Conceptual history, armed

In his Begriffsgeschichte – The history of concepts – Reinhardt Koselleck pays homage to a predecessor in the field of understanding intellectual history emically: Richard Koebner. The homage is also a parable. Koebner began, in the twenties, by looking at the medieval period in Köln, writing a book entitled 'Anfängen des Gemeinwesens der Stadt Köln”. In the book, Koebner examined what 12 century burgers of Cologne could have meant when they used such terms as “urbs” or “civitas”. But, as Koselleck points out, Koebner didn’t think as much about what a 1920s German might mean by “Gemeinwesens” – community. “In retrospect, today’s reader might of course stumble over the fact that Koebner used as his highest thematic concept for the republican conception of the city, “Volksgemeinschaft” (community of the people), not really a concept derived from the sources, but a modern concept of the 19th and 20th century that he projected onto the high middle ages. He was thinking primarily on the legal factor that a republican city state would allot equal rights to citizens. We may be certain that Koebner, twelve years later, as he was forced to emigrate to Palestine, would no longer have used the concept of ‘Volksgemeinschaft”. For it was just this concept that, extended under evidently racist criteria, served as the battle cry to exclude Jews from the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’. If yu like, Koebner was one of the early victims of this semantic displacement, that allowed and evoked the death of hundreds of thousands of German citizens and millions of innocent people. Koebner must have remarked upon this as he emigrated from Breslau to Jerusalem in 1934.” [58]

Koebner, then, is a case not only of a historian who honed the methods of the history of concepts, but was also a victim of a ‘displacement’ of concepts – of meaning. Intellectual history may seem to have no claws, but – Koselleck is saying – this is a delusion. There are no tamed beasts in history.