The Cap Arcona ocean liner, used by the Hamburg-South America line until World War II

A new perspective on German history is changing the way in which we see the country's present, as well as its past.

This project will deepen our understanding of Germany in the 21st century, in light of its history.

Professor Richard J. Evans

A major research partnership which aims to deepen understanding of some of the most serious problems affecting modern Germany, by viewing them through the lens of the latest historical research, is being launched.

The project, “Germany And The World In The Age Of Globalization”, is being run jointly by the University of Cambridge, the Universities of Freiburg and Konstanz, and the Free University of Berlin.

It will begin this week, with a seminar focusing on migration that promises to offer some timely context for a country whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, recently announced the “death” of multiculturalism. Infamously her comments were then echoed by both David Cameron and French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

As well as offering a new perspective on modern predicaments, however, the programme has been designed to help nurture a new strand of scholarship that is changing the way we understand some of the most significant moments in its history, not least the rise and fall of the Nazis.

“Until relatively recently, debates about Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries focused on a concept called Sonderweg – the idea that Germany’s past stood apart from the history of all other European countries,” Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and one of the project’s leaders, explained.

“Thanks to the work of a number of British and German historians, it is now generally accepted that Germany’s development has to be seen in a wider, European context. But researchers are now taking this a step further, which is linking Germany to the wider world.”

“If we want to understand why Germany is grappling with immigration problems, or indeed explain the racist and murderous nature of Nazism, there is a broader history of population movement, trade and colonialism that needs to be taken into account. The purpose of this project is to bring more of that history to bear on the debate.”

Over the course of the next two years, the project, which has been funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), will involve a series of seminars, covering subjects such as colonialism and multiculturalism, in Germany and the UK. An exchange programme for researchers at each of the partner institutions involved has also been set up.

The formal launch, which will be attended by the director of the London Office of the DAAD and the Vice-Chancellor, will take place in Cambridge on 29 March, and will open the first, three-day seminar on “Migration, Mobility and Movement in Modern German History”.

Immigration is one of the most sensitive issues affecting the modern German state. A recent survey by the Friedrich Ebert foundation, for instance, found that 30% of Germans feel that the country has been “overrun by foreigners”. A similar number said that they believed some immigrants “should be sent home when jobs are scarce.”

At the same time, the country is experiencing a labour shortage. Its chamber of industry and commerce has said that Germany is short of 400,000 skilled workers. Some industrialists have asked the government to remove obstacles which prevent workers from entering Germany to resolve this.

Historically, the problem appears to stem from the arrival of the “Gast-arbeiter”, or guest workers, who arrived in Germany to fill a labour shortage during the 1960s. It was this group to whom Chancellor Merkel referred when, in her speech on multiculturalism last year, she said: “We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn’t stay, but that’s not the reality.”

This month’s seminar will examine a deeper reality still, however: that migration is one of the major phenomena of modern German history as a whole. In the late 19th century, for example, Germany acquired often-forgotten colonies in parts of Africa and the Pacific, prompting waves of migration to and from the country. Under the Nazis, in 1944, it was home to 8 million foreign workers.

The seminar will explore both the history of immigrant communities in Germany, and that of Germans in the wider world, as well as changes to the country’s borders, previous attempts at integration, and the impact this has had on identity, memory, citizenship and nationhood.

“Immigration is just one example of how this project will help us to deepen our understanding of Germany’s condition in the 21st century, and contribute to current debates, in light of its history,” Professor Evans said.

“We can also contribute to broader debates. Western Europe as a whole is going to have to face up to a need for immigrant labour with its declining population, and the consequences that may have for social harmony. But debates like this are not new. Germany has been agonising over them for more than 200 years. It is only historians who can really show that and explain what the ongoing consequences have been.”

Full details of the project can be found at:

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