Photo: Karsten Kronas


“A source for better understanding of the pathways into the future”

Historian Martin Sabrow has the overview of all things traditional—a topic that TÜV SÜD is very preoccupied with in 2016, with the company celebrating its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. We spoke about self-presentation, melancholy and the juxtaposition of imitation and dissociation.

Interview Julia Illmer  Photos Karsten Kronas

Professor Sabrow, the past is behind us, and we can shape the present and the future. Is remembering “that which was” just wasted time?

If you define the past as being behind us, then perhaps yes. But I’m not entirely sure that the past is definitively behind us. I think the past is just as changeable as the future. Almost every day we see how the past can be interpreted anew.


Dealing with the past can therefore offer new insights time and again.

Yes, aside from which, dealing with the past is not wasted time because it gives us a certain security in a rapidly changing or uncertain world. The past is a resource of the knowledge from whence we come. And last but not least, the past is also a source for better understanding of the pathways into the future.


How can we extrapolate expectations of the present or the future from the past?

This can be accomplished in three different ways. In the first instance, if you have the feeling that your expectations about life haven’t been satisfied, you might plan your life by reflecting on the course wrongly set. A second possibility is to call upon a proud tradition and seek to imitate it with a mimetic approach. There is also a third way of dealing with the past, the cathartic, which focuses on dissociating from it.


Let’s take a look back: when did jubilees come into being?

Jubilees have their origin in Ancient Judea, therefore in the biblical era. At the time, a trumpet-like instrument made of a ram’s horn—jobel is the Hebrew word for ram—was sounded to open the jubilee year. A jubilee year occurred every fifty years, at which time loans, interest, indebtedness, bankruptcies, etc. were discharged. The papal jobel year, or Jubilee year, developed from this, in which not debts but sins were forgiven. After the Reformation, the Protestant Church wished to counter this jubilee year with something of its own. So, since the eighteenth century, the anniversary of the Reformation in 1517 has been celebrated every fifty years.


TÜV SÜD is celebrating one hundred and fifty years of existence this year. Why do traditional companies so gladly look back?

The fashion began with German universities celebrating the anniversaries of Goethe and Schiller; soon private companies began discovering jubilees for their own purposes in the nineteenth century. But the reason wasn’t debt relief for their customers; rather, the companies sought to emphasize their age and continuity. This looking back onto an unbroken tradition implied a promise that such a path would continue into the future.

About Martin Sabrow

About Martin Sabrow

Martin Sabrow has been dealing with questions such as “Why do we always look to the past?” for decades. He is a professor of modern and contemporary history at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and director of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany. Martin Sabrow was born in Kiel, Germany, in 1954.

The onset of the First World War, the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Night of Broken Glass—how do we in Germany deal with tragic events?

Here we’re talking about anniversaries of deaths or tragedies. We mark them as anniversaries, but in the sense of occasions of contemplation, thereby subverting the basic principles of the jubilee. The boom of the anniversary celebration in Germany has to do with the fact that we’ve been successful in adding a cathartic, a purifying, a dissociating tradition alongside the mimetic tradition mindful of continuity. And we’ve also been successful in connecting such an approach to the term jubilee so that we can celebrate without necessarily looking like reactionary historical repeat-offenders or nostalgia junkies.


What is challenging about jubilee celebrations?

Celebratory jubilees have something slightly ironic about them. There’s always a moment of dissociation, a feeling of looking in from the outside. This is something we also notice with personal anniversaries. We celebrate our fiftieth birthdays with a certain smiling melancholy, since we know: age doesn’t guarantee that everything will be better, but instead also reminds us of an inevitable decline. This slight ambiguity for jubilees seems to me to be an important part of such celebrations.


Despite this, companies utilize jubilees to present themselves. How do the guests feel about that?

We live in an enlightened historical era and cannot completely share the jubilee’s claim of continuity. We really enjoy witnessing the festivities, but we also know how many stages companies must have gone through to get to their present form, and how uncertain the future is. The continuous company history that jubilees celebrate is seldom truly tenable. And even for institutions for which this is the case, you see that much of the company’s history is happily glossed over. How we come to terms with the past, particularly the events of the twentieth century, has changed quite a lot. Today, the acknowledgement of historical encumbrances can also be considered a positive factor in the corporate sector. This is especially true for coming to terms with the Nazi dictatorship.


What do you feel to be typically German when you think about jubilees?

What is typical is that we think about both the cathartic and the mimetic. That is something that possibly differentiates jubilees in Germany from those you might be familiar with from other countries, countries dealing with less historical baggage than we have.


Does remembering help us find our bearings in the world?

We used to live more seasonally, with our whole lives defined in terms of cycles, from sowing seeds to reaping the harvest. In the modern era, these natural rhythms have largely disappeared, and a person’s experiences are no longer of much use in anticipating the future. A person moves to a different city, changes workplaces, changes family associations. This results in the disintegration of the experiential world and the horizon of expectation, as historian Reinhart Koselleck once put it. A person tries to cope with this in various ways: through research into the future, through history, through objective observation generally and through the reassurance of traditions. A mimetic jubilee is a part of this.


Would you like to read more?

The company history of TÜV SÜD can be found in the publication „150 Years TÜV SÜD 1866–2016. Insights and Milestones“.