A state with big differences

4 July 2012

The first handbook of the history of Rhineland-Palatinate is now available. There has not been a book like this before and the 40 authors who worked on it have charted new territory. Co-publisher Professor Dr. Michael Kißener, Professor for Contemporary History at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz (JGU), and Dr. Pia Nordblom, coordinator of the handbook project at JGU, talk about the challenges they faced in the momentous project.

The handbook Cross, Wheel, Lion. Rhineland-Palatinate. A State and its History is not exactly handy. The second volume on its own weighs several kilos. Its 846 pages illustrate the period from the end of the 18th century to the present day: It has many illustrations, modern maps, and articles the like of which have not been seen in a state history before.

"We are exhausted," says Professor Dr. Michael Kißener. The professor for Contemporary History at JGU is one of the co-publishers of the handbook. Now he is sitting at a round table in his office next to Dr. Pia Nordblom, research associate at the Department of History and coordinator of the "Handbook of the History of the State of Rhineland-Palatinate" project. Both are looking at the book in front of them hot off the press and they look anything but exhausted. Quite the contrary, they have a lot to say.

A challenge for the authors

"It was difficult getting the project moving as it was not that easy finding authors willing to take on the challenge," recalls Kißener. "The book covers very different territories and the extent of available research was so varied that we even had to use primary sources in some cases." While the palatinate history is well researched, there are a lot of gaps in the history of the Westerwald.

But such a heterogeneous research status is hardly surprising given how extremely heterogeneous the state itself is. The borders drawn in 1949 to create the state of Rhineland-Palatinate were arbitrary and had nothing to do with history. The Vienna Congress of 1815 gave the Eifel to the Kingdom of Prussia, Bavaria got the Palatinate, and Mainz was Hessian.

Describing a bizarre state

"Both the structure of Rhineland-Palatinate and the way it is divided are pretty bizarre," explains Kißener. The task of the 40 academics working on the handbook was certainly not to demonstrate unity extending back through the ages. "Classic historians would say we should have written three books; a Hessian, a Bavarian, and a Prussian history," says Nordblom. "But it was this challenge that made it so interesting for us. We always had to investigate the various territories side-by-side."

Kißener is a member of the state parliament's committee for the history of the State of Rhineland-Palatinate. In 2003 the committee decided to publish the first handbook in time for Rhineland-Palatinate's 65th birthday. At first it was supposed to come in six volumes, then they decided three would be more manageable. The book was intended to appeal to a broad audience. Both the state parliament, which provided EUR 300,000 of financial support, and the authors subscribed to this goal.

A Landau native invented Santa Claus

"Many of us found the writing style difficult because it was not something we were used to," says Nordblom. "We often used anecdotes to make it more appealing but this meant we had to leave certain things out." One of the anecdotes: The artist who created Santa Claus came from Landau. Thomas Nast iused the Belzenickel from his homeland in 1931 as his template and Coca-Cola simply could not resist. The bearded man came out into the world via a huge advertising campaign, and thus found finally his way back to Landau.

But it goes without saying such trivia are an exception in the handbook. Volume three, published by the State Office of Statistics, is bursting with figures. It covers just about everything that has ever been statistically captured – age structure, origin of the populace, voting results, and wine harvests. Volume two is on the table in front of Kißener and Volume three, covering the history up to 1800, will appear in September in time for the big Historian Conference in Mainz. "We are now doing all we can to slow down the medievalists," says Nordblom a little casually. "We don't want their volume to be thicker than this one here."

Differences from region to region

Kißener wrote two introductory chapters for Volume two and outlined the historical development from when the French were stationed on the Rhine to the new European order after the Congress of Vienna, the revolution, and the World Wars to the present day. "What I find really interesting are the vast differences from region to region. While the war instigated by Bismarck against Roman Catholicism raged in Koblenz and Trier with the Bishop of Trier jailed in 1874, in Birkenfeld a Catholic priest could sit down and chat with a Prussian District Administrator."

Nordblom's focus was economic history. She had hoped to find material on the subject in works on Bavarian, Hessian, and Prussian history. However, these states viewed their territories which are now part of Rhineland-Palatinate as peripheral and little information on them was available. "They were seen as poorhouses. But a lot did happen here." And you can read about what happened in the handbook.

A beginning but not yet an ending

It also investigates aspects that would normally not be covered in this type of book. For instance, Dr. Andreas Linsenmann, research assistant at JGU's Department of History, looked at the state's foreign relations. And folklorists looked at everyday culture in the state including the many festivals held in Rhineland-Palatinate.

"The handbook is a beginning but not yet an ending," Nordblom explains. There are still gaps in the research but this is normal at this stage. Follow-up projects are already in the works to close some of the gaps. Two examples: One working group with support from the state parliament will examine the state's post-1945 economic history while Boehringer Ingelheim is sponsoring a project that will look at the history of the pharmaceutical company under National Socialism.

Historian Conference with Rhineland-Palatinate zone

"Another side effect is the networking of state institutions that look at history," explains Nordblom. They now have close contact with the State Office of Statistics and the Land Survey Office and the local broadcaster SWR is also involved. The broadcaster provided a CD with 50 historical film documents. "The Historian Conference in September will have a Rhineland-Palatinate zone," promises the historian. "It will be the first time ever that a historian convention will have exhibits focused on the history of a single state."

"The more globalized our world gets, the more important people find it to put down regional roots," says Kißener with conviction. This seems to be the case in Rhineland-Palatinate as well. The publisher's print run of 3,000 volumes has already already sold out. The printing cost subsidy from the state parliament and state chancellery helped keep the price low.

Don't contrive a unity that's not there

Nordblom is happy: "I expected our readers would be white-haired, retired teachers but young people are showing just as much interest." It definitely shows the concept is right. Cross, Wheel, Lion is accessible for laymen and is an excellent read. Numerous illustrations give a vivid portrayal of eras gone by, the maps are unique, the book is full of surprising perspectives, and it is possible to view historical films.

The most important aspect remains: The authors never attempt to portray Rhineland-Palatinate as a unit. They believe its heterogeneity gives the relatively new state strengths and opportunities as do its connections with the outside world. "It is not a defect. It is something that can generate enormous gains," says Nordblom.

It is now the readers' turn, if they can get a copy. The heavy tome is very popular. Hurry if you're interested.