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Extract of the Volker Berghahn Interview

Volker Berghahn

My memories are very fond because Warwick was a very dynamic university”: Volker Berghahn looks back at his Warwick years.

Volker Berghahn, who was born in Germany in 1938, is the Seth Low Emeritus Professor at the Columbia University. Educated in the US and London, Professor Berghahn was at Warwick between 1975 and 1988. In late 1980s he moved to Brown University, and in 1998 to Columbia. Professor Berghahn is one of the internationally most esteemed historians of 19th and 20th century German history. While living in Leamington, Marion Berghahn, his wife, also founded what is today Berghahn Books, a key academic publisher in modern German and European studies.

Professor Berghahn was interviewed by Dr Anna Hájková, his successor as the History Department’s historian of modern Germany, in May 2014. The following is extracted from a longer interview.

[AH]: I want to hear about how was Warwick for you? How do you remember it?

[VB]: I have very fond memories of Warwick, partly because this was my big decision after I had finished my habilitation thesis [second book in the German system] at the University of Mannheim; I didn’t like the German university education system very much and had been spoilt by the British one as a doctoral student in London, and so I decided that, if there was a chance for me to go back to the UK, I would seize it. I was very fortunate because there was an opening at the University of East Anglia.

After six years in Norwich where we had a really happy time, the University of Warwick came to me and asked me whether I was interested in applying for a professorship that they had advertised and I was fortunate enough to get it. In the meantime, I had been promoted from an Assistant Lecturer to Reader at UEA and that probably helped because a professorship in those days was still quite unusual.

I taught mainly Central European History, but we also had these “bread and butter courses”. So that was our very smooth transition and my memories are also so favourable because Warwick was quite a dynamic university. One reason why I was interested in moving was that I had become interested in business history and industrial history and Warwick was a much better place to be doing this than Norwich. This is also when I began to develop my transatlantic interests. There were a number of studies that had come out at the time on German-American business relations, but also on cultural and socio-political relations.

There were many contacts between British and Continental European historians, partly because the Centre for Social History was just along the corridor from the History Department, where E.P. Thompson had originally taught and where quite a number of British social historians – Tony Mason, for instance – worked.

[AH]: I was just about to ask you about the legacy of the ‘Thompsonianism’ at Warwick.

[VB]: Well, as far as this corridor was concerned, I think relations were close. Of course, History was changing more generally at the time because it was moving from a top-down history to a history from the bottom up, and that’s where E.P. Thompson and his work was very influential. There was also a growing interest, not in quantification that you had in Economic History and Economics, but more in cultural and qualitative approaches to historical writing.

[AH]: Last fall [2013] I was in Harvard at a conference about fifty years of the Making of the English Working Class and many participants examined Thompson at Warwick and it was really interesting to hear the recollections about the old days of revolt. What was the aftermath of Thompson’s leaving?

[VB]: Well, this tradition, obviously, continued historiographically; it was very influential; many people designed their courses in terms of the more general shift away from labour-institutional and organizational history to a history of the voiceless and unorganized that was making inroads increasingly into our teaching.

We were teaching and committed to it. There was a good deal of dialogue and wrestling with what we were doing in the History Department and how to design our curriculum. My sense is that by and large we got on well; there were no major conflicts and not the kind of acrimony that you got in some other departments.

[AH]: How many people were there approximately in the Department then?

[VB]: We were about twenty-five, if I remember correctly. But what was so interesting is that partly because of this lack of mobility, we didn’t have a single woman in the Department; we were trying to fill a position but there were so few of them.

[AH]: I wonder about the legacies of British Marxism in the 1970s, the History Workshop. Was there a Warwick variant of that whole thought? Timothy Mason was a German historian.

[VB]: Yes, there was Marxism, but it was a cultural Marxism, it was not orthodox. There was a big debate about this and that’s why we still read the rather short introduction to E.P. Thompson’s book where he says that the British working class is not a class that rose at the appointed time, like the sun; rather it was a class that made itself. And, indeed, when you read the Communist Manifesto that is where the two parts come together – self-mobilisation, on the one hand, but also the larger structural historical and dialectical forces of world history which the old man saw underlying all of human history. Orthodox Marxism never caught on very much in the U.S. either. At Madison, Wisconsin, you had a strong tradition of labour history and at some of the other big Midwestern universities where people wrote in a Thompsonite mode. As to Tim Mason, I don’t think his arguments about German working class cut much ice. Here, I think, the Thompsonites remained quite anti-German, and there was – if I may put it rather provocatively - an “enormous condescension of posterity” towards the weakness of the German working class in the 1930s.

[AH]: At Warwick, we are absolutely aware of the difference between this cultural Marxism and the orthodox structuralist Marxism. I just thought I’d ask about possible links.

[VB]: As I said earlier, the student rebellion was much more radical in Germany at Berlin university and in Frankfurt, or in Italy than it ever was in Britain and also on the Warwick campus. There were debates and there were people who were Thompsonites, but they didn’t project themselves as American academics would. Overall British academic culture was gentler and you didn’t have violent arguments about things. You would stand on the soapbox on Hyde Park Corner rather to get involved in street battles. And that was probably also true of the History Department. Preserving the social peace, co-operating, and getting along was more important than having the most awful fights that academics elsewhere so easily get involved in.