23 Nov 2021

Funding by the Leibniz Association for the joint project “The 20th Century in Basic Concepts”

At its annual conference, the Leibniz Association has announced its decision to fund the research project “The 20th Century in Basic Concepts” (“Das 20. Jahrhundert in Grundbegriffen”) lead by Ernst Müller (ZfL) with a total sum of 995.500 € as part of its funding program Leibniz Collaborative Excellence. The three-year project is an innovative exploration of the continuities and discontinuities of controversial basic concepts from the past century’s political and social discourses. The history of 20th century Germany offers almost laboratory-like conditions to analyze the changes in the political-social language during the “Age of Extremes” (Eric Hobsbawm) that was shaped by two world wars and the subsequent upheavals and territorial shifts.

In the field of historical semantics, different methodological approaches and disciplinary traditions have often led to fierce dissent. The institutes involved in the project—the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL) in Berlin, the Leibniz-Institut für deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, and the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (ZZF)—have long worked individually at overcoming these conflicts. Whereas Reinhart Koselleck’s canonical dictionary of Historical Basic Concepts primarily focused on the 18th and 19th century, the three institutes tackle the challenging task of addressing a history of concepts of the 20th century through a methodological innovation that involves the integration of various digital tools with hermeneutical approaches. The principal aim of the project is the publication of a digital dictionary with approximately 150 entries. The work is organized and coordinated at the ZfL. Entries are written by members of the project as well as by external authors.

Every subproject analyzes a different kind of basic concept. At the ZfL the research will focus on concepts that originated in the sciences and migrated into sociopolitical discourses (concepts such as ‘energy,’ ‘evolution,’ ‘gene’). The IDS will look into political concepts with a particularly large temporal and social range (such as ‘democracy,’ ‘dictatorship,’ ‘justice,’ ‘left/right’). The ZFF will research processual and temporal concepts (such as ‘progress,’ ‘modernization,’ ‘history’). This joint work is not only expected to bring historical semantics into the 21st century, but also to create a reference work for future research into the history of 20th century Germany.