About Tobias Becker

Tobias Becker is a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin who has published widely on the history of popular culture since the 1800s. His books include "Inszenierte Moderne. Populäres Theater in Berlin und London, 1880-1930" (2014) "Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia" (2023) and "Popular Culture in Europe since 1800" (2023; written with Len Platt).

Comment by David Lowenthal

In his comment of the conference, David Lowenthal defined nostalgia as a longing for longing, for both retrospective and future longing. For Lowenthal, the nostalgia boom since the 1970s is rooted in the experience of the destructions of the Second World War and the Holocaust, rapid social and cultural change and the media’s treatment of the past. In his eyes, the longing for the past is rooted in the understanding of the past as better than the present because it is over and, thus, stable in contrast to the ever-changing and unstable present. At the same time nostalgia is fundamentally tragic as it entails the recognition that it is impossible to bring back the past.


Panel 5: Object Nostalgia

Nostalgia is not only triggered by old photographs but also by objects, the material remains of the past. They formed the topic of the fifth panel. The first paper, “Mixed Feelings: Do It Yourself, Nostalgia and Social Reform in Twentieth Century Germany” by REINHILD KREIS compared the 1900s and 1970s. In both eras the loss of practices of making things oneself—due to easily available mass produced goods—were lamented. As such criticism led to the rediscovery of traditional practices, the nostalgia for the past became, according to Kreis, a tool for shaping the future.


The second paper moved the discussion from the private to the public sphere. Building on her own experiences as a museum guide, EVA C. HEESEN discussed “Nostalgia as Escapism: An Invaluable Tool for Museums”. Heesen argued, that though most curators rejected nostalgia out of hand, many visitors expressed nostalgia and that nostalgia is indeed necessary to reach broader audiences.


However, nostalgia is not only associated with museums and exhibitions but also with the conservation movement, the topic of the next paper “Future Shock? European Heritage Conservation and Nostalgia for the Past in the 1970s” by KERSTIN STAMM.It focussed on the discourse surrounding the European Heritage Year 1975. Like Kreis, she understood the references to the past less as nostalgia than as a way to critique present problems and to influence present developments with an eye to the future.


Staying in the 1960s and 70s, KARL B. MURR studied the “The Function of Nostalgia in Jean Baudrillard’s System of Objects“. In this lesser known text Baudrillard comments not only on authenticity, photography, furniture, consumerism and other topics discussed at the conference but also contributed to the nostalgia critique of these decades. Baudrillard observed a cult for all that is old and especially a fetishising of old objects, which he read as an expression of yearning for a deeper, more authentic reality.


Panel 4: Media Nostalgia

No discussion of nostalgia can do without taking into account the media—the topic of the fourth panel. KATHARINA NIEMEYER, who recently edited a collection of essays on Media and Nostalgia, gave a paper on “Amateur Nostalgia on the Web: Remixing Vintage Media Technologies and Content”. Taking her cue from the carousel scene from the TV series Mad Men she discussed various forms and uses of nostalgia on the web, which she saw less driven by an interest in the past than by the creative anticipation of the future.


In the second paper, “Vilne Nostalgia in New York: Visual Memories of the Lithuanian Jews after the Shoah”, GINTARE MALINAUSKAITE presented a project to recreate the Jewish life in Vilne before the Holocaust through photographs and a documentary film. As a return home is impossible, the visual memories of it became nothing less than a “Vilne of the mind”. Far from sentimentalising a vanished past, the project turned the photographs into evidence of destruction and death.

Panel 3: Industrial Nostalgia

Nostalgia cannot only be found in politics, but in late twentieth century Europe became a mode to look back towards the industrial past. This was the topic of the third panel. It started with JÖRG ARNOLD’s paper on “The Future that Never Came: De-Industrialisation, Nostalgia and the Politics of Temporality”. Arnold examined the decade before the miner’s strike of 1984/85 when a renaissance of the British coal industry seemed just about to be possible. These hopes, however, were quickly crushed leaving many miners and unionists traumatised—not, in Arnold’s view so much by the loss of the past but by the loss of a future that never came.


TIM STRANGLEMAN’s paper “Smokestack Nostalgia? The Work of Memory in Understanding Industrial Decline” explored how the industrial past is remembered today. He noticed a growing reflection on industrial loss and its meaning and the rise of an aesthetic obsession with what he called the “deindustrial sublime”: former factories have become destinations of dark tourism, prowling grounds for urban spelunkers and photo fodder for luscious coffee table books.


The final paper of this panel, PETER N. HÖRZ’s “Processions Towards Railway History—On Rusty Tracks” was devoted to one subculture mourning the decline of a specific aspect of the industrial past: railway hikers. Walking along abandoned railway tracks they they mentally reconstruct the times when these tracks were still in use, thus preserving the memory of a past that has been destroyed by the transport policies of the 1970s. Hörz considered these hikes as performative acts akin to a procession, a ritual or a game.


Panel 2: Political Nostalgia

The second panel explored the possible political implications and triggers for nostalgia from various, differing perspectives. It was kicked of by PATRICIA LORCIN on “Memory and Nostalgia in the Post-Colonial Context”. LORCIN differentiated between imperial and colonial nostalgia, the second of which she studied for both French and British societies by drawing on the Pieds-Noirs and the Falklands War respectively.

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MANCA G. RENKO’s paper “Welcome to the Hotel Nostalgia” explored the nostalgia for the Habsburg empire in the writings of authors like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Karl Kraus, who had experienced it themselves and mourned its fall and its recent representation in Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project and Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.


In the only paper to tackle the role of music in nostalgia ROGÉRIO MIGUEL PUGA looked at the “Myth of Saudade” and its representation in, for instance, Fado. In the nineteenth and twentieth century Saudade was seen as a marker of lusphone uniqueness. A word that was seen as untranslateable described an emotion that was said to exist nowhere else and thus was used to construct a national identity.


The following paper “Nostalgia for West Germany: Rationalising the Emergence of Westalgie” by OWEN MOLLOY looked at the still rather new phenomenon of a yearning for the old German Federal Republic. Taking his cue from a recent exhibition on West Berlin and the West Berlin tourism more generally, Molloy saw the better known Ostalgie in the process of being replaced (or rather augmented) by Westalgie.


Keynote 2: Achim Landwehr, Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Time

ACHIM LANDWEHR’s keynote “Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Time” reconstructed the history of nostalgia from the year 1688, in which the physician Johannes Hofer had coined the term. Landwehr connected the birth of nostalgia to the invention of the present in the seventeenth century, the topic of his latest book. Stressing the temporal dimension inherent in nostalgia from the very beginning, he contrasted the perception of time before and after the seventeenth century, when the present became much more important and the past lost its exemplary character. Landwehr described nostalgia as a time practice that produces unique time by connecting the present time with unpresent times. Instead of understanding nostalgia and history as opposites, as is often the case, he emphasized their communalities.


Panel 1: Theorising Nostalgia

The first panel looked at nostalgia from a more theoretical point of view. In his paper “‘Good Old Things’: Nostalgia and the Discourse of Historical Authenticity” ACHIM SAUPE explored the relationship between nostalgia and authenticity by exploring the changing meaning and usages of the two terms in the nineteenth and twentieth century and by looking at the contemporary “nostalgia industry”.

While authenticity is ofthen associated with nostalgia ISHAY LANDA was interested in an often neglected aspect of nostalgia: pain—in this case a nostalgia for pain, which he traced beginning with Nietzsche, via Joseph Conrad, Ernst Jünger and Aldous Huxley to Michel Foucault.


Keynote 1: Constantine Sedikides, The Existential Gravitas of Nostalgia

The conference began with a keynote by CONSTANTINE SEDIKIDES, Professor of Psychology at Southampton University, on “The Existential Gravitas of Nostalgia”. SEDIKIDES began his talk by recounting, why he had started to research nostalgia. It was the overwhelmingly negative attitude towards nostalgia in psychology that had piqued his interest. Through experiments he and his fellow researchers were able to show that nostalgia, instead of being a disadvantage, has overall positive effects. In a world, in which our sense of meaning is constantly threatened, nostalgia provides a natural defense against threat, a sense of sociability and decreases our mortality awareness. As a meaning-making machine it increases our perception of meaning. These findings have been published in a number of articles, one of which can be found here.


Conference reading

Here is some recommended reading on nostalgia in preparation for tomorrow’s conference. If you know any books on the topic you would like tor recommend, please leave a comment.

Agacinski, Sylviane, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia. Translated by Jody Gladding, New York 2003.
Ankersmit, Frank R., History and Tropology. The Rise and Fall of a Metaphor, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1994.
Atia, Nadia, Jeremy Davies, Nostalgia and the shapes of history, Memory Studies 3 (2010), 181-6.
Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia, New York 2001.
Chase, Malcom, Christopher Shaw (eds.), The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, Manchester 1989.
Dames, Nicholas, Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1880, New York 2001.
Davis, Fred, Yearning for Yesterday. A Sociology of Nostalgia, London 1979.
Fischer, Volker, Nostalgie. Geschichte und Kultur als Trödelmarkt, Luzern, Frankfurt 1980.
Fritzsche , Peter, Specters of History: On Nostalgia, Exile, and Modernity, The American Historical Review 106 (2001), No. 5, 1587-1618.
Fritzsche, Peter, How Nostalgia Narrates Modernity, idem, Alon Confino (eds.), The Work of Memory. New Directions in the Study of German Society and Culture, Urbana 2002, 62-81.
Fritzsche, Peter, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History, Cambridge/Mass., London 2004.
Hutcheon, Linda, Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern. Methods for the Study of Literature as Cultural Memory, Stud­ies in Comparative Literature 30 (2000), 189-207.
Illbruck, Helmut, Nostalgia. Origins and Ends of an Enenlightened Disease, Evanston/Ill. 2012.
Lowenthal, David, The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge 1985.
Niemeyer, Katharina (ed.), Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future, Basingstoke 2014.
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, Das nostalgische Syndrom. Überlegungen zu einem neueren antiquarischen Gefühl, Frankfurter Hefte. Zeitschrift für Kultur und Politik 28 (1973), N. 4, 270-6.
Starobinski, Jean, William S. Kemp, The Idea of Nostalgia, Diogenes 14 (1966), 81-103.
Stewart, Susan, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Baltimore, London 1984.
Wilson, Janelle L., Nostalgia: Sanctuary of Meaning, Lewisburg 2005.


Things We Keep—exhibition at the GHI

Nostalgia is often connected with objects—by looking and handling things we feel transported back to another time, we become aware of time passing and the world changing. In connection with the conference the German Historical Institute shows the exhibition ‘Things We Keep’.

What do a jam pot, a fountain pen, a house number plaque and a mixer tap have in common? All these things have been brought to Britain by German immigrants and expats.
Curated by researchers from King’s College London and the German Historical Institute and designed by artist Rolf Sachs, the project explores the narratives behind the things we keep and why we keep them. The exhibition will be on display during the 25th anniversary of German re-unification on 3 October 2015 and document materially the ‘new’ Germany, bringing together East and West.
Expatriates face difficult decisions about what to take when moving abroad, a selection process that heightens the significance of the objects they decide to keep. However, most people can put their finger on a few things they would never want to leave behind. In short, we all have our desert island objects that remind us who we are by making us remember who we were.
Sidestepping economic and cultural value, this material culture approach is interested in the emotional dimension of the materiality of everyday life. Some of these things have a practical value, though all of them have over time acquired a personal and emotional meaning to the German expats. The things can be objects of nostalgia, are connections to the past, or narrative pegs for identities on the move, and yet they become an inherent part of a new life in Britain.
Things We Keep is a Culture at King’s College London project in collaboration with the Department of European & International Studies, the German Historical Institute and artist Rolf Sachs. It has been curated by Dr Katrin Schreiter, Teaching Fellow in German & European Studies at King’s College London, Dr Tobias Becker, Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute with the assistance of Julia Alcamo, undergraduate research fellow at King’s College London.
To find out more about the project go to www.thingswekeep.org or follow it on Twitter @thingswekeep.

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David Lowenthal

We are extremely delighted that Professor David Lowenthal will take part in the conference and will give a general comment. In 1985 Lowenthal published The Past is a Foreign Country, which went on to became a classic. Currently, Lowenthal, who celebrated his 90th birthday last year, is at busily revising the proofs of a new edition set to come out with Cambridge University Press in September. A quarter-century after the publication of his classic account of man’s attitudes to his past, David Lowenthal revisits how we celebrate, expunge, contest and domesticate the past to serve present needs. He shows how nostalgia and heritage now pervade every facet of public and popular culture. History embraces nature and the cosmos as well as humanity. The past is seen and touched and tasted and smelt as well as heard and read about. Empathy, re-enactment, memory and commemoration overwhelm traditional history. A unified past once certified by experts and reliant on written texts has become a fragmented, contested history forged by us all. New insights into history and memory, bias and objectivity, artefacts and  monuments, identity and authenticity, and remorse and contrition, make this book once again the essential guide to the past that we inherit, reshape and bequeath to the future.


Keynote speakers: Constantine Sedikides and Achim Landwehr

We are delighted to announce that Professor Constantine Sedikides and Professor Achim Landwehr have agreed to speak at the conference. Constantine Sedikides is Professor of Psychology at Southampton University, where he is also Director of the Center for Research on Self and Identity. He is part of a large research project on nostalgia and has written numerous essays on the psychological effects of nostalgia. His work was profiled, among others, in the Observer Magazine and the New York Times. Achim Landwehr is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Düsseldorf. He has written books on policing and Venice in the early modern period as well as introductions to discourse analysis and the cultural history of Europe. His latest book, Geburt der Gegenwart. Eine Geschichte der Zeit im 17. Jahrhundert, is a highly original and innovative account of the emergence of a new understanding of time in the seventeenth century. He also writes a blog on the making of history. At the conference he will be speaking about “Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Time”. We are much looking forward to both papers.


This blog accompanies the conference “Nostalgia. Historicising the Longing for the Past” that takes place at the German Historical Institut London from 1 to 3 October 2015.

In the early seventies, intellectuals and journalists became aware of a new and worrying phenomenon: nostalgia. ‘How much more nostalgia can America take?’ Time magazine asked in 1971, soon echoed by Der Spiegel in Germany and New Society in Britain to name just two. Only a decade before, dictionaries had still defined nostalgia as a medical term for an extreme form of homesickness. Now, it described the sentimental yearning for an irretrievable past. And this yearning seemed to be everywhere: in popular culture, in the rising number of museums and the explosion of museum attendance, in advertising, retro fashions and the booming antique market.

Not much seems to have changed since then. History is as popular as never before, popular culture is still obsessed with its own past, fashion designers continue to look back to earlier decades for inspiration and the current upsurge of heritage television— Downton Abbey, Mad Men—is again being discussed in terms of nostalgia. What is much harder to pin down are the origins of nostalgia and the changes it has undergone during the twentieth century. Has nostalgia always been around or is it indeed a peculiar modern phenomenon? Did its rise really begin in the seventies? Who feels nostalgic and for what? How do age, gender and class constitute and influence nostalgia? And does nostalgia really account for the popular interest in the past?

While a number of studies on nostalgia have appeared throughout various disciplines, historians have taken surprisingly little interest in the phenomenon. If they use the term at all, it is often with condescension, variously describing nostalgia as a sickness, kitsch or even a sin. What we still know very little about, however, is the history of nostalgia. How can we historicize nostalgia? How did it change over time? Does nostalgia, distort the past, as many historians believe, or does it perhaps foster an interest in history?

These are some of the questions the conference wants to address. It is interested both in theoretical contributions to the history of nostalgia and in case studies of nostalgia in various times, places, groups and contexts. Possible topics are: nostalgia in museums, the heritage industry and tourism, nostalgia in popular culture and the media, everyday nostalgia, industrial nostalgia, postcolonial nostalgia, rural nostalgia, nostalgia and migration, nostalgia and identity, nostalgia as an emotion, nostalgia and material culture.