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A Direct Detour – What contemporary historian Frank Bösch brought to Potsdam

Frank Bösch, Professor of German and European 20th Century History at the University of Potsdam and Director of the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF). Picture: Karla Fritze

Frank Bösch, Professor of German and European 20th Century History at the University of Potsdam and Director of the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF). Picture: Karla Fritze

Frank Bösch’s office is spacious—and necessarily so. A shelf covering a whole wall is filled with countless folders. Books jockey for attention in piles on the desk and floor. Scholarship is being organized and conducted here. Bösch is Professor for German and European 20th Century History at the University of Potsdam and Director of the Center for Contemporary History (ZZF), one of the largest institutes for historical studies in Germany. About 80 historians work on numerous projects about German and European history. Bösch likely has little time to look out of his big office windows at the remarkable Neuer Markt, a square steeped in history. Contemporary history is the 45-year-old researcher’s life’s work, and it has brought him here. His seemingly direct career path has, he says, been shaped by two things: places and coincidence.

“I actually wanted to study something else,” says Bösch. “Architecture, chemistry or environmental technology, for example, but I was interested in so many things that I eventually ended up with history, which allows you to deal with a variety of things – from economy and media issues to politics. Since I have a keen interest in politics I was immediately fascinated by contemporary history – also as prehistory to the present.”

For Bösch, historical research is unique due to its access. Files, archives, and sources – inaccessible to contemporaries and other disciplines like political science – shed light on things and connections that impact the present. In his 2002 book Geschichte der CDU, Bösch analyzed the party’s history leading up to the Merkel era. That history will never be able to completely “catch up to” the present is not a disadvantage in his mind. “The present repeatedly sharpens our awareness and perspective of the past, just as analyzing the past influences our understanding of the present.”

Bösch thinks that historical research should be done near where history happened. “History has played an increasingly important role in our everyday lives since the 1980s. You can experience this everywhere Potsdam, a place where history is still ‘smoldering’ and its representation is continuously being negotiated.” Attention should not be limited to the “big places”, where globally momentous decisions were made and events took place. The analytical gaze of the historian on seemingly insignificant details or sleepy places forgotten by history can reveal traces of the passage of time, he explains. The region and its involvement in – mainly German-German – history is extremely visible in the daily work of the ZZF. Many large and small student projects and theses focus on concrete places, for example Bösch’s and his students’ research on Glienicke Brücke, Café Heider, and the Hotel Mercure. “As a historian you have to answer big questions in small, intensively researched places and regions,” Bösch says. “The Mercure, a former Interhotel, a chain of East German luxury hotels, for example is a place where you can study the history of tourism in East Germany, gastronomy, international building policy of the 1960s as well as forms of government in East Germany. In this way, we are able to demonstrate how seemingly distant history is connected to familiar knowledge.”

Bösch’s own career as a historian is – in a way reversely – marked by the places he worked. He started studying history, German language and literature, and political science in Hamburg and completed his doctorate in Göttingen. At this renowned center of party research, his dissertation topic was easy to find. His 2001 book Die Adenauer CDU was the “first comprehensive party history based on archive material”. “I wanted to know: How has the CDU been able to remain the strongest force in Germany for so long?” The secret of their success, as he summarizes, has been primarily integration techniques uniting various Catholic and Protestant milieus. The party succeeded by using a system of proportional representation, making generous concessions with regard to posts, its strong economic foundation, and a common, uniting language.

While still in Göttingen, the young researcher was able to publish his dissertation with a renowned German publisher, yet Bösch thought about turning his back on academia due to poor professional prospects and instead becoming a journalist or a teacher. In 2002, however, a new opportunity arose – one of the first advertised junior professorships. “It was a great chance to work independently while gaining teaching experience.” He researched the significance of scandals and their impact on social norms in the German Empire and in Victorian Britain at Ruhr-Universität Bochum until 2007 – inspired by his previous research in Göttingen on the CDU donations scandal. This was a radical change, and he still thinks it was very enriching. “As a historian you have to be a specialist, but I think it is good to change your research topic every five years.”

Through his research he was able to show that scandals in Europe around 1900 became immensely important both publically and politically – especially during the struggle for general norms and values. The new mass press with its millions of readers made it possible to widely negotiate central social conflicts in public through individual scandals. Political communication changed substantially as a result, and journalists and politicians alike knew how to use it to their advantage. He researched some of the major scandals of that time, for example on homosexuality, colonialism, corruption, and transgressions of monarchs to analyze how they were communicated and received. He analyzed not only newspapers, magazines, and court files but also individual communication, like letters and diaries of decision-makers and those affected by them, as well as “pub minutes”, which contained information gathered by police informants about what the people were discussing. “These minutes illustrate which scandals were considered laughable and which were seriously discussed,” the historian says. “It became clear: Pub talks were proxy debates for fundamental societal conflicts.”

Bösch already had a deeper interest in the 20th century history of media when he began researching these scandals. It became clear that the scandals emerged with the change of the mass media and its new power. Bösch wanted to stay true to the fortunate coincidence: Shortly before submitting his postdoctoral thesis, he was offered a professorship at Justus Liebig University Gießen, still a rare feat for a humanities scholar. His research in Gießen focused on the influence of media on almost all social fields. “With a professorship I was able to approach the topic much more broadly,” he explains. “We examined how a society changes with the sudden arrival of newspapers, telegraphy, and television. What are the consequences for groups, nation building, gender, war, etc.?” He explored these questions in a book that outlined how media has changed since the advent of book printing.

He also became spokesperson of the DFG Graduate Center “Transnational Media Events from Early Modern Times to the Present Time”. This position enabled him to collaborate and interact with literature, media, and cultural scholars as well as gain useful experience in doctoral training and coordinating large-scale projects.
In 2011 Bösch and his family took the last step for now – to Potsdam. “I wanted a change again,” he says. With offers in both Cologne and Potsdam, he ultimately accepted the position in Brandenburg’s capital. He finds it easy advertising for his current home and workplace. “Potsdam is a wonderful city. I enjoy being able to combine my work and personal life in this way.”

Why does he appreciate the ZZF? Because “it is one of the biggest research institutions on contemporary history in Europe – with a broad research program spanning culture to economy, from East Germany to the current Federal Republic. Our research on German-German social history in a European context gives our institute its distinctive profile,” says the ZZF Director. Bösch easily gets carried away when talking about the center’s projects. One of his major projects at the moment is analyzing computerization since the 1950s – of course comparing the two German states. “When we talk about future research topics, we aim to take up relevant issues and to approach them in a novel way,” he explains. “There are many books about the Stasi in East Germany but not one about how they used computers. We want to find out how the surveillance of people, telephones, and letters changed after computers first appeared on desktops. Central political decisions like pension reform would also not have been possible without computers. We want to analyze current problems using new questions.”

His new position is undoubtedly a big change for him. The ZZF grants a considerable degree of academic freedom to the approximately 80 researchers in selecting and working on their topics. As one of two directors, Bösch meets with each of them at least once a year to talk about their current state of research and takes part in deciding on the overall line of research for the center’s four large departments.

The relatively minimal teaching of only one lecture per week was new for him. In return, he reserves a whole day each week during the semester to work with students and colleagues at the Historical Institute of the University, which is “a certain kind of extravagance considering all the things going on here,” but this is something the researcher consciously grants himself.

Bösch has not buried his own research ambitions. “It is not the directors’ aim to just drown in management responsibilities but to continue going to the archives and publishing.” The title of his new project is “Answers to the Crisis” and remains true to his goal of reconstructing global history exemplified by seemingly regional events in the 1970s. “I want to unfold the transnational negotiation of major problems by analyzing minor events. The aim is a regional history of globalization, a history of interdependence.”

The Researcher

Prof. Frank Bösch studied history, German language and literature, and political science at the universities of Hamburg and Göttingen. After having worked in Bochum, London, and Gießen he became Director of the ZZF in 2011 and Professor of German and European 20th Century History at the University of Potsdam.


Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam e.V.
Am Neuen Markt 1
14467 Potsdam
E-Mail: boeschzzf-pdmde 

The Centre for Contemporary History (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung – ZZF) is an interdisciplinary research institute of German and European history based in Potsdam.
It was initially funded as a new academic initiative of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, from 1996 by the German Research Association (DFG) and the state of Brandenburg. The ZZF was founded in 1992 in the wake of the German unification process as a humanities institute focusing on historical studies.
Since 2009 the ZZF has been a member of the Leibniz Association. The institute’s academic research is currently organized into four departments researching the following subjects: social history of communism, history of economic activities, contemporary history of the media and information society, and the regime of the social.

Text: Matthias Zimmermann, Translation: Susanne Voigt
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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