History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Antje Flüchter (History, University of Bielefeld, Germany)

Antje Flüchter. Photo by Philipp Ottendörfer.

Before I start, I want to lay open the social and cultural position I am writing from: I write this piece as a historian, from a White female German perspective: History is a part of the humanities, but history is perhaps closer to politics and power than some of the other parts of the humanities. (Left or liberal) German historians have, due to German history, a critical perspective regarding the shortcomings of their own nation, which may be unlike scholars from other nations. And, as a White female academic, I have the weaker part of White privilege, that is, I enjoy White privileges, yet, still have to struggle with male dominance.

Humanities under Pressure and their Potential for Society

The humanities have many facets. I see at least four facets of the humanities with different social and cultural functions: 

(1) Humanities traditionally deal with and contribute to the so-called ‘high culture’ national and human achievements and oeuvres, or rather cultural memory. Here is the origin of the term ‘Master of Arts’ for an academic degree. This facet of the humanities traditionally includes knowledge about Beethoven, Wagner or Tagore and the knowledge to distinguish a Gothic church from a neo-Gothic one. This knowledge can easily be seen as an elite phenomenon or as a ‘nice to have’ but not necessary. Here, the humanities fight the same battle about public funding as, for example, museums and theatres. But is this sort of humanities really only coffee-table culture? Every culture needs its memory. Humanities, as the study of the various kinds of art, are relevant for all of us; humanities empower our spirit and phantasy. Knowledge about what human beings can achieve is inspiring. Admittedly, the range of what we may call ‘high culture’ ought to be broadened to accommodate our diverse modern society. Still, ‘high culture’ is indispensable for our societies.

(2) Secondly, there is the kind of humanities that is stabilizing and ‘legitimizing the ruling system.’ This kind of humanities has no problems getting public funding. This facet of the humanities, and even more history, can be dangerous: History legitimized the nation-state in the nineteenth century (and not only then) in Europe. History can and did fuel feelings of national superiority. Many wars have been bolstered up with historical arguments. Of course, we do not have a problem with this facet of the humanities if we agree with the system and its values. No one takes issue, for instance, with research regarding the long tradition of democracy in Europe, ‘our’ tolerance and ‘our’ great handling of diversity. This kind of humanities builds and stabilizes master narratives. Surely, we know about the dangers of master narratives. Yet, we should not overlook the positive effects master narratives may have. I will come back to that.

(3) The third facet of the humanities is a ‘creative one.’ Humanities are opening up spaces for new ideas, freethinking and inventing alternatives to our present thinking. If we only stay in our time and the familiar patterns of knowledge, we will remain static; we will only find solutions that we already have. The various fields of the humanities, be it literature, music, other places or other times, enable us to come up with new ideas. Nowadays, the mechanisms of the free market and capitalist economy seem to function like natural laws – even more so after the collapse of the planned economies. However, there were different ideas on how the economy works in premodern Europe as well as in other world regions; and people did not think always in terms of progress and economic growth. I do not want to claim that medieval guilds were more effective than Fordist production lines. However, guilds were once an important part of the economy, and knowing about how they functioned opens a space for thinking about alternative economic models. This kind of free and creative thinking is also necessary for technological and scientific innovation. A society that cannot think ‘outside the box’ in everyday life can hardly be innovative in other fields.

(4) Fourthly and finally, humanities can create a ‘critical space,’ where we reflect on problems and discuss achievements and shortcomings in our and other societies. Master narratives and stories of national greatness were deconstructed by historians. Historical arguments of national unique greatness were refuted. Phenomena assumed to be natural (for example, gender, family) were unmasked as culturally and socially constructed and contingent, traditions as invented: There is no everlasting Christian family tradition, no natural female character, the Scots started wearing a kilt quite late and structural racism exists not only in the United States but also in Germany.

In recent days, the humanities have questioned conservative stereotypes, customs we do not want to miss and our self-image as great and liberal democracies. We like, for example, to see ourselves (in Germany) as an equal and liberal society. However, in the nineteenth century, equality was often understood to mean equality only of rich White males. The emancipation and equality of Jews and women were hard fought for in Germany. In the twentieth century, it was rather easy for German society to ignore people of color. Recently, German society has become increasingly diverse. People whose grandparents came from other regions of Europe or the world now rightly demand an equal place among us. The same is true for people with disabilities, fluid sexual orientations and gender identities. Humanities are empowering all these people. However, empowering people can backfire. Some people are afraid of diversity. Gender studies are attacked as destroyers of our Christian or traditional lifestyle in several European countries. I hope very much that this is not a permanent rollback but the beginning of better times.

Humanities in Societies that Change: Should Academics Intervene?

In my opinion, academics should, in fact, intervene when social and political questions are on the table. We, the academics in Germany, should leave the ivory tower of scholarship and engage in our society. We must criticize attacks on our civil society, we need to protect our critical perspective, our achievements regarding equality and the tolerance vis-à-vis quite different lifestylesI limit this appeal to scholars from Germany because they, and even more if they already have a tenured position, only risk a ‘shit storm’ in the social media. Even if some scholars think that recent identity politics, the ‘Me too’ debate or the allegation that we confront structural racism are all exaggerations, I insist that the core of the humanities is to deconstruct the (alleged) differences between human beings. We have to protect and fight for equality and equal chances. Provincializing Europe and deconstructing white supremacy and gendered tradition is important for a free and liberal society. Academics in other parts of the world might face different and sometime severe consequences. I understand that scholars, if they face severe consequences, prefer to stay in their ivory tower, although I do not understand if they allow themselves to be instrumentalized.

Moreover, deconstructing master narratives and stereotypes is not enough, I fear. We have already deconstructed many master narratives (like the rise of the West) for decades, and they are still very much alive; some get even more relevance and approval in public discourse with the help of populism and new nationalism. Obviously, it is not enough to deconstruct these narratives. New stories must be told and new master narratives have to be developed in order to be relevant in public discourses. New master narratives are necessary for keeping and furthering a free and liberal society. And here, the fourth facet (‘critical potential’) has to be combined in a new way with the second one (stabilizing the ruling system, in this case, our liberal value system). Many academics shy away from offering such a new master narrative because deconstructing the old narratives is much easier and safer. However, it is my deepest conviction that we should and even must not leave the historical identity-building to the nationalist and populist movements. Of course, our new narratives cannot be as homogenous as the old ones, those that were focused on ‘progress’ and explained development by the nation’s particular qualities. The new narratives must be open, leaving room for various kinds of identity-building. Telling a new master narrative may start with replacing the nation-state as the default mode by accepting transculturality and looking for entanglements between people, cultures and societies. Telling a new master narrative requires more than sound academic work. When creating new narratives, we cannot hide behind rationality, but we need to take position morally, we need to show our own true colors. That needs courage.

Negotiating World Views Globally: Towards a Critical Exchange of Ideas

However, there is also a global perspective. We, as scholars from different world regions, need to talk with each other, sharing and exchanging opinions. It is unlikely that we agree on all points. We have different world views, therefore, we need to discuss and sometimes to argue. We need to find a path between defending our values and listening to each other, between relativism and cultural colonialism. Is it a sign of White supremacy if I insist that gender roles are constructed, because my insistence is founded in a very European/Western concept of the relationship between nature and culture? Are human rights Western and the demand for their global validity, therefore, an act of Western dominance? Answers to these questions are not easy. It is much easier to criticize one’s own society. Criticizing German history is quite normal for most Germans and even more for most liberal German scholars of the humanities; our Vergangenheitsbewältigung (struggle to come to terms with our past) is perhaps one of the few German things we allow ourselves to be proud of. I truly believe that other societies should also face the dark parts of their pasts and presence. However, we as Germans need to understand that our critical approach to our history and our nation is not ‘natural’ but due to our history. You must not compare the Holocaust to other barbarian acts in the German discourse. But we cannot expect others to adopt our patterns of thinking. Expectations like this were certainly present in the discussions around Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe and the allegation that he is sharing antisemitic ideas.

Similar to the case of telling new master narratives, these discussions cannot be based on pure academic arguments. Finding answers is not just a question of a sound methodological framing and a good rational argument. We need to develop an understanding for each other, arguing with each other but with mutual respect. Participating in an open debate is a task that critical and liberal scholars of the humanities are best equipped for. Scholars of the humanities (should) combine knowledge about the constructedness of values and the belief that there are values worth fighting for.


Antje Flüchter is a full Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Bielefeld. Since 2018, she has been dean/vice dean of the Faculty of History, Philosophy and Theology. Her research interests include the history of global entanglements, with a special focus on relationships between Asia and Europe, gender history, the theory of history and the history of religiosity, with a focus on both the confessional age and with a global perspective. She leads a project in the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 1288 “Practices of Comparing” and the Priority Program (SPP) 2130 “Early Modern Translation Cultures”. Antje Flüchter’s recent publications concentrate, for example, on the German perceptions of the Indian state in the early modern period (Die Vielfalt der Bilder und die eine Wahrheit: Die Staatlichkeit Indiens in der deutschsprachigen Wahrnehmung (1500-1700), 2020), on gender roles in a transcultural perspective, on the history of early modern missionaries (“Hofdamen, Witwen und Tempeltänzerinnen: Indische Frauen und Geschlechterrollen in der Wahrnehmung der frühneuzeitlichen Jesuiten”, in: Anna Becker et al. (eds.), Körper – Macht – Geschlecht, 2020) and on translation as a tool to explore transculturality (“Translating Jesuits: Translation as a Useful Tool to Explore Transculturality”, in: Laila Abu-Er-Rub et al. (eds.), Engaging Transculturality, 2018).


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021


Citation: Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.05.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28610.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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