A Western Bias in Modern History?

In the last couple of months, I had the pleasure to listen to a few highly interesting and engaging lectures and research seminars. Unsurprisingly, when considering my field of interest, most of them were located in the realm of medical and Cold War history. While attending these events, however, I was astonished how some established historians claimed for themselves to rewrite a topic’s historiography of international relevance post-1945, without acknowledging Eastern Bloc, or even Soviet Union sources, developments and historical research.

In this post, I want to draw attention to this Western bias, which in my opinion hampers historical research and cultural understanding in many ways. Indeed, history as a profession cannot be ‘apolitical‘ – and it definitely should not be. The task of the discipline always was to understand the present – its history, political legacy and societal heritage. It is an inherent retrospective and thus tainted view of the past, with which history – and in a broader sense the humanities – should serve as the consciousness of society, preventing, for example, ethical transgressions in science and politics. This view might be very idealistic or naive, but the context and understanding of history should enable us to point towards alternatives and possible solutions to the complex issues of today – and thus is highly political.

However, to reach this and a more widely acknowledged discipline among the population, history has to open up its approaches. With this, I mean interdisciplinary cooperations with other disciplines of humanities and sciences as well as with international networks – not least to break down language and methodological barriers, which prevent comparative research activities. In this realm, neglecting the former Eastern Bloc states as well as the Soviet Union in a Cold War topic is untenable for scholars today. As in Germany – where just today [3/3/2016], Andrew Port pointed out the problematic character of East German historiography on Deutschlandradio Kultur – the bias of the East vs. West polemic survived in many Western countries, not least due to recent political developments, but even among some historians.

Is the neglect of sources and research from former socialist countries a sign of Western ignorance? I am not sure if that claim can be made, but it should make us more aware of the necessity to review our subjectivity, political predisposition and with this to broaden our methodology and research approaches to circumvent biased accounts as much as possible in the future.

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