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.(1) 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 (2) 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.
Freedom of Information (FoI) regimes that have been introduced in many countries have extended the ability of historians to access a potentially even wider range of documents from governments and other major institutions. Historians could now conceivably have access to archival sources very soon after they were created. Unfortunately, historians have found that, in practice, FoI has not always delivered more or better sources. In Sweden, scholars have found that FoI has led to what they called 'the emptying of the archive'.(3)
The dawn of the electronic age has been both a boon and a challenge to contemporary historians. Since the mid 1990s documents have been almost exclusively created and stored electronically. Additionally documents created earlier could also be converted into electronic form. This has meant that such documents could be searched and interrogated more easily and could also be made available on the web. However, handling substantial quantities of such material can be problematic.
For instance, a large number of newspaper sources have been digitised: but reliance on the search mechanisms has not always provided the best results. Vanessa Chambers, when completing her doctorate here at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), discovered that she had to double check the findings of her electronic searches of The Times with hardcopy indexes because the latter, to her considerable surprise, sometimes yielded better results.(4)
The possibility of interviewing people, of capturing their memories and interrogating them for information, has been a resource available only to historians working on the recent past. The use of oral history has helped to recover the history of those who may not have left written records behind or who were in other ways silent. The history of working-class lives, for example, has been better brought to life by oral history.
However, its use has not been uncontroversial. Because it is a well-known fact that memory is fallible; that people tend to put themselves at the centre of their memories; because people may lie – so, critics say, oral history is inherently flawed. But such a line of argument misunderstands how historians use – or rather should use – oral history, a sub-discipline in its own right with sophisticated methodologies and enriched by its interdisciplinary links.
Interdisciplinary links are important for contemporary historians too. For instance, those interested in political history have to be aware of the work of political scientists; in constitutional development, with legal studies; and in social history, with the work of sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists. Interdisciplinarity has allowed contemporary historians to use concepts and theories to enhance their understanding of the recent past.
Is contemporary history in a healthy state? If one looks at the IHR's online 'Theses in progress and completed' the numbers of those doing and who have done what can be broadly defined as contemporary history (the website does not acknowledge contemporary history as a distinct discipline) at UK higher education institutions has more than doubled since 1995. Over the same time period the number of British universities offering undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in different aspects of contemporary history has also increased dramatically. While such trends are not exactly replicated elsewhere, it would probably not be wrong to say that the number of people engaged in studying or writing about contemporary history has grown and shows little sign of contracting.
However, as contemporary history has become more established, concomitantly the difference between it and modern history has become less clear. For instance, the publication series from Manchester University Press has been renamed Modern History from Contemporary History. In the UK, the appointments of many chairs of contemporary history (mostly in the 1990s) show little signs of being renewed once the present incumbents retire. At the more junior level, appointments that would have a decade ago been given the title contemporary history tend now to be 20th century history (and, presumably, as time progresses, 21st century). These nomenclature shifts could signal that contemporary history is in the process of being subsumed. But where there is a need, or where there remains a need, to understand the recent past, it will be essential for historians to practise contemporary history.