To what should one attribute the palpable discomfort displayed by many scholars in respect of research commissioned by corporations, foundations or ministries seeking to understand their own history – whether those scholars are the direct beneficiaries of such commissions or not? While a certain kind of journalistic polemic against such research projects – the kind which lends itself to simplistic headlines such as ‘history to order’ or ‘history for sale’, and which provides correspondingly easy opportunities for simplistic posturing – is as easy to predict as it is easy to dismiss, the deeper sense of unease surrounding the functional utility of historical scholarship, if not necessarily its direct instrumentalisation, is less speedily dispelled. The reason for this, arguably, lies in the usually unacknowledged, but thoroughly raw nerve these commissions inevitably touch, one which forces to the front of our professional identity the basically ambivalent nature of historians’ relationship to power.
On the one hand, an integral part of what unites the most disparate fields of scholarly inquiry into the past into something which can meaningful be described as a discrete discipline is the centrality of the critique of power and its operations to what historians do. On a crudely empirical level this is what unites historians interested in patterns of land ownership in fourteenth century Italy with historians of the Vietnam War, or scholars of gender in early modern Russia with historians of Japanese colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whether it be Marxist accounts of the dialectic of historical change rooted in the contest for economic resource, critiques of the dispersal and exercise of power through institutional frameworks derived from the German sociological tradition of historical research, or structuralist and poststructuralist critiques of the workings of culture and language – the search for power, its governing principles, forms and effects have been at the centre of what historians seek to make sense of.
On the other hand, however, historians are themselves deeply embedded in the structures of power that, in other contexts, they seek to critique. On a banal – but in this context highly relevant – level they work inside of institutions and are thus engaged in constant competition for acknowledgement, prestige and resource, both as individuals within those institutions and when working on their behalf. The complexity of this culture, and the challenge of locating the workings of power within it, lies not least in the fact that individual scholars can simultaneously be the dispensers of such prestige and resource in one context and its recipients in another. They may sit on commissions or committees which decide over the distribution of grant money in the morning, then spend the afternoon working on a grant bid for submission to another foundation – knowing that the future of their own research project, and perhaps the employment prospects of their colleagues, depend on a successful outcome. They do so knowing simultaneously that rational scholarly judgement of the inherent quality of the project under discussion by trusted, independent arbiters determines the outcomes, but also that as scholars working within the discipline these judges are similarly participants in the same wider competition for resource and prestige, invest their time and energy not least for this reason, and exercise their judgements accordingly – not, of course, directly on their own behalf, but in the knowledge that power has its networks, and that networks know how to reward. This does not mean that academic judgement is suspended, or that academic quality does not count. To suggest this would be as absurd as the journalist polemic already dismissed. It merely acknowledges that the contest for resource takes place within a wider structure of power which is governed by something more complex than the operation of disinterested reason.
The place of historians within wider cultures of power becomes still harder to locate once one moves beyond locating the obviously institutional aspects of that power to considering the place of history and its dominant epistemologies, and the diverse places in which those are expressed, asserted, valorised, used and reinforced within a culture more generally. What is the link between the expert knowledge generated within the academy – knowledge which is sometimes barely comprehensible, let alone useful, to more than a handful of other experts – and the diverse, competing and contesting representations of the past circulating through a society more widely? Not all discourses on the past are informed by academic understandings, of course: indeed, it is striking how many such discourses are completely untouched by and unconnected to modes or repositories of knowledge generated by professional academics. Yet from serving on advisory committees in museums to acting as speechwriters for politicians, from contributing articles on historical themes to the daily news media to acting as judges in competitions to design memorials, the expert knowledge of professional historians not only helps to shape how a wider array of institutions and actors communicate to a broader public, but also legitimates the rhetorical interventions of these actors in a wide variety of public debates. Insofar as these debates have a disputatious quality, or have their own implications for the distribution of resource – perhaps most obviously when issues of compensation for historic injustices are in the air – the aura of authority with which a respected scholar’s voice can endow a particular position necessarily takes on the quality of a political resource.
These very general reflections are intended less to insist on a particular understanding of where, precisely, historians and their work sit in the power cultures of modernity than to remind that a broader perspective is needed if we are to make sense of what precisely may be at stake when historians take on the high profile commissions which have gained so much attention of late. It may be countered, of course, that such remarks operate on such a level of generalisation that they lose any operable meaning and thus offer no helpful starting points for orientating oneself in the specific problem at hand – that pointing these things out is no more helpful than telling all churchgoers that they are sinners, and that the task of differentiating precisely between different levels of sin remains. This is indeed true, but, to pursue the analogy – it is just as important to jettison the ‘holier than thou’ (päpstlicher als der Papst) stance which many historians and commentators, writing from a rhetorical position of imagined scholarly purity, but animated, one suspects, by more than a little professional jealousy, have brought to bear on the problem. That there is something worth discussing is palpably clear, but the starting point has to be a degree of self-awareness and self-criticism not always as evident in the profession as it perhaps ought to be.
What, then, of the commissions themselves? The first, most obvious recent manifestation of the engagement of historical commissions has been that witnessed in the corporate world. Since the mid-1980s, and especially since the 1990s, a large number of German – and increasingly also foreign – corporations have opened their archives to teams of historians financed by the corporations themselves to examine their pasts. Starting with the initial project undertaken by the Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte on the history of Daimler-Benz AG in the “Third Reich” (published in 1987) and the Volkswagen project carried out by Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger (published in 1996), there has been a huge wave of company-sponsored histories examining the behaviour of individual companies in almost all branches of the economy during the Nazi era. As the involvement of the company-sponsored Gesellschaft für Unternehmengeschichte in some of these projects demonstrates, the dividing line between the pursuit of Traditionspflege by the companies themselves and the pursuit of independent, critically-minded historical scholarship has been less hard-and-fast than might initially be assumed; even where corporations have engaged independent commissions rather than give the Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte the task, an element of public relations and image management has been in evidence. As Klaus-Dietmar Henke noted in respect of the Dresdner Bank project in which he participated, “Die Dresdner Bank im Dritten Reich zu untersuchen wurde möglich, als ihr Vorstand erkannte, daß fortgesetzte Indifferenz gegenüber dem Verhalten des eigenen Unternehmens im Nationalsozialismus mehr geschäftlichen und moralischen Schaden als Nutzen zu stiften begann.” Indeed, only the most naïve of commentators would suggest that corporations’ engagement with their difficult pasts was prompted by disinterested curiosity in a history which had now faded sufficiently to be a matter of purely scholarly concern: the wave of company-sponsored histories which has emerged in the last two decades would be simply unthinkable outside of the context provided by the compensation debate. For the businesses concerned, contemporary corporate interests remained at the centre of the process at all times.