On October 9th, 2014, I uploaded 48 articles to German Wikipedia, about the Revolution of 1848/1849 in Germany. I explain my motives on my user page and on a historians’ blog, and here also in English.
In 1848, revolutionary events occurred in many parts of Western and Central Europe, most notably in France, Germany, Italy and then Imperial Austria. Of course, Wikipedia has a lot of articles about these events. The quality shows a huge variety; sometimes even central articles (such as Frankfurter Nationalversammlung, the German national assembly) were hardly improved over the past six or eight years. They reached a certain quality early, some are even marked as “exzellent”, and a real makeover seemed to be too much work.
After I left the board of Wikimedia Nederland, in March this year, I wanted to write more articles again. While working on the article about the provisional constitutional order of 1848, I made up my mind about what needs to be done and how I wanted to contribute.
Why not writing or rewriting 48 articles about the Revolution? After very long articles such as Erste Kammer der Generalstaten I had learned from feedback that at least some readers found them way too long to consume. It is much better to distribute the knowledge via several articles with more general and more specific ones. This enables the reader to choose how much he wants to read, how substantial the information has to be.
In a speech for this year’s Historikertag in Göttingen, the major German historians’ convention, I put this into a larger perspective: what makes knowledge readable, what is the specialty of a reference work such as Wikipedia, in contrast to a general overview monograph? A reference work should consist of rather small units that can be consulted quickly. Encyclopedists have, for centuries, complained about readers who read ‘too little’ and are happy with a ‘ready reference’, while the encyclopedists wanted to provide a ‘depth in knowledge’ (hence the names for the two large parts of the 1970s Encyclopaedia Britannica; hence the hostility of some Wikipedians when ‘readability’ is discussed).
In my “Wikipedia 48″ project, for example, I decided to write “from the bottom to the top”. After having written rather specific articles such as ‘Basic Rights of the German People’, ‘Imperial Election Law’, or ‘Imperial Citizenship’, ‘Imperial Head of State discussion’, it was quite easy to write the overviewing article ‘Frankfurt Imperial Constitution’. All those specific topics could be dealt with in a couple of short paragraphs, in a summarizing manner. Who wants to read more about the Basic Rights or the Citizenship, can click on the related link. We already had this distinction between overviewing and specific articles in Wikipedia, of course, but I made this a conscious decision a priori, not a technique of shortening a long article afterwards.
I implemented the 48 articles (and some more, for context) on October 9th, the 25th anniversary of the Monday demonstrations in communist East Germany in 1989. I uploaded them together at the same time, because they contained many links to each other and I did not want ‘trigger happy colleagues’ to delink temporary red links. This worked fine with almost all articles with the exception of especially one case (the Revolution article itself): another Wikipedian has prevented ‘his’ article, though unreferenced, to be overwritten. A more positive reaction were the many edits from friendly Wikipedians who corrected wiki markup and typos in the articles’ source code.
Reading and writing about the revolution era became a fascinating learning experience for myself. I thought of myself knowing German history of the 19th and 20th century rather well, but actually I did not remember much more than the National Assembly and the Imperial Constitution. Somewhere in the back of my head there was a shadow of an ‘Imperial Regent’ (Reichsverweser), but it never occured to me asking myself what Empire he might have been a part of.
I realized that we have a tremendous scholarly literature in German about the revolution era, but the overview works and text books provide only a very condensed version of what happened. Partially we still see a tendency to trivialize, even ridicule the Revolution and the revolutionaries, quite in line with the conservative propaganda of the 1850s. But the Revolution was not just ‘some political unrest’, the National Assembly was not a ‘talking shop of impractical professors’, the Constitution was not merely ‘a proposal that did not find enough support’, the National Assembly did not end because its members ‘lost interest’. Instead, the Revolution found a broad resonance in German society, it was crushed by force, and its legal (!) institutions were abolished unlawfully. The Constitution is still highly praised by modern law experts and sometimes even referred to by our German Constitutional Court.
There remains a lot to learn and to do about 19th century Germany.
See the list of the 48 articles on this Wikipedia user page.