By James Pasternak
According to German scholars, the two essential prerequisites for good archival research are the ability to read meticulously and a requisite amount of Sitzfleisch (perseverance; the ability to sit for long durations due to natural padding to the hind quarters). No mention is made of air conditioning, which is still an unusual amenity in European archives.
During the intolerably humid summer of 2006, I traveled to Germany after receiving a Graduate Research Partnership Program fellowship (GRPP) to undertake dissertation-related research in archives and libraries in Berlin and Leipzig. The fellowship is designed to support collaborative projects between graduate students and faculty. The research I conducted forms the basis of one aspect of my dissertation research, which discusses the role 19th century medievalists played in the construction of contemporary German cultural identity.
The medievalists’ politicized representations of the imperial motif of the German Middle Ages as a model for their own age contributed centrally toward the phenomenon commonly referred to as “medievalism." Viewed from the perspective of the medievalists themselves, this medievalism could also be considered their attempt to influence Germany’s “future history" in favor of idealized medieval precedents. This is precisely where their artistic “emplotment" of history intersects with the scientific historical process of “mapping" the Germanic Middle Ages. In this sense, the depiction of medieval German history as a series of sisyphusian near-triumphs and disastrous setbacks in the historical quest for an idealized “German imperial destiny" considers the Middle Ages in terms of its tragic, or even ironic, features. Specific events—such as the Ottonians’ power politics with the Papacy, the subsequent development of the Investiture Controversy, and medieval German colonization policies in the East—captured the imagination of many 19th century thinkers. The way in which this dramatic representation of the medieval past, viewed in terms of historical “victories" and “failures," influenced identity construction is that the medieval era was believed to hold relevant German lessons directly applicable to the modern age.
Upon receiving the GRPP, I visited the archives of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, the Secret Prussian State Archives, and the manuscript division of the Albertina library at the University of Leipzig. This experience motivated me to read “behind the scenes" of German historiography. In the archives, I reviewed documents numbering in the thousands, and I returned with over 700 photocopied pages of scrawled handwritten correspondences, lecture notes, public speeches, academic addresses, and handwritten manuscripts from several renowned German medievalists such as Karl Hampe, Karl Lamprecht, Dietrich Schäfer and Albert Brackmann from the period between 1871 and the end of the Weimar Republic. These documents will help me construct a picture of how medieval studies was done at the turn of the 20th century, but the mapping of the medievalists’ trade represents only one part of my research. In addition to analyzing the structure and content of the medievalists’ works, my overarching interest in discovering how they wrote about the past involves a study of narrative strategies employed in what historians have typically described as an empirical historical process.
I will be the first to admit that I am a bit of an antiquarian, and that my chronic case of bibliophilia has led me to pursue coursework in GSD in medieval studies. Although my primary interest resides in 19th century literature, the cross-disciplinary and historical breadth of my research requires a large degree of collaboration, both within and outside the department. This need was met as I began to work with Professor Jim Parente, whose seminars in medieval and Reformation-era Germany captured my interest and gave greater form and direction to my dissertation work and to my understanding of conceptual shifts in German cultural identity. Our collaborative work also has a geographic aspect: Professor Parente’s interest in the historiography and literature of the Low Countries and my own orientation toward Eastern Europe have formed the basis of productive collaboration on what might be considered the “middle ground" of Germany, where our perception of Germany assumes a broader European character apart from the obvious national orientation of the medievalist phenomenon in Germany.
Whether representations of the Middle Ages took the form of literary fiction, historical writing, or the hybrid literary genre of the historical novel, all approach their subject matter with a shared desire to tell a good story and to create a version of reality that is possible for readers to believe. For German medievalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, this resulted in a sort of historical “emplotment" of the German imperial middle ages, which often assumed dimensions transcending time and space. In an essay written at the end of the Weimar era, Karl Hampe, a medievalist at the University of Heidelberg from 1903-1935 and a self-professed avid reader of Otto von Bismarck’s speeches, cast Bismarck as a modern-day representative of the medieval imperial tradition connecting the imperial past with the imperial present. His essay “The Personality of Charles" directly compared Bismarck’s achievements with those of Charlemagne, and, in a passage not unusual for the early 1930s, even went so far as to compare the two leaders based on a perceived similarity of their physical characteristics. In the same essay, Hampe also compared Charlemagne’s contributions to German culture with those of Goethe!
In Hampe’s mind, the legacy of the German imperial past dissolved chronological barriers, permitting comparisons between past and present on the basis of a desired continuity of culture. These celebrations of German culture, which were the understood goal of medieval scholarship throughout the 19th century, were anachronistic, but they were also the site of cultural identity construction through which medievalism as a broader sociological phenomenon shaped art, literature, and historical writing.