Why European History – Why not European History?

Yuki Ikari / Hideto Hiramatsu

This short essay explores some motives behind the study of European history and historical studies of European interactions with the Japanese in Japan. To discuss the encounter between the West and the East since the very beginning of the modernisation of Japan, we discern three different levels: the level of the topic, the subjects themselves, the level of the theories, methods and concepts behind the historiography, and finally the level of the unexamined Eurocentric biases of Japanese researchers. This essay mainly focuses on the second and the third levels and presents some of these aspects of encounters which are closely linked to the authors’ own awareness and research interests: the comparison of Europe and Japan and the question how the encounters and the views of each other should be understood and interpreted. The former will be illustrated by the work of Kan’ich Asakawa, the first Japanese professor of history in the United States, who compared medieval feudalism in Europe and Japan, and the latter by the example of the research on the influence of German poor systems on the reform of the local poor relief system in Japan.

Since the Meiji-restauration, Japan has been regarded as one of the most successful cases of Westernisation and modernisation among non-Western countries, as a nation that has caught up rapidly and that is well positioned in the world market in spite of its character as a late comer. This fact attracted the attention of some scholars in the West such as Max Weber, Marc Bloch, and Otto Hintze. Even though, in the last fifty years, modernity is still mainly understood as a product of Western civilisation in Japan: What influenced us most as historians in our youth were Western oriented research in the humanities, Western education systems, and Western methods of research. In comparison to the former colonised regions, the Western influences were more or less indirect in Japan in the sense that the Japanese – to some degree c intentionally imported Western technologies and knowledges and acculturated them through filters set by ourselves. It was, of course, a reaction to the political context of that time beginning in the mid-19th century, especially international politics led by the Western countries. For the Japanese, the first encounter with Europeans was the “request” or demand to open Japanese ports and trade with the West. Thus, it was due to these indirect influences, not to the naked power of violence, that resulted in Japanese society’s adaptation to Western concepts, ideas, and practices. But the process was still shaped by a certain pressure which makes us think about what this pressure meant and still means to us.

Since the 1970s, especially in the era after a decline of the Marxist ideology as a “grand narrative” of Japanese historiography and driven by a critical view of the belief in capitalist progress and growth, a number of new theoretical frameworks and approaches have developed. These include the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, and social, feminist, postcolonial, and global history which have been introduced and adapted in Japan. Japanese historians have thus attempted to create new narratives of historiography, in a few cases in the hope of compensating for the distinct lack of a grand narrative. These attempts, however, show us how difficult it is to overcome, or even at least to be aware of our own inner Eurocentrism, a point we will discuss later. It seems to us that few Japanese historians have made significant efforts to create and develop our own historical theories and methods, rather than just importing them from the West und adopting them to our own historiography.

Comparative history: Asakawa and Bloch

One of our main fields of research is the history of Christianity in Europe and Germany, and most of the results we refer to stem from Western scholars, which are viewed, written and evaluated from a European perspective. Although contributions of Japanese scholars exist,1 they are still a minority and of relatively little influence. This is partly due to linguistic barriers – most books on European history by Japanese historians are written in Japanese – but partly also due to insufficient theoretical and methodological originality.

We learned European history primarily based on the studies of Western scholars, and we also learned their methods. We viewed Western history as their history, as we learned how European teachers and colleagues study their own history. Their works, and also most of the works of our Japanese colleagues, rely on, reflect and nourish an identity of Europe or Europeans’ self-image in a given existing frame. When we write European history, it is European history seen through our eyes. But they are not genuine Japanese eyes, and are already minted and flavoured by the understanding of our teachers and scholars with their own experiences in their past. So, even if we write European history, it will already be in some way a history of relations between Europe and Japan. It reflects how Japanese scholars see Europe through westernised Japanese eyes, the views of which we have internalised as a result of modernisation.

As one relatively well-known example of mutual interest and an attempt to develop a comparative history between Europe and Japan we know the correspondence between Marc Bloch (1886-1944) and Kan’ich Asakawa (1873-1948).2 But how they were different! The starting point of their relationship was set by Asakawa, after he translated historical documents from Iriki village in Kagoshima into English in 1929 (The Documents of Iriki, New Haven 1929). Asakawa, teaching at Yale University, had an idea to cooperate with Bloch (and later also had a contact with Hintze) in order to deepen his project of comparative history. For Bloch, who was also interested in historical comparison, the Japanese Middle Ages appeared to offer superb material for analysing parallel developments that seemed to have taken place without direct contact or transfer. Japanese medieval history was a strange research field which remained as yet untouched by European civilisation. Because of its strangeness it was thought that it could have a special value as a proof for the possibility of a feudalism of its own in the Middle Ages.3

For Asakawa, the parallel between Japanese and European feudalism meant much more. If feudalism could be understood as a precondition for the further development or evolution to modernity, Japan should be on the path of this development. Despite its late departure, the way to the world civilisation was still open for Japan. For Asakawa as a Christian, Western civilisation appeared as universal, as accessible and adaptable also to Japan and the Japanese. In his mind, this had clear implications for the position of Japan and its future role in the international society at the beginning of the 20th century.

Although the comparative view between the West and Japan was, consciously or unconsciously, was inevitable for every Japanese academic in almost every field at his time, Asakawa’s use of comparison was original and acquired through his everyday experience as a Japanese scholar in the US. That means, it was not unconditionally shared among the historians in Japan. The problem that Asakawa confronted when sharing his results with Japanese historians, besides a lack of understanding of comparative legal history as an academic method, included the comparing of the concepts rooted in the different cultures, and, crossing linguistic barriers.

When he published an article “The Origin of Feudal Land Tenure in Japan” in the American Historical Review in 1914 as a summary of his doctoral thesis at a US university, Japanese historians in Tokyo reviewed it in the Japanese Historical Journal (Shigaku Zasshi).4 In the review the title of his article was translated as “Japanese Manor,” although Asakawa had been eager to stress the difference between the European “manor” and the Japanese “shō”. In fact,  clarifying the parallels, but also the differences, between the two systems was his main argument and theme. His Japanese colleagues who read his thesis in English, however, didn’t grasp this point. The common character and the differences were the main issues of his thesis, but if “shō” was directly translated into “manor”, his idea and argument were almost lost. The translation testified to the lack of understanding of the author’s argument.

The problems of translation and mutual transmission between different languages and cultures remain to be considered seriously. Can we really understand a concept without distortion caused by cultural differences? Asakawa’s project was historical research to understand different cultures in depth, while remaining conscious of the fine differences between terms and concepts including their cultural bases, and then to look for the possible commonality in the world beyond superficial similarities and apparent particularities.

Comparative history and global conceptual history

Why, how, and with what goals do we make use of comparisons between Europe and Japan in our own research? What are the challenges and what is the heuristic potential of such an approach? Hideto studied local poor relief systems in Germany and Japan from the latter half of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century.5 The process of the conceptualisation and implementation of a modern poor relief system in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century involved cultural transfer and translation processes.  These included creation of new laws and institutions, systems of value and norms and certain forms of behavior that differed from those in the industrialised societies in Europe. For example, on the level of the Japanese recipients, these processes of transfer and translation began with the perception of a certain problem situation – in this case, with the emergence of a social question – which seemed to be unsolvable by conventional Japanese means and ideas. By the early 20th century, Japan attained a high level of urbanisation and industrialisation. These processes were also accompanied by high rates of fluctuation in the urban population and an intensification of social problems. Furthermore, the disturbances to the local order and, even more so, the political system of rule, e.g. the emergence of Taishō-democracy and the labor movement, were becoming increasingly noticeable. The local administration faced increasing demands by the population to pay attention to their concerns and take measures against the impoverished conditions. With regard to the local structures of rule though, the local dignitaries, who traditionally took care for maintaining order, security and the wellbeing of the local society, had already lost their power and influence over local politics before the turn of the century.

In this situation, Japanese experts looked to Western societies in the search for new solutions, especially to the United Kingdom and Germany. The self-descriptions of motives and perceptions in these translation processes should therefore be located in the transnational or global context to begin to analyse them. But on an analytical-methodological level, one faces another difficulty, namely the problem of translation. First, since linguistic sources of the object of comparison, as well as concepts and ideas, have to be translated into another language, there is a danger that part of the interpretative content of the concepts will be lost, because they remain inseparably tied back to the original language. Second, there is also the danger that one simply translates a term into an apparently analogous word of the second language without taking sufficient account of concrete fields of interpretation and linguistic traditions, so that one inevitably comes to erroneous conclusions. Furthermore, the evolution of the modern Japanese language since the mid-19th century was accompanied by the massive import of European ideas and concepts through translation into Japanese. Third, modern Japanese history was by no means free of the colonial context. The unequal power relationship between Japan and Western countries needs to be taken into account in the analysis of transfer and translation processes.

Japanese historians use the same language, both as subjects of historical research and as scholars who conduct this research. Here again, the bias of Eurocentrism matters. It is not only because the language we use has historically been shaped by European ideas and concepts.  At the same time, our Eurocentrism is to be understood as a political and social process of negotiation that is fought out primarily by linguistic and discursive means. It would be therefore useful to take an approach of global conceptual history into account. This would enable us as historians to locate the respective interpretative content of the concepts in the concrete social, political and cultural contexts – a synchronic approach – as well as to discuss their change of meaning in a historical long-term perspective – a diachronic approach. This approach would allow us to analyse how these concepts historically form and re-form our thinking and behaviour. It would also help us to confront our inner Eurocentrism in order to differentiate our own national images and interpretations of the self and the other. In this sense we speak Western history as our history. It is true that this is one of the many answers to the question of why we Japanese still concern ourselves with European history.  This is not primarily a critique of Eurocentrism from the perspective of non-Europeans, however, but rather a critical self-reflection on the bias of unreflective Eurocentrism in the tradition of Japanese scholarship.

  1. The field of medieval European studies is still one of the few exceptions in Japan. Since 2017 an English online-journal is published once a year by the Japan Society for Medieval European Studies (JSMES), http://spicilegium.net/. []
  2. Takashi Jinno, Journey to the Life of Kan’ichi Asakawa (Historian, Curator, Peace Advocate) (4) – The correspondence with Otto Hintze and Asakawa’s criticism of Hintze’s “Wesen und Verbreitung des Feudalismus”, in: Ekphrasis. Yōroppa Bunka Kenkyū 11 (2021), pp. 1- 26; Yuki Sato et al., The Correspondence between Two Comparative Historians in the Interwar Period: The Unpublished Letters of Kan’ichi Asakawa and Marc Bloch with Commentary, in: Shien 76. 2 (2016), pp. 276-225; Yukimi Masui, Asakawa’s research trips in the Kansai Area – July 1918 to January 1919, in: Keiai University International Studies 19 (2007), pp. 87-117; Haruko Yamauchi, Study of Asakawa Kan’ichi, Waseda University Press 2010. []
  3. Marc Bloch, Un essai d’histoire comparée : Europe occidentale et Japon, in: Annales d’histoire économique et sociale 2 (1930), pp. 136-137. []
  4. Kan’ichi Asakawa, The Origin of Feudal Land Tenure in Japan, in : American Historical Review 20/1 (1914), pp.1-26; Katsumi Kuroita., Reading Mr. Asakawa’s Nihon Shōen no Kige(「朝河氏の『日本荘園の起源』を読む), in: Shigaku Zasshi [Japanese Historical Journal] 26/3 (1915), pp. 378-379; Asakawa’s counterargument in Japanese, Nihon Hōken Tochi Seido Kigen no Sekkō ni tsukite (About my article « Origin of Feudal Land Tenure in Japan »), in : Shigaku Zasshi [Japanese Historical journal], 26/6 (1915), pp. 776-780. []
  5. Hideto Hiramatsu, Comparing Local Welfare Policy and Citizenship – Elberfeld System and its Reception in Japan (1918), in: European Studies 16 (2016), pp. 19-30. []

Viewing Europe, or Where and What is the “Outside”?

Monica Juneja

The principle demarcating Europe into an ”inside” and an ”outside” has a long and shifting history. It contains echoes of an East-West division that is many centuries old and has since then appeared in different guises – as Orient and Occident, Europe and Asia, or alternatively framed in social science terminology as centres and peripheries. Each of these divides rests on an uneasy binarism that replays a sense of European exceptionalism. Such categories or ’metageographies’1 are more of world-making practices. They constitute a mental map that demarcates certain places as more distant from others, and from one’s own location. Rather than relating to actual distances, these oppositions constitute cultural projections that are also historical assumptions. The designations, whatever their nomenclature, have carried a genealogical baggage that maps an array of cultural attributes onto a set of geographical coordinates. Its staple feature has historically been the association of Europe/the West/Occident with reason and progress. While Europe has been upheld as the single, driving force of modernity, the East – Europe’s other – is linked to spirituality and stagnation, making it a ready receiving ground for technological, economic and cultural Europeanisation. The geo-politics of knowledge that underlies such ascriptions asks us to attend not only to what is being said, but also equally to the place of enunciation. Scholarship has examined myths of centres and margins mainly in the contexts of European colonial empires of modernity; yet this imagined geographical scheme is not exclusive to modern colonialism. Early modern empires of Asia such as the Qing, the Mughal, the Safavid and the Ottoman, were all held together by ideologies envisioning themselves as centres. Similarly, well into modern times, the eastern regions of Europe were cast as peripheries of the North Atlantic West.  And today, the so-called Global South – the earlier Third World – continues to be perceived as the other of the northern hemisphere designated Global North. The distinction inside/outside prevails equally within individual nations, such as those of Western Europe in particular, which have experienced the effects of large-scale global migration, following wars and climate crises in regions of Asia and Africa. The presence of those viewed as cultural others in the midst of the Western world has meant a destabilisation of mental geographies, as the ‘outsider’ is now seen as being present in the heart of one’s homeland, though destined to remain what Sara Ahmed has called the ‘outsider inside’.2

Inside/outside: a mutable and relational constellation

My contribution argues for a different ontology of culture that treats established notions of inside/outside, near/far, European/non-European, centre/peripheries as mutable and relational. A theory of transculturation that vitally informs my understanding of globality directs our attention to rethinking the processual quality of culture by attending to how the “cultural” is radically made and remade: in processes of interactions with other units, not necessarily contained within territorial fixtures of the nation state or even larger regional entities and the imagined geographies discussed above. Transculturation as a process designates those long-term transformative relationships between cultural entities that follow from encounters and are constitutive for the actors, practices, and epistemic configurations implicated. This distinct ontology of culture is equipped with a critical potential that enables us to dismantle core assumptions underpinning disciplines such as history and art history, rather than dealing only with examples on their fringes.

I write from the position of a historian of art and culture, in addition as a scholar who initiates her investigation from one of the global ‘off-centers’3 in order to exert analytical pressure on the existing repository of knowledge that shapes the canons of disciplines, and to loosen their rigid linearity. Conceptions of that which is located on the outside, the peripheral, generally identify these places with obscurity and marginality. And yet, the so-designated outside – I wish to argue – has the capacity to challenge foundational ideas of exclusivity and universality and to offer alternative positions to sedimented intellectual claims. In other words, mining the outside/periphery to rebound on the inside/centre can effectively dismantle the Manichean dualism of centre and periphery. Such a proposition cannot, however, be carried out by simply reversing an established hierarchy, while leaving its teleology intact. Writing from the periphery is premised on viewing both centres and peripheries through a transcultural lens, to argue that each site is a hotbed of transculturation and cannot be studied in exclusive pockets.

The constellation “Europe-and-its-outside” has long served as a canonical framing device for narratives within art history of the so-designated mainstream, told as a genealogical account of styles anchored to single, self-contained locations. For instance, the trajectory of modernist art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though constituted through the experimental energies of innumerable sites across the globe and traversing all continents, appears as a story of diffusion from Euro-American centres to absorptive margins. The opposition between the place of origin, the supposed locus of originality, and the sites of the allegedly belated, second-hand variants of the modernist canon finds its echoes is museological displays. In most leading European museums of modern art – London, New York, Paris or Berlin – modernist works from other continents (with the exception of North America) come up against a glass wall; even East European works were denied a place in the modernist canon. Works emanating from the outside either do not feature in the museums’ collections on the assumption that modernity beyond the North-Atlantic axis could only be derivative; or at best, they are relegated to galleries devoted to individual regions, to be viewed as incommensurable with the “mainstream”. Yet modernist art in all its locations, like its cognate modernity, was a product of a world of artistic and cultural exchange enabled by commerce, colonialism and travel. Following innumerable site-based studies of modernity undertaken during the recent decades, the recognition that the West, though a major ‘clearinghouse of global modernity’4, no longer offers the sole template for the unfolding of its culture, is now scarcely a matter of debate. Their authors have argued for a modernity that is migrant and mutable, continuous and at best contingent, one with many possible ‘habitations’, to borrow from Dipesh Chakrabarty.5 Similarly, our atlas of modernist art today has been enriched by countless micro-stories unearthed from sites across the globe. These include Shanghai, Mexico City, Bombay, Tehran, Ljubljana, Cairo, Dakar, Tokyo, São Paulo, Lahore, Lagos, Moscow, Beirut … the list goes on. In the light of such findings, it is no longer plausible to hold on to a now notoriously historicist account of modernist art that presents Euro-America as its original locus and central axis from where its achievements are said to have spread and brought forth rehashed versions of its expressive forms. Each of the stories above presents us with a vigorous modernism, not reducible to stylistic content, informed but not determined by counterparts in Paris, Vienna, or Berlin. At the same time, however, it is not helpful to speak of this plurality in terms such as multiple, alternative, regional or vernacular modernisms, as each of these designations implies a normative centre whose status it reaffirms. The challenge is how to meaningfully write those modernist initiatives and experiments that unfolded in locations beyond the New York-Paris corridor into a shared relational matrix.

The quest for non-hierarchical, non homogenising relationships

In other words, we require a framework that will enable us to go beyond simply adding unknown modernist artists to an existing canon or, alternatively, relegating regional articulations of the modern to the isolated domains of individual “area studies”. How can regions and nations be brought into a more dynamic, non-hierarchical and, importantly, non-homogenising relationship with each other? Recent transculturally framed studies of artistic modernism have brought to the concept a less formalistic intonation and opened it to accommodate experimental ventures, at times disparately so.6

Scholars of literature have paid special attention to the nexus between modernism and the colonial experience. Simon Gikandi, for instance, describes modernist literary production as an ‘intense … site of encounter between the institutions of European cultural production and the cultural practices of colonised people’, as a ‘dynamic’, mutually constitutive relationship.7  The encounter between European artists and intellectuals with their counterparts from the colonies, though marked by asymmetries of power in which the colonial subject was located in a space of unfreedom, nonetheless enabled creativity on both sides: it was in such an encounter that modernist art and literature acquired a critical edge. The revolt against the artistic and literary orthodoxies of bourgeois culture in Europe was made possible largely through an intensive engagement with the objects, practices, and philosophies of the colonised. And the same encounter opened the space through which colonial hegemony could be undermined and the colonised “other” could become a self-reflecting subject. Andreas Huyssen reminds us that whenever and wherever modernism arrived, it did so at the threshold of a not yet fully modernised world, where ‘old and new were violently knocked against each other’.8 Such an experience of transition gave modernism its critical, creative potential, which unfolded according to regional and local contingencies. Representational strategies, vocabularies, and practices were generated by the subjectivities of the actors involved, shaped by varying factors – colonialism, industrialisation, migration, or decolonisation.  Stylistic considerations in a narrow sense and taken in isolation do not allow us to access the meanings of this productivity. Actors invariably worked with, and within, the language of dominant international forms and practices, yet could and did resist their formal canonicity.

Modernism as a global and relational process

Individual micro-stories from Asia, Africa and South America, when placed on a shared matrix, are a useful way of creating a mental map of modernism as a global and relational process, of art that travels the way people and things did, to describe a process that is not linear or seamless, but one that is uneven and even erratic. Chronology can no longer provide the single key to signposting the modern on the map of art history. As we follow the logic of these individual stories, we uncover the tracks of barely acknowledged networks, of sites of interaction, of journals and universities that force open the binaries positing Europe against the territories that lay beyond it. Surrealism in North Africa, the New Negro Movement, the CoBrA group, the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay, Mexican muralism, or the Harlem Renaissance are only a few among an increasing number of examples that show modernist art as having been from its inception a multi-centred, always and already transcultured phenomenon, whose actors dynamically engaged with its sites in Europe without, however, presuming the universality of the models they encountered.9 Case studies from the regions outside of Europe reveal synchronicity and coevalness, where belatedness or derivative practices were assumed. At the same time, they allow us to take a closer look at regional singularities, to underline that transcultural interaction did not follow a straight, single, or foreseeable path. Instead, we become aware of a modernism shaped by the distinct problematics of modernity in local, regional, or national contexts across the globe, whose actors at the same time understood its cultural articulations as embedded in a quintessentially international movement. Not least, a theory of transculturation allows us to rewrite the story of European modernism by situating it within the larger, complex political and cultural determinations of colonialism and global connections that made its emergence possible.

Blind spots in modernism’s history

Bringing studies from the margins of Europe centre-stage and conjoining these to “mainstream” narratives can help to rectify persistent blind spots in the recounting of modernism’s history. Among these is the chronological signpost set by the year 1945, with which all traditional accounts end. This had for long meant the exclusion of a large number of global sites of modernist experiments that had emerged after the end of the Second World War, following the decline of European artistic power to set the agenda of modernism. The years following 1945 indeed saw a far-reaching reorganisation of the map of global modernism, rather than its end. While an internationally prominent American art sustained by abstraction attained hegemony in the North Atlantic West, emergent nations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East as well as those of the newly formed Eastern bloc in East and Central Europe, all experimented with fresh paradigms of artistic modernity anchored within their specific histories to mirror the changed terms of geopolitical dialogue across the world.10 Synchronically with the bipolar division effected by the Cold War, a number of newly independent nations of Asia and Africa, as well as former Yugoslavia, formed a third group, the Non-Aligned Movement that refused co-optation with one or the other of the power blocs, preferring to remain as its name, non-aligned. Such far-reaching changes in the world order generated innumerable debates that sought to link issues of aesthetics and form with cultural questions of autonomy, subjectivity, humanism, international solidarity or regionalism. The idea that art and artists had a role to play in a period of instability, of recovery and self-definition through new subjects and experiments with form and materials was crucial to the shaping of artistic modernity – as recent research from beyond Europe has brought to light.11

Waves of decolonisation that followed in the mid-twentieth century did not bring a form of closure, as the oft-repeated phrase “end of empire” in imperialist historiography proposes. Rather, formal emancipation from colonial rule meant a redrawing of relationships between imperial nations and their former colonies. One determining factor in such renegotiation was an accelerated migration of former colonial subjects – Asian, African, Caribbean, West Indian, South American – to European cities, where they sought exile or opportunities to live, work, study, practise as artists. Arrivals to Britain or France, for example, came expecting a land of opportunity where their careers as artists would thrive, but were soon confronted with marginalisation, structures of othering and a general climate of decolonisation hostile to migration in the reverse direction. In Britain Black Art was a blanket term used to collectively describe a mix of voices and art produced in the shadow of unwelcome migration, and which swelled into a stream of modernism that called into question long-standing myths of purist Englishness. Far from positioning itself outside of the mainstream, this body of artistic production was constitutive of a transcultured, metropolitan modernism that reclaimed its critical potential to produce counter-images, to resist being pushed to the margins. In one respect, it shared with high modernism the drive to overthrow the canonicity of classical ideals of Greco-Latin Antiquity.12 Like modernist experiments that unfolded across the globe in the 1950s, to which migrant artists in Britain and elsewhere in Europe retained existing connections or formed new ones, Black Art showed a preoccupation with rethinking the human through an anti-colonial, anti-racist lens, conjoined with a focus on agency, which often prevailed over the climate of widespread abjection or trauma infusing art making in a Europe ravaged by war and fascism.

For these fascinating micro-stories of modernism to be inscribed within the larger narrative of modern art, the discipline needs to free culture from political-cum-territorial frames and disconnect style from fixed location. The above sketch has pointed to the ways in which historical experiences from the periphery can unsettle the certitudes of an accepted canon by urging its authors and upholders to rethink explanatory paradigms, to recast concepts by attending to their transcultural valences, and not least to aspire to theory building that takes place from thinking across the inside/outside divide. Unfortunately much of scholarship produced in regions outside of the North Atlantic West, has been parcelled into national units or isolated area studies. It therefore does not feature in the contemporary canon of the global. Not only has it not found a place in a global repository of intellectual resources and narratives, its potential to exert analytical pressure on that repository, to recalibrate, even unsettle the certitudes of that canon, has yet to be fully realised. We might therefore usefully imagine that which we think of as being on the outside, or distant, or peripheral, less as a place and conceive of it instead as a critical modality.

  1. The term has been coined by Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen, who systematically investigate the genealogies and trajectories of conceptual categories drawn from geography. See Martin W. Lewis / Kären E. Wigen, The Myth of Continents. A Critique of Metageography, Berkeley 1997. []
  2. Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Postcoloniality, London 2000: 3 ff. []
  3. The notion comes from Okwui Enwezor to designate a location ‘structured by the simultaneous existence of multiple centers’, Okwui Enwezor, Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence, in: South Atlantic Quarterly 109/3 (2010), pp. 595-620: 601-2. []
  4. The expression has been used by Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, On Alternative Modernities, in: Public Culture 11/1 (1999), pp. 1–18: 1. []
  5. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies, Chicago 2002. []
  6. A few representative examples of a more extensive historiography are: David Craven, Art and Revolution in Latin America: 19101990, New Haven 2002; Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 19451989, London 2009; Alicia Volk, In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese Modern Art, Berkeley 2012; Sam Bardaouil, Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group, London 2017; Christian Kravagna, Transmoderne: Eine Kunstgeschichte des Kontakts, Berlin 2017. On India, see my forthcoming book: Monica Juneja, Can Art History be Made Global? Meditations from the Periphery, Berlin 2022. []
  7. Simon Gikandi, Preface: Modernism in the World, in: Modernism/Modernity 13/3 (2006), pp. 419–24: 421. []
  8. Andreas Huyssen, Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World, in: New German Critique  34/1 (2007), pp. 189–207: 190. []
  9. These individual, yet interconnected, experiments and sites were effectively visualised in an exhibition at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen that ran from  November 10, 2018 to March 10, 2019, and was a collaborative project between the museum’s team and the Chair of Global Art History, HCTS, University of Heidelberg. See Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (ed.) Museum global: Mikrogeschichten einer ex-zentrischen Moderne, Weyertal 2018. []
  10. An ambitious attempt to represent these global currents was undertaken by Okwui Enwezor in an exhibition he curated at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and that ran from October 14, 2016 to March 26, 2017. See Okwui Enwezor / Kathy Siegel / Ulrich Wilmes (eds.), Postwar: Kunst zwischen Pazifik und Atlantik, 1945–1965, Munich 2016. []
  11. See Seng Tan / Amitav Acharya (eds.), Bandung Revisited: The Legacy of the 1955 Asian-African Conference for International Order, Singapore 2008; Dipesh Chakrabarty, Legacies of Bandung: Decolonization and the Politics of Culture, in: Saurabh Dube (ed.), Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization, London 2009, pp. 264–87; Atreyee Gupta, After Bandung: Transacting the Nation in a Postcolonial World, in: Enwezor et al. (eds.), Postwar, pp. 632–37. []
  12. Sarat Maharaj, The Congo is Flooding the Acropolis: Art in Britain of the Immigrations, in: Third Text 5/15 (1991), pp. 77–90. []

Beyond European Perspectives. A Short Introduction to EuropeDebate’s Fall 2022 Round

In 2020, we started EuropeDebate with an essay on “Present Challenges and Future Avenues for Doing European History”. In particular, we asked about the place of European history as a field of research between the persistence of national historiographies and the challenges of global history. We proposed to discuss variants of mental mapping within European history, the persisting fragmentation of the field along national boundaries, methodological challenges and the heuristic potential of transfer and comparison, the impact of institutional contexts as well as the implications of language barriers, of publishing cultures and of the respective national historiographic traditions for doing European history in different places in Europe.

In two rounds of essays, contributors discussed these issues from very broad and diverse European and global perspectives. The contributions testified to the fact that the place from which we write history matters. They provided insights into the multiplicity of “centrisms” within European history, into the continuing impact of models, of perceived hierarchies between centres and peripheries – albeit with contesting ideas about where centres and peripheries lie. It became clear that questions of self-location vis-à-vis Europe on the one hand and the neighbouring regions on the other depend to a large extent on geographical location, but also on established ways of seeing, on national self-images rooted in history. “Europe” in various meanings is undoubtedly an important point of reference for the different European historiographies, however, it is neither the only, nor necessarily, the most important one. Doing European history, furthermore, takes different meanings and forms, which often are shaped by national contexts. Interlinking historiographies in Europe is still a challenge.

With the coming round of contributions, we intend to broaden the perspective. We have invited historians who write from a non-European perspective – in one way or another.  Some contributing scholars are based in institutions in different parts of the world outside Europe, as we are interested in how institutional contexts, public debates, and research structures in different historiographies shape the way European history is written. We have also invited scholars – independently of their institutional setting – who focus their work on Europe’s relations and interconnections with various other world regions. Many of them have areas of expertise that lie in other world regions and are interested in the historic and historiographic relationship of these regions to Europe/European history. We are at the same time aware of the pitfall of reproducing ideas of “inside” and “outside” Europe; the problems of such binaries form an integral part of the coming round of debate.

 “Europe” and “European history” do have different meanings within Europe, as many contributors have shown, and the multiplicity of meanings increases when perspectives from “beyond” Europe are included.

Sonja Levsen and Jörg Requate

Europe as Archipelago

Pamela Ballinger

As scholars debate the protracted crisis of modern European history and propose to revision it by means of strategies such as “decentring,” “off-centring,” “provincialising,” and “writing from the margins,” such critical conceptual categories nonetheless leave in place assumptions about Europe as a terrestrial space. In such imaginings, Europe remains implicitly a continent, albeit one now approached from both its geographical margins and its marginalised subjects, such as refugees and other migrants.1 As a result, such critiques risk reproducing metageographical conventions that, as Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen put it, ‘have proved remarkably tenacious, even among those who are trying to shake them off.’2 Does imagining Europe as an archipelago offer a possible solution, enabling scholars to dispense with both the continental and terrestrial biases that inhere not just in conventional European historical frames but also within most national historiographies defined by “European” geographies? In this short piece, I draw upon recent thinking on watery flows, seaside epistemologies, and oceanic and coastal histories as a means to address several of the key areas of debate highlighted by Sonja Levsen and Jörg Requate in their query, ‘Why Europe, Which Europe?’. In the foundational statement that animates the lively contributions of this EuropeDebate forum, Levsen and Requate call for ‘interlinking historiographies [to] boost innovative research’ and investigations into ‘the relevance and contours of transnational spaces,’ among many other key questions.3

Rethinking continental bias

Writing in 1997, Lewis and Wigen highlighted four interrelated forms of erroneous yet tenacious thinking: ‘the myth of continents, the myth of the nation-state, the myth of East and West, and the myth of geographical concordance (i.e., the idea that disparate phenomena exhibit the same variation in space).’4 Although acknowledging that by the 1950s professional geographers had largely abandoned the ‘seven continent’ division of the world in favor of one that recognises Europe as inextricably connected with Asia, they contend ‘most geographers— and almost all nongeographers—continue to treat it, not only as a full-fledged continent, but as the archetypal continent.’5 For Lewis and Wigen, then, European priority and, by extension, Eurocentrism, remains the conceptual linchpin of continental thinking.        

While Lewis and Wigen remain focused on the ideological implications of explicitly cartographic and geographical thinking, historians like John Gillis have offered a broader critique of continental thinking. Gillis contends that 19th and 20th century history typically ‘is presented as if it begins and ends at the edges of continents, and dwells almost exclusively on their interiors. All that which lies beyond the shores is either a prelude or aftermath of the grand continental narratives.’6 Such narratives obscure the earlier importance of maritime “empires of access” connected by water, viewing islands largely as sites of insularity and liminality in contrast to terrestrial(ised) centers.

An emergent blue humanities has offered an important corrective to these dual continental and terrestrial biases, which inhere not only in accounts of European history but many other regional historiographies. In 2006, historians Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell issued their influential call for a “new thalassology” to reinvigorate the aquacentric historiographic tradition pioneered by Fernand Braudel in his seminal work on the Mediterranean. An ever-growing body of work has variously explored actual seaspaces (perhaps most notably the Atlantic but also the Pacific and Indian Oceans) together with the metaphors and concepts they offer, such as flow, archipelagos, or tidemarks.7 What unites these approaches is the argument that a watery perspective – whether literal or figurative – proves useful for interrogating disciplinary theoretical and methodological frames. For historians of the modern era, oceanic/watery perspectives highlight spaces below, above and beyond those of the nation-state. Oceanic history, however, has given undue emphasis to the high seas to the neglect of the coastal realm. This despite the fact that, as Gillis puts it, the bulk of human history has taken place ‘alongshore rather than offshore, for the real home of humankind is where land and water meet.’8 In their dual qualities as spaces defined both by water and land, the islands that make up archipelagos bridge the gap between coastal and oceanic histories.

The literal/littoral

So what is gained by considering Europe as a constellation of islands or bits of land, rather than as a continent? First, reframing our understanding of Europe as a (metaphoric) chain of islands connected by water and European history as archipelagic draws attention to the dual etymological meaning of islands: as sites of insularity and alternatively as “water-land” spaces defined by connectivity and mobility.9 The degree of isolation or connectivity is situational, of course, and varies over time, offering a way to capture shifting historical tides and the complex interplay of local, national, regional, and ‘European’ scales. This offers a somewhat different framing than that of more conventional notions such as center and periphery or center/margin or even metropole/colony. In some studies, it has also served as a way to reconfigure the binary of unity and diversity, and to mark out constellations of desire, as in Boellstorff’s ethnographic explorations of what he deems a gay archipelago strung across Indonesia. Boellstorff contends that the archipelagic metaphor ‘permits understanding selfhood and sociality as not possessing sharp external boundaries, yet characterised by islands of difference.’10

Secondly and on a more literal level, an archipelagic perspective restores islands and other littoral spaces to our attention and thereby directly addresses both the continental and oceanic/high seas biases diagnosed by Gillis. It also proves in dialogue with environmental perspectives that emphasise different bordering processes beyond those of state sovereignty. Recently, for example, Alison Frank Johnson has asked, ‘In an era of global climate catastrophe, global pandemic and global economic crisis, where does the “European” environment end?’11 While echoing Boellstorff’s interest in unboundedness, such a query simultaneously gestures toward rich bodies of work that situate a porous Europe within global currents of diseases, plants, and other non-human agents, as well as those of capital and labor.

Thirdly, such a move underscores the far-reaching tentacles of Europe via the kraken of colonialism. Drawing upon the work of Caribbean intellectuals and the historical experience of Caribbean actors, for example, sociologist Manuela Boatcă has sketched out the possibility of ‘thinking Europe otherwise.’ In dialogue with work that treats Europe as a marked category, Boatcă proposes remapping Europe to include ‘continental and non-continental European territories as a single space and [to] locate Europe’s current Western borders in South America and the Caribbean Sea,’ as well as its other overseas territories.12 For Boatcă this entails a process of creolising Europe. In an analysis of Transylvania, a classic European “borderland” at the crossroads of conflicting and inter-imperial histories, Boatcă and Parvulescu evidence how understanding the region’s ‘land problem’ (a terrestrialised notion if there ever was one) demands a perspective ‘anchored in coloniality’ and, by extension, thinking otherwise.13

Boatcă’s spatially destabilised notion of a creolised Europe has many important precedents and genealogies. We might consider, for example, the ways in which historians of the United Kingdom and its dominions have put island thinking to productive use. In his 2005 collection of essays, The Discovery of Islands, J. G. A. Pocock drew upon his own formation as an Antipodean subject to recast a narrative of interactions and mobilities across oceans. As Pocock contends, such an island history treats

peoples in motion, histories traversing distance, and “identities” (the word is overworked) as never quite at home. Formed partly in an archipelago of the Southern Ocean, it presents the islands including Britain as another archipelago (hence the title of this book), not the promontory of a continent; it presupposes histories “not in narrow seas.” It questions identities, but waits to hear answers.14

Here, Pocock explicitly locates himself and his historical consciousness among the settler colonial populations of formerly British controlled lands, part of an expansive European diaspora spread unevenly across the world. Lewis and Wigen have noted that within cultural geography, diasporas often figure as archipelagos or “exclaves” of populations.15 Indeed, they propose that a new understanding of “regions” that permits discontinuities ‘might take the spatial form of lattices, archipelagos, hollow rings, or patchworks.’16 Yet even the literalness of an island or an archipelago requires examination.

As Sujit Sivasundaram has demonstrated for Ceylon/Sri Lanka, islands are made, not born. Sivasundaram denaturalises the seeming obviousness of Ceylon’s island status by detailing the considerable ideological labor required to establish the territory’s distance and distinctiveness from India. With simultaneous processes of partitioning and islanding came differentiations between Ceylon’s denizens: majority Buddhists (Sinhalese) and minority Hindu (Tamils). Over time, Hindu/Tamils came to appear as if they belonged to an Indian sub-continent rather than Sri Lanka. In taking up a key scholarly question for Sri Lankan history — what are the origins of the Sinhalese/Tamil division and conflict? — Sivasundaram offers an answer that stresses the agency of both transcolonial powers (those of the Dutch and British) and islanders themselves in recasting Lanka ‘in the ocean as an island.’17 He thus highlights the role of state powers in islanding, an important point in light of the explicit use of archipelagic models in state-building projects in places like post-independence Indonesia.

Working within the framework of Indian Ocean studies, Sivasundaram nonetheless disagrees with the tendency to treat that body of water as an analytically coherent arena characterised by economic and social networks. Sivasundaram instead insists,

Only by deep investigation of particular places set in a wider seascape can claims of connectivity be borne. Discussions of connectivity in turn may lead to observations of how Lanka could become dislodged — or partitioned from the mainland — even as it looked to a new horizon and took a new place upon this great sea. After all, a connection is a disconnection, when viewed from another direction.18

Like islands, seas must also be made and remain subject to processes of partitioning or connecting. They thus prove no more natural or obvious than terrestrial regions. Certainly, examining “Europe” through sub-regions defined by contiguous water or seas – the Adriatic, the Ionian, the Danubian, or the Mediterranean, for instance – reconceives transnational processes in ways that usefully complicate the problematic symbolic geographies (notably the North/South, West/East axes) inherent in area studies and regional designations such as the Balkans, Western Europe, Southern Europe, the Middle East, and so on.19 Sivasundaram’s insights, however, caution us against attributing any sort of natural givenness to watery regions. Within a greater European archipelago, cultural and political “islands” and their attendant seas have continually been made, remade, and umade over time and it is these processes that demand scholars’ attention.

Decolonising modern European history

As noted previously, authors like Pocock and Boatcă make explicit their subject positions, in Pocock’s case as a member of the settler colonial population of New Zealand and the latter as an intellectual hailing from Europe’s Eastern “margins.” Yet the formulation of an archipelagic imaginary owes as much or more to thinkers from former European colonies, underlining how casting Europe as archipelago can advance the multi-pronged project of decolonising European history.

Boatcă, for instance, builds explicitly on Martinique philosopher Édouard Glissant’s pioneering work on creolisation. While offering an epistemological critique, Glissant simultaneously intervened into contemporary European political debates. He found hope in ongoing processes of archipelagisation he identified in Europe. He saw the making of archipelagic Europe, for instance, as distinct from and in opposition to a ‘Balkanized Europe’.20 Glissant wrote an open letter to this effect to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005 and, until his death in 2011, continued to promote a notion of archipelagic Europe that took inspiration from the Antilles.21

Embracing the archipelagic thus opens scholars up to ways of conceptualising Europe – past, present and future – that take inspiration from other traditions and epistemologies. Consider, for example, how Fijan and Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa powerfully recasts continental thinking by reconceiving the Pacific as a ‘sea of islands’ rather than made up ‘islands in a far sea.’ If Pocock’s antipodean perspective quite literally looks at the world upside down, Hau’ofa instead turns Eurocentric tropes inside out. In analysing the nomenclature of “Pacific islanders,” Hau’ofa rejected a notion of this world as one of remoteness and smallness. In its place, he saw an Oceania designating ‘a sea of islands with their inhabitants.’22 As he put it, ‘The world of our ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes in, to breed generations of seafarers like themselves.’ Rather, it was modern colonialism that transformed ‘a once boundless world into the Pacific islands states and territories that we know today. People were confined to their tiny spaces, isolated from each other.’23 Hau’ofa aimed his critique not only at European colonisers but at indigenous scholars (himself included) who had perpetuated the fallacies of terrestrialised thinking.24

How might considering Europe not just as an archipelago but as “our sea of islands begin to put the views of (former) colonisers and colonised in dialogue? How might it not only rethink the past but prospectively offer new ways of being European or of doing European history? While prompting different questions and offering an alternative framework, the archipelagic cannot and should not be taken as the definitive solution to the crisis of European history. Rather, the archipelagic cautions humility while embracing multiplicity, that is, plural genealogies and ways of knowing. It means bringing to the study of Europe’s past an oceanic literacy, what Karin Amimoto Ingersoll deems ‘an approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual, and embodied literacy of the ‘āina (land) and kai (sea) […]  as an interconnected system that allows for successful navigation through them.’25 Such a perspective contributes to the urgent work of simultaneously provincialising and decolonising European history.

  1. In my “critique” of this critique, I include myself amongst the many who have proposed a new understanding of European history from the margins. []
  2. Martin Lewis / Kären Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, Berkeley 1997, pp. xii. []
  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. Lewis / Wigen 1997, p. xiii. []
  5. Ibid., p. 36. The notion of Eurasia, of course, has proved central to many post-Cold War reconfigurations of area studies, particularly in the institutional realm of area studies programs. []
  6. John Gillis, Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World, New York 2004, p. 85. []
  7. Peregrine Horden / Nicholas Purcell, The Mediterranean and “the New Thalassology,” in: The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006), pp. 722-740. For other key works, see Rainier Buschmann, Oceans of World History, in: History Compass 2 (2004), pp. 1-10; Kären Wigen, Introduction: Oceans of History, in: The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006), pp. 717-721; Sarah Green, What’s in a Tidemark?, in: Anthropology News 52.2 (2011), p. 15; John Gillis, The Blue Humanities, in: Humanities 34.3 (May/June 2013), pp. 1-9; Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology, Durham 2016. []
  8. John Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, Chicago 2012, p. 39. Refer also to the critique by Isaac Land, who writes that in the wake of the work of Marcus Rediker and others on the ‘wooden world’ of onboard life, ‘historians are still having difficulties making the history of seafarers speak effectively to the history of the shore, and vice versa.’ He asks pointedly, ‘Is the oceanic model itself at fault?’. See Isaac Land, Review Essay: Tidal Waves: The New Coastal history, in: Journal of Social History 40.3 (2007): pp. 731-743: 736. The contraposition of coastal history to that of ocean studies, however, may not sufficiently acknowledge the fluidity of coastlines themselves, instead binarising sea and shore. []
  9. The notion of the island references two seemingly opposed meanings. Channeling the OED, Marc Shell cites those of a water-land and of ‘land as defined against water and surrounded by water.’ See Marc Shell. Islandology : Geography, Rhetoric, Politics, Stanford 2014, p. 19. []
  10. Tom Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, Princeton (NJ) 2005, p. 7. []
  11. Alison Frank Johnson, Europe without Borders: Environmental and Global History in a World after Continents, in: Contemporary European History 31.1 (2022), pp. 129-141: 129. []
  12. Manuela Boatcă, Thinking Europe Otherwise: Lessons from the Caribbean, in: Current Sociology 69.3 (2021), pp. 389-414: 403. []
  13. Manuela Boatcă and Anca Parvulescu, Creolizing Transylvania: Notes on Coloniality and Inter-imperiality, in: History of the Present 10.1 (2020): pp. 9-27: 23. []
  14. J.G.A. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History, Cambridge (2005), p. 23. []
  15. Lewis / Wigen 1997, p. 153. []
  16. Ibid., p. 200. []
  17. Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony, Chicago 2013, pp. 14, 17. []
  18. Ibid., p. 336. []
  19. One particularly productive example can be found with the notion of a Black Adriatic articulated by Catherine Baker that engages with the critical thinking of Paul Gilroy and Maria Todorova, among others. See Catherine Baker, Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-conflict, Postcolonial?, Manchester 2018. []
  20. Andrea Schwieger Hiepko, Europe and the Antilles: An Interview with Édouard Glissant, in: Françoise Lionnet / Shu-mei Shih (eds.), trans. Julin Everett, The Creolization of Theory, Durham 2011, pp. 255-261: 257-259. []
  21. Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Archipelago Europe: On Creolizing Conviviality, in: Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez / Shirley Anne Tate (eds.), Creolizing Europe: Legacies and Transformations, Liverpool 2015, pp. 80-99: 85-86. []
  22. Epeli Hau’ofa, Our Sea of Islands, in: The Contemporary Pacific 6.1 (1994), pp. 147-161: 153. []
  23. Ibid., p. 155. []
  24. On this see also the work of Amimoto Ingersoll, who builds upon Hau’ofa’s critique when she argues, ‘There has been a predisposition of cultural and indigenous studies to connect indigeneity with territory, a ‘territory’ that has been predominantly, although not entirely, land-based.’ Amimoto Ingersoll 2016, p. 15. []
  25. Ibid., pp. 5-6. []

Language, Space, and Mobility in European History Writing

Ángel Alcalde

To understand European history today we need to engage with critical issues of spatiality, language, and mobility in historians’ professional practice. New scales and spaces of analysis, English as a “vehicular” language, and crossing intellectual and geographical borders have become key practices to advance historical knowledge. We can consider the internationalisation of European historiography as a result of the ‘interconnectedness of human history’.1 The converse, however, is also true: Professional internationalisation has pushed historians towards a transnational and global view of modern European history. In the last 20 years, I experienced this transformation through my formative, professional trajectory as an historian and in the specific fields of expertise which have been my foci. In this paper, I will reflect on writing European history from various vantage points: places and contexts, from the local to the global, where I conducted my work on twentieth-century Spain and the history of fascism.

European history, national histories and fascism

The complex relations between European history, national histories, and the history of fascism deserve attention. Interestingly, most leading historians of fascism as a European phenomenon, at the outset of their careers, grappled with national histories rather than with the history of the continent as a whole. Robert Paxton, Zeev Sternhell, and Kevin Passmore started from France; Stanley Payne from Spain, while Antonio Costa-Pinto began his work from Portugal. Crucial insights into the history of fascism have also originated from scholars who excelled at writing national histories, like Emilio Gentile in Italy. Tellingly, the main promoter of a “generic” interpretation of fascism, Roger Griffin, was not trained as a historian but as a philologist and once defined himself as a ‘guest-worker in History’. 2  As an ultra-nationalist form of politics and a movement in pursuit of state power, it has always made sense to write the history of fascism through the nation-state framework. Only recently, by undertaking transnational history, have scholars begun to unravel the tension between the exacerbated nationalism of fascism and its simultaneous internationalism. While historians of transnational fascism often wear European lenses, collective works on the subject often juxtapose case studies mostly framed within the “national container”.3 What I have dubbed ‘the transnational consensus in the historiography of fascism’ has amplified its perceived Europeanness.4 After the ambitious comparative works of the 1990s, fascism was no longer conventionally considered as a product of unique Italian and German trajectories, but rather as a quintessentially European phenomenon.

As with many colleagues, I became a historian of fascism through Spanish history. Situating twentieth-century Spain within European history was not an easy task. Transiting the history of fascism as a bridge between Spain and Europe has been even more challenging. For decades, an important part of Spanish historiography tended to emphasise the uniqueness of the national past in the bid to differentiate it from the fascist and Nazi experiences. This is paradoxical, if we consider the bloody record of fascism in Spain and the longevity of Franco’s regime. Inward-looking historians explained momentous events such as the Spanish Civil War through endogenous factors and longer-term developments in Spanish history. Certainly, the “national container” was the dominant analytical unit. Spanish history, like most other national histories, was written autonomously. Europe was a distant background and sometimes did not figure at all in texts of Spanish history.

In Spanish universities, history programs were articulated through two primary sets of subjects: histories of Spain on one hand and universal or world histories on the other; both sub-divided in ancient, medieval, early modern, and contemporary. Universal history was seen as largely independent with few explicit crossovers with the national storyline. While European processes and events clearly dominated the so-called universal history subjects, Europe was not particularly emphasised as a “container” of history. Distinctively, an episodic understanding of the past dominated the narratives of both world and European histories. Key episodes, often connected to national storylines, were singled out and emphasised as turning points that created new contexts: the French revolution, the Russian revolution, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. If we focus on the twentieth century, it is interesting to observe that the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship were narrated with limited reference to non-Spanish history. In striking contrast, today we primarily see them as part of the global and transnational processes of the time. It was not until the 1990s, however, that Europe emerged in Spanish historiography as the most relevant spatial context in the study and teaching of history.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a time of European optimism and high expectations regarding the single market, Schengen, the European Union, and the Euro. As with other countries, the research and teaching of history transformed in Spain during this period. The growing tendency emphasised the importance of the “European context”. The 1930s’ destruction of the democratic experience of the Spanish Second Republic needed to be resituated in the broader context of decline of liberalism and rise of fascism in the continent.5 Often this engagement with the European context just meant a heightened awareness of historical developments beyond the borders of the Spanish nation-state: that is, the episodes occurring in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the democracies of France and the United Kingdom. Some scholars used diplomatic archives to analyse international relations between Spain and the European powers. In Spanish historiography however, there was no empirical analysis of the multiple transnational contacts, cultural transfers, entanglements, influences or networks. At most, comparative history was hailed as the most illuminating, yet challenging, exercise. Yet, this was about comparing Spain to other nation-states. Certainly, transnational perspectives were slowly developing, mostly on US, French and German campuses. Here it is noteworthy to interject that Spanish historiography has very often been affected by what I call the “Iberian lag”: the lateness and paucity with which international intellectual innovations tend to be discussed and adopted in Spain. In 1991, historian Julián Casanova compared the practice of social history in Spanish historiography to “dry farming” (secano).6 In the early 2000s methodological innovation usually came not from transnational historians, but from the introduction of the culturalist perspectives advanced in the anglophone and francophone academic literature of the 1990s. Furthermore, Spanish history writing was highly fragmented by the massive predominance of regional and local histories—a product of the system of regional autonomous government and scarce resources for scientific research.7 Heated debates in Spanish historiography between proponents of a Marxist-inspired social history and a post-modern cultural history were only settled, if at all, with the syncretic adoption of sociocultural history.

In the 2000s, renewing the historiography of the Civil War and dictatorship involved embracing cultural factors; citing the works of Emilio Gentile, Roger Griffin, and later, George L. Mosse signalled not only openness to historiographical innovation but also to international influences. During this decade it became increasingly common for Spanish modern historians to hold visiting fellowships abroad, usually in research centres in Paris, Rome and London (for example, Paul Preston’s Cañada Blanch Centre at LSE). Some scholars also had the privilege of studying at the European University Institute in Florence. Along with these cross-border activities, access to the internet and the increasing digitalisation of the historical profession also facilitated the development of foreign language skills. This period, arguably, demarcated the Europeanisation of Spanish historiography and history, with more intense exchanges and participation in debates at a European level, although the large majority of Spanish historians still primarily work within national intellectual and institutional contexts.

Trained in Spanish academia in the 2000s, my early work on the history of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s regime reflected this changing context. Whereas my initial studies of wartime mobilisation and Spanish fascism were social histories situated in local and regional frameworks, my second monograph Los excombatientes franquistas, employed culturalist concepts borrowed from French historiography of the First World War. I adapted the notion of culture de guerre to interpret the nation-wide political culture of Francoist war veterans as a form of European fascism.8 In these years, the reading of historiography in both French and English, as well as an enriching period of research in Paris allowed me to make innovative interpositions in existing debates in Spanish historiography. Answering historical questions in the national framework of Spain — What was the relationship between war veterans and the Franco regime? — led me to interrogate the European framework — What was the relationship between veterans and fascism in interwar Europe? From 2011 to 2015, I took the opportunity to explore this European-wide historical question as a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. It is worth observing the institutional and intellectual context of the EUI and its impact on various generations of historians.

Institutions matter: the transformative impact of the European University Institute

Since its creation, the EUI History Department has had a strong emphasis on comparative, transnational, and global histories of Europe. It is difficult to overstate how the exceptional intellectual and institutional context of the EUI can be transformative for a historian’s work. There, doctoral researchers from all EU member countries are supported to learn additional European languages to research proficiency, to develop the capacity of writing in academic English at a nearly “native” level, to conduct multi-archival research on various countries, to spend time as a visiting researcher in other European universities, and to participate in international English-speaking conferences, seminars, and workshops. Along with a wider and more diverse cohort of doctoral researchers and fellows, I experienced this training at a time of high societal anxieties about Europe and the crisis of its Union.

My resulting thesis was a study of European history and fascism that departed from earlier interpretations.9 Methodologically, I forsook both the obsession with a culturalist interpretation of fascism (Mosse’s ‘brutalization’) and simplistic comparisons between nation-state experiences. Somewhat reflecting my own experience as a scholar across borders, I instead focused on ideological transfers, transnational contacts, and networks to re-interpret the development and expansion of fascism in Italy, Germany, Spain and France between 1919 and 1940. Furthermore, my empirical exploration was not constrained to the boundaries of these countries.  My analytical framework was what I called a “transnational space,” a space not determined by borders of nation-state cases, but by research questions and the spatially complex circulation of fascist ideas. Retrospectively, now I believe my work would have been further enhanced had I transcended Europe as a spatial framework and included, for instance, the United States, where veterans’ organisations such as the American Legion were inspired by fascism to radicalise their right-wing politics.

From European to global scales of analysis

My opinion will be better understood with a commentary on my post-doctoral experience. After my time at the EUI, I started a side-project on the global and international history of veterans’ organisations in the Cold War. This brought me to spend time as a researcher not just in Europe, in Germany, but also outside the EU umbrella: in the United States, China, and “international” Geneva. Thematically and spatially my work broadened, and I read voraciously on matters of global history. Sebastian Conrad’s synthesis What is global history? was published in 2016 signalling again an intertwining of the contemporary context with intellectual developments. Since 2016, the global rise of far-right political movements on the one hand, and the global impact of new progressive social movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter on the other hand have transformed the way historians construct questions about the past.

I experienced these changes in my professional life. In early 2016, when my Hindi/Urdu teacher in a Delhi language school asked my opinion of whether Trump is a fascist, I was not surprised at his concern.  After all, he was a progressive Muslim in Narendra Modi’s India. Still, it made me question the alleged Europeanness of fascism. In late 2017, following the news of the Catalan nationalist’s attempt at independence through the lens of Chinese media in Shanghai, I could not help but relativise transcontinental distance in the era of nationalism and internationalism. In the same years, new publications on the transnational and global history of fascism and Nazism dictated a new research agenda. Themes such as global empires and alliances, and the impact and influence of fascism in Asia and the Americas, have unleashed the study of fascism from the narrower horizon of writing the history of Europe. “Mobilities”, in fact, have been hailed as a new revealing theme.10 Global history has challenged European histories as normative or unique models and blurred established chronologies.11

If we have relativised the nation-state as a self-evident unit of analysis and embraced instead transnational perspectives of European history, the same methodological reasons that motivated this change can, in turn, make us relativise “Europe” as a meaningful container for history and thus adopt global understandings of the past. Transnational history can equally invite us to interpret European local experiences in intimate relation to extra-European phenomena. Topics such as the violent process of decolonisation —for instance, the French wars in present-day Vietnam and Algeria— should remind us of the persisting relations between continental Europe and the rest of the world. These cases also present strong links with the history of the European and extra-European far right. After the Second World War, there were global continuities in different parts of the world, in Latin America for example, of fascist ideas that emerged in inter-war European societies. If the argument that fascism was a “European phenomenon” no longer has the same purchase, neither has the claim that the history of fascism ended in 1945.

Once again, I have become vividly aware of the inconsistency of such presumed spatiotemporal boundaries for the history of fascism through my own professional trajectory and context. In 2019, I joined the University of Melbourne, Australia, as Lecturer in Twentieth-Century European History. Before arriving to the antipodes for the first time in late 2018, I had limited knowledge about the society and history of Australia. However, working in Australia as a historian of Europe has underscored to me the global character of the European past in even starker hues. For context, Australia, as a historically Anglo settler society, for a long time perceived itself as a European, more precisely British, fragment moored in the Pacific.

Decentering European history from the Antipodes

Furthermore, this Eurocentric mentality was reflected in the configuration of the humanities, including history, in Australia.12 Modern Australia was always shaped by its distance from the European continent, but this distance affected Australian society in material ways, rather than in the realm of ideas.13 Intellectually, there is little that differentiates the tradition of writing European history in Australia from the European Anglophone one. There are many notable historians of Europe in Australia and, since the 1970s, an Australasian Association for European History.14 Yet in the past there has been a certain tension between European historians and Australian historians in Australia, with a perception among the latter that the former group’s ‘devotion to the study of the world outside Australia is really only a cultural cringe, self-indulgent, irrelevant and somehow unpatriotic,’ as RJB Bosworth described. 15

Another fact is that most influential European historians in Australia are historians of specific nation-states, with a focus on the great powers.16 Thus, Sheila Fitzpatrick is a well-known historian of Russia; Peter McPhee of France; John Moses of Germany; Bosworth of Italy. Tellingly, Bosworth is an expert known by his insistence on the Italian uniqueness of fascism. Becoming a transnational historian of Europe in Australia presents particular difficulties. The reason again is not only distance and the practicalities of mobility, but also issues of language. Whereas established historians deal with the problem of distance by spending long periods of research leave travelling abroad, it is still uncommon to come across Australian history students who, apart from a keen curiosity about the European past, also possess language skills in European languages other than English to conduct independent original historical research.17 Despite digitalisation, such research from Australia is particularly costly. In recent times, neither the extremely marketised Australian higher education system, nor a centralised and very competitive system for the allocation of research funding, centred around an Australian Research Council (that has been subject to political interference by a neo-liberal and nationalist government) benefit the practice of European history from the antipodes.

In the last twenty years, however, transnational and global perspectives have also intertwined Australian history with European and world history in extremely interesting ways. No longer can we perceive the same level of distinction between Europeanists and Australianists that Bosworth described in the 1980s for the historical profession. These changes are also true for the historiography of the far right. For instance, my graduate students have been investigating Australian fascism and anti-fascism from transnational perspectives that straddle the inter-war and the post-war period. Their findings show the substantial level of interrelation between Australian and European ideologies in the age of fascism.18 Observing how extremism operated in the historical context of settler colonialism enriches our understanding of fascism and enlarges our mental maps of “Europe”.

There are also recent notable contributions to a transnational and global history of Europe by Australian historians.19 In fact, the vantage point of Australia allows historians to observe European history in a different light and facilitates thinking outside the European box. In my own research, distance has had no negative impact when I have revisited specifically Spanish themes from Australia.20 If anything, such remoteness of my point of observation has facilitated me taking a healthy distance from the dominant Spanish historiographical discourses and arriving at new fresh angles to look at the past. In general, geographical distance has benefits for the thinking of historians in similar ways to how temporal distance allows for a better understanding of the past.

Yet innovation in a globalised history of Europe, from Australia and elsewhere, does not come without challenges related to space, mobility, and language, which have been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is an ongoing, albeit muted, discussion about the problems that the empire of English as a “vehicular” language represents for academe, particularly in the humanities and history. The careers for European historians who are non-native English speakers increasingly depend on mastering English, often to the unjust devaluation of other skills and expertise. Monolingualism can only impoverish our understanding of the past. But there is a glass ceiling for most European historians whose mother tongue is not English when it comes to publishing their work in high-impact academic journals and presses. A task of the historical profession at a European level should be to open a critical debate about language use and language training for historians. It is still early to see how the current global health situation and geopolitical conflict in the continent will impact the writing of European history, particularly in regard to mobility, but as in earlier periods, historians will need to adapt their practice to the problems, spaces, languages, and mobilities of their times.

  1. Akira Iriye, The Internationalization of History, in: American Historical Review 94:1 (1989), pp. 1-10. I wish to thank Matt Fitzpatrick for his comments on an earlier version of my contribution. []
  2. Roger Griffin, Revolts against the Modern World. The Blend of Literary and Historical Fantasy in the Italian New Right, in: Literature and History 11:1 (1985), pp. 101-123. []
  3. Arnd Bauerkämper / Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe (eds.), Fascism without Borders. Transnational Connections and Cooperation between Movements and Regimes in Europe from 1918 to 1945, New York 2017. []
  4. Ángel Alcalde, The Transnational Consensus. Fascism and Nazism in Current Research, in: Contemporary European History 29:2 (2020), pp. 243-252. []
  5. Julián Casanova, Europa en Guerra, 1914-1945, in: Ayer 55 (2004), pp. 107-126. []
  6. Julián Casanova, La historia social y los historiadores. ¿Cenincienta o princesa?, Barcelona 1991. The reference to “dry farming” evokes more traditional, passive, and less productive practices. []
  7. Carlos Forcadell Álvarez, La fragmentación espacial en la historiografía contemporánea. La historia regional/local y el temor a la síntesis, in Studia Historica. Historia Contemporánea 13-14 (1995/96), pp. 7-27. []
  8. Ángel Alcalde, Los excombatientes franquistas. La cultura de guerra del fascismo español y la Delegación Nacional de Excombatientes (1936-1965), Zaragoza 2014. []
  9. Ángel Alcalde, War Veterans and Fascism in Interwar Europe, Cambridge 2017. []
  10. Aristotle Kallis, The Transnational Co-Production of Interwar ‘Fascism’. On the Dynamics of Ideational Mobility and Localization, in: European History Quarterly 51:2 (2021), pp. 189-213. []
  11. Patricia Clavin, Time, Manner, Place. Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts, in: European History Quarterly 40:4 (2010), pp. 624-640. []
  12. Joel Barnes, The Humanities in Australia and the Problem of Europe, in: History of Humanities 6:2 (2021), pp. 571-593. []
  13. To understand this, there is an important classic in Australian historiography: Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance. How Distance Shaped Australia’s History, Sydney 2010, 1st ed. 1966). []
  14. Richard Scully, Antipodean Perspectives — (Nearly) Fifty Years of the Australasian Association for European History (AAEH), in: Australian Journal of Politics and History 62:4 (2016), pp. 576-591. []
  15. See his “Foreword” to Gianfranco Cresciani, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia, Canberra 1980, pp. vii-ix: vii. []
  16. John Moses, Modern European History. A Missionary Enterprise?, in: Australian Journal of Politics & History 41:1 (1995), pp. 198-196. []
  17. This problem was already noted by Steven Welch and Charles Zika, German History in Australian Universities: An Overview, in: Zeitenblicke. Online-Journal Geschichtswissenschaften 2 (2003), Nr. 2, https://www.zeitenblicke.de/2003/02/pdf/zika.pdf, last accessed 29 May 2022. []
  18. Joe Parro, P. R. Stephensen and Transnational Fascism: From Interwar Adoption to Postwar Survival and Transmission (MA thesis), University of Melbourne, 2021, https://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/items/40f05f8c-1f22-5cfb-90be-939fcdb7927d, last accessed 29 May 2022. James Hogg is conducting doctoral research on inter-war and post-war Australian anti-fascism. []
  19. Ben Mercer, Student Revolt in 1968: France, Italy and West Germany, Cambridge 2019; Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, The Kaiser and the Colonies. Monarchy in the Age of Empire, Oxford 2022). []
  20. Ángel Alcalde, Wartime and Post-war Rape in Franco’s Spain, in: The Historical Journal 64:4 (2021), pp. 1060-1082. []

On the Boundaries of European History: Writing the History of European Colonialism in the Twenty-First Century

Márcia Gonçalves

In late 1984, the well-known monthly magazine, History Today, brought together a group of distinguished contributors from different branches of history to discuss the diversity of approaches of historians writing at the time in a series of articles entitled ‘What is… history?’.1 The last article of the series was published in January 1986 and asked, ‘What is European History?’. A.J.P. Taylor replied with the sense of humour that is said to have been characteristic of him, ‘European history is whatever the historian wants it to be. (…) There is only one limiting factor. It must take place in or derive from the area we call Europe. But as I am not sure what exactly that area is meant to be, I am pretty well in a haze about the rest!’.2

I readily confess that I, too, am not sure what exactly Europe is meant to be. The generally accepted geographical concept of Europe – a continent from the west coast of Ireland to the Ural Mountains – is of little use to understand its current political and cultural extent, let alone its history. The archipelago of the Azores, like Iceland, sits on both the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates and the Madeira archipelago sits on the African plate. These two Portuguese autonomous regions are part of the so-called “EU outermost regions”. Together with the “EU overseas countries and territories” and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, they extend the current political boundaries of the European Union to the western Atlantic Ocean, the north of Africa, the Caribbean basin, the Amazonian tropical rainforest and the Arctic region, as well as to the Indian and Pacific Oceans.3 These are remnants of a shared colonial past that shaped not only the history of each individual colonial power, but also the history of Europe as a continent.

Undoubtedly, Europe’s colonial past is part of the reason why Europe has become what it is today. To be sure, some historians continue to attribute European “exceptionalism” or “miracle” to a European culture of growth and other intrinsically cultural qualities; but it has long been argued that the exploitation of colonial resources and peoples was a key element for the accumulation of European wealth and provided a material basis for industrialisation.4 The importance of colonialism and imperial projects for creating representations of Europe had already been stressed before the New Imperial History gained momentum in the 1990s.5 Yet, as Alexander Semyonov has already noted in his contribution to this debate, the consolidation of the New Imperial History approaches played a crucial role in advancing novel perspectives on the mutual relationship between metropole and colony and challenging the focus on nation-based historical frameworks, thus blurring the boundaries of European history.6

From the pioneer of overseas expansion to the pioneer of globalisation

Coming from Portugal, these boundaries have never seemed clear-cut to me. At almost 900 years old, the Portuguese national borders have only been within the continental limits of Europe for less than 300 years. Portuguese history is deeply connected to the histories of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, even though little attention is given to the histories of African, Asian, and American peoples before, after, and/or beyond European colonialism in Portuguese academia or society. The history of the Portuguese overseas expansion into Africa, Asia, and Brazil, by contrast, is introduced as a class subject from an early age. Unfortunately, this early introduction to colonial themes is not the result of the awareness that no national history can be entirely understood or explained internally, without looking beyond its borders, nor is it an expression of self-reflectivity on the issue of Eurocentrism.7 Rather, this engagement with the histories of the so-called Age of Discoveries betrays the grip that the colonial past still has on Portuguese representations of the nation and national identity.

Undergraduate degrees in history at Portuguese universities naturally provide a more nuanced view of the past than what is taught in primary and secondary schools. In a way, however, their structure continues to make it difficult to escape from the national focus that is so pervasive on the preceding levels of education. History curricula in university tend to be divided into national history and the history of the “rest” of the world. On the one hand, therefore, there is the history of medieval Portugal, modern Portugal, contemporary Portugal, which includes its imperial past. On the other hand, there is general medieval history, general modern history, general contemporary history, etc., which supposedly covers all of the rest. This compartmentalisation does not incentivise the adoption of transnational and global approaches. The prospect of the latter might be seductive for writing the history of a country with such a long colonial past, but “global history” is not always taken as an invitation to reflect on the global conditions and interconnectedness that shaped the past. Rather it is often a fashionable label for history that includes parts of the globe within Portugal’s hegemony: the pioneer of overseas expansion has become the pioneer of globalisation. For example, the Global History of Portugal, originally published in 2020 and recently translated into English, includes both understandings of what global history is, side by side, in its over 90 chapters.8 Perhaps predictably, many chapters are devoted to colonial/imperial matters, while only a few explore the repercussions of European interdependencies in Portuguese history.

In addition to the limiting structure of undergraduate history degrees, history departments in Portuguese universities usually do not have researchers who specialise in the history of other European countries, as is often the norm elsewhere in Europe. Their absence also hinders dialogue between different historiographies. As a European University Institute’s alumna, I am convinced that the potential discussion that could arise from being exposed to multiple national histories would help students and researchers realise how these are, in fact, interwoven, shedding light on parallels and connections across national borders.9

It is thus not surprising that Portugal has proved better at researching its own colonial and imperial past than at investigating its relationship with Europe and/or its place within Europe. Nevertheless, this picture changes significantly when it comes to the history of the Portuguese twentieth century.

Doing European history?

Research on Portugal’s recent colonial and imperial past has only gained momentum in the last 25 years, largely encouraged by Valentim Alexandre. Initially trained as an historian of the nineteenth century, Alexandre later refocused his research on twentieth-century colonialism and supervised many ground-breaking dissertations that influenced a whole generation of researchers.10 Investigations into Salazar’s dictatorship in the metropole, however, still predominate in the historiography of twentieth-century Portugal. Comparing the Portuguese dictatorship with the other European right-wing dictatorships has been a main feature since the first studies were published shortly after the revolution.11 Although Salazar sought to dissociate his regime from Mussolini’s fascist regime, “fascism” was the epithet by which it became known among the Portuguese resistance, before and after 1974.12 Therefore, pointing out the “New State’s” similarities with the Italian fascist regime was a primary concern in the aftermath of the revolution.

The field has evolved enormously since these early academic investigations. Thematically, it expanded from the initial focus on political ideology and institutions that structured the regime, to cover themes as diverse as cultural diplomacy and academic exchanges, migration, feminism and LGBT resistance, cinema and sports, to name but a few. Methodologically, more and more projects have been conceived in a transnational or comparative way, usually pairing Portugal with another right-wing dictatorship.  These projects could be called “doing European history” in the perspective of the editors of this debate, as stated in their inaugural piece.13 Studies that make use of a Portuguese-only empirical basis are usually strongly complemented with secondary literature on fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Francoist Spain, attempting to situate the Portuguese regime in the “era of fascisms”. Their authors take part in the transnational debate on how European societies gravitated towards fascist, authoritarian, and populist movements and governments in the interwar period, namely through participation in international conferences and collective volumes. As such, by inscribing their research in the solid academic field on European interwar authoritarianism, they also “do European history”, even though in a different register from their colleagues whose empirical research transcends the nation-state.

In turn, historians of Portuguese colonialism in the twentieth century are required to traverse the boundaries of political regimes and thus do not fit under the umbrella of comparative histories of European fascism. By focusing on Salazar’s dictatorship, continuities between his colonial policies and the ones adopted during the regimes that preceded his rise to power would have been missed. In addition, there would be a risk of turning a blind eye to common aspects shared with imperial powers that were not dictatorships, as the dichotomy between European democracies and totalitarian dictatorships does not always apply to colonial settings. For instance, research on matters as diverse as public health and disease control, “native” taxation and labour, agricultural sciences, development, or migration and white settlement have shown that Portuguese colonial authorities were aware of the policies and practices adopted by other imperial powers.14 This was not unique to the Portuguese: other European empires constantly learned from each other.

In recent years, research on modern colonialism and inter-imperial relations has increasingly emphasised cooperation and emulation between colonial powers. Notwithstanding the increasing intra-European tensions and exacerbated colonial rivalries from the beginning of the “age of empire” to decolonisation, colonisers faced similar challenges in the process of establishing and maintaining colonial rule in their possessions. There were common ‘imperial repertoires’ of rule, to use Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s expression, that informed practices and ideas of the different colonial powers regarding the administration and exploitation of their colonies.15 This does not mean that the specificity of each colonial empire should be downplayed – there were many ways of governing an empire and sometimes even different ways of governing different regions within the same colonial empire. While looking for solutions for shared problems together, however, European colonisers created and reinforced their commonalities, blurring intra-European differences in colonial contexts.16 In addition to practical and scientific knowledge, people also circulated beyond the borders of colonial empires, taking part in processes of empire-building within and outside the limits of their own nation’s colonies.

From this perspective, writing the history of European colonialism since the late nineteenth century cannot be limited to a set of compilations and comparisons between the various colonial projects and the engagements of the many different European colonial powers with their colonies. As Bernhard C. Schär pointedly suggested in a recent article, we need a new imperial history of Europe.17 It needs not only to question the border between “metropole” and “colonies” as the New Imperial History of the 1990s has done, but also to cross the boundaries between and beyond colonial empires. In other words, we need a history that moves away from approaches centred in nation-based empires (per se or compared) and that does not overlook the involvement of people from every part of Europe. Europeans from both colonial powers and countries without colonies were present within the structures of colonial expansion and exploitation, taking advantage of their Europeanness in racially defined colonial societies. We require a new imperial history of Europe that is inherently global, overcoming narratives that consider Europe as a model and the scale against which the world is measured, yet that does not efface Europe as a category of historical analysis. As Ferenc Laczó, Camilo Erlichman, and Pablo del Hierro put it in their contribution to this debate, the point is not about choosing to ‘remain European’ or ‘go global’.18 We need to do both: after all colonialism was a shared European project.

Which European colonialism matters?

This does not mean, however, that all colonial empires were considered equal in the first place. Notwithstanding the inter-imperial collaboration that flourished in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the way colonial nations perceived their position and that of their competitors on a ‘hierarchical ladder of prestige’, to use Samuël Coghe’s fitting expression, determined with whom they wanted to collaborate, and from whom they believed they could learn.19 Paradoxically, historians who write the history of European colonialism of that period are still confronted with hierarchical ladders of prestige today.

Researchers who take smaller European powers with colonies as the point of departure of their surveys still need to justify why their research is relevant and why colleagues, funding bodies, and publishers should take an interest in it. While comparative and transnational studies that approach colonialism as a collective European project are becoming more and more frequent, the British, French and/or German empires are usually taken as the frame of reference. The history of the smaller European powers’ colonialism is sometimes taken as a bit part or a token in edited volumes, but comparisons with these case studies are often deemed irrelevant. It is not a matter of the duration or extension of their colonial empires. If that were the case, European countries with colonial empires for a much longer period and with a far greater extensive reach than Germany – like Portugal but also, for instance, the Netherlands – would arouse more interest among the international audience than the German colonial empire. Matters of economy and geopolitics in Europe in the present play a role in determining whose colonial pasts are placed at the centre of the history and historiography of modern colonialism and whose colonial pasts are relegated to a marginal role or overlooked completely.

As the contributions of Efi Avdela, Alexander Semyonov, Jitka Malečková or Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir in the previous rounds of the EuropeDebate have shown, this is a widespread problem experienced by scholars outside of the “Big Three” and not exclusive to the history of colonialism.20 Global history has opened up imperial history to peoples and societies who had traditionally been marginalised but has yet to change perspectives on which interpretation of Europe matters, or on whose history is worth telling. Breaking these engrained historiographical hierarchies is perhaps the major challenge of European history as a field of research in the twentieth-first century – if able to do so, it would also be its major breakthrough, paving the way for an account that reflects Europe’s more nuanced past and the way Europeans from great and smaller powers alike and actors from the world forcibly put under Europe’s hegemony shaped the way this collective history happens.

  1. I would like to thank Christoph Kalter for his valuable suggestions on an earlier version of this text. []
  2. A. J. P. Taylor, What Is European History? in: History Today 36/1 (1986), p. 46. []
  3. Many of us may never have noticed that some of them are even represented on the Euro banknotes. See Manuela Boatcă, Thinking Europe Otherwise: Lessons from the Caribbean, in: Current Sociology 69.3 (2021), pp. 395–397, https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392120931139. Her invitation to rethink how Europe as a political, cultural, economic, and discursive formation is imagined is thought-provoking. []
  4. I will not attempt to summarise a decades-long (and heated) debate here. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that Kenneth Pomeranz’s influential The Great Divergence has been published more than twenty years ago. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton 2000. []
  5. See, for instance: V. G. Kiernan, Europe in the Colonial Mirror, in: History of European Ideas 1.1 (1980), pp. 39–61; Alec G. Hargreaves, European Identity and the Colonial Frontier, in: Journal of European Studies 12.47 (1982), pp. 166–179. []
  6. 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.) []
  7. On the many limitations and omissions in Portuguese history textbooks used in lower secondary education (i.e. attended by pupils usually aged 12 to 15), see Marta Araújo / Silvia Rodríguez Maeso, Slavery and Racism as the “Wrongs” of (European) History: Reflections from a Study on Portuguese Textbooks, in: Douglas Hamilton / Kate Hodgson / Joel Quirk (eds.), Slavery, Memory and Identity: National Representations and Global Legacies, London 2012, pp. 151–66. []
  8. Carlos Fiolhais / José Eduardo Franco / José Pedro Paiva (eds)., The Global History of Portugal: From Pre-History to the Modern World, Brighton 2022. On the limits of this genre of history books that aim to give a global reading to the national past, see Arthur Asseraf, Le monde comme adjectif: retour sur l’Histoire mondiale de la France, in: Revue d’histoire moderne contemporaine 68.1 (2021), pp. 151–162. []
  9. After reading Efi Avdela’s remarks about the challenges of scholars working on non-Greek history in Greece in his piece for this debate, I realise I may be being too optimistic about how this exchange of ideas would actually take place in a national institution, however. []
  10. Namely Cláudia Castelo, “O Modo Português de Estar No Mundo”. O Luso-Tropicalismo e a Ideologia Colonial Portuguesa (1933-1961), Porto 1998. See also Valentim Alexandre’s first reflections on the importance of colonial matters for the establishment of the dictatorship, which acted also as a “call to arms” to twentieth-century historians: Valentim Alexandre, Ideologia, Economia e Política: A Questão Colonial Na Implantação Do Estado Novo, in: Análise Social XXVIII.123–124 (1993), pp. 1117-1136. []
  11. See, for instance, Manuel de Lucena’s foundational investigation on state corporatist structures in Portugal. Manuel de Lucena, A evolução do sistema corporativo português, Lisbon 1976. []
  12. Stanley G. Payne, Fascism and Right Authoritarianism in the Iberian World – The Last Twenty Years, in: Journal of Contemporary History 21. 2 (1986), pp. 163-177: 172. []
  13. 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. []
  14. Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo / José Pedro Monteiro, Das “dificuldades de Levar Os Indígenas a Trabalhar”: O Sistema de Trabalho Nativo No Império Colonial Português, in: Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo (ed.), O Império Colonial Em Questão, Sécs. XIX-XX: Poderes, Saberes e Instituições, Lisboa 2012, pp. 159–96; Marta Macedo, Império de Cacau: Ciência Agrícola e Regimes de Trabalho Em São Tomé No Inícío Do Século XX, in: Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo (ed.), O Império Colonial Em Questão, Sécs. XIX-XX: Poderes, Saberes e Instituições, Lisbon 2012, pp. 289–316; Philip J. Havik / Alexander Keese / Maciel Santos, Administration and Taxation in Former Portuguese Africa, 1900-1945, Newcastle upon Tyne 2015; Samuël Coghe, Inter-Imperial Learning and African Health Care in Portuguese Angola in the Interwar Period, in: Social History of Medicine 28. 1 (2015), pp. 134–154; Maria Do Mar Gago, Robusta Empire: Coffee, Scientists and the Making of Colonial Angola (1898-1961), Lisbon 2018; Caio Simões de Araújo, Whites, but Not Quite: Settler Imaginations in Late Colonial Mozambique, c. 1951–1964, in: Duncan Money / Danelle van Zyl-Hermann (eds.), Rethinking White Societies in Southern Africa, 1930s–1990s, London 2020, pp. 97–114. []
  15. Frederick Cooper / Jane Burbank, Empires in World History. Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton 2010, pp. 287–329. []
  16. See, for instance, Jeremy Adelman, Mimesis and Rivalry: European Empires and Global Regimes, in: Journal of Global History 10. 01 (2015), pp. 77–98; Volker Barth / Roland Cvetkovski (eds.), Imperial Co-Operation and Transfer, 1870-1930: Empires and Encounters, London 2015; Ulrike Lindner, Colonialism as a European Project in Africa before 1914? British and German Concepts of Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa, in: Comparativ 19.1 (2009), pp. 88–106; Ulrike Lindner, Koloniale Begegnungen: Deutschland und Großbritannien als Imperialmächte in Afrika 1880-1914, Frankfurt 2011; Christoph Kamissek / Jonas Kreienbaum, An Imperial Cloud? Conceptualising Interimperial Connections and Transimperial Knowledge, in: Journal of Modern European History 14.2 (2016), pp. 164–182; Daniel Hedinger / Nadin Heé, Transimperial History – Connectivity, Cooperation and Competition, in: Journal of Modern European History 16:4 (2018), pp. 429–52; Cyrus Schayegh, Preliminary reflections on transimperial history – The Leiden Terra Incognita Lecture, Leiden 2022. A mention is due to the Transimperial History scholarly network and blog: https://www.transimperialhistory.com/. []
  17. Bernhard Schär, Switzerland, Borneo and the Dutch Indies: Towards a New Imperial History of Europe, c.1770–1850, in: Past and Present (ahead of print) (2022). []
  18. Ferenc Laczó / Camilo Erlichman / Pablo del Hierro, Reconceptualisation and Renewal. On Writing Contemporary European History Today, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, April, 11, 2021, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/740. []
  19. Samuël Coghe, Population Politics in the Tropics: Demography, Health and Transimperialism in Colonial Angola, Cambridge 2022, p. 247. []
  20. 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; Alexander Semyonov: Provincializing Europe, De-centering Europe, Hybridizing Europe, in: ibid., November 8, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/321; Jitka Malečková: On the Margins of European History, in: ibid., November 22, 2020, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/342; Erla Hulda Hallddósdóttir, Speaking From the Fringes: Which Europe Belongs to Europe?, in: ibid., May 3, 2021, https://europedebate.hypotheses.org/885. []

Acerca de la idea de Europa y de la historia de Europa. Una perspectiva argentina.

Fernando J. Devoto

Ante todo, una breve observación de método. Estas líneas parten de una admisión que no es universalmente compartida entre los historiadores: que siempre se piensa el pasado desde un tiempo y un lugar, hic et nunc, por así decir. Una idea perspectivista, que vincula el conocimiento al punto de vista situado del sujeto, y que con fundamentos, alcances e implicancias distintos entre sí tiene una larga y prestigiosa tradición en la historiografía europea y americana, de Johann Chladenius a Reinhardt Koselleck, de Gustav Droysen a Benedetto Croce.1

Desde luego que a ese conjunto de problemáticas debe añadirse otro, no teórico sino empírico, aún más imperioso en estos tiempos de historias globales y/o transnacionales: el desigual conocimiento que cualquier historiador tiene de historiografías diferentes a la suya, ya que las mismas siguen siempre organizadas sobre bases nacionales, aunque se hable también de historiografías globales o transnacionales (y lo que se publica en inglés, al menos para Latinoamérica no suele ser considerado lo más interesante). Dominar otras historiografías requeriría una erudición inusual para no trabajar simplemente con fuentes derivadas, o proponer esquemas interpretativos generales. En este sentido, el caso de la historiografía latinoamericana no es distinto de la historiografía europea, aunque no requiera un dominio pluri lingüístico amplio.

Al partir de tomar en cuenta estos obstáculos, el presente texto no aspira a proponer una mirada latinoamericana, y menos aún global, sino apenas argentina y sobre autores casi todos ellos argentinos.

La perspectiva de la gente “corriente”

A la hora de indagar sumariamente esas imágenes de Europa sería conveniente distinguir entre varios registros. Ante todo, el de las personas corrientes. ¿Qué imagen tenían los mismos? En ese grado de generalidad la respuesta es imposible de contestar, si en cambio se la plantea en relación con un universo más circunscrito: las clases populares y medias de origen inmigrante (europeo), desde fines del siglo XIX, las cosas son bastante más claras. Al menos los hijos migrantes del sur (la gran mayoría) y del este de Europa, tenían una imagen bastante negativa de los lugares de origen de sus padres, en grandes números provenientes de contextos rurales, vistos como pobres y atrasados. Nos lo indica con claridad, no solo las exteriorizaciones argentinistas de los mismos, sino también otros indicadores culturales, como el abandono de la lengua de sus padres, fuese ella la lengua nacional, o más a menudo el dialecto hablado en familia, que generaba aprehensión más fuerte a medida que mayor era la integración en la sociedad argentina. Más se producía un ascenso social y educativo, más quedaba atrás Europa, destinada a ser un pasado superado ante el dominio del (mito) de la presente y futura grandeza de la Argentina. Nadie cantaba más fuerte el himno argentino que los hijos de los inmigrantes aseveraba en 1899, el que pronto sería presidente del Consejo Nacional de Educación de la Argentina.2

Cien años después la situación se había invertido. El mito americano era ahora el mito europeo, ahí estaba el futuro. Tantos descendientes de emigrantes fuesen nietos, bisnietos, o cuarta generación, aspiraban a emigrar hacia Europa, vista como el lugar de las posibilidades y del bienestar. La emigración, que se llamó equivocadamente de retorno, cuando era en realidad una nueva emigración, alcanzaba números elevados que podían correlacionarse con cada una de las sucesivas crisis argentinas. Un modo fácil de medir parte de ese nuevo mito es estudiar las solicitudes de la ciudadanía europea por parte de los descendientes. Por ejemplo, existen hoy alrededor de 700.000 argentinos de origen italiano que han logrado tener un pasaporte válido en la Unión Europea, que no han todavía emigrado -y que quizás nunca lo hagan- que, deben sumarse a los de otros casos nacionales europeos (en especial España) y a los ya emigrados, un número difícil de precisar.3

Una ulterior anotación: la solicitud de un pasaporte europeo no indica que en el caso de producirse la emigración se la haga al país de origen de los antepasados. Es bastante conocido el caso de migrantes con pasaporte italiano que se instalaron en España y los conflictos para ser reconocidos como comunitarios en la década del 2000. Europa devino, entonces, tierra de promisión para tantos emigrantes, independientemente de muchas más precisiones sobre culturas nacionales. Un modo de repetir el antiguo dicho: ubi bene, ibi patria.

Cierto, estos argentinos, que no pertenecen a los sectores más pobres, tenían y tienen alguna idea sumaria de Europa y es no tanto la que pudieron recibir en el ámbito familiar, que en todo caso sería la memoria de un lugar, de una región, de una nación específica, sino aquella que provenía del sistema educativo.

La enseñanza de la historia en Argentina en el pasado

Si se vuelve cincuenta años o incluso a algo más de cien años atrás la historia que se enseñaba en Argentina, en todos los niveles educativos, tenía dos ejes: el americano-argentino y el europeo, también denominado occidental. Este último desbordaba la mera historia de Europa, ya que rastreaba sus orígenes en el antiguo (cercano) Oriente y se prolongaba hasta el mundo contemporáneo, incluyendo al resto del mundo como parte de la expansión europea sobre él. Desde luego que no hubo uniformidad, y variaciones se produjeron en consonancia con los cambios políticos, en especial en torno a un eje perdurable de debate en las elites argentinas: laicismo y catolicismo. Por ejemplo, el primer peronismo (1946-1955) aumentó sustancialmente las horas de historia argentina, disminuyendo el eje mediterráneo-europeo, salvo que, al introducir como obligatoria la enseñanza religiosa en las escuelas, incluyó el estudio del Antiguo y el Nuevo Testamento.4

A la hora de estudiar lo que se llamaba historia antigua y medieval e historia moderna y contemporánea, existían muchas opciones. En general eran manuales escritos por profesores de liceo argentinos que resumían manuales europeos y, en el mejor de los casos, también, tomaban los datos de algunas obras más ambiciosas traducidas al castellano, como la Historia Universal de Oncken, o las dirigidas por Walter Goetz o después por Maurice Crouzet.5 Había, sin embargo, otro aspecto diferencial: entre la oferta de manuales se encontraron durante mucho tiempo manuales franceses hechos para escuelas francesas traducidos al castellano, como el llamado “pequeño” Lavisse para la escuela primaria,6 y sobre todo y por muchísimo tiempo los de Albert Malet completados por Jules Isaac (el conocidísimo Malet-Isaac), que, editado en castellano, a veces en Buenos Aires, pero a veces en París era el preferido en los colegios de elite.

El que esto escribe todavía estudió en el liceo con Malet-Isaac a principios de los años sesenta y eso ocurría desde principios del siglo XX (al menos los primeros manuales en castellano de la serie disponible en la Biblioteca nacional Argentina se remontan a 1909).7 Bien puede decirse que las cosas han cambiado en el nuevo milenio, y que la historia extraeuropea se ha hecho bastante más universal, pero, aún así, Europa y dentro de ella los espacios mediterráneos y europeos occidentales siguen dominando el escenario.

Las cosas no transcurrieron de un modo diferente en la enseñanza en la Universidad, con la excepción de las carreras de letras, donde existían las materias “nacionales” (lo que quería decir, Literatura española, francesa, inglesa, italiana o alemana), en el resto de los cursos de humanidades, filosofía, geografía y desde luego historia, los estudios eran a nivel continental.8 En el caso de la enseñanza de la historia, con pocas variaciones se iba ayer y se va hoy desde la historia del Antiguo Oriente hasta la historia contemporánea y en ese tratamiento Europa era/es vista como una unidad aunque, desde luego, el escenario predominante fuese también el escenario europeo occidental, con pantallazos sobre el mundo eslavo en momentos puntuales, es decir cuando ellos adquirían visibilidad (a las miradas occidentales), o entraban en contacto con las potencias occidentales (pero algo no tan diferente ocurría con los Estados Unidos en los casos en que se los pensaba como parte del mundo euroatlántico y no del americano).

A la vez, lo que estaba más allá del Atlántico era estudiado en los procesos de colonización, luego de descolonización, pero en ambos el operar europeo era el centro conceptual.  Desde luego que siempre podía indicarse alguna excepción, que escapaba al marco continental unitario. La historia de España (la “madre patria”) solía ser tratada aparte, sobre todo en los planes posteriores a la Segunda guerra mundial, primero como materia obligatoria y luego como materia optativa, subsistiendo en casi todas las universidades argentinas, aunque con una tendencia declinante.9 Por supuesto que ese interés por España, renacido en el siglo XX, estuvo vinculado desde el fin de la guerra civil durante la larga dictadura franquista, en tanto enseñanza, sobre todo con la Edad Media donde se encontrarían las esencias de la “Hispanidad”, y cuando se incursionaba en la modernidad se lo hacía bajo las premisas del nacionalismo hispano católico y el “imperio universal”.

Del mismo modo, existían también en Argentina otras formas de historia “universal”, entendidas bajo el modelo de una “historia de la cultura” que podía ser otro modo de hablar del Occidente, o en otros casos, más bien marginales (Toynbee o Spengler, por ejemplo) de una pluralidad de civilizaciones. En la versión canónica, es decir eurocéntrica, todo tenía un primer argumento legitimador: América Latina era una proyección de Europa fuera de Europa para los mismos latinoamericanos. Tampoco faltó la utilización en Europa del término “Extremo Occidente” para designar el mismo proceso.10  

Así, estudiar la historia de Europa era estudiar la proyección de la Europa cristiana, en lecturas católicas; la proyección de modos de producción, feudales o capitalistas, en los debates marxistas; la proyección de filosofías, estéticas o formas políticas, que eran también una derivación europea, en lecturas cosmopolitas y/o liberales. De ese modo, Europa era las raíces de todas las cosas. Incluso los fundamentos de los pensamientos nativistas o nacionalistas alternativos al europeísmo no dejaban de buscar sus fundamentos en pensadores europeos, usados a veces de los modos más insólitos: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Maurras, Gramsci, Heidegger o quien fuere.

Nuevas perspectivas en la historiografía argentina actual

¿Las cosas han cambiado mucho desde entonces en la historiografía argentina? Formalmente se diría que sí, en el sentido de que han aparecido otras historias, por ejemplo, de “Asia y África”, pero también de que ahora se ha convertido en incorrecto defender lo que antes se creía correcto. “Civilización europea”, por ejemplo, devino una palabra por lo menos problemática, aunque no siempre. Todavía quedan miradas tradicionales: “Eadem Utraque Europa” se llama una curiosa revista académica que se edita hoy en Argentina. Cierto, también, algunos pasos se han dado en busca de las “conexiones” entre diferentes historias.

Sin embargo, la historia de Europa o de Occidente, si pensada en modo endógeno, ¿ha cambiado tanto?  Desde luego hubo, en los ochenta, más historia económica y social y menos historia política, y, desde los años dos mil más historia cultural, y menos historia social. Cambios de registro, sí, ¿cambios de instrumentos conceptuales? Bien puede discutirse. La Europa observada desde Argentina, ¿no sigue siendo una parte de Europa, y la sucesión de naciones hegemónicas no sigue siendo la misma al igual que los argumentos estudiados? Pensemos en el siglo XX: imperialismos, guerras “mundiales”, fascismos, comunismos, descolonización. Cierto, bien puede incluirse un capítulo final sobre la unidad europea, aunque, visto desde fuera, tal unidad se percibe como mucho más tenue, aun antes que, en la historiografía, en los medios de comunicación locales, y todo parece, más allá de algunas dimensiones económicas, seguir ritmado por estados naciones en un juego de alianzas y conflictos y fronteras, que siguen existiendo (también la experiencia de los “extracomunitarios” que llegan a Europa ayuda mejor a percibirlas). Más allá de ello, si hoy en día muchos más jóvenes historiadores y científicos sociales argentinos se han formado en el exterior, lo que ha permitido elevar el nivel técnico en los estudios de historia europea, ello en el mejor de los casos (campus anglosajones aparte) ha creado lazos fuertes con específicas tradiciones historiográficas europeas, pero siempre nacionales o subnacionales.

El problema de Europa en la cultura intelectual argentina

Ciertamente, pensar Europa no es un problema solo de los historiadores, ni de los profesores de historia, es también algo que está y ha estado presente en la culture savante argentina de muchos modos. En 1985, Jorge Luis Borges (que por otra parte era profesor de Historia de la Literatura inglesa en la Universidad de Buenos Aires) escribió algo que ya había tenido oportunidad de expresar en oportunidades anteriores (como que los argentinos eran europeos desterrados en América. Decía en 1985:  ‘Creo que nosotros somos el reflejo de Europa, la prolongación de Europa, y que podemos ser un espejo, posiblemente magnífico, de Europa, puesto que Europa olvida generalmente que ella es Europa’ y agregaba: ‘En cambio, nosotros aquí, en esta tierra argentina, lejana y olvidada, estamos en condiciones de percibir la unidad fundamental de Europa, lo que resulta más difícil allá lejos porque, bien entendido, cada país de Europa, sin olvidar a España, posee su propia tradición, y es natural que se delimite esa tradición. En cuanto a nosotros, nosotros poseemos nuestras tradiciones… y Europa es Europa toda entera, Europa es una’.11 Desde luego que el comentario de Borges era abusivo: muchos en Europa, académicos o ensayistas, la habían pensado como una unidad y más lo habían hecho cuando estaban inmersos en profundas crisis. Benedetto Croce y Johann Huizinga en los años treinta, ante los avances totalitarios, Denis de Rougemont o Luis Diez del Corral, en la segunda posguerra ante la idea de amenaza y de pérdida de centralidad.12

La idea de Borges no era exclusiva de su ámbito de pertenencia: también, por poner otro ejemplo, el ensayista e historiador académico, de ideas socialistas, José Luís Romero, un especialista en Historia medieval europea que se definía a sí mismo “historiador de la civilización occidental”, sostenía que él tenía derecho a toda la historia de Europa porque era de su propiedad lo que quería decir que intelectualmente tenía derecho a ella.13

Con todo, el problema podía verse de otra manera. Pongamos un ejemplo: en Buenos Aires, en 1936, en paralelo a la más célebre reunión de los P.E.N. Club, se realizó la VII Conversación (Entretien) de Cooperación Intelectual de la Sociedad de las Naciones, en torno al tema de las relaciones entre las culturas de Europa y América Latina. Tres participantes hispanoamericanos, el dominicano Pedro Henríquez Ureña, el mejicano Alfonso Reyes (ambos vivían por entonces en Buenos Aires) y el argentino Francisco Romero hicieron presentaciones que tenía puntos en común, lo que los llevó a continuar las discusiones entre ellos para precisar mejor lo que podemos llamar el “hecho diferencial”: admitiendo que este existía, se preguntaban sobre donde estaba la especificidad americana con respecto a la cultura europea.14 No importan aquí las respuestas, importa la pregunta y esta coloca siempre en el centro a Europa o mejor, la relación con Europa.

Empero, si quisiéramos ir más atrás y detenernos en un reconocido ensayista argetino, historiador de la literatura, editor y publicista de renombre, Ricardo Rojas, quizás podría recordarse que en libros sucesivos, desde la época del Primer Centenario, había propuesto distintas fórmulas para lograr una nueva cosmovisión de la cultura argentina que permitiese salir del corset europeo y lograr una nueva síntesis europea e indoamericana que definió sin éxito con un título “Eurindia”.15 Y no sería innecesario recordar cuanto esa formula, así como otras precedentes o posteriores, que buscaban una síntesis entre mundo europeo y americano, suscitaban resistencias en la opinión pública de las grandes ciudades del litoral argentinas, o en el sistema educativo.

Desde luego que el panorama ha cambiado progresivamente en la Argentina en los últimos cuarenta años con, por un lado, la afirmación del modelo estadounidense, económico, social e incluso cultural visto como superior al europeo, y  por ello, más digno de imitación. Por el otro, e inversamente, con la afirmación de la Argentina como una pluralidad de culturas reivindican ahora la cultura mestiza y más aún las culturas prehispánicas supérstites, recordando, a la vez, que la Argentina es vasta y varia. Por poner apenas dos ejemplos: la políticamente devaluada figura de Cristobal Colón, o del 12 de octubre, no celebrado ya, como desde 1917, en tanto que “día de la raza”, lo que quería decir (“raza hispánica”, o sea “europea”), sino como “día del respeto y la diversidad cultural”. De ese modo, en una Argentina actual con representaciones contrastadas de Europa, el sueño de muchos que quieren emigrar se combina con las ideas de otros que quieren tomar distancia, relativizar, o percibir mayormente los aspectos negativos de la cultura europea, ella misma vista, a la vez, por unos, al modo clásico como “civilización”, y por otros como una elevada o refinada forma de la “barbarie”.

Estas cuestiones como otras no son ni resumibles en una imagen unitaria, ni resolubles empíricamente, sino que reposan sobre a priori que pueden ser ideológicos o idiosincráticos: el sujeto cognoscente ¿cree en la existencia de caracteres nacionales, o en cambio cree en una razón universal común a todos? ¿Cosmopolitismo o nacionalismo impregnan su mirada o hegemonizan sus lecturas? El lector de este texto podrá tener en él, a la vez, una interpretación y un testimonio.

  1. Baste como referencias: Benedotto Croce, Teoría e storia della storiografia, Milano 2001 (ed. original en italiano, 1917), Reinhart Koselleck, Futuro Pasado. Para una semántica de los tiempos históricos, Barcelona 1993 (ed. original en alemán, Frankfurt a.M. 1979]. []
  2. J.M. Ramos Mejía, Las multitudes argentinas, Buenos Aires 1899. []
  3. Federica Bertagna, Deja vu: il voto italiano in Argentina, en: Simone Battiston / Stefano Luconi (a cura di), Autopsia di un diritto politico. Il voto degli italiani all’estero nelle elezioni del 2018, Torino 2018, pp. 75-92; Ministero degli Affari esteri, AIRE, www.esteri.it/it/servizi-consolari-e-visti/italiani-all-estero/aire_0/ []
  4. Claudio Panella, Una aproximación a la enseñanza secundaria durante los primeros gobiernos peronistas (1946-1955), en: Anuario del Instituto de Historia Argentina 3 (2003), pp. 139-157 []
  5. Wilhelm Oncken, Historia Universal, Barcelona 1890 y ss., 22 v., Walter Goetz (dir.), Historia universal, Madrid 1946-1951, 10 v., Maurice Crouzet (dir.), Historia general de las civilizaciones, Barcelona 1958 y ss, 7 v. []
  6. Ernest Lavisse, Nociones de Historia General. 5¨y 6¨grado, Buenos Aires 1892. []
  7. Albert Malet / Jules Isaac, La edad media, Buenos Aires 1909 (pero ver también el mismo libro en una edición en castellano editada en París, Hachette, 1914) entre tantos otros ejemplos. []
  8. Debo la observación de la excepcionalidad de los estudios literarios a Ana Clarisa Agüero de la Universidad Nacional de Córdoba y a José Rilla de la Universidad de la República, Uruguay que la observaron también en sus respectivas universidades. []
  9. El Profesor Benito Bisso Schmidt me informa que también en su Universidad, La Federal de Rio Grande do Sul (Brasil) sigue subsistiendo una “Historia Ibérica”, materia optativa, lo que sugiere una cierta persistencia de la historia de las potencias coloniales originarias. []
  10. Alain Rouquié, Amérique Latine. Introduction à l’extrême occident, Paris 1988. []
  11. Jorge Luis Borges, Porqué me siento Europeo, en: id., Textos recobrados (1956-1986), Buenos Aires 2003. Que esa idea era un patrimonio extendido y pèrdurable lo exhiben dos citas recientes de personajes, bien menos sofisticados: los dos últimos presidentes argentinos que son de signo político contrario. Mauricio Macri en el 2018 y Alberto Fernàndez en el 2021 expresaron con frases diferentes la misma idea “en Sudamérica somos todos descendientes de europeos”, el primero y “los argentinos venimos de los barcos y eran barcos que veían de Europa”, el segundo. []
  12. Benedetto Croce, Storia d’Europa nel secolo decimonono, Bari 1932, Johann Huizinga, Im Schatten von Morgan: eine Diagnose des kulturellen Leidens unserer Zeit, Bern 1935, Denis de Rougemont, L’Europe en jeu, Neuchatel 1948, Luis Diez del Corral, El rapto de Europa, Madrid 1954. []
  13. Félix Luna, Conversaciones con José Luís Romero, Buenos Aires 1976, Primera Conversación. []
  14. Carlos Altamirano, La invención de nuestra América. Obsesiones, narrativas y debates sobre la identidad de América Latina, Buenos Aires 2022, pp. 143-161 []
  15. Ricardo Rojas, Blasón de Plata, Buenos Aires 1910, Id., Eurindia, Buenos Aires 1922., cfr. Fernando Devoto, Nacionalismo, fascismo y tradicionalismo en la Argentina moderna. Una historia, Buenos Aires 2002, cap. 3.  Más éxito tuvieron, en cambio, con sus propuestas de “mestizaje” cultural en otros contextos, el mejicano Alfonso Reyes o el venezolano Mariano Picón Salas. []

On the Idea of Europe and the History of Europe: An Argentine Perspective

Fernando J. Devoto

First of all, I begin with a brief observation on method. These lines start from an admission that is not universally shared among historians: that the past is always thought of from a time and a place, hic et nunc, so to speak. This perspectivist idea links knowledge to the situated point of view of the subject and has a long and prestigious tradition in European and American historiography, from Johann Chladenius to Reinhart Koselleck, from Gustav Droysen to Benedetto Croce.1

Of course, to this set of perspectives must be added another, not theoretical but empirical, which is even more imperative in these times of global and/or transnational history: the unequal knowledge that all historians have of historiographies other than their own, since historiographies are still generally organised on a national basis.  Even if we speak of global or transnational historiographies (and what is published in English, at least for Latin America, is not considered to be the most interesting), mastering other historiographies would require unusual erudition in order to work with primary sources, or to propose something more than general interpretative schemes. In this sense, the case of Latin American historiography is no different from that of European historiography, even if it does not require an extensive multilingual mastery.

Taking these obstacles into account, the present text does not aspire to propose a Latin American perspective, and even less a global one, but only an Argentine one, based on authors who are almost all Argentine. In order to investigate these images of Europe, it seems necessary to distinguish among different groups and spheres.

The perspective of “ordinary” people

One is that of “ordinary” people: what image did they have? In general terms, the question is impossible to answer, but if we look at the working and middle classes of European immigrant origin from the end of the 19th century onwards, things are much clearer. At least the children of migrants from Southern (the vast majority), and Eastern Europe had a rather negative image of their parents’ places of origin as poor and backward. This is clearly indicated by their externalisation of their Argentine identity and also by other cultural indicators. Immigrants abandoned their parents’ language, whether it was the official one or, like more often happened, the dialect spoken in the family, which generated greater shame the more they became integrated into Argentine society. The more social and educational advancement took place, the more Europe was left behind, destined to be a bygone past in the face of the dominance of the myth of Argentina’s present and future greatness. No one sang the Argentine anthem louder than the children of the immigrants, asserted the soon-to-be president of Argentina’s National Education Council in 1899.2

One hundred years later the situation was reversed. The American myth was now the European myth, the future was European. Many Argentine descendants of emigrants, whether grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or fourth generation, aspired to emigrate to Europe, seen as the place of possibilities and well-being. Emigration, which was mistakenly called return emigration, when it was in fact a new emigration, reached high numbers that correlated with each of Argentina’s successive economic and political crises. An easy way to measure one dimension of this new myth is to look at applications for a European citizenship. For example, there are today around 700,000 Argentines of Italian origin who have obtained an Italian passport valid in the EU, who have not yet emigrated and may never do so.  In addition to other European nationalities, especially Spanish, and those who have already emigrated, a total number is difficult to pinpoint.3

A further note: the application for a European passport does not indicate that emigration will be to the country of origin of one’s ancestors. The case of migrants with Italian passports who settled in Spain and their difficulties in gaining recognition as EU citizens in the 2000s is well known. Europe, then, was seen as a land of promise for many migrants, regardless of much more precision about national cultures: a way of repeating the old saying, ubi bene, ibi patria.

It is true that these Argentines, who do not belong to the poorest classes, had and have some summary idea of Europe.  It is likely not the one they received in the family environment, which in any case would be the memory of a place, of a region, of a specific nation, but the one that came from the Argentine educational system.

History teaching in Argentina in the past

If we go back fifty years or even a little over a hundred years, the history taught in Argentina at all levels of education had two axes: the American-Argentine and the European, also known as Western. The latter went beyond the mere history of Europe.  It traced its origins to the ancient Near East and extended to the contemporary world, including the rest of the world as part of European expansion. Of course, variations occurred in line with political changes, but they gathered around an enduring axis of debate among Argentine elites: secularism and Catholicism. For example, the first Peronist government (1946-1955) substantially increased the hours of study of Argentine history, decreasing the Mediterranean-European axis.  By introducing compulsory religious education in schools, however, the study of the Old and New Testaments reinforced the axis of Catholicism.4 

When it came to studying what was called ancient and medieval history and modern and contemporary history, there were many options. In general, they were textbooks written by Argentine high school teachers, who summarised European textbooks.  In the best cases, schools used more ambitious works translated into Spanish from German, such as Oncken’s Historia Universal, or those edited by Walter Goetz or later by Maurice Crouzet.5 There was also a French option: French textbooks, written for French schools, and translated into Spanish, such as the so-called “little” Lavisse for primary schools6.  Above all, and for a very long time, the books of Albert Malet completed by Jules Isaac, the very well-known Malet-Isaac series.7

I studied in high school in the early sixties with Malet-Isaac textbooks, which had been used since the beginning of the 20th century.  The first editions in Spanish of the series available in the Argentine National Library date back to 1909.  It may well be said that things have changed in the new millennium, and that extra-European history has become much more common, but even so, Europe and particularly the Mediterranean and Western European region continue to dominate secondary history education in Argentina.

Things were similar in university teaching, except for literature courses, where there were “national” subjects: for example, Spanish, French, English, Italian or German literature. In the rest of the humanities, philosophy, geography and, of course, history, studies were at the continental level.8 In the case of the teaching of history, with few variations, students in the past and today go from the history of the Ancient Near East to contemporary history.  In this treatment, Europe was and is seen as a unit. While the predominant scenario was also the Western European scenario, there are glimpses of the Slavic world at specific moments when they became visible to Western eyes or came into contact with Western powers.  Something similar happens with the United States in cases where it was thought of as part of the Euro-Atlantic world and not the American one.

At the same time, what lay beyond the Atlantic was studied in the processes of colonisation, then decolonisation, but in both cases European operations were the conceptual focus.  Of course, some exception could always be pointed out, which escaped the unitary continental framework. The history of Spain, the “mother country”, used to be treated separately. Especially in the post-World War II curricula, the history of Spain was taught first as a compulsory subject and then as an optional subject, surviving in almost all Argentine universities, although with a declining tendency.9 Of course, this interest in Spain, reborn in the twentieth century, was linked to the Middle Ages: particularly, from the end of the Spanish Civil War, when Franco’s regime, searched in it the “essence” of Hispanidad. When it made incursions into modernity it did so also under the premises of Hispanic-Catholic nationalism.

Similarly, there was in Argentina some form of “universal” history, understood in the form of a “history of culture” which could be another way of speaking of the “West”, or under other rather marginal influences, Toynbee or Spengler, for example, of a plurality of civilisations. In the canonical, Eurocentric version, everything had a first legitimising argument: Latin America was a projection of Europe outside Europe for Latin Americans themselves. The term “Far West” was also used in Europe to designate the same process.10

Thus, to study the history of Europe was to study the projection of Christian Europe, in Catholic readings; the projection of modes of production, feudal or capitalist, in Marxist debates; or the projection of philosophies, aesthetic theories, or political forms, which were also a European derivation, in cosmopolitan or liberal readings. Thus, Europe was the root of all things. Even the foundations of nativist or nationalist thinking as an alternative to Europeanism sought their foundations in European thinkers, sometimes used in unusual ways: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Maurras, Gramsci, Heidegger, and others.

New perspectives in present Argentine historiography

Are the themes and sources of Argentine historiography different today? Formally, one might say yes, in the sense that other histories have appeared, for example, of “Asia and Africa”.  Although it has now become incorrect to defend what was previously believed to be correct. “European civilisation”, for example, has become a problematic phrase for some, but not for all. There are still traditional views: Eadem Utraque Europa is the name of a curious academic journal published today in Argentina. True, too, some steps have been taken in search of “connections”” between different histories.

Has the history of Europe or the West, if we think of it endogenously, changed so much?  Of course, in the 1980s there was more economic and social history and less political history, and since the 2000s more cultural history and less social history. There are changes of register, yes. Whether there are changes of conceptual instruments is open to debate. Is not Europe as seen from Argentina still Europe, and is not the succession of hegemonic nations still the same? Let us think of the 20th century: imperialism, “world” wars, fascism, communism, decolonisation are all ruled by Europe. Of course, a final chapter on European unity could well be included, even if, seen from the outside, such unity is perceived as tenuous.  In the local media, the first cut of history, beyond some economic dimensions, nation states seem to continue to set in motion a game of alliances, conflicts, and borders, which continue to exist.  Even the “extra-community” experience helps us to perceive them more clearly. Moreover, if today many younger Argentine historians have been trained abroad, which has raised the technical level of European history studies, this has at best (Anglo-Saxon campuses aside) created strong links with specific European historiographical traditions, but always at a national or sub-national level.

The problem of Europe in Argentine intellectual culture

When we shift our focus from popular and even academic approaches to Argentine intellectual culture, the problem of Europe arises again.  Certainly, thinking about Europe is not just a problem for historians, nor only for history professors.  It is also something that is and has been present in Argentine intellectual discourse in many ways. In 1985, Jorge Luis Borges, who was both a writer and a professor of History of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires, wrote something that he had expressed often on previous occasions, that Argentines were Europeans exiled in America. He said in 1985: ‘I believe that we are the reflection of Europe, the prolongation of Europe, and that we can be a mirror, possibly a magnificent one, of Europe, since Europe generally forgets that it is Europe’. He added: ‘On the other hand, we here, in this distant and forgotten Argentinean land, are in a position to perceive the fundamental unity of Europe, which is more difficult to perceive there, because, it is well understood, each country in Europe, not forgetting Spain, has its own tradition, and it is natural that this tradition should be delimited. As for us, we have our own traditions… and Europe is the whole of Europe, Europe is one’.11 Of course, Borges’ comment was abusive.  Many in Europe, academics, or essayists, had thought of Europe as a unity, and especially when they were immersed in deep crises. Benedetto Croce and Johann Huizinga in the 1930s, in the face of totalitarian advances, Denis de Rougemont or Luis Diez del Corral, in the second post-war period, in the face of the idea of threat and loss of centrality.12

Borges’ idea was not exclusive to his intellectual milieu. To take another example, the socialist essayist and academic historian José Luís Romero, a specialist in medieval European history who defined himself as a “historian of Western civilisation”, argued that he had a right to the whole of European history because it was his property, which meant that he was intellectually entitled to it.13

The problem could, however, be seen in another way. For example, in Buenos Aires in 1936, parallel to the most famous meeting of the P.E.N. Club, the VII Conversation (Entretien) of Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations was held on the theme of relations between the cultures of Europe and Latin America. Three Spanish-American participants – Pedro Henríquez Ureña, from the Dominican Republic, Alfonso Reyes from Mexico (both living in Buenos Aires at the time) and Francisco Romero from Argentina – gave talks that had points in common and this led them to continue discussions among themselves to better define what we can call the “differential fact”: i.e., admitting that a difference between Europe and the Americas existed, they wondered where the American particularity lay with respect to European culture.14 The answers are not important here. The question is important, and the question always places Europe, or rather the relationship with Europe, at the centre.

If we want to go back further and consider famous Argentine essayist, literary historian, publisher, and renowned publicist Ricardo Rojas, we could recall that in successive books since the time of the first Argentina centennial he proposed different formulas to achieve a new worldview of Argentine culture that would allow us to leave the European corset and achieve a new European and Indo-American synthesis.  He unsuccessfully entitled and defined this concept Eurindia15 This formula, as well as others that preceded or followed it, which sought a synthesis between the European and American worlds, aroused resistance in public opinion in the large cities of the Argentine coast and in the educational system.

Of course, the panorama has changed progressively in Argentina over the last forty years.  On the one hand, there is the affirmation of the American economic, social, and even cultural model, which is seen as superior to the European one and, therefore, more worthy of imitation. On the other hand, and inversely, there is the affirmation of Argentina as a plurality of cultures, the mestizo culture and even more of the pre-Hispanic cultures that have survived, while recalling that Argentina is vast and varied. To give just two examples: both the politically devalued figure of Christopher Columbus, and the date of October 12th (commemorating Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492), are no longer celebrated, as they had been since 1917, as Día de la Raza (day of the race), referring to the “Hispanic race” or “European race”, but today are celebrated as a “day of respect and cultural diversity”. Thus, in an Argentina with contrasting representations of Europe, the dream of many who want to emigrate stands side by side with the ideas of others who want to distance themselves from, relativise, or perceive more clearly the negative aspects of European culture.  Some still see European culture as “civilisation” in the classical sense, and others see it as a high or refined form of “barbarism”.

These questions, like others, can neither be summarised in a unitary image, nor resolved empirically. They are based on a priori assumptions that may be ideological or idiosyncratic: do the cognising subjects believe in the existence of national characteristics, or do they believe in a universal characteristic common to all? Does cosmopolitanism or nationalism impregnate their gaze or hegemonize their readings? The reader of this text will find in it both an interpretation and a testimony.

  1. Benedetto Croce, Teoria e storia della storiografia, Milano 2001 [first published Bari 1917] and Reinhart Koselleck, Futuro Pasado. Para una semántica de los tiempos históricos, Barcelona 1993 [German original Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik historischer Zeiten, Frankfurt a.M. 1979]. []
  2. José Ramos Mejía, Las multitudes argentinas, Buenos Aires 1899. []
  3. Federica Bertagna, Déjà vu: il voto italiano in Argentina, in:  Simone Battiston / Stefano Luconi (eds.), Autopsia di un diritto politico. Il voto degli italiani all’estero nelle elezioni del 2018, Torino 2018, pp. 75-92, www.esteri.it/it/servizi-consolari-e-visti/italiani-all-estero/aire_0/. []
  4. Claudio Panella, Una aproximación a la enseñanza secundaria durante los primeros gobiernos peronistas (1946-1955), in: Anuario del Instituto de Historia Argentina 3 (2003), pp. 139-157. []
  5. Wilhelm Oncken, Historia Universal (22), Barcelona 1918; Walter Goetz (ed.), Historia universal (10), Madrid 1946-51; Maurice Crouzet (ed.), Historia general de las civilizaciones (7), Barcelona 1958. []
  6. Ernest Lavisse, Nociones de Historia General, 5° y 6° grado, Buenos Aires 1892. []
  7. I.e Albert Malet / Jules Isaac, La edad media, Buenos Aires 1909. See also another Spanish version that was published in Paris 1914 and among other examples was the favourite in elite schools. []
  8. This exceptionality of the literary studies was also reported by Ana Clarisa Agüero for the case of the National University of Córdoba, Argentina and by José Rilla for the University of the Republic, Uruguay. []
  9. Professor Benito Bisso Schmidt informs me that also at his university, the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil), there is still an Historia Ibérica, an optional subject, which suggests a certain persistence of the history of the original colonial powers. []
  10. Alain Rouquié, Amérique Latine: Introduction à l’Extrême Occident, Paris 1988. []
  11. Jorge Luis Borges, Porqué me siento Europeo, in: Textos recobrados (1956-1986), Buenos Aires 2003. That this idea is a widespread and enduring heritage is shown by two recent quotes from different, albeit less sophisticated, personalities: the last two Argentine presidents who are of opposite political persuasions. Mauricio Macri in 2018 and Alberto Fernàndez in 2021 expressed in different phrases the same idea: ‘In South America we are all descendants of Europeans’, said Macri, and ‘We Argentines come from ships and those were ships that came from Europe’, said Fernández. []
  12. Benedetto Croce, Storia d’Europa nel secolo decimonono, Laterza 1932, and Johan Huizinga, Im Schatten von Morgen. Eine Diagnose des kulturellen Leidens unserer Zeit, Bern 1935, Denis de Rougemont, L’ Europe en jeu, Neuchatel 1948, and Luis Diez del Corral, El rapto de Europa, Madrid 1954. []
  13. Félix Luna, Conversaciones con José Luís Romero,Buenos Aires 1976, primera conversación. []
  14. Carlos Altamirano, La invención de nuestra América. Obsesiones, narrativas y debates sobre la identidad de América Latina, Buenos Aires 2022, pp. 143-161. []
  15. Ricardo Rojas, Blasón de Plata, Buenos Aires 1910. & Ricardo Rojas, Eurindia, Buenos Aires 1922; Fernando Devoto, Nacionalismo, fascismo y tradicionalismo en la Argentina moderna. Una historia, Buenos Aires 2002, chapter 3. Conversely, the Mexican, Alfonso Reyes, and the Venezuelan, Mariano Picón Salas, were more successful with their proposals for cultural mestizaje in other contexts. []

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


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. []
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