I consider myself a lucky person, who had the chance to meet interesting people, worth talking to and worth spreading the word about. Back in September, at the 1914-2014: What if Europe fails? conference I went further with this and I had two private talks with a couple of important German historians, who were kind enough to answer my curiosities. One of them was Karl Schlögel and the other one – Jörn Leonhard. After the final lecture in the conference, I was lucky to take a more in-depth view of the ideas Professor Leonhard expressed during the event.
First of all, I would like to know from where did you get the passion for history, which can be seen whenever you are talking about this subject?
One part of the answer would be my History teacher. It may sound a little bit banal, but I think this teacher really made a big difference. I come from a family of lawyers, so most of my forefathers did different things. This history teacher was important because she told me I should always do what I was really interested in and I should never make compromises. She argued that you could do very, very good things only if you liked these things; if you like the topics, you will go the extra mile. If you force yourself to do something for which you may get more money, but which you don’t like, you will not do a good job. And I think this was an extremely good point.
The other thing was that in my family we had a lot of discussions, debates and controversies about political topics. If you discuss political topics you will, sooner or later, come up with historical arguments as well, at least in Germany. After the German Abitur, I started University and I immediately realized this was my passion, so in a way it was not finding something in a range of options, but I started with history and I already knew this was my passion.
If I were to change something in my life, I would choose history again, because, as I already mentioned, this is my real passion. But I would learn more foreign languages from Eastern Europe, which would enable me to make more of this area – to draw more comparisons, to learn more. The language is a very important tool of learning, because you can see how a word can express different feelings. I would have also loved to make this interview with you in Romanian, but I promised myself that in the future I will learn more languages.
As a Professor, you meet different kinds of students: some of them like or do not like history, some of them are more attracted to specific periods of history. How do you manage to make the youth understand history in general?
The first thing I really have to tell my students when they start studying history at the University is that very often their experience of history lessons at school is completely different from the one they will experience at University. I also tell them that history is not so much about facts, data and little facts and lot of information. If they are just interested in information, they can just as well go to Wikipedia. I really try to make them think about the interpretation of facts and how this interpretation of facts can in a way transform over historical periods. For instance, the interpretation for the First World War has changed since 1914 from generation to generation and the same would go for the French Revolution or the end of the Roman Empire. The main strategy to make people think about that is to confront them with original sources, not to learn from secondary materials, from the interpretations of the historians, but to give them an idea of what the past contemporary were thinking and most of the time this strategy works quite well. People either realize that this is what interests them or that they have to read too much and it’s not for them, because historians should be avid readers.
The other thing I want to teach my students is to look beyond the German borders. I teach European history and I am very interested in comparisons, so for my students it’s very important to learn at least two foreign languages and possibly even a third one so that they can read the original sources. I also urge them to go abroad for some time, because I think it’s particularly important for historians to be in a different environment, both to look at their German homeland from a different perspective, but also to learn about other scientific communities.
But how do you manage to teach the students to follow these advices in an era of technology, where information is all over the internet? How do you make them distinguish the trustworthy information?
I would say this is part of the art of doing history properly and not to do it as a kind of superficial collection of information, because you can find, as you say, very ambivalent information on the net. I encourage them to look for trustworthy information based on original sources wherever possible. From that point of view it’s very important to teach them that information you get from the net could be falsified and manipulated. In a way, it’s the job of a historian to find out what kind of information was generated, by which people, which were the interests that stood behind it, whether it can be used as a basis for interpreting past decades or was fabricated by the people. In a way, this is a kind of critical approach to sources and I think that this is the big advantage of studying history. If you study history properly, you develop a toolkit of critical approaches towards texts, whether they are sources from the past or the net. Many of my advanced students have this experience, because, in a way, whatever they do after the University, they can very well use the toolkit of the courses whenever they deal with this explosion of information, to approach it critically, not in a superficial way, but to really go deep into the sources and to find out whether they are reliable or not. That is the reason why historian are particularly well trained for the kind of media that we have today.
Another thing that I should mention is that the big advantage that we have with the net nowadays is that a lot of archives began to digitalize their original sources. So, for some archives, we do not have to go to Washington or London, we could just go to the web and we would find very reliable, highly approachable texts. This is a great advantage that makes the study of history much more international, because it allows people in Romania or Germany to approach sources that, ten years ago, you would have had to consult in the archives.
Which are the main lessons that we learnt from the First World War? Do you think that we can make again the same mistakes or we learned everything and now we are doing the good thing?
One thing that I tell my students when they come to my classes is that there are no easy lessons from history. It’s a natural thing for people to learn from history, but as a professional historian I have to tell them that, as we say in Germany, you never walk in the same river. History does not repeat itself, it was only an old idea of a kind of cyclical history, but we now know that this is not the case.
My argument is that, if you study the First World War, you can understand and you can see more in the present time. For instance, if you look at communication by studying the July crisis of 1914, you can see that direct political communication was in a way replaced by mutual scenarios, which work as self-fulfilling prophecies. By studying that, you develop a certain sensibility or sensitivity toward political communication as it works today. I think that a very important thing that you can learn is about the long shadows of the empires, even if they have formally collapsed. These empires and their perception of decline or uncertainty or humiliation played a very important role before 1914, if you look at Austria-Hungary and at the Ottoman Empire. You also have quite similar perceptions of great power status nowadays, for instance Putin’s arguments about the humiliation of Russia. Not trying to find him excuses, I think that it is really important to understand the collective psyche of different actors in order to respond to it. Again, if you make these analogies, it’s not about finding excuses, but about understanding your counterpart in a better and a more nuanced way. I think this is very important.
But if you study the First World War, you also find out about the differences. It’s very important to underline that very often comparisons lead to a better understanding of the differences. For instance, nowadays you don’t have, at least in most of the countries, a military lead that isn’t politically controlled, but before 1914, in Germany, and also in other countries, most of the military elites were not politically controlled and they developed their own logic of the military planning and military thinking. This contributed in a lot of ways to the outbreak of the war.
Another difference that I would like to mention is that First World War began as a state war, whereas nowadays we have completely different forms of violence, which has become asymmetric, dislocated, very fluid and has a lot to do with the modern media, with the presence of the images on the internet. This is very important especially for the perceptions of violence in Western countries and the Western world and also in the number of casualties. So, in a way, all these analogies lead to a better and more differentiated understanding of the present.
Because you mentioned the important role that the nation states had in 1914, I would ask you how they are dealing with the present situation, because, at least in theory, we do not encounter the same nation state as we had a century ago. How does the European Union contribute to the identity of the nation states?
I would argue that there is a tension that you also pointed to. In one end, in the European Union we have a lot of national integration and what we see is that the old paradigm of nation state becomes more and more problematic. As historians, we are used to the fact that we deconstruct the nation, we regard it as an invented tradition, we talk about imagined community and we make sure to teach our students that the nation is in many ways an invention of the 19th century; that it’s not something that existed since the beginning of the world. We have in many ways historicized the nation and the nation states and I think from a German point of view, this is obvious, because of this catastrophic history of the German nation state in the 20th century. I think that many Germans, for that reason alone, welcomed the European integration, because it was a possibility for them to come back to a family of states or the political scene, whatever you want to name it.
But the extraordinary thing is that this is only half of the story, because as with the empires, we see that nations and nation states have a very long shadow. In particular, during times of crisis, people do not refer to the European Union, but they refer to their nation state for help. We could see that, when the financial crisis broke out in 2008, it was not Brussels that, in the eyes of most contemporaries, offered help or symbolic security, but it was the own nation state and government. In a certain way, this crisis triggered a lot of relapses into the nation states and national thinking. That explains why for many European societies the problem of how to rescue states in trouble like Greece and Spain has become very difficult.
The idea of many politicians in Brussels, the metaphor of the train that goes into one direction, that there is more integration, more of a kind of United States of Europe, if you want, it’s only half of the story. The nation states and nations still play a very important role in terms of emotional identification.
Due to some technical issues, the rest of the interview was not recorded. But the discussion went on, without us realising the problems or even how fast the time passed. I was eager to learn more from Professor Jörn Leonhard, whom I had only met for a few minutes then. I wanted to see how he perceived Romania and the Romanian society. He pointed mainly to the architectural mix of styles, noting that this may have more influence than we ever thought on society. Being passionate about the Imperial history of the beginning of the 20th century, Professor Jörn Leonhard was impressed to see different layers of history in the same place. During the guided tour he took while in Bucharest, he noticed the French influence in the boulevards contrasting with Ceausescu’s blockhouses or the People’s Palace.
The last topic of discussion was related to the 1989 Revolutions and the breakdown of the communist regimes. During those times of change, Professor Jörn Leonhard was a student and in the summer of 1989 he was travelling along with other colleagues of his to France, to see the ceremonies of the bicentenary of the French Revolution. While returning from France, they were having heated debates as to whether there will be or not other revolutions at that point of the human evolution and the conclusion was that those kind of changes belong to the past. They, as Professor Jörn Leonhard recalls, were not aware of the change that was coming upon them in just a few weeks, when, on the night of 9/10th of November, the Berlin Wall fell apart. That year brought massive changes in the societies, with the people of the East trying to fill the void of evolution and with those in the West trying to understand what was really going on. The change was seen in the street, the Eastern parts of the Germany bearing the marks of 50 years of communism, presenting themselves as time capsules with lots of elements of daily life from the ‘50s or ‘60s.
I left the meeting place with mixed feelings. I felt very inspired by the passion of Jörn Leonhard and happy to spread the word about him and his views, but also not sure if I had captured every bit of knowledge I wished for. Of course, this would have been impossible during an hour of talks, but someday I may be lucky enough to meet him again. Who knows?
 The Abitur represents the exam marking the finishing of highschool in Germany.