What are some must read historical fictions

History and literature

Written for Clio-online by:

Katja Stopka

1 Introduction

The creation of 'history' is linked to language and text. Historians mostly deal with the written legacies of mankind, in turn fixing their reconstructions of the past in writing.

In the occidental cultural area, therefore, narration has been the preferred method for structuring and depicting past events since antiquity. Aristotle naturally combines history and narration with one another, whereby historians, unlike poets, are responsible for communicating what really happened. The latter, on the other hand, has the task of telling about what could happen. However, historical and literary works must appear logical, consistent and plausible in their presentation, which is why historiography and literature often use the same narrative methods.

Within the historical sciences, comparison with literature has traditionally been a source of some discomfort. Since the Aristotelian distinction historians have seen themselves in a certain duty of justification to differentiate themselves from the rhetorical techniques and skills of fictional modes of representation through their 'narrative' representation of real events. Among other things, this has led to tendencies to methodically and theoretically release historical studies from the humanities tradition in order to place them on a more objective (social) scientific foundation with the help of quantifying methods.

But precisely because the theoretical and methodological foundations within the historical sciences, which are continuing to differentiate themselves, are always lively and freshly put up for discussion and the historical-science connection is everywhere to the self-critical questioning and reassurance of historians, questions remain about the relationships between history and literature, both in Relation to narrative techniques as well as current and essential with regard to the relationship between facts and fictions In the following, the history of the historical sciences 'from the spirit of literature' is first presented in a brief outline. Subsequently, some selected subject areas or sub-disciplines of the historical sciences are highlighted, which deal with questions of narrative strategies and the relationship between facts and fictions as well as working with literary text genres. The following is a compilation of websites, link collections, full texts, specialist portals and virtual libraries as well as archives that are relevant. Last but not least, a selection bibliography of research literature on the relationship between history and literature is offered.

1.1 Historical outline

19th century

Until well into the 18th century, history was commonly viewed as part of theology, law, political science, or philosophy. That is, history primarily focused on the narration (s) of past events under the appropriate religious and ideological signs or on the illustration of abstract philosophical doctrines or moral principles. In the 19th century, history emerged as an academic discipline in Germany. In the course of this technical differentiation, questions relating to the forms and functions of historical modes of representation increasingly came into focus. Since historiography in its handling of rhetorical techniques for the purpose of "truer" reporting on real events was treated as a special kind of literature up until then, it was now a matter of adjusting the relationship. The science of history no longer wanted to be regarded as literature in the sense of meaningful narratives about past events, but rather to recognize certain similarities in the approach to its subject, as Wilhelm von Humboldt's influential academy speech "On the task of the historian" (1821) made clear. Humboldt compared the linking achievements that the historian achieves when he combines the fragmentary facts and incomplete observations available to him into a coherent narrative of history with the creative imagination of the poet, although the imagination naturally plays a secondary role in historical exploration in contrast to literary invention have play. As a result, it was primarily Leopold von Ranke and Johann Gustav Droysen who made a significant contribution to establishing history as an independent discipline independent of philosophy and literature, without, however, suppressing the importance of poetry for historical studies. Ranke helped the subject to gain its academic recognition by enforcing the focus less on the catchy narration of events and more on the intensive study of historical sources. His famous dictum that the historian only wants to show 'how it actually was' thus explicitly points to the factual orientation of the subject, which should set itself the task of sifting through as far as possible all available sources on an event and with those developed by the philologies To critically review techniques and methods for their relevance and authenticity. In addition to empirically founded work, he demanded the highest possible degree of objectivity from his subject. Access to the past should not be based on politically or morally motivated interests, but on the basis of neutral and impartial criteria. Although factual accuracy and objectivity were the essential elements of an epistemological science of history for Ranke, it was still a matter of course for him to present the research results in a form that was as literarily appealing as possible. He did not see the scientific claim endangered, however, as long as the artistic techniques remained subordinate to the logic of knowledge and were only used to give an appropriate expression to what has been researched. With regard to the claim to objectivity, although an opponent of Rankes, Johann Gustav Droysen pushed the emancipation of history as a scientific discipline further by developing important theoretical foundations, which are only briefly mentioned here with the keywords heuristics, source criticism and interpretation. Among other things, Droysen's request was to help the representation of history as a part of historical studies to further independence, whereby he wanted to see it not only removed from the rhetorical tradition still valid in the 18th century, but also the instrumentalization of literary techniques, such as Ranke had in mind, rejected as an aesthetic representation of history. At the same time, Droysen saw the difficulties of delimitation that history itself still had in the position of an independent specialist discipline: of all the sciences, it alone had the ambiguous luck, he had to admit, that it should also be art at the same time. This is the name of the problem that characterizes the double legality of the scientific and simultaneous representational demands of the historical sciences. Last but not least, the 1902 award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Theodor Mommsen, another great exponent of historicism, for his major historical work "Roman History" shows how little Germany has succeeded in spite of all the scientific and methodological differentiation of the academic subject. to design historical modes and forms of representation that differ from the principles and basic requirements to which literature also obeys.

20th century

From the perspective of the late 20th century, the dominant influence of historicism in Germany until the 1950s is held responsible for the difficulties in distinguishing the subject from literature. Because historicism traditionally tended to present historical developments as a coherent national history that could be illustrated more in terms of individual people, deeds and events than in complex or multi-layered processes, a narrative form of narration was particularly suitable for this type of historical masterpiece. This understanding of history, which was oriented towards actors and events, was counteracted at the beginning of the 1970s by a process and structural-historical approach that anchored history as a historical social science and whose form of representation was not narrative, but the analysis of social developments in the past with a view to their effects the present was. In the resulting controversies between the more conservative representatives of a history oriented towards individuals or sequences of events and the representatives of a history oriented towards the social structure, who are more committed to a critical and politically left-liberal self-image, the question of appropriate forms of representation of the past has been asked again and again. In the process, the 'narrative' history of events temporarily lost its influence compared to the analytical structural and social history, at least in the specialist discipline, but it remains extremely popular with a broad public interested in political history.

The debate about the question of appropriate historical forms of representation received renewed impetus, especially in the late 1970s in the course of the linguistic turns initially in the USA and France and a little later in Germany. The theses of the inevitability of language and the inevitability of narratives left no genre of historiography untouched, neither in terms of their subject matter nor in terms of their form and sources. A new understanding of reality, which categorically denied an extra-linguistic reality, promoted the international discussions about the associated consequences for the subject-specific areas of history as well as for their methods and basic theoretical assumptions. If one wanted to assume that things, phenomena and events only become recognizable and understandable through their linguistic designation, it would be language that constructs reality and not the other way around. Against the background of this knowledge, the search for an 'authentic' reality lying outside the language seemed to be hopeless. Although from today's perspective the asserted predominance of language over all reality can confidently be dismissed as a linguistic rigorism owed to its time, the resulting shattering of the scientific self-image of all specialist disciplines has proven to be both profound and lasting. Because all of a sudden, categories such as objectivity, neutrality and truth seemed fundamentally called into question. In view of the importance of literature for the study of history, this meant looking at old questions in a new light. It was above all the American historian Hayden White who, under the heading of narrativity, once again shifted the focus to the narrative component of historiography. But unlike Ranke, for example, he was not concerned with the "how" of artistic forms of representation of facts; rather, the factuality of history itself was questioned: the relationship to language does not only emerge on the level of representation of historiography, but rather on the level of factual observation and the meaningful process set in motion, which is supposed to make the past plausible. Because already at this level is described, explained and interpreted. And it is only because there are culturally conveyed forms of language that aim to generate coherence and meaningfulness that relationships between things as well as between the sequences of events can be established and communicated in the first place. Historical cognitive processes, according to White, are genuinely linguistic, that is, symbolically structured, and historical works are the result of a meaningful perspective by the 'narrative' historian. Since, from this point of view, it is not the facts themselves that are the point of reference for historiography, but only the different interpretations of the facts, the boundary between the science of history and literature appears to have become porous again. Because the historical, like any other scientific approach to reality, is only one of many meaningful interpretations, the differences between fictions and facts have largely been leveled out. Because all narratives, regardless of whether they are of a scientific or literary origin, have always been based on specific narratives and followed existing discursive patterns with which events are received or constructed.

These theses came to a head in the provocative formulation “Klio also writes”. With not a few historians, White aroused strong opposition to this poetological concept of historiography. The fact that historical research should not first and foremost be based on empirical work, but rather should be reduced to the structuring of historical narratives, was totally disagreed with. Especially since the hard-won demarcation from literature through the paradigm of the obscurability of narrativity now suddenly threatened to be leveled again.

Nevertheless, White's theory was not without influence within historical studies, as he had dispelled the long-standing prejudice that facts could be conveyed purely and objectively in a first step of knowledge and then presented in a second fundamentally separable process. His story-oriented philosophy of history stood at the beginning of a very broad process of reorientation of the science of history and the representation of history. The stronger emphasis on the linguistic form and the linguistic given meaning as well as the necessity and omnipresence of interpretations, this given condition could be made more conscious by paying more attention to the linguistic presentation. The fact that this did not lead to relativization or even leveling, but to a further differentiation of the subject as well as an intensification of interdisciplinary networks, for example with cultural, media and literary studies or philology, can ultimately be seen as positive effects and results of these discussions about history and judge literature.

1.2 Sub-disciplines and subject areas

Discussing the relationship between history and literature has become part of the curriculum of a history degree. In addition, there are certain research fields in the historical sciences in which knowledge and reflections on the delimitations and overlaps between history and literature and on aspects of the relationship between facts and fictions are fundamental. A selection of such fields is presented below.

History of science

Investigations into the history of historiography and historiography in the context of the history of science require fundamental knowledge of the structure of relationships between history and literature, both with regard to the historical significance of history in the field of the fine arts and the humanities as well as with regard to narrative techniques and with regard to the relationship between fact and fiction.

Ancient & Middle Ages History

The sensitization of the historical sciences to their 'literary' inclination is particularly evident in the sub-disciplines that deal with periods in which the sources are poor or extremely incomplete, such as in historical research on antiquity and the Middle Ages. The fact that historians often go to work here with a certain imagination in order to develop certain processes and events historically is now undisputed within the subject.

Furthermore, it is difficult to draw a clear line between historical studies and the philologies that deal with antiquity, the Middle Ages and early modern times, since the same sources sometimes form the basis of research.

Cultural history

Within cultural history, not only is literature increasingly perceived as a source, but storytelling itself as a cultural technique is increasingly moving into the foreground of historical considerations. Narrations are not only understood as communicative mediation of real or fictional processes, but narration is explored as a cultural order pattern that is fundamental for the structuring of experience and knowledge. Narratives link events and actors and can thus, for example, capture the temporality of generations and their ties to actors. The history of memory and remembrance can be viewed as a further field of research in cultural history.Through her cultural studies perspective beyond the disciplines, she brought history and literary studies closer together, with the result that literature is now naturally part of the subject of her research; and not just as a historical source, but above all as an instance that constitutes the history of memory.

History of mentality and everyday history

Everyday history and the history of mentality are about questions of how people experience their lives, their everyday lives or social events. So-called ego literature (diaries, letters, autobiographies, etc.), which is often assigned to the genre of literature, plays a decisive role as source material. In this context, the usefulness and value of literary sources must be examined and aspects of the factual or fictional content of this material must be considered.

Alternative story or counterfactual story

This branch of historical studies, although often rejected by historians as unscientific, worked with the experimental speculation of 'what if'. With regard to its counterfactual statements, it must take into account the relationship between source-based factual knowledge and fictions and, in this respect, deal with fundamental questions about the differences between facts and fictions.

History didactics

In history didactics, it can be useful to convey historical knowledge using fictional representations, be it in the form of counterfactual statements or with the help of historical novels.

2. Electronic specialist information / websites and specialist portals

2.1 General

The relationship between history and literature in its many facets is discussed and researched in an interdisciplinary manner. Even when it comes to questions about literature as a source and object of research for historical studies, you will not only find it on historical websites. In this respect, relevant aspects of this topic can be found on numerous websites and specialist portals in cultural, literary and historical disciplines and institutions, of which only a selection can be presented here.

The Open Access information platform for literary studies and history provides an initial overview of free electronic specialist information from individual disciplines in Germany.

In the German-speaking area, the H-Netze H-Soz-Kult and H-Germanistik are important sources of information. Here you can find specialist information in the form of conference announcements and reports and, above all, reviews for the interface between literature and history. Other H-Networks that are maintained in the USA, which are important for the present context, are H-Memory, which specializes in the research fields of memory, memory and museums, and H-German, which as a research network primarily provides specialist information and discussion forums on German history and culture (and thus also literature ) offers.

In order to get an overview of the narrative theoretical fundamentals that are equally important for history and literary studies, the self-study course on basic literary terms Ligo is recommended. Here you will find all the essential basic terms related to storytelling and illustrated with examples.

The literary journal iasl-online is the online offshoot of the journal "International Archive for Social History of German Literature" and sees itself primarily as a review body for literary and cultural studies research literature, but also as a discussion forum for humanities topics of all kinds.

The US-based German Studies Association is an interdisciplinary association of international scholars who research the culture, economy, politics and history of the German-speaking area. On the website you can find a lot of information about scientific life as well as announcements of conferences as well as a list of links and all tables of contents of the review organ German Studies Review published by the GSA.

2.2 Regional and country-specific websites and specialist portals

For cultural-historical approaches, the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies offers interesting focal points such as European literary and cultural history and the cultural history of knowledge. At the Institute for Cultural Studies in Germany, the history of Germany, and above all the history of the GDR, is researched from a perspective that interconnects historical and literary studies. In addition to the institute's main research areas, the website also contains electronic publications on the subject.

The Humanities Center for the History and Culture of East Central Europe at the University of Leipzig explores the history and culture of East Central Europe from the early Middle Ages to the 20th century, from the Balticum to the Adriatic, from a cultural and comparative perspective, researching literary influences on history and culture and vice versa.

Specialist information on the research area of ​​forbidden, unofficial and non-system-compliant literature in the former 'Eastern Bloc' (Samizdat) can be found on the website of the International Samizdat Research Center (International Samizdat Research Association).

The France Center, located at the Free University of Berlin, has a distinctive interdisciplinary profile and sees itself as a research and teaching institute that specializes in the country's culture and history, with history and literature being the main focus.

The specialist portal "Berliner Klassik", operated by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, provides information about the time in Berlin between 1786 and 1815 from a city-historical perspective, with the influences of literary, artistic and scientific as well as economic and social developments and Services are viewed together.

The focus of the scientific work of the Simon Dubnow Institute is on transdisciplinary projects to research the Jewish worlds in Central, East Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe in their interrelationships with the non-Jewish environment from the Middle Ages to the present day, with literature as an essential subject of research is.

2.3 Topic-specific websites and specialist portals

For questions about the popularization of history and the relationship between facts and fictions, the research project non-fiction research can be used, which also deals with the question of the meaning and influence of non-fiction books on scientific cultures from a historical perspective.

In order to gain an overview of publications from the so-called counterfactual history, the American online bibliography Uchronia: The Alternate History List, which has existed since 1991, is of interest.

The science portal for Jewish studies offers an extensive internet archive for Jewish periodicals. The digital collection Testament to the Holocaust provides personal testimonies to life under National Socialism, which, among other things, provide insights into Jewish life in Germany from 1933 to the post-war period, life in concentration camps, underground and in exile. Access is obtained by registering on the website of the National Licenses for Electronic Media project.

The Holocaust Literature Unit at the Justus-Liebig University of Gießen offers an overview of its research projects on its website and subject-specific reviews.

The online encyclopedia for contemporary historical research Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, conceived and operated by the Center for Contemporary History Research in Potsdam, contains key terms, concepts, research directions and methods that are relevant to contemporary history. Debates are also documented, which have provided impulses for research practice and the self-image of the subject. Docupedia contemporary history also includes theoretical approaches from related disciplines, including literary studies.

2.4 Websites and specialist portals specifically for antiquity, the Middle Ages and the early modern period

In KIRKE, the catalog of internet resources for classical philology from Berlin, you will find an extensive collection of links on antiquity, including links to German data sources and relevant library catalogs.

The Propylaeum - Virtual Specialized Library for Classical Studies is an Internet portal that offers specialist information for the entire field of Classical Studies, currently for the subjects of Egyptology, Ancient History, Classical Archeology, Classical Philology and Prehistory and Early History.

The Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, which is a research and study center for the Middle Ages and for the early modern period, offers extensive catalogs, databases, specialist information and digitized full texts from the research period on its website.

The "vdIb - Distributed Digital Incunabula Library" is a multi-local project of the Cologne University and City Library and the Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel, which is responsible for the overall digitization of the incunabulum holdings in German libraries.

2.5 Archives

The bequests of German-speaking writers and humanities scholars that are relevant for both historical and literary research can be found in the German Literature Archive in Marbach. The bequests are indexed in the Kalias electronic catalog. The Akademie der Künste also has a literature archive. Special focus areas are: history of the Academy of Arts in Berlin since 1696, Academy members since 1900 award winners, master students, artists and cultural life in Berlin since 1900, artist emigration during National Socialism, Jewish Cultural Association in Germany 1933-1941, art and Cultural policy of the GDR, archives of German artists' associations.

3. Conclusion

The offers on the Internet on the relationship between history and literature can be described as extensive, but due to the difficulty of its disciplinary classification, they are at the same time quite confusing and difficult to find. Although the question of the importance of truthfulness and fictionality in texts is central in both text-oriented disciplines of history and literary studies, there is a lack of a chronological and systematic overview on the Internet. Anyone who wants to gain an insight into the traditional and ongoing discussion about the relationship between history and literature is still well advised to refer to publications from the print sector. As the collection of links shows, it is more worthwhile to do research on a topic or region-specific basis. Here you can find scientifically sound information, references and links as well as collections of sources and texts that can be of use across disciplines for history and literary studies. Nevertheless, historians as well as literary scholars are advised when researching the topic to look beyond their own discipline and to align their search strategies in an interdisciplinary manner. In conclusion, it should be stated that a specialist portal or an electronic discussion forum that links the various facets and aspects of the relationship between history and literature is desirable from a thematic point of view. Last but not least, the strengths and advantages of web-based offers and research options on the basis of such a widely ramified and complex subject area are particularly evident.


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Katja Stopka, History and Literature, in: Clio Guide - A manual on digital resources for the historical sciences, edited by Laura Busse, Wilfried Enderle, Rüdiger Hohls, Gregor Horstkemper, Thomas Meyer, Jens Prellwitz, Annette Schuhmann, Berlin 2016 (= Historisches Forum, Vol. 19), http://www.clio-online.de/guides/themen/geschichte-und-literatur/2016.

Written for Clio-online by:

Katja Stopka

Katja Stopka is currently working at the German Literature Institute Leipzig at the University of Leipzig as scientific project manager of the DFG research project "The Institute for Literature" Johannes R. Becher "Leipzig (1955-1993). Literary writing processes in the field of tension between cultural-political appropriation, educational experimentation and poetic obstinacy ”.