Dispute over non-fiction writer Annika Brockschmidt February 6, 2022
Publicist Annika Brockschmidt has written a best-selling book on the influence of the “religious right” in the United States (“America’s God Warrior”, Rowohlt). The FAZ reviewer, theologian Benjamin Dahlke of the Catholic University of Eichstätt, called the presentation multifaceted and said of the author’s method: It “evaluates many sources and is also based on existing scientific studies”. But she didn’t come into the country for her book on God’s so-called own country. This is what Matthew Karnitschnig, the European correspondent of the digital news magazine “Politico”, discovered by asking him in an article as well as on Twitter. He criticizes Brockschmidt for not conducting interviews and other first-hand investigations and questions the expert status she enjoys in the German media.
The invective offers all sorts of material for dense descriptions of transatlantic discourses. A Springer organ criticizes the empirical methods of scientific observation of democracy. And one American views a German’s warning against the influence of ultra-religious white circles as “hate writing” against his country, particularly popular because it serves German “anti-Americanism.” Ironically, Karnitschnig’s charge of liberal-progressive clerical scholarship also mimics the critique of Western methods of measurement, descriptions of degeneracy, and analyzes of deficiencies from afar, that subaltern and postcolonial voices of the Global South have practiced.
Contemporary history without time travel
The accused replied that she had written a contemporary historical study, not a report. Various colleagues supported the historian on Twitter with methodological statements. Political scientists have explained that a trip to America is not empirical social research. Historians say they have studied the end of the Second World War but have never been in 1945. Beyond the political polemics, the controversy arouses a public debate on the empiricism of the social sciences and the role of the historical method. Do you have to know from your own experience what you are trying to analyze?
We only apparently escape this question if the objects are past and accessible only via representations of past reality, called sources. Of course, it is necessary to know sources of personal experience, not just hearsay, “cited” in the press or research literature (except for archaeologists, who painstakingly document their findings so that other researchers can work with them). Historians need to see representations of past reality as directly as possible in order to interpret and contextualize them properly. Their journeys in space are therefore mainly intended to travel in the past, this cropped past that the archives keep.
Moreover, contemporary witnesses are available to contemporary history. In the investigations, they could provide the “first-hand information” that Karnitschnig lacks with Brockschmidt. Journalists call these people “sources”. As such, and as “eyewitnesses” to historians, they seem to certify authenticity. Social scientists who work qualitatively use a similar type of person in the interview as empiricism. And Annika Brockschmidt, as a historian and journalist, of course could have interviewed such people online. However, the majority of contemporary historians do not work with contemporary witnesses in their research, for reasons of source criticism, which also cast doubt on the resilience of qualitative interviews. The sources that emerge as evidence of empirical reality are answers to questions – and understanding these questions is, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the heart of historical work. But whoever questions his “sources” specifies the questions to which they answer and somehow constructs the subject that is actually to be explored.
If first-hand sources can be accessed where the analysis is taking place, there is no need to go to New York to write about New York. Even the position of the correspondent offers only a perspective of reality, which, while it can give the public impressions of the atmosphere of the place, does not necessarily provide a more reliable analysis of individual problems. Karnitschnig compared Brockschmidt to Karl May. If one goes beyond the imperative of his own opinion, one should ultimately ask what Karnitschnig, who has previously worked as a correspondent in Germany for Bloomberg, Reuters, “Business Week” and the “Wall Street Journal” , is empirically allowed to say after twenty years of absence to provide information on present conditions in the United States.