Emergence of Contemporary History

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April 4, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

The aim of contemporary history is to conceptualise, contextualise and historicise – to explain – some aspect of the recent past or to provide a historical understanding of current trends or developments.

In the evolution of any discipline it may be useful to see the development of institutions or other trends that support it. Possibly the first institution to have used the term as part of its name was the Institute of Contemporary History, established in the early 1930s in the Netherlands and then brought to London in 1939: the founders wanted the world to know what was happening in Nazi Germany. Since then, it has transformed itself, with the Weiner Library, into a leading centre for the study of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism.

In Britain, the emergence of contemporary history as a distinctive academic discipline began to take place in the 1980s, when the recent past was being debated in the political and public arenas. Many of the contentious issues centred around the interpretations of the behaviour of the political parties and elites in relation to the setting up of the welfare state after the traumas of the Second World War. To better study and analyse this contested recent past, using historical and other academic methodologies, the Institute of Contemporary British History (now Centre for Contemporary British History (CCBH)) was established in 1986 and since then it has acted as a focal point for historians like myself.

The need to study a recent past that was in some ways contentious also led to the establishment of similar centres for contemporary history in other parts of Europe. For instance, soon after the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany the Deutsches Institut für Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Zeit was founded with the intention, as the name suggested, to study the Nazi period. Within a few years, it was renamed the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (IfZ) and it began to examine broader aspects of recent German history.

Following the fall of communism, some of the countries who were formerly behind the so-called Iron Curtain, such as the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Romania, found they needed to explain, interpret and understand their recent histories under communism by promoting the discipline of contemporary history and by setting up institutions to do so.

However, in other countries the development of contemporary history was arguably more the result of a need to employ historical and related methodologies, such as oral history and women’s studies to name just two, in order to open up the recent past. In France, Sweden and the Netherlands (unfortunately, the Dutch Institute for Contemporary History is now defunct) this would appear to be the mainspring of development of the discipline.

From the above it is clear that no agreed definition of what time period constituted contemporary history has existed – or can exist. This is because what has needed to be explained in recent history has varied from country to country, from group to group and, even within countries, from time to time. To illustrate the latter point: in the UK during the 1980s (the decade the discipline was in the process of establishing itself) contemporary history was taken to mean the period following the end of the Second World War, which was believed to have been a break with the past. However, this definition crumbled by the early 1990s because, for academics at least, the usefulness of seeing the war as a pivotal point was eroded when scholars argued that longer-term analyses provided better explanations for most developments of the recent past. Historians of the British welfare state, for instance, found it more useful to go back to the earlier part of the 20th century (and even the 19th century) to explain its development (see Jose Harris, Pat Thane and Rodney Lowe).

Such developments have been positive because, as Peter Catterall has argued, practitioners of the discipline worked best if they possessed what he called a ‘hinterland’ – a knowledge that went well beyond the events of the recent past. Critics of the discipline feared that contemporary history could be at best be nothing more than a form of journalism because its concerns were so closely rooted to the present – that there was no proper distance that the passage of time allowed; that historians were too close to and perhaps even too much part of the events to make proper historical judgements.

While it has been true that some of the most prominent contemporary historians in the UK have, in fact, been journalists, such as Peter Hennessy and Timothy Garton Ash, their work was firmly rooted in a deep and broad understanding and knowledge of history – British history for the former; European for the latter. Additionally, both are masters of archival research.

Archival sources for most contemporary historians have been generally plentiful. Most modern states have had relatively good record keeping practices and, until the dawn of the electronic age, the quantity and quality of organised paper archival material has been abundant. Additionally, because of the interconnectedness of modern states, even if archives are, for whatever reason, not available in a particular country, information may possibly be obtained from archives held in another country.

For instance, when I and two other colleagues (Gillian Staerck and Christopher Staerck) edited a collection on Asia: British Documents on Far East Asia, 1945–64  sales of this volume were highest in Malaysia and Japan. For those in Malaysia, UK documents were important because Britain had been the colonising power until the country gained independence in the 1960s. For the Japanese, UK documents offered a different perspective from American ones for the years immediately after the Second World War. Beyond state-generated archives, other archival sources, such as personal papers, newspapers and so forth, tend to be well preserved and accessible.

Adapted from The Institute of Historical Research.

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This was an article on History.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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20 Comments


  1. CH = understand recent past + interconnected

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  2. understand history or trends, good record keeping

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  3. contemporary history’s aims are not definitive and its purposes are not well drawn; it is also done by different means in different countries or groups.

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  4. MIP: Contemp Hx = + = explains trends/understanding = similar to journalism +

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  5. MIP: CH=explain historical past+present=not specific period

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  6. Contemporary history= explains the recent past + time period varies + resources = abundant.

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  7. Contemporary History = history of recent past + explains trends and provides understanding
    The emergence of CH = varied
    Archival sources = plentiful

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  8. Contemporary history = explain past + understand trends + methods vary

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  9. The different purposes of adopting the Contemporary History. For studying recent history vs. earlier history. The benefit of archival resources.

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  10. MI: Contemporary history can be relatively recent history = Different for every single country

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  11. contemporary history = useful trends, archives = plentiful; author = positive

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  12. Contemporary history has different definitions for every country or group but beneficial to all

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  13. MIP: contemporary history = explain past + present; not set def; longer term view = good

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  14. CH= explains recent history
    Archives= imp (abundant)

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  15. MIP: Contemporary history explains recent historical events. Author is positive about the surplus of archives.

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  16. cont history= explains trends and developments in history + definition varies
    archives= useful

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  17. MI: institutions for contemporary Hx/ time period = ? / archival researchers>> journalism/ plenty archives + useful to research.

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  18. Institutions of contemporary history created because of need to understand recent history + open recent past. Archives = very useful.

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  19. Critics: contemporary Hx ~ journalism bc too recent, but contemporary Hx (CH)= explains recent past events -> understand current trends. Also CH development varies btw countries. Archival resources = useful

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  20. MIP: contemporary history explains recent past + no clear timeline; tone = positive about CH

    Reply

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