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uni'alumni 2015_ENG

On the table lies a voluminous book of around 1,500 pages: Die Ge- schichte Deutschlands im 20. Jahrhun- dert (“The History of Germany in the 20th Century”), published on 8 May 2014. The author of the landmark work, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Herbert, can still recall every step of its ten-year genesis, he reveals with a slight frown. The professor for early modern and modern history at the University of Freiburg knew early on that an “explanatory history” of the 20th century that is also clearly divided into a history of the years before and after 1945 would require more space and time than he had originally planned, “particularly as it quickly became clear that many developments are part of a European process.” Present in National Media Herbert’s passion for analyzing soci- etal developments from the scholarly distance of the historian did not lead him to the university right away: Born in Düs- seldorf in 1951, he initially completed teacher training after earning his degree and taught at secondary school. “It was like a second course of study for me, only this time I was getting paid for it,” Herbert reminisces. When he was 28 years old, he decided it was time for a change in direction. He enrolled in a PhD program in contemporary history at the University of Essen and wrote a dis- sertation on forced labor under the Na- tional Socialist regime under Prof. Dr. Lutz Niethammer. “It was a huge topic that had sparked off a big public debate at the time, and no research had been done on it yet,” remembers the historian. Finally, it was after writing his habilita- tion thesis on the biography of the SS intellectual Werner Best that Herbert de- cided to make the scholarly analysis of contemporary history into his profession. Today the Leibniz laureate’s academic publications could easily fill an entire bookshelf, but at the same time he also engages in public debate on topics of historical relevance, as a quick glance at national media shows: He regularly com- ments on films with historical topics, pub- lic speeches by politicians, and position statements by historians. For instance, Herbert criticized the recent speech by President of Germany Joachim Gauck on the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War as being “one-sided” and contributing to a “verbal escalation” in the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “That’s the job of the contemporary histori- an,” explains Herbert. “We remind people of forgotten history and make connections clear.” When asked what word he would use to characterize his profession, his spon- taneous response is “teacher.” “Teaching is an art that needs to be carried out with commitment and verve,” stresses Her- bert. “But you also need to have some- thing to talk about, so teaching goes hand in hand with research.” When his students succeed in following him and keeping up with the necessary reading, he gladly gives up his role as teacher for a common learning process. The time- consuming combination of research, teaching, and writing doesn’t leave him any time for hobbies, says the father of two children who are currently complet- ing their education. His hobbies are his job and his family. “That’s how it should be, and that’s how it has turned out.” Eva Opitz The historian Ulrich Herbert reminds people of forgotten history and makes connections clear. Photo: Thomas Kunz Historian of Current Events Ulrich Herbert analyzes contemporary history from a scholarly distance PORTRAIT 20 University News uni'alumni 2015