I think it’s not an exaggeration if I say that I took a fair number of courses in history. And yet, I don’t recall a single time a concept of the zeitgeist being discussed. It simply does not seem to fit into categories of the academic [“real”] history. What exactly is zeitgeist and how one would measure and assess such a feeling? These are just a few of many good reasons why one does not confronts students of history with such a fluffy concept and rather stick to more tangible phenomena.
Having said that, I can’t help thinking that we might be missing something very important by not dealing with this vague idea. It recently struck me how much in the so-called West the vast majority of people seem to be avert to any change. It is truly remarkable how often words like “stays”, “remains” and so forth have been used during the ongoing elections in Berlin. Many of the analysis of the Brexit vote point out to the dissatisfaction with the influences of the EU and foreigners on Britain. Trump’s campaigned has been fuelled – to a large degree – by the rejection of changes symbolized by the Obama administration and also by longing for return to a mythical past. These are just a few examples that stand out strongest, but it seems that they all fit into a bigger picture of fear and frustration. It looks as if large sections of the societies in “the West” are motivated by those two feelings, as if we lived in the time (decade?) of angst. This impression is ever stronger if one recalls the 90s when all was about change, about building new world, about overcoming the legacy of the Cold War. The reasons for those shifts are, of course, complex and in each case (probably) different, but nonetheless this seems to be the spirit of the moment, which is of course not shared by everyone.
I honestly doubt, if historians writing in the distant future (providing the mankind will not succeed in wiping out life on Earth) would perceive the second decade of the 21st century through the leans of fear and clinging to the past. If I learned something from history, it is that one only rarely sees the storm of history when one is in the middle of it. And yet, it is precisely that storm that historians watching from the distance of time focus their attention on. In the grand scheme of things out collective paranoia might seem trivial (“a ripple on the surface of time”) and meaningless, but I am convinced that to understand the events in our time, also those which make the difference for the future, it is vital to bear in mind the social climate. And for the same reason, I think it might be worth reflecting on what was the situation in other periods, no matter how insignificant it might seem at first glance. I don’t want to suggest it could change our understanding of history, but rather than without such a background we might be missing a few important puzzle pieces.