Speaking From the Fringes: Which Europe Belongs to Europe?

Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir

Recently a group of historians from four “marginal” countries, applied for a grant to conduct transnational research on a specific subject in twentieth century women’s history, and were rejected. The review included positive observations on the importance of narratives from the fringes and on breaking up the centre-periphery binary. Yet, the importance of the research for existing narratives was questioned: Why ‘should historians … in ‘big’ countries take an interest in these studies?‘1 

The rejection is not the issue here – it is part of submitting papers and applying for grants. But the implication that a research project needs the attention or approval of the ‘’big” countries is troubling. Who are they anyway? And why should they have the authority to decide what is a worthy subject of historical study? While I do acknowledge that the question above is a call for a more persuasive argument for the research, it also reflects the strong hold that mainstream history, the grand narratives of Europe, have on us who are moulded by them.

I have felt this myself – the need to follow the paradigm, to be accepted. But I have also felt the urge to challenge this notion and ask if the framework of European women’s and gender history is too narrow instead of seeing my empirical and national sources and historical perspective as the problem.2

Therefore, I welcome this timely debate on European history, eloquently formulated by Sonja Levsen and Jörg Requate in their opening paper, ‘Why Europe, Which Europe? Present Challenges and Future Avenues for Doing European History’.3 Put simply, two main themes are the core of this debate. The first is the call for de-centring or revising European history and its status and role in global history. There is already a vast literature on this issue, as Levsen and Requate mention, and contributors to this debate have already added new views.

The second, and this will be my point of departure, is the question “which Europe?”. That is, what and whose history and historiography it is, this history that has been represented as the history of Europe and thus the ‘model of universal development’4 The fact is, however, as Jitka Malečková, Efi Avdela and Alexander Semyonov point out in their papers, European history has been too narrowly defined both geographically and epistemologically.5 This is not a new argument. Thus, European women’s and gender historians have been discussing the “grand narrative” of women’s and gender history for quite a while without much progress. Therefore this particular debate, with various “marginal” contributors, is of immense importance for historians of women, gender and sexuality.6 We need to discuss the margins and boundaries, real and mental, of Europe, both geographical and historical and ask what and whose history is considered “worthy”.

I speak as an historian of women’s and gender history living and working in Iceland, a sparsely populated island in the North Atlantic, geographically on the margins of Europe. This is a personal narrative about: a) the academic marginalisation that so often seems to be unavoidable for history from places that are geographically and linguistically marginal, and b) the challenges, which are also mine, of practising history from or on the margins. I will thus talk about margins and boundaries, and the conscious and unconscious practices of directing national, regional, marginal studies into what should be an all-encompassing history of women in Europe but turns out to be the “big three” – Great Britain, France and Germany. Or, what Malečková defines as ‘Small Europe’ as opposed to ‘Big Europe’ that would include all of Europe, and its former colonies.7

Some of the contributors have already discussed some of these issues. Efi Avdela speaks from a Greek point of view and identifies much of what I have been thinking about. For instance language, which has a huge effect on how we manage to situate ourselves in the transnational world of academics.8

What history is worth telling?

What makes history worth telling, worth being, has been an interest of mine ever since beginning to attend Nordic, European, and international conferences on history and gender studies in the late 1990s. I soon realised that while Iceland was of interest to many people, it was more so as a tourist attraction, a strange little place, exotic even, to visit. Its history was of lesser importance, even in the Nordic context. Thus, I was asked, on several occasions, if my expertise in women’s and gender history was on English or French women’s history. I found this both strange and uncomfortable because it suggested that working on my own national history was not good enough – as if I were not doing real history. It made no difference arguing that even though my empirical sources were mainly Icelandic, it was not a history explored in isolation but in relation with transnational theorisation and studies. I must acknowledge, however, that until recently my expertise has mostly been Western. Furthermore, if anything, modern women’s and gender history is essentially transnational with its women movement and long history of transnational collaboration of suffragists, for example.

When working on my book on women’s education and the construction of gender in Iceland 1850–1903 in early 2000s I explored notions and conflicting discourses on femininity, domesticity, separate spheres, women’s rights, and education. Thus, I used the traditional themes of European women’s and gender history, and theories in feminist history, as a frame of study and narration.9 I knew that there would be different representations and experiences as Iceland in the nineteenth century was nothing like the metropoles in which European women’s and gender history is rooted. In 1850, Iceland was an agricultural society with a population of 59.000 people, still barely affected by industrialisation. Reykjavík was only a village of about 1.100 people. Furthermore, Iceland was under Danish rule. Copenhagen was the centre for Icelandic affairs and education for young, promising men. And for them, especially in the first half of the nineteenth century, Copenhagen was both a culture shock and a place of fascination, with its big houses, noise, dense population, and beautifully dressed women strolling in the gardens of the city. The difference between rural Iceland and the city life in Denmark (and neighbouring countries) was considerable and a topic frequently discussed in letters.

While seeing similar discourses, ideologies, and change in Icelandic women’s history as elsewhere in Northwest Europe, there were differences too. For instance, in representations of domesticity, the ideology of separate spheres, and women’s education and work, Iceland followed trajectories other than those presented in general surveys of European women’s and gender history. Modernisation, to use that contested term, was both a late and slow comer in Iceland where majority of women were either housewives at farms or farm labourers until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. How, for instance, did a farmer’s wife adapt to (and perceive) the domestic ideology of middle-class urbanised women in Copenhagen or Edinburgh? This led me to question whether the history and experiences of Icelandic women had any relevance beyond its national context other than being one more voice in the steadily growing multi-vocal chorus of women European history. A chorus that perhaps no one listened to.

These reflections were also related to the conflict between transnational or global history and national or local history. There has been much discussion among historians on how restricting national historiography can be for historical research and the necessity of moving beyond the national or the ‘national gaze’.10 It is, however, also important to realise that although there are too many examples of narrow national histories it is also not possible to understand national history without it being contextualised; explored in relation with international or transnational developments. The history of a nation, state or a region does simply not occur in an empty space but in interrelation with other countries and cultures. And even global history, the trope everyone is expected to be striving for, is not easily defined. It is, in fact, also regional (regions, continents, or parts of them) because it concerns simultaneously the macro and micro, human relationships, entanglements of different experiences and cultures.11 Furthermore, we must ask who is really expected to go beyond the national? I fear this demand is more frequently directed towards us on or from the margins, and is perhaps also a demand we put on ourselves because we are looking for acceptance, to be included.

The mental map and the margins

The grand narrative of women’s and gender history in Europe is structured around the history of industrialised cities in countries such as Great Britain, France and Germany – a history based on empire and metropole, rooted in theories of modernisation.12 This narrative emerged from local and national studies of a specific and privileged part of Europe but became the model to which national histories are compared. This grand narrative is like a map to follow, in some sense like a mental map as discussed by Levsen and Requate, on which we try to find the right path and place for our national history. Where do our local experiences of worldwide changes, ideologies, or events fit in? By using transnational epistemologies and theories to contextualise our local history and practises, we seek to make our local or regional research more transnational. The universal is imported into the national. Doing it the other way around, bringing the local to the global has until recently not been as self-evident. The tendency has been to see historical research conducted on the margins and by ‘marginal’ scholars’ as ‘case studies’, argues Malečková. Although women’s and gender history (feminist scholarship) is in essence both interdisciplinary and transnational and thus usually perhaps more open to new perspectives or variants of history I do agree with Malečková when she claims:  ‘This suggests that the feminist scholarly community is not always as open as one would assume and, arguably, this in turn influences how European gender histories are written.’13

Indeed there are fine examples of books that escape the grand narratives and manage to include many different histories, yet to provide a contextualised history. One such is Women in Twentieth Century Europe by Ann Taylor Allen.14 Another more recent and challenging example of how history can be practiced from a transnational and global perspective is a chapter on ‘Citizenship and Gender’ by  Ragnheiður Kristjánsdóttir and Anupama Roy in a new book on democracy. The authors are from Iceland and India – both marginal in European perspective – and carefully avoid Eurocentrism and being steered by Western histories.15

This is a result of a growing awareness among women’s and gender historians of the need for more diverse histories of women in modern Europe, especially narratives from places that have been seen as margins or peripheries.16 A timely discussion on that subject was Lynn Abrams’s article on conflicting narratives of women in Europe, based on her experience of writing a survey of women in Europe in the long nineteenth century and writing a local/regional history of women in the Shetland Islands. There was a dissonance between the lives of women in Shetland and the paradigm of European women’s and gender history, especially regarding separate spheres, ideas about women’s work/men’s work, and power relations, which surprised Abrams. As a result, she argued that the ’margins’ had a history worth telling and ‘should not be placed on the margins and regarded as peripheral to the core study’.17

Abrams’s findings did not surprise me but were nevertheless refreshing at the time (2008) since they offered some hope for marginal histories. The difference was, however, that she was looking and speaking from the centre of the prevailing narratives, admitting that she felt slightly uncomfortable when challenged by these different stories. I have felt the other way around, uncomfortable within the framework of modernisation and progress, of urbanisation and education, of upper middle-class women enjoying salons and culture etc. The reason is not that nineteenth-century ideologies did not find their way to Iceland or that change did not take place. The difference lies in when and how. Transnational history explores exactly this – the different representations and perceptions of ideologies in different societies. How they were accepted – translated – into new circumstances. Women’s and gender historians may not have been properly addressing this.

Furthermore, the question of being backward or in the forefront of change, of modernisation, is not necessarily constructive because there are so many variations in history. Speaking of Icelandic women, their status and perceptions off gender in the nineteenth century, I have found resonance with German studies into rural women in late eighteenth and early ninteenth century.18 The same can be said of rural areas in Scotland (for instance Shetland), Norway, Sweden and Finland. There is thus not necessarily the pattern of the mainstream history, of the centre, that local or regional experiences follow.

A woman’s life – a case study or history?

One of the subjects I have been working on is the life and letters of a nineteenth-century Icelandic woman named Sigríður Pálsdóttir. She was born in 1809 and died in 1871. She lived an ordinary life but wrote letters to her brother for more than half a century, from 1817, when she was eight, until she died in 1871.19 I have been fascinated by her life since the mid-1990s, when I first encountered her letters.

From the beginning, I was determined to explore and write about Pálsdóttir’s life as a worthy subject of historical study both within and beyond her national context. And indeed her life has proved to be a fascinating mirror for historical research, empirically, theoretically, and epistemologically. A history from the margins that can help illuminate differences in European and global history.

Pálsdóttir’s life, the letters she left behind, has enabled me to write about her life in relation to feminist biography and historiography and discuss how influenced biography still is by ideas about worthiness and claims about representation. As I have argued elsewhere it seems that an ordinary woman’s life is only worth exploring and writing about if it enlightens the lives of other women or social processes. I have strived to demonstrate that Pálsdóttir is worthy a biography of her own – if I may refer to Virginia Woolf’s famous title.20 Pálsdóttir’s literacy and epistolary practices have also enabled me to discuss the life and experiences of an ordinary woman from geographically and historiographical margins in relation to the grand narratives of women’s history in nineteenth-century Europe. How her life conformed with the ideology of domesticity and separate spheres and, for instance, if and how she can be compared to European “literary women”.21

Consequently, it seems to me that it is not the subject, the historical agent or theme we choose to explore, or the nationality of it, that poses the problem when dealing with the centre and margins, grand narrative and less prominent stories, but the frame of narration; the theories and epistemologies in which we ground our research. The narrative that has become the women’s and gender history in Europe are is narrow. We need to expand it so that it includes the varied voices and experiences of women in the past.

No centre, no margins?

This said, it is also important to consider the concepts used: margins, periphery, centre, national, international, local, global, none of which I have tried to define in this short paper. There are hierarchies in concepts, they are binary and define each other. Will a call for voices and experiences from the margins result in historiography without hierarchies? Will there be no centre and margins, just ‘competing histories’, to refer to sociologist Liz Stanley’s argument in 1990 that it was impossible to do a single and complete women’s history.22

Or could the ‘competing histories’ and multiple voices result in histories that would confirm the centre because they would be received as narratives about strange people and backwards regions? Perceived as different stories and experiences, yes, but stories that will not dissolve the boundaries between the margins and the centre, the metropole. With this approach, nothing would change. The margins would still be gazed at by the centre, as exotic and strange perhaps, but not as part of the mainstream history.

I do hope that we will manage to cross the borders of local and global, of margins and centre, of national and international and write different histories of different lives and experiences. Create a mosaic with diverse colours and shapes. I believe that it is possible if we acknowledge that it is not only the national that is too narrow but also the frames of “European” epistemology, theory, and historiography. That means we need not only to question or reject the frameworks of European grand narratives that have been forced upon other continents and cultures. It means also to challenge these stories within and to accept, especially those living within the metropole of the historiographical empire of the “big three”, that there are other experiences and other stories to be told. History is not one size fits all.

  1. In private possession. Review report received by e-mail March 24 2021. []
  2. Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Beyond the Centre: Women in Nineteenth-Century Iceland and the Grand Narratives of European Women’s and Gender History, in: Women’s History Review 27.2 (2018), pp. 154–175. https://doi.org/10.1080/09612025.2017.1303888. []
  3. 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 Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, October 15, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/86. []
  4. Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History? Princeton 2016: 4. []
  5. E.g. Jitka Malečková, On the Margins of European History, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, November 22, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/342; Efi Avdela: The Quest for (a Utopian?) European History, in: Ibid., November 2, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/301; Alexander Semyonov: Provincializing Europe, De-centering Europe, Hybridizing Europe …, in: Ibid., November, 08, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/321. []
  6. See e.g.: Ida Blom / Mineke Bosch / Antoinette Burton / Anna Clark / Karen Hagemann / Laura E. Nym Mayhall / Karen Offen / Mary Louise Roberts, in: Birgitte Søland / Mary Jo Maynes, Journal of Women’s History 25.4 (2013), pp. 288–308; Mary Nash, Rethinking Narratives in European Women’s History: Motherhood, Identities and Female Agency in Early Twentieth-Century Spain, in: Terry Brotherstone / Deborah Simonton / Oonagh Walsh (eds.), Gendering Scottish History: An International Approach, Glasgow 1999, pp. 112–128; Jitka Malečková, Gender, History and ‘Small Europe’, in: European History Quarterly 40.4 (2010), pp. 685-700. []
  7. Malečková 2010. []
  8. Avdela 2020. []
  9. Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Nútímans konur: Menntun kvenna og mótun kyngervis á Íslandi 1850–1903, Reykjavík 2011. English summary: https://uni.hi.is/ehh/english-2/women-of-modernity-phd-summary/. []
  10. On such debates in women’s and gender history see e.g.: Donna R. Gabaccia / Mary Jo Maynes, Introduction: Gender History Across Epistemologies, in: Gender and History 24.3 (2012), pp. 521–539; Karen Offen, Surveying European Women’s History Since the Millennium: A Comparative Review, in: Journal of Women’s History 22.1 (2010), pp. 154–177. []
  11. On global history see e.g.: Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton 2014; Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History?, Princeton 2016; Thomas Bender, Transnational and Global History, in: John Tosh (ed.), Historians on History, London 2017, pp. 161-164; Bonnie G. Smith, Women in World History: 1450 to the Present, London 2019. []
  12. Gabaccia / Maynes 2012; Lynn Abrams, The Unseamed Picture: Conflicting Narratives of Women in the Modern European Past, in: Gender&History 20.3 (2008), pp. 628–643. []
  13. Malečková 2010: 694. []
  14. Ann Taylor Allen, Women in Twentieth-Century Europe, Basingstoke 2008. []
  15. Ragnheiður Kristjánsdóttir / Anupama Roy, Citizenship and Gender, in: Eugenio Biagini / Gary Gerstle (eds.),  A Cultural History of Democracy in the Modern Age, Cambridge 2021, forthcoming. []
  16. E.g. Barbara Caine / Glenda Sluga Gendering European History, 1780–1920, London 2000; Deborah Simonton (ed.), The Routledge History of Women in Europe Since 1700, London 2006; Andrea Petö, Writing Women’s History in Eastern Europe: Toward a ‘Terra Cognita’?, in: Journal of Women’s History 16.4 (2004), pp. 173–181. []
  17. Abrams 2008: 629; Lynn Abrams, Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800–2000, Manchester 2005. []
  18. Karin Hausen, Family and Role-Division: The Polarisation of Sexual Stereotypes in the Nineteenth Century – an Aspect of the Dissociation of Work and Family life, in: Richard J. Evans / W. R. Lee (ed.), The German Family: Essays on the Social History of the Family in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany, London 1981, pp. 51–83; Marion W. Gray, Productive Men, Reproductive Women: The Agrarian Household and the Emergence of Separate Spheres During the German Enlightenment, New York 2000. []
  19. Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, A Biography of Her Own. The Historical Narrative and Sigríður Pálsdóttir, in: Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir / Maarit Leskilä-Kärki / Tiina Kinnunen / Birgitte Possing (eds.), Biography, gender and history: Nordic Perspectives. Turku 2016, pp. 81–100. https://www.utupub.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/130972/biography_gender_history.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y. []
  20. Halldórsdóttir 2016; on feminist biography see Barbara Caine, Feminist Biography and Feminist History, in: Women’s History Review 3.2 (1994), pp. 247–261; Susan Ware, Writing Women’s Lives: One Historian’s Perspective, in: Journal of Interdisciplinary History 40.3 (2010), pp. 413-435. []
  21. Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, The unforeseeable narrative. Epistolary lives in nineteenth-century Iceland, in: Julie M. Parsons / Anne Chappell (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Auto/Biography, Cham 2020, pp. 185–205. Of many books on literary women see e.g. Dena Goodman, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters, Ithaca 2009. []
  22. Liz Stanley, British Feminist Histories: An Editorial Introduction, in: Women’s Studies International Forum 13.1-2 (1990): pp. 6-7. []

Beyond Nation-Building: European National Histories Seen From Their Margins

Xosé M. Núñez Seixas

1. Weak vs. strong nationalisation: images and realities

European historians have, in the past, believed in paradigmatic patterns of European history. Through the 1980s and 1990s, some historiographic traditions in Europe appeared to be obsessed with the existence of paradigmatic patterns of “historical normality”, as well as with the existence of “national deviations”, and specific paths to failed modernity. The latter were usually regarded as a deep source of exceptions, rooted in economic backwardness, state inefficiency, elites’ corruption and lack of vision, imperial crises, and great military defeats. While this historiographic discussion fuelled the development of the Sonderweg debate in Western Germany, historiographic developments in Southern Europe followed a parallel path, although they were often unaware of the similar discussions that were taking place in other countries. Thus, many Spanish historians from the late 1960s to the present, have argued that Spain’s political, social and economic evolution since the early 19th century was determined by a threefold failure. First its failed industrial revolution, was unable to follow in the steps of British industrialisation. Second, its failed liberal revolution, which was incomplete in comparison with the French, and third, the failure in the process of modern nation building and state building, which was unsuccessful in relation to the idealised French model.1

Similar debates took place among Portuguese and Italian historians from the late 1980s onwards. Italian historians often held the view that their country has been a “weak nation” (nazione debole) since the late 19th century, due to the lack of regional integration after the achievement of national unity through the Risorgimento process. The state’s lack of resources to modernise the country was flanked by colonial disaster (defeat of Adua, 1896) and late participation in the scramble for Africa, as expressed in the delayed conquest of Libya (1911). Portuguese historians, for their part, insisted on the importance of the turning point of the ultimatum crisis of 1890, when Great Britain imposed on the Lisbon government the abandonment of any claim to a Portuguese South Africa. This crisis, it was argued, fuelled the crisis of legitimacy of the Portuguese monarchy, the advent of the First Republic in October 1910, and the later political crisis that led to the authoritarian military coup of 1926.

In a similar way to the Sonderweg paradigm in Germany, the historiographic insistence on “Southern European” exceptionalism and backwardness was dominant through the 1980s and 1990s. The increasing fragmentation of the notion of European “normality” was triggered, however, by a number of historiographic and political developments, which progressively dismantled the historiographic pattern that implicitly differentiated between the Western path towards nation building through state building, social modernisation and cultural homogenisation, and the Eastern path towards national identity, based on exclusion, ethnic nationalism, and enforced cultural homogenisation through violence and conflict. The French pattern, based on Eugen Weber’s work on Peasants into Frenchmen (1976) was neither so successful, peaceful and free of coercion, as often perceived, nor was the East-Central European pattern, based on successive stages of nation building through social mobilisation, as suggested among others by Miroslav Hroch’s National Preconditions of National Revival in Europe (1985), as ethnocentric and “Eastern” as suggested.2 Among the factors that contributed to change the mind of historians of nationalism, must be mentioned the incorporation of fresh comparative perspectives from East-Central European countries, the discussion about double, mixed and hybrid collective identities, the new approaches to region building, and local metaphors of the nation (Alon Confino),3 the adoption of global and post-imperial approaches, and, last but not least, the impact of Brexit since 2017. All these factors have contributed to a considerable re-framing of the historiographical discussion, as well as to question prior notions of what “exceptionality”, and what “normality” is. This also applies to the history of nationalism and national identities in Europe and beyond.

This issue can also be addressed from a particular angle. Earlier debates on the existence of archetypal patterns of mass nationalisation and state-building processes in Europe as a whole have become less interesting for younger generations of historians. Some national historiographies, however, still seem to be focused on establishing the peculiarities of the weak nation building process of their home country. Recent debates on modern national and sub-national identity have achieved renewed visibility thanks to the Scottish (2014) independence referendum, as well as by the persistence of the Catalan conundrum since 2012, and the continuous ethno-national tensions characteristic of Belgian politics. The rise of a particular Northern Italian secessionism and the growth of ethnic nationalism in Corsica, which questions the overwhelming narrative of France being an undisputed example of successful nation building, provide additional examples of sub-national identity. Rather than being the exception, however, the Corsican case demonstrates the intertwined character of local and regional identities in the French case, as a model of “regionalised” nationalism, which ran parallel to the endurance of localism and illustrates the difficulties of claiming a monolithic version of national identity, at least until the outbreak of World War I. The Great War undoubtedly was the main factor that helped solidify and cement national identities in Europe. But the conflict was both a factor of nation building and of nation destroying, and even enhanced the emergence of regionalist and stateless national movements, such as in Flanders and Sardinia.4

2. East and west, Europe and the world

Most national historiographies now tend to marginalise or even openly dismiss the “exceptionalism” approach to the national question, which was commonplace for most of them until the late 1990s. Among other innovative approaches to the study of nationalism, recent and renewed emphasis on transnationalism, on the hybridity and overlapping nature of regional and local identities, on the different modalities of everyday and banal nationalism, and the analysis of national identities from below, have contributed to tone down the prior conviction that prevailed in most European historiographies. These were, whether consciously or unconsciously, inherited from Hans Kohn’s work between the 1930s and the 1950s, which argued that there were two paradigmatic paths to nation building in Europe.5 On the one hand, the liberal way based on civic values and the consent of the citizens, leading to nation-state homogeneity, determined by the French model. On the other hand, the illiberal and ethnocentric path, leading to ethnic conflict and national heterogeneity, that was purportedly prevalent in Eastern Europe.

Though special cases might have existed in both parts of the continent (such as Ireland in Western Europe), and no definite place was awarded within this scheme to vast areas such as Scandinavia, the imaginary line between Eastern and Western European nationalisms drawn by Kohn and some other classic historians of nationalism, such as Eugene Kamenka, Hugh Seton-Watson, and Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz, endured for many decades and survived the Cold War.6 The outbreak of the Yugoslav secession wars, as well as the ethnic conflicts that re-emerged in the Caucasus and in other areas of the former Soviet Union after its crisis and dissolution, seemed to confirm the original picture. From this perspective, the resurgence of ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe was a new expression of old ethnic hatred, inherited from earlier times, that had been stronger than Soviet and Communist attempts to create new proletarian homelands and overcome the “bourgeois” concept of nationalism.

This was just one side of the whole picture. The new look at the fascinating complexity of ethnic and national identities in Eastern Europe also uncovered the fruitful existence and coexistence of dynamics of double and hybrid patriotism, Landespatriotismus, multiple identities. Widespread forms of alternative identification were studied that were not exclusively based on ethnic nationalism, but on religious confession, local pride, dynastic loyalty, and attachment to the space of lived experience, from Russian rodina to the German Heimat. This also entailed a great diversity of alternative concepts of corporative home-rule, non-territorial autonomy, and non-nationalism as a common practice of many citizens.7 Cosmopolitanism was not an exclusive feature of Western European elites, and ethnic fanaticism was not an inevitable feature of East-Central European societies before 1939. Moreover, it was also highlighted that many Western Europeans learned lessons of linguistic revivals, self-government doctrines, and nationalist doctrine from their East European counterparts. This also happened the other way around. State building models implemented by the East-Central European successor states in the aftermath of World War I were directly or indirectly inspired by the successful nationalisation policies put in practice by Western European states, such as France.

Moreover, modern nationalism was far from being a uniquely European phenomenon. The American revolution in the 1770s, as well as the independence movements in Latin American republics between 1810 and 1826, and the development of “imperial nationalisms” in the periphery of the British Empire, beginning with Canada, and then South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in the late 19th century, illustrate new models of interaction. The later development of anti-colonial national movements in India, Indonesia, some African countries, and Vietnam resulted from interaction of anti-colonial students and activists with the modern concepts of the nation and the ideas of social emancipation that flourished in the “(anti)imperial metropoles” (Goebel) of Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna and Lisbon. These movements constituted further arenas of nationalist agitation, but also of interaction between imperial cores and colonial peripheries.8 There was also continuity between these earlier waves of nationalism with the new wave of third-world liberation movements and peripheral nationalisms in Europe, Africa and Asia between 1955 and 1975. Northern Irish Catholic activists learned from Gandhi and the North American tactics of the Black Power movement, while Corsican and Sardinian ethno-nationalists looked to Mozambique, Algeria, and even Cuba, in search for new concepts of the nation, compatible with the appeal to international solidarity and world revolution.9

3. The endurance of national narratives

Acknowledging the complexity and hybridity of national, collective, and territorial identifications also meant new approaches to the way in which individuals reflected on those identities, including their ways of re-appropriating, interpreting and codifying the languages of belonging. Therefore, individuals were no longer regarded as passive recipients of narratives, symbols, and myths from above, whether from the state or from nationalist elites, social movements, religious agents, etc. Instead, they were analysed as pro-active participants in the process. What some authors named “personal” nationalism, learned and developed through everyday experience, tended to be seen as an interaction with nationalist narratives, and not only as a “nationalisation” of the masses triggered from state institutions and political movements. Recent developments in Spanish, Italian, French, and British historiography have emphasised the necessity of understanding the interplay between the national, the local, and the global from a much more nuanced angle. They have also left behind national exceptionalism, tried to avoid teleological interpretations (as if events in the past had to necessarily lead towards the achievement of full-fledged national sovereignty, which in many cases peaked in territorial expansion and the building of an empire), and understood nation-building processes as open-ended. This open-ended character was mutable and unstable, but also evoked many modalities of a common European history, where the weight of the nation-state and the driving force of national identity, nationalism, and national mobilisation constituted a defining feature.

Certainly, historical popular cultures have not always followed the same path. Popular histories, historical novels, and other literary genres kept their own pace and frequently insisted on national exceptionalism. Widely read historical accounts penned by non-professional historians, novelists, journalists and writers constantly re-create the national past as a succession of great heroic deeds, painful defeats, and periods of resurgence. They continue to reproduce the classic scheme of national history codified in the 19th century (pre-roman or medieval origins, golden age, decadence, and resurgence), and overemphasise the role of heroes, martyrs, monarchs, and military leaders. Nuances in these national narratives are as numerous as the individual cases. Yet, the more nationalist narratives of the remote and recent past attempt to differentiate from each other, the more they resemble each other.

This paradox evokes what French cultural historian Anne-Marie Thiesse has ironically named the “Ikea model”. Nationalists use a number of pieces and resources that are available at a kind of global market of narratives, which are partly inspired by a number of successful models of nation-building since the 19th century, and simply combine those pieces trying to make them fit their own peculiarities.10 For example, pre-Roman myths of resistance against the invader can be found in many European national narratives. All of them remind readers of the classic icons of Vercingetorix and Herrmann. Moreover, examples of overseas expansion in coastal nations vary from the Vikings to the Lusitanian sailors and the Greek merchant diaspora. Old myths, such as the Risorgimento paradigm in Italian historiography, that presumes that Mazzini’s and Garibaldi’s national doctrines were examples of healthy and good patriotism, while everybody else’s national doctrines tended to exclusion and coercion, continue to be very alive among large sectors of Italian public opinion, including several sectors of the academic community.11

4. Experience, emotions, and national identities

Historiographic discussions in East and West, North and South of the continent went on their own way, however, and moved in other directions that followed an opposite path.12 Recent trends in the history of nationalism and national identities are very influenced by the transnational turn, and increasingly tend to dilute or, at least, to question the exceptional character of the European continent. Transnational approaches to the history of nationalism and national movements are expanding and focus not only on the circulation of ideas and models of diffusion of national tenets, but also on the transatlantic and imperial dimensions of national identities.13

Therefore, migrant diasporas, exiled communities, and imperial subjects are also seen under a different light. Moreover, as mentioned above, the ways in which individuals performed their own collective identifications and played a proactive role in shaping them have received new attention. Everyday nationalism and banal nationalism are now regarded both as cultural manifestations or routines dictated from above, and also as forms of appropriation and resignification defined by individuals with collective identities from below. This implies too seeing national identities as contingent objects, which are not the unavoidable result of modernity. Different forms of “national indifference” also accompanied the course of modern European history.14 The persistence of traditional forms of allegiance coexisted with new forms and spheres of identification that gained traction in the 20th century, from gender to class. Sometimes they interacted with national identities sometimes they did not. They even surfaced during the two world wars and in moments of intense nationalist mobilisation, such as the Great War and its aftermath, and in the 1930s.

Moreover, territorial identities are no longer regarded from an implicitly hierarchical perspective. The coexistence of multiple layers of loyalty, and the cohabitation of diverse spheres of territorial identification, from the local to the national, from the regional to the provincial, constituted a permanent feature of the process of nation building in all of Europe. Local identities were not always obliterated or deleted by emerging national patterns, but very often national identities were understood as a re-creation of local imaginations, as the well-known example of the evolution of the Heimat idea in German-speaking regions has suggested.15

The view from the bottom up and the search for national experience, as an analytical category that tries to link up national narratives with individual perceptions and lived memories, was certainly reinforced by the increasing impact of the history of emotions upon the existing approaches to the history of nationalism and national identities. Nations are emotional communities by definition, and so are other forms of common belonging. Yet, a number of “high”, purportedly noble sentiments, such as loyalty, sacrifice, martyrdom and altruism, were supposed to be inherent and exclusive to national identity. Wars and conflicts contributed to solidify those emotional communities and make them endure. Yet they did so only where a common ground was created before. Although the expression of feelings is highly dependent on context and place, and varies across time, common patterns of nationalised emotions were discovered between different parts of Europe and the Americas. There were many ways in which, on the one hand, nationalism and national identity were translated into emotions, and, on the other hand, emotions can be used to reinforce national belonging. Moreover, as also demonstrated by research on regional identities, the borders between regional and national narratives are blurred and malleable, and not always subject to a well-defined hierarchy of emotional priorities. The idea that many people are ready to die for their nation, but not for their region, was not always self-evident. These two ideas were intricately intertwined. For many Europeans the nation was a local passion, and love for the terroir equaled patriotism.16

Some recent approaches have also attempted to go deeper into the relationship between the body and national emotions, by exploring how the body of the nation was also internalised and translated in individual terms. And, finally, some authors have also addressed the relationship between autobiographies, emotions, personal memory, and national allegiance. As they all demonstrate, personal memory often was at odds with the “margins” and borders of national identity, particularly in border regions, areas of mixed ethnic settlement, or among persons displaced by changing boundaries. Attention to internal migrations, forced displacements, imperial settlers returned home after the independence of the colonies (from the Algerian pieds noirs to the Portuguese retornados, but also the German Vertriebene or the Karelian Finns who took shelter in Central Finland after World War II), has also shed some new light on the inner complexity and the continuous re-making of European identities. To reutilise some concepts used in American migration studies since the 1960s, to describe the emergence of new national identities in lands of immigration as melting pots or salad bowls, the internal complexity of nationalism became even greater with the mass arrival of non-European immigrants in the postwar period. Therefore, Europe became a salad bowl of multiple, intertwined layers of identification that made national homogeneity virtually impossible.

5. Europe as a continent of hybrid identities

In conclusion, all this also meant that the methodologically enduring mental maps based on the imagined demarcation between East and West, North and South, and their different “models” of successful/unsuccessful nation-building had to be revisited. Europe as a whole can be regarded as a mixed container of national narratives, national allegiances and collective identities, whose complexity did not necessarily increase beyond the Elbe river, south of the Pyrenees, or in the Transleithanian lands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Global interactions and exchanges also affected the many ways in which individuals thought of their nations, and changes of boundaries were not always as intrinsically relevant for people living in the Trentino, Silesian, Roussillon or Karelian regions. Any narrative of Europe’s many national identities and narratives should take account of their interactions and boundaries, but also of their deeply entangled character.

Transfers of narratives, allegiances and identities entailed several social levels and dimensions of interaction. This implied intellectual exchanges and cultural appropriations between “centres” and “peripheries”, but also involved a flux of fruitful interactions between purported “peripheries”, between local communities and overseas migrants, and among internal migrants in Europe, from Italian seasonal labourers in Germany to Polish workers in Sweden. Thus, the outlook of Catalan nationalists was heavily influenced by Czech activists in the late 19th century, while Catalonia was regarded by Ukrainian historians in the first half of the 20th century as a possible pattern of comparison. The founder of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, drafted a political future for Ireland within the British empire after studying and interpreting Hungary’s role in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He had also learned from the South African Boers how to imagine self-government for Ireland. National self-determination in World War I came as a result of the mixture of the Anglo-American concept of internal self-determination as the consent of the governed, and the principle of nationality, which was conveniently reframed by the French republican tradition and German Enlightenment ideas.17

In the end, however paradoxical it may seem, the history of nation formation, and even of national conflict, in Europe, is a genuine entanglement of collective identities. Certainly, national narratives crafted by nationalising states and nationalist movements created enduring myths of exceptionalism and homogeneity and drew mental maps of Europe as a sum of states, boundaries, national stereotypes, and state languages. Yet, a fresh look at the origins and evolution of national identities in Europe uncovers a greater diversity, which highlights a changing landscape of links within and outside Europe. Nationalism has had a powerful ability to recycle and reinvest previous sentiments of belonging, either to the family or to the territory, the ethnic group or the local sphere, absorbing their forms of expression for a new purpose. But the distorted image created by nationalist narratives should not prevent historians from more deeply exploring these interactions and entanglements.

How to approach the history of national identities and nationalism in Europe in the third decade of the 21st century, when ethnic nationalism and the return of the nation-state seem to threaten the internal cohesion of the European Union, and the strengthening of boundaries is flanked by a new vigour of national narratives? Undoubtedly, the academic trends in nationalism studies follow the steps made by social sciences. Emphasis on the constructed and changing nature of national identities must be accompanied by a diversity of global and comparative perspectives, but also by the insistence on the view from below, making individuals the main focus of research. Seeing people as main protagonists of nation-building, as proactive actors who make choices within a framework of limited rationality. This also affects the way in which Europeans see their links to the territory where they live, their past and their prospects for the future, as well as the traits they have in common with others. Constructivist approaches must not ignore the intrinsically hybrid nature of collective identities, as well as their multidirectional dimensions. In the end, a transnational history of nationalism in Europe (and elsewhere) has still to be written.

  1. See for an introduction Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, Nations and Territorial Identities in Europe: Transnational Reflections, in: European History Quarterly, 40.4 (2010), pp. 669-684. []
  2. Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, Stanford 1976; Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditions for National Revival in Europe, Cambridge 1985. []
  3. Alon Confino, The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Wurttemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory, 1871-1918, Chapel Hill 1997. []
  4. See Eric Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, Oxford 2007; Volker Pott, The Politics of Self-Determination: Remaking Territories and National Identities in Europe, 1917-1923, Oxford 2016; Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (ed.), The First World War and the Nationality Question in Europe: Global Impact and Local Dynamics, Leiden 2020. []
  5. Hans Kohn, A History of Nationalism in the East, New York 1929; id., The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origins and Background, New York 1944. []
  6. See Eugene Kamenka, Nationalism: The Nature and Evolution of an Idea, London 1976; Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz, Nationalist Movements: A Comparative View, Meadville, Pa 1970; and Hugh Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Inquiry into the Origins and Evolution of Modern Nationalism, London 1977. []
  7. Jana Osterkamp / Martin Schulze-Wessel (eds.), Exploring Loyalty, Göttingen 2017. []
  8. See Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism, Cambridge 2015; Klaas Stutje, Campaigning in Europe for a Free Indonesia: Indonesian Nationalists and the Worldwide Anticolonial Movement, 1917-1931, Copenhagen 2019. []
  9. See Tudi Kernalegenn / Joël Belliveau / Jean-Olivier Roy (eds.), La vague nationale des années 1968: Une comparaison internationale, Ottawa 2020. []
  10. Anne-Marie Thiesse, La création des identités nationales: Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle, Paris 2011. []
  11. For the origins of these narratives, see Stefan Berger, The Past as History: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Modern Europe, Basingstoke 2015. For an updated collection on the recent evolution of national histories in Europe, see Niels F. May / Thomas Maissen (eds.), National History and New Nationalism in the Twenty-First Century: A Global Comparison, London 2021. []
  12. For an updated view of recent developments and theories, see Stefan Berger / Erich Storm (eds.), Writing the History of Nationalism, London 2019. []
  13. Alexei Miller / Stefan Berger (eds.), Nationalizing Empires, Budapest 2015. See also Josep M. Fradera, The Imperial Nation: Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American Empires, Princeton 2018. []
  14. Jon Fox / Maarten van Ginderachter (eds.), National Indifference and the History of Nationalism in Modern Europe, London 2019. []
  15. For a discussion of European cases of region-building, see Xosé M. Núñez Seixas / Eric Storm (eds.), Regionalism and Modern Europe: Identity Constructions and Movements from 1890 to the Present Day, London 2018. []
  16. See Andreas Stynen / Maarten van Ginderachter / Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (eds.), Emotions and Everyday Nationalism in Modern European History, London 2020. []
  17. Eric D. Weitz, Self-Determination: How a German Enlightenment Idea Became the Slogan of National Liberation and a Human Right, in: American Historical Review 120.2 (2015), pp. 462-496. []

The Yugoslav Experience as a Lesson and Alarm

Dubravka Stojanović

Some scholars draw comparisons between the EU crisis and the Yugoslav crisis that heralded the brutal wars of the 1990s.1 Of course, there are many differences, beginning with the fact that Yugoslavia was a single state, that it faced the collapse of the socialist one-party system, and that colossal global realignments were taking place in the wake of the Cold War. Still, with regard to the economic and political crisis in the EU, to internal divisions, to the emergence of nationalism and sovereignism, and to the lack of vision and a certain mutual fatigue, the Yugoslav case offers important insights. In the following I will take a close look at the role of historiography in Yugoslavia, both during the Yugoslav crises and after the disintegration of the union, and ask for the lessons it offers, also for doing European history in the present.

Contemporary research reveals a substantial responsibility of historians and historiography for the Yugoslav drama.2 First of all, historians had not highlighted the essential problems nor asked crucial questions while the Yugoslav union existed.3 When the political crisis broke out in the Yugoslav Federation, nationalist leaders heavily invoked national historiographies in the ideological destruction of the common state, and laid the psychological groundwork for the war.4 That is why the Yugoslav experience is a good lesson to be studied and from which to learn, especially as we recognise that nationalist narratives in today’s EU employ experiences from the past to cast doubt on the purpose of unity. I would like to discuss four basic aspects.

Historiography as a means of legitimation

Using historical research as a means to legitimise unity was one of the greatest mistakes of Yugoslav historiography. While Yugoslavia existed (1918-1991), historians wrote works of synthetic history aimed at emphasising unity and drawing positive examples from the common experience.5 It should be borne in mind that the two Yugoslav states that emerged after the First and Second World War included peoples that had themselves fought on opposite sides. Both Yugoslavias were reconciliation states, which predisposed historians to evade painful topics, especially ethnic war crimes. The myth of unity was created. History was presented as a determinant that from the arrival of South Slavs to the Balkans unavoidably led to the creation of Yugoslavia, as a clear and undying goal of “small nations that fought heroically against great empires to realise their historical goal.”6 All the separate struggles for national freedom were portrayed as simultaneously struggles for unification in a common state.

To meet this imposed political goal, historiography was necessarily selective, everything that was “inconvenient” was thrown out, and elements suitable for the required picture were emphasised. This way, deep questions were neglected and the politics of unity imposed desirable answers. The public understood that these synthetic works of Yugoslav history were an official, imposed, obligatory, but not realistic, portrayal of the past, which is why they never played a significant integrative role. In such a framework, historiography excluded multiple perspectives, and made even initiating a discussion on different interpretations of particularly painful and controversial events difficult. Therefore, the differences in national narratives remained unexamined. Yugoslav citizens did not know how the “other side” experienced the same event, which during the dissolution of Yugoslavia reinforced the impression that there was “our” and “your” ethnic truth. This was just a step away from the idea that there is some “true history” that is avoided in order to maintain unity.

There is no imposed history of Europe. But still the Yugoslav case points European historians towards the dangers of using history as a means of legitimation. There is an impression that large synthetic works of European history have too often been characterised by a lack of multiple perspectives and comparative analysis, that consensus narratives have been sought at the expense of conflicting historical evidence. Comparative studies that include multiple perspectives of different cultures of memory and different interpretations of sensitive events are therefore an essential approach to making European history more participatory, inclusive, and open to debate, while also creating a deeper mutual understanding.

Common history as a collection of national histories

In Yugoslavia, the commonly narrated histories of the country, despite the required and imposed unity, remained merely collections of case studies of national histories, which apparently existed side by side, lacking reciprocity and mutual connection, creating the impression that they were almost contactless. Each looked out from its own national bubble. Thus they not only failed to see the “other” or their mutual connections, but also failed to notice the integrality of the common country, which is why its meaning and significance became less and less clear. Common interests remained on the surface as a coated layer beneath which deeply rooted national and nationalist narratives remained. At levels below the “prescribed” commonality, however, differences in interpretations were not only significant, but, as comparative research now clearly shows, the “prescribed” commonality was used to lay blame on the other, to construct and play up profound differences, to portray “us”, whoever that “us” might be as better than others, to turn each “us” into greater victims.7

The unity constructed in this manner became the main trigger of nationalism. As the political and economic crisis deepened, unity became a burdensome structure, something that “prevents us from being who we are”, an obstacle, a compulsion, something that hinders and does not allow us to “have control over ourselves”.8 Thus, the historiographically unfounded unity prepared the groundwork for sovereignists, who effortlessly dismantled the common narrative and imposed their particular narrative.

To critically engage with narratives of unity and to seriously consider bilateral, multilateral or regional perspectives, is one of the most important tasks of European historiography today. Using the methods of entangled histories or histoire croisée to approach fundamental issues, historians would help to create a better understanding of differences and similarities – and with it of the whole.

Ethnocentrism as a brake

Without in-depth insights into common history, without comparison, histoire croisée, without interweaving multiple perspectives, national history cannot be studied or understood properly. Without innovative methodologies and comparisons, Yugoslav historiography did not develop adequately in terms of methodology. As a result it soon took an ethnocentric approach, which almost without exception led to a distorted understanding of the past, primarily to self-victimisation or self-aggrandisement.9 Without a common framework, each group could appear to be better than others, which was again a step towards the idea of ​​each group’s uniqueness, exceptionality, each group’s incomparable course. There is no place for unity in such a narrative. It was, as Amos Oz puts it, just a contest of who would be the greatest victim, as self-victimisation is the best instrument of nationalism.10 Self-victimisation is the shortest path to the homogenisation of the nation, and the victim status also provides an indulgence, a form of forgiveness in advance, for all future actions. The victim cannot be guilty. The Yugoslav case unequivocally confirms that without a common history, national history remains limited, and vice versa, that without asking deep historical questions about one’s own national history, unity remains superficial.

A comparison of cultures of remembrance at the European level would reveal what national histories emphasise when they interpret certain events, processes, or phenomena from the past. We would see the manner in which national victories, defeats, heroes, and victims are discussed. This would help us grasp the existence and depth of nationalist interpretations of history, which could be used to create a list of enemies through the image of the “other”. The emergence of strong sovereignist and identity movements within the EU demonstrates the strength of self-victimising narratives and suggests that European historiographic traditions may not have paid enough attention to ethnocentric interpretations of the past, nor offered a methodological approach that could initiate discussion and offer a way out of conscious self-isolation.

The problems of mental mapping

In Yugoslav historiography, the dominant position in histories that claimed to be universal was taken by the larger constituent nations, while the smaller nations were considered ornaments, which could be allowed a limited number of pages based on percentage of population, as a sort of appendix. Apart from the fact that the “little ones” were constantly placed in a subordinate position, over time they became invisible, and therefore superfluous. The “big ones” were not interested in the history of the “little ones”. Consequently, not much was known about them, so when crises emerged in those parts of the country, there were no adequate responses.

When the Yugoslav crisis began and when the divisions emerged between the big and small, rich and poor, north and south, east and west, some began to claim that the common country could do without the “small” ones. That some were faster and some slower, that there are different speeds, that it was important for the big ones to be kept and pulled together, and that if a wagon could not follow this train, it should be let go, and it was hardly anyone would even notice.11 In addition to that, when it came to interpretation of the past, despite a very strong ideology of unity and a powerful centralised state, there was always visible rivalry and competition among the “big ones”12, which prevented raising questions that would reveal the deep problems of those societies, but also of the common state.

Even a cursory glance at synthetic works of European historiography reveals that they often marginalised the European “periphery”, thus strengthening the centripetal forces that drive identitarian discourses. Consequently, nationalist discourses of “small” nations gained ground, armed with the argument of not being accepted by the “centre”, of being less important and unequal, which reinforced Eurosceptic narratives. Therefore, we should work on syntheses that present European history phenomenologically and thematically, which would contribute to a better understanding of integrative and disintegrative processes.13

Responsibility of historiography for the 1990 Balkan wars

These examples illustrate some of the profound problems of Yugoslav historiography while the country existed. And then came the crisis which brought a historical boom. Shortly after Tito’s death, from the early 1980s, room was created for nationalist and sovereignist concepts that sought to dismantle the common country and create independent states. For these ideological visions to be translated into concrete politics, and later into military action, it was necessary to stir up negative emotions, to create enmity between neighboring peoples, to incite fear and a sense of threat from the common state, which was increasingly presented as a threat to national identity. Historiography has proven to be a most reliable ally in that first stage, the stage of war of narratives. Historians were eager to help by turning into spokespersons for new, mostly fabricated, fake news from the past.14 Historians, like pop stars, made appearances on prime time TV shows and revealed to their nations the “secret” histories that were supposedly not allowed to be told because of, as they called it, the imposed Yugoslav unity. Mass graves from previous conflicts, were first virtually and later physically excavated, letting out the ghosts to incite new conflicts. History was abused to the point of brutality15, creating a paranoid image of the past that served as a mechanism of intimidation. The public ate up those new images, passions grew. The constructed fear of the “other” fed the desire not only for revenge but also for preventive war. The Yugoslav war began in the domain of history.

The case of Yugoslav historiography shows how dangerous it can be to “handle” history irresponsibly. Not only are common subjects not examined, but because sensitive points from the past are sidestepped, especially the deepest and most dangerous phenomena, history became a weapon. Just as Yugoslav historiography refused to see nationalist separatisms destroying the common country, Yugoslav historians refused to see the deep problems of Yugoslav society, including its democratic deficits, its insufficiently plural political culture, the obstacles to modernisation, the patriarchal model of national identity, and the heroic memorial culture. Since these issues were insufficiently analysed, the responsibility for all the problems was placed on the common country, which was portrayed as the main culprit for everything. This strengthened the belief that all problems would disappear in the newly created nation-states. That did not happen, and most of the new countries faced the same historically inherited problems after the collapse of Yugoslavia as before. Today, they are mostly dysfunctional, still democratically deficient, and economically unsuccessful. This has provoked widespread discontent among the citizens and, among other things, has led to mass emigration. If historiographers had done their job and raised sensitive, but fundamental, questions, perhaps expectations would have been more realistic and more would have been done to prevent new and overcome historic problems.

These Yugoslav experiences can be alarming. They point to a task no less important for European historiographies: to raise fundamental questions, to apply comparative history, to rethink mental maps, and to avoid letting the smaller, poorer, peripheral nation fall out of focus. This is one of the reasons why “surprises” often arise on the political level. First of all, the Yugoslav wars demonstrated that, with the exception of German and Austrian historiography, other European historiographic traditions did not detect the Balkans in their mental mapping. They failed to consider the Balkan region. It was the appendix, that troublemaking backyard, as the Balkanist discourse goes, but the causes of those troubles were not seriously examined. This was partly due to the concentration on the “big ones” and partly because of prejudice and preconceptions that the problems of the “periphery” were not European problems. The Balkans were often absent in universal European histories, which is why when the Yugoslav wars began in the 1990s, there was not enough expert knowledge to conceive of appropriate responses to the crisis. This led directly to a series of inadequate responses, which extended the war, and resulted in vast human suffering. Europe paid dearly for that mental mapping and that lack of interest.

Or take another example. The appeal of the Mitteleuropa myth reinforced the belief that the former Eastern Bloc countries would effortlessly return to their European democratic heritage after they were liberated from Soviet occupation. This obstructed the perception of deeper non-democratic layers in political culture and led to the victory of a number of populist and authoritarian regimes that do not respect the basic values ​​of the EU and are blocking the EU today. Still another example is Brexit, which showed that the relationship between Brussels and London was insufficiently studied and inadequately understood. The same dynamic led to the negative image of the EU that has long been fed to the public on the island, accentuating English nationalism and imperial resentment. These are sensitive issues that could have damaged the image of the European community at the surface level. Had they been documented and examined, however, Brexit would have been less of a surprise and the response to the Brexit crisis could have been better prepared. Here I will only briefly mention Trump and everyone’s astonishment with him winning the election in 2016, and the great support he received in the 2020 elections. Had the divisions of American society and the ideology that justified those divisions, which have been apparent for decades, been studied with more care, Trump’s political success not have come as such a shock and the situation would have been better understood.

Changing of the framework?

What other Balkan experiences could help European historiography? An important lesson may be that that changing the framework not only changes the context, sharpening the picture both on the individual and societal level, but it also gives a different perspective. The history of Yugoslavia and the Balkans can be instructive in setting up a European framework. We, from within, saw Yugoslavia and the Balkans through our national lenses, while the few European historians who have studied this part of the continent mostly saw Yugoslavia and Southeast Europe as a whole.16 Their research provided essential insights. This demonstrates that when you pull the camera back, looking from the “outside” helps you see the whole picture more clearly. This corresponds with my experience of teaching global history (the course I teach at the University of Belgrade), which helped me see Europe “from the outside” and as a whole. Although I had previously taught global history “country by country”, first the big ones, then the smaller ones, etc., my experience with changing the lens and pulling the camera back, framing the shot from the outside, helps me and my students avoid the frog’s-eye view of a nation that unavoidably sets barriers and sees the picture only through its own zoom lens.

Balkan experiences as motivation?

There are also very specific shortcomings of European historiography when we study it from the Balkan angle. We from “small-language nations” are used to knowing, in addition to English, at least one other “big” language, if not more. This has always allowed us to read other European historiographies in the original, but also to be amazed at how weak the links between them are: how they do not correspond with one another, how poorly they read each other, how much is missing in the footnotes. Even the greatest non-English historiographies, French and German, exchange surprisingly little of their knowledge. I believe that setting up a special fund for translating critical studies with far reaching historiographic results into English would encourage that cooperation.

We from the “back yard” have had the advantage of always linking up our histories to the European context, from the transfer of different concepts, to cultural, political, economic and other types of influence. Without this reciprocity and entanglement, we would understand the processes of our national histories in a different way. When we read the histories of individual European countries, especially the larger ones, that framework of entanglement is often absent, because it is probably assumed that they themselves are that framework, which is why they do not see deep connections and influences. Funds that would help research in-depth issues and connections would certainly help connect European historians, and they would also strengthen comparative and transnational studies. The digitisation of archival material, of newspapers and periodicals from the time of mass literacy in the 19th century – well under way for some European countries, but not yet for others – could be among the first steps towards comparative studies, without which there cannot be a mirror in which we can see ourselves.

Today, 25 years after the Balkan wars, historians from the post-Yugoslav countries are collaborating on joint projects more regularly than when the union existed. We realised that we cannot understand ourselves without others, that our similarities are much greater than our differences, that without a comparative approach, many events in national history remain unclear. We are seeking to discover deep processes that can explain the causes of the crises we have gone through. After the bloody wars and the genocide committed in the wars of the 1990s to separate the Yugoslav peoples, today large groups of historians work together in order to understand how all this was possible, how the people who created the ideologies and movements that organised the war also won the elections. The great differences in the interpretations of sensitive events that still exist are resolved by incorporating multiple perspectives in our research. We are very aware of the responsibility of the “official” narrative and the consensus on the past which, through insincere unity, paved the way to separatism. It is clear to us that we will not reach an “agreement” on controversial issues on wie es eigentlich gewesen, neither do we think that would be a good and useful path. What is needed is the opening of all, even the most sensitive issues, and their presentation from multiple perspectives to the public to initiate an open dialogue, so we can understand the position of the “other”.17 Thanks to these new approaches and, above all, the common understanding that we will not be able to move forward without it, we can engage with the most difficult issues of mutual crimes, for example, in the Second World War and in the wars of the 1990s. Couldn’t we have done that before the gory disintegration of the country? Our hope remains that European historians, with the help of projects such as this one, will play the role that Yugoslavia missed.

  1. Stefano Bianchini, Liquid Nationalism and State Partitions in Europe, London 2017. []
  2. Snježana Koren, Politika povijesti u Jugoslaviji (1945-1960), Zagreb 2012. []
  3. Branimir Janković, Mijenjanje sebe same: Preobrazbe hrvatske historiografije kasnog socijalizma, Zagreb 2016. []
  4. Nebojša Popov, The Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis, Budapest 2000. []
  5. Vladimir Ćorović, Istorija Jugoslavije, Belgrade 1933; Ivan Božić / Sima Ćirković / Milorad Ekmečić / Vladimir Dedijer, Istorija Jugoslavije, Belgrade 1973, Branko Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije, Belgrade 1981; Branko Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije, I-III, Belgrade 1988. []
  6. Ivan Božić et al., Istorija naroda Jugoslavje, I-II, Belgrade 1953. []
  7. Ivan Božić et al., Istorija naroda Jugoslavje, I-II, Belgrade 1953; Magdalena Najbar Agicic, U sukladu s marksizmom ili činjenicama? Hrvatska hisotriografija 1945- 1960, Zagreb 2013. []
  8. Olivera Milosavljević, Yugoslavia as a mistake, in: Nebojša Popov (ed.), The Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis, Budapest 2000, pp. 50-81. []
  9. Dubravka Stojanović, Ulje na vodi: Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti, Belgrade 2010: 220. []
  10. Peter Burke, Varieties in Cultural History, Cambridge 1997: 53. []
  11. Nebojša Popov, The Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis, Budapest 2000: 146. []
  12. Snježana Koren, Politika povijesti u Jugoslaviji (1945-1960), Zagreb 2012: 56. []
  13. A positive example is: Philipp Ther, Europe Since 1989: A History, Princeton 2016. []
  14. Vojin Dimitrijević (ed.), Novosti iz prošlosti, Znanje, neznanje, upotreba i zloupotreba istorije, Belgrade 2010. []
  15. Olivera Milosavljević, The Abuse of the Authority of Science, in: Nebojša Popov (ed.), The Road to War in Serbia. Trauma and Catharsis, Budapest 2000, pp. 274 – 303. []
  16. Stevan Pavlowitch, A History of the Balkans, 1804-1945, London 1999; Mark Mazower, The Balkans: A Short History, New York 2002; Marie-Janine Calic, Südosteuropa: Weltgeschichte einer Region, München 2016; Marie-Janine Calic, The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeast Europe, Cambridge, Mass. 2019; John Lampe / Ulf Brunnbauer (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Balkan and Southeast European History, London 2020. []
  17. Latinka Perović et al. (eds.), Yugoslavia from a Historical Perspective, Belgrade 2017. []

Reconceptualisation and Renewal. On Writing Contemporary European History Today

Ferenc Laczó, Camilo Erlichman, and Pablo del Hierro

Introduction

Like any intellectual project, the emergence and rise to prominence of European history as a distinct scholarly field was bound to a specific time and conjuncture. During a moment of optimism towards the end of the 1990s, European societies seemed to be aboard a high-speed train towards ever-deeper levels of political, economic, social, and cultural integration as well as simultaneous expansion to “the East”. The “ever closer Union” mantra which appeared to emerge as predominant at the time exerted a significant impact on the humanities and the social sciences too. European history as a scholarly field was never uncritical of such teleological buzz and the ahistorical romanticism it often engendered, but it drew good parts of its intellectual impulse from the widespread sense that l’heure européenne had arrived.1 For those who were academically socialised during what might now be labelled the vingt glorieuses of European history writing beginning in the second half of the 1990s, this left a distinctive mark on their scholarly imaginaries as well as their specific professional trajectories.

Approaching the writing of contemporary European history from an inter-generational perspective that takes this specific historiographic moment, and its subsequent attenuation, as its point of departure, this essay seeks to reflect on the state of our field today to sketch a plan for renewal. In doing so, we shall suggest concrete ways in which contemporary European history can be combined with global approaches by outlining four analytical themes that, in our view, ought to move centre stage: connecting Eastern and Western European histories, reconceptualising the political, tracing the rise of a new individualism, and foregrounding planetary-environmental concerns.

European history as an intergenerational project

If we applied William Strauss and Neil Howe’s influential notion of generation to ourselves – a ‘cohort-group whose length approximates the span of a phase of life and whose boundaries are fixed by peer personality’2 – we would have to conclude that, all three of us, born in the 1980s in Europe’s geographic and economic peripheries (internal, as in Budapest and Madrid, or “global”, as in Buenos Aires), belong to the same cohort of European historians. As such, we are part of a group with an identifiable biographic trajectory, the study of which can help reveal how “the personality of our generation” has been shaped by specific circumstances and exchanges with members of previous generations, especially in our “formative years”.

Indeed, while the three of us studied in different national contexts in the early twenty-first century, our academic socialisation took place within shared European intellectual spaces. By specialising in European history, our scholarly conceptions were originally shaped by comparable trends in scholarship as well as by reading many of the same authors whether in Bonn, Budapest, Edinburgh, Florence, Madrid, Oxford, or Utrecht – well before we were appointed to positions at Maastricht University’s History Department.

Books on modern and contemporary European history in our formative years were abundant, intriguing, and remarkably popular.3 Their relevance and intellectual rationale was practically unquestioned at the time. The authors of some of the most significant contributions, such as Mark Mazower and Tony Judt, were, for intergenerational reasons of their own, intimately familiar with and critically distanced from the continent’s recent past. They quickly established themselves as influential commentators without ever having to justify their choice of writing European history in a comparative or transnational manner, not to mention having to legitimise their approach in more theoretical terms.

One of the keys to understanding the popularity of that innovative wave of European historiography, typically written by what Strauss and Howe would have called ‘baby boomers’ (those born between 1943 and 1960), is that it successfully synthesised new research to revise previous interpretations. The 1970s and the 1980s had witnessed the publication of pioneering work on crucial moments and developments in recent European history, most notably those of the first half of the twentieth century. This included ground-breaking interpretations of the inter-war crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of authoritarian movements. A great deal of effort was devoted to exploring the nature of Fascist and Nazi rule and to uncovering histories of mass violence and the involvement of European societies in it. The field of Cold War history experienced rapid expansion, too, and divested itself of some of the ideological baggage of the preceding decades.  An additional boom followed in the wake of the “archival revolution” in studies on the Soviet Union, and Stalinism in particular, since the 1980s. Middle-aged historians exerted a considerable impact around the turn of the millennium partly because they could draw on the arguments in these detailed studies to craft new, less deterministic, and more discomforting narratives of the “old continent”.  These new narratives neither pathologised the fascist and Soviet communist experiments nor bracketed them as historical phenomena of necessarily restricted reach.

It was also a time for European history to be written differently because Europe’s place in the world had radically changed. This new understanding was perhaps best encapsulated in Mazower’s remark, in the epilogue to his Dark Continent, that if Europeans ‘can accept a more modest place in the world, they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and dissension which will be as much their future as their past.’4 The resulting European histories, critically aware of the disturbing ambiguities in Europe’s recent past and the continent’s decreasing importance in the world without yet aiming to ‘provincialize’ it, would justly come to exert a major intellectual impact, including on the next generation of historians.5

Looking back from the early 2020s, one might wonder what the medium-term consequences of this dynamic moment in European history writing have been, and how it has shaped the agendas, expectations, and later experiences of a subsequent generation.6  Our perception is that after a dynamic period of rapid expansion, which saw the publication of a host of influential comparative and transnational works, the field of European history has lost some of its intellectual momentum.7 That is not to suggest that there have been no real advances. Innovative work has been completed on key aspects of the social and political history of the twentieth century and there has also been increasing interaction with neighbouring disciplines that have enriched the conceptual frameworks of historians.8 Sub-fields such as the history of European integration have flourished considerably by giving up some of their ideological fixations and adopting a range of new approaches.9  Nonetheless, it is difficult to escape the general conclusion that the high expectations raised around the turn of the millennium have only been partially met and that more recent years have seen an ebbing of conceptual and methodological innovation in the historical study of contemporary Europe.

Condemned to try and reinvigorate itself at a time when universities have been increasingly subjected to the logics of market fundamentalism, the field is struggling to move forward within a broader context in which  stable appointments as well as research funding for multi-year, multi-archival and multi-language projects are increasingly rare. In addition, publishers often prefer books on local and national subjects or on, at least seemingly, wider, more global horizons.10 Yet the crisis of European history, which is embodied in disciplinary stasis and in a decrease in public interest, which many younger historians experience acutely, also has to do with internal difficulties at finding a new social role. As Pieter Lagrou has forcefully argued in a recent essay, professional historians can no longer be viewed as heroic taboo breakers. Their scholarship, rarely truly daring and at times even somewhat complacent, no longer worries the power holders.11 It is therefore not just that today there are fewer innovative and significant books on European history, but that even the best scholarship tends to have a more limited impact than was the case until recently.12 The prospect of our “formative years” that contemporary European history would keep on expanding towards the production of ever more comparative and transnational scholarship, while retaining a firm presence in the public sphere, has therefore not been fulfilled.

In an age of web-based cultural saturation dominated by virtual global simultaneity, presentist modes of thinking, and a concomitant shrinking of long-term temporal horizons, the social relevance and prestige of professional historiography has increasingly been questioned.13 European societies in the early twenty-first century have largely ceased to ‘think with history’, to employ Carl Schorske’s memorable phrase, and to use history as an analytical tool to understand their current condition.14 This weakening of historical consciousness has fed into the current situation in which public debates on historical subjects tend to get reduced to questions of binary judgement. Nazi Germany, Soviet communism, and European colonialism have all become the frequent subject of well-intentioned critiques, which are, however, often stuck in a form of moral condemnation that does not yield original analytical insights.15 This fading of the public role of history is all the more worrisome given how the fundamental skills of the profession, most notably those used for critical source analysis, are urgently needed in the face of an onslaught of systematic distortion of facts and evidence.

In response to our diagnosis that contemporary European historiography appears to have lost part of its innovative thrust, critical edge, and public prominence in recent years, we shall try to delineate a path forward by suggesting specific questions that might help renew and reinvigorate the field. In doing so, this essay aims to offer an alternative to narratives that present Europe as a continent in decline and interpret the last decades primarily as expressions of the ways in which key phenomena of the past have been superseded. Many such historical accounts privilege a focus on the post-industrial, the post-ideological, and the post-modern character of contemporary Europe. Conversely, we seek to present an argument about why the European scale continues to matter while surrendering any claims to exceptionalism or universalism.

Combining European and global approaches

Europe, however defined, has always been a rather porous place, if one that has tended to employ remarkably powerful self-demarcation strategies; there are signs that the “waning of territoriality” has again been followed by its reassertion. The choices made for “more Europe” since the 1980s may indeed be viewed as part of this process.  The supposedly “borderless” Schengen Area obviously leaves a different impression if one needs to enter it from the outside.

The point for historians is not, however, about choosing to “remain European” or “go global” but rather, as Frederick Cooper has suggested, to simultaneously avoid being too European and too global.  Their task is to study empirically the density of connections and their different impacts over time.16 In other words, the varied shapes European networks have taken over time should be further explored and – in accordance with Philipp Nielsen’s suggestion – so should the shifting relevance of this scale as compared to others. An empirical investigation of the European scale’s actual relevance over time can, in turn, help us paint a more nuanced and convincing picture than prevalent master narratives do.17 Such master narratives include the EU’s preferred teleological and rather sanitised story of “continuity without conflict,” the one that contrasts European democracies with “totalitarian dictatorships” to draw politico-moral lessons, and the one that focuses singularly on European imperialism and neo-colonialism to propagate projects of emancipation.  All three narratives tend to take for granted the existence of “Europe” as a historical actor.

It is true that numerous dynamics analysed by historians of contemporary Europe have been expressions of wider, more global phenomena and that many of them have had their origins outside Europe. To us, this only confirms that the emergence of global history should not be viewed as a threat or in any way incompatible with European history. In fact, if we adopt Sebastian Conrad’s suggested definition of the booming field of global history, understood as ‘a form of historical analysis in which phenomena, events, and processes are placed in global contexts’, then the possibilities for enriching our grasp of Europe’s place and role in history grow substantially.18 Scholars such as Akira Iriye, Sandrine Kott, Kiran Klaus Patel, Patricia Clavin, and Glenda Sluga have already substantiated such possibilities through recent transnational histories that have often focused on international organisations.19

Too many historical accounts have depicted some of the most important phenomena in modern times as radiating from a single region, variously called ‘the West’, ‘Europe’, and ‘Western Europe’.20 If one regards global history as the study of the making and unmaking of links between human societies, however, this approach should help us incorporate various non-European perspectives. Beyond debunking Europe’s self-serving foundational myths and uncovering their inherent hypocrisy and epistemic violence, such an increased diversity of perspectives promises – alongside heightened gender balance within the profession – to be a key source of intellectual renewal in our field. As Jeremy Adelman has recently contended, getting beyond Eurocentrism means that “Europe” and its centrality in the global narrative is relative and needs to be explained globally.21

New histories of the contemporary era

Problematising our own age, roughly covering the past forty years, and developing historical questions that emanate from the realities we inhabit today promises to be a fruitful way to rediscover the potential of writing contemporary European history within a global context. Deriving historical questions from present-day observations is an established heuristic practice in our discipline, even if such an approach admittedly carries the risk of an undue degree of presentism.22  To complicate matters, our own epoch’s high level of contingency makes it difficult to decide just which set of questions should take centre stage in any empirical investigation.  The manifold contributions on the decline and death of democracy while Donald Trump was still in office illustrate the difficulties and dangers inherent in an approach that is driven by a highly circumstantial set of observations.23 The problem of contingency can be kept in relative check, however, by the observation that, in contradistinction to Eric Hobsbawm’s influential concept, Europe’s ‘long twentieth century’ has come to an end.24 This sense of an ending, and the ways in which this brings into stark relief some of the late twentieth century’s defining features, now makes it significantly easier for historians to approach our era of profound conceptual transformation as a new Sattelzeit.

While the terminus date is still up for debate depending on one’s particular perspective or emphasis, with 2004, 2008, 2016, and 2020 all among the strong contenders, most historians would agree that a fundamental reconfiguration of Europe’s political and economic order has been under way for some time.25 As Ulrich Herbert has perceptively noted, just when the answers to the challenges of high modernity had largely gained acceptance, the foundations of the capitalist-industrial economy began to change again.  The consequences have been difficult to foresee and they still need to be measured from a historical perspective.26 If the rough outer contours of the era are becoming increasingly clear, it is also evident that the most common starting point for histories of contemporary Europe, the year 1945, no longer serves as a useful point of departure for understanding our own age.  We no longer inhabit an age primarily shaped by the socio-political dynamics triggered by the multiple crises of the mid-twentieth century such as the Second World War, the experience and legacies of genocidal violence, and the subsequent Cold War division of the continent. Nor do the major political conflicts within European societies today emanate from the way in which these societies have dealt, and continue to deal, with those “catastrophic” and “traumatic” pasts.

We would, therefore, suggest that one of the most pressing tasks for contemporary historians is to locate and explain the tectonic shifts that have led to the collapse of the old and the beginning of a new era. In other words, the work in front of us is that of exploring the genealogy of our own age and in doing so lay open the causes behind our current condition. Andreas Wirsching and Andreas Rödder have successfully sketched out this approach in their recent books, which unfortunately have exerted limited influence outside of Germany.27 In line with existing work, we would argue that the period to be analysed needs to start in the 1970s or 1980s. As a result, the end of the Cold War division of Europe in 1989 would need to be approached as a consequence of ongoing changes as much as the starting point of something novel.28

Such a historiographical project has the potential of being a truly critical endeavour if it returns to European history what one might describe as the discipline’s emancipatory edge.  By recognising our present as just one of many possible futures in the past, we can expose it as the result of rather contingent structures, ideas, and events. By disentangling such lineages, we might ultimately arrive at an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of socio-political change today.

Four suggestions

Within the limits of this essay, it is impossible to do justice to the breadth of potential subjects with which such a new contemporary European history would have to engage. Four themes, however, strike us as timely and especially important. First, our territorial conceptions of Europe, and the resulting distribution of material resources and power between the different parts of the continent, need to be subjected to intense scrutiny. If Europe clearly needed to be placed into global contexts and provincialised, Western Europe still needs to be de-provincialised to arrive at a European history worthy of the name in a post-Cold War era.29 A key promise associated with “Europe” in recent decades has indeed been the overcoming of the continent’s Cold War-era division. Contrary to the hopes and expectations of many, however, the East–West divide has largely been reproduced in the decades since 1989, not least in much of what counts as mainstream Western historiography.30

This raises several intriguing and underexplored questions about how exactly Europe’s recent history of oscillation between expansion towards and exclusion of “its East” has played out; regarding convergences and divergences in European history and why deepening European integration since 1989 has fostered relatively little of the former; about the shift towards divergence between Europe’s core areas and its eastern but also southern peripheries since the 1970s and the coincidence of this shift with new legitimation strategies that more peripheral elites through “European accession”; the changing attitudes of both western and eastern Europe to the influence of the United States and the shifting ways (including a remarkable eastward shift) in which its socio-political system has been held up by Europeans as a model to be striven for; and the parallel and comparative study of the transformation of asymmetrical power relations in Europe, such as West–East and gender relations, in both cases of which the systematically disadvantaged have made strides in recent decades without achieving anywhere near full equality.

Questions of intellectual and conceptual translation, primarily how Western discourses were received and adapted in Eastern Europe, would have to be added to this list to grasp how epistemic hegemony has been imposed within Europe since the end of the Cold War. Exploring the connections and common threads in the histories of Eastern and Western Europe and, more particularly, studying the ways in which Eastern Europe has both come to be shaped by and has actively shaped broader European processes in the contemporary era could in turn help define the relations between intra-European history and the history of Europe in global contexts.31

Second, and connected to such new questions regarding the contemporary history of East–West entanglements in Europe, one might explore the broader reconceptualisation of the political that has taken place since the 1970s and which still requires explanation. As such, what ought to constitute the heart of political debate and struggle saw a fundamental redefinition in the last decades of the twentieth century across Europe and beyond. As Samuel Moyn has recently argued, struggles about material inequality and concomitant social rights, which were at the heart of political conflict since the advent of mass politics in the nineteenth century, were gradually replaced by the fight for individual human rights which accompagnied and in fact helped foster neoliberalism.32 While pre-existing collectivist utopian ideals did not completely disappear and sometimes took centre stage, most notably amongst those resisting the hardship and suffering brought by de-industrialisation, this shift did lead to a growing emphasis on the expansion of individual rights and liberties to disadvantaged groups and to minorities that had been hitherto persecuted. It found its prime expression in the ways in which women, ethnic and religious minorities, people with a disability, and LGBTQ groups fought, and keep fighting, for recognition and legal equality within European societies.

This process, which we still need to approach and grasp through detailed socio-cultural histories of the period, saw the emergence of novel forms of political mobilisation around questions of social discrimination. Such movements at times encouraged the development of sectional and “identity” politics that spoke primarily to the interests of specific groups and that concomitantly might have encouraged a new culturalism and processes of re-traditionalisation.  In other instances, however, mobilisation as a reaction to gendered, sexual, and racist forms of discrimination successfully articulated the agendas of wider segments of society.

From today’s perspective, it is striking how mainstream the recognition of difference has become in Western Europe.  Propositions and demands that at one time seemed revolutionary have been absorbed by practically all major democratic parties without the polarising logic of identity-based politics thereby being superseded. This happened at a time when much of Eastern Europe was preoccupied with the newly rediscovered project of nation-building.33 It is indeed one of the great historical ironies of modern times that the more homogenous Western parts of the continent have become significantly more diverse whereas the much more diverse Eastern half has been reshaped, partly through its belated attempt to “imitate the West”, into smaller and much more homogeneous units.

One might be tempted to describe the new politics as the successful taming or pacification of groups and agendas that were once considered radical and a threat to the established order and view this process as a form of compensation via culture at a time of limited social mobility. This is perhaps most visible in the way in which various demands from the environmental movement have entered the political mainstream without sufficiently far-reaching policies being implemented. It is also evident in how conservative parties in some parts of Europe have recently absorbed the recognition of the rights of LGBTQ people, though such recognition admittedly remains highly contested in more peripheral areas of the continent.34

It is indeed remarkable how universal and complete the disappearance of the category of material inequality has been within hegemonic political discourses at a time of increasing material inequality. Such a process certainly cannot be taken for granted but presents a genuine historical puzzle. We ought to analyse why this redefinition of the political took place; what were the strategies of those involved in this process; and how exactly did this lead to a reconfiguration of the key terms of political engagement – not least via the Soviet collapse of 1989-91 and the subsequent foundation of the European Union at Maastricht. Again, there is an obvious global dimension to this dynamic: the redefinition of the political was not unique to Europe, but occurred in many places around the world, prompting the question of how the European trajectory in this time has been shaped by global influences while simultaneously remaining distinctive.

Third, when dissecting this transformation, one might start by exploring the long process of individualisation that in many respects characterises societies in our times and that the on-going pandemic has tragically exposed. Recent work has emphasised the ways in which an increasing individualisation set in across European societies from the 1970s onwards, becoming particularly pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s. This was based on a new emphasis on the primacy of personal autonomy, individual liberation, and freedom of choice as the hallmarks of the fulfilment of the self. It brought with it a gradual collapse of some of the familial and collective forms of identification and socialisation, and ultimately to a waning of the structures of solidarity and politisation that many Europeans, both in the West and the East, had taken for granted for decades.35

The net result was the emergence of a new European culture that celebrated the individual while it saw the decline of numerous collective forms of organisation, from local sports clubs to trade unions and mass parties of all colours. This was accompanied by growing calls and country-specific policies to shrink the remit of state activity, which led to the gradual reduction of the forms of collective solidarity that had been consensual across the political spectrum in the recent past. This included, most notably, the scaling down of the welfare state as well as the closure or trimming of public spaces, ranging from public libraries to municipal swimming pools.36 To be sure, this was a transnational process that played out faster and took sharper forms in Eastern Europe, if it was arguably also more cushioned by abundant references to the “national community”.37

The historical question here, which is again unintelligible outside of a global context, is how and why this process of neo-liberalisation unfolded: who were the actors, political forces, and institutions driving it from the first wave in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain to the second wave in Mikuláš Dzurinda’s Slovakia and beyond; how did such a fundamental shift in basic attitudes and values amongst Europeans come about; why were some European societies so receptive to such new discourses and why did others not adopt many of the basic premises of market fundamentalism; and how did this process impact the political imaginaries of Europeans as well as the activities of policymakers in welfare capitalist states as well as in formerly state-socialist societies?38

Fourth, environmental perspectives promise an especially fruitful path to foster critical-historical research into our era. In the twenty-first century, any promise regarding the future universalisation of European and Western styles and levels of modernity is being undermined by our evident planetary limits. The urgent necessity to reconsider the role humankind is going to play in the Anthropocene needs to be accompanied by a critical rethinking of our foundational values and narratives. This calls for a thorough re-examination of the historical record, including the devastating acceleration processes observable in contemporary times.

Questions concerning the oppression, exploitation, and underdevelopment of other societies and the depletion of the planet’s material resources would need to be discussed simultaneously, not least to reassess Europe’s path into modernity.39 More specifically, how contemporary Europe has inherited or has broken with civilisational pride and economistic ideas that are predicated on the externalisation of costs is another major question that links environmental history with an agenda of studying Europe in global contexts. At the same time, and this clearly amounts to a quandary, historians ought to remain independent of and critical towards dominant political agendas and identity discourses.

Concluding remarks

Pursuing global contextualisation without abandoning the European scale, writing European history that substantially integrates East and West in an analytical framework beyond the pieties of “overcoming the Cold War divide”, exploring the reconceptualisation of the political and the new cult of the individual while also shedding critical light on processes of acceleration and their environmental-planetary limits offer some of the key avenues through which we propose to renew and expand the agenda of a previous generation invested in the project of writing contemporary European history. That still leaves the question of how what we have sketched above relates to what is realistic, a question that can only be answered with reference to academic institutional contexts. A moot question in this regard will be how independent and critical scholarship can flourish when much closer forms of European unity do not appear to be an immediate prospect.  Discourses on “European identity” sound largely passé, and the attention of the rest of the world is turning in different directions.  The United States and its academic powerhouses, which have been responsible for so much pioneering scholarship in the recent past, have lost considerable interest in historical studies as well as things European, and are unlikely to regain it, which amounts to the most consequential expression of this shift in attention.40

In light of the peculiar, dualistic reception of much European scholarship in recent decades, most notably the special academic prestige attached to English-language publications versus the wider reception of studies written in the manifold languages of our primary sources, bridging the gap between the international and national levels appears to us to be an important and timely ambition. At the same time, if contemporary European history today intends to exert a heightened public impact, it must preserve its distinctive capacity to combine analytical sophistication with narrative quality.  This is arguably made more difficult by trends of professionalisation that reward the use of a discipline-specific language.

But there is reason for guarded optimism.  If historiographic innovation tends to flourish in the aftermath of major upheavals, the renewal of European history writing might just be around the corner. As the current pandemic is bringing into sharp relief some of the defining features of our age, it might ultimately stimulate members of our generation, formed as we have been by high expectations and subsequent disappointments, to realise some of the high promises of the vingt glorieuses.41

  1.  We should like to thank Vincent Lagendijk and Jannis Panagiotidis for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this article. For a classic critique of the federalist literature on integration, see Alan S. Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation State, London 1992. []
  2. William Strauss / Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, New York 1991: 26. []
  3. Relevant larger surveys from those years include Norman Davies, Europe: A History, Oxford 1996; Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, London 1998; Dan Diner, Das Jahrhundert verstehen. Eine universalhistorische Deutung, München 1999; Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century, London 2000; Harold James, Europe Reborn: A History, 1914-2000, London 2003; Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, London 2005; Tom Buchanan, Europe’s Troubled Peace. 1945 to the Present, Oxford 2006; Hartmut Kaelble, Sozialgeschichte Europas: 1945 bis zur Gegenwart, München 2007; Georges-Henri Soutou, L’Europe de 1815 à nos jours, Paris 2007; Bernard Wasserstein, Barbarism and Civilization. A History of Europe in Our Time, Oxford 2007; Luuk van Middelaar, De passage naar Europa. Geschiedenis van een begin, Groningen 2009. []
  4. Mazower 1998: 410. []
  5. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton 2000. []
  6. For different expressions of this highly dynamic moment that led to the emergence of significant transnational and comparative studies, see e.g. Pieter Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965; Cambridge 1999; István Deák / Jan T. Gross / Tony Judt (eds.), The Politics of Retribution in Europe. World War II and its Aftermath, Princeton, N.J. 2000; Martin Geyer / Sheila Fitzpatrick (eds.), Beyond Totalitarianism. Stalinism and Nazism Compared, Cambridge 2009; Martin Conway / Kiran Klaus Patel (eds.), Europeanization in the Twentieth Century: Historical Approaches, London 2010; Balázs Trencsényi et al., A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe I-II., Oxford 2016-18. []
  7. A graphic illustration of this trend might be gleaned from the choices of major publishing houses. In the 1990s and 2000s, C. H. Beck, in collaboration with other European publishers, was producing in a major Europe-wide book series, Europa bauen, edited by Jacques Le Goff, that released highly innovative monographs on comparative and transnational European history in several European languages. Today, C. H. Beck’s newest book series on Europäische Geschichteim 20. Jahrhundert contains exclusively monographs that present national histories of individual European countries: hhttps://www.chbeck.de/buecher/reihen-sachbuch/europaeische-geschichte-im-20-jahrhundert/ ttps:// (accessed 29 Jan 2021 []
  8. See e.g. Martin Conway / Peter Romijn (eds.), The War for Legitimacy in Politics and Culture 1936-1946, Oxford 2008. []
  9. For titles which have significantly advanced the history of European integration, see the article by Kiran Klaus Patel, Widening and Deepening? Recent Advances in European Integration History, in: Neue Politische Literatur 64 (2019), pp. 327-357. For examples of recent solid synthesis that do not, however, provide a distinctively novel approach for understanding the period, see Konrad H. Jarausch, Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century, Princeton 2015; Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949, London 2015 and Ibid., Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950-2017, London 2018. []
  10. On the marketisation of universities, see from the plethora of recent work e.g. Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For?, London 2012 and Speaking of Universities, London 2017; Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, London 2013. For a stimulating critique that charts a potential way forward, see Tom Sperlinger / Josie McLellan / Richard Pettigrew, Who are Universities For? Re-making Higher Education, Bristol 2018. []
  11. Pieter Lagrou, De l’histoire du temps présent à l’histoire des autres. Comment une discipline critique devint complaisante, in: Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire 118.2 (2013), pp. 101-119. []
  12. For excellent recent studies that would deserve much broader public attention, see: Susan Pedersen, The Guardians. The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, Oxford 2015; Philipp Ther, Europe since 1989: A History, Princeton 2016; Enzo Traverso, Blood and Fire: The European Civil War, 1914-1945, London 2017 (French original: 2007); Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Cambridge, Mass. 2018; Peter Gatrell, The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent, New York 2019; Martin Conway / Pieter Lagrou / Henry Rousso (eds.), Europe’s Postwar Periods – 1989, 1945, 1918. Writing History Backwards, London 2019; Kiran Klaus Patel, Project Europe: A History, Cambridge 2020; Martin Conway, Western Europe’s Democratic Age, 1945-1968, Princeton 2020; Paul Betts, Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II, New York 2021. []
  13. For a provocative take on the decline of the public impact of historians and a plea for long-term perspectives, see Jo Guldi / David Armitage, The History Manifesto, Cambridge 2014. []
  14. See Carl E. Schorske, Thinking with History: Explorations of the Passage to Modernism, Princeton 2016. For a broader exploration of this dynamic, see Chris Lorenz, ‘Out of Time? Some Critical Reflections on François Hartog’s Presentism’, in: Marek Tamm / Laurent Olivier (eds.), Rethinking Historical Time: New Approaches to Presentism, London 2019, pp. 23-42. []
  15. On the question of value judgements in historical scholarship, see Donald Bloxham, History and Morality, Oxford 2020. []
  16. See Frederick Cooper’s contribution to Michel Espagne / Jonas Kreienbaum / Frederick Cooper / Christoph Conrad / Philipp Ther, How to Write Modern European History Today? Statements to Jörn Leonhard’s JMEH-Forum, in: Journal of Modern European History 14.4 (2016), pp. 465–491. []
  17. Philipp Nielsen, What, Where and Why is Europe? Some Answers from Recent Historiography, in: European History Quarterly 40.4 (2010), pp. 701–713. On the question of territoriality, see the influential arguments by Charles Maier, Consigning the Twentieth Century to History. Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era, in: American Historical Review 105.3 (2000), pp. 807–831; Ibid., Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood, Cambridge, Mass., 2012; and Ibid., Once within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500, Cambridge, Mass., 2016. []
  18. Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History?, Princeton 2016: 5. []
  19. Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Contemporary World, London 2002; Sandrine Kott, International Organizations: A Field of Research for a Global History, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen. Studies in Contemporary History 3 (2011), pp. 445-453; Kiran Klaus Patel, Provincialising European Union: Co-operation and Integration in Europe in a Historical Perspective, in: Contemporary European History, 22.4 (November 2013), pp. 649-673; Glenda Sluga / Patricia Clavin (eds.), Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History, Cambridge, 2017. Now see also Katharina Rietzler / Patricia Owens (eds.), Women’s International Thought. A New History, Cambridge 2021; Jessica Reinisch / David Brydan (eds.), Internationalists in European History. Rethinking the Twentieth Century, London 2021. []
  20. See e.g. Emily S. Rosenberg, Introduction, in: Emily S. Rosenberg (ed.), A World Connecting: 1870–1945, Cambridge, Mass. 2012: pp. 3-25 []
  21. Fernando Gómez Herrero, On Global History: Avatars, Dilemmas, Partitions, Problems—A Conversation with Jeremy Adelman, in: Toynbee Prize Foundation, January 13, 2021, https://toynbeeprize.org/posts/on-global-history-avatars-dilemmas-partitions-problems-a-conversation-with-jeremy-adelman/ (accessed January 24, 2021). []
  22. For an effective survey of recent work that has arrived at a much more nuanced understanding of the values and dangers inherent to “presentism”, see now Marcus Colla, The Spectre of the Present: Time, Presentism and the Writing of Contemporary History, in: Contemporary European History 30 (2021), pp. 124-135. For a response to the critics of presentism, see also David Armitage, In Defense of Presentism, in: Darrin M. McMahon (ed.), History and Human Flourishing, Oxford (forthcoming), http://culturahistorica.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/armitage-presentism.pdf (accessed 29 Jan 2021). []
  23. For examples of this genre, see: Yascha Mounk, The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Cambridge, Mass. 2018; Daniel Ziblatt / Steven Levitsky, How Democracies Die, London, 2018; Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, New York 2018; David Runciman, How Democracy Ends, London 2018. []
  24. For the application of the concept of a ‘long twentieth century’ to Central and Eastern Europe, see  now Włodzimierz Borodziej / Joachim von Puttkamer (eds.), The Routledge History Handbook of Central and Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century I-IV., London 2020-21. []
  25. On the ending of the 20th century, see Martin Conway’s contribution to this debate: The Crisis of European History, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, October 25, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/142. []
  26. Ulrich Herbert, Europe in High Modernity. Reflections on a Theory of the 20th Century, in: Journal of Modern European History 5.1 (2007), pp. 5–21. A new attempt to write the history of de-industrialisation in Western Europe is Lutz Raphael, Jenseits von Kohle und Stahl. Eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte Westeuropas nach dem Boom, Frankfurt a.M. 2019. []
  27. Andreas Wirsching, Der Preis der Freiheit. Geschichte Europas in unserer Zeit, Munich 2012; Andreas Rödder, 21.0. Eine kurze Geschichte der Gegenwart, Munich 2015. []
  28. Anselm Doering-Manteuffel / Lutz Raphael (eds.), Nach dem Boom. Perspektiven auf die Zeitgeschichte seit 1970, Göttingen, 2012; Anselm Doering-Manteuffel / Lutz Raphael / Thomas Schlemmer (eds.), Vorgeschichte der Gegenwart: Dimensionen des Strukturbruchs nach dem Boom, Göttingen, 2016; Andreas Rödder, 21.0: Eine kurze Geschichte der Gegenwart, Munich 2017. See also Göran Therborn / Geoff Eley / Hartmut Kaelble / Philippe Chassaigne / Andreas Wirsching, The 1970s and 1980s as a Turning Point in European History?, in: Journal of Modern European History 9.1 (2011), pp. 8–26. []
  29. See Diana Mishkova, Spatial configurations: regional intellectual imageries in twentieth-century Central and Eastern Europe, in: Włodzimierz Borodziej / Ferenc Laczó / Joachim von Puttkamer (eds.), The Routledge History Handbook of Central and Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century. Volume 3: Intellectual Horizons, London 2020, pp. 1-68. []
  30. For a first attempt to discuss this question, see Ferenc Laczó / Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič (eds.), The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989, Budapest–Vienna 2020. []
  31. For a stimulating argument about how Eastern Europe has come to reshape Europe, see Philipp Ther, Europe since 1989: A History, Princeton 2017. For an innovative attempt to place Eastern Europe’s recent history into global frames, see James Mark / Bogdan Iacob / Tobias Rupprecht / Ljubica Spaskovska, 1989. A Global History of Eastern Europe, Cambridge 2019. See also the discussion on the relations between the post-colonial and the post-communist that has taken place primarily in neighbouring disciplines: David Chioni Moore, Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique, in: PMLA 116. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 111-128. []
  32. Samuel Moyn, Not Enough. Human Rights in an Unequal World, Cambridge, Mass. 2019. []
  33. For a new emphasis on the persistent role of nationalism in shaping Eastern Europe in modern and contemporary times, see John Connelly, Peoples into Nations. A History of Eastern Europe, Princeton 2020. []
  34. Examples include David Cameron speaking out in favour of gay marriage in 2012 or the German CDU’s 2017 U-turn on gay marriage and adoption rights. The most radical expression of this process might be found in the Netherlands, where advocating LGBTQ rights has become an important propagandistic tool of the extreme right to stigmatise Muslim societies. []
  35. Rödder 2017. See also Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Paris 1999. []
  36. Till van Rahden, Demokratie. Eine gefährdete Lebensform, Frankfurt 2019. []
  37. Connelly 2020. []
  38. For a discussion of the second, more radical wave of neoliberalism, see Ther 2017. See also the pioneering works by Johanna Bockman, Markets in the Name of Socialism. The Left-wing Origins of Neoliberalism, Stanford 2011 and Jessica Whyte, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, London 2019. []
  39. Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History: Four Theses, in: Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009), pp. 197-222; Christophe Bonneuil / Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, New York 2017. []
  40. See the reports of the American Historical Association, e.g. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2015/the-rise-and-decline-of-history-specializations-over-the-past-40-years and https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2018/the-history-ba-since-the-great-recession-the-2018-aha-majors-report (accessed 12 Feb 2021). []
  41. For the idea concerning the timing of historiographic innovation, see Christoph Conrad, Europa zwischen National- und Globalgeschichte, in: Journal of Modern European History 14.4 (2016), pp. 479–484. []

Fikcja jedności. Praktyczne uwagi do teoretycznej debaty

Maciej Górny

Jeden z autorów zamieszczonych tu esejów, Alexander Semyonov, zauważa, że na przestrzeni ostatnich kilkunastu lat coraz mniej jego rosyjskich studentów wyraża intuicyjne przekonanie, że Rosja to część Europy. Semyonov tłumaczy to na kilka inteligentnych sposobów wskazując przede wszystkim na fakt, że za sprawą Unii Europejskiej termin Europa nabrał wymiaru przestrzennego. Dla indagowanych studentów znaczy z grubsza tyle, co strefa Schengen. Ale jeszcze potężniejszym czynnikiem wydaje się narastający w Rosji natywizm, nakazujący ostre przeciwstawienie własnej tożsamości obcym wpływom. Europa to właśnie ten obcy.

Wyimaginowana wspólnota, wyimaginowana historia?

Nie trzeba jednak wcale opuszczać granic Unii, aby zetknąć się z podobnymi przekonaniami, wyrażanymi przez ludzi może nieprzesadnie inteligentnych, ale za to dysponujących realną władzą. „Uczynimy wszystko, żebyście państwo mieli przekonanie, kiedy będą się kończyły nasze kadencje, że zrobiono w tym czasie wiele rzeczy, że zrealizowano zobowiązania wyborcze, że ktoś wreszcie myślał o obywatelach, a nie tylko o swoich sprawach, czy jakiejś wyimaginowanej wspólnocie, z której dla nas niewiele wynika. Wspólnota jest dla nas potrzebna tutaj w Polsce. Nasza. Własna”.1 Te słowa polskiego prezydenta Andrzeja Dudy z 2018 roku wywołały krytyczne reakcje liberalnych mediów. Nikt nie zamierzał się z nich jednak wycofywać, ani cokolwiek wyjaśniać, nie wspominając nawet o przeprosinach. Oczywiście pierwszą zasadą populisty jest nigdy nie przyznawać się do błędu. Ale w tym wypadku raczej nie mogło być mowy o żadnym przejęzyczeniu. To przemówił polski natywizm wewnątrz wspólnoty. Wielu ludzi słuchało tych słów z satysfakcją.

Czy historycy mają swój udział w odzieraniu słowa Europa z atrakcyjności? A jakże. Widać to zwłaszcza jeśli wyjdziemy z kręgu znanych nazwisk i subtelnych teoretycznych przemyśleń i przyjrzymy się temu, co do niedawna uchodziło za lokalny wariant historii europejskiej. W ostatnim czasie przeprowadziłem taki eksperyment biorąc udział w próbie przeszczepienia Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe na polski (i ukraiński) grunt. Badając historiograficzną refleksję nad pojęciem federacji w ostatnich kilkudziesięciu latach zobaczyłem, jak w praktyce wyglądała autoreferencyjna, teleologiczna historia Polski, postrzeganej jako pionierka integracji europejskiej w czasach nowożytnych (unia z Wielkim Księstwem Litewskim w 1569 roku), bojowniczka o Europę ludów, a nie tyranów w wieku XIX i wreszcie członkinię Unii, do której w świecie ducha już od dawna należała.2 W tej dominującej do niedawna interpretacji wspólnota europejska służyła jako nakładka na tradycyjną wizję narodowej historii. Nowożytna państwowość to wczesne wcielenie Unii, powstania narodowe to walka przeciw rosyjskiemu imperium w oparciu o ideę federacyjnej wspólnoty ludów Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej (w tym kontekście pojawia się językowo rewolucyjny związek rzeczownika „federacja” z przyimkiem „przeciw”: rolą federacji nie jest zabezpieczenie równości jej uczestników, lecz wsparcie Polski w walce z Moskwą). Ostatecznie „koniec historii” streszczał się w haśle „Od Unii Lubelskiej do Unii Europejskiej”, tak bliskim sercu papieża-Polaka, Jana Pawła II.

Ten partykularny przykład pokazuje, że uczucie rozczarowania dotychczasowymi próbami tworzenia historii europejskiej pojawia się na wielu poziomach, nawet w przypadku tak wydawałoby się sterylnie anarodowym, jak dzieje idei europejskiej. Nie jest ona w żadnym wypadku przeciwieństwem najbardziej tradycyjnej narracji narodowej, mimo że koryfeusze historii europejskiej tak właśnie o niej myśleli.3 Potrafi wejść z nią w symbiozę, przejmując również jej największe grzechy: zaściankowość i teleologię a zapewne również niektóre zalety. Jest obiektem historycznej narracji, nie jest zaś nowym sposobem historycznej narracji. Pozostaje postulatem, będąc już po trosze ideą skompromitowaną i odrzuconą, bo nic tak nie odrzuca, jak nuda.

Historia europejska czy historia w Europie?

Sytuacja jest o tyle frustrująca, że wśród badaczy panuje zadziwiająca zgodność co do remedium. Jest nim historia transnarodowa, ewentualnie jakiś jej specyficzny, węższy lub szerszy wariant (bo tym właśnie są w istocie np. new imperial history, historia translokalna, czy global history). Narzędziem służącym temu celowi jest komparatystyka i histoire croisée, polem działania zarówno wielkie struktury, jak i pojedyncze społeczeństwa. Problem polega na tym, że o ile teoretycznym ujęciom potencjalnych kierunków rozwoju i analizie pojęć poświęcono już sporo uwagi4 , o tyle praktycznych zastosowań historii transnarodowej nie ma zbyt wiele. Trudno się temu dziwić: przykłady, które przychodzą mi do głowy, urzekają czytelnika głównie za sprawą wyjątkowych kompetencji autorów, znających wiele języków i sprawnie poruszających się w różnych historiograficznych tradycjach. To przypadek Jana Surmana, historyka nauki, którego znakomita historia habsburskich uniwersytetów sprawia wrażenie case study procesów opisywanych w głośnej książce Pietera Judsona.5 Do ustaleń Surmana przyjdzie mi jeszcze powrócić, historia nauki w imperium Habsburskim ma nam bowiem sporo do powiedzenia w kwestii nowoczesności. Podobny świeży przykład pożytku z historii transnarodowej, w dodatku połączonej z chwytliwą formą literacką i okraszonej sukcesem komercyjnym, to historia transformacji ustrojowej w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej pióra Philippa Thera.6 No i jeszcze jeden przykład historii transnarodowej, tym razem bliższej klasycznej komparatystyce, synteza dziejów projektów federacyjnych w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej Gennadiia Korolova.7

Charakterystyczne dla tych praktycznych realizacji pięknej idei historii europejskiej wydaje się przede wszystkim przełamanie utrwalonych schematów myślenia. Ther włącza Niemcy w dzieje postkomunistycznej transformacji, co pozwala mu dostrzec rzecz oczywistą (ale oczywistą dopiero wtedy, gdy nam ją ktoś wskaże): że problemy z integracją byłej NRD dałyby się przewidzieć, gdyby odważniej czerpano z doświadczeń Czechosłowacji, Polski i Węgier nie tylko po 1989 roku, ale także w schyłkowym okresie realnego socjalizmu. Korolov pisze z kolei historię myśli federacyjnej, która nie zatrzymuje się w granicach jednego imperium, tylko śmiało podróżuje po całej Europie, włączając w to, co istotne a nader rzadkie, Rosję. Wreszcie Surman pokazuje, że stopniowa nacjonalizacja uniwersytetów Austro-Węgier w drugiej połowie XIX wieku (oznaczająca w praktyce odejście od niemieckiego języka wykładowego i częściową wymianę kadry) wcale nie osłabiła ich umiędzynarodowienia, podobnie jak gwałtowny wzrost publikacji naukowych w językach narodowych nie wpłynął ujemnie na ich pozycję w świecie. Model uniwersytetu imperialnego w formie, ale narodowego w treści, produkującego zarówno w języku prowincji, jak i po niemiecku i francusku, okazał się niezwykle sprawny. I atrakcyjny, ponieważ po upadku imperium Habsburgów to właśnie jego system oraz kadry zdominowały całą Europę Środkowo-Wschodnią w okresie międzywojennym.

W każdym z przywołanych tu przypadków (a z historią transnarodową nie jest aż tak źle, aby nie dało się wskazać kilkunastu równie ciekawych) doszło do przełamania którejś z wielu barier w naszym myśleniu o Europie. Stało się to pomimo (a może właśnie dlatego), że żaden z autorów nie kierował się nazbyt daleko idącymi ambicjami. Wydaje mi się, że w tym właśnie tkwi istota wyzwania, przed którym stoi nowa historia Europy. Owo wyzwanie polega na stopniowym, sektorowym poszerzaniu perspektywy, dokonywanym przez historyków podejmujących konkretne tematy. Wbrew radykalnym interpretacjom postmodernizmu, historia to nauka w pewnym stopniu kumulatywna, nawet jeśli dużo rzeczy odkrywa wciąż na nowo. Kumulują się jednak nie tylko fakty, ale także nawyki myślenia. Rewolucje naukowe nie rodzą się na surowym korzeniu. Transnarodowa historia Europy będzie się zatem musiała oprzeć na transnarodowej historii wszystkich zjawisk społecznych, kulturowych i politycznych, które się na Europę składają. Wymiar przestrzenny tych „małych” europejskich historii wydaje mi się przy tym stosunkowo najmniej istotny. Jeśli ich opowiedzenie wymaga wyjścia na globalną scenę, tym lepiej. Jeśli wypada ominąć ten czy inny region, trudno. To, co otrzymamy w zamian wcale nie będzie mniej europejskie.

Nie jest przypadkiem, że być może najbardziej imponujący niedawny przykład na wskroś transnarodowej historii europejskiej dotyczy dziejów idei. Idee nie wymagają infrastruktury, podróżują bez większego bagażu i czynią to szybko, z zasady wymykają się więc próbom tworzenia sztywnych hierarchii. Sądzę, że równie nieprzypadkowo sprawa dotyczy tej części kontynentu, której tradycje historiograficzne są stosunkowo młodsze a żadnej nie można uznać za dominującą. Synteza historii myśli politycznej na wschodzie Europy to dzieło grupy historyków, z których żaden nie jest specjalistą wyłącznie od „swojego” kraju, regionu bądź języka.8 I to przekłada się na ich książkę. Żadna z mniejszych i większych części, z których ją zbudowano, nie jest ograniczona do jednego państwa bądź narodu. Opowieść nieustannie przeskakuje z jednego miejsca w drugie, rzadko pozostając w jakimś kraju dłużej niż na kilka akapitów. Autorzy podążają za ideami, słusznie zakładając, że w przypadku narodów zamieszkujących ten sam region i zmagających się z podobnymi problemami, będą one w najogólniejszym zarysie podobne. Takie podejście skutkuje niekiedy (chociaż należałoby zapewne powiedzieć raczej – prawie zawsze) zaskakującymi zestawieniami. Z tym że tu, w dziele syntetycznym, są one skumulowane bardziej niż w przypadku Korolova czy Surmana. Pewne fenomeny pojawiają się w nieco innym kontekście niż zwykle. Do zestawień lepiej zadomowionych we wcześniejszej literaturze przedmiotu zaliczają się porównawcze ujęcia „odrodzeń narodowych” w pierwszej połowie XIX wieku czy też formowania nowoczesnych ruchów politycznych. Znacznie bardziej zaskakująca dla czytelnika przyzwyczajonego do któregoś z lokalnych kanonów historii myśli politycznej będzie natomiast szeroka, inkluzywna definicja późnego Oświecenia, trwającego dłużej niż chciałyby to starsze podręczniki historii. Ważny czynnik korygujący ów komparatystyczny schemat stanowi uwzględnienie czasowych przesunięć poszczególnych formacji umysłowych w różnych krajach i kulturach. Fundamentalnym założeniem książki jest diachronia rozwoju myśli politycznej w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej. Formacje ideowe pojawiały się tu z reguły w podobnej kolejności, nierzadko jednak w dłuższym lub krótszym odstępie czasu, czyli najogólniej rzecz mówiąc wcześniej na Węgrzech, a później w Albanii. Autorzy uznają ten fakt, dostosowując do niego sposób opowiadania, a więc np. rezygnują z klasycznego układu chronologicznego. Taki sposób porządkowania olbrzymiego materiału jest uprawniony i przynosi pożądane efekty, tzn. ułatwia zrozumienie idei i postaw opisywanych aktorów życia politycznego. Tylko z rzadka przeradza się w nieco irytującą manierę, tak jakby autorzy oczekiwali, że każdy istotny i powtarzalny fenomen polityczny musi mieć swój odpowiednik w każdym (a przynajmniej każdym większym) kraju. Nawet w takich przypadkach unikają jednak irytującej maniery „europejskich” syntez, ponieważ schemat, który nakładają na historię nie został przejęty z jakiejkolwiek dominującej narracji, lecz jest efektem negocjacji pomiędzy wieloma narodowymi i nienarodowymi punktami widzenia.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures?

Użyteczną paralelą zmagań z historią europejską wydaje mi się historia płci. Nestorka tego kierunku, znakomita historyczka Karin Hausen powiada, że jego celem nie jest ustanowienie osobnych katedr i kierunku badawczego (co się na naszych oczach stało), lecz sprawienie, by aspekt płci kulturowej i biologicznej stał się nieodłączny od jakiejkolwiek historii. Jej słowa warto przytoczyć:

“Uważam, że należy z większym niż dotychczas krytycyzmem pytać o to, na czym opierała i nadal opiera się tak istotna dla historiografii fikcja homogenicznej historii, ewentualnie zastanowić się nad tym, co ją przesłania, a w przyszłości przesłaniać nie powinno. Nadeszła pora, by przedyskutować te kwestie intensywnie i z większą otwartością. Proponuję, by to heterogeniczność – zamiast dotychczasowej homogeniczności – stała się dobrze przemyślanym programem historiograficznym. Zaakceptowanie niehomogeniczności historii i jej produktywne wykorzystanie w nauce oznacza przywołanie wielości historii lokalnych lub ogólnoświatowych procesów historycznych przemian właśnie przez wzgląd na ich sprzeczność, niejednorodność, różnorodność. W centrum naukowych opisów historii należy częściej umieszczać nie tylko niejednolitość czasu i przestrzeni, ale także wynikającą z pochodzenia i sytuacji życiowej odmienność ludzi młodych i starych, kobiet i mężczyzn, wraz z całą gamą możliwości i dążeń podmiotów działających i nadających sens historii. Program ten jest wyzwaniem do znalezienia większego dystansu krytycznego wobec konstrukcji pomocniczej, jaką jest podmiot zbiorowy i pożegnania się z master narrative.”9

Z perspektywą transnarodową (a także translokalną, czy transregionalną) jest podobnie. I w jednym, i w drugim przypadku potrzeba czasu i umiejętnego wspierania takich badań aż do momentu, gdy staną się czymś oczywistym. Co może ten proces przyspieszyć? Rozwój empirycznej historii transnarodowej, translokalnej, transregionalnej i każdej innej, której definicja nie opiera się na ograniczaniu perspektywy badawczej. Śmielsze przełamywanie zastanych interpretacji (nb. jako historyk zajmujący się głównie Europą Środkowo-Wschodnią z niecierpliwością czekam na „bałkanizację” dziejów Europy Zachodniej, wcale nie mniej różnorodnej kulturowo i etnicznie niż przysłowiowy bałkański kocioł…).

We wszystkich tych działaniach dominujące wciąż narodowe narracje nie są przeszkodą, lecz punktem wyjścia. Dopiero znając je można podjąć próbę ich uzupełnienia, korekty albo polemiki. Dlatego z najwyższą ostrożnością podchodzę do idei (i, jak miałem okazję się przekonać, także praktyki) finansowania badań historycznych, nakierowanych na współpracę międzynarodową za cenę merytorycznej spójności i wartości naukowej. Wydaje mi się, że takie oczekiwania powinny być stonowane, nakierowane na projekty o ograniczonym zasięgu. Dopiero na bazie takich badań można myśleć o wielkich narracjach. Oczywiście bez ambicji dogodzenia wszystkim. Raczej z nadzieją na szeroki oddźwięk i żywą, nawet jeśli niepozbawioną kontrowersji, dyskusję, podobną do tej, która przetoczyła się przez europejską prasę po otwarciu Domu Historii Europejskiej w Brukseli.

Sądzę ponadto, że praktykowanie historii europejskiej powinno być opatrzone klauzulą najwyższej ostrożności. Przekonuje o tym porażka płytkiej i odgórnej historii integracji, w polskiej wersji pożenionej z dziejami idei federacyjnych i podlanej antyrosyjskim sentymentem. Nie chcę iść tak daleko, aby krzyczeć „ad fontes”. Chodzi mi raczej o to, że, jak pokazuje praktyka, proklamowana oficjalnie perspektywa europejska raczej utrudnia niż ułatwia wyjście z dominujących narracji, podsuwa bowiem pokusę nowego wariantu takiej narracji. Tymczasem, co by o niej nie sądzić, nie powinna przychodzić z gotową interpretacją, lecz raczej pokornie pochylić głowę przed Nicht-Einheit der Geschichte.

  1. Cytat za internetowym wydaniem Gazety Wyborczej z 12 września 2018 r.: https://wyborcza.pl/7,75398,23912982,wyimaginowana-wspolnota-prezydencki-minister-tlumaczy-slowa.html. []
  2. Maciej Górny, Federacja i terminy pokrewne w historii polskiej myśli politycznej od lat osiemdziesiątych XX wieku, in: Z dziejów pojęć społeczno-politycznych w Polsce XVIII-XX wiek, ed. Maciej Janowski, Warszawa 2019, pp. 143-162. []
  3. Z werwą stanowisko takie reprezentuje Krzysztof Pomian, Europa i jej narody, Gdańsk 20093. []
  4. Pouczający wykład wraz z odnośnikami do literatury znaleźć można we wstępie do tomu Frank Hadler / Matthias Middell (eds.), Handbuch einer transnationalen Geschichte Ostmitteleuropas, Bd. I: Von der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 2017. []
  5. Jan Surman, Universities in Imperial Austria 1848-1918: A Social History of a Multilingual Space, West Lafayette 2019; Pieter Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History, Cambridge MA 2016. []
  6. Philipp Ther, Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent: Eine Geschichte des neoliberalen Europa, Berlin 2014, w międzyczasie przełożona na kilka języków. []
  7. Геннадій Корольов, Федеративні проекти в Центрально-східній Европі: від ідеологічної утопії до реальної політики (1815-1921 рр.), Київ 2019. []
  8. Balázs Trencsényi / Maciej Janowski / Monika Baár / Maria Falina / Michal Kopeček, A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe, Vol. 1: Negotiating Modernity in the ‘Long Nineteenth Century,’ Oxford 2016; Vol. II: Negotiating Modernity in the ‘Short Twentieth Century’ and Beyond, Part 1: 1918-1968; Part 2: 1968-2018, Oxford 2018. []
  9. Karin Hausen, Porządek płci. Studia historyczne, ed. by. Justyna Górny, Warszawa 2010: 34-5. []

A Fiction of Unity: Practical Remarks on a Theoretical Debate

Maciej Górny

One of the authors featured in this dialogue, Alexander Semyonov, remarks that the number of his Russian students who express an intuitive sense that Russia is a part of Europe has been decreasing over the past two decades. He provides several ingenious explanations for that fact, primarily pointing to how the existence of the European Union endowed the term “Europe” with a spatial dimension. For those that he queried, it is practically indistinguishable from the Schengen Area. Yet, the factor that seems to exert an even greater influence in this regard is the expansion of Russian nativism, a belief that one’s identity must be ferociously defended against the influence of others. Europe has come to stand for those others.

Imagined community, imagined history?

One need not leave the bounds of the European Union, though, to find similar beliefs being espoused by people, who if not distinguished by their intellect, nevertheless possess real power. ‘We will do whatever has to be done to make you feel confident, as we reach the end of our terms of office, that many things were done during that time, that election promises were fulfilled, that someone finally thought of the citizen, and not just of his own business, or of some imagined community that means so little to us. The community we need is here, in Poland – one of our own.’ President Andrzej Duda drew censure from the liberal media when he made this statement in 2018.1 Yet, no one moved to withdraw or clarify it, not to mention issue an apology. Of course, the first rule of populism is to never admit to your own mistakes – but this could not have been a misstatement. This was the voice of Polish nativism within the European community. For many, these words evoked a sense of satisfaction.

Did historians have a hand in stripping Europe of its charm? By all means! One sees this clearly when peeking beyond the circle of luminaries and subtle theoretical considerations, toward what used to pass until recently for a local take on European history. Recently, I conducted an experiment of this kind by participating in an attempt to transfer the idea of Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe into Polish and Ukrainian realities. While studying the past few decades of historiographic reflection on the notion of federation, I came face-to-face with a self-referential, teleological history of Poland perceived as a pioneer of European integration in the modern era.  Historians referenced  the union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, concluded in 1569, Poland’s role as a nineteenth-century champion of a Europe of peoples rather than tyrants, and, finally, as a member of the European Union it had joined in spirit ages ago.2

In this recently dominant interpretation, the European community overlaid the traditional vision of national history. Within it, modern statehood is an early embodiment of the Union.  National uprisings express a struggle against the Russian empire based on the notion of a federation of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. Here, one finds the linguistically revolutionary combination of the noun “federation” and the preposition “against”: the purpose of the federation is not to ensure equality among its members, but to provide support to Poland in its struggle against Moscow. After all, the “end of history” amounted to the fulfilment of the slogan ‘From the Union of Lublin to the Union of Europe,’ so dear to the heart of the Polish Pope, John Paul II.

This peculiar example illustrates how the disappointment with the previous attempts to formulate a history of Europe appears on many levels, even in the apparently sanitised, anational conditions of the European idea. In fact, it is far from the opposite of the traditional national narrative that the preachers of European history took it for.3 It can actually coexist in a symbiosis with this narrative, taking on the worst of its sins, parochialism and teleologism, perhaps along with some of its virtues. Rather than providing a new means of fashioning historical narratives, it is the object of one. Already somewhat compromised and detested, as boring things tend to be, European history remains a postulate.

A European history or history in Europe?

One major source of frustration in this context is the surprising level of concordance among scholars concerning the best remedy – namely, transnational history or some particular narrow or broad variation thereof, which is exactly what new imperial history, translocal history, or global history are. The designated tools for achieving European history are comparative approaches and histoire croisée; its field of operation comprises both large structures and individual societies. The problem is that, while much time was expended on theoretical approaches to potential directions of development and conceptual analyses, practical applications of a transnational history remain few and far between.4

This is hardly surprising. The examples that come to my mind are striking primarily because of the exceptional competency of the authors, fluent in many languages and varied historiographic traditions. Such is the case with Jan Surman, historian of science, whose outstanding history of Habsburg universities seems like a case study of processes described in Pieter Judson’s famous book, The Habsburg Empire: A New History.5 I shall return to Surman’s findings since the history of science in the Habsburg empire can tell us a lot about modernity. A similar recent example of transnational history put to good use, additionally enhanced with catchy writing and rewarded with commercial success, is Philipp Ther’s history of systemic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe.6 Then, there is the instance of transnational history that most resembles a classical comparative approach – a synthesis of federalist projects in Central and Eastern Europe by Gennadii Korolov.7

What seems to typify these practical applications of the beautiful idea of a European history is mostly a tendency to contravene established thought patterns. Philipp Ther includes Germany in the history of post-communist transformation to better observe one obvious fact, though only made obvious when directly indicated: The problems with integrating the former GDR would have been foreseeable if the Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian experiences after 1989, but also immediately before the collapse of “real socialism” were heeded with greater conviction. Korolov, in turn, writes a history of the federalist idea that is not limited to a single empire, but rather travels across Europe, significantly including Russia – a rather rare occurrence. Finally, Surman shows how the gradual nationalisation of Austro-Hungarian universities in the second half of the nineteenth century (amounting in practice to the abandonment of German as the language of instruction and a partial staff replacement) did not, in fact, affect their international stature. In addition, the rapid increase in scientific publications in national languages did not have an adverse impact on their global reception. The model of a university imperial in form, but national in content, producing publications in the languages of the provinces, as well as in German and French, proved strikingly efficient and attractive.  It was precisely the Habsburg system and university staff that dominated the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe in the inter-war period, following the collapse of the empire.

In each of these cases, barriers in our thinking about Europe were breached. This was achieved even though, or perhaps because, none of the authors was guided by a particularly broad ambition. It seems to me that this is precisely where the challenge lies for the new history of Europe. The challenge consists of a gradual, local expansion of the horizon, achieved by historians who tackle particular topics. In spite of the radical, postmodernist interpretations, history is still something of a cumulative science, even if much of what it deals in is new discoveries. Yet, what accumulates are not only facts, but also habits of thought. Scientific revolutions do not spring up from bare ground. A transnational history of Europe will thus only emerge out of transnational studies of all social, cultural, and political phenomena that constitute Europe. To my mind, the spatial aspect of these “minor” European histories is relatively insignificant. If telling them requires branching out onto the global stage, all the better. If this or that region has to be skipped, so be it. What we might gain in return will be no less European for it.

It is not incidental that perhaps the most impressive recent example of a thoroughly transnational European history appeared within the field of history of ideas. Ideas do not require any infrastructure. They travel light and fast, making it harder to fit them into rigid hierarchies. I believe that it is not incidental that the study in question concerns a part of the continent where historiographic traditions have not yet laid down deep roots and none exerts dominance over the others. This synthetic history of political thought in the east of Europe is the work of a group of historians that includes no narrow specialist in their “home” country, region, or language.8 The two volumes of A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe  clearly bear that out.  None of the minor and major parts that comprise it focusses on any single state or nation. The plot constantly shifts from one location to another, rarely staying in one country for more than a few paragraphs. Guided by the incontrovertible assumption that nations inhabiting the same region and facing similar problems will share broadly the same ideas, it is on these ideas that the authors focus.

This approach almost always gives rise to surprising correlations, more forceful here, in a synthetic work, than is the case in studies by Korolov or Surman. Certain phenomena are viewed in unusual contexts. Among the more customary comparisons in secondary sources are the comparative analyses of “national awakenings” of the first half of the nineteenth century, or of the formation of modern political movements. Readers accustomed to any of the local canons of history of political thought will be surprised by the broad, inclusive definition of late Enlightenment, far more expansive than earlier history textbooks would assume. One crucial corrective to this comparative paradigm is the incorporation of temporal shifts within specific formations of thought in various countries and cultures. The fundamental assumption of the book is that political thought in Central and Eastern Europe developed diachronically. Ideological formations followed largely the same progression, but often at a greater or smaller time remove, for example, in broad terms, earlier in Hungary than in Albania. Cognizant of this fact, the authors adapt their story, for instance, by abandoning a classic chronological approach. This manner of ordering a vast array of material is justified and yields the desired results. It facilitates the understanding of ideas and attitudes of the actors of political life described in the book. Only rarely does it descend into an annoying mannerism, with the authors seeming to expect that every major and repeatable political phenomenon must be replicated in every, or at least every major, country. Even in those cases, though, they steer clear of the irritating manner of “European” syntheses. The paradigm they apply to history is not drawn from any dominant narrative, but is rather the result of a negotiation between numerous national and non-national perspectives.

Desperate times call for desperate measures

A useful parallel could be drawn between the struggle over European history and the history of gender. The doyenne of the latter current, the distinguished historian Karin Hausen, states that its purpose is not to promote the formation of separate departments or research areas, which is what we have witnessed, but to make the aspect of cultural and biological sex vital for any kind of history. One does well to quote her extensively:

‘I think it is urgent to ask much more critically than before what the fiction of a unity of history, which is so effective in historical scholarship, has achieved and is still able to achieve, or what it has obscured and should no longer obscure in the future. It is time to discuss these questions much more openly and offensively than before. I propose that instead of the previous unity, the multiplicity of history should be developed as a well thought-out historiographical programme. Accepting the non-unity of history and shaping it productively in scholarship means visualising the many stories of local as well as global processes of historical change precisely for the sake of their contradictions, for the sake of their differences. Not only the heterogeneity of times and spaces, but also the marked differences between young and old people, women and men, according to their origins and life situations, together with the plurality of possibilities and interests of the subjects acting and creating meaning in the historical course of time, must be made the centre of scientifically sound historical representation much more decisively than before. This programme challenges us to take a greater critical distance from the tried and tested auxiliary construction of collective subjects and to say goodbye to the master narrative.’9

The same applies to a transnational, translocal, or transregional perspective. In each case, it takes time and adequate support for research before they can become an set of incontrovertible facts. What can we do to increase the pace of this process? By developing an empirical transnational, translocal, transregional, or any other history whose definition is not based in a narrowing of the scope of research. By having the courage to cut across established interpretations.  As an historian dealing primarily with Central and Eastern Europe, I am anxiously awaiting the “balkanisation” of the history of Western Europe, no less culturally or ethnically diverse than the proverbial Balkan cauldron. In all these activities, the ever-dominant national narratives are not an obstacle, but a point of departure. To expand them, correct them, or dispute them, one must first know them. Hence the utmost caution with which I approach the notion (and, as I had the opportunity to learn, and also to practice) of funding historical research in support of international cooperation at the expense of cohesiveness and historiographic value. It seems to me that these expectations for grand narratives must be kept in check, and funding should initially be directed toward projects of limited impact. Only with this research in place can one think of grand narratives, free from the desire to please everyone.  Rather I hope for a broad response and a lively, perhaps even fiery, discussion, similar to that which passed through the European press after the opening of the House of European History in Brussels.

Furthermore, I believe that the practice of European history should be labelled as a high risk profession. As much can be gleaned from the failure of the shallow, top-down history of integration, as from the Polish version, which mashes it with the history of federal ideas and seasons it with anti-Russian sentiment. I would not go as far as to cry “ad fontes!”  Rather, I believe that practice shows that an officially declared European perspective tends to hinder rather than help the struggle against dominant narratives, given how tempting it is to just fashion a new variation of the same narrative. Meanwhile, however anyone feels about European history, it should not come into this world with ready-made interpretations, but rather meekly bow its head before the Nicht-Einheit der Geschichte.

  1. Quoted in: ‘Wyimaginowana wspólnota’. Prezydencki minister tłumaczy słowa Andrzeja Dudy o UE, in: Gazeta Wyborcza, 12 September 2018, https://wyborcza.pl/7,75398,23912982,wyimaginowana-wspolnota-prezydencki-minister-tlumaczy-slowa.html. []
  2. Maciej Górny, Federacja i terminy pokrewne w historii polskiej myśli politycznej od lat osiemdziesiątych XX wieku, in: Maciej Janowski (ed.), Z dziejów pojęć społeczno-politycznych w Polsce XVIII-XX wiek, Warszawa 2019, pp. 143-162. []
  3. This view is propounded with conviction in: Krzysztof Pomian, Europa i jej narody, Gdańsk 2009. []
  4. An instructive review with references can be found in the introduction to: Frank Hadler / Matthias Middell (eds.), Handbuch einer transnationalen Geschichte Ostmitteleuropas, Bd. I: Von der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 2017. []
  5. Jan Surman, Universities in Imperial Austria 1848-1918: A Social History of a Multilingual Space, West Lafayette 2019; Pieter Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History, Cambridge, MA 2016. []
  6. Philipp Ther, Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent: Eine Geschichte des neoliberalen Europa, Berlin 2014 (the book has been translated into numerous languages). []
  7. Геннадій Корольов, Федеративні проекти в Центрально-східній Европі: від ідеологічної утопії до реальної політики (1815-1921 рр.), Київ 2019. []
  8. Balázs Trencsényi / Maciej Janowski / Monika Baár / Maria Falina / Michal Kopeček, A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe, Vol. 1: Negotiating Modernity in the ‘Long Nineteenth Century,’ Oxford 2016; Vol. II: Negotiating Modernity in the ‘Short Twentieth Century’ and Beyond, Part 1: 1918-1968; Part 2: 1968-2018, Oxford 2018. []
  9. Karin Hausen, Die Nicht-Einheit der Geschichte als historiographische Herausforderung. Zur historischen Relevanz und Anstößigkeit der Geschlechtergeschichte, in: Karin Hausen, Geschlechtergeschichte als Gesellschaftsgeschichte, Göttingen 2012, pp. 371-391, quot. 380-381. []

Les internationalismes européens

Sandrine Kott

L’époque est au pessimisme, pour les Européens surtout. Davantage qu’une crise de confiance, il s’agit d’un sentiment de lent déclin. Depuis la seconde moitié du 20è siècle l’Europe n’est plus le moteur économique du monde. Mais surtout, depuis la fin du siècle dernier, les grands courants de pensée et les valeurs autrefois considérées par les Européens comme universelles et au nom desquelles ils fondèrent leurs entreprises de conquête sont désormais rejetées comme euro-centristes tandis que leur universalité est contestée. Certains auteurs remettent même en cause la possibilité d’utiliser les outils d’analyse des sciences sociales européennes pour rendre compte des logiques politiques, économiques et sociales qui fondent les sociétés non européennes.  Selon cette logique, des catégories analytiques comme la sécularisation, la bureaucratisation ou la lutte des classes ne seraient valides que dans l’espace qui leur a donné naissance : soit l’Europe.1 Pour résumer, l’universel serait une illusion européenne. Dans ce court essai, je souhaite apporter quelques éléments de réflexion à cette critique radicale et à la mélancolie qu’elle suscite en me saisissant de l’internationalisme, dans les formes et des modalités qu’il a adoptées. Cette question a fait, dans les dernières années, l’objet de nombreux et riches travaux qui soulignent la complexité de la notion et la diversité des entreprises ‹ internationalistes ›.2 En suivant cette historiographie je voudrais apporter des réponses à la double question suivante : en quoi l’expression ‹ internationalisme européen › est-elle légitime ? Dans quelle mesure les internationalismes sont-ils des signes ou des instruments de l’impérialisme européen ?

Les projets européens internationaux  

Les premières initiatives internationales européennes ont d’abord eu pour objectif d’apporter une réponse à des questions spécifiques qui concernaient plusieurs nations sur le continent. La Commission centrale de navigation du Rhin dès 1815, la Commission du Danube dont les origines remontent à 1856, l’union télégraphique en 1865 ou encore l’union postale en 1871 relèvent de cette catégorie.3 Sous cette forme banale  l’internationalisme est d’abord la recherche d’une solution inter-nationale (entre les nations) à une difficulté qui exige une coopération entre différents acteurs nationaux, pas nécessairement les gouvernements d’ailleurs. L’Association internationale pour la protection légale des travailleurs qui siège à Berne entre 1901 et 1919 réunit des administrateurs et experts des fonds sociaux, des penseurs sociaux, des employeurs et des syndicalistes. Elle remplit une double fonction de documentation et d’élaboration de normes communes pour éviter que les industriels des différents pays industrialisés : européens et nord- américains ne se fassent concurrence. Les agences techniques de ce type n’ont pas de prétention universelle mais elles reposent sur l’idée que certains problèmes spécifiques exigent la mise en place d’organes de coordination stable entre les différents acteurs nationaux. Leur multiplication est parallèle à la généralisation du modèle de l’Etat nation en Europe.  Elles accompagnent la mise en place de frontières nationales plus étanches et de législations plus contraignantes à mesure que l’autorité des Etats se renforcent. Elles sont d’ailleurs des hauts lieux d’affirmation, voire même de constitution des nationalismes. En ce sens, elles sont bien européennes.4 Bien qu’elles remplissent d’abord des fonctions de coordination, ces associations ne se réduisent pas à cela. Leur existence présuppose et renforce des réseaux d’acteurs internationaux liés par des savoirs et savoir-faire communs, ce qu’on appelle des communautés épistémiques.5 Toutefois si les membres de l’Association pour la protection légale des travailleurs se regroupent d’abord autour de compétences et de convictions communes, ils contribuent également à diffuser l’idée selon laquelle la protection sociale serait la condition pour élaborer une société meilleure et plus stable. Cette idée est reprise et amplifiée lors de la création de l’Organisation international du travail en 1919 : la justice sociale vue comme la condition de la paix devient alors une cause internationale vertueuse. Cet ‹ internationalisme des causes › se développe dans le courant du XIXè siècle.6 La lutte contre l’esclavage, pour la paix, les droits humains, ceux des femmes, plus récemment enfin l’environnement constituent des questions autour desquelles s’agrègent des acteurs divers. Ils se réunissent d’abord dans des congrès puis consolident leur engagement en créant des mouvements et des organisations. Bien que travaillant ‹ à l’international › ces entrepreneurs de causes ne constituent pas nécessairement des groupes internationaux. C’est le cas par exemple du Comité international de la croix rouge. L’universalisme humanitaire qu’il promeut est formulé par un groupe exclusivement composé de Suisses, voire même d’habitants d’un seul quartier de Genève.7 Plus généralement, formulées en Europe par des Européens, ces causes prétendent parler au monde entier et s’adressent tout particulièrement à la part souffrante de l’humanité qui n’est pas européenne.

L’internationalisme comme projet européen

L’internationalisme comme projet est toutefois bien plus que la défense d’une cause. Il trouve ses racines dans le cosmopolitisme des Lumières, dans l’idéal kantien de paix universelle et d’hospitalité fondée sur la croyance dans la fraternité humaine. Bentham, sous la plume duquel le terme international fait son apparition, propose de donner une réalité légale à l’idéal cosmopolite kantien. Il suggère l’élaboration d’un code de lois et la création d’une cour de justice internationale en présupposant qu’il puisse exister un ensemble d’idées, de valeurs et de règles censées être valables pour tous à tout moment. Comme l’ont souligné les critiques de l’européocentrisme, cet internationalisme libéral se développe dans un contexte spécifique, celui du développement du capitalisme, de l’impérialisme économique et de la conquête coloniale. Parmi les promoteurs de cet ordre international se trouvent d’ailleurs les défenseurs du libre-échange parmi lesquels Richard Cobden, membre du parlement britannique. Ils voient dans la liberté du commerce et la diffusion du capitalisme le fondement naturel de la paix et du bien-être partout dans le monde.8 A cet internationalisme libéral Karl Marx et Friedrich Engels opposent un projet révolutionnaire mondial pour mettre à bas la domination du capitalisme.9 L’Association internationale des travailleurs fondée en 1864, la Seconde internationale à partir de 1889 et enfin l’internationale communiste en 1919 poursuivent un double objectif : diffuser des valeurs d’égalité pour établir un monde plus juste mais aussi organiser internationalement la solidarité des travailleurs et la résistance ouvrière à l’oppression du capitalisme mondial. Cet internationalisme est donc une promesse de ‹ libération ›. Cette représentation eschatologique entretient rapidement la confusion entre le terme ‹ internationalisme › et le projet révolutionnaire qui le revendique hautement. Toutefois outre le fait que la révolution mondiale est d’abord une réponse à l’internationalisme libéral, il existe d’autres variantes de l’internationalisme et en particulier une version ultranationaliste formulée par les fascistes. Malgré sa singularité autoproclamée, le mouvement nazi, tout comme son prédécesseur fasciste, s’est en fait inscrit dans une vague plus large de mouvements autoritaires d’extrême droite.  Les dirigeants de ces différents partis et mouvements se sont rencontrés et ont entretenu des relations d’admiration et d’émulation mutuelles qui ont encouragé la circulation des modèles et ont jeté les bases d’un internationalisme fasciste.10 Ces internationalismes concurrents ont cela en commun qu’ils ambitionnent tous d’organiser et de changer le monde au nom de valeurs universelles et qu’ils sont tous issus de la même matrice européenne. Ont-ils contribué à européaniser le monde ? Ont-ils au contraire internationalisé l’Europe?

Internationaliser l’Europe ?

La réponse à cette question a fait récemment l’objet de débats. Madeleine Herren voit par exemple dans l’expérience japonaise en Mandchourie et la création du Mandchoukouo un point de départ de l’internationalisme fasciste. Dans cette optique, les travaux récents soulignent que l’axe Rome-Berlin-Tokyo serait d’ailleurs bien plus qu’une alliance de guerre ; il puiserait ses racines dans un internationalisme fasciste au sein duquel les Japonais auraient joué un rôle à part entière.11 De même l’historiographie récente a montré qu’il est difficile de réduire l’internationalisme révolutionnaire à une invention européenne. Certes, les deux internationales socialistes, comme l’internationale, communiste, sont dominées par des européens. Les socialistes latino-américains sont faiblement représentés au sein de l’Association internationale des travailleurs dont les discussions et conflits sont extérieurs aux débats spécifiques à l’Amérique latine. En retour ceux-ci semblent d’ailleurs avoir eu peu d’influence sur ce qui était discuté à Londres.12 Le marxisme qui sert de fondement théorique aux internationales est d’abord une analyse critique du capitalisme dans les pays industrialisés et semble parler essentiellement aux Européens. Toutefois Marx a lui-même été en conversation avec des intellectuels indiens et surtout russes et il a dû réviser progressivement ses positions pour tenir compte des situations spécifiques de ces pays.13 La question de savoir s’il avait envisagé que la révolution mondiale puisse trouver son origine dans les pays de la périphérie européennes et en particulier la Russie fait encore l’objet de débats, reste qu’après la révolution bolchévique l’internationalisme communiste est déporté vers un ‹ Est › moins industrialisé. Lénine doit prendre au sérieux la question paysanne et élaborer des stratégies pour sortir rapidement du sous-développement économique. C’est alors que l’internationalisme communiste entre en résonnance avec les préoccupations des élites des pays colonisés puis du tiers-monde, tout particulièrement après l’échec des révolutions en Europe. Le congrès des peuples de l’Orient rassemble en 1920 à Bakou des représentants des mouvements de libération nationale de pays encore colonisés, le message révolutionnaire y est clairement adapté aux situations des différents peuples. En 1921, le commissariat des nationalités de la future Union soviétique fonde l’Université communiste des travailleurs d’Orient qui devient une école pour les cadres des mouvements de libération nationale. De ce creuset émergent plusieurs dirigeants des luttes décoloniales qui sont porteurs d’un message associant étroitement émancipation nationale et anticapitalisme. Cette histoire permet de comprendre l’influence qu’a pu exercer le modèle de développement communiste sur les élites des nouveaux pays jusque dans les années 1970.14 De son côté, la Fédération syndicale mondiale d’obédience communiste, clairement plus active sur le terrain de la lutte anticoloniale parvient à développer ses relations avec les syndicats des pays colonisés qui la rejoignent très majoritairement après l’indépendance. Les dirigeants de sa rivale sociale-démocrate s’en désolent tout en reconnaissant que la dépendance du syndicalisme des grands pays européens à l’égard des canaux coloniaux traditionnels explique leur faible attractivité pour leurs collègues des nouveaux pays indépendants. L’internationalisme libéral est en effet fortement grevé par le passé impérialiste de ceux qui s’en sont réclamés. Il est pour cette raison délicat d’apporter une réponse claire à la question de savoir s’il aurait contribué à une européanisation du monde ou plutôt permis une internationalisation de l’Europe. De cette difficulté témoignent les débats autour de la nature des organisations internationales. Créées après les deux guerres mondiales, elles sont directement inscrites dans la tradition libérale et sont d’ailleurs conçues comme des instruments de lutte contre les internationalismes concurrents que sont le bolchévisme pour la Société des nations et l’impérialisme nazi pour les Nations unies. Pour Mark Mazower la fondation de la Société des Nations puis de l’ONU fut d’abord un moyen d’assurer la perpétuation de la domination des puissances impériales et en particulier française et britannique.15 Akira Iriye en fait lui le lieu de constitution et d’épanouissement d’une véritable communauté globale.16 Certes à Genève, la Société des nations ou l’Organisation internationale du travail sont clairement dominées par des acteurs européens tandis qu’à l’ONU ceux de l’Atlantique nord sont, jusque dans les années 1970, largement majoritaires et fixent entre eux l’agenda de l’organisation. Néanmoins cela ne signifie pas nécessairement que les organisations internationales aient exclusivement été des instruments de domination des Européens. Susan Pedersen a montré que si la Commission des mandats de la SDN avait été fondée pour assurer le contrôle des puissances coloniales européennes sur les territoires de l’ancien Empire ottoman ou allemand, elle avait aussi été un lieu où celle-ci pouvait et avait été contestée.17 Des travaux récents révèlent que ces même puissances coloniales ont développé des organisations inter-impériales concurrentes de celles de certaines agences onusiennes afin d’influencer ou de freiner les projets qui y étaient formulés.18 Le Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU fut certes dominé par les grandes puissances mais son Assemblée générale devint rapidement un lieu d’organisation des pays récemment décolonisés et de contestation de l’hégémonie européenne et étatsunienne. Cette contestation est allée jusqu’à l’adoption, en 1974, d’un projet de nouvel ordre économique international qui demandait une meilleure distribution des richesse mondiales.19 En réalité, les organisations internationales libérales ont été si profondément transformées par les nouveaux entrants que les puissances européennes ont progressivement créé et investi des organisations alternatives régionales : la communauté puis l’union européenne mais aussi l’OCDE sont les nouveaux lieux de cet entre soi européen.20

Les Européens ont ainsi abandonné en quelque sorte le projet international qu’ils avaient enfanté.  On peut y voir un renoncement consenti à un universel désormais frappé du sceau de l’infamie. Mais on peut aussi interpréter ce renoncement comme une retraite stratégique en faveur d’un entre soi protecteur. C’est ce dont témoigne par ailleurs l’affirmation toujours plus appuyée d’une identité et culture européenne spécifique comme de l’existence d’un modèle économique et social commun. Ne peut-on voir dans la fermeture des frontières européennes, et dans l’affirmation d’une ‹ Europe forteresse › le corrélat de ce repli identitaire ?

  1. Une discussion dans Alessandro Stanziani, Eurocentrism and the Politics of Global History, New York 2018. []
  2. A titre d’exemple Glenda Sluga / Patricia Clavin (eds.), Internationalisms: A Twentieth Century History, Cambridge 2016. []
  3. Sur tout ceci et ce qui suit voir Madeleine Herren, Geschichte der internationalen Organisation, Darmstadt, 2009; Bob Reinalda, Routledge History of International Organizations: From 1815 to the Present Day, London 2009 :  3-177. []
  4. Glenda Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism, Philadelphia 2013. Sur le caractère européen de la construction nationale voir Anne-Marie Thiesse, La création des identités nationales : Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle,  Paris 1999. []
  5. La discussion sur les communautés épistémiques est vaste : une mise au point issue des sciences politiques dans Annabelle Littoz-Monnet (ed.), The Politics of Expertise in International Organizations, London 2017; voir un point de vue historien dans Sandrine Kott, Une ‘communauté épistémique’ du social ? Experts de l’OIT et internationalisation des politiques sociales dans l’entre-deux-guerres, in: Genèses, 71 (2008), pp. 26‑46. []
  6. Margaret E. Keck / Kathryn Sikkink (eds.), Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, Ithaca, 1998. []
  7. Voir sur le CICR Irène Herrmann, L’humanitaire en questions: réflexion autour de l’histoire du Comité international de la Croix Rouge, Paris 2018. []
  8. Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, London 2012. []
  9. Frits L. van Holthoon / Marcel van der Linden (eds.), Internationalism in the Labour Movement: 1830-1940, Leiden 1988; Serge Wolikow, Les interprétations du mouvement communiste international, in: Michel Dreyfus et al. (eds.), Le siècle des communismes, Paris 2000, pp. 83-93. []
  10. Madeleine Herren, Fascist internationalism, in: Glenda Sluga / Patricia Clavin (eds.), Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History, Cambridge 2016, pp. 191-213; Arnd Bauerkämper, Der Faschismus in Europa, 1918-1945, Stuttgart 2006; Arnd Bauerkämper, Fascism without Borders: Transnational Connections and Cooperation between Movements and Regimes in Europe from 1918 to 1945, New York 2019. []
  11. Reto Hofman / Daniel Hedinger (eds.), Axis Empires: Towards a Global History of Fascist Imperialism. Special Issue, Journal of Global History 12 (2017. []
  12. Horacio Tarcus, The first International in Latin America, in: Fabrice Bensimon / Quentin Deluermoz / Jeanne Moisand (eds.), Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth: The First International in a Global Perspective, Leiden 2019, pp. 253-269. []
  13. Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, Chicago 2010. []
  14. Sabine Dullin / Brigitte Studer, L’équation retrouvée de l’internationalisme au premier XXè siècle, in: Mondes 2 (2016), p. 9-32; Silvio Pons, The Global Revolution: A History of International Communism, 1917-1991, Oxford 2014; Serge Wolikov, The Comintern as a World Network, in: Silvio Pons / Stephen Smith (eds.), The Cambridge History of Communism, vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country 1917-1941, Cambridge 2017, pp. 232-255. []
  15. Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace : the End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Princeton 2009. []
  16. Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World, Berkeley 2002. []
  17. Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, Oxford 2015. []
  18. Voir les différentes contributions dans Miguel Badeira Jerónimo / José Pedro Monteiro (eds.), Internationalism, Imperialism and the Formation of the Contemporary World, London 2018. []
  19. Sur tout ceci Sandrine Kott, Gouverner le monde: une autre histoire de la guerre froide, Paris 2021. []
  20. Sur l’OCDE comme gardiens de l’Ouest Matthieu Leimgruber / Matthias Schmelzer (eds.), The OECD and the International Political Economy since 1948, London 2019. []

European Internationalism

Sandrine Kott

It is a time of pessimism, especially for Europeans. Rather than a crisis of confidence, it is a feeling of slow decline. Since the second half of the 20th century, Europe has no longer been the economic engine of the world. But above all, since the end of the last century, the major currents of thought and values once considered by Europeans as universal, those in whose name they founded their enterprises of conquest are now rejected as Euro-centrist, while their universality is contested. Some authors even question the validity of using the analytical tools of European social sciences to analyse the political, economic, and social logics that structure non-European societies. According to this logic, analytical categories such as secularisation, bureaucratisation or class struggle would only be valid in the space that gave birth to them, namely Europe.1 In short, the universal would be a European illusion. In this short essay, I will bring some food for thought to this radical critique and to the melancholy it provokes by looking at internationalism, at the forms and modalities it has adopted. This question has been the subject of many rich works in recent years, which underline the complexity of the notion and the diversity of “internationalist” undertakings.2 By following this historiography, I would like to provide answers to the following two questions. In what way is the expression “European internationalism” legitimate? To what extent are internationalisms signs or instruments of European imperialism?

European international projects 

The first European international initiatives initially aimed to provide answers to specific questions that concerned several nations on the continent. The Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine originating in 1815, the Danube Commission beginning in 1856, the Telegraphic Union of 1865 and the Postal Union of 1871 all fall into this category.3  In this banal form, internationalism was first and foremost the search for an inter-national solution (between nations) to a difficulty that required cooperation among different national players, not necessarily governments for that matter. The International Association for the Legal Protection of Workers, based in Berne between 1901 and 1919, brought together administrators and experts from social funds, social thinkers, employers and trade unionists. It fulfilled a dual function, combining documentation and the development of common standards to prevent competition among industrialists in different industrialised countries, both European and North American. Technical agencies of this type did not have a universal claim. They were based on the idea that specific problems required the establishment of stable coordinating bodies among the various national players. Their multiplication paralleled the generalisation of the nation-state model in Europe. They accompanied the establishment of tighter national borders and of stricter legislation as the authority of states was strengthened. Moreover, they were also important places of affirmation, and even constitution, of nationalisms. In this sense, they were indeed European.4

Although they primarily fulfilled coordination functions, these associations were not limited to that. Their existence presupposed and reinforced networks of international actors linked by common knowledge and know-how, so-called epistemic communities.5  While the members of the Association for the Legal Protection of Workers first and foremost rallied around common skills and beliefs, they also helped to spread the idea that social protection is a condition for building a better and more stable society. This idea was taken up and amplified when the International Labour Organisation was created in 1919: social justice, seen as the condition for peace, then became a virtuous international cause.

This “internationalism of causes” developed during the 19th century.6  The struggle against slavery, for peace, human rights, women’s rights and, more recently, the environment are issues around which various actors were and are working together. They first met in congresses and then consolidated their commitment by creating movements and organisations. Although they worked “internationally”, these “entrepreneurs of causes” did not necessarily constitute international groups. This was the case, for example, of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The humanitarian universalism it promotes was formulated by an exclusively Swiss group, inhabitants of a single district of Geneva.7  More generally, formulated in Europe by Europeans, these causes claim to speak to the whole world and yet are particularly addressed to suffering humans, who are not European.

Internationalism as a European project

Internationalism as a project is, however, much more than advocacy. It has its roots in the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment, in the Kantian ideal of universal peace and hospitality based on a belief in human brotherhood. Bentham, from whose pen the term international appeared, proposed to give legal reality to the Kantian cosmopolitan ideal. He suggested the elaboration of a code of laws and the creation of an international court of justice on the assumption that there can be a set of ideas, values and rules that are supposed to be valid for everyone at all times. As critics of Eurocentrism have pointed out, this liberal internationalism developed in a specific context: that of the development of capitalism, economic imperialism, and colonial conquest. Among the promoters of this international order were the defenders of free trade, including Richard Cobden, a member of the British parliament. They saw free trade and the spread of capitalism as the natural foundation for peace and wellbeing throughout the world.8  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels opposed this liberal internationalism with a revolutionary global project to break the dominance of capitalism.9 The International Workers’ Association founded in 1864, the Second International of 1889, and finally the Communist International in 1919 were characterised by a double objective.  They aspired to spread the values of equality in order to establish a more just world, and to organise internationally workers’ solidarity and workers’ resistance to the oppression of world capitalism. Their internationalism included the promise of “liberation”. This eschatological connotation quickly generated confusion between the term “internationalism” and the revolutionary project that highly claimed it. In addition, apart from the fact that the world revolution was primarily a response to liberal internationalism, there were other variants of internationalism and in particular an ultra-nationalist version formulated by the fascists. Despite its self-proclaimed singularity, the Nazi movement, like its fascist predecessor, was in fact part of a broader wave of authoritarian far-right movements.  The leaders of these different parties and movements met and maintained relations of mutual admiration and emulation that encouraged the circulation of models and laid the foundations for fascist internationalism.10 What these competing internationalisms had in common is that they all aimed to organise and change the world in the name of universal values and that they all came from the same European matrix. Have they contributed to the Europeanisation of the world? Or have they, on the contrary, internationalised Europe?

Internationalising Europe?

The answer to this question has recently been the subject of debate. Madeleine Herren sees, for example, the Japanese experience in Manchuria and the creation of Manchukuo as a starting point for fascist internationalism. In this perspective, recent works point out that the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis was more than a war alliance.  It was rooted in a fascist internationalism in which the Japanese played a full role.11

Similarly, recent historiography has shown that it is difficult to reduce revolutionary internationalism to a European invention. It is true that Europeans dominated both socialist internationalism and communist internationalism. Latin American socialists were poorly represented in the International Workers’ Association, whose discussions and conflicts remained foreign to the debates in Latin America. In return, the Latin American socialists seem to have had little influence on what was discussed in London.12  The Marxism, that formed theoretical basis for the internationals, was primarily a critical analysis of capitalism in the industrialised countries and seemed to speak mainly to Europeans. However, Marx himself had been in conversation with Indian and especially Russian intellectuals, and had to revise his positions gradually to take account of the specific situations of these countries.13 The question of whether he had envisaged that the world revolution could have originated in the countries of the European periphery, and in particular Russia, is still debated, the fact remains that after the Bolshevik revolution’s communist internationalism was deported to a less industrialised “East”. Lenin had to take the peasant question seriously and to develop strategies for a rapid exit from economic underdevelopment. These economic and social concerns resonated with the one of elites in the colonised countries. The Congress of the Peoples of the East brought together in 1920 in Baku representatives of national liberation movements of countries that were still colonised, where the revolutionary message was clearly adapted to the situations of the different peoples. In 1921, the Commissariat of Nationalities of the future Soviet Union founded the Communist University of the Workers of the East, which became a school for the cadres of national liberation movements. From this melting pot emerged several leaders of the decolonisation struggles, who closely associated national emancipation and anti-capitalism. This history helps to understand the influence that the communist model exerted on the elites of the newly independent countries until the 1970s.14 For its part, the World Federation of Trade Unions, very active in the field of the anti-colonial struggle, managed to develop its relations with the trade unions in the colonised countries that largely rejoined it after independence. The leaders of its social-democratic rival: the international confederation of free trade unions  had to acknowledge that the dependence of social-democratic trade unionism in most of the European countries on traditional colonial channels made it less attractive than its Communist counterpart to the newly independent countries.

Liberal internationalism is indeed heavily burdened by the imperialist pasts of those who have claimed it and it is difficult to give a clear answer to the question whether it has contributed to a Europeanisation of the world or rather furthered an internationalisation of Europe. The debates on the nature of international organisations bear witness to this difficulty. Created after the two world wars, they were directly inscribed in the liberal tradition and moreover conceived as instruments to fight against the competing internationalisms of Bolshevism for the League of Nations and Nazi imperialism for the United Nations. For Mark Mazower, the founding of the League of Nations and then of the UN was, first of all, a means of ensuring the dominance of the imperial powers, in particular the French and British.15 Akira Iriye, on the contrary, sees it as the place where a truly global community was formed and flourished.16  In Geneva, the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation were clearly dominated by European players, while at the UN, until the 1970s, the North Atlantic powers were in the majority and set the organisation’s agenda among themselves. Yet this does not necessarily mean that international organisations have exclusively been instruments of European domination. Susan Pedersen showed that while the Commission on Mandates of the League of Nations had been founded to ensure the control of European colonial powers over the territories of the former Ottoman or German Empire, it also was a place where colonialism could and was challenged.17  Recent works reveal that these same powers developed inter-imperial organisations competing with certain UN agencies in order to influence or hinder the projects formulated there.18  The UN Security Council was certainly dominated by the major powers, but its General Assembly quickly became a place where the recently decolonised countries could organise themselves and challenge European and US hegemony. This contestation went as far as the adoption, in 1974, of a project for a new international economic order that called for a better distribution of world wealth.19  In reality, the liberal international organisations were so profoundly transformed by the new entrants that the European powers gradually started to create and invest in alternative regional organisations.  The European Community, then the European Union, and also the OECD, became the new places where European were among themselves.20 In a way, Europeans have thus abandoned the international project to which they gave birth.  This can be interpreted as a way of renouncing a universal that has now been stamped with the seal of infamy. But it can also be understood as a strategic retreat in favour of a protective self. The growing affirmation of a specific European identity and culture as well as of the existence of a common economic and social model provide further evidence for this trend. Might we not see in the closure of European borders and the affirmation of a “Fortress Europe” a correlate of this withdrawal?

  1. Cf. Alessandro Stanziani, Eurocentrism and the Politics of Global History, New York 2018. []
  2. For example Glenda Sluga / Patricia Clavin (eds.), Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History, Cambridge 2016. []
  3. For this and the following see also Madeleine Herren, Geschichte der internationalen Organisation, Darmstadt 2009; Bob Reinalda, Routledge History of International Organizations: From 1815 to the Present Day, London 2009: 3-177. []
  4. Glenda Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism, Philadelphia 2013. On the European character of the construct of the “nation” see Anne-Marie Thiesse, La création des identités nationales: Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle, Paris 1999. []
  5. There is a large research debate on epistemic communities. For a recent contribution from the political sciences see Annabelle Littoz-Monnet (ed.), The Politics of Expertise in International Organizations, London 2017; from the perspective of an historian Sandrine Kott, Une ‘communauté épistémique’ du social ? Experts de l’OIT et internationalisation des politiques sociales dans l’entre-deux-guerres, in: Genèses 71 (2008), pp. 26‑46. []
  6. Margaret E. Keck / Kathryn Sikkink (eds.), Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, Ithaca 1998. []
  7. For the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) see Irène Herrmann, L’humanitaire en questions: réflexion autour de l’histoire du Comité international de la Croix Rouge, Paris 2018. []
  8. Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, London 2012. []
  9. Frits L. van Holthoon / Marcel van der Linden (eds.), Internationalism in the Labour Movement: 1830-1940, Leiden 1988; Serge Wolikow, Les interprétations du mouvement communiste international, in: Michel Dreyfus  et al. (eds.), Le siècle des communismes, Paris 2000, pp. 83-93. []
  10. Madeleine Herren, Fascist Internationalism, in: Glenda Sluga / Patricia Clavin (eds.), Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History, Cambridge 2016, p. 191-213; Arnd Bauerkämper, Der Faschismus in Europa, 1918-1945, Stuttgart 2006; Arnd Bauerkämper, Fascism without Borders: Transnational Connections and Cooperation between Movements and Regimes in Europe from 1918 to 1945, New York 2019. []
  11. Reto Hofman / Daniel Hedinger (eds.), Axis Empires: Towards a Global History of Fascist Imperialism. Special Issue, Journal of Global History 12 (2017). []
  12. Horacio Tarcus, The First International in Latin America, in: Fabrice Bensimon / Quentin Deluermoz / Jeanne Moisand (eds.), Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth: The First International in a Global Perspective, Leiden 2019, pp. 253-269. []
  13. Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, Chicago 2010. []
  14. Sabine Dullin / Brigitte Studer, L’équation retrouvée de l’internationalisme au premier XXè siècle, in: Mondes 2 (2016), p. 9-32; Silvio Pons, The Global Revolution: A History of International Communism, 1917-1991, Oxford 2014; Serge Wolikov, The Comintern as a World Network, in: Silvio Pons / Stephen Smith (eds.), The Cambridge History of Communism, vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country 1917–1941, Cambridge 2017, pp. 232-255. []
  15. Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: the End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Princeton 2009. []
  16. Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World, Berkeley 2002. []
  17. Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, Oxford 2015. []
  18. See the contributions Miguel Badeira Jerónimo / José Pedro Monteiro (eds.), Internationalism, Imperialism and the Formation of the Contemporary World, London 2018. []
  19. Cf. Sandrine Kott, Gouverner le monde: une autre histoire de la guerre froide, Paris 2021. []
  20. On the OECD as warden of the West see Matthieu Leimgruber / Matthias Schmelzer (eds.), The OECD and the International Political Economy Since 1948, London 2019. []

Europeripheralism

Giovanni Orsina

1. Europe(s) and modernit(ies)

Eurocentrism is a product of modernity.1 On the one hand the temporal and spatial shrinking down of the Earth, on the other the political, economic and cultural take-off of a global centre and the reactions of the global peripheries. Yet, as some of those who have participated in this debate have pointed out,2 Europe’s relationship with modernity is anything but simple.

First, the metaphorical centre of modernity falls outside the continent, in the frigid waters of the northern Atlantic Ocean on whose shores the English, American and French revolutions took place.3 Only the northwestern corner of Europe thus belongs, or at least is geographically proximate, to that centre. All the other parts of the continent – southern, central, eastern – are at best on its fringes, at worst altogether external to it, depending on how we look at them. The centre of modernity is peripheral to Europe, in sum, whereas most of Europe is peripheral to it. Second, we could long discuss whether it is more correct to speak of an Anglo-Saxon rather than a northern Atlantic core. If it were, then France should be understood as either the geographically and chronologically first periphery, or an alternative centre offering a different version of modernity, or both. Finally, also the Anglo-Saxon centre could be disassembled in at least two cores, one of which is European only in its origins, while the other is European indeed, but entertains a notoriously complicated relationship with the continent.

Sure enough, the roots of the English, American and French revolutions should not be looked for just in the northwestern corner of Europe, but in the entire continent and beyond. Those revolutions would become incomprehensible, for instance, were they detached from the Mediterranean legacy, Greco-Roman as well as Judaeo-Christian.4 The existence of those roots, however, has never implied that modernity could be peacefully accepted as an indigenous product also outside its northern Atlantic centre. On the contrary, the Anglo-Saxon and French models have often created resentment in southern, central and eastern Europe precisely because there they could be perceived (and envied) as different and more successful versions of a common tradition.

Resentment can be dealt with in many different ways. Leveraging the shared roots, geographical proximity, and latecomer’s advantage to import and imitate the models of modernity and eventually catch up with them is one such way. Everywhere in peripheral Europe, modernising elites struggled to impose that solution and finally prevailed in three historical steps – post-1945, the 1970s, and post-1989. Another possible way to confront modernity is to refuse it altogether. This has been done at times, at least partially – for instance, in the Iberian peninsula in the middle part of the twentieth century -, but modernity’s traction is so powerful that opting out of it has proven to be possible only temporarily. Devising an alternative form of modernity and trying to displace the centre from the north Atlantic to Moscow, Rome or Berlin has been a third and historically significant reaction of the vast and diverse European peripheries.

In 1925, in a book significantly entitled Italia barbara (Barbaric Italy), the young and then fascist intellectual, Curzio Malaparte, explained his own periphery’s refusal of the modern centre with clarity, although not nearly as powerfully as Thomas Mann had done a few years earlier in the Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen.5 Malaparte targeted the Italian modernising elites, which using a quote by Proudhon he defined as ‘Malthusian, eclectic, liberal, bourgeois, atheistic and propertied.’ Those elites were ‘Partisans of a revolution that … we could simply call modern, and that should consist in subjugating the Italian spirit to the experience of the Reformation and to all the subsequent experiences through which, in the latest centuries, the European modern spirit has been taking shape.’ They did not ‘hesitate to proclaim themselves civilised Italians – that is, modern – and to call the others by the name of barbarians.’

They could not be more wrong, Malaparte argued. ‘All the evils that we [Italians] have suffered for almost one hundred years stem … exactly from our having tried more than once, and always in vain, to assimilate the European modern spirit, contrary to ours.’ ‘Anglo-Saxon modernity is not made for us.’ he concluded. ‘Assimilating it would fatefully bring us to irreparable decadence. What happened in Russia, a nation that is by nature opposed to the spirit of European modernity, must serve us as example.’ That Malaparte dubbed modernity indifferently as Anglo-Saxon and European shows how ambiguous the north Atlantic model was, but also that its ambiguity was quite irrelevant when looked at from the mimetic periphery.6

Twenty years later, the antifascist intellectual, Carlo Levi, published his most famous novel, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, based on his experience of political confinement in Lucania. In the first page of the book, he forcefully set apart “barbaric” Italy from civilised modernity too.  But sure enough, he did not side with barbarity.

‘Christ did stop at Eboli, where the road and the railway leave the coast of Salerno and turn into the desolate reaches of Lucania. Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relations of cause to effect, nor reason nor history. Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, content to garrison the highways without penetrating the mountains and the forests, nor the Greeks, who flourished beside the Gulf of Taranto. None of the pioneers of Western civilisation brought here his sense of the passage of time, his deification of the State or that ceaseless activity which feeds upon itself. No one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding. The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ; no message, human or divine, has reached this stubborn poverty. We speak a different language, and here our tongue is incomprehensible.’7

2. Europe’s Mediterranean other

If we consider the old continent’s history from an Italian standpoint, then the force of attraction of the partially European centre(s) of modernity on the European peripheries becomes particularly evident. Since the nineteenth century, Italy has been literally obsessed with the Pinocchioesque desire to turn from a pre-modern Mediterranean puppet into a modern European boy. The memory of the country’s relevance in European history and culture, from antiquity until the early Modern Age, has fuelled that obsession.

The anxious Italian desire to be a “normal” country has generated a number of consequences. First, it has made the relationship between political institutions and society even more tense and complicated than it “normally” is, by turning the former into a would-be civilising subject and the latter into a reluctant object that must be civilised. This approach, which has weighed on Italian history since the country’s unification in 1861, has exacerbated the tendency of political institutions to insulate themselves from societal pressures, to look askance at society and to get hold of as many resources as possible. Clientelism, widespread mistrust in the state, and governmental inefficiency are all paradoxical outcomes of the backfiring of that strategy. Those outcomes become especially visible when the backfiring occurs in a representative regime.8

Second, Italy’s craving for modernity has made it particularly sensitive to the international Zeitgeist. Arguably, the country had its most constructive moments when it could follow a relatively consistent and unambiguous global model: the triumphant liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century, post-1945 embedded liberalism. Conversely, when the historical context proposed a plurality of conflicting paths to modernity, Italy absorbed and reproduced those conflicts. If managing the relationship between a Mediterranean id and a European superego is difficult, juggling with several diverging superegos has proven to be intractable.

Third, a country literally obsessed with the desire to be European has produced an intelligentsia literally obsessed with the supposed failure to fulfil that desire. Thus Italian history has often been portrayed as an endless succession of betrayals of lofty ideals, good intentions turned sour, opportunities for radical change that were missed. The history of a ‘radically wrong country’, in Rosario Romeo’s phrasing.9 Meanwhile, in almost 160 years of history as a single state, the country has undergone changes that the wildest revolutionaries could only dream of, and has largely closed the gap with the models of modernity that it was pursuing. Yet observers keep pointing at that gap, forgetful that it shrunk enormously. They do not focus on the changes that occurred, but on those which failed to materialise.

When writing about Italy, and especially on the post-1945 period, Anglo-Saxon observers – historians, social scientists, journalists – often take this interpretive stance. They emphasise the supposed inadequacy of the country to abide by the standards of modernity of which they themselves are, so to speak, authentic interpreters. “Italianism” could be the title of a project aimed at mapping those interpretations. Yet such a project should also take into consideration the “Italianism” – or rather the “nested Italianisms” – of the Italians, which fuelled and legitimised that of the Anglo-Saxon observers and, in their turn, were fuelled and legitimised by it.10

Since inferiority complexes are notoriously unpleasant, however, Italians have also happened to refuse the northern Atlantic superego and celebrate their own Mediterranean id, like Malaparte did in Italia Barbara. Or to invent fascism as their own national path to modernity, even deluding themselves that it could turn into a model for others. Or they have happened to consider the alternative Soviet modernity with sympathy and also as a guarantee of national autonomy. Antonio Gramsci reinterpreted that alternative modernity so that it could exactly fit a country such as Italy, distant enough from the north Atlantic to be in urgent need of a profound cultural transformation, but not distant enough for a violent political revolution.

The argument that I have made so far does not aim to celebrate Italy’s Mediterranean id, nor to deny that the attraction of the European superego has significantly contributed to changing the country for the better. It does not exclude that Italians, while feeling peripheral when looking north across the Alps, have also felt central when they looked south across the Mediterranean or east across the Adriatic, and have imposed this “centrality” of their own on their colonial empire. Moreover, its purpose is emphatically not to recommend readings of Italian history such as that of Malaparte, let alone their political consequences. What I am arguing here, is that in the last two centuries the old continent was largely seen in Italy as an alien entity. The word “Europe” was often used as shorthand for what was in fact its northwestern corner, and served to identify an ideal model, a goal toward which Italy ought to strive with all its forces. As a consequence, the Eurocentric bias of Italian historiography has not only represented an attempt to “other” the non-Europeans, but also to have Italians acknowledge their own otherness, repent and fix it.

3. Europe’s teleology of dissolution

In the first half of the twentieth century, the mimetic game of competing modernities nearly destroyed Europe. After 1945, it left the continent divided in two parts, both looking at models whose Europeanness was at best debatable. In the course of this process, the European nation-states lost their position of pre-eminence. Yet, despite the significant effort to achieve continental integration, Europe has been unable to provide an alternative pole of attraction, historical as well as historiographical.

From the viewpoint of “which Europe?”, the 1970s represent a crucial decade. The withering away of the European tradition, social as well as cultural, accelerated markedly. Collective identities were deconstructed. And the pace of global integration hastened, too. Those changes significantly weakened the nation-states and allowed the European integration process to make the most significant leap forward in its entire history between 1979 and 1992. Europe, however, grew thanks to the momentary feebleness of its historical internal antagonists, not out of its own inner strength. In a cultural climate that targeted all identities for deconstruction, no solid European identity could replace the declining national identities. Moreover, building a strong political Europe was impossible in a moment when the political was fading away. The drivers of historical change were economic and technocratic in nature, and European integration itself was legitimised as necessary to make the old Continent fit for the globalising markets.11

If Europe had any value, in those circumstances, it was as a virtuous example. Its virtues, however, although historically stemming to a very large extent from north Atlantic modernity, were presented as abstract and universal.12 More precisely, the Zeitgeist did not allow them to be presented as other than abstract and universal. The old continent was respectful of individual rights, the rule of law, and representative government. It was the most mature example of peaceful supranational cooperation, soft leadership, and multilateralism worldwide. It was the virtuous kernel of the globalising Earth, in sum. In the optimistic historical climate of the 1980s, and especially in the nearly utopian one of the following decade, this provided Europe with a mission. In the very different climate that has emerged at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, the virtuous kernel has appeared more and more as a rather hopeless vox clamantis in deserto, and the compromises that it was obliged to strike have weakened its claim to global moral leadership.

So far as one can think of European history teleologically, in sum, it seems that our present is suggesting a teleology of dissolution rather than generation, the efforts of the European integration project to counter that teleology notwithstanding. Of course, we historians have all been instructed to avoid the pitfalls of teleology. Yet it is difficult not to think that Benedetto Croce was not entirely wrong when he argued that all history is contemporary. If today we are interrogating ourselves about the disciplinary location and boundaries of European history, and fear that it may somehow end up crushed between the national and the global, it is precisely because the teleology of dissolution is weighing on us.13

To my mind, this leaves us historians of contemporary Europe with three options, all fraught with shortcomings. First, we could follow a liberal path. That is, we could insist on European integration and the fulfilment of its underlying values as the positive telos of continental history, and on Europe as the “leader by example” of the globalising world. On historical grounds, however, this would require both a change in the present Zeitgeist, in which regrettably other, very different, examples seem to have taken the leadership, and greater consistency on the part of the European Union, in its internal as well as in its external action. Furthermore, on theoretical grounds this would require solving the contradiction between a value-neutral methodological version of liberalism and a value-laden substantive one.

Second, we could follow a conservative path and put the notion of a specifically European culture at the centre of our historiographic endeavours. That notion could be wide enough to encompass the rich variety of European experiences, but should also have clear-cut boundaries and a firm centre of gravity. T.S. Eliot has provided us with a profound meditation on the tension between unity and diversity which generates a vital culture in general, and a vital European culture in particular. ‘For the health of the culture of Europe two conditions are required: that the culture of each country should be unique, and that the different cultures should recognise their relationship to each other, so that each should be susceptible of influence from the others. And this is possible because there is a common element in European culture, an interrelated history of thought and feeling and behaviour, an interchange of arts and of ideas.’ Religion is at the core of that common element. Eliot continues, ‘I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith … If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again.’14 Eliot, however, saw culture as a spontaneous historical occurrence. If it does not occur or occurs no longer, then there is not much that one can do. Bringing it back ‘into existence by any activity of political demagogues’ is certainly not an option.15

Our third and by far most likely option is that we follow a postmodern path and welcome the dissolution. That is what Levsen and Requate seem to suggest in the opening statement to this debate, when they declare that ‘it seems both scientifically and politically necessary to deconstruct old and new national myths while also deconstructing European unification myths.’16 The problem with this approach is whether, and to what extent, it is possible to establish European history as a distinct field of enquiry by programmatically pursuing the aim of deconstructing all things European. As Semyonov argues in his contribution to this debate, at the end of that road Europe ceases to be ‘an object of analysis and becom[es] a scale of analysis.’17 Europe becomes a geographical expression, as Prince Metternich famously said of Italy.

Sure enough, the old continent – ancient and dense, heterogeneous yet rich with common references, covered with a thick web of exchanges and mimetic exercises, seat of multiple centres and peripheries – will never stop being an ideal place for historians who wish to transcend the national borders, to go supranational or transnational, compare cases or extricate entanglements. Scholarship on Europe can thrive and produce excellent pieces of research in this vein. But European history will remain crushed between the national and the global in what would be a deadly grip, were the national and global approaches not in a crisis, too, as befits our age of dissolution.18

  1. Cf. Enrique Dussel, Eurocentrism and Modernity (Introduction to the Frankfurt Lectures), in: boundary 2 20 (1993), pp. 65-76; Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton 2000. []
  2. 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; Jitka Malečková, On the Margins of European History, in: ibid., November 22, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/342. []
  3. Cf. Robert Roswell Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800, Princeton 2014 (original edition 1959 and 1964). On the value of Palmer’s work today, see David Armitage’s foreword, ibid. []
  4. Cf. Rémi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, South Bend IN 2002; Philippe Nemo, Qu’est-ce que l’Occident?, Paris 2004. []
  5. On the genesis and context of the Betrachtungen see Elena Alessiato, L’impolitico: Thomas Mann tra arte e guerra, Bologna 2011. []
  6. Curzio Malaparte, Italia barbara, Rome 1928 (first edition 1925): 31-32, 35 and 36 for the citations. Italics in the original. For an overview on the uses of ‘dichotomies of the progressive and backward, western and the non-western, northern and Mediterranean’ in Italian history, and for references to the rich scholarly literature on the topic, see Emily Braun, Italia barbara: Italian primitives from Piero to Pasolini, in: Journal of Modern Italian Studies 17 (2012), pp. 259-270. []
  7. Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, London 2000 (first edition 1945): 12. Carlo Levi was born and grew up in Turin, in northern Italy, and he was confined in Grassano, in the deep south. Italy is not only a country that perceives itself as backward and strives to imitate the European models of modernity, but it is also ‘civilisationally heterogeneous’. This further complicates its relationship with modernity. []
  8. Cf. Giovanni Orsina, Berlusconism and Italy: A Historical Interpretation, Basingstoke 2014, chap. 1. []
  9. Rosario Romeo, Italia democrazia industriale: Dal Risorgimento alla repubblica, Florence 1986: 25. See also Giovanni Belardelli / Luciano Cafagna / Ernesto Galli della Loggia / Giovanni Sabbatucci, Miti e storia dell’Italia unita, Bologna 1999; Marc Lazar, Introduction, in: Marc Lazar (ed.), L’Italie contemporaine de 1945 à nos jours, Paris 2009, among many other works. []
  10. Cf. Jane Schneider, The Dynamics of Neo-orientalism in Italy (1848-1995), in: Jane Schneider (ed.), Italy’s “Southern Question”: Orientalism in One Country, Abingdon 2020 (first edition 1998), pp. 1-26; Mark Gilbert, Il governo e la politica dell’Italia repubblicana, in: Stuart Woolf (ed.), L’Italia repubblicana vista da fuori (1945-2000), Bologna 2007, pp. 85-127. []
  11. Cf. John Gillingham, European Integration, 1950–2003: Superstate or New Market Economy?, Cambridge 2003. []
  12. In international liberal circles, liberal virtues were largely disembedded from their historical and geographical cradle between the end of the 1960s and the 1970s (cf. Giovanni Orsina, Internationalism and Europeanism in the ideology of European liberalism, 1945-1989, in: Lucia Bonfreschi / Giovanni Orsina / Antonio Varsori (eds.), European Political Parties and Cultures and the European Integration Process, Brussels 2015, pp. 277-296). []
  13. Cf. Martin Conway’s contribution to this debate: The Crisis of European History, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, October 26, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/142. []
  14. T.S. Eliot, The Unity of European Culture, in: T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, San Diego 1976, pp. 187-202, pp. 197 and 200 for the citations. []
  15. T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, in: ibid., pp. 79-186, p. 91 for the quotation. []
  16. 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 Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, October 15, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/86. []
  17. Alexander Semyonov, Provincializing Europe, De-centering Europe, Hybridizing Europe …, in: ibid., November 8, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/321. []
  18. Cf. Jeremy Adelman, What is Global History Now?, in: Aeon, 2 March 2017, https://aeon.co/essays/is-global-history-still-possible-or-has-it-had-its-moment. []

Could a Different Approach to the History of European Welfare Lead us to Tell a Different History of Europe? A Tale of Cross-national Collaborations

Laura Lee Downs

For me, the questions of why Europe, which Europe, and how contemporary historians might do European history differently are profoundly imbricated. This is so for one simple reason: I work on the history of social Europe (as opposed to the study of European welfare states), and this demands writing histories that are at once social and political, cultural and institutional. So how and why is this so, you may ask?

Welfare and democracy: A very European story?

Over the past fifty years or so, Europe (i.e., the CEE/European Union) has told a very revealing story about itself. It is revealing not for what it professes to reveal – that here in Europe, welfare and democracy go hand in hand (as opposed to the USA or China) – but for that which it obscures, namely, the very long history of welfare and social care in those regions and nations that lie on the European continent and which, taken together, form the deep history of present-day welfare states.1 As even the most cursory glance at this deeper  history shows us, the question of who would provide social services to whom and on what terms has long been a subject of sharp and many-sided political/ideological contest across the many territories that have composed modern and  contemporary Europe.

In the context of this longer history, it must be stressed that the links that were consciously forged between social welfare and democracy in mid-twentieth century Europe were almost entirely without precedent. Hence, over the period 1800-1945, Europe boasted no large-scale welfare schemes beyond those proposed by paternalist employers running company towns, or by Otto von Bismarck, who, in alliance with large employers in heavy industry, used social welfare policies to calm late 19th century Germany’s restive socialist parties and trade unions. There were also the networks of hospitals and orphanages run by the Catholic Church and its charitable orders (notably Saint-Vincent-de-Paul), all of which operated in alliance with the wealthy bourgeois patrons who supported their work.

Given who its main authors were, and the ends to which such assistance was wielded, the term ‘welfare’ understandably left a bitter taste in the mouths of fin-de-siècle Europe’s main democratic forces, namely, those socialist and anarchist movements which, for their part, designed smaller-scale forms of collective security and social protection in the form of working-class cooperatives, labor exchanges and socialist ‘cradle-to-grave’ municipalism.

Yet social democratic structures of mutual aid, though important, were but a drop in the bucket next to the large-scale state and employer strategies that used welfare as a tool of social pacification/discipline. As we know, such strategies flourished in pre- and post-WWI Europe. Indeed, those states and employers who deployed them created veritable hothouses for the development of novel institutions of social pacification/discipline, among them family allowances, which would enjoy a long after-life in Europe’s post-1945 welfare states.2

Far from being the simple fruit of prewar Europe’s social-democratic movements and the social policies and structures that they had created, the welfare states that emerged in postwar Europe were, in fact, a palimpsest of previous employer and state initiatives, with an admixture of those smaller, but very popular structures drawn from the (left) social Catholic and socialist/anarchist/communist playbooks: colonies de vacances, neighborhood centres sociaux (settlement houses à la française), cooperatives, neighborhood clinics and dispensaries, mutual aid societies and the like.

The backbone of Europe’s postwar welfare systems were, nonetheless, the large national social insurance systems. Heir to the large-scale state and employer schemes of the prewar world, these latter were systematised and expanded after 1945 so as to cover most native-born or naturalised adult male workers – and, in some countries (France, the socialist republics of eastern and south-eastern Europe), some adult women workers as well – plus their dependents.3 Far from reflecting the longer history of Europe’s left-leaning, social-democratic minority – and thus enshrining Europe’s allegedly ‘eternal’ pact between welfare and democracy – the welfare states that emerged after 1945 were the far more complex outcomes of many-sided political struggles, negotiations and choices, all of which were made in the shadow of WWII. As the rise of right-wing and populist welfare chauvinism in present-day France, Italy, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere testify, the connections between welfare and politics (especially democratic politics) can be, and are being re-thought, with dramatic consequences for the rights of individuals.

Western Europe’s aspirational but increasingly beleaguered foundation-myth, which proclaims that in Europe, welfare and democracy have long marched forward, hand in hand, though hardly credible as history, carries a further, important implication, namely, that the EU’s vision of an ever-more social Europe is in fact no more than the mere realisation of what has long been an immanent ‘truth’ about Europe.4

Now historians have, by and large and until quite recently shown scant interest in the study of welfare systems and welfare states, and so left their analysis to colleagues in the adjacent social sciences, notably political science and sociology. As these disciplines privilege synchronic analysis, so as order to show how a system, when held in place, actually functions, this has, not surprisingly, produced a highly teleological vision of the birth and evolution of welfare states; one that begins with the post-1945 outcome and then works its way backward in order to discover what produced that result. As a consequence, European welfare ‘history’ is more often a compilation of very shallow national histories that begin during the 1940s (William  Beveridge’s famous Social Insurance and Allied Services report of 1942 is always a popular starting place). These are often juxtaposed to create regional welfare ‘families’ – Nordic, Mediterranean, etc. – which are then sometimes compared with one another.  

European welfare ‘history’ is therefore badly in need of a less teleological way of conceiving the analysis. Here is where history, (and the historians who write it) may enter in. For a properly historical approach requires turning the lens around and focusing not on the state-level outcomes of long historical processes but rather on the history of Europe’s many and diverse traditions of social protection and social care, approached from the bottom up. Starting from those local contexts where such protections are first created and enacted may well, moreover, offer one basis on which to write European history in a new and different register.

Writing European history in this new register will require deploying the jeu d’échelles in such a way as to privilege the local, regional and transnational levels, which is where this longer, deeper and richer history of building social welfare has taken place. This must be done  without sidelining the national level but rather relativising it as one level among many, particularly when it comes to creating forms and institutions of social care. Such a history must also refuse to obscure the local conflicts and collaborations that have shaped and informed Europe’s many and diverse national welfare systems. Indeed, this new kind of European welfare history that I am envisioning must focus precisely on those overlapping, and at times competing, structures of social provision that shaped systems of social welfare before 1945. For it is only by analyzing the interplay of collaboration and competition that we can explore the constant movement back and forth between inclusion and exclusion that has long shaped European welfare provision. Over the past twenty years, I have been experimenting with this kind of locally-focused socio-institutional history, and I would like to share some of the results of these experiments  here, in the context of this forum.

Between families, associations and states: developing a ‘triadic approach’ to the study of social welfare

So what has this journey taught me? It began in France, where municipalities, parishes, trade unions, religious associations, political parties and neighborhood associations have long constituted both the relevant actors and the relevant sites of action, tales of long-standing centralism from Louis XIV to France’s five ‘Jacobin’ Republics notwithstanding.5 I then made a few comparisons with Great Britain via a common event: child evacuation from 1939-45. Such evacuations were organised and carried out quite differently in the two nations, and held very different meanings for the working people of Paris or Lyon and their banlieue versus those of London, Birmingham, Glasgow or Liverpool.6

Life and work then carried me to Italy, where I began nosing around in local archives in Torino, Firenze, Bologna and Roma in search of archives that would enable me to broaden considerably the scope of my child evacuation studies. As it turns out, mine was a vain hope, given that Italy organised very few child evacuations, properly speaking (as opposed to kids heading out into the surrounding countryside/hills each night to crouch in the fields and wait out the nightly bombing raids). Those few organised evacuations that actually took place were tiny affairs indeed, often just ten or twelve children per convoy, and they only came once the heavy bombardments of the industrial north had begun, in 1942.7 Finally, Italy’s (few) evacuations were quite haphazard affairs that were organised by the Italian Red Cross. This latter shipped a pitifully small number of children from the heavily bombarded industrial cities of Northwestern Italy (Torino, Milano and Genova) to the Tuscan countryside, beginning in winter 1942-43. They have left no written trace in any archive that I have seen (and I have visited many). Were it not for the diary of Iris Origo, who took in 23 such children on her estate in the Val d’Orcia (south of Montepulciano) in January 1943, we would have no idea that any such evacuations had ever taken place to begin with.8

Thus did I come to understand that, during my first months of research in Italian archives, I had been sniffing down a dead trail. About the same time that I was reluctantly reaching this conclusion (spring/summer 2015),  a dear friend invited me to join her for a few days of vacation in Trieste, where she was working in the archives. Any plans I might have had for touristing around that remarkable city as my friend nerded away on the via La Marmora were immediately laid to rest the morning after my arrival by the 40 degree temperatures that swiftly wrapped the city in their fiery embrace. Surrendering almost instantly to the suffocating heat, I quickly joined her at the (slightly) air-conditioned regional archives. As she madly ordered up one box after the next in her carefully planned archive strike, I began to poke through the archive’s many catalogues in hopes of appearing to have some motive other than their feeble air-conditioning for taking up a desk in their very small reading room.

Given that I knew nothing about this part of the world, I hit pay dirt surprisingly quickly in the form of a fascinating post-WWI aid association, the Opera Nazionale Assistenza all’Italia Redenta (‘Assistance to Redeemed Italy’), which arrived in the region just months after the Armistice. It’s aim was to distribute badly-needed socio-medical assistance to civilians in the devastated war zones of the Izonso while at the same time using that assistance to make propaganda for the Italian state, to which these formerly Austrian territories had been given just a few months earlier at Versailles, in spring 1919. After just two boxes of documents, I had fallen in love with the idea of working on Italy’s highly contested northeastern frontiers, where, as of autumn 2020, Friuli/Venezia Giulia meets Slovenia and Croatia, plus a piece of Austria’s southern frontier; a handy reminder of just how far south the Austro-Hungarian empire stretched at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries.

Over the course of this journey across three countries and many different kinds of archives, I came to understand the space of social action as a gendered space of political/para-political action where families, voluntary associations, municipalities and states (both regional and national) meet as co-creators of locals forms of social welfare and social care. My intuitions about localities (especially cities but also towns and even villages) as sites of social action were both fueled by and emerged from a series of individual research projects: around France’s large and variegated network of colonies de vacances; around socialist and communist municipalism, comparative studies of wartime child evacuation, and ‘imperial projects’ of Giolittian, then fascist conquest along Italy’s ‘oriental’ Balkan frontiers.

But these ideas are also profoundly collective in their origin. For my own research itinerary has been deeply influenced by my larger scholarly milieu at the EHESS, where teaching is grounded in research seminars that are often co-taught. From these collaborations grow research groups of greater or lesser longevity. For me, the two most important of these groups were Études sociales et politiques des populations, de la protection sociale et de la santé (ESOPP), and the Programme de recherches interdisciplinaires ‘Mondes britanniques’ (PRI Mondes britanniques).9 ESOPP and the PRI Mondes britanniques both stimulated and shaped my thinking in profound ways while connecting me to larger, international groups of scholars in two fields – British history (including imperial and postcolonial history), and histories of social politics and social welfare – both of which were quite new to me.

When fate banished me from Paris to Florence in autumn 2012, I lost these rich, interwoven contexts for my developing research project, and I felt the loss most keenly. Of course, I also gained an important new context in the form of my new colleagues at the EUI. This was a mind-stretching context in so many ways, beginning with global history (with which I had but a glancing familiarity in 2012, thanks to seminars with early modernist colleagues at the EHESS), and to the EUI History department’s commitment to studying ‘Europe in the world.’ With one of my colleagues, Lucy Riall, we quickly set about realising the Department’s ambition to reframe European history through its global encounters via an international conference marking the centenary of the First World War entitled ‘The Long Global Crisis c.1912-c.1922.’10

As exciting as this all was (and it truly was), I still lacked the more precise context that a research group like ESOPP had until recently given to my own research as it was then developing in the mid 2010s. So I set about building that context myself. This initially took the form of an international research network, European Trajectories in the Quest for Welfare and Democracy (1880s to the present), which I created in partnership with Clarisse Berthezène; my partner in crime since spring 2004, when we first began to build together the EHESS-Paris Diderot collaboration that became the PRI Mondes britanniques. In order to shape the Quest, we put together older, Paris-London connections with new ones further south.11 In 2014-15, a veritable laboratory for the large-scale comparative and transnational analysis of welfare and democracy took shape in Florence.12

From the outset, the Quest collaboration allowed us to articulate with great precision a novel approach to the study of social welfare. Inspired by the mixed economies of welfare approach, a number of us soon noticed that, within that broad framework, we were all doing something that was a little bit different. One way or another, we had each begun, in our own research, to place families in the foreground as active players in the creation and delivery of social welfare and social care. Without consciously intending it, we had each broken away from the dyadic approach of the mixed economies of welfare (which looks at associations and states) and had moved, independently, toward what, together, we would come to call a ‘triadic’ approach to studying social welfare.

Adapted to a bottom up and multi-scalar analysis, the triadic approach understands families, voluntary associations and states as co-constructors of social welfare and analyses their interactions by looking at the circle of relationships that connects these three very different actors at the local level, versus thinking in terms of top-down impositions. The jeu d’échelles is an indispensable component of the triadic approach, as it allows us to navigate actors’ movements back and forth as they circulated within local, regional, national and transnational arenas, occasionally crossing from one level to another, but also moving in the opposite direction, from the national or transnational back toward the local and regional levels.

Many of us have found in the triadic approach the analytic tool that was missing from our toolkits, as it has allowed us to articulate with far greater precision things we were all seeing in our sources and that a number of us had been trying to articulate for several years or more before the Quest finally put us all in the same room.

Let us now fast forward to three years later, when our EUI-based funding was winding down (2018), and we all felt the need to rethink the Quest on an even larger scale. Thus was born the COST Action ‘Who Cares in Europe?’ (35 countries, ca. 250 members and growing), as well as my own ERC project ‘Social Politics in European Borderlands, 1870s-1990s’: A Comparative and Transnational Study (September 2020-September 2025). Both the COST Action and my ERC take as their point of departure locally-focused and multi-scalar analyses that are grounded in the triadic approach. As hinted at above, this approach does not exclude the national level but rather relativises it as one site among many (and rarely the most important one, if we look over a longer durée), where forms, structures and institutions of social welfare, large and small, are created.

In the case of my ERC project, I will explore the social politics developed by public and private actors as they worked together in three of in Europe’s highly mixed borderlands.13 For in borderland regions, the reach of central states has been episodic and fluctuating, and local welfare structures, based on national, but also non-national forms of solidarity/identity (occupation, gender, religion, etc.) have therefore flourished. The sheer range and variety of local welfare schemes in these three regions will allow me and my team to analyze their overlapping, competing or mutually reinforcing structures of social provision. This will create a lens through which we can then examine those interplays between inclusion and exclusion that have long shaped European welfare, turning the spotlight on those borderland contexts where such developments were particularly visible. Indeed, it is our conviction that the long-range historical analysis of local actors’ ideas and practices around social protection in European borderlands has much to tell us about the development of welfare across the continent in general.14

The moral of this story is twofold. First, Europe needs far more funds dedicated to networking. When I first arrived full-time on the continent (2001), we were still in the framework of the PCRD 7, which was all about creating networks. I’m not sure when that gave way, as I dropped fairly quickly out of this European world and back into the national and local (Parisian) levels in order to better understand my new research world. But I do know that sometime over the next ten years, the focus on networking ceded the ground to a love of big projects. This seems like a mistake, as writing European histories in a transnational and comparative way will require far more material and moral support to Europe’s many and varied research networks. As it stands in fall 2020, the COST Association for Cooperation in Science and Technology is the only Europe-wide foundation offering any support to young networks right now.15 While COST is a terrific structure and functions very well, it seems very short-sighted to pile all of Europe’s research networks on its back.

Before closing I would like to make another observation of a different order. For I cannot help but notice that when the agenda moves outward from the local to the European, global, or even national level, questions of gender and sexuality tend to slide rapidly off the screen. Perhaps this not surprise me, as the dominance of men over women is, probably, the last bastion of theories which maintain that certain kinds of human bodies carry ‘inborn superiority.’ Women and their bodies can never be part of this élite. On the contrary, so long as patriarchal societies persist, female bodies can never even belong to those who walk around in them in precisely because the appropriation of women’s productive and reproductive capacity is the keystone of patriarchy. (Spoiler alert: if only one sex is capable of making new little humans, who are the only source of new value in the world, then various patriarchal mafias will inevitably gather around that capacity and try to figure out how to appropriate it as securely and efficiently as possible.)

The best way that I know to get around the impossibility of women’s presence/agency in history is to track local and social histories. Because the social world is where wacky meta-theories must inevitably cede to how the world is, in its actual, quotidian workings, even if no one cares to dignify such mundane matters by writing them down in the form of philosophical treatises. For this reason, going local, social, and transnational looks to me like precisely what we need right now in order to write a different kind of European history.

Cite this article as:

Laura Lee Downs: Could a Different Approach to the History of European Welfare Lead us to Tell a Different History of Europe? A Tale of Cross-national Collaborations, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, December 6, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/479.

  1. These two are often cast as ‘non (or un)-European’ in part because they fail to display the social democratic concern with universalising social care that postwar (western) European states have aspired to. []
  2. Susan Pedersen, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914-1945, Cambridge 1993; Paul Dutton, Origins of the French Welfare State: The Struggle for Social Reform in France, 1914–1947, Cambridge 2002; Peter Baldwin, The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare State, 1875–1975, Cambridge 1990. As Susan Pedersen points out, family allowances were a strategy to support families and insure that they would produce a new generation of workers while keeping overall wage levels down by paying these allowances solely to breadwinning fathers and mothers. This was opposed to the British strategy of paying skilled men a so-called ‘family wage’, irrespective of whether they had children or not, and then paying everyone else – semi-and unskilled men and women, male laborers, childless or otherwise – far lower wages. Among other things, this produced far larger wage gaps in Britain between skilled and unskilled workers; male and labor (including skilled women workers). []
  3. After the precarity that migrant workers and known during the 1930s, then the genocides of WWII, Europe favored social citizenship models of welfare. []
  4. Martin Conway, The Crisis of 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 25 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/142. []
  5. Laura Lee Downs, ‘And so we transform a people’: Women’s Social Action and the Reconfiguration of Politics on the French Right, 1934-1947, in: Past and Present 225 (2014), pp. 1-39. []
  6. Laura Lee Downs, Histoire des colonies de vacances de 1880 à nos jours, Paris 2009; Laura Lee Downs, ‘Nous plantions les trois couleurs’: Action sociale féminine et recomposition des politiques de la droite française. Le mouvement Croix-de-feu et le Parti social français, 1934-1947, in: Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 58.3 (2011), pp. 118-63; Laura Lee Downs, Enfance en guerre: Les évacuations d’enfants en France et en Grande Bretagne, 1939-1940, in : Annales, H.S.C. 66.2 (2011), pp. 413-48 ; Laura Lee Downs, A ‘Very British’ Revolution? L’évacuation des enfants urbains vers les campagnes anglaises, 1939-45, in: Vingtième siècle 89.1 (2006), pp. 47-60. []
  7. To put these tiny numbers into perspective, one needs only look at the numbers of children who were re-evacuated from the Paris banlieue from spring 1942 on. Here, a convoy from a single industrial suburb could easily reach 1.000, and many such convoys departed in spring/summer/autumn 1942 and then again during those same months in 1943. See Laura Lee Downs, Au Revoir les Enfants: Wartime Evacuation and the Politics of Childhood in France and Britain, 1939–45, in: History Workshop Journal 82.1 (2016), pp. 121–150.  From 1940 onwards, the British began bombing Italy’s industrial north, but with far less intensity than from 1941-2, when the raids grew increasingly murderous and, unlike those in France, specifically targeted civilians (including children) in hopes of breaking civilian morale and so getting Italy out of the war as swiftly as possible. (So went the British strategy.) See Steven Harvey, The Italian War Effort and the Strategic Bombing of Italy, in: History 70.228 (1985), pp. 32-45. []
  8. Iris Origo, War in Val d’Orcia. An Italian War Diary 1943-1944, London 1947. Her diary makes vague mention of several other small clusters of refugee children from the North sheltering in the vicinity, but the numbers were vanishingly small. On p. 2 of her war diary, Origo wrote the following highly revealing footnote to her own text:  ‘In theory, the evacuation of these children was planned by the Fascist organisations in each province. In practice, we waited for three months for the Genova Fascio to send us the children for whom we had applied – and then, as none came, I asked the Principessa di Piemonte to request her Red Cross inspectresses in Torino and Genova to select 12 especially needy cases – whereupon the children arrived in a fortnight.’ The Genovese children had all been living in a dark, bitterly cold underground tunnel beneath the city, with no light and hardly any water, their own homes having been completely destroyed in the autumn 1942 bombings of the city. Ibid, p. 28. []
  9. I co-founded both groups in 2004-2005 with Paul-André Rosental (ESOPP) and Clarisse Berthezène (PRI Mondes britanniques). []
  10. 2-3 June 2014. As Sonja and Jörg have observed, WWI has long been a happy home for transnational study, beginning with battlefield histories but then widening and deepening with the more recent (since the 70s) ambition to understand war and society. []
  11. Including Efi Avdela, who was working in Athens and Rethymnos along remarkably similar lines with an exciting multidisciplinary project on ‘Forms of Public Sociality’. []
  12. In its three short years of life, the Quest expanded rapidly from a handful of 10-12 researchers from 4, largely Mediterranean countries (plus Britain) to well over 50 from 18 countries. []
  13. The project’s eleven case studies focus on the Northeastern Adriatic, Galician and Franco-Belgo-Germano-Luxembourgish borderlands. []
  14. The project will therefore enable us to contribute to contemporary debates about welfare reform at a time when the social rights (or lack thereof) of populations in Europe are the subject of acrimonious, even violent dispute. []
  15. Some national funds support both individual research and international collaborations, including France’s Agence nationale de la recherche or the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. []

Fostering a Transnational Dialogue About Contemporary Challenges: A Research Note on Writing European History Today

Pepijn Corduwener

Introduction: the dominance of the national container, also in the Netherlands

In the preface to his History of the Russian Empire, the renowned British historian Hugh Seton-Watson reflected on what it meant to write the history of another country. ‘It is difficult’, he argued, to write such a history, because ‘the foreigner has not grown up in its physical and mental climate, and he cannot understand them, still less feel them, in the same way as its own people do. He can spend long periods in a foreign land, learn its language and live among its citizens, to some extent think as they do, and be accepted as a friend’. Still, he concluded ‘this is not the same as being one of the people of the country’.1

Seton-Watson wrote these reflections in 1967. Generations of Erasmus-exchange students, expanding international staff mobility, dual degree programmes, and EU-funding for cross-border research projects have of course Europeanised the field of history greatly since then. Like his book that is still widely cited, Seton-Watson’s considerations on the obstacles for shifting one’s national perspective, or adopting the national perspective of others still carry value today. Indeed, as Sonja Levsen and Jörg Requate rightly point out in their introduction, despite all the innovations in the field ‘the national container has remained the dominant frame of investigation’. European history still often appears as a collection of national histories, a series of national Sonderwegs.

Although much has changed for the better, this also applies to historiography in the Netherlands. One could argue that traditionally the history of the Netherlands has been written as if the country were only partially in Europe – or at least that is the way Dutch historians liked to see the country. Writing on the ‘essence’ of his country’s national identity, Johan Huizinga, arguably the most famous Dutch historian, argued in 1935 that ‘the strongest asset’ of the Netherlands was ‘its Atlantic side’ as its ‘centre of gravity is in and over the sea’.2 This way of situating the Netherlands as if it were an island off the European coast rather than on the continent was partially a response to Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany two years earlier. But partially it reflected a longer-standing tradition in Dutch historiography in which the country’s history was portrayed as that of a small freedom-loving, sea-faring nation fundamentally different from its European neighbours. The entire history of the Netherlands was nothing but a Sonderweg, because, in Huizinga’s words, ‘its foundation was miraculous, its character peculiar and its development astonishing’.3

The Second World War ended this illusion of being able to isolate from Europe. Indeed, after 1945 the Netherlands embarked on what one historian labelled ‘a journey to the continent’,4 or, in other words, the acceptance that its centre of gravity was much more continental than Huizinga had been willing to admit. In terms of historical research, however, this primarily led to research projects that reconsidered the early modern history of the Netherlands. New studies have re-examined the conditions that enabled its ‘golden age’ (a term contested today, because Dutch overseas expansion went with slavery and colonial violence); the Dutch part in the ‘Atlantic revolutions’; and its entanglement in the efforts to build a European security culture after the fall of Napoleon.5

Also in this respect, the Netherlands reflects the trends outlined by Levsen and Requate. Indeed, for the more recent period, the Netherlands is still struggling to define its relation to Europe, not just politically, as recent clashes in Brussels have show, but also historically. Recent monographs on contemporary Dutch history indicate that even the national Sonderweg-narrative has not been completely abandoned.6 The dominance of the national perspective persists for historical themes that are hotly contested in public debates, such as Dutch violence during decolonisation, the legacy of slavery, and public history of the remembrance of the Dutch colonial past. For all these themes, but also other global events such as the cultural ‘revolution’ of the 1960s, or, more recently, the rise of populism, there are obvious European parallels that deserve to be explored. For example, Dutch decolonisation in Indonesia and the French decolonisation in Indochina; the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; populism in the Netherlands and its relation to its surge in other Western European democracies, and so forth), but the national container often remains dominant.

Barriers to Europeanisation and lessons to learn from other disciplines

While much more ‘Europeanised’ than during Huizinga’s days, especially for the contemporary period, Dutch historians battle with the same issues that Levsen and Requate outline. Why does this national perspective remain so dominant for historians across Europe? Language barriers are, of course, one explanation. Investing in the translation of source material that has been digitalised with remarkable speed over the past decade or so could be one solution to enable more comparisons across borders.7 Such investments are costly and time-consuming, however, and certainly do not tackle all issues at stake, because these do not result primarily from linguistic pluralism, but are intrinsic to our discipline as such. We often have an idiographic approach to our topic and look with suspicion on nomothetic approaches, believing that the world, past or present, is far too complex to be caught in generalities. This is also an obstacle to seeing European history as more than a collection of innumerable Sonderwegs.

We could learn from other disciplines in this regard, especially from political science. Aided by the fact that they often use sources that can be studied without linguistic obstacles, political science studies have become ‘Europeanised’ over the past decades, in terms of networks, journals and other forms of research infrastructure. What has also greatly aided the integration of the field is that scholars of European politics converge on a common set of overarching questions. These centre mainly, in one way or another, about the rise, expansion and destabilisation of democracy in Europe (the ‘waves’ of democratisation and its backsliding). Its relevance for us is underlined by the fact that political science theories and methods been applied successfully to historical case studies.8

This rallying around a common set of questions with contemporary relevance could be an inspiration for post-1945 history. Important historical cross-border research into previous periods on critical themes include war and resistance, revolutions, and the legacy of imperialism. As a result, these phenomena are more often written as entangled histories than those of the most recent period of European history.9 The formulation of such themes for our own period could, therefore, be a response to the challenges to European history today. While we do not know yet how today’s challenges will ‘end’, starting by asking questions is crucial for finding the ‘meaningful objects of comparison and regions for investigation’ that Levsen and Requate highlight as a main objective of European history. 

Although European history should not be reduced to the history of European integration, European integration history shows how such a cross-national dialogue can be fostered. The study of the political and economic integration of Europe has often successfully managed to supersede the national perspective or, at least, has shown how several national perspectives form pieces of the puzzle of the integration of Europe. This field has led to infrastructural changes around common themes – chairs in EU-history and new journals in the field. More important, it shows that an overarching question with contemporary relevance is key to starting a dialogue among scholars across the continent. Historical studies of the EU, not unlike the political science studies, all deal with a common question of great contemporary importance: how can we explain that, after the nationalism, antagonism, and violence of the first half of the twentieth century, Europe embarked on the road to integration, peace, and transnational cooperation? 

Some common questions to foster transnational dialogues

Such dialogues on commonly shared questions can weave together national historiographies that are now isolated. One theme that seems particularly urgent to me is the history of migration, with particular emphasis not only on refugees and immigration from the former colonies, but also on the history, and the public perception of, labour immigration and emigration, the so-called ‘guest workers’ that migrated from southern to northern Europe in the postwar era.10 This is par excellence an instance of entangled history with profound effects on both immigrant and emigrant communities. Yet the experience of countries with larger immigrant communities or countries with smaller immigrant communities and the experience of sending and receiving countries might also be of importance to explain different policies and attitudes on immigration that divide Europe today. Comparisons between countries like Germany and France with countries like Spain and Greece, but also with Eastern European countries seem particularly important in this regard.11

A second topic of major contemporary relevance seems to me to be the welfare state, and particularly the neoliberal reforms of the welfare state since the late 1970s. The notion that neoliberalism was limited to the United Kingdom and the United States or even merely to conservative parties has long been discredited. Neoliberalism was of enormous importance even in left-wing parties and in continental Europe.12 But comparisons of neoliberalism have focused mostly on political parties and their ideology rather than the translation of neoliberal concepts into policies at the national level.13 Given the diffusion of international networks of neoliberal ideologues as well as the synchronisation of economic policy among European states, comparative research is crucial to understand how and why the scope and shape of the welfare state, and attempts to change it, differs so much across Europe. At first glance, comparisons between different types of welfare state regimes such as the Scandinavian and Mediterranean countries make sense. But also in certain welfare state models, such as the Rhineland model, major differences exist. For example, why has Germany undertaken so many neoliberal labour reforms and France has not? 

A final theme, which is by no means an exhaustive list, of immense topical importance is the challenges that democratic institutions across European countries face today. As has been frequently emphasised, these institutions came to display a remarkable uniformity across Western Europe after 1945.14 The study of democracy’s postwar ‘model’ has been something of a booming topic, but the challenges posed to it since the 1970s with ever greater insistence are still unknown terrain. Not only the rise of populism, but particularly the decline of the centre parties that were intimately connected to the reconstruction of Western European democracies in the postwar, seems important to me.15 Whether French Gaullists, German social democrats or Italian Christian democrats, all these parties lost many of their members and then many of their voters since the late 1970s. They all faced challenges to their ideological assumptions, composition of their core constituency, and their organisational models. Yet historical studies remain largely fragmented along party and national lines. Only studies of how party politicians across Europe responded to these challenges could show how differences in chronology between, say, the collapse of the Italian Christian Democratic party in the early 1990s and the slow but steady decline of conservative parties in France and Germany in the last decade have much more in common than we usually assume.

Reading history forward in Europe’s laboratory

Starting from shared questions about pressing contemporary themes enables valuable comparisons and reveales entangled histories such as exist for the pre-1945 period. Of course, the risk of ‘Whig history’ is real when starting empirical historical research from contemporary challenges. It is therefore essential, as Daniel Ziblatt and Giovanni Cappoccia stated a few years ago, to read history forward.16 Instead of looking at outcomes, we should do what we as historians are actually good at, namely to go back to foundational moments and explain how the ideas, institutional reforms, and political struggles of the past help us to understand the world today. This also sets contemporary political history apart from political science, which all too often reads history backwards to find perceived analogies or illustrations to contemporary events.

Reading history forward is also of particular relevance for another challenge in European history, carving out more specifically the place of European history between global and national history. Although we cannot literally conduct experiments by travelling in time, history can be seen as a laboratory in which we can test hypotheses put forward in the social sciences.17 Not merely the methodological diversity of European historiography, but the actual diversity of its historical experiences is vital here. This is the reason that a growing number of social scientists use European historical case studies to develop and test their arguments. These offer a wealth of empirical material to illuminate a number of pressing questions.18

While this has been mostly limited to processes of state formation and democratisation before 1945, the laboratory of democracy in Europe also offers a wealth of material for comparative historical questions for the postwar period. What were the ingredients of the model that eventually stabilised democracy in Europe after 1945? Why do political regimes across the continent now display such a high level of homogeneity after the heterogeneity before 1945? To what extent did many Southern and Eastern European countries in the third wave of democratisation import the ‘West European’ model? Why do the legacies of dictatorship affect the entrenchment of liberal democratic institutions and attitudes so differently among European states? To be sure, Europe does not provide a normative benchmark in a global perspective. The history of democracy in Europe illustrates perfectly that Europe’s political modernisation was a process with many setbacks – and that is never irreversible. Nonetheless, the comparative study of Europe’s political laboratory feeds into both national and global history and provides new perspectives on both, as well as on the challenges Europeans face today.

This leads to my final point. The ‘self-reflective’ state of European history today impedes dissemination and public discussion of the results of empirical research, precisely at a time when an historical perspective on contemporary challenges is much needed. Our research might be less directly applicable to public policy solutions than that of economists or sociologists, but at the same time the usage of ‘history’ plays a crucial role in shaping politics both at the national and European level. Historians should play a more prominent role in the ‘European public sphere’ that is slowly taking shape. The goal of historians should not be fostering a pan-European public sphere that might very well remain marginal and elite-focused. Historians should be Europeanising national public spheres by contributing expertise and experiences from across borders in national policy discussions and public debates. Initiatives are already being taken to disseminate research among broader audiences of policy makers, journalists, and think tanks.19 But our professional organisations are still often organised along national lines, or along sub-disciplinary boundaries.20 Fostering networks that connect historians studying pressing contemporary challenges to encourage the exchange of empirical research and to make intervention in public and policy debates is essential. These networks could support a sustained cross-national dialogue and have a meaningful impact on national policy debates.

Cite this article as:

Pepijn Corduwener: Fostering a Transnational Dialogue About Contemporary Challenges: A Research Note on Writing European History Today, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, November 30, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/438.

  1. Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire, 1801-1917, Oxford 1967, Rpt 2004: xii. []
  2. Johan Huizinga, Nederlands geestesmerk, Leiden 1935: 40. []
  3. Huizinga 1935: 7. []
  4. Mathieu Segers, Reis naar het continent: Nederland en de Europese integratie, 1950-heden, Amsterdam 2013. []
  5. See for instance: Beatrice de Graaf / Ido de Haan / Brian Vick (eds.), Securing Europe After Napoleon: 1815 and the New European Security Culture, Cambridge 2019; René Koekkoek, The Citizenship Experiment: Contesting the Limits of Civic Equality and Participation in the Age of Revolutions, Leiden 2020. []
  6. See for instance: Maarten Roy Park / Jan Luiten van Zanden, Nederland en het poldermodel: sociaal-economische geschiedenis van Nederland, 1000-2000, Amsterdam 2013. []
  7. Think for instance of the parliamentary minutes of parliaments and constituent assemblies/councils, for instance the French, Italian and German ones; of congresses and party programs of the SPD and CDU, for the latter including meetings of the party board; of the digitisation of newspapers, including party newspapers such as the Italian socialist daily Avanti; and the digitisation of campaign material and propaganda material of various social movements by the International Institute for Social History. Examples of successful translation of source material include for instance the ‘German History in Documents and Images’ which has digitised German sources since 1500 and translated these into English (https://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/about.cfm); and the database on national political party legislation from all countries in European Union (http://www.partylaw.leidenuniv.nl). []
  8. See for instance: Dirk Berg-Schlosser / Jeremy Mitchell (eds.), Conditions of Democracy in Europe 1919-1939: Systematic Case Studies, Basingstoke 2000. []
  9. Just a few examples: Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, London 2008; David Stevenson, 1917: War, Peace & Revolution, Oxford 2019; Peo Hansen / Stefan Jonsson, Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism, London 2014; Olivier Wieviorka, The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940-1945, New York 2019. []
  10. On the topic there are mostly edited volumes, which can be very good, but which are a collection of national case studies: David Cesanari and Mary Fulbrook (eds.), Citizenship, Nationality and Migration in Europe, London 1996. []
  11. Which are until now treated mostly in, again often very good, national case studies: Rita Chin, The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany, Cambridge 2007; Michele Colucci, Storia dell’immigrazione straniera in Italia: dal 1945 ai nostri giorni, Rome 2018; Ralph Schor, Histoire de l’immigration en France de la fin du XIXe siècle à nos jours, Paris 1996. []
  12. Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000, Oxford 2004. []
  13. Stephanie Mudge, Leftism Reinvented: Western Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism, Cambridge MA 2017. A major exception would be: Philipp Ther, Europe since 1989: A History, Princeton 2016. []
  14. Martin Conway, Western Europe’s Democratic Age, 1945-1968, Princeton 2020; Jan-Werner Müller, Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe, New Haven 2011. []
  15. Pepijn Corduwener, Democracy and the Entanglement of Political Parties and the State: Party-state relations in 20th-century France, Italy and Germany, in: Comparative Political Studies 53.1 (2020), pp. 40-70. []
  16. Giovanni Capoccia / Daniel Ziblatt, The Historical Turn in Democratization Studies: A New Research Agenda for Europe and Beyond, in: Comparative Political Studies 43.8/9 (2019), pp. 931-968. []
  17. See for instance: Bas van Bavel, History as a Laboratory to Better Understand the Formation of Institutions, in: Journal of Institutional Economics 11.1 (2015), pp. 69-91. For a national historical case study, see: Marc Lazar, Testing Italian Democracy, in: Comparative European Politics 11 (2013), pp. 317-336. []
  18. David Ziblatt, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, Cambridge 2017; Sheri Berman, The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe, New Haven 1998; Giovanni Capoccia, Defending Democracy, Baltimore 2005; Daron Acemoğlu / James Robinson, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Cambridge 2006; Charles Tilly, Democracy, Cambridge 2007. []
  19. See the recently established Journal of Applied History which ‘promotes interventions in contemporary policy making as well as in contemporary discussions about key social issues that are based on thorough historical research’. []
  20. For instance, in the field of Social History, with its European Social Science and History Conference; or the Association for Political History. []

On the Margins of European History

Jitka Malečková

The idea of European history, which is closely tied up with the notoriously elusive concept of Europe, has meant and continues to mean different things to different groups and individuals, including historians, in different times and different places in Europe. As an historian from the Czech Republic and someone whose work focuses on the history of East Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, I approach European history from the perspective of these regions and reflect especially on the place the margins of Europe occupy in European history. Here I use the term margins in a geographical sense as areas on the edge of an ill-defined continent, but also to refer to what is left ‘outside the main body’ of European history.

Hierarchies

Viewed from Europe’s margins, European history is markedly hierarchical. Some events, figures, topics, and national histories are deemed to be worth historians’ attention more than others and serve as a basis against which other events, national histories, and topics are written about and evaluated. Not surprising, the same hierarchical approach has characterized analyses of Europe’s relations with the non-European world. Europe’s margins tend to be underrepresented in international research and publishing on European history, although clearly more so when it comes to some periods and topics of research than others. Ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, for example, have received substantial attention in recent decades and have given rise to remarkable works.1 But despite their potential to serve as prisms through which to approach European history (because they are related to national legislation and frameworks and totally ignore and transcend national borders at the same time), Europe’s regions are quite unevenly represented in the works dealing with these topics.2

Geographically, the uneven representation of various parts of Europe in European history is not limited to a single region (a conference focusing on 20th-century marriage patterns in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Latvia would not be considered to cover the history of Europe  any more than a book on Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, and Czech women’s movements would, while works limited to several West European countries might still be perceived as representing European history). Nor is this a one-sided process. It concerns both the ‘core’ and the ‘margins.’  Perhaps we should speak of various regions and themes being unevenly integrated into European history rather than being underrepresented.

On the one hand, it is hard to deny that most highly praised works on European history have been produced in Western European academia. It is nevertheless striking that even some excellent European history books published in Western Europe explicitly state that Eastern Europe lies outside their scope.3 ‘Eastern Europe’ is, furthermore, sometimes still depicted as an undifferentiated block or as a whole that can easily be represented by just one of its parts. Such perceptions, on the other hand, affect the way in which different historians and other people interested in history in Eastern Europe relate to Europe and see, or do not see, themselves as a part of European history. This is coupled with the legacy of the communist period. The consequences of the isolation from and rejection of foreign phenomena in official historical institutions throughout the region during the communist period can still occasionally be felt in the attitude that the mainstream historical establishment and historians have to ‘European’ trends, though this attitude varies in intensity between different countries and generations within these countries and from one historian to the next.

The political transformations and Euro-optimism of the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium seemed to modify how European history was viewed in East Central Europe. Historical arguments began to be used to redefine the region’s relations with Europe. Respected Czech historians, for example, would emphasize how the Czechs had always been a part, or even at the vanguard, of European history and would argue that they therefore belong in Europe.4 The need to stress how integrated Czechs are into European history has, however, gradually diminished. The emphasis on Czechs’ Europeanness was clearly pragmatic and was happening at a time when Czechs and Slovaks, as well as other Central Europeans, were striving to join the European Union, while now they take their Europeanness for granted. But this does not mean that the decreasing emphasis on the European dimensions of East Central Europe’s past does not also reflect the current state of European history.

Inclusion

While nobody denies that the margins of Europe are a part of Europe, whether the two large empires that existed on Europe’s (south) eastern borders, the Ottoman Empire and Russia, are treated as parts of European history is a subject of debate. In both instances, however, European history can be made more inclusive not by adding another imperial, national, or regional tradition to what has become the standard perspective on European history, but by shifting the perspective and asking what European history or some aspects of it look like from the position of Europe’s margins, from Kiev or from Istanbul. Let’s take, for example, class, an undoubtedly important category of historical analysis. What class has meant in British history, leaving aside how this concept has changed even within British historiography, differs quite substantially from the understandings of class in communist and post-communist Eastern Europe or in the late Ottoman Empire. It is often assumed, nevertheless, that class has the same Western European-based meaning whenever it is used.

The Ottoman Empire is increasingly being considered a part of European history but its inclusion is occurring somewhat asymmetrically; it is happening in Ottoman studies more than in European history. There is no need to show here all the many ways in which the Ottoman Empire was entangled with Europe or to prove that the processes under way in the early modern and modern Ottoman Empire resembled those that were taking place in Europe at that time, although it might be useful for many historians of Europe to know about these parallels. Particularly worth noting is the fact that Pascal W. Firges and Tobias P. Graf refer to in their introduction to Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History. They write that the Ottoman Empire was ‘not exclusively a European, but also a world empire, which had political, economic, and religious interests well beyond its borders in the West, North, South, and East.’5 In other words, Ottoman history can be seen as a link between European history and world history. Similarly, the Russian Empire was both inside and outside Europe. In the 19th century Russia was turning its attention eastward and swallowing vast Asian areas inhabited by Muslim populations thus connecting European history with Asian history. The inclusion of two world empires on the margins of Europe, therefore, naturally integrates European history into world history more broadly without necessarily ‘provincializing’ it in the process.

Of course, even leaving aside the Ottoman and Russian Empires, Europe is and has always been connected to world or global history in myriad ways. For many, however, this connection means in the first place either modernization or colonialism together with the processes that led to it and that followed de-colonization. In other words, the very connection between Europe and the world around it embodies hierarchy, one in which Europe has tended to be the benchmark against which comparisons and evaluations are made.

Comparative History

Nevertheless, I believe that comparative history is one way to make European history less hierarchical. This may not seem immediately obvious because one of the main criticisms of comparative history is that it generates hierarchies and creates standards against which others are evaluated, such as the ranking implied in modernization theory. Comparative history has been criticized also for resting on national history, for comparing national cases and thus essentializing nations and confirming the divisions between them. Comparative history has, as a result, been all but supplanted by various forms of transnational history, histoire croisée and Transfergeschichte, which have yielded new approaches and often noteworthy results.

While the criticism is valid and reflects the problems of many comparative works, the more recent and successful examples of comparative history have overcome these limitations.6 They show that it is not necessary to compare national units and that the focus can instead be on subnational objects of comparison or on supranational ones, such as empires or global interconnections. For instance, a comparison that was made of how representatives of three ethnic groups and two generations in a small Romanian village remember two distinct events in the 1940s highlighted the discrepancy that exists between the local population’s understanding of events and the way they are interpreted by national historiography and politicians.7  Focusing on how intimate life – sex, sentiment, and childrearing – figured in imperial rule enabled Ann Stoler to compare the North American experience with European colonial empires.8 These types of comparisons have little to do with the tradition of comparative history that produces models and typologies, an approach that is perhaps closer to the hearts of historical sociologists, but that sometimes seems too reductionist to historians with leanings towards cultural history or literary studies. Less rigid ‘soft comparisons’ could serve as an inspiration for a new concept of comparative studies in European history.

Comparative history of this kind can offer European history a tool with which to solve at least some of its current problems. First, when a comparison sets out from the presumption of equality between the compared cases, instead of comparing a ‘model’ case with others that are expected to have followed the same path or pattern, then it becomes possible to include regional, national, or subnational areas and themes into European history on an equal footing. Philippa Levine has, in this context, spoken about comparisons ‘of’ instead of comparison ‘to’, the latter implying a hierarchy among the compared cases.9 Second, it can overcome the biases of national historiographies and their master narratives for the very reason that a comparison with other national traditions exposes their prejudices. It has been argued that historians are too affected by their historical upbringing and the closeness of their own national history to be impartial towards other cases.10 Leaving aside the increasing number of studies that do not compare national histories, however, it is possible, even if not very common, to compare two cases where neither one is the historian’s own national history, or to do joint comparative research projects.11 Historians are becoming less resistant to joining forces with their colleagues from other countries to write articles and books, and comparative history is one of the most important areas in which such collaboration is not only fruitful but often indispensable. Thomas Welskopp notes that comparative history requires the historian to do archival research – or work with primary sources – for every case that the historian plans to include in his or her comparison, which limits the number of cases that can be compared.12 However, whether comparing national master narratives or villages in different cultural-linguistic areas, working with an international team means that even larger comparative projects can be carried out.13 Third, comparative history, for a long time associated with research based on the nation as the unit of analysis, can in fact work against this focus. It has the potential to challenge borders and highlight not just the ways in which national histories are distinct but also how they are interconnected. At the same time, since national histories continue to play an important role across Europe, they cannot be excluded from comparisons. Comparative history can deconstruct the idea of uniqueness and Sonderweg showing that some phenomena are regional or even broader, rather than specific to one nation.  Finally, comparative history can learn from postcolonial studies, which use comparative methods to analyze the functioning of imperial structures. While this type of research has been conducted on the imperial networks of Europe’s colonial powers, the parts of Europe that were not directly engaged in the colonial enterprise should also be included in this framework. This has already been suggested, for instance, in studies of colonialism without colonies14 and postcolonial comparative history could inspire the study of empires in Europe as well. Comparative history in itself does not automatically ‘do’ any of this work, but it can be put at the service of European history.

There can never be a perfect European history. But there are ways to improve how European history is practiced so that it can speak to more people inside and outside Europe than it does at present and it can help find answers to some of their questions, while at the same time inspiring new questions.

Cite this article as:

Jitka Malečková: On the Margins of European History, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, November 22, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/342.

  1. This work was supported by the European Regional Development Fund project “Creativity and Adaptability as Conditions of the Success of Europe in an Interrelated World” (reg. no.: CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000734). Among the numerous examples see, e.g. Margaret R. Hunt, Women in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Harlow 2010; Luisa Passerini, Love and the Idea of Europe, New York, Oxford 2009. []
  2. I have argued elsewhere that comprehensive works on European history include either Eastern Europe (and sometimes the Ottoman Empire) or a gender perspective, but seldom both, resulting in a history of a rather ‘small Europe’. Jitka Malečková, Gender, History and ‘Small Europe’, in: European History Quarterly 40.4 (2010), pp. 685–700. []
  3. Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500–1800, London 1995: 26. []
  4. Jiří Rak, České evropanství: České národní dějiny v evropském kontextu / Czech Europeanism: The Czech National history in the European Context, Prague 2006; Dušan Třeštík, Češi a dějiny v postmoderním očistci, Prague 2005. []
  5. Pascal Firges / Tobias P. Graf / Christian Roth / Gülay Tulasoğlu (eds.), Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History, Leiden 2014: 26. []
  6. On the processes and practices of comparing see Angelika Epple / Walter Erhart / Johannes Grave (eds.), Practices of Comparing: Towards a New Understanding of a Fundamental Human Practice, Bielefeld 2020, https://doi.org/10.17302/9783839451663. []
  7. Maria Bucur, Remembering Wartime Violence in Twentieth-Century Transylvania: A Few Thoughts on Comparative History, in: Hungarian Studies 21.1/2 (2007), pp. 101-110. []
  8. Ann Laura Stoler, Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies, in: The Journal of American History 88.3 (2001), pp. 829-865. []
  9. Philippa Levine, Is Comparative History Possible?, in: History and Theory 53.3 (2014), pp. 331-347. []
  10. See Thomas Welskopp, Comparative History, in: Institute of European History (IEG) (ed.), European History Online (EGO), Mainz 2010-12-03, http://www.ieg-ego.eu/welskoppt-2010-en URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-20100921414 [2020-08-10]. []
  11. See Rogers Brubaker / Margit Feischmidt / Jon Fox / Liana Grancea, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town,  Princeton 2008. Although Brubaker is not a historian, the volume can serve as an example of these points. []
  12. Welskopp 2010. []
  13. This is the case of some of the chapters in the book edited by Berger and Lorenz. See Gernot Heiss / Árpád von Klimó / Pavel Kolář / Dušan Kováč, Habsburg’s Difficult Legacy: Comparing and Relating Austrian, Czech, Magyar and Slovak National Historical Master Narratives, in: Stefan Berger / Chris Lorenz (eds.), Contested Nation: Ethnicity, Class, Religion and Gender in National Histories, Houndmills 2008, pp. 367-404. []
  14. Barbara Lüthi / Francesca Falk / Patricia Purtschert, Colonialism without Colonies: Examining Blank Spaces in Colonial Studies, in: National Identities 18. 1 (2016), pp. 1-9: 1. []

European History as a Nationalist and Post-Nationalist Project

Pasi Ihalainen

European history in Finland

Finland is rather exceptional in that, for decades, history students in major universities were allowed to choose between the disciplines of Finnish (national) and General (European/World) History as their major or in some cases Cultural, Economic, Intellectual, Political or Social History instead. Such a selection has been removed recently with the integration of the master’s programmes of Finnish and General History in most universities. It is hoped that this integration will lead to an increased internationalisation and Europeanisation of all academic history teaching and research, supporting the development of comparative, transnational and global perspectives. It remains to be seen, however, whether the merging of national and international history might actually support a neo-nationalist turn to nation-state-centred history, reflecting current right populist tendencies in public discourse. Concentration on the nation state remains mainstream in historical research in practically every European country, and there are signs that students are favouring national over international history again after years when many prioritised the European over the Finnish.

Paradoxically, the first Finnish chair in General History was created in the Imperial Alexander University of Helsinki in 1863 for Georg Zacharias Forsman and was soon passed on to Zachris Topelius, a sympathiser of the House of Romanov and the imperial interests of Russia.1 The geopolitical idea was to support teaching the history of the Russian Empire to the Finns who, after separation from Sweden, had started to construct their national past. Inspired by the national romantic trends of the time, Finns often found historic moments defining Finnish national identity in heroic wars on the Swedish side. For example defining episodes included fighting against Catholics under Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years’ War, or defending the motherland against Russians in the Finnish War (1808–1809), a side episode in the Napoleonic Wars.

In research and teaching, however, the holders of the chair turned General History not to one promoting Russian imperial history but to a nationalistic project integrating Finnish history to that of Scandinavia and Western Europe and using historical arguments to defend Finnish autonomy against Russification.2 General History had a revival during the Cold War when historians aimed at explaining Finnish policies during the Second World War,3 relating the history of the Finnish nation to that of broader Western Europe,4 or explaining Lenin’s strategy in recognising Finnish independence.5 Contributions to the history of common Western European phenomena were believed to win international visibility for Finnish historical research.6 This often led to a focus on the intellectual history of great powers.7

Courses on the construction of Europe, funded by the European Commission at the time of negotiations on Finnish membership (1995), were another temporary phase. The global turn has remained modest due to the minor role which Finns played in the Swedish colonial projects and the generally held conception of Finland as an object, rather than subject, of colonialism. Some historians have wished to contribute to the comparative history of political cultures and political key concepts in Europe, drawing benefit from the paradox that as speakers of a non-Indo-European language, in a country long governed in foreign languages, Finnish historians need to command several foreign languages. Finnish historians also launched an organisation called Historians without Borders (https://www.historianswithoutborders.fi/en/), which aims at constructive discussions between parties in conflicts in which divergent interpretations of the past are an issue.

Nationalist and internationalist historiography

There are divisions between ‘nationalists’ and ‘internationalists’ among historians in every country. In a recent history of the Finnish Historical Society – a society that was founded in 1875 but until 1962 was dedicated to scholars of Finnish history only8 – historical research not actively engaged in constructing the master narrative of the Finnish nation has been left to the margins.9 This reflects the dominant way of prioritising the national to the inter- and transnational in a small nation state, despite the existence of a tradition of research contributing to European history. Even if I identify myself as a reasonably patriotic Finn, I still consider European history a timely post-nationalist antidote to nation-state-centredness. It not only helps the historian to understand the common and peculiar features of individual nation states better but also challenges methodological nationalism and narratives of national exceptionalism.

Historiography from any country provides examples of a historical phenomenon or development in a nation state being presented as unique simply because parallel and entangled phenomena elsewhere have been ignored. Methodological nationalism has been characteristic of practically every doctoral dissertation I have examined in Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. Thinking outside the national box and established interpretations in the national narrative is obviously difficult for PhD candidates and perhaps might even be considered unpatriotic by their audiences. Whenever working on a comparative topic in the history of political discourse and studying parallel debates in several countries, one often encounters research carried out in national isolation. One may consequently feel obliged to ask challenging questions rising from other national contexts and to point to comparisons that might have deepened the understanding of the national case and created a better international understanding of common European history as well.

National histories are rarely entirely understandable without European comparisons and the consideration of transnational interaction unless we historians wish to continue to carry on the construction of separate nation states in the 21st century. Concentration on the national continues to dominate historical research everywhere and there is no denying the legitimacy of nation state as a unit of historical analysis. There is some variation, however, as to how much conflicting interpretations of national history and historiographic interventions by foreigners are tolerated. Historians from Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands are more used to foreigners writing their history, which of course does not mean that the outsiders are always considered competent to do that.  Historians from smaller states may be particularly critical if the foreign historian does not include sufficient admiration towards the studied country and join its established narratives. Even if we are all foreigners to the distant past, and coming from outside the history-cultural socialisation of the country may help in thinking outside the box of the national, there are still ‘natives’ who may be offended by such intrusions. Any historian, native or foreign, dealing with delicate or central issues of national history with established interpretations and challenging them with cross-national comparisons runs the risk of being questioned, rejected, or simply ignored.

Narratives of Nordic exceptionalism

Let me take up three examples from Nordic history which, despite the outspoken international orientation of the Scandinavian societies and academia, continues to focus mainly on the histories of respective nation states. Nordic history would benefit from comparative history within and beyond Scandinavian. Since the Second World War, Nordic history has tended to avoid potentially unpleasant comparisons with German history due to both methodological nationalism and for ideological reasons.10 Furthermore, Scandinavian historians may remain surprisingly unaware of relevant research carried out in a neighbouring Nordic country. Concentration on the nation state easily produces narratives of particularity. This leads to the consensual disregard of findings of European history that do not fit the established national paradigms – whether studies of the welfare state, democracy or violent national conflicts, for instance.

In all Nordic countries, the welfare state has become the universal concept dominating every aspect of social life. Explaining the welfare state as a product of mid-twentieth-century cooperation between social democrats and liberals or agrarians and later on even conservatives has not sufficed for some Nordic historians. There has been a political need to emphasise the indigenous structural nature of the Nordic welfare states, the favourite explanatory factor being Lutheranism that created ethics supportive of welfare states. The extreme interpretation, reinforced by an American liberal fan of the Nordic model, presents Luther as a revolutionary, democrat, socialist and feminist, and Nordic social democracy and welfare states as Lutheranism put into practice in a secular form.11 A close reading and contextualisation of Luther’s original writings and comparisons with other Lutheran countries – not least Germany – would have helped in relativizing such claims supportive of self-sufficient attitudes among Scandinavians and Finns. There is no doubt that Lutheranism has played a major role in the formation of Nordic national identities, education, culture, and social practices,12 but excessive claims on Nordic welfare states as simply secularised Lutheranism are an example of the need for twentieth-century European history as a context.

Another concept shared by all Scandinavians is democracy. Every Nordic political party supports democracy, even though the exact meaning of democracy varies significantly from party to party. Democracy often appears as a synonym for the established political system based on a strong sovereign nation state executing the will of the people. As the Danish Jeppe Nevers (2018) has shown, Nordic critics of European integration have typically emphasised national democracy and sovereignty as opposed to any transnational democracy developed within the European Union – similar to British brexiteers. Illustrative also is the provocation in calling a leading right populist party ‘Sweden Democrats’. The use of ‘Democrats’ is an attempt to take over a central universalist concept of Swedish national identity by redefining it in ways that challenge the dominant tolerant, multicultural and social democratic understanding of Swedishness.

Historians and political scientists have demonstrated how the narratives of Denmark and Sweden as birthplaces of democracy and parliamentarism developed since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First conservatives maintained these narratives to counter reform as foreign innovation and later reformists took over the narratives to redefine their demands as the mere restoration of a golden past of democracy and parliamentarism. Once the reformists won and universal and equal suffrage was introduced in Sweden in the aftermath of the First World War, and as Sweden was defined as the safe haven of democracy by all major parties as a reaction to Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the narrative of native democracy became mainstream.13

During the struggles for universal suffrage, the political scientist Fredrik Lagerroth14 interpreted the Age of Liberty (1719–1772) – when the Diet played a major role in Swedish politics – as the revival of ancient Swedish democracy and the anticipation of modern parliamentary democracy. This narrative was echoed in Anglophone accounts of the Swedish Age of Liberty most famously by Michael Roberts15 which was received as reinforcement of the validity of the narrative of pioneering Swedish democracy.16 European comparisons, however, point at the contingent nature of democracy in the Nordic countries, demonstrating the typically early modern nature of the Swedish eighteenth-century estate representation and the dependency of Nordic democratisation on the common European experiences of the First World War as well as on transnational connections, not least to Germany and Russia.17 European history is needed to relativize our historical arguments about the natural, self-evident and unproblematic rise of Nordic democracy. It helps to understand the entangled and transnational character of our democracies, in the past, today, and in the future.

Civil wars have frequently caused the deepest scars in national historical consciousness. Finland’s Civil War of 1918 between Whites who defended a republican constitution with strong executive powers, allying with Imperial Germany, and Reds who, after having lost a parliamentary majority, launched a socialist revolution with support from Bolshevik Russia,  is not an exception. Parliamentary government based on broad suffrage since 1906 consequently failed and 30,000 casualties during the war and post-war terror created lasting bitterness. In the interwar era and until the 1960s, a White narrative dominated, associating the Red rebellion with Russian Bolshevism. Since the 1960s, at first popular authors, and later historians, constructed an alternative narrative sympathetic to the socio-economic demands of the socialists. This narrative often ended up with emphasis on an exceptionally repressive bourgeoisie opposed by a moderate reformist labour movement.18 Since the 1970s, a national consensus has been constructed in cultural products and mainstream historiography around this latter narrative.

Challenging this dominant narrative is difficult. Suggestions have been made – on the basis of comparative research considering transnational entanglements – that many of the Finnish non-socialist parties were reformist in comparison to their German and Swedish counterparts and that violent revolutionary rhetoric took over the Finnish Social Democratic Party during 1917 in ways that cannot be found in Britain, Germany or Sweden. While transfers from Petrograd are obvious,19 denial may follow.20 Some historians continue to emphasise Finnish social confrontations unavoidably leading to a civil war, denying the role of polarised, transnational and entangled discourses in deepening the conflict. We need European history with consideration of the national and transnational dynamics of political discourse in 1917 to better understand why the Finnish parliamentary system – called the most democratic in Europe before the First World War including women’s suffrage – failed. Comparative European history also helps to explain how the Finnish system recovered, gradually developing towards a stable polity.

Challenges and possibilities of comparative and transnational history

Comparative history also has its blind spots. The choice of the objects of comparisons can easily determine the conclusions. For example, it seems to be the rule in German historiography that Germany is compared with other great European nations while comparisons with the culturally much closer Scandinavian countries may be considered irrelevant. Finland appears as a progressive nation when compared to Russia, the Baltic States, or Eastern Central Europe21 but is seen as on the fringes of Western civilisation when compared to ‘Protestant’, ‘constitutional’ and ‘parliamentary’ Northwestern Europe.22 Volumes consisting of separate national narratives by ‘natives’ unwilling to analyse similar sources from other countries or consider points of transnational interaction hardly constitute proper comparative history if only the editors attempt to carry out comparisons. Much remains to be done among historians to relativize an isolated nation state as the dominant unit of analysis. In order to write European history we must be ready to treat our home country as an interesting case among others, to learn several languages, to read parallel sources from countries of comparison and to question national narratives, no matter how painful that may be. Such critical review of national historiographies is needed in the present-day world of revived discourses of national exceptionalism.

One possibility to write comparative and transnational European history might be to focus on parliaments as predominantly national institutions that have encountered similar challenges at about the same time in history. They have dealt with reform needs with rather similar procedures and produced exceptionally coherent, structured, comparable extensive sources. As institutions in which multi-sited and transnational political discourses have intersected in same space and time, parliaments constitute ideal fora for the analysis of transformations in ideologically charged political concepts such as the people, nation, sovereignty, representation, democracy, parliamentarism, politician and internationalism, as well as a significant variety of policy questions common to most European states.

Computer-assisted analyses of the corpora of digitised parliamentary records can be used to locate ideological confrontations, some of which may previously have gone unnoticed. Quantitative analyses of extensive digital datasets can document temporal evolution and enable the selection of cases for qualitative, contextual, content analysis. They help to detect patterns and anomalies and enable the formulation of new research questions. Contextualising close reading of micro-level cases needs to focus on the dynamic relationship between intra- and extra-parliamentary political discourses in national contexts and to consider cross-national transfers. Digitisation and such amalgamation of national histories now enable contextually sensitive big data analyses of the long-term history of transnational European political discourse.

August 2020

Cite this article as:

Pasi Ihalainen: European History as a Nationalist and Post-Nationalist Project, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, November 15, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/353.

  1. Matti Klinge, Topelius, Zachris (1818-1898), in: Finnish Literature Society (ed.), Studia Biographica 4, Helsinki 1997, http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:sks-kbg-002854. []
  2. Vesa Vares, Danielson-Kalmari, Johan Richard (1853-1933), in: Finnish Literature Society (ed.), Studia Biographica 4, Helsinki 2003, http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:sks-kbg-003177. []
  3. Eino Jutikkala, Korhonen, Arvi (1890-1967), in: Finnish Literature Society (ed.), Studia Biographica 4, Helsinki 2001, http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:sks-kbg-007003. []
  4. Aira Kemiläinen, Nationalism: Problems Concerning the Word, the Concept and Classification, Jyväskylä 1964. []
  5. Timo Vihavainen, Polvinen, Tuomo (1931-), in: Finnish Literature Society (ed.), Studia Biographica 4, Helsinki 2006, http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:sks-kbg-007646. []
  6. Marjatta Hietala, Kemiläinen, Aira (1919-2006), in: Finnish Literature Society (ed.), Studia Biographica 4, Helsinki 2004, http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:sks-kbg-008531. []
  7. Sisko Haikala, ‘Britische Freiheit’ und das Englandbild in der öffentlichen deutschen Diskussion im ausgehenden 18. Jahrhundert, Jyväskylä 1985; Markku Peltonen, Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought: 1570 to 1640, Helsinki 1992. []
  8. Petri Karonen (ed.), Tiede ja yhteiskunta. Suomen Historiallinen Seura ja historiantutkimus 1800-luvulta 2010-luvulle, Helsinki 2019. []
  9. Pertti Haapala, Kirja meistä, in: Historiallinen aikakauskirja 116.1 (2020), pp. 116–118. []
  10. Peter Baldwin, Comparing and Generalizing: Why All History Is Comparative, Yet No History Is Sociology, in: Deborah Cohen / Maura O’Connor (eds.), Comparison and History: Europe in Cross-National Perspective, New York & London 2004, pp. 1-22. []
  11. Robert H. Nelson, Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy: A Different Protestant Ethic, Aarhus 2017; cf. Pasi Ihalainen, Review of Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy: A Different Protestant Ethic by Robert H. Nelson, in: Scandia 84.2 (2018), pp. 120-122. []
  12. Pasi Ihalainen, Protestant Nations Redefined: Changing Perceptions of National Identity in the Rhetoric of English, Dutch and Swedish Public Churches, 1685–1772, Leiden 2005; Kaius Sinnemäki / Anneli Portman / Jouni Tilli / Robert H. Nelson (eds.), On the Legacy of Lutheranism in Finland: Societal Perspectives, Helsinki 2019; Pasi Ihalainen, Towards a Religion of Popular Sovereignty, Democracy and Equality: The Lutheran Sermon as a Nexus of Traditional and Modern Discourses on Political Values and a Collective Identity, in: Kaius Sinnemäki / Anneli Portman / Jouni Tilli / Robert H. Nelson (eds.), On the Legacy of Lutheranism in Finland: Societal Perspectives, Helsinki 2019, pp. 292–308. []
  13. Jussi Kurunmäki, ‘Nordic Democracy’ in 1935: On the Finnish and Swedish Rhetoric of Democracy, in: Jussi Kurunmäki / Johan Strang (eds.), Rhetorics of Nordic Democracy, Helsinki 2010, pp. 37-82; Pasi Ihalainen, The 18th-Century Traditions of Representation in a New Age of Revolution: History Politics in the Swedish and Finnish Parliaments, 1917–1919, in: Scandinavian Journal of History 40.1 (2015), pp. 70–96; Uffe Jakobsen / Jussi Kurunmäki, Formation of Parliamentarism in the Nordic Countries from the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War, in: Pasi Ihalainen / Cornelia Ilie / Kari Palonen (eds.), Parliament and Parliamentarism: A Comparative History of a European Concept, New York 2016, pp. 97-114; Jussi Kurunmäki / Irène Herrmann, Birthplaces of Democracy: The Rhetoric of Democratic Tradition in Switzerland and Sweden, in: Jussi Kurunmäki / Jeppe Nevers / Henk te Velde (eds.), Democracy in Modern Europe: A Conceptual History, New York 2018, pp. 82-112. []
  14. Fredrik Lagerroth, Frihetstidens författning: en studie i den svenska konstitutionalismens historia, Stockholm 1915. []
  15. Michael Roberts, The Age of Liberty: Sweden 1719−1772, Cambridge 1986. []
  16. Marie-Christine Skuncke / Henrika Tandefelt (eds.), Riksdag, kaffehus, predikstol. Frihetstidens politiska kultur 1766–1772, Stockholm 2003. []
  17. Pasi Ihalainen, Agents of the People: Democracy and Popular Sovereignty in British and Swedish Parliamentary and Public Debates, 1734–1800, Leiden 2010; Pasi Ihalainen, The Springs of Democracy: National and Transnational Debates on Constitutional Reform in the British, German, Swedish and Finnish Parliaments, 1917–1919, Helsinki 2017; Michael Jonas, Scandinavia and the Great Powers in the First World War, London 2019. []
  18. Risto Alapuro, State and Revolution in Finland, Berkeley 1988. []
  19. Ihalainen 2017; Lasse Lehtinen / Risto Volanen, 1918: Kuinka vallankumous levisi Suomeen, Helsinki 2018; Pasi Ihalainen, Diskurssit osana sisällissotaan johtanutta poliittista prosessia, in: Historiallinen aikakauskirja 117.1 (2019), pp. 95−98. []
  20. Antti Kujala, Neljän maan parlamenttihistorian vertailua, in: Historiallinen aikakauskirja 116.4 (2018), pp. 485−487. []
  21. Risto Alapuro, State and Revolution in Finland, Berkeley 1988. []
  22. Ihalainen 2005; Ihalainen 2010; Ihalainen 2017. []

Provincializing Europe, De-centering Europe, Hybridizing Europe …

Alexander Semyonov

Since 2003 each year I have taught a class on the history of the Russian Empire in St Petersburg. Every year I ask my students, fresh from the high school classes of history, a question at the beginning of my course: do you think that Russia in its past or some periods of its history belonged to Europe? Answers to this question have changed in the course of my teaching career. In 2014, for the first time, the nays prevailed over the ayes. By 2015, only three students answered ‘yes’ to the posed question. They were two exchange students from the US and one exchange student from China.

Of course, the question I put before my students is an intellectual provocation. It serves as an entry point to the discussion of metanarratives of history, including the history of progress, modernization, and transition from empire to nation. Students delve into the vernacular translations of those metanarratives in the Russian historiographic tradition that go by names like Europeanization, reform, and revolution. Unpacking the question itself, students face the problem of how to use historically rooted categories as tools of analysis, whether it is possible to speak of Europe and Russia as unchanging entities, and how the history of the semantic change of concepts and contestation around the meaning of those concepts, are part of history itself.

Finally, students in my course are invited to ponder the question of an overlap between the categories of analysis of an historian and categories of practice. Production of historical knowledge is nested at the crossing of professional intellectual debates, societal concerns, and politics. Today the evolving political reality of the European Union (EU) powerfully shapes the perception of what European history is inside the EU and in the outside world. It informs the perception of the spatial scale and the perception of the scope of European history. Early on, the narrative of European history was identified as a tool for constructing the nascent identity of the evolving European political space at the close of the 20th century.1 But the post-World War II European identity was largely founded on the ultra-modernist temporal concept of Europe as a break with its past and with the central idea of preventing the repetition of the devastating 20th century wars on the European continent. The eastward EU expansion changed that. Gradually, the spatial concept of European polity replaced the temporal concept of Europe. In the 21st century, the space and history came back together in the narrative of European identity.

The Problem of Nativism

The growing shift to nativism in Russia (some say that Russia pioneered this turn in the world today) has resulted in a dramatic recasting of the historical narrative, making it autarkic and centered on the history of the Russian state, the Russian nation, and the Russian Orthodox Church. There are many elaborate intellectual traditions in the history of Russian political thought to tap into for this reconfiguration of the Russian historical narrative.2 Fundamentally, Russian politics today is defined by different versions of nativism (from Eurasianism to Russian nationalism), a conservative discourse on state sovereignty for domestic and, importantly, external consumption (modeled on the post-Napoleonic European system of great powers, which aligns well with Russia’s regional hegemon ambitions), and the liberal oppositional politics which sets Russia on a course to become a normal European nation-state. If one looks at the concept of Europe employed in present-day Russian nativism and liberalism, one finds a surprising similarity: a homological and homogenous European historical experience is posited as either an axiomatic destination or as an alien threat. The valence of value judgment in these political visions does not change the historical reference.  Europe remains unchangeable through the past and in different contexts that one might define. This situation has two corollaries. First, for historians in Russia, reflection on the practice of European history and on the relationship between Russian and European histories is intertwined with adjacent political discourses that employ Europe as their central reference. Second, contemporary professional historians should be on the alert when the epistemic logic of their categories of analysis reproduce the logic of categories of political practice. The professional core of historical discipline is constituted by the predisposition to historicize key concepts of social and political discourse. That is to say, to de-essentialize concepts (in this case, Europe) in order to provide for a gap between the past ‘as an alien country’ and the present world that retains many pasts’ futures.

The Challenges of Global History

The professional historiographic debate about the category of Europe and the framework of European history has recently been subjected to critiques that are coming from two dynamically developing fields of historical inquiry: global history and new imperial history. I base the following remarks on my experience as a member of the Ab Imperio journal collective since 2000.  At Ab Imperio we have been developing the field of new imperial history for Northern Eurasia and engaging in dialogue with the critical strand of the field of global history. The critique of the concept of European history from these two fields (and those fields include a diversity of viewpoints) is similar as it aims to deconstruct the concept and the narrative of European history as a normative model and as a privileged scale of historical experience. Let us take those two aspects separately and then look at the openings for a refined vision of European history.

The current evolution of the field of global history may be called a critical reflection on the recent failures of globalization since the end of the Cold War as a normative perspective and an historic process. It is interesting to note, retrospectively, that the growth of global history as the history of globalization overlapped with the discussion of a comparative history of Europe as a framework for shaping the narrative about a new European identity. Both intellectual developments were situated in the context of the presumed ‘end of history’ associated with the end of the Cold War. From the ‘end of history’ viewpoint the inevitable globalization of the world dovetailed with the inclusion of Central and East-Central Europe in a consolidated and enlarged EU. History never ends, though, and an end in sight also means a promise of a new beginning. But the crisis of a normative vision makes the critical work of an historian to de-familiarize purported links between the past and the present especially relevant. In his authoritative What is Global History?, Sebastian Conrad presents a powerful argument against this essentializing thinking and the normative visions of the global history as the history of globalization.  Conrad suggests ways to limit the claims of global history, to engage in methodological reflection on global history as an approach, and to offer what I would call a constructivist take on global history:

‘In some ways, what I say about global history, distinguishing it from older variants of world history, seems to be similar to the New Imperial History in distinction from older (and structural) variants of imperial history. So, essentially, three points. First, yes, global historians do not take “the globe” simply as something that is “out there,” as a structure, as you would say, but, in fact, they use “global” as a perspective. Second, because this structure is not simply there, it very much depends upon the positionality of the historians. It does, in other words, make a difference from where you look. The world will look very different depending on from where you write. And even in one society there will be conflicting ways of thinking about what the world actually is, and what it looks like. This dimension is also crucial. The world, then, is not an objective scale that we can touch but, in fact, it depends on our views. And the third dimension, what you just mentioned concerns the temporality, or the long-termism that you have mentioned. Just as in the imperial history, I see a danger of essentialism that is linked to the long-termism that is present in some versions of global history. This happens when historians stipulate particular entities as lasting for centuries and even millennia, as if they were simply given. A good example is the concept of “China,” that is usually seen as continuous across centuries. But historical actors did not necessarily experience the different dynasties, with their sometimes very different geographies, consistently as “China.”‘3

The critical phase in the development of global history produced a refinement of the analytical purchase of this new avenue for historical inquiry.  Global history was conceived as a way to systematically contextualize and deconstruct the national history paradigm as the basic container of historical experience and Eurocentrism as both the privileged point of origin of world history in a diffusionist perspective and as the epistemological hegemony of the modern discipline of history. From a post-colonial studies perspective, national history and the universalism of historical categories were the twins strengthened by Eurocentrism. From a global history perspective, the paradigm of multiple civilizations and the claim of autonomous epistemological power becomes another version of centrism, exhibiting the same features of essentialization of the historical life-world and epistemic hegemony.

The new analytical language developed in this constructivist version of global history helps redefine the framework of European history as one of the possible scales for historical inquiry along with imperial history, national history, regional history, and local history. Ceasing to be an object of analysis and becoming a scale of analysis, modern European history needs to be more thoroughly integrated and taught together with other histories, rather than as a separate field juxtaposed to national history. The majority of Russian university history programs follow the 19th century and Soviet-era blueprint that structures the historical curriculum on the opposition of ‘universal history’ (which, by and large, means the history of Western Europe and North America) to Russian history (actually called ‘History of the Fatherland’). Introducing a course on European history will not problematize this taxonomy, but instead will reinforce the division. Offering a course on comparative history, or global history of empires, or revolutions in world history with Europe being one of the scales for exploration of connected processes might help decenter the foundational boundary between one’s own and others’ histories that was set at the birth of the modern historical profession.

The Challenge of New Imperial History

If European history was significantly modified and became one of the scales of historical inquiry in the recent accounts of global history, it almost disappeared in the revisionist accounts of new imperial history. To clarify the argument one needs to explain the differentiation between the old and new imperial history. Empire started to attract a new and heightened interest of historians with the advent of a new global dis-order and emergence of claims of global and regional hegemony. The break-up of the Soviet Union, seen by some as the last empire, and the formation of the EU prompted historians to revisit questions of supranational sovereignties and imperial politics of the management of difference. True, the burst of the concept of empire center-stage was in part underpinned by the search for a relevant, if not usable, past. This current in historical thinking about empire (new and old at the same time) largely followed the structuralist conception, like in the model of center-periphery, or in the definition of a multinational continental empire. The center-periphery model often got subsumed under the division of the European imperial metropole and the overseas colonial periphery, even though, as Dominic Lieven reminds us, Ireland and Scotland were not exactly overseas in the British Empire.4 The definition of multinational continental empire followed the structural precepts of center and periphery although not in terms of geographic division.  Ethnicity came to play the role of the boundary between the center and the periphery, even though religion, and not ethnicity, was the fundamental marker of difference for much of the history of those empires and the modernizers of the Hapsburg and Russian empires struggled hard to arrive at a more or less clear definition of the dominant nationality (German and Russian).5

The new imperial history, written in different versions and on varying historical material, questions the structuralist precepts behind the analytical model of empire.6 This perspective strives to avoid the redundant and universal definition of empire as a large and powerful state and aims to explore diversity, filled with multiple voices and agencies in differing contexts. Like the recent turn in global history, new imperial history does not take empire as a durable and self-evident form of historical experience.  It stresses the dangers of empire-realism and emphasizes historic transformations and imaginaries that underpinned the making of the world of hierarchy asymmetry, entanglement, and diversity. The theoretical reflection shifts the definition of empire from being an object of analysis to a context-setting category that allows the historian to move up or down the temporal and spatial scales of historical analysis. New accounts of imperial pasts produced new interpretations by combining center and periphery in a single analytical perspective, treating empire and nation as political claims and imaginary categories, rather than as opposites, and pointing to contestation as the central element in global history.7 Thus, the new imperial history adds a fourth ‘C’ (contestation) to the standard three Cs of the global history – comparison, connection, causality.

Consequently, the turn to new imperial history blurs the boundary of European history in two senses. First, this perspective approaches the imperial experience as a continuum treating the metropole of a colonial empire in Europe as part of the continuum. Second and following from the first, the new perspective challenges the notion that a nation-state is a container of historical experience that was born and first realized on the European continent. In their pioneering work on world history written through the prism of empire, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper demonstrate the analytical purchase of expanding the scale of analysis geographically by considering European and non-European empires together and chronologically by seeing continuous patterns of politics of diversity in pre-modern and modern empires.8 Cooper and Burbank stress the political history of imperial sovereignty and politics of difference, insisting on the prevalence of imperial pragmatism over epistemological power and ideology. Krishan Kumar, on the other hand, in Visions of Empire, argues that the centrality of cultural frames and political languages shaped the universalism and pluralism of imperial spaces.9 Kumar shifts the focus on political imaginaries and deconstructs the opposition between nation and empire that is so central to the structuralist accounts of histories of empires and the concept of transition from empire to nation. In Kumar’s argument, and in the work of other historians, empire and nation appear to be co-existing political claims and the language of the rationalization of social reality.10

Collaborative Frameworks as an Important Goal 

If Europe becomes one of the possible scales of historical analysis considered through the lens of global history, then the new imperial history casts Europe as an especially promising locus to explore hybrid and overlapping historical forms.11 An expanded and inclusive patchwork of European history allows the historian to see multiple forms of imperial control. From the Russian Empire and other Eurasian empires, through Central European empires, and on to internal colonialism and overseas empires, using the tools of new imperial history, historians can illuminate imperial contestation, interaction, and entanglement. Reframed by imperial history, European history can lead to rethinking the modern teleology of transition from empire to nation, the latter being claimed as the ultimate end of history for the alleged lack of conceivable alternatives. Finally, by historicizing and deconstructing Europe as a normative model of modern history, we can think in a new way about analytical categories of social sciences and history including state, nation, class, and race.  By paying attention to the fact that these categories were not born in Europe, but in the process of reflection on the mixed, shifting, and elusive boundaries of Europe as a telos of modern history, we can understand these categories in new ways and eschew the trap between Eurocentrism and other centrisms and native epistemologies.12 I have to add to this that hybrid historical forms are not inherently good or bad, like all intellectual constructs, they should be applied with caution.  But it is also clear that the world we live in is becoming more and more complex and mixed, notwithstanding the growing rebellion of present-day populists against complex forms. 

If this argument about the analytical promise of the exploration of hybrid historical forms in the locus of European history is correct, then we need more collaborative frameworks in historical research and education. All too often universities prefer to globalize the campus rather than expose students and faculty to a different cultural experience. In addition, even well-funded universities fail to hire and cultivate sufficient faculty in the humanities for the tasks required by globally and imperially entangled European and non-European history, especially with the cuts in the humanities of recent days. Finally, the expectation to provide training in national history looms large over chairs of history departments and local job markets are likely to favor specialists, who do not need to travel abroad for archival research.

The breathtaking development of online education and MOOCs seemed to promise exposure to the world without leaving home. I would argue, however, that they are phony alternatives to international collaboration. The online formats often reproduce asymmetries in the production of knowledge: the students are on the periphery while the European and North American centers of knowledge are the producers and educators. Likely to be in English, they reproduce and extend linguistic hegemony.

What I have in mind is joint ventures, like the joint doctoral program ‘Global Histories of Empire’ between the HSE University and the University of Turin. Students are enrolled in both campuses of the program, meet for specialized courses and summer schools, travel back and forth, and are taught by faculty from both universities. The language of instruction is English, but other languages, including Italian and Russian, are spoken in different tracks of the program. This program is bilateral at the moment. The idea, however, is to move to a consortium that would link faculty specializing in different regions and periods of history in a collaboration to develop a jointly taught curriculum. Even this bilateral collaboration, however, made a difference by expanding the areas of training at my department of history in St. Petersburg in the fields of Latin American, European, and Mediterranean history. The joint work of faculty from different historiographic traditions requires them to reflect on meta-historical frameworks as a way to professionally communicate and collaborate effectively. More collaborative efforts of this type would enable the pooling and sharing of resources but more important, would further the noble dream of developing inclusive and diverse representations of the past.

Cite this article as:

Alexander Semyonov: Provincializing Europe, De-centering Europe, Hybridizing Europe …, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, November 8, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/321.

  1. Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, European History as Comparative History, in: Ab Imperio 1 (2004), pp. 111-126: 114, 118. []
  2. The most interesting historically revisionist accounts of nativist traditions (Slavophilism and Eurasianism) associated with the critique of modernity are: Ilya Gerasimov / Sergey Glebov / Marina Mogilner, The Postimperial Meets the Postcolonial: Russian Historical Experience and the Postcolonial Moment, in: Ab Imperio 2 (2013), pp. 97-135; Sergey Glebov, From Empire to Eurasia: Politics, Scholarship, and Ideology in Russian Eurasianism, 1920s–1930s, DeKalb 2017. []
  3. Alexander Semyonov, ‘Global History is More Than the History of Globalization’: Interview with Sebastian Conrad, in: Ab Imperio 1 (2017), pp. 23-43: 32; Sebastian Conrad, What Is Global History?, Princeton 2016. []
  4. Dominic Lieven, Empire: the Russian Empire and Its Rivals from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, London 2003. []
  5. See a more developed argument about the limitations of the structuralist approach to empire in Ilya Gerasimov/ Jan Kusber/ Alexander Semyonov (eds.), Empire Speaks Out: Languages of Rationalization and Self-Description in the Russian Empire, Leiden 2009, pp. 1-32. []
  6. Stephen Howe, Introduction: New Imperial Histories, in: Idem (ed.), The New Imperial Histories Reader, London 2010, pp. 1-20. []
  7. On this, see Alexander Semyonov, How Five Empires Shaped the World and How this Process Shaped those Empires, in: Ab Imperio 4 (2017), pp. 27-51. []
  8. Jane Burbank/ Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton 2010; see also: Ilya Gerasimov/ Marina Mogilner/ Alexander Semyonov, The Challenge and Serendipity: Writing World History through the Prism of Empire: Interview with Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, in: Ab Imperio 2 (2010), pp. 38-39. []
  9. Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World, Princeton 2017. []
  10. Pieter Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History, Cambridge 2016. []
  11. A more developed argument about the importance of exploration of hybrid historical forms and the critique of the standard conception of hybridity coming from the field of post-colonial studies is given in: Ilya Gerasimov/ Sergey Glebov/ Marina Mogilner, Hybridity: Marxism and the Problem of Language of the Imperial Situation, in: Ab Imperio 1 (2016), pp. 27-68. []
  12. See George Steinmetz (ed.), Sociology and Empire: The Imperial Entanglements of a Discipline, Durham 2013; for the argument of how sociology, the allegedly most nation-centered social science discipline, was born in the imperial entanglement and over the reflection on imperial mixture. I have learned about the alternative between ‘provincializing Europe’ and ‘positionality of historical perspective’ in thinking about Eurocentrism of modern social sciences from the research by my colleague: Marina Mogilner, Homo Imperii: A History of Physical Anthropology in Russia, Lincoln 2013. []