New Rector Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger in an interview for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

German interview on

Society Benefits From Our Autonomy

An historian of early-modern Europe discusses havens of ratiocination and the politicization of historiography

FAZ: Ms. Stollberg-Rilinger, in September you became the Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg. The Kolleg is a classic non-university Institute for Advanced Study that is self-administering and is likewise completely independent when it comes to selecting Fellows and its thematic emphases. Fellows perennially describe the Wissenschaftskolleg as a “refuge.” Does it in fact function as the perfect haven from the university?

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: It serves a complementary function to the university. The academic world has grown ever more stressful and is increasingly subject to the pressure of third-party-funded projects and excellence initiatives. You need a space where you can collect your wits. It’s true that Institutes for Advanced Study are increasing in number, in Germany as well, so one might think that the Wissenschaftskolleg has forfeited its unique selling point. But it hasn’t. For one thing it is much larger than all these other institutes, for another it is completely autonomous, and thirdly it’s a kind of boarding school for the highly gifted – which I guess makes me the head master (laughs).

An institute affording its Fellows maximum freedom to think and write in all serenity – at such a place what is the Rector’s job, what is there to actually do?

Right, that’s the big question (laughs). What makes the Wissenschaftskolleg so special is the College principle. For an entire year the Fellows basically live together. At absolute minimum they lunch or dine together, which for me is the crucial point because that’s where the actual interchange takes place. And someone must symbolically represent the whole. One of my central instrumental tasks – together with the advisory board – is to select the Fellows. That’s quite a challenge because you have to combine a number of different parameters. Ideally we should effect a certain gender symmetry, we should have a greater quantity of younger Fellows, and there should be some kind of balance among the various disciplines and regions of the world our Fellows call home.

The Wissenschaftskolleg is a very international institute. Has scientific research and other scholarly work meanwhile become quite similar worldwide, or do there still remain great cultural differences?

To my mind the larger difference is between the humanities and the natural sciences. Academics whether they come from Europe or Africa, are all beholden to a shared habitus. It might of course be the case that my impression is the product of our selection mechanisms and that here at the Wissenschaftskolleg we don’t even get a look at entirely different intellectual cultures. To be clear, we should by no means give in to those fundamental critiques of “Western” scientific thinking which are so fashionable at the moment. We have to hold on to certain academic principles and at the same time be aware that this might lead to problems, giving people from countries like the United States considerable advantages, who apply in far greater numbers anyway. Our concern is therefore to maintain highest intellectual standards and at the same time purposefully seek out qualified scholars from hitherto underrepresented regions.

Your last book was a biography of Empress Maria Theresa, which was a great success. Are you working on anything now?

I would like to write a book about a single historical episode that is illuminated from a multitude of perspectives. An example would be the destruction of Magdeburg in the Thirty Years’ War, which transpired within the space of a single day. There are a great many sources pertaining to that event, it triggered a huge response in the media of the day. For that very reason it has, however, been quite well researched. So I’m still not decided yet. I find such historical events interesting which allow for a wide variety of sources to speak at length. My main goal is to impart the strangeness of the epoch which I am examining. To this purpose you need to let the sources speak for themselves. My ideal is to take significant incidents in order to vividly convey analytic insights.

This September the Historikertag (Biennial Meeting of German Historians) in Münster chose as its theme “Divided Societies.” These divisions also affect historiography itself, which is under pressure in many countries. In Hungary, Poland, Russia and Turkey the scholarly disciplines are being politically instrumentalized or suppressed in the cause of national mythmaking. Hindu nationalism is now on the rise in India, scholarly standards are being massively discredited. Must the historical discipline take an intellectual stance?

That’s a real problem, especially here at the Wissenschaftskolleg, because we have a number of partner institutes in Eastern Europe. The institute in Budapest is presently being expelled from Hungary; the institute in Saint Petersburg could not even be developed beyond its preliminary stage. The institute in Bucharest is still uncontested, but nobody knows how the situation will develop there. Engagement on behalf of these institutes is a general concern of civil society. All of society profits from the autonomy of science and scholarship. In my view, however, the actual work of historians should be distinct from such civic engagement. Writing history adhering to historical-critical standards already means raising awareness.

By serving as a corrective to political mythmaking?

Yes. I’m well aware that in order for their books to have any resonance with the wider public, historians are always tempted to compose these grand narratives. For example a Viennese colleague, Wolfgang Schmale, has called upon historians to engage in countervailing the European “deficit of myth.” I have a great deal of sympathy for the European Union but don’t regard it as the historian’s task to promote mythmaking, howsoever well intentioned it might be.

In your research, your approach pertains strongly to functional differentiation, you examine the development of autonomous subsystems of society, for example of modern bureaucracy. These days we are experiencing the accession to power of autocrats and oversimplifiers. Is rollback being effected on the process of functional differentiation? Or is it, despite many signs of its disintegration, somehow still carrying forward?

Within the Cluster of Excellence Religion and Politics at the University of Münster, where I taught for many years, we had endless discussions about this. And to be perfectly frank, I just don’t know. At the moment it really looks as if the system boundaries between science and politics, for instance, might be severely compromised. The populist tendencies of our day do indeed amount to a kind of de-differentiation. On the other hand it could also be the case that highly differentiated societies have developed a certain resilience against such tendencies that will not make for any easy rollback. This is of course a somewhat optimistic assumption on my part.

What is the situation with Turkey where President Erdogan seizes all power for himself? Or China, ruled as it is from a strong power center and whose long-term planning can only be marveled at by Western states?

In Turkey at the moment we see that politics is rather powerless when running up against the inherent logic of the economy. Science and scholarship is of course much more vulnerable in this respect. In any event, as a historian, I would never dare to make long-term prognoses. From a historical standpoint, bold plans such as those conceived by the Chinese government have always proven to be phantasms of rationality.

Has the “cultural turn” caused historians to unfairly neglect social and economic themes as well as those pertaining to the history of science? Is too much being ascribed to culture these days?

My understanding of cultural history is not that it is limited to certain subjects but rather that it adopts a specific stance vis-à-vis all subjects. I would say that one always has to keep in mind the insights and principles of social history – just as one cannot ignore the insights of gender history. That by no means implies the exclusion of a culturalistic way of looking at things. Both transculturality and globalization research eventually lead back to social history. What I find to be problematic is that in many respects the cultural turn has led to a certain arbitrariness in the choice of subject. The label of “cultural history” can sometimes be a cover for some rather positivistic, antiquated love of detail, bereft of any analytic inquiry.

Would you say that today we are living through a new “saddle period” (“Sattelzeit”) – a major transformation of society - comparable with that from 1780 to 1830 when political thought and people’s experience of time changed profoundly?

Yes. Today we are experiencing a media revolution through digitalization that is comparable with the structural changes affecting the public sphere in the eighteenth century – or perhaps even more analogous to the sixteenth-century revolution in typography – as it concerns the structural ramifications in all fields of society. To cite just one random symptom, as recently described by DFG (German Research Foundation) president Peter Strohschneider, the American president’s constant Twitter actions are homologous to populist politics. This new mode of political communication suggests that people have direct access to the president; the virtual community of followers can feel like a true nation. Conversely the prerequisite for emergence of the liberal state under the rule of law is a certain historically evolved textual culture that for instance has enabled the distinction between reasoning deliberation and decision-making. Instead of argument-based discourse there is now the supposedly direct expression of agreement in a virtual national community. A certain style of digital communication and a populist political style serve to spur each other on.

The interview was conducted by Diba Shokri and Thomas Thiel and was published in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on August 29, 2018.