The foundation of the ZZF goes back to a recommendation of the German Council of Sciences and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) in 1991. Parallel to the dissolution of the SED-dominated non-university research institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR, the recommendation called for the creation of new Humanities Research Centres (GWZ) in order to merge the positively evaluated research projects of East German experts in the field of contemporary history with those of West German and international scholars.
The "Forschungsschwerpunkt Zeithistorische Studien" (FSP – Contemporary History Research Focus) was initially founded under the auspices of the "Förderungsgesellschaft Wissenschaftliche Neuvorhaben" of the Max Planck Society in 1992. Under the leadership of its founding director Jürgen Kocka, it quickly developed into an internationally renowned institution in the field of GDR studies, combining methodological innovation with a publicistic mission and a firm commitment to the task of integrating scholars from East and West Germany. Initially based in the premises of the dissolved Academy of Sciences in Berlin, the FSP moved to Potsdam at the beginning of 1993. Since then, in addition to the continuation of its work projects, the FSP has assumed responsibilities in teaching and research promotion at the University of Potsdam.
In 1996, the FSP was refounded as the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) – with ten positions and an initial funding period of twelve years (one-third financed by the state of Brandenburg and a maximum of two-thirds by the DFG though project funding).
Prior to its admission to the Leibniz Association on 1 January 2009, more than 20 independent DFG research projects were carried out at the ZZF each year. They were assigned to four different project areas. Their focus was on analysing the mechanisms of political integration in East and West, studies on opposition and resistance in the GDR, comparative studies on labour and economics in Central Eastern Europe, and the role of ideologies and mentalities in the Cold War. Added to this were additional research projects funded by other DFG programs or foundations as well as ZZF-supervised doctoral fellowships. In view of the steady expansion of its staff, the ZZF moved into a larger building at the New Market Square (Neuer Markt) in Potsdam in 2001.
Since 1996, the ZZF has been headed by two directors: Christoph Klessmann (until 2004) and Konrad H. Jarausch (until 2006). Together they further established the ZZF in the contemporary history research landscape and promoted its broad domestic and international networks. Originally committed to the topics and issues of a critically renewed and now “historical GDR studies,” the institute increasingly expanded its working areas beyond comparative communism and dictatorship studies to include more recent German contemporary history in an international context. Under the co-directorate of Martin Sabrow, who succeeded Christoph Klessmann, and under his sole direction as of 2006, the institute gradually opened itself to new topics and a diachronic perspective on the history of Europe in the 20th century. The ZZF thus consolidated its institutional position in contemporary history studies with a focus on the period after 1945.
On the basis of a positive assessment by the German Council of Sciences and Humanities in 2004 and 2006, the ZZF was accepted into the Leibniz Association on 1 January 2009. In 2019, the ZZF changed its name to Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam (ZZF) in order to emphasize its membership in the Leibniz Association.
With the appointment of Frank Bösch in 2011, the ZZF has once again been headed by two directors until december 2021. Having made a name for himself with his studies on social, cultural and media history, Frank Bösch has since then decisively promoted the expansion of the ZZF portfolio to include the history of Western Europe and to embed German history in trans-border transformation processes. Since Martin Sabrow's retirement at the end of December 2021, Frank Bösch has been leading the ZZF as sole director.
By continually broadening its thematic scope, the ZZF has accompanied and shaped contemporary history studies in Germany and beyond for more than 25 years.