Conference report

During the recent economic recession, a new interest in nostalgia – a
sentimental yearning for the past – spiked among academics and
‘amateurs’ alike. At first glance, it seems that when people are
confronted with difficulties in the present, they tend to yearn for a
seemingly better or simpler life in the past. An increased engagement in
recreational activities related to the past supports this hypothesis. In
Britain, for instance, we find a flourishing community around historical
re-enactments, a growing interest in family history, and a large number
of people volunteering for the British National Trust. Since the
twentieth century at least, the term nostalgia has commonly been used to
describe consumerist practices and media phenomena in addition to
recreational activities.

The term nostalgia was coined by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who
introduced it as a pathological term for homesickness in his
dissertation of 1688. Caused by the absence of the apparently superior
air and unique landscape of Switzerland, the disease was claimed to
affect Swiss people when living and working abroad. According to Hofer,
external stimuli such as objects or songs triggered a longing for one’s
home country. The focus on place is reflected in synonymous words such
as ‘homesickness’, the German Heimweh, and the French maladie du pays.
Only in the twentieth century was the spatial longing transformed into a
temporal one.

Until recently, historians (apart from rare exceptions) used the term
pejoratively to describe the sentimental interest of non-historians for
the past. Over recent decades, psychology, sociology, literature, media,
film, cultural studies, and fashion have produced a body of literature
on nostalgia. Picking up on the recent interest in the subject, Tobias
Becker, Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute London,
organized an interdisciplinary conference including not only historians
but also representatives of the research areas named above. The
conference set out to explore whether and how nostalgia can be
historicized. Can nostalgia be described as an anthropological constant?
Since when have we felt nostalgic? Who feels nostalgic for what? In
short: does nostalgia have a history? And if so, how can we write it?

The conference began with a stimulating keynote lecture delivered by
CONSTANTINE SEDIKIDES (Southampton), an experimental psychologist who
works on nostalgia. He stated that nostalgia had negative connotations
and is linked to depression. According to Sedikides’s psychological
experiments, nostalgia functions as a coping mechanism in negative
situations where people experience feelings of loneliness, fear, and
depression. Nostalgia provides a meaning for life by reminding people
that they are part of a group – a family, a circle of friends – which
makes them feel socially connected. Although nostalgia is primarily a
backwards-looking emotion, it also has a positive forwards-looking

Following Sedikides, the first panel discussed theoretical approaches to
nostalgia. ACHIM SAUPE (Potsdam) asked how ideas of nostalgia and
authenticity are interconnected. Saupe suggested that ‘authenticity’ is
a value that is attached to objects (for example, in museums) or places
(for example, memorial sites), and makes them more credible or truthful
‘as apparently direct embodiments of history’ (Saupe). The past is
completed and unchangeable by comparison with an ongoing, uncertain
present (and future). This makes the past more desirable and
‘authentic’, that is, closer to an assumed original or truth, than the
present. In the last third of the twentieth century, self-confirmation
of individuality, originality, belonging, and the notion of making sense
of things by buying goods became increasingly common. Since the 1980s
and 1990s, companies have used the desire for authenticity and trust as
a selling point for the credibility of their brands. They cater for
people feeling nostalgic by selling new goods that look as if they were
from another era, such as retro bicycles.

Romanticizing a ‘painful’ past seems counter-intuitive. Yet as ISHAY
LANDA (Ra’anana) showed in his paper, a number of critics of modernity
expressed a longing for pain to counter a life lived in a state of ‘mild
satisfaction’ at the end of the ‘civilizing process’ (Norbert Elias).
Friedrich Nietzsche described the ‘last man’ as a squeamish person –
lacking the experience and ability to endure pain – who would live a
long but meaningless life. Struggle, strife, and heroism, on the other
hand, he argued, made life worthwhile. Fascism used the same rhetoric
and put pain back at the centre of things, claiming that living a life
in peace is not as valuable as proving oneself in war.

ROGÉRIO MIGUEL PUGA (Lisbon) presented a variant concept of nostalgia as
expressed by the Portuguese word saudade, the longing for an absent
person, thing, or period. The term dates back to the thirteenth century
and was revived by the early twentieth-century literary movement
‘Saudosismo’. The inability to describe what saudade means is shared
with other languages, such as the Russian toska, the Czech litnost, and
the Welsh hiraeth. According to Puga, all these terms claim to be
untranslatable, and thus express a desire for uniqueness. In this
presentation, saudade or nostalgia was described as an element of a
nascent nationalism that worked not only as a political project but also
in cultural terms.

The second keynote lecture was delivered by ACHIM LANDWEHR (Düsseldorf)
who put the ‘invention of nostalgia’ in 1688 into the context of
changing perceptions of time. In his eyes, the Renaissance had no
concept of nostalgia because it saw the past as still ongoing. Only the
‘birth of the present’ in the seventeenth century, that is, the
widespread understanding of time as linear and irreversible, turned
nostalgia into a collective cultural phenomenon. In the last part of his
talk, Landwehr fast-forwarded to the 1970s, which once again saw a
rupture in the understanding of time accompanied by a widespread sense
of nostalgia. Landwehr conceptualized nostalgia as a temporal contact
zone in which present versions of selected pasts are used to shape
selected futures, a process Landwehr called ‘chronoferencing’.

The second panel focused on ‘Political Nostalgia’. PATRICIA LORCIN
(Minneapolis) distinguished between imperial and colonial nostalgia in
post-colonial societies in France and Britain. While the former referred
to the loss of Empire and hegemonic influence in international power
politics, the latter referred to the loss of a colonial lifestyle and
socio-economic standing by former settlers. Lorcin highlighted the
influence of politics, media, and gender on individual and collective
nostalgia. A recent upsurge of nostalgia for the Habsburg Empire was the
subject of MANCA G. RENKO’s (Koper) paper. She discussed examples of
nostalgia for the dual monarchy, such as “The Kraus Project” (2014) by
Jonathan Franzen and Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), in
which a hotel becomes a nostalgic non-place and safe home that belongs
to everyone and no one, enabling its inhabitants to escape the void of
the present. The recent phenomenon of ‘Westalgie’ in contrast to the
better-known ‘Ostalgie’, was discussed by OWEN MOLLOY (Norwich). Drawing
on a recent exhibition in the Stadtmuseum Berlin and travel agencies
advertising tours through West Berlin in VW Beetles – as opposed to the
Trabi in East Berlin – Malloy made a case that the old, stable Federal
Republic has supplanted the GDR as an object of nostalgia.

Turning from a longing for a specific place in time to a longing for a
certain mode of life and work, the third panel looked at ‘Industrial
Nostalgia’. In focusing on the losses rather than gains of
deindustrialization, industrial nostalgia bemoans the loss of the value
of manual work and self-definition by ‘making things’. A significant
shift in post-war Britain was the miners’ strike of 1984-5, commonly
portrayed as King Coal’s heroic but futile resistance to the Thatcher
government. JÖRG ARNOLD (Nottingham) argued that the stimulus for action
was disappointment that an anticipated economically stable future never
arrived, rather than the loss of an industrial past per se. Following a
similar train of thought, TIM STRANGLEMAN (Canterbury) analysed
instances of ‘smokestack nostalgia’, drawing mainly on coffee table
books about former industrial complexes and car plants that are no
longer used. Often purchased by former workers, they are a way of making
sense of the decline of an industrial sector they were once part of.
PETER HÖRZ (Göttingen) presented an ethnographic study of ‘rail hikers’
who explore shut-down railway lines by walking along them. Hörz
understood this practice as play, performance, and pilgrimage, through
which participants make the past present.

The fourth panel analysed how nostalgia is invoked and produced by the
media. As Saupe had already noted, the media sell products by using
nostalgic narratives and styles in advertisements. At the same time, the
media can simulate past times. KATHARINA NIEMEYER (Paris) analysed
instances of nostalgia in social media such as Instagram and YouTube,
where the immediate present is nostalgically reproduced, prompting
Niemayer to speak of ‘instant nostalgia’. GINTARE MALINAUSKAITE (Berlin)
focused on Mira Jedwabnik van Doren’s documentary “The World Was Ours”
(2006), a project largely based on collections of old photographs about
the life of Jews in Vilne (the Jewish name for Vilnius, Lithuania).
Although Vilnius as a place still exists, returning there is futile. Its
Jewish community can only be remembered through photo albums and
documentaries. In this logic, nostalgic feelings towards the ‘good
times’ in Vilne serve as a moral reminder that the horrors of the Shoa
should never be repeated.

The fifth panel, ‘Object Nostalgia’, dealt with the material side of
nostalgia. EVA C. HEESEN (Hanover) addressed the two-sided significance
of nostalgia in museums, where nostalgia provides both education and
escapism from present realities. The past becomes a canvas on which to
project a selective and idealized longing. In practice, when the
irreversibility of time creates a safe distance to the past on display,
then the objects create an emotional resonance and thus become

REINHILD KREIS (Mannheim/Vienna) compared two waves of do-it-yourself
(DIY). Around 1900, manual work was favoured in contrast to
mass-produced goods, while also referring to older notions of gender and
generation identity. In the 1970s and 1980s, DIY was discovered by the
alternative milieu with the idea of creating a better, more sustainable
future because it provided independence from mass production and kept
craftsmanship alive. Though drawing on the past, nostalgia acted as a
source for reform to create a better future.

The conflict between preserving and destroying historical buildings
after the Second World War was examined by KERSTIN STAMM (Bonn/Berlin)
in her paper on the European Architectural Heritage Year 1975. Until
then, new modern and mono-functional outskirts had been built while the
bombed city centres had been neglected by architects and urban planner.
Under the headline ‘A Future for Our Past’, the conservation movement
tried to promote the renovation and preservation of older buildings and
districts. Stamm noted that the people who were fighting against
modernization and the destruction of old buildings were rarely those who
lived in the buildings that they wanted to protect. As they were not
affected by change, it was easier for them to feel nostalgic for a
particular architectural past.

KARL B. MURR (Augsburg/Munich) reassessed Jean Baudrillard’s remarks on
nostalgia in his “System of Objects”. According to Baudrillard, modern
Western societies define themselves more through consumerism than
industrial production. In this context, objects are ‘consumed’ not only
because of their functionality, but because of their secondary meanings,
their ‘sign value’. Consequently, Baudrillard criticizes the
authenticity of the object and the discourse of historical reality.

DAVID LOWENTHAL (London), author of “The Past Is A Foreign Country”,
concluded the conference by making some general comments. He attributed
the spread of a nostalgic yearning for the past since the 1970s to the
fact that the past is over and unchangeable and therefore emits a sense
of stability, authenticity, and familiarity that the present for many
people seems to lack. The following plenary discussion highlighted that
nostalgia remains an elusive phenomenon. This makes it difficult to
apply the term analytically. But as the conference showed, nostalgia can
(and needs to) be studied historically. Historians can learn from other
disciplines and must overcome their prejudices regarding nostalgia.
After all, more people encounter the past through nostalgic phenomena
and practices than through historiographical studies.

Conference overview:

Andreas Gestrich (London) / Tobias Becker (London), Welcome and

Keynote I
Constantine Sedikides (Southampton), Back to the Future: Nostalgia
Fosters Optimism, Inspiration, and Creativity

Panel I: Theorising Nostalgia
Chair: Fernando Esposito (Tübingen)

Achim Saupe (Berlin), “Good old things”: Nostalgia and the discourse of
historical authenticity

Ishay Landa (Ra’anana), The Nostalgia for Pain: Examining a Modern

Rogério Miguel Puga (Lisbon), The Myth of Saudade in Portuguese-speaking
Countries: Art, Lusophone Self-Stereotypes, and (Psychological)
‘National Traits’

Keynote 2
Achim Landwehr (Düsseldorf), Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Time

Panel 2: Political Nostalgia
Chair: Esra Özyürek (London)

Patricia Lorcin (Minneapolis), Memory and Nostalgia in the Post-Colonial

Manca G. Renko (Koper), Habsburg Nostalgia

Owen Molloy (Norwich), Nostalgia for West Germany: Rationalising the
Emergence of Westalgie

Panel 3: Industrial Nostalgia
Chair: Lutz Raphael (Trier)

Jörg Arnold (Nottingham), The Future that Never Came:
De-Industrialisation, Nostalgia and the Politics of Temporality

Tim Strangleman (Canterbury), Smokestack Nostalgia? The Work of Memory
in Understanding Industrial Decline

Peter F. N. Hörz (Göttingen), Processions Towards Railway History-On
Rusty Tracks: What ‘Rail Hikers’ Are Doing and What They Have in Mind
While Walking on Shutdown Railway Lines

Panel 5: Media Nostalgia
Chair: Amy Holdsworth (University of Glasgow)

Katharina Niemeyer (Paris), Nostalgising the Past, Present and Future: A
Reflection on Homesickness, Media and Amateur Nostalgia

Gintare Malinauskaite (Berlin), Vilne Nostalgia in New York: Visual
Memories of the Lithuanian Jews after the Shoah

Panel 4: Object Nostalgia
Chair: Len Platt (London)

Reinhild Kreis (Mannheim), Mixed feelings. Do it yourself, nostalgia,
and social reform in 20th century Germany

Eva C. Heesen (Hannover), Nostalgia as Escapism: An Invaluable Tool for

Kerstin Stamm (Bonn/Berlin), Future Shock? European Heritage
Conservation and Nostalgia for the Past in the 1970s

Karl B. Murr (Augsburg/München), The Function of Nostalgia in Jean
Baudrillard’s System of Objects

Comment and general discussion
Chair: Tobias Becker (London)
Comment by David Lowenthal (London)

Tagungsbericht: Nostalgia: Historicizing the Longing for the Past, 01.10.2015 – 03.10.2015 London, in: H-Soz-Kult, 09.04.2016, <>.