Female employees of the German munitions factory WASAG in their work clothes, 1916. The one on the right seems to have been “conscripted” (zwangsverpflichtet), though it is unclear on what basis. She was also apparently highly skilled insofar as she was a production manager (Produktionsleiterin) of some kind. Source: Haus der Geschichte Wittenberg, “Arbeiterinnen der WASAG Reinsdorf,” https://st.museum-digital.de/index.php?t=objekt&oges=69193

Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations

In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me.[1] Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?

Nowadays, it seems pretty clear to me that the difference had to do with how academic projects are organized and funded, and how their merits are perceived when hiring decisions are made. Perhaps, too, there is something in the academic culture that sees particular value in such projects, although I have no idea how one would separate such possible cultural predilections from the institutional organization of scholarship generally and of the discipline of history more specifically.

I do know that my doctoral advisor’s approach to reading lists for our comprehensive exams at Georgetown University in the mid-to-late 1990s was unusual in the history department there. Roger Chickering gave us a massive bibliography for research purposes along with a so-called canon (read: very long list) of the texts that he expected every PhD student to know or at least know about.[2] For my reading in Soviet, Imperial Russian, modern French, and modern British history, I had to write up my own reading lists, sometimes with suggestions by the professor, never with the ambitious, perhaps Sisyphean intention of producing a canon.

Roger Chickering, of course, is both product and producer of the American academic landscape, and he has deep ties in the German one too. The above example, however, is not meant to suggest that his approach was in any way related to its proximity to German academic culture. Instead, I mention it in order to underline what I sense is an additional reason for the (to my mind) weaker handbook culture in the United States, at least among historians. Such systematization is hard and its desirability not clear.

I bring this up because I was struck by a recent post on the francophone blog Germano-Fil, a Franco-German production. The post is entitled “Recherche bibliographique en France et en Allemagne” and contains a wonderfully useful list of resources, the kind I would like to have had when I was studying German history. This list would also fit in one of the more traditional handbooks, but it is on a blog and can be accessed easily via the site’s category links, which act like a table of contents. Does such a detailed resource even exist in English for the study of German history? Hard to imagine.

The nice thing about this blog is that it does not require massive overhead, although it does seem to have some institutional support. Nor must an entire handbook be conceived and created before anyone can use the knowledge being gathered and produced for it. The blog simply grows over time (since 2011) and can respond to new concerns and concentrations with tweaks to its categories and tags.

There are other German websites that mirror the old handbook and encyclopedia culture more closely in that they are the products of specific research grants, and they begin with a structure, like a book, instead of waiting for a structure to emerge, as is possible on a blog. In its current iteration, German History in Documents and Images (GHDI), a German–North American project, is organized in chronologically bounded volumes, each edited by a different historian (or team of historians).

Another site, historicum.net, is a cross between a reference work and a reference library for students of history. Such an undertaking, of course, requires substantial institutional support, at least that is the impression I get from the extensive content, not to mention the logos of the project’s sponsors—the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Universität Köln, and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Docupedia-Zeitgeshichte also recalls a multivolume handbook with a correspondingly large editorial team. Like on GHDI and historicum.net, Docupedia’s articles contain no tags or links to establish connections across entries. Instead, each piece reads like a traditional handbook article. In other words, the enterprise comports with the traditional research and writing practices of professional historians.

I have been thinking about blogs in terms of academic cultures for another reason as well. The above-mentioned blog has an ISSN, an identifier for periodicals. My encounters with academic blogs in the past decade or so have not involved this kind of identifier. Yet a number of academic blogs in Germany, at least blogs with some sort of institutional support, not to mention all blogs on the Hypotheses portal, are now using the ISSN. Why?

According to the international organization behind this numbering system, “The ISSN role is to identify a publication,” thereby preventing possible confusion with similarly named publications, for example. But this “digital code without any intrinsic meaning.” The ISSN contains no “information about the origin or contents of the publication,” and, most importantly in the present context, “it does not guarantee the quality or validity of the contents.”[3] Nevertheless, on the blogs I have been encountering, this number appears to be about making the web publication look more serious or legitimate. In Germany at least, but maybe further afield, the ISSN can apparently make blogs accessible to library catalogs, as well as to an international open access directory called ROAD; however, it is hard to escape the impression that for blogs, the ISSN is more about gaining recognition.[4] Academic culture might be a factor too.

Academic cultures with a long and deep history tend to influence the ways in which new media formats are used. Blogs, for example, offer the advantage of speed. One can put pixels to screen and share one’s thoughts almost instantly. Gatekeepers are practically nonexistent. Instead, it is up to bloggers to make clear who they are so that readers can judge for themselves the worthiness and reliability of the blog. In my view, these factors constitute advantages, but they can leave scholars uneasy, steeped as they are in a specific academic culture. Thus, some blogs take on the forms of more traditional academic publications.[5]

See, for example, the impressive and seemingly well-funded Verfassungsblog: On Matters Constitutional, whose posts often even include a DOI, a tool to ensure the long-term availability of a piece, even in the face of changing hyperlinks or dying websites. Aside from longevity, this approach might have the merit of making it easier for scholars to include any substantial blog posts they write on their curricular vitae. On the other hand, DOIs would seem to entail a prohibitive amount of extra work for many of us, perhaps militating against the rapid communication of ideas and research results that a blog can make possible.

Many research blogs give me the impression that their authors understand blogging and peer-reviewed journal publications as complementary. The former allows faster publication as well as more provisional and personal writings, but it in no way precludes developing one’s blogged thoughts further toward a peer-reviewed article or book. Conversation can also occur more easily in the blog format, since a response to one blog post can be written and published in a matter of mere hours or days, if that long. The benefits of such speed and interaction would seem to outweigh any need to “legitimize” a blog by adding the trappings of a more conventional periodical.

None of these observations amount to a specific argument or program, but I thought they might be worth sharing in the context of a blog about knowledge. Self-reflexivity should be part of any scholarly undertaking. Moreover, some of our contributors might be new to or skeptical about blogging as a form of scholarly communication and knowledge production.

Mark Stoneman holds a PhD in history and is an editor at the GHI, Washington, DC.


  1. Now there is the similarly conceived Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte.
  2. There was also the extremely helpful and systematic Imperial Germany: A Historiographical Companion, edited by Roger Chickering (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996).
  3. What is an ISSN?, ISSN International Centre. See also the Library of Congress’s explanation of the ISSN, last updated February 19, 2010.
  4. See, for instance, Mareike König, “ISSN für Wissenschaftsblogs—mehr als nur Symbolik?,” Redaktionsblog , March 10, 2016, which is as revealing as it is informative.
  5. See Hannah Birkenkötter, “Blogs in der Wissenschaft vom Öffentlichen Recht: Ein Beitrag zur Erschließung neuer Formate,” in Formate der Rechtswissenschaft, ed. Andreas Funke and Konrad Lachmayer (Weilerswist-Metternich: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2017), 117–39. Thanks to Alexandra Kemmerer for bringing this piece to the attention of my colleague Kerstin von der Krone.
Suggested citation: Mark R. Stoneman, “Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations,” personal blog, June 16, 2018, https://markstoneman.com/2018/06/16/organizing-and-communicating-historical-knowledge/.

War, Gender, and Nation in 19th-Century Europe: A Preliminary Sketch

If military service had become a rite of passage for young men in much of Europe well before the mutual slaughter began in the summer of 1914, neither its ubiquity nor its meaning to those it embraced were foregone conclusions.[1] To be sure, the fundamental challenge offered by the declaration of the levée en masse in revolutionary France in 1793 represented an important first step, as did monarchical Prussia’s turn in 1813 to the near-general conscription of those men considered young and fit enough to join the fight. Indeed, Prussia’s response to the Napoleonic challenge intertwined military service, citizenship, and manhood in the gendered construction of a nation at war that bore a striking resemblance to those ideals manifest in the mobilizations of 1914.[2] Nonetheless, near-universal manhood conscription took many more decades to predominate on the continent, (never mind the United Kingdom, which did not resort to it until 1916).[3]

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I recently reviewed an interesting anthropological study by
Milena Veenis entitled Material Fantasies: Expectations of the Western Consumer World among East Germans (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press in cooperation with the Foundation for the History of Technology, 2012) for the Dutch Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis (Journal of Social and Economic History). The two-page review is in English and is openly available on the web at https://www.tseg.nl/articles/abstract/10.18352/tseg.301/.

Reflections after Class

One of those questions came up in class tonight with a group of MA students discussing Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA, 2008), a question where I grow perhaps too animated, maybe conveying impatience, even arrogance, or, if I’m lucky, simply passion. What was the difference between communism under Stalin and nazism under Hitler?

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Refuting Straw Men and Explaining What Happened

In a recent German History forum, Paul Lerner offers an interesting aside: “I used the medical Sonderweg as more or less a straw man in my 2003 book on German psychiatry, but I found that even as I refuted it, the need to explain the unique path of German medicine kept arising.”1 These words speak to me, because I used Groener’s biography to refute the rather untenable interpretation of a “feudalized” bourgeoisie in the Kaiserreich, even in the officer corps, but taking down that straw man hasn’t offered a satisfying answer about the meaning of Groener’s middle-class cultural orientations for our understanding of the Imperial German officer corps. Read more

Stumbling Upon a Dissertation Topic

Historical scholarship can be as much the result of accident as planning. How on earth did I come to write a dissertation on Wilhelm Groener? I thought I liked doing social history, not biography. If I studied the army, I was more apt to find common soldiers interesting, not a general who assumed operational control of the whole army at the end of the First World War and who people addressed as “Your Excellency.” I was also not particularly interested in military-technical questions. Yes, I found the questions about humanity in warfare that I had explored in my M.A. thesis compelling. But German war planning for the First World War? And the German general staff’s experience of the war? These were not my things either, or so I thought. Besides, were not many meters of library shelf-space filled with books on these problems?

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Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939)

Wilhelm Groener, via Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Meet Wilhelm Groener, an unassuming Swabian of modest social provenance who rose to the number two position in the Imperial German army by the end of the First World War. Here he is in about 1920, soon after his retirement from the army in the young Weimar Republic.

Groener, the subject of my dissertation, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 that the army would not follow him back to Prussia to fight a civil war to quash the revolution. Confronted with this reality, Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.

By rights Groener’s boss, Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, should have delivered the bad news, but he was a Prussian officer and nobleman, imbibed imbued in the traditions of military service to his supreme war lord, the Prussian king and German emperor. Hindenburg did not have the nerve.

Groener was present at the death of another German regime too. He served as minister of defense from 1928 to 1932. Near the end of this tenure he was also acting minister of the interior in the Brüning cabinet. In this capacity he pushed to outlaw Hitler’s brown-shirts, the S.A., which gave right-wing extremists in the army a chance to withdraw their support of the defense minister and prevail upon President Hindenburg to withdraw his confidence from Groener, who then resigned. Soon the rest of the cabinet did too, and Hitler came to power less than a year later.

Groener witnessed and participated in some of modern Germany’s key political events, but that is not what I wrote about in my dissertation. Instead, I focussed on the relationship between his social background and military career, which was interesting precisely because he rose to such prominence in an organization alleged to have been the exclusive playground of the Prussian nobility.

At least that is how my research started.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.