The Quest for (a Utopian?) European History

Efi Avdela

It is certainly not fortuitous that we are again invited to discuss the present and future of contemporary European history as a field of research at this moment. 1 The last ten years have been marked by successive global crises – first financial, then refugee and most recently medical – that have made the notion of ‘Europe’ as a common ground for social policies, unified politics and economic exchange fragile. This is a thorny issue because any discussion about imagined geographies has political, institutional, and epistemological implications depending on the position from which any answer is formed. From a Greek perspective, one cannot disassociate the question of ‘Which Europe?’ from ‘Which Greece in which Europe?’

A debate with a history of its own

In fact, the discussion to which the editors invite us about European history versus national history on the one hand and global history on the other itself has a long history. After World War I, the quest for a comparative history of Europe was put forward as a precondition for overcoming a positivist national and often nationalist history2. More recently, since the 1990s, scholarly journals and edited volumes debated whether it is possible to write a European history. At first this was prompted by the optimistic belief in a unified greater Europe that accompanied the fall of the Berlin wall, and then at the level of the European Union through repeated attempts to construct a history of the ‘Europeans’.3 The debate was reinvigorated with the critique of Eurocentric approaches to history by imperial and postcolonial scholars, and the challenges posed by transnational and global historians.

The most recent contributions have repeatedly highlighted the problems and limits of European history as it has been traditionally practiced.  It has been critiqued as essentialist, Eurocentric, limited to a Western ‘small Europe’4, as a simple compiling of closed national narratives that are based on ‘historical fictions of autonomy’5 and as ‘methodological nationalism’6. In this context, according to the editors, European history currently faces two overriding obstacles: to incorporate the various European historiographies and to face the competitive institutional and public challenge of global history.7 Their voice echoes recent scholarship, advocating that the reinvention of European history depends on it being critical, plural, inclusive, open to the world, integrating all parts of Europe as well as other parts of the world, and preoccupied ‘with transnational exchanges and historical spaces’8, while acknowledging internal asymmetries and dependencies. This discussion has been comprehensive in its visualisation of what form a new European history should take, although it has said little in relation to how this can be achieved in present day Europe, however this is conceived. I argue that the issue is primarily political, not technical or epistemological, and that therefore there are very few ‘practical ways’ to overcome this challenge.

Up to now the above discussion was largely based on the consensus that there is as much need to go beyond national history as there is to go beyond Eurocentrism. The repudiation of national history has its own long history. In most recent times, it was a way out of the fierce debates and the bitter splits of the international historical community in the 1980s and 1990s related to the linguistic turn. At the same time, it was energized by the growth of imperial and postcolonial history that put forward critiques of Eurocentrism and the need to study metropoles and their colonies together. Dramatic titles in books and articles emphasized the urgent need to go beyond national history and the difficulties in achieving this goal.9 The spread of transnational and global histories, focusing on interconnections beyond national borders, made this need seem self-evident. This ‘swelling interest in overcoming national history’, according to Q. Edward Wang, has benefited the advance of global history and was accompanied by the realisation that European historiographies were persistently Eurocentric and a desire to leave this behind.10 Yet, while all participants admit that ‘Europe’ and ‘European history’ are constructs, ‘national history’ is seldom problematized. It is presented as both homogeneous and introverted, its meaning and form are taken for granted, and historians are pictured as longing to free themselves from its shackles.

Reconsidering ‘Eurocentrism’ from a Greek perspective

In what follows, I make three inter-related points from a Greek perspective:

1. The desire to go beyond national history is not equally relevant to all European historiographies. On the one hand, ‘small’ language-speaking European historians are obliged to open their national history to the wider world whenever they want to address an English-speaking audience. On the other hand, as I shall try to show below, ‘small’ or ‘peripheral’ European cases can demonstrate that there can be a European, transnational and/or global national history. We also need, however, to explain further what ‘Europanising’ national histories means11 and how this is connected to relations of power on both an academic and an institutional level.

2. The need to go against the ‘epistemic trap of Eurocentrism’12, which has gained extra prominence in the wake of the postcolonial critique and exemplified by the much-cited Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference13, does not engage all parts of Europe equally. It concerns only a small number of Western European historiographies, which need to come to grips with their colonial and imperial pasts. The majority of European historiographies, construed in this debate as ‘peripheral’, are striving to overcome their marginalisation and become visible by elaborating the historical consequences of their ‘peripheral’ positions.

3. The practical obstacles in ‘interweaving European historiographies’ are both shaped and closely linked to economic, political, and historiographic hierarchies and imbalances of power within Europe. Historiographic power at the European level is defined by the asymmetries of its distribution. There are multiple reasons that explain this, ranging from differences in the formation of contemporary historiographies and diverse and historically contingent meanings of Europe, to the structural inequalities in material resources, language skills, and research funding of the different countries within Europe. One only needs to look at the difficulties faced by non-native-English-speaking historians publishing in English and the indifference shown towards non-Western contributions to European historiographies as proof of the above observations. As a result, much of European history written in ‘small’ languages remains unknown to most European historians.14

1. Going beyond national history and decentering models

In Greece, research in European history is hosted in the academy and is closely related to teaching. Most history departments have at least one specialist in European history. Usually they teach and research the medieval or early modern periods, but there are also some scholars of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe. As elsewhere15, historians occupying these posts frequently specialize in one European language-state-people (outside of the Greeks and Greece), teaching a variety of generalized European history courses. Currently, historians teaching contemporary European history specialize in United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, or France. As researchers they face unique difficulties, operating in a context where history largely remains Greece-centered both within the academy and the public domain. If they want to make their research results known to the Greek public and publish in Greek, they frequently do not have interlocutors. Publishing in non-Greek languages, they normally face competition from established historical and linguistic communities.

During the last thirty years, Greek historiography – especially more contemporary history – has developed and diversified, becoming more outward facing with more publications in non-Greek languages, especially English. The growing number of Greek historians willing to integrate the Greek case into various international historiographic debates through their research has had two main consequences. First, it has encouraged them to be more outward looking in their writing of history – to ‘Europeanise’ or/and ‘globalise’ it – when publishing in English. However, the geographical references of each case depend on the specific research being conducted as well as the historically changing place accorded to Greece in particular mental maps. Whether Greece is considered part of Ottoman, Balkan, Southern or Southeastern European, or European history is a matter of historiographic politics, but also a consequence of politics in the sense of the changing position of the country in geopolitical hierarchies.

For example, if I want to publish an article in English on the foundations of the Greek juvenile justice mechanism in the 1940s, I might wish to integrate this case into the historiography of juvenile justice in Europe and beyond. In doing so, I would identify the influences from abroad that have shaped Greek protagonists and the way in which these influences modified local debates and legislative measures, comparing these forms and practices internationally. I might also explain why what Western Eurocentrism – still prevalent in historiography – would characterise as ‘delay’ in the Greek case is, in fact, a consequence of many factors that need to be contextualised and historicised. Finally, I might argue that the inclusion of the Greek case into the history of juvenile justice could alter the established narrative.

This is not solely a Greek predicament. In order to counterbalance the widespread evolutionism and exceptionalism of much of European historiography, historians of ‘small’ or ‘peripheral’ European cases have to convince their English-speaking audience that what is needed is the de-centering of the ‘model’.16 This later viewpoint can have positive effects for both European history and national historiographies.

The second consequence of this growing ‘internationalisation’ of Greek historiography is the realisation that a European, transnational, or even global ‘national’ history is possible. I will give two examples from the Greek case, one from an earlier period outside of the periodisation assigned by the editors, the other focused on the twentieth century. My point here is that all national histories are not the same.

The year 2021 will coincide with the celebration of the bicentennial of the Greek revolution, resulting in the foundation of the Greek state. The formation of the Greek state and the process of its construction constitutes the core of the predominant Greek national and nationalistic historiography. 1821, however, was a European transnational event.  It unsettled the Holy Alliance; it generated a strong Philhellenic movement across Europe; and it involved the diplomatic, financial, and military intervention of the great European powers. But it was also a global event. It shook the Ottoman Empire and was part of the Age of Revolutions in Europe, South America, and beyond. Finally, it became an integral part of the ideologies of romanticism and nationalism. Of the celebratory activities planned for next year, conferences and collective volumes promoting the European and the global dimensions of the Greek revolution have been proposed as central components in the innovation of national historiography. They will form an important counterpart to both official and public histories of national reawakening and triumph, providing an opportunity to further open up Greek history, ‘globalizing’ and ‘Europeanising’ while underlining its connections with other parts of the world.

The same inextricable links between Greek, European, and global histories are applicable to the most important military and political events of the Greek twentieth century: the Balkan Wars; the Asia Minor expedition and the ensuing Greco-Turkish war; the Second World War; the Holocaust; the Civil War; and the 1967 military junta. For instance, the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949 – fought on European soil – marked the beginning of the Cold War and involved British and American military intervention. Integrating this into a European history questions the traditional argument that the Cold War remained ‘cold’ in Europe while ‘hot’ in other parts of the world.

2. Greek history as European history

Greek historians increasingly strive to have their contemporary national history recognized as ‘European’ because it is not traditionally viewed as such. In the dominant mental maps of European historiographies, and in spite ‘the fundamental importance [that] archaic and classical Greece plays as an arsenal and sounding board for the Western tale’17, contemporary Greece is (during different historical periods) part of the ‘Levante,’ the ‘Balkans,’ the margin of Europe, the ‘South,’ or one of the ‘PIGS,’ but not necessarily ‘European’.18This is not only the product of the way others view Greek history, but also the consequence of constructing a national historiography, which in Greece – as elsewhere – was heavily conditioned by the particular exigencies of nation-building and changing forms of nationalism.

Historians of other ‘marginal’ regions of Europe might consider Greece an exception in respect to the lack of integration of Southeastern European historiographies.19 This is hardly the case. More Greek historians are participating in collective volumes dedicated to European history or other fields of research than in the past, but this participation remains the exception.

I still remember my frustration in the early 2000s when I read A History of European Women’s Work (2002), by Deborah Simonton. At that time, there were several publications in English written by Greek historians concerning women’s work in Greece in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Simonton’s book made no mention of Greece. As she explained, her aim was to identify distinct patterns in various European countries ‘while locating trends which held across Europe,’ however, she concentrated solely on ‘the story of women’s work primarily in Western Europe’20: namely, United Kingdom, France, Germany plus some mentions of Italy, the Netherlands and a few others. Why Portugal was included and not Spain to this day remains a mystery to me.

Five years later, the collected volume on European women edited by the same historian went much further.21 In her introduction, she recognized all the pitfalls and the restrictions of adopting a purely Western European historical perspective.  However, with a similar phraseology to her previous work, she noted that the volume primarily focussed on Western Europe because there was more research and it was more convenient. In this volume, there are several mentions of Greece, yet all – but one – references are to non-Greek historians.

This comes as no surprise to the participants of this debate, since the need to overcome Eurocentrism, evolutionism, and internal marginalisations is clearly advocated by the editors. Others have repeatedly made similar remarks.22 Of course, inclusion is not an issue of justice or injustice. It is mainly a matter of relevance.  It depends on the criteria used when choices of inclusion are made.  It also depends on whether each national historiography on a specific theme has particularly relevant or unique cases and arguments in relation to the designated debate. Thus, who sets the terms of the historiographic debates also sets the terms of visibility – and this is of utmost importance.

We must acknowledge that Eurocentrism, in the sense of Western Europe as the centre of the world, is still prevalent in much of ‘European’ historiography. We are still far from ‘focusing on the role of Europe’s ‘smaller nations’ and (re)integrating their histories into the study of wider events, trends and institutions’.23

3. Asymmetries, hierarchies and their consequences

One crucial reason for this persistence relates to ‘asymmetric processes, the formation and development of dependencies … within Europe’,24 as well as globally. The historically shaped political and economic hierarchies and imbalances of power within Europe have important effects on the unequal visibility of the various European historiographies, accentuated by language barriers and funding discrepancies. ‘Small-language’ European contemporary historians face a double bind: on the one hand they want to write in their native language in order to express themselves fluently, helping to shape a strong national historiographical community.25  On the other hand, they have to write in English to contribute to historiographic debates in their specific field of historical study and provide their research with a greater readership. The language in which we write, however, directly impacts the way we conceive and express our analysis and the comparative terms we use to relate our research to others. The epistemological and historiographic consequences in writing history in languages other than our own – most often in English, but also in other languages, depending on your linguistic skills – are rarely discussed. Nor are the potential losses of European historiographies addressed from not engaging with the often untranslatable insights, formulations, and concepts employed by ‘small-language’ historians.

The implications of ‘anglicisation’ are even more wide reaching. Writing scholarly articles in a non-native language is one challenge, publishing a book in a foreign language, however, is a separate issue. Not all academic institutions are capable of providing funds to cover the costs of translation, meaning researchers are often faced with the option of personally underwriting them or attempting to write directly in English – a time consuming endeavour at the expense of potential research. All this, before trying to find an editor interested in publishing the work. This is how ‘hierarchies of academic, linguistic, editorial and political power’ are constructed26 and why, as many acknowledge, ‘the majority of [non-Anglophone] publications … [fail] to appear in English and to receive the attention they deserve.27

The emergence of global history has accentuated the issues relating to ‘small-language’ European historiographies. This is most visible in editorial policies. Publishers have more ‘interest in bringing in the non-West ‘other’ for correcting Eurocentrism’28 than adding another European case with unproven originality.29 Consequently, often writers’ only hope is the occasional series dedicated to the history of the relevant region or country.

As the editors attest, there are other important factors relating to these inequalities. The historical context in which each historiography has developed, the local needs to deconstruct national myths, and influence ‘public histories’ shape the possibilities and highlight the difficulties of proposing new methodologies, attempting to set historical questions with wider relevance, and increasing visibility.

The main question is already set: How to achieve a pluralistic approach of European history within and beyond (which?) Europe.30 The answer is also set: by changing perspective, admitting and combating dependencies and inequalities, deconstructing conceptualisations taken for granted, and promoting networking and exchanges.  Existing networks attest to the richness but also the limits of these integrating efforts.31 It is essential that we keep trying and doing our best. At some point, however, must we not admit that this quest is a project too good to be true?  

Cite this article as:

Efi Avdela: The Quest for (a Utopian?) European History, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, November 2, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/301.

  1. For our discussions and their suggestions in earlier drafts of this paper, many thanks to Akis Papataxiarchis, Rika Benveniste, Tonia Kiousopoulou, and Dimitra Lampropoulou. []
  2. Marc Bloch, 1928, Pour une histoire comparée des sociétés européennes, in: Revue de synthèse historique 46 (1928),  pp. 15-50. []
  3. Hélène Ahrweiler/ Maurice Aymard (eds.), Les Européens, Paris 2000. []
  4. Jitka Malečková, Gender, History and ‘Small Europe’, in: European History Quarterly 40.4 (2010), pp. 685-700. []
  5. Michael Geyer,  Historical Fictions of Autonomy and the Europeanization of National History, in: Central European History 22 (1989) pp. 316-342. []
  6. Andreas Wimmer / Nina Glick-Schiller, Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences, in: Global Networks 2.4 (2002), pp. 301-334. []
  7. Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate, Why Europe, Which Europe? Present Challenges and Future Avenues for Doing European History, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds)., Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on the Present and Future of Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, October 15, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/86. []
  8. Laurence Cole / Philipp Ther, Introduction: Current Challenges of Writing European History, in: European History Quarterly 40.4 (2010), pp. 581-892: 586. []
  9. Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China, Chicago, 1995; Antoinette Burton, On the Inadequacy and the Indispensability of the Nation, in: Idem. (ed.), After the Imperial Turn: Thinking With and Through the Nation, Durham 2003, pp. 1-23. []
  10. Edward Q. Wang, Toward a Multidirectional Future of Historiography: Globality, Interdisciplinarity and Posthumanity, in: History and Theory 59.2 (2020), pp. 283–302. []
  11. Levsen – Requate 2020. []
  12. Levsen – Requate 2020. []
  13. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, New Delhi 2000. []
  14. Wang 2020: 294. []
  15. Lynn Hunt, Is European History Passé?, in: Perspectives on History 40.8 (2002), pp. 1–6. []
  16. Fabio Giomi / Stefano Petrungaro (eds.), Voluntary Associations in Yugoslavia (1918-1941) / Le fait associatif en Yougoslavie (1918-1941), Special issue, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire 26.1 (2019); Dan Diner, Cataclysms: A History of the Twentieth Century from Europe’s Edge, Madison 2008. []
  17. Diner 2008: 8; see also Mark Mazower, Democracy’s Cradle, Rocking the World, in: The New York Times, June 29, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/opinion/30mazower.html (last access 23/7/2020). []
  18. Wang 2020: 291; Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, New York 1997. []
  19. Malečková 2010: 689. []
  20. Deborah Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work: 1700 to the Present, London 2002: 6. []
  21. Deborah Simonton (ed.), The Routledge History of Women in Europe Since 1700, London 1997. []
  22. Patricia Clavin, Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts, in: European History Quarterly 40.4 (2010) pp. 624-640; Jörn Leonhard, Comparison, Transfer and Entanglement, or: How to Write Modern European History today?, in: Journal of Modern European History 14.2 (2016), pp. 149-163: 154; Malečková 2010. []
  23. Clavin 2010: 632. []
  24. Levsen – Requate 2020, points 6-8. []
  25. Ann Curthoys, We’ve Just Started Making National Histories, and You Want Us to Stop Already?, in: Antoinette Burton (ed.), After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation, Durham NC  2003, pp. 84-85. []
  26. Giulia Calvi, Global Trends: Gender Studies in Europe and the US, in: European History Quarterly 40.4 (2010), pp. 641-655: 643. []
  27. Wang 2020: 294; also, Dominic Sachsenmaier, World History as Ecumenical History?, in: Journal of World History, 18.4 (2007), pp. 465-489, cited by Calvi 2010: 642. []
  28. Wang 2020: 294. []
  29. Malečkova 2010: 693. []
  30. Levsen – Requate 2020. []
  31. COST Action Who Cares in Europe?, https://whocaresineurope.eu/ (last access 25/7/2020). []

One Reply to “The Quest for (a Utopian?) European History”

  1. Excellent report. I would like to exemplify it through an as much as transnational essay about the core of twentieth-century history and historiography: the CENTENAIRE 1918/1919 – 2018/2019.

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