Storia della Storiograa
Histoire de l’Historiographie
History of Historiography
Geschichte der Geschichtsschreibung
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Ian J. Aebel, Textual Colonization : the Many American Histories of Richard Eden
Berber Bevernage, Chris Lorenz, Breaking up Time. Negotiating the Borders bet-
ween Present, Past and Future
Mark Gamsa, Challenges to Generalization in Historical Writing
a forum on contemporary history
Kalle Pihlainen, Mulholland Drive and the Surrender of Representation
Paweł Wolski, The Making of Primo Levi : Holocaust Studies as a Discursive Force
Hannu Salmi, The Witness, Memory and the Truths of the Past. Modes of Narrating
History in Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s Winifred Wagner ()
Marco Platania, Relire l’histoire coloniale au XVIIIe siècle. L’édition critique de l’Hi-
stoire des deux Indes ()
Notes on contributors
Storia della Storiograa, · /
Breaking up Time.
Negotiating the Borders
between Present, Past and Future
Berber Bevernage · Chris Lorenz
This article sketches some of the recent evolutions in the study historical time. It proposes
three issues that up to now have not received a lot of attention, but in our view deserve to
be put on the research agenda. Three questions seem especially pertinent and urgent. First
there is the question of how cultures in general and historians in particular distinguish ‘past’
from ‘present’ and ‘future’. We have a closer look at three historians as examples. Secondly,
there is the question concerning the ‘performative’ character of temporal distinctions. Usu-
ally ‘the past’ is somehow supposed to ‘break o’ from ‘the present’ by itself, by its growing
temporal ‘weight’ or distance – also in most philosophy of history. The article analyzes the
distinguishing of the three temporal modes as a form of social action and proposes to regard
the drawing of lines between the present and the past as a form of disciplinary ‘border patrol’
(Joan Scott). The third question concerns the political nature of the borders that separate
these temporal dimensions. Following among others François Hartog we argue that time is
not the entirely neutral medium that it is often believed to be, but that it is up to a certain
degree, inherently ethical and political.
For three centuries maybe the objectication of the past has
made of time the unreected category of a discipline that
never ceases to use it as an instrument of classication.
Michel de Certeau
For well over a century, several old universes have been
thrown into ash heaps only to be rescued therefrom by mem-
bers of the next generation who nd the action to have been
premature – it should have been postponed until their own
arrival on the scene.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
M. de Certeau, Heterologies : Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, ),
E. Eisenstein, “Clio and Chronos. An Essay on the Making and Breaking of History-Book Time”, His-
tory and Theory, () : -, .
W. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York : Random House, ), .
32 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
Die Zeit ist ein Tümpel, in dem die Vergangenheit in Blasen
nach oben steigt.
In , German philosopher and sociologist, Georg Simmel, opened his essay Das
Problem der historischen Zeit by listing some fundamental questions about the nature
of historical time. Stressing the need for further reection, he stated that “[these]
questions have not yet been answered with the clarity that is desirable, nor even with
the clarity that is possible.” Today, almost a century later, Simmel’s words seem to us
as valid and ‘timely’ as when they were rst committed to paper.
Historians have long acknowledged that time is essential to historiography. In his
Apologie pour l’histoire Marc Bloch famously called history “the science of men in
time”. Similarly, Jacques Le Go labels time the “fundamental material” of histo-
rians, and Jules Michelet once described the relation between time and history with
the words “l’histoire, c’est le temps”. Many historians have also recognised the im-
portance of the distinction between dierent temporal scales and rhythms – think of
Fernand Braudel and Reinhart Koselleck for example. Surprisingly, however, very few
have investigated the subject of historical time in depth. Symptomatically in Aviezer
Tucker’s recent Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography () time
is not dealt with as a topic – it is even lacking in the index.
At least this was the case until recently. In the last couple of years a number of
C. Ransmayr, Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, ), .
G. Simmel, Essays on Interpretation in Social Science (Manchester : Manchester University Press, ).
M. Bloch, Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien (Paris : Armand Colin, ), .
J. Le Go, Histoire et mémoire (Paris : Gallimard, ), . J. Michelet, cited in A. Cook, History/Writ-
ing : The Theory and Practice of History in Antiquity and in Modern Times (Cambridge : Cambridge University
Press, ), .
As Peter Burke remarks, the notion of the future was placed on the historian’s agenda only relatively
recently, when it was pioneered by Reinhart Koselleck in the later twentieth century. P. Burke, “Re ec-, when it was pioneered by Reinhart Koselleck in the later twentieth century. P. Burke, “Re ec- when it was pioneered by Reinhart Koselleck in the later twentieth century. P. Burke, “Reec-
tions on the Cultural History of Time”, Viator, XXXV () : -, . There are of course important
exceptions to the general absence of reections on historical time. See e. g., R. G. Collingwood, “Some
Perplexities about Time : With an Attempted Solution”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, XXVI (-
) : - ; W. von Leyden, “History and the Concept of Relative Time”, History and Theory, II, () :
- ; S. Kracauer, “Time and History”, History and Theory, VI () : - ; P. Vilar, “Histoire marxiste,
histoire en construction. Essai de dialogue avec Althusser”, Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, XXVI- XXVI-
II, () : - ; R. Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt am Main :
Suhrkamp, ) ; J. R. Hall, “The Time of History and the History of Times”, History and Theory, XIX,
() : - ; K. Pomian, L’ordre du temps (Paris : Gallimard, ) ; N. Rotenstreich, Time and Meaning in
History (Dordrecht : D. Reidel, ) ; D. J. Wilcox, The Measure of Times Past : Pre-Newtonian Chronologies and
the Rhetoric of Relative Time (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, ) ; P. Ricoeur, Temps et récit (Paris :
Seuil, ) ; D. Carr, Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press, ) ; E. D.
Ermarth, Sequel to History : Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (Princeton : Princeton Uni-
versity Press, ) ; J. Chesneaux, Habiter le temps : Passé, présent, futur : esquisse d’un dialogue politique (Paris :
Bayard, ) ; L. Hölscher, Die Entdeckung der Zukunft (Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, ) ; J. Leduc, Les His-
toriens et le Temps, Conceptions, problématiques, écritures (Paris : Seuil, ) ; J. Rüsen, Zerbrechende Zeit. Über
den Sinn der Geschichte (Köln : Böhlau Verlag, ) ; Daedalus (theme issue on time, ) ; Time and History,
eds. F. Stadler, M. Stöltzner (Kirchberg am Wechsel, ).
A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, ed. A. Tucker (Oxford : Blackwell, ).
Even in the Geschichtliche Grundbegrie, edited by O. Brunner, W. Conze and R. Koselleck, vols. (Stuttgart :
Klett-Cotta, -), time is missing as an entry.
breaking up time 33
historians and philosophers have addressed the problem of historical time in an in-
creasingly sophisticated way. Following in the footsteps of Koselleck, several histo-
rians – in particular Lucian Hölscher, François Hartog, and Peter Fritzsche – have
started historicising time-conceptions previously taken for granted. In the philoso-
phy of history, the relationship between past and present recently moved centre stage
in debates about ‘presence’, ‘distance’, ‘trauma’, ‘historical experience’, etc. Inde-
pendently, postcolonial theorists and anthropologists have added momentum to the
growing interest in time by deconstructing the ‘time of history’ as specically ‘West-
In this article we want to sketch some of the recent evolutions in the study of his-
torical time and propose some issues that we feel are highly relevant and that have
not yet received the attention they deserve.
Three issues seem especially pertinent and urgent. First there is the question that
is very simple but all too often bypassed : namely that of how cultures in general and
historians in particular distinguish ‘past’ from ‘present’ and ‘future’ and how they
construct/articulate the interrelationships between these temporal dimensions. Al-
though since the birth of modernity history presupposes the existence of ‘the past’
as its object, ‘the past’ and the nature of the borders that separate ‘the past’, ‘the pres-
ent’, and ‘the future’ until very recently have attracted little reection within the dis-
cipline of history. Ironically, historians and philosophers of history can hardly claim
to have substantial knowledge of how ‘present’ social and cultural phenomena turn
into (or come to be perceived/recognised as) past phenomena. The ‘omission’ of
this subject of research is remarkable because cultures and societies have xed, and
still do x, the boundaries between past, present and future in quite dierent ways.
Moreover these dierences also vary depending on the context in which this distinc-
tion is made. In the modern West, for instance, legal time functions dierently from
historical time and both are dierent from religious time.
It has been argued that cultures also have dierent dominant orientations in time.
‘Traditional’ cultures are generally supposed to be characterised by a dominant (po-
litical, ethical, cultural, etc.) orientation to the past, while ‘modern’ cultures charac-
teristically have a dominant future-orientation. ‘Postmodern’ cultures, however, are
Hölscher, Entdeckung der Zukunft ; F. Hartog, Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et expériences du temps (Pa-
ris : Seuil, ) ; P. Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present : Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge,
MA : Harvard University Press, ).
E. Runia, “Presence”, History and Theory, XLV, () : - ; Forum on “Presence”, History and Theory,
XLV, , ) : - ; “Historical Distance : Reections on a Metaphor”, theme issue of History and Theory,
L, () ; “Holocaust und Trauma : Kritische Perspektiven zur Entstehung und Wirkung eines Paradig-
mas”, Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte, XXXIX ().
See, for example, D. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : Postcolonial Thought and Historical Dierence
(Princeton : Princeton University Press, ) ; A. Nandy, “History’s Forgotten Doubles”, History and Theo-
ry, XXXIV, () : -.
The dierence between historical time and religious time has been addressed in Y. H. Yerushalmi, Zak-
hor : Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle : University of Washington Press, ), -, and in W. Gal-
lois, Time, Religion and History (London : Longman, ). The focus on ‘legal time’ is central in criticisms
on legal positivism. See especially D. Cornell, “Time, Deconstruction, and the Challenge to Legal Positiv-
ism : The Call for Judicial Responsibility”, Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, () : -.
For a classical discussion of the past-orientation of ‘traditional’ cultures, see M. Eliade, Le mythe de
l’éternel retour (Paris : Gallimard, ()).
34 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
supposedly characterised by a dominant orientation towards the present. Yet, how
these temporal orientations have changed – and whether they simply succeed each
other or coexist – has not been analysed in depth. It is symptomatic that François
Hartog’s thesis that Western thinking about history is characterised by a succession
of three ‘regimes of historicity’ – from a past-orientation until the French Revolu-
tion, to a future-orientation until the s, and then a present-orientation in the
years since – has hardly been empirically tested. Therefore, the questions about the
unity, the dominance, the spatial extensions, the transfers and the transformations of
‘time regimes’ (are there no competing or overlapping ‘sub-regimes’ ?) are badly in
need of further conceptual and empirical analysis.
Secondly, scholars of historical time generally pay too little attention to the ‘perfor-
mative’ character of temporal distinctions. Usually ‘the past’ is somehow supposed
to ‘break o ’ from ‘the present’ on its own, by its growing temporal distance or in-
creasing ‘weight’ – like an icicle. Although few probably would hold that temporal
distinctions are directly and unambiguously ‘given’, even fewer have paid attention
to the ways in which the distinguishing of the three temporal modes can be analysed
as a form of social action connected to specic social actors.
The question of the historian as (social or political) actor has recently gured
prominently in the debate on so-called ‘commissioned history’ as it manifests itself
in, for example, the work of government-appointed historical commissions and truth
commissions. Yet the issue in this case is of a more general and fundamental nature.
It belongs to those characteristics of ‘doing history’ that have traditionally been re-
Even when all appearances are against them, professional historians traditionally
claim to occupy (or to strive after) the position of the distant, impartial observer and not
the position of the acting participant. The notion of an ever increasing temporal ‘dis-
tance’ as automatically breaking up past and present has been of central importance
for safeguarding this distinction between the ‘involved’ actor and the ‘impartial’ ob-
The American historian Elazar Barkan recently addressed this problem when he
argued in favour of an ‘engaged’ historiography in the service of ‘historical reconcili-
ation’. The problem with pleas for engaged history is that participation in ‘historical
reconciliation’ smacks of ‘activism’, ‘partisanship’ and ‘presentism’, which profes-
sional historians usually regard as deadly sins. Yet according to Barkan, ‘this is all
beginning to change’, because historians are beginning to understand “that the con-
struction of history continuously shapes our world, and therefore has to be treated as
an explicit, directly political activity, operating within specic scientic methodologi-
cal and rhetorical rules”.
Hartog, Régimes d’historicité.
The stress on the importance of temporal distance was especially prominent in debates on the emerg-The stress on the importance of temporal distance was especially prominent in debates on the emerg-
ing eld of contemporary history. See, for example, G. Ritter, “Scientic History, Contemporary History,
and Political Science”, History and Theory, I, () : -. Also see R. Graf and K. C. Priemel, “Zeitge-Also see R. Graf and K. C. Priemel, “Zeitge-
schichte in der Welt der Sozialwissenschaften. Legitimität und Originalität einer Disziplin”, Vierteljahreshef-
te für Zeitgeschichte, LIX, () : -, and K. K. Patel, “Zeitgeschichte im digitalen Zeitalter : Neue und alte
Herausforderungen”, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, LIX, () : -.
See Forum Truth and Reconciliation in History, American Historical Review, CXIV, () : -.
Forum Truth and Reconciliation in History : .
breaking up time 35
Lucian Hölscher recently pointed to the same ‘blind spot’ concerning the role of
historians as actors in present-day politics and attributed it directly to a blindness
for the future dimension of the past. Hölscher contends that historians have to free
themselves from the traditional ‘prejudices’ that professional history is autonomous
from society and politics and that history “is a pure ‘observing’ discipline, that is not
simultaneously directed at action”. He thus makes clear his view that the idea that
professional history stands in a distanced (observer’s) position vis-à-vis politics is a
misconception. On closer analysis the professional historian’s concern for the past
simultaneously implies a concern for the future.
A third issue, which is directly connected to the previous one, concerns the political
nature of the borders that separate these temporal dimensions. François Hartog has
rightly argued that terms such as ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ are invariably invest-
ed with dierent values in dierent regimes of historicity. When taken to its logi-
cal conclusions this observation suggests that historians must ask whether historical
time is a neutral medium or whether it is in fact inherently ethical and political.
Ulrich Raul is one of the few historians who have pointed out the close relation-
ship between the political allegiance of historians and the use of periodization in his-
torical writing. Raul analyses the preference of the Annales historians for the longue
dureé and traces the origins of this preference far back into the nineteenth century.
He argues that both conservative and progressive thinkers who, for dierent reasons,
abhorred specic political events in the past – such as the French Revolution in con-
servative thinking and the Restoration in Marxist thinking or a lost war in national-
ist thought – used periodization for political ends. According to Raul, the prefer-
ence for long-term approaches is based on a politically motivated rejection of certain
events. These events may be at a long or at a close ‘distance’ from the historian in a
chronological sense. In Braudel’s case, his political rejection was of the sudden fall
of France in the s. He wrote his Méditerranée as a prisoner of war, and the longue
durée enabled him to discount both the French defeat and the later collaboration
of Vichy-France as merely ‘ephemeral’ events in history. Thus the choice historians
make when they focus on either ‘events’ or ‘structures’ is “not just a choice between
two modes of temporalization, but also a choice that has aesthetic, ethical and politi-
Very recently Frank Bösch came to similar conclusions in a short reection on the
inuence of break-ups and caesurae on periodization in contemporary history. He
criticized the tendency to regard only (national) political events as borderlines of pe-
riodization and argued that longer lasting (transnational) ‘silent revolutions’ – such
as the oil crisis of and the economic crisis of – may have been experienced
L. Hölscher, Semantik der Leere. Grenzfragen der Geschichtswissenschaft (Göttingen : Wallstein, ), .
Hartog, Régimes d‘historicité.
U. Raul, Der unsichtbare Augenblick : Zeitkonzepte in der Geschichte (Göttingen : Wallstein, ).
Raul, Der unsichtbare Augenblick, .
F. Bösch, “Umbrüche in die Gegenwart : Globale Ereignisse und Krisenreaktionen um ”, Zeithisto-
rische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, Online-Ausgabe, , , <http ://www.zeithistorische-
forschungen.de/-Boesch-->. According to Goschler and Graf, the very concept of contem-According to Goschler and Graf, the very concept of contem-
porary history is based on the experience of unexpected ruptures in time and the need to interpret the
present in the light of these ruptures. See C. Goschler-R. Graf, Europäische Zeitgeschichte seit (Berlin :
Akademie, ), -.
36 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
as more important by contemporaries. Therefore claims about ‘breaking events’ and
corresponding periods often also involve political aspects. Because of the plurality of
possible points of view and their implied caesura, Bösch argues in favour of Georey
Barraclough’s denition of contemporary history as a problem-oriented – and thus
not period-oriented – discipline. Which period is relevant for the contemporary histo-
rian depends only on the particular present-day problem she is trying to clarify.
Raul and Bösch provide us with good reasons to ask whether historians too en-
gage in a ‘politics of time’, as the anthropologist Johannes Fabian and the philoso-
pher Peter Osborne have held to be the case in their respective disciplines. To us this
indeed is a rhetorical question, and we believe it is about time to start scrutinising
how these politics of historical time function in practice.
As a rst step toward such an analysis of the performative ‘break-up’ of time, we
will focus on the way historical time has traditionally been related to modernism and
progress. We contend that this connection has recently been questioned – partially
under the inuence of the so-called ‘memory boom’ and the development of new
ways of dealing with the legacy of historical injustices.
Secondly, we observe that although many historians have noticed these develop-
ments, only few have developed new conceptualisations of historical time. Even
though the traditional notion of (linear) time has been heavily criticized in the de-
cades since Einstein’s relativity theories, the time-concepts of historians as well as
philosophers of history generally still are based on an absolute, homogeneous, and
empty time. Not accidentally this is the notion of time presupposed by the ‘imagined
community’ of ‘the nation’, as Benedict Anderson famously has suggested. There
are, however, some important exceptions – thinkers who did theorise the ‘historical
relativity’ of time. We briey discuss the cases of Koselleck, Dipesh Chakrabarty and
Next, in the third section of the article, we demonstrate how some historians and
philosophers of history have reacted ambiguously and defensively or even with out-
right hostility to the new forms of historical consciousness and the questioning of
classical notions of historical time. By discussing the work of, among others, the
French historian Henry Rousso, the Dutch historian Bob de Graa, and the Ger-
man historian Martin Sabrow we argue that claims about ‘proper’ and ‘improper’
approaches to time (or about historical and a-historical time) are used to guard the
borders of the discipline of academic history. These claims are used to draw a line
between ‘real’ and ‘pseudo’ history and to protect the rst against ‘intruders’ such
as memory movements and surviving contemporary witnesses alias Zeitzeuge. We
point out that this disciplinary ‘protectionism’ is typically accompanied by a taboo
on the very question of how to draw the borders between past, present and future.
This boils down to whisking away the performative and political dimensions of his-
See Forum The s and s as a Turning Point in European History ?, Journal of Modern European
History, IX, () : -.
J. Fabian, Time and the Other : How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York : Columbia University Press,
) ; P. Osborne, The Politics of Time : Modernity and Avant-Garde (London : Verso, ).
B. Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London : Verso,
breaking up time 37
In the last section, we argue that the cultural and political roots of the memory
-boom increasingly call on historians and philosophers of history to elucidate the
basic assumptions that underpin their notions of time. This most importantly holds
for their assumptions concerning the ‘past-ness’ of the past and the ‘present-ness’ of
the present. Again we discuss some exceptional thinkers – in particular Preston King
– who do reect on the basic notions of modern western historical consciousness.
Their conceptual apparatus can be put to use in future analyses of how and why his-
torians break up time in historical practice.
I. History in/and changing Times
Philosophers of history have often remarked that academic historiography ts very
well with ideas of modernism and progress. Paradoxically, scientic history our-
ishes in an intellectual environment that stresses the constant emergence of the new
and the ‘supersedure’ of the past by movement towards a more advanced future.
Koselleck argued that modern historical consciousness came into existence toward
the end of the eighteenth century, when social and technological innovations and
changing beliefs about the novelty of the future created a new ‘horizon of expecta-
tion’ (Erwartungshorizont) that increasingly broke with the former ‘space of experi-
ence’ (Erfahrungsraum). According to Koselleck, the historical and the progressive
worldviews share a common origin : ‘If the new time is oering something new all
the time, the dierent past has to be discovered and recognised, that is to say, its
strangeness which increases with the passing of years.’
Koselleck pointed out that the ‘discovery’ of the historical world and the qualita-
tive dierentiation between past, present and future had great methodological impli-
cations for historiography. Temporal dierentiation and concomitant claims about
the ‘otherness’ of the past allowed historiography to present itself as an autonomous
discipline that required methods of its own. Although the idea of the absence of the
past has often been presented (usually by empiricists) as a challenge to the epistemo-
logical credentials of historiography, historians were able to use the idea of an ever
-increasing temporal ‘distance’ to their advantage. They did so by presenting distance
as an indispensable condition for attaining ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’.
Similarly, the progressivist idea that time does not bring random or directionless
change, but a cumulative change directed at a more advanced future, has successfully
buttressed historians’ claims concerning the ‘surplus value’ of the historical ex post
perspective and their related claims of epistemological superiority over the perspec-
tives of contemporary eye-witnesses (Zeitzeuge).
Michel de Certeau has likewise suggested that modern historiography tradition-
ally begins with the dierentiation between present and past : it takes the ‘perish-
R. Koselleck, Futures Past : On The Semantics of Historical Time (New York : Columbia University Press,
R. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford : Stanford University Press, ), . The
claim by Koselleck mentioned here did not remain uncontested. Niklas Luhmann, for example, argues that
the development of the modern time perspective started with a reconceptualization of the present rather
than the future. The ‘open future’, according to him, was preceded by more than a hundred years by a
‘punctualization’ of the present, which gave rise to an experience of instantaneous change. N. Luhmann,
The Dierentiation of Society (New York : Columbia University Press, ), -.
38 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
able’ (le périssable) as its object and progress as its axiom. If many feel discomted
by the idea of living in a world in which “all that is solid melts into air” (Karl Marx)
and in which the present is continuously ‘contracting’ – what Hermann Lübbe has
called Gegenwartsschrumpfung – most historians simply presuppose this worldview as
‘natural’. The reason for their blind acceptance of this worldview may well be that
precisely this (alleged) condition of an ephemeral or even contracting present has
enabled historians and philosophers of history to legitimate the writing of history as
a necessary form of ‘compensation’.
It is a matter of ongoing controversy when exactly the modernist and progressiv-
ist worldviews came into existence and whether they were ever dominant enough to
legitimize claims about the existence of modernity in an epochal sense, or whether
this historical category simply resulted from a self-legitimizing ‘politics of periodiza-
tion’. Yet, whatever the periodization and the precise historical status of modernity,
two observations seem beyond dispute : that the modernist and progressivist ways
of conceiving of historical time and of the relation between past and present have
been fundamental and constitutive for academic history writing. However, it is also
clear that these very same modernist and progressivist worldviews have been severe-
ly questioned during the last few decades – ‘postmodernism’ is the catchword here
– and that this has important implications for historiography.
This recent questioning of progressivist worldviews in academic historiography
can be fruitfully examined in relation to a similar skepticism about the nature of time
that has emerged in juridical contexts in the last few decades. If there is one feature
that characterizes current international political and juridical dealing with the past
it is the combination of an increasing distrust of progressivist notions of time and
doubt about presumptions of ‘temporal distance’, or about an evident qualitative
break between past, present and future. Many of the salient phenomena in inter-
national and domestic politics of the last decades – reparation politics, the outing
of ocial apologies, the creation of truth commissions, historical commissions and
commissions of historical reconciliation, etc. – revolve around a growing conviction
that the once commonsensical idea of a past automatically distancing itself from the
present is fundamentally problematical and that the belief that the past is superseded
by every new present has been more a wish than an experiential reality.
This changing experience of time is of course not conned to the spheres of ju-
M. De Certeau, L’écriture de l’histoire (Paris : Gallimard, ), .
H. Lübbe, “Die Modernität der Vergangenheitszuwendung. Zur Geschichtsphilosophie zivilisatori-H. Lübbe, “Die Modernität der Vergangenheitszuwendung. Zur Geschichtsphilosophie zivilisatori-“Die Modernität der Vergangenheitszuwendung. Zur Geschichtsphilosophie zivilisatori-Die Modernität der Vergangenheitszuwendung. Zur Geschichtsphilosophie zivilisatori-
scher Selbsthistorisierung”, Zukunft der Geschichte. Historisches Denken an der Schwelle zum . Jahrhundert, ed.
S. Jordan (Berlin : Trafo, ), -, esp. .
H. Lübbe, “Der Streit um die Kompensationsfunktion der Geisteswissenschaften”, Einheit der Wis-
senschaften. Internationales Kolloquium der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (Berlin : De Gruyter, ),
-. For a fundamental critique of the ‘compensation theory’, see J. Rüsen, “Die Zukunft der Vergan-“Die Zukunft der Vergan-Die Zukunft der Vergan-
genheit”, Zukunft der Geschichte, ed. S. Jordan, -. Rüsen emphasizes the orientational function of the
past vis-à-vis actions aimed at the construction of the future (Zukunftentwürfe).
K. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty : How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of
Time (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, ).
B. Bevernage, History, Memory, and State-Sponsored Violence : Time and Justice (New York : Routledge,
). Typically, ‘compensation theorists’ such as Lübbe interpret the practice of oering apologies for his-
torical injustices dierently : as a category mistake for historians and as a ritual of repentance for politicians.
See H. Lübbe, “Ich entschuldige mich”. Das neue politische Bußritual (Berlin : Siedler, ).
breaking up time 39
risdiction and politics : the challenging of classical historicist conceptualizations of
temporal distance is a central feature of the so called ‘memory boom’ – that again
is related to the growing recognition of universal human rights and of historical in-
justices – and of the growing inuence of memorial movements. “Since roughly
the end of the Cold War,” John Torpey claims, “the distance that normally separates
us from the past has been strongly challenged in favour of an insistence that the past
is constantly, urgently present as part of our everyday experience.” According to
Torpey this development directly relates to a ‘collapse of the future’, or a growing
inability to create progressive political visions, or as the assumption that “the road to
the future runs through the disasters of the past.” As he puts it, “When the future
collapses, the past rushes in.”
II. Historicizing Historical Time
Many academic historians have clearly sensed the trend towards a questioning of the
notions of historical distance and of the break between past and present. A mere look
at the frequency of expressions such as ‘present pasts’ , ‘everlasting pasts,’ ‘pasts
that do not pass,’ ‘unexpiated pasts’ and ‘eternal presents’ in recent academic
works gives an indication of this growing preoccupation with the ontological status
of the past and the relation between past and present. The enigmatic and paradoxical
wording of some of these expressions reveals, moreover, the puzzlement that issues
of time and temporal breaks create.
Yet puzzlement about the ontological status of time of course goes further back
than the twentieth century, at least as far back as Ancient Greece, and it is still with
us today. In , Lynn Hunt could still begin her book Measuring Time, Making His-
tory by quoting the two fundamental questions about time that Aristotle asks in his
Physics : “First, does it belong to the class of things that exist or to that of things that
do not exist ? Then secondly, what is its nature ?” Many historians probably would
think that Hunt’s question – ‘Is time historical ?’ – is a weird one, because – as we saw
earlier – they simply identify history with time or with temporal change and take it
for granted that time is somehow ‘real’.
Expression from J. Winter, “The Generation of Memory : Reections on the ‘Memory Boom’ in Con-
temporary Historical Studies”, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, XXVII, () : -.
See J. K. Olick, The Politics of Regret : On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility (New York : Rout-
ledge, ), -.
Another important challenge to the classical notion of historical distance, according to Bain Attwood,
has come from oral history, because it stresses the entanglement of ‘then’ and ‘now’ and “because its very
practice brings the historians into closer proximity with the past”. B. Attwood, “In the Age of Testimony :
the Stolen Generations Narrative, ‘Distance’, and Public History”, Public Culture, XX, () : -, . For
the rise and fall of the Zeitzeugen in German history, see W. Kansteiner, “Dabei gewesen sein ist alles”, Die
Zeit, Dezember , .
J. Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, ), .
Torpey, Making Whole, . Torpey, Making Whole, .
A. Huyssen, Present Pasts : Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA : Stanford Univer-
sity Press, ). E. Conan-H. Rousso, Vichy, un passé qui ne passe pas (Paris : Fayard, ).
L. Huyse, All Things Pass Except the Past (Kessel-Lo : Van Halewyck, ).
W. Soyinka, The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (Oxford : Oxford University Press, ), .
M. Ignatie, “Articles of Faith”, Index on Censorship, V () : -.
L. Hunt, Measuring Time, Making History (Budapest : Central European University Press, ), .
40 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
Most historians seem to have assumed that time is what calendars and clocks sug-
gest it is : . that time is homogeneous – meaning every second, every minute and
every day is identical ; . that time is discrete – meaning every moment in time can
be conceived of as a point on a straight line ; . that time is therefore linear ; and .
that time is directional – meaning that it ows without interruption from the future,
through the present to the past ; . that time is absolute – meaning that time is not
relative to space or to the person who is measuring it.
Stephen Hawking in his A Brief History of Time characterized absolute time as fol-
lows : “Both Aristotle and Newton believed in absolute time. That is, they believed that
one could unambiguously measure the interval of time between two events and that
this time would be the same whoever measured it, provided they used a good clock.
Time was completely separated from and independent of space. This is what most
people would take to be the common sense view” – and this also holds for historians.
Since Einstein’s theory of general relativity physicists know that this presupposi-
tion of an absolute time is erroneous, because time is relative to the spatial position
of the observer. Since Einstein, physicists also know that time is not independent of
space. What Newton did for space – proving against Aristotle that all spatial move-
ment is relative to the observer’s position and that therefore there are no absolute
positions in space – Einstein did for time – proving against Newton that all temporal
movement is relative to the observer’s position. Relativity theory, however, has not
yet prompted many historians to rethink their conception of absolute time.
Nevertheless, since the path breaking work of Koselleck in the s, some impor-
tant insight into the historical relativity of historical time has developed. Koselleck
argued that the modern notion of historical time only originated in the second half
of the eighteenth century, because it was directly connected to the modern notion
of history as an objective force and unied process – with, in his phrasing, Geschichte
as a Kollektivsingular.
Since the end of the twentieth century, modern historical time has also been rela-
tivized by postcolonial theorists. They criticized this time conception as being fun-
damentally calibrated to Western history – in its periodization, for instance – and as
being inherently teleological, positing the West as the implicit historical destiny of
the rest of the world. This implicit teleology is, according to postcolonial critique,
not only presupposed by all brands of modernization and globalization theory, in-
cluding Marxist versions, but by the western ‘historicist’ conception of history as
such. Thus, what is happening in the modern Western conception of time and his-
S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time : From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York : Bantam, ), .
In Le Poidevin’s words most people – including historians – are ‘objectivists’, meaning that they as-In Le Poidevin’s words most people – including historians – are ‘objectivists’, meaning that they as-
sume that time is somehow real and not an entity that does not exist independent from what clocks mea-
sure by some standard. The latter position is taken by so-called conventionalists. See R. Le Poidevin, Travels
in Four Dimensions : The Enigmas of Space and Time (Oxford : Oxford University Press, ), -.
This question of the possibility of a ‘post-Newtonian’ historical time is interestingly raised in Wilcox,
The Measure of Times Past.
See for the inherent teleology of national history writing, C. Lorenz, “Unstuck in Time. Or : The
Sudden Presence of the Past”, Performing the Past : Memory, History, and Identity in Modern Europe, eds. K.
Tilmans, F. van Vree, J. Winter (Amsterdam : Amsterdam University Press, ), -, esp. -. See for
the argument that globalization theories are a branch of modernization theory, F. Cooper, Colonialism in
Question : Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley, CA : University of California Press, ), -.
breaking up time 41
tory, according to theorists such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, is the ‘spatialization of time’,
meaning : the implicit connecting of space and time by dividing the world in regions
that are ahead in time and regions that lag behind, waiting to ‘catch up’. So how
historians measure time is apparently dependent on where they are located in space.
With a bit of imagination one could regard this ‘spatialization of time’ as a delayed
reception of Einstein’s relativity theory in history.
However this may be, it is Koselleck’s student Hölscher who has taken the histor-
ization of time a step further by pointing out that the abstract and empty time and
space that historians have taken for granted, actually did not exist before the modern
era. Notions of empty space and of empty time developed slowly, between the f-
teenth and the nineteenth centuries. For people living in the Middle Ages, events and
things had concrete positions in time and in space, but they did not have a concept of
empty, abstract time and space as such. In other words : things and events had tem-
poral and spatial aspects, but time and space did not exist as realities. Space and time
referred to adjectives, not to substantives.
For Christianity, time was basically biblical time, meaning that it had a clear begin-
ning (God’s creation of the Earth) and a xed end (Judgment Day). Time was basi-
cally ‘lled in’ by the Creation plan of God. There was no time before, nor any after.
Therefore the modern notion of an innite history, as expressed in our calendar,
which extends forwards and backwards ad innitum, cannot be explained as a secular-
ized version of the Christian idea of history, as both Hans Blumenberg and Hannah
Arendt have argued against Karl Löwith.
III. History, Memory and Time
The reactions of historians to the problematization of time have been ambivalent.
Some have taken the changing and alternative visions of time underlying reparations
politics and the ‘memory boom’ as a welcome opportunity to critically rethink classi-
cal notions of historical time. More often, however, historians have focused precisely
on allegedly ‘non-historical’ or ‘deviant’ approaches to time in order to fence o their
discipline vis-à-vis memory or reparation politics and to support its claims to “hege-
mony in the closed space of retrospection”. It is remarkable how often historians are
claiming dierent, ‘improper’, temporalities as an implicit or explicit argument for
the ‘objectication’ of memory and its presentation as ‘mythical’ or ‘pathological’ –
or at least as not providing a viable alternative to ‘real’ history.
However see Frederick Cooper’s critique of Chakrabarty’s ‘homogenization’ of ‘the West’ in his Co-
lonialism in Question, xxx. Hölscher, Semantik der Leere, -.
H. Blumenberg, Die Legitimität der Neuzeut (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp, ) ; H. Arendt, Between
Past and Future : Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York : Viking, ), esp. .
P. Ricoeur, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris : Seuil, ), .
Martin Broszat’s remark about the supposedly ‘mythical’ character of the – ex post – centrality of the
Holocaust in ‘Jewish’ history writing on Nazi-Germany as opposed to the supposedly ‘distant’, ‘scientic’
character of ‘German’ academic history writing induced Saul Friedländer to compose his opus magnum :
Nazi-Germany and the Jews : The Years of Extermination - (New York : HarperCollins, ) in which
linear time is supplanted by non-linear, ‘modernist’ time in a pathbreaking way, as Wulf Kansteiner has
argued. See W. Kansteiner, “Success, Truth, and Modernism in Holocaust Historiography : Reading Saul
Friedländer years after the Publication of Metahistory”, History & Theory, XLVII, () : -. This ten-
42 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
Even an unconventional historian like Hayden White, for example, seems to pay
tribute to traditional temporal divisions by subscribing to Michael Oakeshott’s dis-
tinction between the “historical” and the “practical” past. Gabrielle Spiegel, too, re-
jects theories that posit a reciprocal relation between history and memory by claim-
ing that the “diering temporal structures” of history and memory “prohibit” their
“conation”. Memory can never “do the ‘work’ of history” or “perform historically”
because “it refuses to keep the past in the past, to draw the line that is constitutive of
the modern enterprise of historiography.” Indeed Spiegel writes : “The very postu-
late of modern historiography is the disappearance of the past from the present.”
Similar claims about the proper conceptualization of historical time and about
the relation between past and present have gured prominently in Henry Rousso’s
arguments against the judicialization of history and in his refusal to function as an
expert witness in the French trial against Maurice Papon. Rousso’s refusal to appear
in the courtroom was based, among other considerations, on his conviction that his-
torians have to improve the “understanding of the distance that separates [past and
present]” or on the slightly but markedly dierent conviction that a good historian
“puts the past at a distance”. Rousso, however, believed that the attempts at retro-
spective justice in France were inuenced by a politics of memory or even a ‘religion
of memory’ that ‘abolishes distance’ and ‘ignores the hierarchies of time’. The valo-
risation of memory obstructs “a real apprenticeship of the past, of duration, of the
passage of time.”
In contrast, “otherness is the very reason that historians study recent or even cur-
rent periods. The historical project consists precisely in describing, explaining, and
situating alterity, in putting it at a distance.” The historians’ craft, according to Rous-
so, therefore, oers a “liberating type of thinking, because it rejects the idea that peo-
ple or societies are conditioned or determined by their past without any possibility of
escaping it.” Historians must resist the role of “agitators of memory” and the grow-
ing societal “obsession” with memory. They must do so by allowing what many want
to avoid : “the selection of what must remain or disappear to occur spontaneously”.
Similar claims about the task of historians are made by Dutch historian Bob de
Graa in a very personal, animate but also highly prescriptive tract on the relation of
dency to stress the particularity of ‘historical time’ in order to institutionally defend professional history,
is of course not new. See T. Loué, “Du présent au passé : le temps des historiens”, Temporalités : Revue de
sciences sociales et humaines, VIII (). http ://temporalites.revues.org/.
H. White, “The public relevance of historical studies : A reply to Dirk Moses”, History and Theory,
XLIV, () : -. Typically time hardly plays any role in his Metahistory. Also see H. White, “The prac-
tical past”, Historein, () : -. Frank Ankersmit has argued that time does not constitute a proper
object for the (narrative) philosophy of history : because it rather plays a negative role in the writing of his-
tory than a positive one. See F. Ankersmit, Meaning, Truth and Reference in Historical Representation, (Ithaca :
Cornell University Press ), . Oakshott was clear about the temporal status of the ‘practical past’,
which according to him was not ‘signicantly past’ at all. M. Oakshott, On History and other Essays (Oxford :
Blackwell, ), .
G. M. Spiegel, “Memory and history : Liturgical time and historical time”, History and Theory, XLI,
() : -.
H. Rousso, The Haunting Past : History, Memory, and Justice in Contemporary France (Philadelphia : Univer-
sity of Pennsylvania Press, ), . Rousso, The Haunting Past, .
Rousso, The Haunting Past, . Rousso, The Haunting Past, .
Rousso, The Haunting Past, .
breaking up time 43
the historian to (genocidal) victimhood – a text visibly inuenced by his experiences
as a member of the research team that was commissioned by the Dutch government
to scrutinize the Srebrenica massacre. Again the argument focuses on proper and
improper understandings of (historical) time. Victims or survivors, de Graa claims,
often live in an ‘extratemporality’, or in a ‘synchronic’ rather than ‘diachronic’ and
‘chronological’ time. For them the ‘past remains present’, to them it seems as if
atrocities ‘only happened yesterday or even today’. In this regard De Graa follows
Michael Ignatie, who held that ‘victim time’ is ‘simultaneous’ and ‘not linear’. Of
course the historian recognizes the fact that the past can be ‘called up’ again, but in
contrast to the survivor, he does this voluntarily. Moreover, he “registers” that facts
of the past are “bygone”, “denitely lost” or have “come to a downfall”. In reality, de
Graa claims : “Victimhood is historically determined. It comes about in a particular
period. It has a beginning, but it also has an end.” In this context it is the task of histo-
rians “to place events, including genocide, in their time, literally historicizing them.”
The historian has to do this by trying to “determine the individual character of par-
ticular periods/epochs and by that demarcate one period vis-à-vis the other”. To cite
de Graa once again : “[The historian] brings the past to life or keeps it alive and kills
it by letting the past become past. With that he not only creates a past but he also of-
fers a certain autonomy to the present.” ‘Historization’ in this sense of “closing an
epoch by recognizing its entirely individual character’ is not only a professional duty
of historians. There also is a social justication to ‘draw a line under victimhood.’”
De Graa therefore concurs with the literary author Hellema : “It became about
time to put the past in its place.”
As the above examples illustrate, one could metaphorically describe historians’ re-
cent approaches to their profession as involving a kind of ‘border patrol’ of the rela-
tion between past and present. Yet the examples also show that although these histori-
ans are quite clear when declaring the need for ‘border guards’, they are much less clear
when it comes to assessing what this ‘guarding’ actually consists of and how it relates
to the borders it claims to patrol. Indeed, although there can be little doubt that these
historians oppose an ‘open’ border policy when it comes to relating past and present, it
is not clear from their arguments whether they can best be metaphorically represent-
ed as merely observers watching over borders between established ‘sovereign’ states,
or as activists aggressively engaged in a repatriation policy such as the one that intends
to defend the ‘fortress of Europe’ against ‘illegal’ intruders, or as implying a more
straightforwardly performative setting of borders that creates new states, such as the
ones that created West and East Germany or, more recently, North and South Sudan.
When it comes to relating past and present, historians increasingly seem to waver
between a merely contemplative stance and a more active one. Rousso, as we have
B. de Graa, Op de klippen of door de vaargeul : De omgang van de historicus met (genocidaal) slachtoerschap
(Amsterdam : Humanistics University Press, ), [Our translation].
de Graa, Op de klippen, .
M. Ignatie, “The Nightmare from which we are trying to wake up”, M. Ignatie, The Warrior’s Honor :
Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (London : Chatto & Windus, ), -.
de Graa, Op de klippen, , . de Graa, Op de klippen, .
de Graa, Op de klippen, .
Hellema, Een andere tamboer (), cited in de Graa, Op de klippen, .
Expression used by J. W. Scott, “Border Patrol”, French Historical Studies, XXI, () : -.
44 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
seen, sometimes denes the role of historians as that of ‘understanding’ the distance
between past and present, while on other occasions he describes it as one of ‘distanc-
ing’ past and present. On the one hand, the historian has to allow ‘the selection of
what must remain or disappear to occur spontaneously’ ; on the other, the historian’s
liberating potential is situated in ‘putting [the past] at a distance’. Also it is far from
clear what the precise status is of the ‘hierarchies of time’ that are not respected by
De Graa’s approach, despite his references to the drawing of lines, seems equally
ambiguous. At rst sight his thesis that it is necessary to demarcate periods by recog-
nising their ‘entirely individual’ character seems quite unproblematic, but it is amply
shown in critical theory on periodization that on a historiographical level the very
notion of the individuality or particularity of periods is (at least partly) dependent on
their demarcation alias their ‘periodization’ − which in its turn relates to a particular
cultural, religious, gendered or ethico-political logic. From a ‘nominalist’ perspec-
tive, it is indeed quite senseless to even speak about ‘periods’, before time is somehow
periodized. Yet even from a more ‘objectivist’ or ‘realist’ perspective, it is as puzzling
as it is important to know what exactly historians are doing when they are ‘letting
the past become past’ and how historians can tell ‘when’ exactly ‘it is time’ to ‘put the
past in its place’. When, indeed, is this act ‘timely’ and thus ‘legitimate’ ?
The German philosopher Hans Blumenberg has argued that the question of the
legitimacy of breaks in time is strongly entangled with the concept of the ‘epoch’
itself. This quandary, for Blumenberg, was especially latent in modernity’s claim to
realize a radical break with tradition – a claim which, according to him, was incon-
gruent with the reality of history ‘which can never begin entirely anew’. “The mod-
ern age,” Blumenberg argues, “was the rst and only age that understood itself as an
epoch and, in doing so, simultaneously created other epochs”. Due to this performa-
tive aspect, an adequate understanding of the concept of epoch cannot be reached
so long as one starts from a historicist logic of ‘historiographical object denition’
– which according to Blumenberg can never transcend the longstanding dilemma
of nominalism versus realism. Though Blumenberg primarily focuses on moderni-
ty (and intellectual history) his argument applies to all attempts to understand the
change of epochs in ‘rational categories’.
The fact that the problems of historicist logic are still very prominent today can be
illustrated by Martin Sabrow’s recent attempt to come to grips with the problem of
time in contemporary history. Sabrow thoughtfully develops historicism to its logical
end – without transgressing its borders, however. Starting from the (at least in Ger-
many) classical denition of Zeitgeschichte by Hans Rothfels as the ‘epoch of the con-
temporaries and their handling by academic history’ he observes that this denition
does not ‘t’ the current practice of contemporary historians in Germany anymore.
Sabrow’s argument is the fact of ‘’, a ‘fact’ he describes as follows : “The end of
contemporaneity [Zeitgenossenschaft] did not succeed in bridging the epochal caesura
I. Veit-Brause, “Marking Time : Topoi and Analogies in Historical Periodization”, Storia della Storiogra-
a, XXVII () : -.
H. Blumenberg, Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp, ). Hereafter cited in its
English translation The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, MA : MIT Press, ).
M. Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte (Göttingen : Wallstein, ).
breaking up time 45
of in German contemporary history, although this had been predicted just be-
fore the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship in / and even more afterward.”
Because the criterion of having experienced the ‘contemporary’ past does not hold
water anymore – World War One, in Sabrow’s view, did not stop being part of ‘con-
temporary’ history although the last (French) war veteran died in – Sabrow pro-
poses a new criterion based on the controversial nature and intensity of memory :
The capacity to produce social meaning of counter-narratives, based on experience and
memory, distinguishes contemporary history fundamentally from other periods in history.
This capacity endows contemporary history with a changing temporal position, crossing over
the borders of any specic period and dening its particular unity. The time of contemporary
history is rather oriented by the intensity of memory or by the public confrontation with the
past as a mix of memory and knowledge.
So again, it is allegedly not the historian who decides where the borders of Zeitge-
schichte are to be drawn, because the borders according to Sabrow are somehow out
there to be ‘registered’. Because the failed German revolution of -, the Wei-
mar Republic and Hitler’s rise to power are no longer hotly debated, they are no
longer part of ‘contemporary’ history. The persecution of the Jews, the Holocaust
and totalitarian rule, however, are still objects of ‘hot’ controversies and therefore, in
Sabrow’s view, ‘contemporary’ – even though they are in part chronologically simul-
taneous with ‘Weimar’ and Hitler’s rise to power.
Sabrow therefore is obliged to draw the surprising conclusion that some parts of
the history of the twentieth century belong to ‘contemporary’ history while oth-
ers do not and that their chronological location is not the deciding criterion. Only
their being part of ‘hot’ memorial controversies is decisive. Zeitgeschichte, according
to Sabrow, is therefore fundamentally Streitgeschichte. As long as that is the case, the
contested parts of the German twentieth century are like “remaining islands of con-
temporary history in a sea of progressing historization”.
Only after having deconstructed the temporal borders of the object of Zeitgeschich-
te does Sabrow shift his attention to the constructive activities of the Zeithistoriker. In
this respect he is less original, because he holds with the eighteenth-century German
historian Johann Martin Chladenius that historians develop an organizing point of
view – a Sehepunkt – in their reconstructions, that lends an ex post narrative unity to
temporal diversity. This unity, according to Sabrow, is fundamentally dependent on
a certain ‘closure’ in time. Therefore clear-cut ruptures or ‘break-ups’ in time – as in
and in – are of crucial importance for the contemporary historian. Again, ac-
cording to Sabrow, the Zeithistoriker does not actively ‘break up’ time ; rather he ‘regis-
ters’ what is ‘out there’. Therefore Sabrow suggests that we think of Zeitgeschichte as :
the period or those periods that precede the latest fundamental change of the point of view
and that can therefore be distinguished from the succeeding period by the presence of dier-
ent political, economic and cultural societal norms.
In the end, therefore, Sabrow, in spite of himself, is presenting a new – and tempo-
ral – denition of contemporary history, beginning with ‘totalitarian’ Nazism in the
Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, . Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, .
Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, . Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, .
46 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
s and ending with the end of the Cold War in – which he apparently regards
as the latest ‘objective’ break in time.
What is also remarkable here is that after he has thrown the (linear) temporal bor-
ders of contemporary history out the front door, Sabrow reintroduces them through
the backdoor – by assuming that epochs and breaks apparently are ‘out there’ and
succeed each other. It is therefore only logical that Sabrow needs to introduce a new
epoch and new kind of history succeeding ‘contemporary’ history – that is, after the
last ‘objective’ break or caesura in time, the so-called ‘history of the present’ or Ge-
genwartsgeschichte – which in Germany begins in . Its distinctive characteristic is
that, because this part of history is not yet ‘closed’ by a recognizable ‘break’ in time,
there is no point of view to orient the historian who might wish to write it. As a re-
sult, the history-writing of the present is impossible :
Without a break between experiencing and understanding, which is produced by a change in
point of view, the writing of history remains a speculative activity based on shifting sands of
interpretation, because its parameter and storylines can change continuously.
No ‘objective’ break in time means, according to Sabrow, no break between the expe-
rience (Erleben) of the contemporary eyewitnesses – the Zeitzeugen − and the ex post
understanding (Verstehen) of the professional historian, and thus no break between
‘hot’ and ‘cold’, that is : ‘real’ history.
With Sabrow historicism has come full circle : the arguments he formulates against
the possibility of Gegenwartsgeschichte are identical to the arguments historicists have
traditionally advanced against the possibility of Zeitgeschichte. Again we observe the
clear and typical wavering between the historian’s passive ‘recognizing’ and his active
‘producing’ breaks in time.
This issue also pops up when Sabrow tries to draw a border between Zeitgeschichte
as a discipline and the rest of the Erinnerungskultur in which contemporary histori-
ans participate by joining in public debates. By her participation in public historical
culture, the Zeithistoriker/in is not only observer but also actor according to Sabrow.
He insists, however, that the public activities of the Zeithistoriker/innen should not
be conceived as political action. His main argument in this regard seems to be that
historians, in contrast to other carriers of memory culture, have a ‘method’ and a re-
ected relationship to time, that enables them to keep ‘distance’ and avoid ‘partisan-
ship’ vis-à-vis the past, even when the past is very present :
Two rules of conduct in my view are extraordinarily important. The rst consists in adopt-
ing a conscious partisanship in favour of a distancing historization of the past and against a
partisan making present of the past. The task of the discipline of contemporary history is to
Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, . Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, .
Also see M. Sabrow, “Die Historikerdebatte über den Umbruch von ”, Zeitgeschichte als Streitge-
schichte : Grosse Kontroversen seit , eds. M. Sabrow et al. (Munich : Beck, ), . For the notions of ‘hot’
and ‘cold’ history, see C. Lorenz, “Geschichte, Gegenwärtigkeit und Zeit”, Phänomen Zeit : Dimensionen und
Strukturen in Kultur und Wissenschaft, ed. D. Goltschnigg (Tübingen : Stauenburg, ), -.
See Zeitgeschichte als Problem : Nationale Traditionen und Perspektiven der Forschung, eds. A. Nützena-
del-W. Schieder (Göttingen, ) ; Zeitgeschichte heute – Stand und Perspektiven, Zeithistorische Forschun-
gen / Studies in Contemporary History, ().
Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, : “Zeithistorie agiert in unserer Gegenwart notgedrungen als
Beobachterin und Gestalterin zugleich”.
breaking up time 47
explain the past and not to produce a normative evaluation, and even less a public advise. The
second strategic rule of conduct that would guarantee contemporary history a legitimate
existence within the general culture of memory instead of in opposition to it, consists of the
capacity of metahistorical self-reection. Contrary to the other ‘players’ in the eld of ‘work-
ing with the past’, contemporary history disposes of a an armoury of methods that enable it
to create a distance to its own activities, that makes up for a lack of temporal distance with
How exactly the ‘analytical’ distance of the Zeithistoriker compensates for a lack of
temporal distance is not claried. Apparently, a good Zeithistoriker – in contrast to the
Zeitzeuge and the memorialist – just knows.
IV. ‘Past-ness’ and ‘Present-ness’
The cultural and political reality of the ‘memory boom’ has compelled historians
in search of a new professional role and theoretical legitimation for history to make
explicit what previously was based more often on implicit presuppositions than on
formal arguments – e. g., such notions as the past-ness of the past and the present-
ness of the present. As Ulrich Raul has convincingly demonstrated, novelists were
well ahead of historians in problematising the relationship between the past and the
present. On the basis of his study of ctional literature, he characterizes the twenti-
eth century as ‘the century of the present’ (Gegenwart) in contrast to the nineteenth
century, ‘the century of history’ (Geschichte). Instead of the questions about origins
that dominated nineteenth-century historical reection, the problems of presence
(Präsenz) and actuality (Aktualität) have come to dominate the literature of classical
It is remarkable that historians have rarely engaged in explicit reection on the
problem of the present and of presence, for it is clearly central to their notion of
historical time and, through the logic of negation, to their notion of the past. Their
failure to address the problem may partly be explained by the longstanding taboo
among professional historians on the writing of contemporary history or any histo-
riography that does not respect a certain waiting period – dened most often by the
opening up of archives or the dying of Zeitzeugen, but sometimes dened in straight-
forwardly chronological terms ; e. g., forty years.
So, despite the fact that they include the words ‘time’, ‘contemporaneity’ or ‘pres-
ent’ in their very names, the breakthrough of the subdisciplines of Zeitgeschichte, con-
temporary history and histoire du temps présent has not led to much critical reection
on these notions. A few exceptions notwithstanding, the widespread tendency among
historians is to focus on ever more recent events. This trend, which Lynn Hunt has
criticized as “presentism”, has paradoxically rarely led historians to raise the ques-
tion whether and in what sense their object of study can still be called ‘past’.
Neither have philosophers of history reected much on the ‘meaning’ of the no-
tions ‘past’ and ‘present’. It is signicant that although philosophers of history are
very fond of pointing out that the word ‘history’ is polysemical – referring both to
Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, -. Raul, Der unsichtbare Augenblick, .
L. Hunt, “Against Presentism”, Perspectives, XL, () <http ://www.historians.org/perspectives/
48 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
historical events (res gestae) as well as to narratives about these events (historia rerum
gestarum) – and that this is no accident but a meaningful fact, they seldom note that
the same can be said about the word ‘present’, which can refer both to the (temporal)
presence of an ‘instant’ or a ‘now’ as well as to the (material) presence of objects.
Again, there are exceptions. Recently Zachary S. Schiman has oered some in-
novative insights in his The Birth of the Past based on the argument that a dieren-
tiation has to be made between the common sense idea of the past as ‘prior time’
and the historical past dened as a time ‘dierent from the present’. Earlier Preston
King oered a profound reection on the dierent meanings that are attributed to
the notions of ‘present’ and ‘past’. King dierentiates between four distinct notions
of ‘present’ (and correlative notions of ‘past’), which are based on a ‘chronological’
notion of time as abstract temporal sequence on the one hand and a ‘substantive’ no-
tion of time as a concrete sequence of events on the other. Relying on chronological
time and depending on their duration, two senses of the present can be discerned : a
rst called the instantaneous present and a second called the extended present. Both pres-
ents are boxed in between past and future and have a merely chronological character.
While the rst, however, denes itself as the smallest possible and ever evaporating
instant dividing past and present, the second refers to a more extended period of time
(e. g., a day, a year, a century) whose limits are arbitrarily chosen but give the pres-
ent some ‘body’ or temporal depth. Because of the meaninglessness and arbitrarily
chronological character of these presents and corresponding pasts, historians often
use a more substantive frame of reference based on criteria that are themselves not
One of these substantive notions is that of the unfolding present. As long as a cho-
sen event or evolution (e. g., negotiations, a depression, a crisis, a war) is unfolding,
it demarcates a ‘present’. When it is conceived of as completed, the time in which it
unfolded is called ‘past’. King remarks that this is the only sense in which one can say
that a particular past is ‘dead’ or ‘over and done with’. Yet, he immediately warns that
any process deemed completed contains ‘sub-processes’ that are not. So, it is always
very dicult to exclude any ‘actual past’ from being part of, working in or having
inuence on this unfolding present.
In addition to the three presents already summed up (the instantaneous, extended
and unfolding), King names a fourth one which he calls the neoteric present. Drawing
a parallel to the dialectics of fashion, he notes that we often distinguish phenomena
that happen in the present but can be experienced as ‘ancient’, ‘conventional’ or ‘tra-
ditional’, from phenomena we view as being characteristic of the present, which we
designate ‘novel’, ‘innovative’ or ‘modern’.
Historical periodization, on the rst sight primarily depending on the extended
present, according to King is primarily based on the dialectics of the neoteric pres-
ent. While every notion of the present excludes its own correlative past, this does
not hold for non-correlative senses of the past. The present can thus be penetrated
by non-correlative pasts that in a substantive sense stay alive in the present : ‘The past
is not present. But no present is entirely divorced from or uninuenced by the past.
Z. S. Schiman, The Birth of the Past (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, ).
P. King, Thinking Past a Problem : Essays on the History of Ideas (London : Frank Cass, ).
breaking up time 49
The past is not chronologically present. But there is no escaping the fact that much of
it is substantively so.’
King’s analysis is important because it oers an intellectual defence against argu-
ments that posit or, as usually is the case, simply assume, the existence of a neat
divide between past and present and portray the past as ‘dead’ or entirely dierent
from the present. On the basis of his inquiry into the nature of past and past-ness and
his critical analysis of notions of present, present-ness and contemporaneity, he is
able to counter both arguments that represent history as entirely ‘passeist’ and argu-
ments that represent history as entirely ‘presentist’. In other words, King on the one
hand rejects arguments which claim that the writing of history is solely ‘about’ the
past, but on the other hand he also dismisses the claim that historiography is exclu-
sively based on present perspectives or that ‘all history is contemporary history’.
King’s sophisticated dierentiation between diverse notions of past and present, on
an analytical level indeed seems to ‘solve’ the riddles of historical time and the rela-
tion between the past and the present – and we could add : the future. However,
King does not say much about the extent to which his analytical categories can be
found in the work of historians or in broader social dealings with historicity, nor does
he point out the concrete (epistemological, cultural, political etc.) implications of his
In this article, however, we have focused precisely on the question of these more
complex ‘actual’ dealings with and performative creations of pasts and presents. Fo-
cusing on ‘actual’ pasts and presents means transcending their clear-cut analytical de-
scriptions and looking at how they emerge in impure forms, how they are entangled
and mixed up or agglutinated. On this ‘actual level’ one may, as Peter Burke rightly
puts it, expect to encounter forms of ‘contamination’ and nd out that “times are
not hermetically sealed but contaminate one another.” It may thus be worthwhile
to pay attention to the way chronological conceptualisations of time combine with
and inuence more substantive concepts of temporality in historical practice. It can
be asked, for example, what status, exactly, should be accorded to ideas about ‘short
centuries’ or ‘long centuries’, and how experiences and expectations of a n de siècle
“inuence the way historians and historical actors ‘consign’ events and processes to
history”. Focusing on the empirical level implies asking what we actually do when
we talk about past, present and future and their ‘borders’. We have argued that there
are good reasons to include the question of the ethical and political charge of tempo-
ral demarcations in empirical investigations and analyze more closely to what extent
temporal demarcations are a matter of contemplation or rather the result of perfor-
mative actions. The same reasons make us question the common idea, as expressed
B. Croce, History : Its Theory and its Practice (New York : Russell & Russell, ).
Helge Jordheim in his recent article “Against Periodization : Koselleck’s Theory of Multiple Temporali-
ties”, History and Theory, LI, () : -, oers an interpretation of Koselleck’s theory of temporalities
that points in the same direction as King.
Burke, “Reections on the Cultural History of Time” : .
Expression used by C. S. Maier, “Consigning the Twentieth Century to History : Alternative Narratives
for the Modern Era”, The American Historical Review, CV, () : -.
50 berber bevernage · chris lorenz
for example by Nathan Rotenstreich, that our relation to the past is one of reection,
while we relate to the future through ‘intervention’. Our analysis presented here sug-
gest to conceive of our relation with the past as one that also involves specic types
of performative ‘intervention’.
With Michel de Certeau, it makes sense to ask whether and in how far ‘historical
acts’ “transform contemporary documents into archives, or make the countryside
into a museum of memorable and/or superstitious traditions”. Within the current
political and cultural context it certainly seems fruitful to scrutinize de Certeau’s
thesis that the ‘circumscription’ of a ‘past,’ rather than being the product of mere
contemplation, involves an active ‘cutting o’ or an active creation of an opposition.
This means taking seriously de Certeau’s claim that within a context of social strati-
cation, historiography has often “dened as ‘past’ (that is, as an ensemble of alterities
and of ‘resistances’ to be comprehended or rejected) whatever did not belong to the
power of producing a present, whether the power is political, social, or scientic”.
It should also be clear that we do not intend to settle any ‘border conicts’ between
past, present and future. Nor do we want to make dramatic claims like those of Elisa-
beth Ermarth who describes/declares “historical time as a thing of the past”. We be-
lieve, however, that Ermarth’s deliberately ironic phrasing does raise long neglected
and important questions. Indeed, we think it is about time to ask about the historicity
of historical time, not just in the conventional sense of scrutinizing its (intellectual or
cultural) genesis or genealogy, but also in the sense of its relation to past, future and
above all to the present.
VU University Amsterdam
Rotenstreich, Time and Meaning in History, .
de Certeau, Heterologies, . As de Certeau claims in another of his works : “Une société se donne ainsi
un présent grâce à une écriture historique.” de Certeau, L’ecriture de l’histoire, .
Ermarth, Sequel to History, . Also see E. D. Ermarth, “Ph(r)ase Time-Chaos Theory and Postmodern
Reports on Knowledge”, Time & Society, IV, () : -.
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