All throughout the 1970s and 80s intellectuals in the United States, Britain and West Germany complained about a “nostalgia wave”, an almost pathological yearning for a sentimentalised past that afflicted Western societies. Initially they found nostalgia mainly in pop culture’s return to its own past, particularly the revival of the 50s in rock music, film and on TV. Soon, however, the “nostalgia wave” manifested itself in the booming antiques trade, the success of the conservation movement and the popularity of historical books, museums and exhibitions, in short, what Robert Hewison dubbed the “heritage industry”.
My paper looks at the discourse, the manifestations and the contemporary explanations of the “nostalgia wave”. It argues that the nostalgia discourse was partly a reaction to the popularisation and democratisation of history: a means to reinstate the interpretative authority of academic history by discrediting the grass-roots engagement with history and the appropriation of scholarly practices by amateurs. However the popular interest in the past was also indicative of changing concepts of time. Drawing on the works of Hartmut Rosa and François Hartog, the paper understands the “nostalgia wave” as an expression of a new, presentist “regime of historicity” that emerged as a result of accelerated social change.
Tobias Becker is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute London, where he works on the “nostalgia wave” in the 1970s and 80s. Publications include Inszenierte Moderne. Populäres Theater in Berlin und London, 1880-1930 (2014); Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin, 1890-1939 (ed. with Len Platt and David Linton, 2014).