Biography Between Structure and Agency

Biography Between Structure and Agency: Central European Lives in International Historiography

Volker R. Berghahn
Simone Lässig
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Biography Between Structure and Agency
    Book Description:

    While bookstore shelves around the world have never ceased to display best-selling "life-and-letters" biographies in prominent positions, the genre became less popular among academic historians during the Cold War decades. Their main concern then was with political and socioeconomic structures, institutions, and organizations, or-more recently-with the daily lives of ordinary people and small communities. The contributors to this volume-all well known senior historians-offer self-critical reflections on problems they encountered when writing biographies themselves. Some of them also deal with topics specific to Central Europe, such as the challenges of writing about the lives of both victims and perpetrators. Although the volume concentrates on European historiography, its strong methodological and conceptual focus will be of great interest to non-European historians wrestling with the old "structure-versus-agency" question in their own work.

    Contributors:Volker R. Berghahn, Hartmut Berghoff, Hilary Earl, Jan Eckel, Willem Frijhoff, Ian Kershaw, Simone Lassig, Karl Heinrich Pohl, John C. G. Rohl, Angelika Schaser, Joachim Radkau, Cornelia Rauh-Kuhne, Mark Roseman, Christoph Strupp and Michael Wildt.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-049-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction: Biography in Modern History—Modern Historiography in Biography
    (pp. 1-26)
    Simone Lässig

    Biography is one of the more demanding and popular genres of historical scholarship, yet at the same time it is contested and controversial. What has seemed to some to be the royal road to historical writing has been to others a source of irritation and controversy.¹ It seemed to be a small step from the growing disenchantment with Historicism after 1945 to the fundamental criticism of biography in the 1970s: biography seemed especially resistant to the conceptual claims of those historians who were seeking a theory-driven historical science, who were deeply skeptical about purely hermeneutical approaches, and who tended to...

  5. Chapter 2 Biography and the Historian: Opportunities and Constraints
    (pp. 27-39)
    Ian Kershaw

    The question this volume poses is whether we are experiencing a “biographical turn” in historical writing. I am not sure whether we are able to give a definitive answer to the question, though I suspect that underlying our project is an implicit assumption that such a shift is indeed taking place. Which, then, raises the question: why? I will try to offer my own briefest of answers to this question, but will then go on to consider a further issue and relate this in part to my own work: what are the possibilities and pitfalls of a biographical approach to...

  6. Chapter 3 Dreams and Nightmares: Writing the Biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II
    (pp. 40-50)
    John C.G. Röhl

    More than twenty-five years have passed since I began work on a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941), the last German emperor and King of Prussia, the final volume of which will be published in September 2008. The first volume, amounting to nearly 1000 pages and covering the Prince’s childhood and youth up to his accession to the throne in 1888, was published in Germany in 1993.¹ An English translation followed a few years later.² The second volume, dealing with the first part of the Kaiser’s reign and focusing in particular on the extent of his personal power, appeared...

  7. Chapter 4 Gustav Stresemann: A German Bürger?
    (pp. 51-71)
    Karl Heinrich Pohl

    To attempt to write about Gustav Stresemann today seems a rather foolhardy undertaking. In recent years, more than a dozen biographies have been published, including some that are extremely well-researched and extensive. Three have appeared since 2002 alone.¹ In this respect, Stresemann seems to be practically “over-researched.” Furthermore, there is evidently no need for a reassessment of his recognized place in history. The undisputed verdict on him and his politics has—so it would seem—been definitively reached. He has been received into the Walhalla of “positive” Germans of the twentieth century without great resistance. Moreover, he is virtually unchallenged...

  8. Chapter 5 Women’s Biographies—Men’s History?
    (pp. 72-84)
    Angelika Schaser

    “Traditional biographies” are undeniably a permanent and common element of historiography. The historians Ian Kershaw and John C.G. Röhl (who are, not coincidentally, British) demonstrate this impressively, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, in their biographies of Hitler and Wilhelm II. The German discussion surrounding “biography in the crisis of historiography” is also well known and not exactly new.¹ Despite all of the misgivings about the biographical genre, historians continued to write biographies even during the triumphal march of historical social science during the 1970s. The only difference was that some historians now felt they...

  9. Chapter 6 Historiography, Biography, and Experience: The Case of Hans Rothfels
    (pp. 85-102)
    Jan Eckel

    The history of historiography has traditionally been a field in which the biographical approach has played an important part. Considering the vast number of publications on German historians, biography can even be considered the classical genre of the study of historiography. The historians of imperial Germany such as Max Lenz, Erich Marcks, and Friedrich Meinecke used a biographical focus when reflecting on historical traditions, as did historians of the interwar and war years, such as Hans Rothfels or Theodor Schieder.¹ In the early Federal Republic, biography continued to be the favored methodological access when it came to examining the past...

  10. Chapter 7 A Historian’s Life in Biographical Perspective: Johan Huizinga
    (pp. 103-118)
    Christoph Strupp

    In terms of sales and public acclaim, biography remains one of the most popular genres in historiography. In the United States, biographies of American presidents and generals regularly make the bestseller lists. In Germany, few history books, if any, have outsold Joachim Fest’s biography of Adolf Hitler, Golo Mann’s book on the seventeenth-century general Albrecht von Wallenstein, or Lothar Gall’sBismarck.¹ A certain curiosity about the lives of other people, dead or alive, seems to be a part of human nature. Following a specific individual through a lifetime in history can create an intimate relationship between the reader and the...

  11. Chapter 8 The Heroic Ecstasy of Drunken Elephants: The Substrate of Nature in Max Weber—A Missing Link between His Life and Work
    (pp. 119-142)
    Joachim Radkau

    Understanding another person means—very much in the spirit of Max Weber—looking first at what constitutes his or herhappiness.Hermann Glockner circulated some hair-raising anecdotes in his book,Heidelberger Bilderbuch,about Max Weber’s “happiest time,” when, at the age of thirty and just having been made a full professor of economics in Freiburg, Weber eagerly immersed himself once again in an “unrestrained” (burschikoses) student life, having endured seven “barren years” in his parents’ home:

    Because he boozed a lot, never turned down an invitation from a student fraternity, and also liked to show off and, in his youthful...

  12. Chapter 9 Generational Experience and Genocide: A Biographical Approach to Nazi Perpetrators
    (pp. 143-161)
    Michael Wildt

    On 3 January 1946, during the Nuremberg Trials of the major Nazi war criminals, the witness and subsequent defendant, Otto Ohlendorf, shocked the audience with his forthright confession that as the leader of Squadron D in 1941/42 he was responsible for the murder of 90,000 people in the Soviet Union. The American Chief Prosecutor, Telford Taylor, who described Ohlendorf as a delicate, good looking young man, who spoke quietly with great precision and obvious intelligence, remembered very well fifty years later the crippling silence that filled the auditorium after Ohlendorf’s frigid and impersonal testimony.¹

    Otto Ohlendorf, born in 1907 near...

  13. Chapter 10 Criminal Biographies and Biographies of Criminals: Understanding the History of War Crimes Trials and Perpetrator “Routes to Crime” using Biographical Method
    (pp. 162-181)
    Hilary Earl

    The creators and promoters of theArts and Entertainmenttelevision showBiographyinsist “every life has a story.” The inference, of course, is that every life-story is worth telling and, more importantly to the network, I imagine, worth listening to. While it may be true on television, this has not always been the case with the written word. Until recently, it was unlikely that an average person would be the subject of a biography. Traditionally, biographical subjects (or traditional biographies) have been conquerors, statesmen, and other (male) individuals who “made” history. Their lives were seen to be interesting and historically...

  14. Chapter 11 From Himmler’s Circle of Friends to the Lions Club: The Career of a Provincial Nazi Leader
    (pp. 182-200)
    Hartmut Berghoff and Cornelia Rauh-Kühne

    The power of the Nazi regime rested on four pillars: ideology, propaganda, terror, and promises of social mobilization. In this complicated field of force, the prospect of social advancement was a potent factor for the stability of the dictatorship and the motivation of individual behavior. The NSDAP’s (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) program of 1920 demanded the opening up of any career opportunity to recognizable talent and achievement. This emphasis on “equal opportunities”—while excluding Jews and other “racially inferior” groups as well as political dissenters—proved to be a highly attractive vision, especially for those who had been disadvantaged by the...

  15. Chapter 12 Contexts and Contradictions: Writing the Biography of a Holocaust Survivor
    (pp. 201-214)
    Mark Roseman

    When I was invited somewhat hesitantly by Marianne Ellenbogen née Strauß, a Holocaust survivor, to write an account of her life, I too was hesitant. She certainly had had an amazing life. A German Jew, born in 1923, she grew up in a prosperous, patriotic, and acculturated family; her parents were unwilling to leave the Fatherland until it was too late. Then in 1941, they came under the protection of German military intelligence, which staved off their deportations until 1943.¹ By the time her parents and brother had been transported to Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz, Marianne was on the run,...

  16. Chapter 13 The Improbable Biography: Uncommon Sources, a Moving Identity, a Plural Story?
    (pp. 215-233)
    Willem Frijhoff

    According to the usual standards of biography among historians in the Netherlands, Evert Willemsz Bogaert (1607–1647) probably would never have found a biographer.¹ The book I wrote twelve years ago about the poor adolescent boy Evert Willemsz, destitute of a family name in the sources of his own time, and the grown-up man Everardus Bogardus with his Latinized name attesting to his consciously assumed literate identity, seems barely recognized as such in the reawakening landscape of historical biography in the Netherlands. Critics have followed my own suggestion to characterize it as a “biography in context” or a “contextual biography,”...

  17. Chapter 14 Structuralism and Biography: Some Concluding Thoughts on the Uncertainties of a Historiographical Genre
    (pp. 234-250)
    Volker R. Berghahn

    This article does not endeavor to summarize the preceding contributions to this volume. Rather, it is an attempt to raise two questions that, in one way or another, pose a major challenge to all biographers, those whose work has been assembled here included. The first problem concerns the actual positioning of the genre within the field of historical writing after 1945 and how far larger societal factors influence not only the chosen individual subject, but also the scholar researching this individual. The second question deals with the enormous difficulties inherent in the genre and wonders if the professional historian will...

  18. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 251-261)
  19. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 262-264)
  20. Index
    (pp. 265-272)