Beyond the Pressure to Perform: On the Concept of "Leistung" in 19th Century Germany

Lecture | October 15 | 5-6:30 p.m. | 201 Moses Hall

 Nina Verheyen, Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI), Essen, Germany

 Institute of European Studies, Center for German and European Studies, Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington

"Leistung" is a key concept of public debates in Germany today, and even though the term itself has a rather neutral or positive meaning – « work performance » would be an adequate translation – the debates it is used in very often have a negative connotation. These debates deal with the quantification of performance in so-called neoliberal times, the spreading of all forms of competition between individuals in everyday life and the increasing pressure to perform caused by these trends.

Against this background, the talk addresses the concept of « Leistung » from a cultural historian’s perspective. It argues that the current usage of the term slowly started to emerge during the 19th century along with the spreading of social practices that measured, compared, evaluated, rated and payed for seemingly individual performance. This obscured the amount of collaboration fundamental to every kind of work, especially in a globalized, entangled world. Furthermore, the semantics of the term went way beyond this. « Leistung » was a key legal category earning importance alongside the emerging welfare state, and it was also linked to friendship and sociability – forgotten social traces, that the talk will also illuminate.

Nina Verheyen is the Mercator Research Fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities/Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen. She earned her PhD in 2008 at the Free University Berlin. Her publications include „Die Erfindung der Leistung” (2018) and „Diskussionslust. Eine Kulturgeschichte des „besseren Arguments“ in Westdeutschland“ (2010).


This lecture is part of the Gerda Henkel Lecture Series, organized by the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation. The program brings German historians to the West Coast to present their research and engage in dialogue with their colleagues in the US and Canada.

Nina Verheyen’s lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, is co-presented by the Center of German and European Studies at the Institute of European Studies.

The Gerda Henkel Foundation was established in June 1976 by Lisa Maskell in memory of her mother Gerda Henkel as a private, non-profit grant making organization. The Foundation has its headquarters in Düsseldorf. The sole object of the Foundation is to promote science at universities and research institutes, primarily by supporting specific projects in the field of the humanities that have a specialist scope and are limited in time. A special concern of the Foundation is the advancement of postgraduates., 510-643-4558