to devote himself to full-time scientific work and, more specifically, to sociology. His request received the full support of some prominent party members, including György Péter, the head of the Statistical Office, and Hegedüs was given the mandate to organize and lead the Sociological Research Group to be set up under the auspices of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences beginning in March 1963.

In the secondary literature based on the memoirs of many others in the field, Hegedüs’ name is inseparable from the rehabilitation and re-institutionalization of sociology in Hungary.7 In fact, the Sociological Research Group of the Academy was the first, and for quite some time the only, independent institute in socialist Hungary in which advanced research in the field of sociology could be carried out. Even more importantly, Hegedüs himself appeared to have been convinced at this point that sociology ought to be part of an “enlightenment process” the impact of which should spill over the barriers of even Marxist philosophy and ideology.8 Thus, by late 1963, Hegedüs’ intellectual position appeared fairly secure, and it seemed as if, over time, it would solidify even further. He was invited by the party leadership to take over the position as editor-in-chief of the political-cultural monthly Valóság [Reality], which, in line with an earlier decision of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (HSWP) Politburo, was to be turned into a journal with a “comprehensive and scientific profile.”9 Due to his new function, Hegedüs also became a member of the “Theoretical Working Group” of the HSWP, which functioned alongside the Central Committee. This move seemed a sign of an increasing political trust in him.10

This tendency, however, did not last long. One year later, at the “Nationwide Ideological Conference” of the HSWP, the journal Valóság was condemned for its ostentatious attitude and lack of self-criticism.11 Also, an important document entitled “Some Current Ideological Tasks of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party: Guidelines by the Central Committee,” which was approved by the Central Committee in March 1965, harshly criticized sociological research in Hungary for its “abstract reasoning” and its “uncritical borrowings from the dubious achievements of bourgeois sociology.”12 The Guidelines also condemned Valóság for its “erroneous views,” “incorrect, bourgeois attitude,” “oppositional tendencies,” and “decadent approach.”13 These acts earned Hegedüs the label of “revisionist” for the first time and eventually triggered his removal from his position at the journal in June 1965.

For a time, however, Hegedüs’ dismissal from Valóság brought about no drastic change in the course of his intellectual career. On the contrary, his critical behavior had in fact channeled him towards the reformist party circles within the HSWP leadership, whose importance happened to be on the rise due their role in preparing the new economic reforms to be launched in January 1968. In 1965, Hegedüs was invited to take part in the work of the “Preparatory Committee for the Reform,” run under the auspice of the Economic Board operating next to the Central Committee. Hegedüs was asked to organize and oversee one of the eleven workgroups designed to assist the Preparatory Committee. His group was tasked with investigating “interaction between economic and social relations.”14 In this period, with respect to his own scientific work, Hegedüs continued to both extend and sharpen his theoretical sociological research. On the one hand, he devoted himself to critical analyses of socialist society from a structural point of view.15 On the other, he pushed the limits of critical analysis to new levels concerning the place and role of sociology within the system of Marxist social sciences, as well as concerning sociology’s claim to tackle some of the most vital social problems related to the building of advanced socialist society in general, and in Hungary in particular.16

Without doubt, the emphasis on sociology’s task of providing scientific self-knowledge for socialist society sums up the credo of Hegedüs’ vision of Marxist sociology. But it is also clear that his radical reformist endorsement of the critical function Marxist sociology could play in socialist society is separated, if at all, by only a thin line from the promotion of truly “revisionist” ideas. After all, Hegedüs’ Marxism seemed ready to jettison the classic Marxist theses on social development the moment the sociological analysis of the concrete social realities proved them false. At this point, however, he also believed that his ideas had essentially been confirmed by recent political and social developments and especially by the new economic reforms under preparation in both Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In an essay published in 1967 in the Hungarian literature monthly Kortárs [Contemporary] entitled “Reality and Necessity: The ‘Self-Criticism’ of Socialist Society as a Reality and a Necessity,”17 he went so far as to assert the “historical necessity” of the emergence in socialist society of a new type of critical attitude designed to reshape the relationship between the party and society.

The fact that in August 1968 it was not sociologists, but Warsaw Pact troops who readjusted the regime-society relationship in Czechoslovakia ultimately triggered the escalation of Hegedüs’ situation within his party. On August 21, along with the Hungarian sociologists and philosophers protesting in Korčula, the Party members of the Sociological Research Group condemned the intervention and Hegedüs addressed a petition to the Central Committee on the issue. In its report to the Politburo on this case, the Scientific, Educational and Cultural Board of the Central Committee made it clear that the protest issued by Hegedüs and his comrades against the intervention in Czechoslovakia was in reality only the most recent chapter in a far-reaching story. The document noted that since 1966, the Agitprop Committee had brought up the issue of the “negative tendencies” manifested in “Hegedüs’ theoretically and ideologically dubious ideas” several times. In conclusion, and as a way to solve the situation, the report proposed the removal of Hegedüs from the leadership of the Sociological Research Group.18

After 1968, Hegedüs’ research activity in sociology underwent a reorientation. In a somewhat programmatic study entitled “For the Healthy Development of Marxist Sociology,” which Hegedüs wrote right after his removal from the Sociological Research Group and which was published in the Társadalmi Szemle [Social Review], the theoretical monthly of the HSWP,19 he urged the continuation and even intensification of sociological research on social structures and social stratification under socialism. Hegedüs nevertheless did not entirely abandon the idea of advocating a radical “reformist position” when it came to sociological issues related to socialist development. This ambition, for example, was clearly manifest in the studies he devoted in this period to the sociological analysis of the question of “bureaucracy” under socialist conditions.20 Also, his views on “social progress” under socialist circumstances soon came under ideological attack.21 To be sure, it was precisely with reference to these lines of research that the accusations of revisionism against Hegedüs could be relaunched, accusations which eventually would lead to his expulsion from the party and his exclusion from academic and cultural life in general.

After all, by the end of 1972, the Kádárist party leadership had come increasingly under pressure from both its own hardliners and Moscow, each of which were demanding a revision of the allegedly overly liberal economic policies of the party.22 Under these circumstances, Kádár was all too keen to demonstrate, to those inside and outside of his party, that the reform of the Hungarian economy and society was firmly under the control of the HSWP and that no deviation from the official Marxist-Leninist dogmas would be tolerated. As a result, there was a sudden change in the ideological climate and in the line that divided what could be tolerated as a legitimate Marxist “discussion” of the questions of existing socialism and what was to be rejected on the grounds of its assumed anti-Marxist content. Not surprisingly, the ideas defended by Hegedüs, along with those promoted by the members of the Lukácsian Budapest School, fell soon prey to this ideological fervor, which sought to cleanse Hungarian Marxism of its new leftist wildings.

In January 1973, speaking before the Nationwide Ideological Conference in Budapest, György Aczél, the Agitprop Secretary of the Central Committee, left no doubt about who was to blame for “denying the existing socialist practices.” He named Hegedüs among others, and he accused him of “calling into question the fundamental theses of Marxism.”23 As a consequence, during a debate held in March 1973 under the auspices of the Cultural Political Work Collective the severely “anti-Marxist platform” of several social scientists and philosophers, including Hegedüs, Mária Márkus, Mihály Vajda, Ágnes Heller, György Márkus, György Bencze, and János Kis, was unanimously condemned.24 On the basis of this report, the Central Committee of the HSWP prepared a proposal for the Politburo. The Politburo accepted the proposal and decided to publish a final resolution on the case.25 It also ordered the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to take several measures against the scholars in question. Hegedüs, Vajda, and Kis was expelled from the HSWP, and all the scholars involved were dismissed from their academic jobs on the grounds of their “incapability for scientific work.” (They were offered lowering-rank positions as scientists or research assistants.)

Since none of the social researchers in question accepted the new jobs offered by the Academy of Sciences, their academic carriers in socialist Hungary were definitively over. As far as Hegedüs was concerned, after having accepted various advisory positions in large communist companies and after having been quickly dismissed from them at the order of party authorities, he retired in 1976.26 His sporadic collaboration with the increasingly significant democratic opposition movements in Hungary during the 1970 and 1980s had often been hindered by his unbroken belief in the possibility of a pluralistic socialist society without the implementation of a pluralistic political party system. But his role as critical sociologist and his vision of the enlightened moderation of the society-regime relationship in communist Hungary were doomed to be relegated, at least until the end the socialist period, to the realm of academic folklore. In a volume published in English on Hungarian sociology in 1978 and edited by his successors at the Sociology Institute of the Academy of Sciences, the main text of the brief introductory study devoted to an assessment of recent sociological research in Hungary made not a single mention of his name.27

The Empirical and the Illusionary: The Critical Sociology of István Kemény

One could characterize the sociological career of István Kemény as that of a strong character who was recurrently compelled to do empirical analyses of delicate topics—social stratification, poverty, the conditions of working class, the behavior of economic leaders, the problems faced by the Roma populations—related to the first two decades of the socialist reality in Hungary under Kádár. The unusual nature of his career was determined by the very historical event that served as the alpha point for both his career and the regime itself, namely the 1956 revolution. Having originally been sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly having participated in a “seditious conspiracy” during the revolutionary events, Kemény was released from prison in 1959.28 Between 1960 and 1969, he worked as librarian at the National Széchenyi Library in Budapest. In 1963, he was asked to join as assistant a newly launched group research project conducted by the Central Statistical Office on the question of “social stratification” in Hungary. By accepting this invitation, Kemény succeeded in part in adopting sociology as his main profession and became involved in one of the most instructive and challenging empirical sociological research projects in Hungary at the time.29 Since it used the term “stratification” (“rétegződés”) as one of its keywords, the 1963 survey challenged the view according to which the tendency of socialist society to lose gradually its original class structure should necessarily be understood as an improvement towards social homogeneity. In fact, as the project demonstrated, the loosening of class constraints had led to a more differentiated and not less imperious system of social stratification.30

In 1969, Kemény was asked to join the Sociological Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as a full-time research fellow. This change of status meant that Kemény immediately became involved in several empirically based research projects initiated and run by different institutes. One of the most interesting among them was devoted to the so-called “low income population” in Hungary. This research was run in effect by a work group within the Central Statistical Office. According to Kemény’s memoirs, the interest in the study of “poverty” in socialist Hungary was already present in the 1963 national survey, but György Péter, the president of the office, firmly opposed this idea, since he believed that if the Office as state institute “started to study poverty, this would suggest that it [socialist Hungary] was a system in which poor people could be found.”31

Kemény’s participation in the survey and the attention he devoted to the living conditions of the “low income” population became the foundation for his reputation. It can be said that this was one of the groundbreaking research initiatives in which he proved himself as a sociologist working with statistical means, but willing to go beyond the simply descriptive level of survey data to analysis of what these findings reveal about the living conditions under state socialism. Kemény’s task of translating the statistical category of “low income” into terms of the people’s real living conditions, and especially the living conditions of blue-collar workers, revealed hitherto unnoticed—or rather denied—aspects of socialist reality. Even before this research project officially terminated in 1972, he had an opportunity to give a lecture in 1970 on the topic at one of the annual sessions of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in which he did not hesitate to talk about the phenomenon of “poverty” in socialist Hungary. In fact, he was in all likelihood the first social scientist to use this term openly in an academic speech in the post-1956 period in Hungary.

In his talk, Kemény claimed that it was misleading to draw a strict limit based on a minimum income per head in a household, as was proposed by the Central Statistical Office, in order to define a person or a family as belonging to the “low income” category. Instead, he argued that the descriptive use of the “low income” category should include consideration of concrete living and housing conditions, including family composition, cost of transportation, whether someone lived in or had a sublet, whether someone lived in an urban or rural setting, etc. According to Kemény, this would enable a more nuanced understanding of the poor as people “who were not able to live like others do.”32 With this definition in mind, Kemény was keen to demonstrate new social inequalities in the socialist reality in Hungary. According to him, poverty as a real condition affected the lifestyle, social habits, educational standards, and everyday practices of those concerned.33

Not surprisingly, Kemény’s talk at the Academy created instant havoc in the Party headquarters. Although initially both Népszabadság [People’s Liberty] and Társadalmi Szemle published positive overviews of Kemény’s talk (which, however, failed to mention the term “poverty” in their account), more drastic consequences soon followed.34 Kálmán Kulcsár, the head of the Sociological Institute at the time, was immediately ordered to dismiss Kemény from the Institute. Kulcsár did as he was told, but since Kemény had already been conducting another ongoing survey in the Institute concerning the Hungarian Roma populations, the Party headquarters was contacted again in order to determine what to do. Finally, the decision was made to allow Kemény to keep his job on a monthly basis, i.e. by “signing on the first day of each month a work contract which would last to the last day of the month” and repeating this until the survey was completed.35 Kemény finished his survey on the Roma in late 1972, after which his status at the Institute was terminated.

The aim of the 1971 survey on the Roma population was to offer a comprehensive view of the social situation of Roma in Hungary, including their “linguistic and ethnic composition, settlement types, regional distribution, housing conditions, family size, number of children and live births, education, the effects of industrialization in the 1950s and 1960s, employment, and income levels.”36 Nonetheless, the research carried out under Kemény’s leadership between 1970 and 1971 was new and unusual in several respects. Most importantly, in setting up the basic analytical categories of the project, Kemény refused to attribute particular importance to the ethnic character of the population under study. As he stated, “in our research we classified as Roma all people whom the surrounding non-Roma community considered Roma.”37 The enabled him and his team to sidestep the task of providing a scholarly (chimerical) definition of who was Roma and who was not, but perhaps more importantly, it allowed them to focus their efforts on what they considered the essential sociological aspects of the population under study. “The Roma question is fundamentally not an ethnic question, but a question of social strata,” the study concluded in the summary of its findings.38 This indicated that Kemény’s sociological approach to the Roma followed in the footsteps of his earlier survey on poverty in that he privileged questions of social stratification over questions of social segregation or ethnic identity. Also, Kemény was far from sharing the optimism of some of the communist leadership, who considered the rapid transformation of the working and living conditions of the Hungarian Roma population as an unqualified form of progress towards social assimilation. Although the 1971 survey confirmed the facts related to the drastic changes in employment and to some extent the amelioration of living conditions, in other areas (especially in housing and schooling practices) it noted severe drawbacks.

If the 1971 survey on the Roma population did not cause a political scandal, this was due primarily to its accuracy and the indisputably scientific nature of its methods, but also to the fact that the circumstances of the Roma communities were far from being in the forefront of academic or social debates in Hungary at the time. Nevertheless, the whole body of the research material was released only in 1977 as an internal bulletin published by the Sociological Institute of the Academy, and it had no table of contents and no ISBN number.

By the time the Roma survey had been completed at the end of 1972, Kemény’s monthly based contract at the Sociological Institute had expired and had not been extended. Meanwhile, the historian Miklós Laczkó, who at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences was given the task of preparing a research project on the Hungarian working class, contacted Kemény and asked him to do a survey on Hungarian workers.39 The Institute of History itself was asked by the Scientific Board of the Central Committee to carry out this research, and the director of the Institute, Zsigmond Pál Pach, was convinced by Laczkó to employ Kemény for this task. To be sure, this choice was not unfounded, since Kemény’s earlier research on the working class had even drawn some attention in broader public forums.40 But a closer look at this situation reveals very well the inherently contradictory and unstable processes through which, in an academic environment, communist functionaries sought to assess the party’s ideological expectations. In fact, the research initiated at the History Institute on members of the working class had already clearly indicated the changing ideological circumstances which, in the short run, had brought to a standstill the economic reforms and triggered the official political rehabilitation of the doctrine of the “leading role of the working class” in Hungary. Under these circumstances, Kemény, with his 1956 legacy and bad academic reputation, did not in principle have a chance to return. But precisely because ideological and scientific expectations were suddenly and inextricably mixed, informal ties gained increasing significance. Pach was undoubtedly a loyal party functionary, but he could be convinced to take the risk of reinterpreting the meaning of “ideologically sound” as a characterization of potential colleague in light of an alleged need of expertise. And in doing so, he was clearly ignoring the fact that Kemény had already been prohibited from carrying out academic research in another scientific Institute belonging to the same establishment.

The survey on the Hungarian workers began on September 1972 and was finished by the end of 1973. In part, Kemény used most of the descriptive categories developed in his earlier research on social stratification, the working class, poverty, and the Roma populations, applying these categories to workers.41 One of the most striking aspects of Kemény’s descriptive study on the working class was the strong emphasis on the forms of social cohesion, which correlating closely with workers’ morale. Workers showed significant shared commitment to common concerns, including mutual recognition of expertise, solidarity in struggles for better earning and working conditions, and a shared interest in technological improvement. However, in light of Kemény’s survey (which was based on interviews), these forms of cohesion were delineated as forms of common strategies of negotiation and tactics of circumvention directed against the various forms of administrative power represented by the management and directors of the factory or the party. In the preface to the French edition of his book on workers, Kemény described the general strategy followed by the Hungarian working class as one of “permanent resistance,” according to which they sought “to obey the instructions in appearance only.”42

In 1973 the Scientific, Educational and Cultural Board of the Central Committee organized a debate at Institute of History on Kemény’s manuscript. The text was harshly criticized by leading Hungarian historians, such as Iván Berend T. and György Ránki.43 This was followed by a series of events which adhered to a well-known political logic. First, Kemény’s manuscript on the Hungarian working class was rejected for publication. Then, in March 1974, the Institute of History was ordered to terminate his contract, and virtually at the same time Kemény was prohibited by the Party authorities from participating in any research or publication initiatives. In 1975, the National Educational Institute led by Iván Vitányi tried unsuccessfully to hire Kemény to take part in a research project.44 After this, Kemény attempted to engage in various research initiatives using his colleagues as cover, but in January 1977, he decided the situation was hopeless and resolved to leave Hungary for France.

Iván Szelényi and the “Immanent Critique” of Socialist Society

In a recent essay written on the development of Hungarian sociology in the 1960s, Iván Szelényi argued that between 1966 and 1968, Hungarian sociologists began to realize that empirical research in itself does not necessarily lead to value-free or apologetic results. Empirically grounded sociological investigations were increasingly perceived as having the potential to provide critical insights into the social determinants of socialist society.45 According to Szelényi, by the end of 1960s, there were two general but not mutually exclusive trends that provided the impetus and the intuitive backdrop to these critical approaches. On the one hand, there was an approach which aspired to offer an “ideological critique of socialist society.” This approach was influenced by György Lukács46 and his school, and it was championed by Hegedüs. It sought to contrast the reality of established social conditions in existing socialism with the Marxist ideals. A different approach, on the other hand, was advocated by more empirically-minded sociologists, such as Szelényi himself, who were carrying out a “critique of socialist ideology.” This approach focused on some of the internal inequalities and contradictions of socialist society, which reflected the regime’s ideological blind spots and therefore favored the elaboration of an “immanent” critique of socialist ideology and social reality.47

Szelényi’s account of this topic is worthy of consideration from a historical point of view in part because in some of his writings published in the early 1970s he had already made clear his position on the critical function of sociology. In fact, in the methodological part of his dissertation Settlement System and Social Structure, submitted in 1972 for the degree of “candidate of science” (kandidátus, the equivalent of a PhD degree), he outlined the principles of social criticism in sociology in terms very similar to those presented in his more recent writings. In his dissertation, Szelényi drew a sharp distinction between “social critique” and “critique of ideology,” and he argued that, unlike the former approach, which appeals to transcendent values in order to influence collective will and prompt action allegedly needed to build a better society, the latter seeks to analyze ideology critically as a social product serving actual interests.48

Szelényi joined the Sociological Research Group of the Academy in 1963 at the invitation of Hegedüs, first as a part-time research fellow and then, from 1967, as a full-time research fellow. His first work on housing conditions in one of the slum-areas in Budapest (coauthored with Ferenc Nemes) marked his entry into the field of sociology.49 In 1968, Hegedüs was forced, for political reasons, to resign from the leadership of the Sociology Group, and his position was taken over by Kálmán Kulcsár. At the time, Szelényi was tasked with the part-time supervision of the newly established “Sociological Laboratory” at the Social Science Institute, working under the Central Committee of the Party. A year later, he published his work (coauthored with György Konrád) on the sociological problems faced by the communities living in the new housing projects in Hungary,50 and shortly after this, he also took over the direction of the regional sociological department at the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences. Simultaneously, Szelényi also began a teaching career at the Karl Marx University of Economics in Budapest, and he similarly was given a teaching position in sociology at the Political Academy of the party.51 Thus, when Szelényi was appointed to serve as one of the editors-in-chief of the newly established sociological monthly Szociológia in 1972, his career seemed to be on a fast track to ultimate recognition. As a matter of fact, at that point in time he was undoubtedly one of the highest-ranking social scientists in Hungary who was not a member of the HSWP.

To be sure, Szelényi’s success was influenced by the fact that he kept his distance from sensitive political matters. For instance, unlike many of his prominent colleagues (including Hegedüs), he refused to denounce publicly or through official Party channels the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and he also remained reserved with regards to the Lukácsian-Marxist social critical attitude widespread in the Sociology Group. As he later remarked, not only did his empirical mindset save him, for the time being, from getting into political trouble, but he also managed to benefit, in his career, from the overall intellectual and political situation.52 Nevertheless, one should note that the topics he chose and the approaches he followed in his research allowed him to move in directions that were far from any simple value-free empirical position. In fact, in a study published in 1969 on the role of sociology, Szelényi argued that the empirical orientation in sociology had the genuine potential to foster normative interpretations in social policy or open up alternatives for social services.53 

In a way, in their 1969 book Az új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái [Sociological Problems of the New Housing Developments], Konrád and Szelényi had already gone beyond a mere descriptive account of the case under study. Without doubt, some of the concrete findings of their investigations were truly shocking.54 Most notably, statistical evidence showed that, quite contrary to what was expected, apartments in newly built housing developments in Budapest and other major cities appeared to be systematically allocated to people belonging to social groups with higher incomes, mostly to the educated middle and upper middle class. On the base of these findings, Szelényi and Konrád revealed the de-privileged status of low-income earners and the working class as such and concluded that “as a whole, the construction of new housing developments cannot be characterized as social or communal house-building” in Hungary.55 Furthermore, they called attention to the “exceptionally grave consequences” which these developments were about to create in a metropolitan environment in terms of “social segregation.”56

Between 1970 and 1973, Szelényi and Konrád extended and deepened their analysis of the Hungarian housing system. In 1972, Szelényi submitted a manuscript entitled “Settlement System and Social Structure: Sociological Elements for an Analysis of the Hungarian Housing System and Urban Structure” to obtain a PhD degree.57 The text provided a more radical assessment of the problems related to the housing issue in Hungary, and it also embedded these problems in a larger socio-historical and structural analytical framework. Sociological problems concerning housing were thus found to be representative of other major forms of socio-economic inequalities under socialism, and this called for further investigations. Also, one of the novelties of the new analyses was their emphasis on the evaluative and critical importance of sociological analyses addressing the urban housing and planning system. As Szelényi stated in the methodological part of his dissertation, an immanent “ideological-critical” approach defined as “sociology of planning” was necessary in order to reveal and assess the “social relations of interest” underlying the processes of socialist social planning.58

In 1972, Társadalmi Szemle published an article, which was strongly critical in tone and in content of a paper published by Szelényi and György Konrád a few months earlier on various sociological and historical aspects of Hungarian urban development.59 The vehemence of the article was hardly surprising if one takes into account the purpose and arguments of the paper it was targeting. In a nutshell, by labeling urban development in Hungary “retarded” or “lagging,” Konrád Szelényi managed to blame the socialist economic policy of the previous two decades for its neglect of proper urban infrastructural developments, criticize its insensitively administered social-policies, and point out some current “social conflicts” which had been consequences of these wrong-headed policies.60

In one of his late interviews, Szelényi characterized this ill-received writing as the best he had ever written with Konrád.61 Whatever the case may be, it is certain that in the beginning of the 1970s, with the rise of anti-reform sentiments and the new anti-reform ideological offensive in the making, the critical approaches and orientations advocated by the Konrád and Szelényi tended to fall short of meeting the new prerequisites set forth for a “legitimate” Marxist way of doing social scientific research. Apart from the growing pressure to reinstate a noticeably more orthodox Marxist ideological approach to both theoretical and empirical issues, political approval (and disapproval) began to play an important role in shaping sociological research topics and activities. Even the ambition to exert more straightforward political control over the sociological research apparatus appeared on the agenda, as demonstrated for instance by an Agitprop party document from 1973 which proposed subjecting sociological surveys to “central authorization” in order to prevent them from being used to draw “false” or “ideologically hostile” conclusions.62

In principle, given his leading positions at various research institutions and the fact that he had been elected to serve on the editorial committee of the newly established revue Szociológia, Szelényi seemed to have little to worry about. Yet, in a way, it was precisely his personal inclination towards professional solidarity and his belief in the pursuit of sociology as an independent critical science that would soon bring him close to the end of his prosperous career in Hungary.

In 1973, Szelényi was among the few intellectuals who protested against the denunciation and removal from their academic positions of some of the closest disciples of Lukács and sociologists like Hegedüs and Maria Márkus. The next political event in which Szelényi took an important part was the trial of Miklós Haraszti. Haraszti, at this time an ultra-leftist poet and writer, was arrested in May 1973 on charges of having distributed mimeographed copies of his work entitled “Darabbér” (“Piecework”), which had not been given approval for publication. In the trial, Szelényi agreed to testify that as a journal editor, he intended to publish parts of Haraszti’s text in the revue Szociológia because he considered it a valuable and realistic analysis of factory life and workers’ lives in Hungary.63 To be sure, this statement was not entirely true. Nevertheless, due to the appropriate strategy chosen by the defense and the solidarity campaign that surrounded the case, Haraszti, although found guilty on the charges brought against him, was sentenced to serve only eight months in prison, a sentence which was suspended on condition that Haraszti spend three years on probation. But the trial had other consequences as well. Because of his involvement is the case, Szelényi was removed from the positions he held at the Institute of Social Sciences and at Szociológia. He was also temporarily prohibited from publishing, but more importantly, his reputation as a critical but reliable non-party member academic was severely damaged.

Interestingly enough, by the time they got involved in the Haraszti trial, Konrád and Szelényi had already embarked down a path to challenge the regime in power directly. At Konrád’s initiative, they had started to compile a scholarly manuscript which Szelényi envisaged as their critical-sociological masterpiece. To be sure, they were well aware from the very beginning that the task was politically impossible, meaning that the text would never be published in Hungary. As Szelényi later remarked, they were consciously preparing themselves to “commit scholarly suicide.”64 Their manuscript was thus meant from the outset to be a samizdat in its format, which makes it one of the very first examples of this genre in socialist Hungary.65 Not surprisingly, the police, which had been keeping Konrád and Szelényi under constant surveillance since the Haraszti trial, was well informed about their activities and waited for the moment to confiscate the manuscript and arrest its authors. The two men were detained on October 22, 1973 on charges of incitement, and they remained in custody for seven days.

The major argument of Konrád and Szelényi’s samizdat book The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power was that under Eastern European state socialism, the intelligentsia was in the process, for the first time in history, of forming a dominant class. With this context in mind, the authors sought to adopt a reflexive critical position, which, like in Szelényi’s earlier sociological works, aimed to provide an immanent “critique of ideology.”66 According to Konrád and Szelényi, the class dominance of intellectuals in state socialism manifested itself in their increasingly crucial position (and allegedly experts) as “planners” and “redistributors” within this system. In other words, they argued that a constant intellectual materialization of certain “teleological” knowledge about long-term public interests in socialist society, embodied in the intellectuals’ bureaucratic class position, not only played a functional role in sustaining the regime, but was a fundamental element without which the socialist mode of production itself would have lost its distinctive features.

Without a doubt, Konrád and Szelényi’s book was a clear attempt to call into question some of the most crucial ideological cornerstones of existing socialist regimes: the tenet of the leading role of the working class and the ideological benevolence of the party. As a matter of fact, this point was clearly stressed in a report submitted to the Politburo of the HSWP about the case.67 The document also informed its readers of the outcome of this “unlawful activity”: after seven days of detention, the two suspects acknowledged authorship of the manuscript, and the case was closed with a “prosecutor’s warning.” At the same time, as a result of the case, Szelényi immediately lost his remaining jobs at the Institute of Sociology and the University of Economics, and his career in sociology and in the academic life in general was definitely over. The only reasonable option for him was to accept the at offer made by the interior affairs authorities, which at the time was rather exceptional, to leave the country.68

Conclusion: From Professional Commitment to Oppositional Attitude

The most striking aspect in the careers of István Hegedüs, István Kemény, and Iván Szelényi is not simply that, even with their different intellectual and political backgrounds, fields of interest, and academic contributions, they were all sidelined by the mid-1970s for political reasons. Even more remarkable than this is the fact that their involvements in politically contentious situations were triggered by the adoption of a similar intellectual attitude. Nevertheless, the formation of their noticeably analogous way of perceiving and reacting to certain scholarly situations seems to imply more than mere discontent with certain ideological expectations in Hungarian academia. It stemmed rather from their engagement in a complex setting of professional, institutional, and disciplinary practices and relations that gradually shaped their personal experiences and scholarly strategies in a similar way.

From this point of view, the decisive impact of two institutions (the Central Statistical Office and the Sociology Research Group) on the development of the intellectual profile of Hegedüs, Kemény and Szelényi should be highlighted. Although the forms and lengths of their engagement in the work of these institutions varied greatly, similarities are also apparent. Contact with the pioneering sociological work carried out at the Statistical Office constituted an important milestone in the career of all three of them. It certainly made them appreciate the role of a specific institutional environment and a diverse academic body in the development of an effective and relatively free research agenda. Hegedüs seemed to have been fully aware of this when he was given the green light in 1963 to establish his Research Group at the Academy of Sciences, where he also hired Szelényi. At the same time, as Kemény has remarked, the Sociology Research Group represented a trend similar to that of the more empirically minded sociological cluster of the Statistical Office led by Zsuzsa Ferge insofar as both institutions “wanted something that was hitherto forbidden” in Hungarian sociology.69

It should be noted that this took place during the subsequent period (1968–72), when the multiplication of institutions and research opportunities allowed for an increasing flexibility in sociological research and teaching. This was illustrated for instance by the case of Szelényi, who divided his time between the Sociological Research Group and the Institute of Social Science of the Central Committee, while he also held various teaching positions. The emergence of this new situation within the sociological profession in the early 1970s was certainly fostered by the central administration’s growing interest in and demand for accurate social knowledge relevant to various policy and economic issues. For example, Kemény’s research on the Roma population and the working class and Szelényi and Konrád’s work on the housing conditions in Budapest and other cities clearly reflected this tendency. This conjuncture in sociology has led to the proliferation of research institutions and even the introduction of a certain division of labor between them, and it has also created a need to implement forms of professional training to ensure further reinforcement. At the same time, this new situation has also changed the ways in which institutions in the academic sphere are used by sociologists to adopt and pursue their research agenda. Kemény’s pursuit of various research projects in different institutions between 1969 and 1973 demonstrated significant flexibility in this regard. To be sure, the growth in the available resources (including financial resources) and the reliance on project-oriented institutional backing have created significantly more options for research, much as they have also enabled people working in the discipline to pursue their efforts with a greater degree of professional commitment and have made it easier to overlook built-in ideological safety mechanisms in research.

Apart from the institutional factors, the variety of topical interests and approaches in sociological research and the ways in which the image of Hungarian society was altered over the course of the 1960s in sociological debates have clearly shown a strong vivacity and an openness within the discipline. In this context, both the more social critical approach taken by Hegedüs and the empirically driven orientation developed by Kemény and later Szelényi shared the conviction that society was made up of critically important factors which have their own particular functions and modes of development. The focus on social stratification on the one hand and the mesmerizing effects of discovering and analyzing social inequality on the other also constituted a common element in their works. Thus, Hegedüs’ strong insistence on the function of sociology as the most direct scientific instrument in the pursuit of critical knowledge of society has not essentially contradicted the more empirically grounded approaches adopted by Kemény and Szelényi. The differences between their approaches were, rather, strategic, insofar as Hegedüs insisted on the fact that the importance of sociological research should lie in ushering academic discourse towards an explicitly social critical, if not political role—something which Kemény and Szelényi were less ready to embrace if it was propagated in the name of a normative, let alone Marxist perception of society. For them, the realistic tone of sociology implied in and of itself a sufficient stance in order to approach social reality in critical terms.

This strategic difference was also reflected in the different ways in which Hegedüs, Kemény, and Szelényi appealed to and used Marxism in their works. Although they all seemed to agree fundamentally that orthodox Marxist-Leninist categories were totally inadequate for a sociological analysis of social structures and development, they nevertheless manifested different rationales in their precepts on which their rejections were based. In the case of Hegedüs, his adherence to the idea of socialism remained unbroken throughout his career. It was precisely this idea that fueled his criticism both of the Stalinist vision of society and the more technocratic agenda of building socialism. For him, redefining socialist reality in terms of domination, subordination, alienation etc., and thus challenging the received doctrines of Marxism-Leninism, was a necessary consequence of the perception of sociology as the ongoing critical examination of the course of socialist construction in which the drive towards “optimal” economic and social development should be counterweighted by a particularly strong focus on processes of “humanization.”70 Thus, for Hegedüs the constructive use of Marxism in the search for a “leftist” normative view of society remained a cornerstone of his sociological approach. Kemény’s manifest rebuff of Marxism followed a different path. In his case, it was more the result of a pragmatic rejection expressed in neutrality towards, neglect of, and cavalier disregard for Marxist categories. However, this sociologically orchestrated disinterestedness was grounded in the very methodology he employed in most of his research. The combination of social-statistical quantification with deep interviewing offered empirical findings and a foundation for social categorization which were substantial proof of the purely apologetic nature and scientific inadequacy of official Marxism-Leninism. In Szelényi’s case, the motivations for overlooking Marxism were different in nature. His stance was based on a predominantly theoretical rejection, manifested in a strategy of almost complete neglect of Marxist terminology in his earlier writings, which has accompanied an increasingly subtle search for empirical confirmation. In other words, for Szelényi, the inadequacy of the Marxist approach has relied primarily on its incapacity to address and frame phenomena of social structure, stratification, mobility, inequality, etc. in the study of which other Western sociological theories (for example the Weberian or Polányian approaches) have proven more conclusive. Nevertheless, it was precisely the fact that his rejection was theoretical in its design, and not purely political or empirical, that allowed him to return in a certain way to Marxist categorizations in his The Intellectuals on the Road Class Power.

Nevertheless, it would certainly be misleading to characterize the series of events that led to the exclusion of the three sociologists in question from Hungarian academic life by the mid-1970s as a cumulative process which could not have gone another direction and ended in a different scenario. Although there are always underlying reasons for ideological climate changes (and in this case, they usually accurately reflected the actual orientations and power struggles in which policy was rooted, especially in the academic sphere), ideology as such was far from a coherent and all-powerful system of norms providing direct support for the eventual implementation of administrative measures. Ideological intervention had to be channeled through institutions and forums of scholarly communication within which formal and informal relationships, political pedigree, and personal stamina often played roles as important as the role of the attitudes of the party’s cultural or agitprop bodies. But this also means that the escalation of an academic affair usually was fueled by a certain stubbornness or hard-minded attitude on the part of those who were targeted by the party authorities for political reasons. This kind of stubbornness certainly played a vital role in the case of Hegedüs, Kemény, and Szelényi. Yet their work was hardly intended initially as an immediate challenge to ideological or political barriers. Their dogged determination stemmed rather from their professional commitment to the value of sociological research, which, due to the more and more unsound and ambiguous standards of scholarly performance introduced for ideological reasons, gradually morphed into the adoption of a stance which could rightly be called oppositional, although in each case with a different connotation.

The fact that the revitalization of sociological research and the launch of empirical investigations were closely connected to economic reform drives from the mid-1960s had some serious consequences for the fate of sociology as a discipline in Hungary. First of all, as was made explicit by the case of Hegedüs, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact countries in 1968 and the subsequent halt of the reforms were perceived by many as a defeat and as a consequent shrinking of scholarly opportunities. Yet what really counted was not necessarily the political face-value of these events. It was, rather, the lack of a positive model under these circumstances for valuable and pioneering sociological research which affected negatively the academic performance and vision of progressive sociologists. Whereas the Guidelines on Scientific Policy issued by the Central Committee of the party in 1969 accorded unlimited liberty to research in social science, it also called for “prudence and responsibility” (i.e. self-censorship) in making scientific results available to the public.71 But the nature of empirical findings in sociological research and the flexible and institutionally different understanding of scientific responsibility rapidly revealed the ideological frailty of these claims. Especially in sociology, in which scientific truth is supposedly founded on the critical observation of social facts, any demand for self-control and self-limitation could produce utterly counterproductive if not false results. Combined with the conviction that politics can discover in sociology something which it cannot discover by any other means, sociological responsibility in principle overtly fostered the emergence of a critical attitude.

Thus, one can understand why Hegedüs, even after his many conflict-ridden entanglements with the political world in Hungary, kept stubbornly challenging the prevailing view on socialist development in Hungary, arguing that the return to market conditions was in fact a false turn, because it intensified social stratification and inequality. The adoption of a political stance in this case was clearly motivated by sociological insight into society and its amalgamation and a belief in the idea of a genuinely socialist democratization of human relations. Similarly, Kemény’s uncompromising excavation of delicate social facts was linked to his belief in the unconditional value of the empirical study of social reality, even if it had regularly culminated in sociological analyses touching critically on some basic ideological tenets. Finally, Szelényi’s increasingly radical approach to sociology as a critique of ideology originated in and was founded on his perception of the discrepancy between certain empirically detected social tendencies which fostered inequality and a particular set of socio-politically promoted interests in society which supported them. In each of these cases, the only legitimate option offered by the academic establishment for sociological work consisted of keeping a low profile from the perspective of critical attitude and promoting the very social status quo the shortcomings of which had been revealed by sociological means. No wonder that for each of the three scholars irritation and disappointment with this situation, which was also for them a sociologically reflected disposition, called for a radical response: the emergence of an oppositional attitude both in their scholarly work and in the ways in which they were more and more ready to take serious political risks.


Primary Sources


National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL)

M-KS 288-5. Politikai Bizottság [Politburo], 1956–1989.

M-KS 288-41. Agitációs és Propaganda Bizottság, 1962–1989


Az MSZMP Központi Bizottságának Tudománypolitikai Irányelvei [The Guidelines for Scientific Policy of the Central Committee of the HSWP]. Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 1969. 37–67.

“A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt néhány időszerű ideológiai feladata: A Központi Bizottság irányelvei” [Some current ideological tasks of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party: The guidelines of the Central Committee]. In A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt dokumentumai és határozatai 1963–1966 [The documents and resolutions of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party 1963–1966], edited by Henrik Vass. Budapest: Kossuth, 1970.

“Az MSZMP Központi Bizottsága mellett működő Kultúrpolitikai Munkaközösség állásfoglalása néhány társadalomkutató anti-marxista nézeteiről” [The position of the Cultural Political Work Collective operating along with the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party on the Anti-Marxist views of several social researchers]. In A magyar demokratikus ellenzék. vol. 3. Dokumentumok [The Hungarian democratic opposition, vol. 3. Documents], edited by Sándor Csizmadia. Budapest: T-Twins, 1995.


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Hegedüs, András. A szocialista társadalom struktúrájáról [On the structure of socialist society]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1966.

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Hegedüs, András. “Realitás és szükségszerűség: A szocialista társadalom ’önbírálata’, mint realitás és mint szükségszerűség” [Reality and necessity: The self-criticism of socialist society]. Kortárs 11, no. 7 (1967): 1011–19.

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Hegedüs, András. Socialism and Bureaucracy. London: Allison & Busby, 1976.

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Hegedüs, András. “Beszélgetés” [Conversation]. In Hatalom, politika, társadalomtudomány: Interjúk a magyar szociológia újjászületésének körülményeiről az 1960-as években [Power, politics and social science: Interviews on the circumstances of the rebirth of Hungarian sociology in the 1960s], edited by Tamás Rozgonyi, 6–17. Budapest: HAS Sociological Institute, 2008.

Herceg, Ferenc. “A szocialista elosztás néhány kérdése” [Some questions of socialist distribution]. Társadalmi Szemle 26, no. 1 (1971): 65–72.

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Keen, Mike, and Janusz Mucha. Autobiographies of Transformation: Lives in Central and Eastern Europe. London: Routledge, 2006.

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Kemény, István, ed. Beszámoló a magyarországi cigányok helyzetével foglalkozó 1971-ben végzett kutatásról [Report on the research dealing with the situation of the Roma population in 1971]. Budapest: HAS Sociological Institute, 1976.

Kemény, István. Ouvriers hongrois. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1985.

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Kemény, István. Velük nevelkedett a gép: Magyar munkások a hetvenes évek elején [The machines grew with us: Hungarian workers at the beginning of the 1970s]. Budapest: Vita, 1990.

Kemény, István. “Poverty in Hungary.” Social Science Information 18 (1979): 247–67.

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Kemény, István, and Béla Janky. “The Roma Population in Hungary 1971–2003.” In Roma of Hungary, edited by István Kemény, 70–225. Boulder: Atlantic Research and Publication Inc, 2005.

Kemény, István. “Interview on his career conducted by Vera Szabari.” Sociological Review, 18, no. 2 (2008): 135–54.

Konrád, György, and Iván Szelényi. Az új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái [Sociological problems of new urban settlements]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1969.

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Konrád, György, and Ivan Szelényi. The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, translated by Andrew Arato and Richard E. Allen. New York–London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

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Nyers, Rezső. “Emlékeim Hegedüs András pályafutásának három korszakáról” [Memories on the three Stages of the career of András Hegedüs]. In Búcsú Hegedüs Andrástól 1922–1999 [Farewell to András Hegedüs, 1922–1999], edited by Tamás Rozgonyi and Zoltán Zsille, 259–62. Budapest: Osiris, 2001.

Szántó, Miklós. A magyar szociológia újjászervezése a hatvanas években [The reorganization of Hungarian sociology in the 1960s]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1998.

Szelényi, Iván. “Empíria és szociológia” [The empiric and sociology]. Valóság 12, no. 11 (1969): 14–26.

Szelényi, Iván. Urban Inequalities under State Socialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Szelényi, Iván. Városi társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek [Urban social inequalities]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

Szelényi, Iván. “Utószó: Jegyzetek egy szellemi önéletrajzhoz” [Afterword for an intellectual self-portrait]. In idem. Új osztály, állam, politika [New class, new state, new politics]. Budapest: Európa Kiadó, 1990.

Szelényi, Iván. “Nosztalgikus jegyzetek a hatvanas évekről” [Nostalgic notes on the 1960s]. Mozgó Világ 41, no. 4 (2015): 80–97.

Szelényi, Iván. “Egy kézirat története” [The story of a manuscript]. Kritika 45, no. 7–8. (2015): 4–10.

Tőkés, Rudolf L. Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution: Economic Reform, Social Change and Political Succession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

1 On these questions, see the essays in the volume edited by Keen and Mucha, Eastern Europe in Transformation, as well as the autobiographical collection of essays written by sociologists living in Central and Eastern Europe in this period, Keen and Mucha, Autobiographies of Transformation.

2 On the role played by Hegedüs, Kemény, and Szelényi in the formation of the Hungarian democratic opposition, see Csizmadia, A magyar demokratikus ellenzék, 25–29, 72–77, 145–48.

3 Cf. ibid., 19–25, 29–33.

4 Cf. ibid., 169–70.

5 Cf. Hegedüs, Élet egy eszme árnyékában, 329; “Beszélgetés Hegedüs Andrással,” 13, 25.

6 Idem, A munkásbérezés rendszere iparunkban; idem, A modern polgári szociológia és a társadalmi valóság; idem, Műszaki fejlesztés a szocializmusban.

7 Cf. Kemény and László, eds. XXX. 1963-ban alakult meg a Szociológiai Kutatócsoport; Szántó, A magyar szociológia újjászervezése a hatvanas években, 174–82, 199–211.

8 Hegedüs, “A marxista szociológia tárgyáról és helyéről a társadalomtudományok rendszerében.”

9 MNL OL M-KS 288-5. 304. ö.e., 24.

10 Szántó, A magyar szociológia újjászervezése a hatvanas években, 166.

11 Cf. MNL OL M-KS 288-5. 345 ö.e., 42.

12 “A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt néhány időszerű ideológiai feladata. A Központi Bizottság irányelvei,” 151.

13 Ibid., 161.

14 Nyers, “Emlékeim Hegedüs András pályafutásának három korszakáról,” 262.

15 Hegedüs, A szocialista társadalom struktúrájáról.

16 Idem, A szociológiáról.

17 Hegedüs, “Realitás és szükségszerűség,” 1011–19.

18 MNL OL M-KS 288-5. 476. ö.e., 131.

19 Hegedüs, “A marxista szociológia egészséges fejlődéséért!,” 93–99.

20 The collection of these studies was published in a book that has never been published in Hungarian: Hegedüs, Socialism and Bureaucracy.

21 Hegedüs, “A társadalmi fejlődés alternatíváiról,” 843–54.

22 On this issue, see Tőkés, Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution, 102–04.

23 Aczél, “Az ideológiai és kulturális élet néhány időszerű kérdése,” 200–01.

24 “Az MSZMP Központi Bizottsága mellett működő Kultúrpolitikai Munkaközösség állásfoglalása néhány társadalomkutató anti-marxista nézeteiről,” 37.

25 It is worth mentioning that János Kádár reserved for himself the right to make the final adjustments to both documents, MNL OL M-KS 288-5. 610. ö.e., 81.

26 Hegedüs, Élet egy eszme árnyékában, 366–67.

27 Cf. Huszár et al, Hungarian Society and Marxist Sociology in the Nineteen-Seventies, 5–15.

28 “Interview with István Kemény on his Career,” 138.

29 Mód et al, Társadalmi rétegződés Magyarországon.

30 Cf. Kemény, “Restratification of the Working Class,” 26–37.

31 “Interview with István Kemény on his Career,” 147.

32 Kemény, “A szegénységről,” 80.

33 Cf. idem, “Poverty in Hungary,” 247–67.

34 Cf. Népszabadság, November 15, 1970; Herceg: “A szocialista elosztás néhány kérdése,” 69.

35 “Interview with István Kemény on his Career,” 148.

36 Kemény and Janky, “The Roma Population in Hungary 1971–2003,” 70.

37 Kemény, ed., Beszámoló a magyarországi cigányok helyzetével foglalkozó 1971-ben végzett kutatásról, 9.

38 Ibid., 14.

39 “Interview with István Kemény on his Career,” 148.

40 Cf. Kemény, “Az úton lévők hatalmas tábora,” Népszava, October 17, 1969.

41 Cf. idem, Velük nevelkedett a gép.

42 Idem, Ouvriers hongrois, 16.

43 “Interview with István Kemény on his Career,” 151.

44 Csizmadia, A magyar demokratikus ellenzék, 171.

45 Szelényi, “Nosztalgikus jegyzetek a hatvanas évekről,” 13.

46 György Lukács also went by the names Georg Lukács and George Lukács over the course of his career.

47 Ibid., 14.

48 Szelényi, Városi társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek, 29.

49 Nemes and Szelényi, Lakóhely és közösség.

50 Konrád and Szelényi, Az új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái.

51 Szelényi, “Nosztalgikus jegyzetek a hatvanas évekről,” 16.

52 Idem, “Utószó. Jegyzetek egy szellemi önéletrajzhoz.” 443.

53 Idem, “Empíria és szociológia,” 14–26.

54 Cf. idem, Urban Inequalities under State Socialism, 6.

55 Konrád and Szelényi, Az új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái, 138.

56 Ibid., 146–47.

57 Cf. Szelényi, Városi társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek, 16–141.

58 Ibid., 29–31.

59 Apró, “Mi késleltette a magyar városfejlődést?,” 28.

60 Konrád and Szelényi, “A késleltetett városfejlődés társadalmi konfliktusai,” 19–35.

61 “Beszélgetés Szelényi Ivánnal,” 179.

62 MNL OL M-KS 288-41. 161 ö.e. 2.

63 Szelényi, “Egy kézirat története,” 6.

64 Konrád and Szelényi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, xvii.

65 Csizmadia, A magyar demokratikus ellenzék, 73.

66 Konrád and Szelényi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, 251.

67 MNL OL M-KS 288-5. 650 ö.e. 163–64.

68 Konrád and Szelényi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, xviii.

69 “Interview with István Kemény on his career,” 147.

70 Cf. Hegedüs, “Optimalizálás és humanizálás,” 17–32.

71 Cf. Az MSZMP Központi Bizottságának Tudománypolitikai Irányelvei, 37–67.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS



Zsombor Bódy and András Keszei

The present issue is the outcome of a conference held at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University on October 21, 2015. The title of the conference was “Boundaries of Contemporary History.” It was organized by the Research Group for Social History of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Péter Pázmány Catholic University in Budapest with the aim of bringing together historians interested in questions of theory and method in the study of contemporary history. The complex problem of the present, considered as a specific perspective for historical writing, constitutes a considerable challenge for historians all over Europe. The dangers inherent in the public use of history require a resolute strategy on the part of academic history in defense of its roles. Has the maintenance of some control or at least influence over the excessive and uncritical use of different kinds of memory, which has been one of the consequences of the overwhelming rule of the present over contemporary societies, become one of academic history’s main functions, especially given the increasingly palpable need of contemporary societies for various and at times conflicting forms of nostalgia? Or has history itself, as has been claimed by several influential authors, become a form of memory? The inquiry into the boundaries of contemporary history concerns both the specific scientific conceptual framework of the writing of the history of the present and the limits of a period of time in human history formed by social and political factors which are constitutive elements of our present and which cannot be historicized yet as forces of a bygone era (in other words, a period of which we have living memories, not only historical accounts). The studies in this issue examine the peculiarities of this period and the institutional, conceptual framework of a professional history which is compelled to maintain a balance between social demands for memory (and identity) and its own methodological criteria. They also explore questions concerning the status of contemporary history among other branches of historiography and other present-centered social sciences. They seek to further a deeper understanding of the work and roles of historians as members of the community of professional scholars and as citizens who are attempting to orient themselves and their audiences in the maze of the present with the potential help of history.

The organization of the conference and the publication of the edited versions of the papers which were presented was made possible in part through the financial support of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University (“KAP-15 119-1.9-BTK”-grant).

pdfVolume 4 Issue 4 CONTENTS

Petr Popelka

Business Strategies and Adaptation Mechanisms in Family Businesses during the Era of the Industrial Revolution The Example of the Klein Family from Moravia


Family businesses are a central topic in the history of business, especially in the early phases of the industrialization process. This case study attempts to identify the business strategies and the adaptation mechanisms used by a family business during the era of the Industrial Revolution. The main aim of the study is to explore which adaptation mechanisms and strategies were used during the Industrial Revolution by large family firms in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown. The study focuses on a model example, the Klein family, which ranked among the foremost entrepreneurial families in the Bohemian Crown Lands. The Kleins initially rose to prominence through their road construction business. They later built private and state railways and also diversified into heavy industry. I delineate the main stages in the development of the family firm, discuss a number of key microeconomic factors which influenced the Kleins’ business activities, and describe the factors which ultimately led to the downfall of this once-successful firm.

Keywords: business history, family firm, Industrial Revolution, capitalism, Lands of the Bohemian Crown, business strategies, adaptation mechanisms, Gebrüder Klein, Klein von Wiesenberg

The Problem of Continuity and Adaptation

In his influential study of the family, businesses and capitalism, Jürgen Kocka states that the spirit and practice of capitalism are based on non-capitalist structures and processes which have a long-term influence over capitalism. He identifies the family as one of the key elements which contributed to the formation of capitalism. Kocka writes that family structures, processes and resources encouraged the emergence of industrial capitalism and helped resolve certain problems faced by capitalist industrialization. In his view, this role was particularly evident in the early phase of industrialization.1

Many years have elapsed since the publication of Kocka’s above-cited article, and many studies have explored the relationships between business and the family. Although scholars may differ in some of their conclusions regarding this relationship, there nevertheless exists a general consensus that the family played an exceptional role in business throughout the nineteenth century.2 In the European historiography on business history, over the course of the past decade there was a marked increase in the interest in the history of family businesses; many studies of family businesses focus on the nineteenth century, the era which witnessed the formation of modern family business practices. Many phenomena have been analyzed with regard to nineteenth-century family businesses; among the most important are issues of succession within family firms, business strategies applied by family businesses, and the construction of social networks.3

The central topic of this study (and indeed this entire issue of the journal) concerns enterprises in adaptation. This topic is intricately intertwined with the question of continuity in business, a question that has not yet been fully addressed by Czech historiography with regard to nineteenth-century businesses. Existing studies suggest that the development of the entrepreneurial classes in the Bohemian Crown Lands was in fact characterized not by continuity, but rather by discontinuity. This finding has been demonstrated by historical research mainly in terms of the transition between business practices in the proto-industrial era and the industrial era. Businesses which emerged under the protectionist conditions that prevailed during the period of enlightened absolutism and the Napoleonic Wars generally found it difficult to adapt to the conditions of economic liberalism that characterized the early phase of industrialization. There were, moreover, certain specific features which affected developments in individual sectors. In some sectors, the technological changes brought by the Industrial Revolution necessitated such hugely increased volumes of investment that it was practically impossible to manage a smooth transition from traditional manufacturing methods to modern mechanized production; many established businesses failed to deal with this challenge. The thesis of the discontinuity between proto-industrial and industrial business practices has been confirmed by Czech historiographical research focusing on the mining and metallurgical industries, and to some extent also by research into textile production.4 Family firms involved in glassmaking or textile production based on the factor system achieved a higher level of continuity between the proto-industrial and industrial eras; in both these sectors there were some family businesses which spanned several generations. However, even in these industries not all entrepreneurs proved able to adapt to the new circumstances.5

The issue of continuity in the entrepreneurial classes of the Bohemian Crown Lands during the era of industrialization has been addressed in Czech historiography by a small number of studies that focus on specific groups of entrepreneurs who were active in particular sectors (M. Myška on metallurgy, J. Matějček on mining, J. Janák and B. Smutný on textile production, J. Janák and F. Dudek on sugar refining). These studies all reveal the dynamic changes experienced by the entrepreneurial classes during the course of the Industrial Revolution.6

Research on family businesses may well offer insights into the issue of business continuity during the era of industrialization; this remained the most widespread form of enterprise throughout the nineteenth century. Modern research has shown that, by their very nature, family businesses display a strong tendency towards continuity; this is reflected in the existence of family firms spanning three (or more) generations during the era of industrialization. Among the more recent studies describing this phenomenon is an article by Michael Schäfer that explores the situation in Saxony.7 However, Czech historiography unfortunately still lacks an equivalent study drawing on broad-based collective biographical research and focusing specifically on family businesses, in spite of the fact that a number of new business encyclopedias offer an excellent information resource.8 Case studies nevertheless confirm that family firms represented a significant source of business continuity during the era of industrialization in the Bohemian Crown Lands. On the other hand, these studies also suggest that only a few of these family firms managed to maintain their continuity for more than three generations. In most cases, the firms suffered either as a result of a failure to handle generational transitions successfully or as a consequence of external circumstances; this was particularly typical in the turbulent first half of the twentieth century.9

This article examines the business strategies and adaptation mechanisms adopted by family firms in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown during the era of the Industrial Revolution.10 I focus on a model example, the Klein family, which ranked among the foremost entrepreneurial dynasties in the Habsburg Monarchy.11 In his Sozialgeschichte Österreichs, Ernst Bruckmüller describes the Kleins as an Austrian example of the possibility of a quasi-American form of social advancement.12 This description alludes to the fact that the Kleins represented one of the few examples of self-made men in Central Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Within the span of a single generation they managed to work their way up from relatively humble origins to the pinnacle of the entrepreneurial elite.13 The present study examines the development of the Kleins’ family business with a particular focus on how they responded to the challenges posed by the changing business environment.

The Early Years of the Klein Family Business

Although the early history of many companies is frequently associated with some form of “founding fathers myth,” depicting the first generation of the company’s owners in a heroic light and serving a purpose of legitimization, the beginnings of the Klein family firm were not auspicious.14 The father of the founding generation, Johann Friedrich Klein (1756–1835), attempted to implement numerous business plans, but mostly without success. In addition to his main business as a cloth trader, he also attempted to acquire an inn, which was a traditional source of income. The family’s bleak prospects after the state bankruptcy in 1811 led Johann Friedrich’s sons to leave home at an early age.15 The first to leave, in 1812, was the eldest son Josef Engelbert (1792–1830), followed soon afterwards by the second eldest son Engelbert (1797–1830). Both worked as laborers on water management projects at the Moravian estate of Eisgrub (today Lednice, Czech Republic), where they gained their first experiences in the construction trade. In 1816, along with their younger brother Franz (1800–1855), they capitalized on their skills, winning their first contract to rebuild a short stretch of road. The contract was relatively minor, but it nevertheless gave the brothers their first experience in road construction. This was soon followed up by a number of other small-scale contracts for road rebuilding, river regulation, minor building work in towns, and similar jobs.16

In 1826, Josef Engelbert Klein won the largest contract of his life, and this launched the Kleins’ long involvement in building the main road network throughout Moravia and Silesia. The family’s first major transport infrastructure project was the construction of a state road in the western part of Austrian Silesia, a contract which generated tens of thousands of gulden in profits. The project was huge in its scale, so it required not only experience in road construction, but also organizational acumen and a good deal of physical strength. Josef Engelbert therefore decided, as he had in the course of previous projects, to involve his younger brothers, including the adolescent Libor Klein (1803–1848). The brothers invested the profits back into their business, but the project brought them much more than just capital; above all, they acquired essential know-how regarding the organization of labor on large-scale road construction projects. They assembled a team of skilled workers and laborers, and they acquired the necessary tools, horses and carts. They also learned how to negotiate with the state authorities, and they gradually built up a network of influential social contacts.17 This gave them a comparative advantage over competing bidders for similar public contracts. Helped by their policy of offering generous discounts and their growing reputation as reliable operators, the Kleins managed to participate in the majority of important road construction products in Moravia and Silesia during the 1830s and 1840s.18

The Kleins’ experience in road construction in the first half of the nineteenth century was an important factor that helped them win contracts in an area that proved to be much more lucrative, namely railway construction. The family firm was involved in a number of projects connected with the first steam railway built in the Habsburg Monarchy, the Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway (Kaiser Ferdinands-Nordbahn). The projects involved earthworks and the construction of both brick and timber structures. The Kleins had many years’ experience in this kind of job thanks to their road construction contracts. However, nobody in Austria had any experience in rail-laying, so this work was initially carried out by experts from abroad. From 1837 to 1856, the Kleins built around 340 km of railways for the Kaiser Ferdinands-Nordbahn, plus a number of station buildings and guard-houses.19

When the Austrian state decided to invest its own funds in the construction of a network of major rail routes, it was able to choose from a number of established contractors. In addition to the Klein brothers, other key firms operating in this sector included companies owned by the Bohemian entrepreneur Adalbert Lanna, the Italian businessman Felice Tallachini, and the Moravian Fleischmann brothers.20 However, this small circle of firms gradually lost its monopoly in the 1840s. The railway construction sector became highly competitive, and some of the later state contracts were divided up among several companies. Despite the fierce competition that developed in the sector, the Kleins managed to retain a highly influential position in the following decades – helped not only by their know-how, but also by their skill at forming consortiums with other major building contractors, especially Adalbert Lanna, Johann Schebek, and Karl Schwarz. The smaller contractors found it very difficult to compete with these strong, established firms, and the Klein brothers continued to be involved in numerous major railway projects throughout the Habsburg Monarchy from the late 1830s to the mid-1870s. In this period, the Kleins participated in the construction of over 3,500 km of railways throughout the Habsburg Monarchy.21

The Kleins’ early entrepreneurial activities bear most of the hallmarks of the business strategies that were widespread during the early phase of industrialization. During this era, businesses’ strategies were rooted in close cooperation among family members, who provided a mutual support network and thus helped mitigate the initial risks associated with business ventures. The family also played a key role in the transfer of business know-how; the knowledge and skills that were put to use in many sectors were acquired empirically. Another important role of the family was in financing; the individual members of the family offered mutual financial support, and capital was generally loaned within the family or borrowed from individual creditors. Bank loans were taken out only if very large investments were necessary.22 Close cooperation among the brothers enabled the Kleins to win building contracts and successfully implement large projects which would have been beyond the capabilities of individuals acting alone.

The Investment Strategies of the First Generation of Kleins

During the early phases of industrialization, certain sectors were characterized by a marked lack of equality in business opportunities. This was not only an issue of starting capital; in the period leading up to 1848, business in the Austrian Empire was still heavily influenced by the existence of feudal structures. Well into the first half of the nineteenth century, ownership of a large aristocratic estate represented an important competitive advantage in many sectors of business. Among the most significant advantages were priority access to raw material resources (e.g. iron ore and coal); a monopoly on the ownership of forests, which were the primary source of fuel; the right to use water resources; and the ownership of large tracts of land. Ownership of raw materials meant that estate owners were not dependent on the fluctuating prices of these commodities. Estate owners could also exercise their rights vis-à-vis their subjects; in the first half of the nineteenth century, subjects were still required to perform compulsory labor duties (Fronarbeit) or carry out forced labor for inadequate wages.23 Estate owners also had easier access to credit, as the estate could be pledged as collateral on loans.

At the end of the eighteenth century and during the first half of the nineteenth, many capital-rich merchants, financiers and other businessmen in the Bohemian Crown Lands invested part of their profits in the purchase of estates.24 In the case of entrepreneurs during the early phases of industrialization, this did not necessarily represent a form of feudalization.25 For some entrepreneurs the acquisition of estates not only represented a safe way of investing their capital for the benefit of future generations; it was also a means of supporting their business activities. This motivation is clearly evident in several case studies of entrepreneurs in the first half of the nineteenth century,26 and the Kleins were no exception. Thanks to their successful road construction and (especially) railway construction business, the family was able to accumulate a huge quantity of capital in a relatively short period of time; by the 1840s, the Kleins had amassed many hundreds of thousands of gulden. This not only enabled the family members to embrace a new lifestyle, it also opened the door to new business plans.27

The Kleins’ investment strategy in the 1840s and 1850s was unusual when compared with the strategies adopted by other entrepreneurs, not only in its extent, but also in the family’s attempts to diversify into numerous different areas of activity. By hiring capable managers, the Kleins were able to expand their activities into sectors in which bourgeois families had not traditionally played a major role, yet which were of crucial importance in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Inspired by their success in the highly lucrative railway construction sector, the Kleins decided to become involved in one of the most complex and capital-intensive industries of all: metallurgy. The decision to invest in metallurgical production forced entrepreneurs to implement adaptive changes in both the organization and financing of their businesses. The Kleins’ railway projects had put them in contact with some of the leading industrial managers of the era, employed in the services of both the state and private companies. These included the renowned expert on mining and metallurgy Franz Laurenz Riepl.28 In the 1830s, Riepl was appointed manager of the ironworks owned by the Austrian Chancellor Anton Friedrich Mittrowsky at the estate in Wiesenberg (today Loučná nad Desnou, Czech Republic). In 1844, with Riepl’s encouragement, the Kleins purchased the Wiesenberg estate (where they had been born as subjects) and, with the assistance of Riepl as the works manager, began to modernize the local ironworks in order to produce rails and other material for railway construction. By the middle of the century, the Kleins had modernized the local engineering works so effectively that they were capable of producing all types of machines with the exception of locomotives. The family hired a number of leading experts, and the ironworks and engineering works on the Wiesenberg estate ranked among the most important factories of their kind in the Bohemian Crown Lands for two decades.29

The Kleins’ involvement in metallurgical production in the 1840s and 1850s was exceptionally successful. In addition to building up a production base on their own estate, they also established new ironworks in Stefanau (today Štěpánov, near Olomouc, Czech Republic), in the close vicinity of the Kaiser Ferdinands-Nordbahn. The family made a huge investment in the Kladnoer Eisengewerkschaft at Kladno near Prague; together with Adalbert Lanna they established a modern ironworks which ultimately grew to become one of the largest such facilities in the Bohemian Crown Lands.30 In the mid-1840s, inspired by their close collaborator Franz Riepl, they expanded their activities into Hungary’s Temes County (today Timiş County, Romania), co-founding the Zsidowaer Eisenwerk Gewerkschaft (later the Nadrager Eisen-Industrie Gesellschaft). They satisfied momentary demand for metallurgical products by leasing and operating ironworks, particularly near Würbenthal in the western part of Austrian Silesia (today Železná, near Vrbno pod Pradědem, Czech Republic).31 The Kleins’ ironworks remained highly profitable for the family up until the economic crisis of the 1870s, ranking alongside their construction business as their primary source of income.

The Kleins’ activities in the iron industry led them to invest in another important sector, namely coal mining. Their attempts to acquire mines in the Ostrava-Karviná coalfield in order to supply coal for their Moravian ironworks ultimately proved unsuccessful, weakening the family’s position in the Moravian iron industry.32 This failure was caused not by inept strategy, but rather by the serious financial problems which the family faced as a result of the bankruptcy of the Viennese merchant Demetrius Zinner in 1855, to whom they had lent a large quantity of their liquid funds.33 The Kleins enjoyed greater success in the Kladno coalfield, where, in a joint venture with other bourgeois businessmen, they established the largest metallurgical conglomerate in Bohemia, including ironworks, coal mines and iron ore mines. The family also maintained a long-term presence in several mining companies operating in the Rossitz-Oslawan (today Rosice-Oslavany, Czech Republic) coalfield and the South Moravian lignite field; most of the coal was supplied to the family’s own businesses. From the 1840s onwards, the Kleins also began to establish new business ventures in other economic sectors, establishing modern mills, sugar refineries and textile factories on their own estate.

Another important facet of the family’s business activities was the purchase of various types of real estate, a practice they adopted even in the early years. The strategy of investing part of their available funds in real estate may have been related to their mental patterns of behavior, which were shaped by their experience of the state bankruptcy of 1811. The real estate thus acquired functioned not only as a store of value and a means of displaying the family’s wealth; it was also frequently used as collateral for loans taken out to finance the family’s new business ventures or to fund the family business directly. One important group of properties owned by the family consisted of the apartment blocks and building plots purchased in Vienna in the early 1870s, when the Gebrüder Klein empire was at its peak.34

Organizational Changes in the Family Business as an Adaptation Strategy

Organizational changes were essential for the successful development of family business. These changes can be traced on two levels: firstly in terms of the changing legal forms of the business and secondly in terms of the professionalization of management, as companies began to appoint managers from outside the family.

The Kleins’ business activities expanded rapidly during the 1840s, to the point where it was no longer possible for senior management positions in the family’s companies to be occupied solely by family members. This soon led to the type of transformation that has been described by Alfred D. Chandler: personal enterprise, in which the owner holds the leading position in the company, gave way to entrepreneurial enterprise, in which the owner takes the strategic decisions but delegates control over the company’s day-to-day operations to hired managers.35

This shift occurred most rapidly in the sectors in which the family members lacked the necessary experience and which required specialized knowledge in order to succeed. In such cases the Kleins recruited some of the most capable managers available. In addition to Franz Laurenz Riepl, these managers also included Alois Scholz and later Friedrich Klein in the iron industry and Anton Péch in the mining industry.36 Even in their construction business, which formed the basis of the family empire, the Kleins found it necessary to hire capable managers with technical qualifications. The shift from road construction to railway construction required the assembly of a stable team of technical and administrative employees, especially engineers and construction assistants. The Kleins recruited mainly talented graduates of technical colleges who already had some experience working in the construction industry, offering them considerable freedom in decision-making and ensuring their loyalty by paying better salaries than they would have earned in public-sector jobs. Many of these recruits became capable businessmen in their own right, who continued to collaborate with the Kleins even after they had left the company and set up their own firms. They included Johann Schebek (1815–1889), Karl Schwarz (1817–1898), the Theuer brothers, Osvald Životský (1832–1920) and Jan Muzika (1832–1882).37 Given the diversity of the Kleins’ business activities, they implemented the same policy of appointing experienced managers in most of their other companies, including the family estate and other large estates acquired at a later date.

Although the transition to professional management took place during the 1840s and 1850s, family members remained personally involved in supervising the business until the 1870s. This was the case both with the longest-lived member of the founding generation, Albert Klein (1807–1877), and with his nephew, Franz II Klein (1825–1882). The last construction project to be directly managed by a member of the family was the Buštěhrad railway near Kladno (1854–1855). Later, Albert and Franz II devoted their attentions solely to the high-level management of the family business, particularly issues of business strategy and financing. From the mid-1850s, construction contracts were generally undertaken in collaboration with other companies, with Gebrüder Klein responsible for the financial side of the project and providing the technical and administrative staff.

It is remarkable how long the Klein family business continued to exist in the form of a consortium (a loose association of individual family members rather than a distinct legal entity in its own right). The rules governing the family business were formally established in a family contract concluded in 1847; this contract codified the existing system of mutual relationships among the brothers involved in the business. This came at a time when the founding generation had already managed to diversify the family’s range of business interests significantly. The contract stipulated that the oldest adult male member of the family was to be the head of the family business and act as its authorized legal representative.38 He was to exercise overall control not only of the family’s jointly purchased estates, but also all their jointly conducted business activities, including the family ironworks. He was authorized to use jointly held funds in order to raise yields on the family estate and increase production at the ironworks. However, the head of the family business could be voted out of this post, and the position was not hereditary. If the head of the business died or was voted out, the new head was to become the next oldest adult male family member, i.e. the next eldest brother. The 1847 family contract effectively codified the practices that already existed within the family business, and it did not change the manner in which the business was conducted; this remained, as before, based on voluntary cooperation within a family consortium.

It was not until 1853 that the family firm was formally established. This can undoubtedly be viewed as an adaptation strategy, as the family was forced to take this step by external circumstances. A contract established the company “Gebrüder Klein,” whose field of activity was defined as all types of construction work. Throughout its existence, the company had the form of a general partnership, with the family members holding the position of partners.39 In the contract, the brothers undertook to run the business as a single entity, sharing both costs and profits; profits were to be distributed proportionately on the basis of the sums invested by each partner. The partners were liable to the full extent of their assets. However, the partners were not permitted to transfer to the company any liabilities in connection with their own private business activities. The head of the company was to be the eldest of the brothers. On the basis of this contract, the company was registered in Brünn (Brno), Vienna and Prague. Until 1878, the registered head office was in Brünn; in 1878 it was then relocated to Vienna.

Although Gebrüder Klein was a mere general partnership and never became a joint-stock company, until the second half of the 1870s it ranked among the largest and most capital-rich construction companies in the Habsburg Monarchy. It functioned as an umbrella organization for all the family’s business activities, not only its construction business, but also its activities in other sectors (the timber trade, coal mining, and the Viennese apartment blocks). This broad range of activities was reflected in the company’s financial profile. When established, it already had assets running into millions of gulden, and by 1870 its total assets exceeded 10 million. Gebrüder Klein’s strong capital base proved particularly essential to the development of the company’s core business, railway construction.40

However, not all of the family’s business activities were conducted via Gebrüder Klein. Leaving aside the numerous private business ventures of individual family members, unrelated to the family business as a whole, another important arm of the family business also remained separate from the company from the very outset: the ironworks in Zöptau (today Sobotín, Czech Republic) and Stefanau (today Štěpánov, Czech Republic). When these ironworks were at their peak (i.e. up until the early 1870s), they were the second highest producer of iron in Moravia (after the Vítkovice Ironworks) and the third largest producer of rails in the entire Habsburg Monarchy.41 In 1865, the ironworks (along with the family’s North Moravian iron ore mines) were reorganized in order to cope with rising production; they were removed from the control of the family estate to become the Zöptauer und Stefanauer Bergbau- und Eisenhütten Gewerkschaft. The family members remained the exclusive owners of stakes in the business, though they had no direct involvement in the day-to-day management; the ironworks, engineering works and iron ore mines were all entrusted to professional managers.

This organizational change in the family business laid the foundations for its further development. However, the firm soon had to contend with two major issues: a deep economic crisis and a generational transition.

The Loss of the Ability to Adapt: the Crisis of the 1870s and Its Impact

The second half of the 1860s can be characterized as the peak of the Industrial Revolution in the Bohemian Crown Lands; this was a period of rapid economic growth. The economic boom enjoyed by the Habsburg Monarchy in 1867–1873 (the so called Gründerzeit) was a hugely important time in the state’s development. It was accompanied by political consolidation, an increase in economic productivity, a banking boom, the formation of many joint-stock companies, and the rapid development of transport and communications infrastructure. The sectors of heavy industry that were involved in railway construction (namely mining, metallurgy, and mechanical engineering) enjoyed particular prosperity. Railway construction was the primary motor of the economy during this period.42

However, 1873 brought a turning point, which ultimately had an impact on all areas of the economy, but especially those areas that had prospered most during the preceding boom years. The railway fever which gripped the Habsburg Monarchy in the late 1860s and early 1870s came to a sudden halt in 1873. Although the railway companies soon felt the negative effects of the recession, existing railway construction projects continued under their own momentum until the 1870s. However, 1877 marked the end of this period; the railway construction projects that had already been underway when the recession began were now completed and entrepreneurs showed no interest in new projects of this type, which made significant demands on capital yet represented a high-risk proposition in the new economic climate.43 Construction companies, which had profited tremendously from the railway boom of the late 1860s and early 1870s, now faced an entirely different situation. In a very short time they were forced to adapt rapidly and deal with a slump in demand for transport-related projects, which had previously represented a major source of income. Most large construction firms experienced severe problems; in addition to Gebrüder Klein, other companies in the Bohemian Crown Lands which battled with an uncertain future included Adalbert Lanna, Karl Schwarz and Johann Schebek.

Throughout the boom years, Gebrüder Klein had benefited from its activities in key industrial sectors, but the company now faced a difficult situation. Until the mid-1870s the firm was still able to profit from its ongoing railway construction contracts. The last railway project in which the company is known to have been involved was the Salzkammergutbahn (1875–1877). The problem was that once the worst of the crisis was over, at the turn of the 1880s, Gebrüder Klein proved incapable of adapting to the new circumstances and reestablishing its former primacy as a railway builder. The company played no part at all in the construction of the new local railways. This inability to adapt appears to have been due to the generational transition within the company, which ushered in an entirely new situation at the turn of the 1880s.

During the economic crisis of the 1870s, large construction companies attempted to seek out new, alternative avenues for their business. The most promising areas included water management projects, infrastructure projects involving the modernization of urban areas, and trade. Adalbert Lanna’s company sought to compensate for the slump through its involvement in the river regulation projects on the Vltava and Labe (Elbe),44 while in 1878 Gebrüder Klein actually managed to win one of the largest contracts in the firm’s history, playing the leading role in a canal construction and land reclamation project in the northern Italian province of Ferrara. On completion of the work, Gebrüder Klein established an Italian subsidiary, L’Azienda Gallare, which operated the drainage system until the turn of the twentieth century. The second main area in which both the Kleins and Lanna invested during the recession was the timber trade. In the early 1870s, in connection with the building of the Erste Siebenbürger Eisenbahn, the Kleins became aware of huge areas of forested land in Arad County (formerly Hungary, now Romania). In 1873, Albert and Franz Klein (together with the Viennese entrepreneur Johann Sepper and Baron Peter Atzél de Borosjenő) established a timber company, and in 1879 they purchased several estates around the town of Borosjenő (today Ineu, Romania), where they remained involved in the logging trade until the mid-1880s.45

However, the Kleins’ business activities in the late 1870s and 1880s represented the swansong of this once-successful company. The family proved unable to replace the lost income from railway construction and the firm’s profits gradually dwindled. The company began to owe large sums to banks, and, unlike in previous years, it also issued numerous promissory notes to other businesses. Nevertheless, Gebrüder Klein’s decline was a gradual process. In the early 1880s, the company still owned assets totaling around 7 million gulden, primarily real estate (coal mines, large estates, Vienna properties), securities (mainly shares in rail companies), and money owed by various debtors.46

In addition to the recession, another major problem with which the company had to contend was the generational transition, the Achilles’ heel of family businesses.47 This transition came at the most inconvenient time. In 1877, Albert Klein died. The last living member of the founding generation, he had built up a network of excellent social connections and he possessed an undoubted business acumen. This loss was followed four years later by the death of Albert’s nephew and long-term collaborator Franz II Klein. Their sons had all the necessary qualities to take over the family business successfully: a university education, strong financial capital, and social prestige.48 However, they proved incapable of implementing the necessary innovations in the business and the company failed to adapt to the changing circumstances.49 This inability to adapt exacerbated two latent problems that were also present in many other family businesses besides Gebrüder Klein: the lack of new capital, and unresolved legal and property relations among the heirs.50

During the 1880s, the remaining family members withdrew from playing an active role in the business; this was reflected in the gradual decline of the various components of the firm’s assets. The Kleins even reduced their role in activities which were clearly prospering ventures. In 1887, for example, the family withdrew from the Viennese construction firm “Gebrüder Klein, A. Schmoll und E. Gaertner,” which had been established in 1869 as a joint venture combining the know-how of the Viennese structural engineers Adolph Schmoll and Ernst Gaertner with the capital provided by the Kleins. The company specialized in road and railway bridges, river and canal embankments, and quays and docks. The Kleins sold their stake in the firm at a time when it was still working on contracts to build railway bridges for the Hungarian Northern Railway.51

The inability of Gebrüder Klein to respond quickly to changing circumstances was also reflected in the company’s organizational structure. Especially in capital-intensive sectors, the recession led to a significant degree of economic concentration, which also brought changes in the legal forms preferred by businesses. Former family firms, which had often operated as general partnerships, began to restructure themselves into capital-based companies, usually joint-stock companies or limited partnerships, and later also limited liability companies. In some cases these companies continued to operate in the same way as the previous family firm, merely with a change of legal status. Nevertheless, Jürgen Kocka views this change of legal form as a significant step towards the loosening of the ties between business and the family.52 Gebrüder Klein remained a general partnership until the firm’s eventual liquidation, and the company’s iron production business changed its legal form only belatedly, at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Kleins’ traditional domain—iron production—was particularly severely affected by the economic crisis. The recession of the 1870s dealt the final blow to small or obsolescent ironworks which had failed to keep step with the ongoing development of modern production technologies. By the early 1870s, the Kleins’ stake in the highly viable Kladno ironworks (cofounded by the Kleins in the 1850s) had been bought out by the Credit Anstalt für Handel und Gewerbe. Not even the skilled manager Friedrich Klein was able to modernize the ironworks operated by the Zöptauer und Stefanauer Bergbau- und Eisenhütten Gewerkschaft. The rapid obsolescence of these ironworks, and their increasing failure to keep step with the competition, was exacerbated from the late 1870s by a combination of factors, chief among them the family members’ unwillingness to invest in modern technologies and a shortage of operating capital. In the 1880s, Friedrich Klein built coking ovens at both ironworks, despite the opposition of family members, who feared that the new coal-fired ovens would cause a slump in demand for the timber from their estates. However, this partial modernization merely postponed the rapid decline in the ironworks’ fortunes. The works were located at a considerable distance from coal deposits, and they suffered from high transport costs and poor-quality iron ore. This made the operation uncompetitive, though the company’s inevitable failure was staved off for several years by the introduction of a new product range. In 1901, the ironworks business was transformed into a joint-stock company (the Zöptauer und Stefanauer Bergbau- und Hütten- Aktiengesellschaft) with a basic capital of 3 million Krone (krona), but not even this step could save it. In 1910, pig iron production in Zöptau ceased, followed in 1913 by iron production at the Stefanau works. Both sites subsequently focused solely on processing iron produced elsewhere.53

By the turn of the twentieth century the Kleins’ once-famous firm was reduced to a mere shadow of its former self. It ceased to exist entirely at the end of 1908, when it was officially dissolved. In the run-up to World War I, the Kleins’ business activities focused solely on their hereditary estates and their holdings of shares in several joint-stock companies. By this point, the Kleins were no longer members of the Austro-Hungarian business elite.54


In the period following the Napoleonic Wars, the Bohemian Crown Lands witnessed the emergence of its first generation of modern entrepreneurs, who made a major contribution to the industrialization of the region. Some of these entrepreneurs came from prominent dynasties of merchants and bankers (e.g. the Rothschilds, Gutmanns, Herrings, Zdekauers and Lämmels), but others worked their way up from modest beginnings as small business owners (e.g. the Liebig, Lanna and Starck families). This case study, based on an analysis of the Klein family business, has demonstrated the exceptionally important role played by families in entrepreneurial activities during the era of the Industrial Revolution. These structures helped mitigate the initial risks associated with business ventures, and families also played a key role in the transfer of business know-how. In the road construction industry, in which the Kleins’ family firm first rose to prominence, close cooperation among family members enabled the family to win building contracts and successfully implement large projects which would have been beyond the capabilities of individuals acting alone.

Several business strategies were used by Gebrüder Klein during the course of its existence. The core business strategy during the Industrial Revolution involved the creation of social networks, which brought major benefits both socially and economically. These networks were not generally built up in a calculated way; far more frequently they simply emerged naturally in response to the company’s ongoing trajectory of development. One specific business strategy used by some entrepreneurs during the era of the “old regime” was the purchase of large estates. In the Kleins’ case, the family’s investment in such an estate was connected with their plans to become involved in the iron industry. However, even after the abolition of the patrimonial system, entrepreneurs continued to consider the purchase of large estates a good form of investment that represented a safe and tangible store of value and a symbol of social prestige.

Before the collapse of the “old regime” in Austria, the Kleins managed to implement effective business strategies, enabling them to respond to the changing economic circumstances in this late feudal state. Above all this involved a considerable degree of diversification in the family’s business activities. Even under the founding generation, the family portfolio included investments in all of the important sectors of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. This business strategy was implemented with demonstrable success by a number of other leading bourgeois entrepreneurs in the Bohemian Crown Lands. The Kleins were also quick to invest in securities, initially in government bonds and later in company shares. Their share portfolio was highly diversified, including railway companies, textile factories, sugar refineries and insurers.55

A major adaptation strategy involved organizational changes. These changes can be traced on two levels: firstly in terms of the changing legal forms of the businesses and secondly in terms of the professionalization of management, as companies began to appoint managers from outside the family. The transition to professional management took place relatively quickly in the Kleins’ various family businesses during the 1840s and 1850s, though it was not until 1853 that the family firm itself (originally run as a loose consortium) was restructured as a general partnership, with the partners directly involved in company management. However, this change in legal form was somewhat inflexible, and it did not fully reflect the transition to a system of professional management. The family’s ironworks business first existed as a family firm; it was not restructured as a joint-stock company until the turn of the twentieth century, though this was not enough to save it.

The close connection between business and the family is demonstrated by the fate of the Kleins’ company during the crisis years of the 1870s. The construction company Gebrüder Klein was severely impacted by the recession, like other large family firms in the Industrial Revolution era, and although it began to implement a viable adaptation strategy, this process was interrupted by the death of key family members who had played a central role in guiding the company’s development during its rise to prosperity. Their heirs were unwilling to continue in business, and this led to a gradual decline in the firm’s activities, accompanied by a lack of interest in new developments and trends.

Archival Sources

Opava Provincial Archives (=OPA)

Olomouc branch, fonds “Rodinný archiv Kleinů” [Klein family archives], cart. 1, inv. no. 35.


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Translated by Christopher Hopkinson

1 Jürgen Kocka, “Familie, Unternehmer und Kapitalismus. An Beispielen aus der früher deutschen Industrialisierung,” Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte 24 (1979): 99–135.

2 Andrea Colli, The History of Family Business 1850–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Toni Pierenkemper, Unternehmensgeschichte. Eine Einführung in ihre Methoden und Ergebnisse (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000), 112; Wieland Sachse, “Familienunternehmen in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft bis zur Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Ein historischer Überblick,” Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte 36 (1991): 9–25; Louis Bergeron, “Familienstruktur und Industrieunternehmen in Frankreich (18. bis 20. Jahrhundert),” in Familie zwischen Tradition und Moderne, ed. Neithard Bulst, Joseph Goy, and Jochen Hoock (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981), 225–37.

3 One finds examples of these approaches in Sandra Zeumer, Die Nachfolge in Familienunternehmen. Drei Fallbeispiele aus dem Bergischen Land im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012); Adelheid von Saldern, Netzwerkökonomie im frühen 19. Jahrhundert. Das Beispiel der Schoeller-Häuser (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009); Michael Schäfer, Familienunternehmen und Unternehmerfamilien. Zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der sächsichen Unternehmer 1850–1940 (Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 2007); Harold James, Family Capitalism. Wendels, Haniels, Falcks and the Continental European Model (Cambridge–London: Belknap Press, 2006).

4 Arnošt Klíma, “The Beginning of the Machine Building Industry in the Czech Lands in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of European Economic History 4 (1975): 49–78; Arnošt Klíma, “Industrial Growth and Entrepreneurship in the Early Stage of Industrialization in the Czech Lands,” The Journal of European Economic History 6 (1977): 549–74; Milan Myška, Rytíři průmyslové revoluce. Šest studií k dějinám podnikatelů v českých zemích (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 1997), 30–49; Jiří Matějček, “Majetky, důchody a investiční možnosti v českých zemích v 19. století,” Studie k sociálním dějinám 19. století 6 (1996): 101–240; Jan Janák, Hospodářský rozmach Moravy 1750–1918 (Brno: Matice moravská, 1999), 9–28; Bohumír Smutný, Potštejnská manufaktura na česko-kladském pomezí. Studie o východočeském plátenictví v letech 1754–1761 (Hradec Králové: Vysoká škola pedagogická, 2002).

5 Bohumír Smutný,Formování podnikatelské buržoasie ve lnářském průmyslu v Podkrkonoší,” Lnářský průmysl 4 (1981): 95–116; Bohumír Smutný,Pokus o typologii lnářských podnikatelů na Trutnovsku (na příkladu podnikatelských rodin Klugů a Etrichů),” in Podnikatelstvo jako předmět historického výzkumu, ed. Milan Myška (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 1994), 135–43; Bohumír Smutný,Hrabata pláteníky a pláteníci barony. Společenské a sociální skupiny v čele českého a moravského plátenictví ve 2. polovině 18. století,” in Šlechtic podnikatelem – podnikatel šlechticem. Šlechta a podnikání v českých zemích v 18.–19. století, ed. Jiří Brňovják and Aleš Zářický (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 2008), 49–61; Milan Myška, “Slezská podnikatelská rodina Grohmannů. Pokus o kolektivní biogram dvou generací podnikatelské rodiny,” Slezský sborník 92 (1994): 176–94.

6 Jan Janák, “Počátky podnikatelské aktivity české buržoasie na Moravě (na příkladu cukrovarnictví),” Časopis Matice moravské 97 (1978): 291–332; František Dudek, Vývoj cukrovarnického průmyslu v českých zemích do roku 1872 (Prague: Academia, 1979); Milan Myška, “Das Unternehmertum im Eisenhüttenwesen in den böhmischen Ländern während der industriellen Revolution,” Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte 28 (1983): 98–119; Jiří Matějček, “Majitelé a podnikatelé v uhelném hornictví na území dnešního Československa v 19. století,” in K hospodářským a sociálním dějinám 19. a 20. století (Opava: Slezský ústav ČSAV, 1991), 5145; Jiří Matějček, “Poznámky k vývoji sociální skupiny průmyslových podnikatelů a vlastníků v českých zemích v 19. století,” Studie k sociálním dějinám 19. století 5 (1995): 83–168.

7 Michael Schäfer, Familienunternehmen und Unternehmerfamilien, 101–42.

8 Milan Myška et al., Encyklopedie podnikatelů Čech, Moravy a Slezska (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 2003); Ibid., vol. 2 (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 2008); Bohumír Smutný, Brněnští podnikatelé a jejich podniky (1764–1948) (Brno: Statutární město Brno, 2012).

9 Pivo, zbraně i tvarůžky. Podnikatelé meziválečného Československa ve víru konjunktur a krizí, ed. Drahomír Jančík and Barbora Štolleová (Prague: Maxdorf, 2014); Moderní podnikatelské elity. Metody a perspektivy bádání, ed. Jiří Štaif (Prague: Dokořán, 2007); Milan Myška, “Tlach und Keil. Kapitola z historie slezské rodinné firmy éry industrializace (1809–1918),” Hospodářské dějiny/Economic history 26, no. 1 (2011): 68–90.

10 On the Industrial Revolution in the Bohemian Crown Lands see Milan Myška “The Industrial Revolution: Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia,” in Industrial Revolution in National Context, ed. Mikuláš Teich and R. M. Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 247–67.

11 There are two monographs on the Klein family’s business activities: Mojmír Krejčiřík, Kleinové. Historie moravské podnikatelské rodiny (Brno: Archiv města Brna, 2009); Petr Popelka, Zrod moderního podnikatelstva. Bratři Kleinové a podnikatelé v českých zemích a Rakouském císařství v éře kapitalistické industrializace (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 2011).

12 Ernst Bruckmüller, Sozialgeschichte Österreichs (Vienna–Munich: Herold Verlag, 2001), 235.

13 The scarcity of self-made men among German and Austrian entrepreneurs during the nineteenth century is noted by most researchers. Jürgen Kocka, Unternehmer in der deutschen Industrialisierung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975); Hartmut Kaelble, Soziale Mobilität und Chancengleichheit im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983); Toni Pierenkemper, “Entstehung und Wandel der deutschen Unternehmerschaft im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert,” Prager wirtschafts- und sozialhistorische Mitteilungen 8 (2007/2008): 79–94; Popelka, Zrod moderního podnikatelstva, 40–57.

14 On the myth of the founding fathers in the business sphere see Kim Christian Priemel, “Heldenepos und bürgerliches Trauerspiel. Unternehmensgeschichte im generationellen Paradigma,” in Generation als Erzählung. Neue Perspektiven auf ein kulturelles Deutungsmuster, ed. Björn Bohnenkamp, Till Manning, and Eva Maria Silies (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2009), 107–28.

15 Johann Friedrich Klein was born in the North Moravian community of Wiesenberg (today Loučná nad Desnou) to a German Catholic family. He and his wife Marie (who, like him, was of peasant origins) had a total of nine children (eight sons and one daughter), of whom six sons survived into adulthood: Josef Engelbert (1792–1830), Engelbert (1797–1830), Franz (1800–1855), Libor (1803–1848), Albert (1807–1877), and Hubert (1811–1856). All the sons subsequently became involved in business together and created the family firm Gebrüder Klein. Members of the subsequent generations who played an active role in the business were Josef Engelbert’s sons Engelbert (1825–1856; he studied at the Vienna Technical University, and his uncle Franz recruited him as a construction site manager in the family firm) and Eduard (1827–1868; he was a co-owner of the family ironworks), Libor Klein’s son Libor (1832–1896; he studied at the Prague Polytechnic Institute and was involved in managing the family mining business), and (most notably) the offspring of Franz Klein: Franz II. Klein (1825–1882; after technical studies and his father’s death he became the closest business partner of his uncle Albert) and Franz III. Klein (1851–1930; he studied at the Vienna Technical University and managed the family firm Gebrüder Klein  until it was dissolved in 1908). For more on the Klein family see Popelka, Zrod moderního podnikatelstva, 145–69.

16 Krejčiřík, Kleinové, 25–73.

17 Petr Popelka, “Sociální začleňování špičkových měšťanských podnikatelů éry průmyslové revoluce na příkladu moravské podnikatelské rodiny Kleinů,” Slezský sborník 108 (2010): 204–33.

18 Petr Popelka, Zrod moderní dopravy. Modernizace dopravní infrastruktury v Rakouském Slezsku do vypuknutí první světové války (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 2013), 58–72; Petr Popelka, “Firma ‘Gebrüder Klein’ jako příklad rodinného velkopodnikání éry průmyslové revoluce,” Hospodářské dějiny/Economic History 26, no. 1 (2011): 40–44.

19 Popelka, Zrod moderního podnikatelstva, 175.

20 Paul Mechtler, “Bauunternehmer und Arbeiter in der ersten Staatsbahnperiode Österreichs (1842–1858),” Österreich in Geschichte und Literatur 12 (1968): 317–30.

21 Geschichte der Eisenbahnen der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie (Vienna–Teschen–Leipzig, 1898).

22 Petr Popelka, “Podnikání a životní styl špičkových měšťanských podnikatelů éry průmyslové revoluce ve světle pozůstalostních spisů. Příklad moravské velkopodnikatelské rody Kleinů,” Časopis Matice moravské 129 (2010): 45–77.

23 Milan Myška, Proto-industriální železářství v českých zemích. Robota a jiné nucené práce v železářských manufakturách (Ostrava: Ostravská univerzita, 1992); Milan Myška, “Šance a bariéry měšťanského podnikání v báňském a hutním průmyslu za průmyslové revoluce (na příkladu olomouckého podnikatele Josefa Zwierziny),” Vlastivědný věstník moravský 36 (1984): 261–76.

24 Zdeněk Pokluda, “Pronikání buržoasie do sféry deskového velkostatkářského vlastnictví na Moravě v polovině 19. století,” Vlastivědný věstník moravský 33 (1981): 165–78.

25 On the concepts of aristocratization and feudalization see Hartmut Kaelble and Hasso Spode, “Sozialstruktur und Lebensweisen deutscher Unternehmer 1907–1927,” Scripta Mercaturae 24 (1990): 132–78; Hans Ulrich Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte III. Von der “Deutschen Doppelrevolution” bis zum Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges 1849–1914 (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1995), 718–23.

26 Milan Myška, “Hermann Dietrich Lindheim. Kladský podnikatel a počátky moderní industrializace v habsburské monarchii,” in Milan Myška, Rytíři průmyslové revoluce, 172–210; Myška, “Tlach und Keil,” 68–90.

27 Popelka, “Podnikání a životní styl,” 45–77.

28 Nikolaus Reisinger, Franz Riepl und seine Bedeutung für die Entwicklung des österreichischen Eisenbahnwesen, PhD diss. (Graz: Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, 1999); Nikolaus Reisinger, “Franz Riepl und die Anfänge des österreichischen Eisenbahnwesens,” in Forschungen zur Geschichte des Alpen-Adria-Raumes, ed. Herwig Ebner (Graz: Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, 1997), 307–32.

29 Miloň Dohnal, “Tradice železářství na Sobotínsku a podnikatelská účast hraběte Antonína Friedricha Mitrowského a prof. F. X. Riepla na vzniku a výstavbě Sobotínských železáren,” Sborník prací Filozofické fakulty Ostravské univerzity 208 (2003): 59–67; František Spurný, “Příspěvek k dějinám sobotínských železáren v 50. – 70. letech 19. století. Biografie Aloise Scholze,” Rozpravy Národního technického muzea 77 (1980): 81–90.

30 Ivo Kruliš, Sto let kladenských železáren (Prague: Práce, 1959), 22–24.

31 Pavla Bílková, “Podnikání bratří Kleinů v Železné u Vrbna pod Pradědem (1852–1875). Neznámá kapitola z dějin severomoravské podnikatelské rodiny,” Severní Morava 40 (1980): 10–16.

32 Milan Myška, “Ostravská epizoda v počátcích podnikatelské činnosti bratří Kleinů,” Slezský sborník 90 (1992): 189–201.

33 Krejčiřík, Kleinové, 336–41.

34 The properties consisted of six apartment blocks and building plots at Landstrasse, two houses in Erdberg, three houses in Leopoldstadt, and two houses at Praterstrasse. The building at Praterstrasse 42 was the official head office of Gebrüder Klein from 1878. In the mid-1880s, the Kleins owned a total of 18 buildings in Vienna. In addition to their Vienna properties, the members of the family also used numerous other properties. Franz II. Klein and his family used a large house in Brno (Brünn) and the chateau in Loučná (Wiesenberg), while Albert Klein used the chateaux in Sobotín (Zöptau) and Jindřichov (Hennersdorf).

35 Alfred Dupont Chandler, Strategy and Structure. Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970); Hartmut Berghoff, Moderne Unternehmensgeschichte. Eine themen- und theorieorientierte Einführung (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh Verlag, 2004), 63–82.

36 Spurný, “Příspěvek k dějinám sobotínských železáren,” 81–90; František Spurný, “Friedrich Klein a poslední pokusy o záchranu severomoravského železářství,” Rozpravy Národního technického muzea 82 (1981): 131–35; Václav Štěpán, “Důlní podnikání bratří Kleinů v Ostravě a montanista Anton Péch (1822–1895),” Ostrava. Příspěvky k dějinám a současnosti Ostravy a Ostravska 18 (1997): 293–307.

37 Krejčiřik, Kleinové, 208.

38 This provision was fully in line with the usual practice of family businesses at the time. Rudolf Boch, “Unternehmensnachfolge in Deutschland. Ein historischer Rückblick,” Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte 44 (1999): 164–65.

39 The legal form of general partnerships was particularly popular among family businesses. Sachse, “Familienunternehmen in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft,” 16.

40 Opava Provincial Archives (=OPA), Olomouc branch, fonds “Rodinný archiv Kleinů,” cart. 1, inv. no. 35; Popelka, “Firma ‘Gebrüder Klein’ jako příklad rodinného velkopodnikání,” 54–58.

41 Krejčiřík, Kleinové, 377.

42 Herbert Matis, Österreichs Wirtschaft 1848–1913 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1972), 170–98; Dějiny hospodářství českých zemí od počátků industrializace do konce habsburské monarchie, ed. Ivan Jakubec and Zdeněk Jindra (Prague: Karolinum, 2006), 169–72; an analysis is given in Milan Myška, “Vliv výstavby železniční sítě na rozvoj hutnictví železa v habsburské monarchii a v českých zemích (1830–1914),” Rozpravy Národního technického muzea 118 (1989): 104–86; Milan Myška, “Eisenbahnen – Eisenhüttenindustrie – Wirtschaftswachstum: Der Einfluss des Ausbaus des Eisenbahnnetzes auf die Entwicklung des Eisenhüttenwesens in der Habsburgermonarchie 1830–1914,” Prager wirtschafts- und sozialhistorische Mitteilungen 7 (2004–2005): 9–47; Milan Myška, Die mährisch-schlesische Eisenindustrie in der industriellen Revolution (Prague: SPN, 1970).

43 Alfred Niel, “Die österreichischen Eisenbahnen von der zweiten Staatsbahnperiode bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg,” in Verkehrswege und Eisenbahnen, ed. Karl Gutkas and Ernst Bruckmüller (Vienna: Institut für Österreichkunde, 1989), 87–99; Alois Czedik, Der Weg von und zu den Österreichischen Staatsbahnen, vol. 1 (Vienna–Teschen–Leipzig: n.p. 1913), 207–23.

44 Ivan Jakubec, “Tři generace podnikatelské rodiny Lannů: Adalbert Lanna senior, Adalbert Lanna junior, Adalbert Franz Lanna,” in Historie a cestovní ruch. Perspektivní a podnětné spojení, ed. Jan Štemberk and Miroslava Manová (Prague: Vysoká škola obchodní, 2009), 35–47.

45 Krejčiřík, Kleinové, 368–69.

46 OPA, Olomouc branch, fonds “Rodinný archiv Kleinů,” cart. 1, inv. no. 35; Popelka, “Podnikání a životní styl,” 45–77.

47 Andreas Paulsen, “Das ‘Gesetz der dritten Generation,’” Der praktische Betribswirt. Die aktive betriebswirtschaftliche Zeitschrift, May 21, 1941, 271–80; Kocka, “Unternehmer in der deutschen Industrialisierung,” 53.

48 Popelka, Zrod moderního podnikatelstva, 147–258.

49 Petr Popelka, “Sociální začleňování špičkových měšťanských podnikatelů éry průmyslové revoluce na příkladu moravské podnikatelské rodiny Kleinů,” Slezský sborník 108 (2010): 226–29.

50 On the situation in Moravia see Aleš Zářický, “Moravskoostravští měšťanští podnikatelé na cestě od rodinných firem k nadnárodním společnostem. K problematice změn forem podnikání na konci 19. a na počátku 20. století,” in Královská a poddanská města od své geneze k protoindustrializaci a industrializaci, ed. Jiří Jurok (Ostrava–Nový Jičín–Příbor: Ostravská univerzita, 2002), 221–49.

51 Popelka, “Firma ‘Gebrüder Klein’ jako příklad rodinného velkopodnikání,” 59–65.

52 Sachse, “Familienunternehmen in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft,” 17–18.

53 František Procházka, “Vznik a zánik železáren v Sobotíně,” Sborník krajského vlastivědného muzea Olomouc 4 (1956–1958): 209–10; Spurný, “Friedrich Klein,” 131–35.

54 Peter Eigner, Die Konzentration der Entscheidungsmacht. Die personellen Verflechtungen zwischen den Wiener Grossbanken und Industrieaktiengesellschaften 1895–1940 (PhD diss., Univ. Wien, 1997).

55 Popelka, “Firma ‘Gebrüder Klein’ jako příklad rodinného velkopodnikání,” 37–67.



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