Understanding the bewildering events of one's own lifetime is a challenge, because this is a history whose embers still smolder, as the cliché would have it. Contemporary commentators struggle with incomplete access to documents, must evaluate developments before their full consequences are known and have to navigate in a highly politicized terrain. But there are also compensatory advantages to temporal proximity, such as a greater sense of urgency, a chance to interview key actors, and a deeper understanding due to personal experience (1). Media presentations on television, in films and in sound bites, the testimonies of eye-witnesses, and the memorialization in museums and historic sites guarantee a strong public interest in recent events. But intense attention also requires students of the recent past to make special efforts to maintain standards of scholarly objectivity (2).
Contemporary German history is especially contested, since it has to deal with the "double burden" of two dictatorships in which Germans were materially involved – the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (3). While leftist intellectuals primarily emphasize Hitler's atrocities in order to legitimize their anti-Fascist stance, conservative commentators instead stress Communist depredations so as to justify their credo of anti-Communism. A normative anti-totalitarianism tends to equate both dictatorships abstractly, but it would be more useful to compare dictatorial regimes concretely to establish their similarities and differences – the two regimes employed similar tools of repression, but the Nazis were more inclined to murder, and the East German secret police managed a much deeper penetration into citizens' daily lives (4).
Historians of postwar Germany also confront the difficult question of narrative structure. The division into two rivaling states militates in favor of a separate presentation of the Western Federal Republic of Germany, integrated into the NATO alliance as well as the European Community, and the Eastern German Democratic Republic, tied to the Warsaw Pact and COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). Since their developments were largely conditioned by their membership in opposite ideological blocs during the Cold War, most of the literature treats them as distinctive political systems largely without reference to each other (5). Yet this division fails to reflect the many rivalries and interconnections between the Federal Republic and the GDR that dominated their asymmetrical relationship. A more productive approach would follow an integrated perspective that centers on the shared challenges and different responses in East and West (6).
(1) Hans-Günter Hockerts, "Zeitgeschichte in Deutschland. Begriff, Methoden, Themenfelder," Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, B 29-30 (1993), pp. 3-19; Christoph Kleßmann, "Zeitgeschichte als wissenschaftliche Aufklärung," Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, B 51/2 (2002), pp. 3-12.
(2) Konrad H. Jarausch and Martin Sabrow, eds., Verletztes Gedächtnis. Erinnerungskultur und Zeitgeschichte im Konflikt (Frankfurt am Main, 2002).
(3) Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. Fourth edition (New York, 2000); Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory. The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, MA, 1997); Corey Ross, The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR (New York, 2002); Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship. Inside the GDR, 1949-1989 (Oxford, 1995); Anna-Sabine Ernst, "A Survey of Institutional Research on the GDR. Between 'Investigative History' and Solid Research: The Reorganization of Historical Studies about the Former German Democratic Republic," Central European History 28 (1995), pp. 373-395.
(4) Konrad H. Jarausch and Michael Geyer, Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories (Princeton, NJ, 2003).
(5) For recent examples, see Manfred Görtemaker, Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Von der Gründung bis zur Gegenwart (Munich, 1999); and Klaus Schroeder, Der SED-Staat. Partei, Staat und Gesellschaft 1949-1990 (Munich, 1998).
(6) Peter Bender, Episode oder Epoche? Zur Geschichte des geteilten Deutschland (Munich, 1996); Konrad H. Jarausch, "'Die Teile als Ganzes erkennen'. Zur Integration der beiden deutschen Nachkriegsgeschichten," Zeithistorische Forschungen 1 (2004), pp. 10-30.