Information about the Department of Contemporary History

What is contemporary history?

Contemporary history is a dynamic and constantly changing branch of the historical sciences, although no really universal consensus as to a definition, profile and methodology has ever been reached. Scholars in German-speaking countries will probably continue to use the classic definition by Hans Rothfels, namely “the epoch of the contemporaries and the scholarly research of that period” (from “Contemporary History as a Mission”, 1953). Therefore the subject area of contemporary history shifts continuously with the flux of time and updates itself automatically, making it difficult to separate it strictly from recent history and “current affairs”. Consequently time periods and historical issues are perpetually being removed from the field of contemporary history. Moreover, the definition offered by Rothfels is in itself overly complex, in that it does not remain generationally related but rather has been expanded objectively and thematically – with regard to a “new universal-historical epoch” beginning in 1917-18, marked by the USA’s entry into World War I and the Russian Revolution. With that Rothfels did not only focus on a solid historical configuration, but also on a new form of transnational entanglement, which was not peculiar to the era of national states.


Despite the fact that there are no clearly and unambiguously demarcated historical periods, even the parameters of “Zeitgeschichte”, “contemporary history”, “histoire contemporaine” or “histoire du temps present”, “storia contemporanea” and “historia contemporánea” are variously delineated within different national-historical contexts – along the decisive fault-lines within each particular national history. Contemporary history moves forward with each new epoch-making event: For example, in Germany after 1989 the focus of contemporary history was visibly moved towards the post-war history of both German states. Austria also distinctly felt the consequences of the year 1989. Internationally the subject area is becoming oriented more and more in the direction of transnational European and global perspectives, passing beyond the traditionally dominant national frameworks.

Contemporary history as a historical sub-discipline

Contemporary history plays an important role in the total complex of historical sciences, but has gradually developed into a diversely subdivided subject field of its own, in which various methodologies and approaches have been applied. Established historical research methods link contemporary history with other sub-disciplines of the subject area, and contemporary history makes specific use of these methods, although it is consistently aware of the specific challenges and problems inherent in its particular source materials. Both a wealth and a dearth of documents plague this research area, together with the often misleading character of official material. More and more audio documents, photographic and film material, and in recent times also digital files as well as the Internet have provided special types of source materials which complement the classical written historical traditions. Eye-witnesses provide a completely different access to history, which is missing in research on long past historical ages. The lack of historical distance – a frequent criticism aimed at contemporary history – and the attendant concerns and meanings for the present bestow upon it an eminently socio-political purpose.

Contemporary history in Innsbruck

In order to introduce contemporary history as an independent subject area in research and teaching, the University of Innsbruck founded the Department of Contemporary History in 1984. Rolf Steiniger, who had been appointed professor in Innsbruck in 1983, established and headed the Department until his retirement in the autumn of 2010. In 2002 the Department was evaluated by a commission of the “European Science Foundation” and classified as a “Center of Excellence”. This was in recognition of the almost 20 years of high-caliber work done by the Department: The large number and variety of national and international research projects, comprehensive publication activities (including its own series of publications), the regular guest lectureships of prominent foreign professors, conferences and symposia with international experts, as well as a large number of prestigious awards and distinctions of Department faculty members.

Areas of focus

At the University of Innsbruck the field of contemporary history is covered in all its broadness: In research and teaching the entire histories of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century are represented, including the pre-histories requisite for understanding these modern periods. Regional and national aspects, as well as global events and transnational interconnections are considered. The Department deals with the histories of Tyrol and South Tyrol, Austria and Europe, both of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Political and diplomatic history are more and more integrated with aspects of intellectual and cultural history and transdisciplinary perspectives.

Nach oben scrollen