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Historians and Ideology: Images of the German Past between Reichsgründung and National Socialism


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


Far from simply adhering to the Rankean ideal of representing the past ´wie es eigentlich gewesen´, many German historians writing around the turn of the twentieth century actively framed their representations of history in certain ways, to serve their own rhetorical and ideological purposes. To them, the German past served first and foremost as a reservoir of political arguments, constituting a battleground of divergent interpretations and explanations, where contemporary issues could be projected onto historical events.

In the course of this research seminar, we will investigate this dynamic link between historiography and ideology during the turbulent period spanning from the proclamation of the German Empire (1871) to the collapse of the Nazi dictatorship in 1945. How did the long sequence of political turning points, the transition from empire to republic and from republic to dictatorship – as well as the traumatic upheaval of two World Wars – determine the way German intellectuals envisioned their own national past(s)? What roles did Germanic antiquity, Charlemagne, and the German emperors of the Middle Ages assume in the political machinations of völkisch nationalists, liberals and social democrats? How were the Lutheran Reformation and Prussian militarism encapsulated into the grand narratives of National Socialism and German Communism?

These are some of the issues that will be addressed through the study of primary sources, including writings by prominent intellectuals – such as Ernst Troeltsch and Friedrich Meinecke, among others – and their lesser-known contemporaries, as well as more popular images of the German past as expressed in opera, film, monuments, the visual arts, commemoration ceremonies, speeches and political propaganda. These sources will be studied in tandem with secondary literature on theories of collective and cultural memory, in relation to political ideology and the process of nation-building.

On a more abstract level, we will also examine how the very concept of history itself fluctuated in accordance with the succession of political currents, and how the central concepts of historical continuity and discontinuity were played out in the opposing and overlapping ideological discourses of this period. All these topics will bring to light the reciprocal relationship between past and present, as well as the interplay between cultural memory and political identity.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

    1. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtrack as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;

  • in the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800;

    1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  • 13) Will become familiarized with methodologies for studying the history of political ideas and their effect on the construction of historical narratives;

  • 14) Will develop the ability to provide and handle constructive academic feedback;

  • 15) Will become familiar with the critical analysis of primary sources pertaining to the construction of ideologically charged images of the past;

  • 16) (ResMA only) Will be able to pioneer new approaches or new research questions on the topic.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-16

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 14

  • Assignment: source criticism
    measured learning objectives: 13-15

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 5-7, 8-10, 15


  • Written paper: 70 %

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Assignment: 10%

  • Participation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Reading list

Required literature will be made available via Brightspace and in the university library.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. S. Halink