Contemporary history, generally the historical period that immediately precedes the present (“most recent phase of modern times”) and has been thesubject of interestamong historians since antiquity (e.g. Thucydides); formed as a sub-discipline of historical studies especially after the Second World War; the boundaries to political science are fluid.
In the first number of the “Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte” (“Contemporary History as a Task”), H. Rothfels defined contemporary history in 1953 as “the epoch of those who lived with them and their scholarly treatment”. In contrast to the terms »histoire contemporaine« (beginning around 1815) and »histoire du temps présent« (beginning around 1939), the term commonly used in Great Britain, »contemporary history« (originally beginning with the British reform laws from 1832), today for the history of the 20th century) and Rothfels developed the concept of contemporary history dating from 1945 in the GDRa dynamic concept that is tied to nothing but the time span of the living generations. This gives rise to the question of the demarcation between contemporary history and earlier historical epochs. Rothfels saw 1917/18 as the “threshold date ” for the transition from modern history to contemporary history. H. the entry of the USA into world politics and the beginning of the Russian October Revolution or – in terms of the history of ideas – the beginning confrontation between democratic state thinking, fascism and communism. In the following period, the question of postponing the threshold date to a later point in time inevitably arose. To counter this definitional dilemma, K. D. Bracher the concept of “double contemporary history”, d. H. the subdivision into an »older contemporary history« (1917 / 18–45) and a »more recent contemporary history« (since 1945); In 1993, Hans Günter Hockerts (* 1944) even spoke of »three contemporary stories« (referring to divided Germany).
Methodological problems: Compared with research into the more distant past, contemporary history as a science has to deal with three methodological problem areas: the specific source situation, the lack of distance between the researcher and his research subject and the lack of closure of contemporary historical conditions and developments. On the one hand, access to the sources is partially restricted by long-term archive locks and (more recently) also by data protection regulations; On the other hand, under the conditions of increased publicity of political decision-making processes in a pluralistic society, contemporary history research has an abundance of sources and new types of sources – e. B. film, television, statistical surveys, survey of contemporary witnesses (Oral History) – available. In view of the fact that audiovisual media, especially television, not only reflect the historical process, but are also effective influencing factors on the historical process itself (e.g. the effect of television reporting on the US withdrawal from Vietnam or the »Western media«) on the history of the GDR, the role of the media in the political revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe 1989-91) it becomes clear that with the use of new types of sources, the source-critical procedures of historical studies must be changed or expanded.
According to Beautypically, the question of the distance to the research object (contemporaneity) arises in general in the social sciences, but especially in contemporary historical research. There is a risk that the historian’s involvement in the course of history (e.g. in his ideological orientation, his party-political preferences, his commitment to social issues) influences the scientific approach, the selection and interpretation of the sources and the type of presentation. The incompleteness of contemporary history also makes it difficult to judge contemporary developments and people involved. On the other hand, the preoccupation with contemporary history opens up increasingly the possibility of historical science
Development of German contemporary history research: under the influence of the National Socialist dictatorship and its crimes, began in the 1950s – v. a. with the establishment of the Institute for Contemporary History - contemporary history research in the Federal Republic of Germany as research into National Socialism (including its prehistory), the Holocaust and the Second World War. Although this area of research has remained a central topic in contemporary history to this day (historians’ dispute, coming to terms with the past), the prehistory and course of the First World War (question of war guilt) have arisen since the 1960s; »Fischer controversy«), in the 1970s the occupation time in Germany and the beginnings of the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR came to the fore. In the 1980s, against the background of its international dimension, the German division developed into a further focus. While research on the history of ideas and events prevailed in the 1950s – also influenced by the conflict in the Cold War – studies of social, economic and structural history began to take place in the 1960s and 1970s, and everyday studies in the 1980s., examinations of the history of experience, culture and mentality come to the fore. With prosopography a new research approach emerged. – In the GDR, contemporary history research, institutionally v. a. directed and operated by SED institutions, specially promoted with legitimization intent and clearly determined by political guidelines. Since the end of the East-West conflict (1989/90), the results of contemporary history research and the attitudes of leading representatives themselves have been put to the test, since new perspectives were necessary and new sources became available (including all relevant GDR files, some also Russian ones and Eastern European files). – In the meantime, research into the Soviet occupation zone / GDR and communism, as well as the German question at the time of German division (as the prehistory of Germany reunified in 1990) have assumed a density and breadth comparable to research on National Socialism / Holocaust. In terms of research methodology – not without controversy – the comparison of dictatorships gained new meaning and dimension; In terms of content, the focus was on totalitarianism and transformation research, but also – to some extent – a more complex everyday, cultural and mental history perspective as well as biographical work. The political instrumentalizability of the Germans’ “double past” appears unbroken.