European Internationalism

Sandrine Kott

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

European international projects 

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

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

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

Internationalism as a European project

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

Internationalising Europe?

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

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

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

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


Giovanni Orsina

1. Europe(s) and modernit(ies)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Europe’s Mediterranean other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Europe’s teleology of dissolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Lee Downs

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

Welfare and democracy: A very European story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cite this article as:

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

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

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

Pepijn Corduwener

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to Europeanisation and lessons to learn from other disciplines

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

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

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

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

Some common questions to foster transnational dialogues

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

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

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

Reading history forward in Europe’s laboratory

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

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

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

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

Cite this article as:

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

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

On the Margins of European History

Jitka Malečková

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Comparative History

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

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

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

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

Cite this article as:

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

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

European History as a Nationalist and Post-Nationalist Project

Pasi Ihalainen

European history in Finland

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

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

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

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

Nationalist and internationalist historiography

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

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

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

Narratives of Nordic exceptionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges and possibilities of comparative and transnational history

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

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

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

August 2020

Cite this article as:

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

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

Provincializing Europe, De-centering Europe, Hybridizing Europe …

Alexander Semyonov

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

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

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

The Problem of Nativism

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

The Challenges of Global History

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge of New Imperial History

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

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

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

Collaborative Frameworks as an Important Goal 

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

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

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

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

Cite this article as:

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

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

The Quest for (a Utopian?) European History

Efi Avdela

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

A debate with a history of its own

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

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

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

Reconsidering ‘Eurocentrism’ from a Greek perspective

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

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

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

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

1. Going beyond national history and decentering models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Greek history as European history

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Asymmetries, hierarchies and their consequences

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

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

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

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

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

Cite this article as:

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

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

The Crisis of European History

Martin Conway

The idea that Europe is in crisis constitutes one of the most widely repeated phrases of our age. Of course not everybody shares the same understanding of the crisis; but the sense that Europe – as an entity, as a set of institutions, or perhaps more profoundly as a culture bounded by certain core values – is in crisis is an assumption which it has become difficult to avoid, and still more to refute.

Historians, of course, are not particularly enamoured of languages of crisis. We have seen them before: in feudal Europe, in the seventeenth century, in the late ancien régime, and most profoundly in the first half of the twentieth century. Such precedents relativize the present-day language of crisis, and give us reason to consider what is at stake behind its widespread use. Languages of crisis are never objective, and they are often resorted to by those who have a stake in the existing regime. This seems particularly so in the current circumstances. The present-day sense of crisis is rooted in shifts in power from west to east within Europe, in the changing structures of the European economy, in the volatile electoral behaviour of voters, and in the erosion of the liberal value structures of the post-Christian society of the second half of the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the language of crisis is voiced primarily by those who feel threatened by these changes: the political elites of a Western-oriented Europe, those social groups rendered vulnerable by forms of neo-liberalism and globalisation, and an intelligentsia accustomed to the defence of a pluralist and western model of society. Crisis in this context is the language of losers, or more specifically of those who fear that they have something to lose.

Historians are not neutral in this process. By their social background, intellectual formation, and historical studies, they are inclined to regard the Europe of the present-day – or more exactly what was until recently the present-day – as the product of long- and short-term processes which possessed an underlying historical rationale. The European Union, the social-market economy, and the emancipatory logics of an increasingly plural but united model of society, are all aspects of the Europe in which most historians came of age, and which tacitly or explicitly they tend to regard as the consequence of Europe’s long and contested process of modernisation. Many contemporary European historians are in this respect believers in a soft teleology. The united democratic Europe which emerged in the 1990s might not have constituted, in Francis Fukuyama’s formula, the end of history, but to many it seemed that it had long been the direction in which Europe was headed.

History and Europe became, in this sense, mutually reinforcing constructions in the final decades of the twentieth century. Europe was the product of history; but, equally, contemporary history acquired a purpose and a sense of direction through Europe. This latter process went much deeper than some simple partisanship for Europe on the part of historians, though there was (and remains) an element of that as well.1 More importantly, Europe became the prism through which many historians approached their subject matter. As is often the case, there was a strong generational element to this historiographical trend. Europe became the new home of a predominantly younger cohort of historians, for whom the ‘other’ against which they chose to define themselves was the national-oriented historiographies (and historians) that had flourished in the decades immediately following the Second World War. As the manifesto which launched this debate well indicates, the wish to define the project of European history against the mentality of the Sonderweg remains a defining element of the project of European history.

Europe as a subject and a methodology

This discovery of Europe – a point that would in truth have hardly come as a surprise to historians of earlier centuries of European history – became the new focus for the writing of much contemporary history. Multi-volume histories of Europe flourished, of which the five-volume Storia d’Europa published by Einaudi from 1993, with the collaboration of a stellar and for once genuinely international team of historians, was perhaps the most imposing achievement. Significantly too, it started from the present-day, with the publication of the first volume as L’Europa oggi.2 Europe, it suggested, was best understood from the vantage point of the present, which provided the template by which to examine the Europes of the past.

Europe served a dual purpose in such studies. It was both a subject, and a methodology, seeking to identify the ways in which larger processes which one might identify as European emerged at different points in the history of the continent. This historiographical trend, to which Kiran Klaus Patel and I made our own modest contribution,3 drew its energy from the intuitive sense that Europe was not just a useful framework for studying historical problems, but also a means of rethinking contemporary European history, outside of national parameters. What was interesting, for us at least, in the study of Europeanisation was the way in which it changed chronologies, and made new sense of processes of political, social and cultural change which were in danger of becoming overly familiar. By focusing on the changing dynamics of the European, we could identify how different forms and definitions of Europe had waxed and waned across the modern history of Europe. This mentality might have been Europeanist; but it was also emphatically historical. In an era when the ascendancy of the EU risked diminishing other chronologies, it provided a means of indicating that other Europes had existed, and would no doubt do so in the future.

A rallying-call for a generation

This approach provided a rallying-call and a legitimation for what constituted the first (modern) generation of European historians. The policies of research councils, the proliferation of schemes of academic mobility, and the professional and personal trajectories of a more transnational cohort of younger historians, all contributed to the flourishing from the 1990s to the 2010s of a Europe-minded history which mixed together ingredients derived from different historical methodologies to privilege the hitherto neglected importance of the European.

That this process should have coincided with the zenith of more institutional projects of European integration, most notably the expansion of the EU into post-Communist east-central Europe was far from accidental: where grant-giving bodies lead, historians tend to follow. But the more profound logics of this Europeanization of contemporary history lay not only in the perceived obsolescence of the much-abused national templates but also of other ways of writing history. National paradigms were not the only ways of writing history in and of Europe which flourished in the twentieth century. The ascendancy of a European methodology was also the consequence of the decline of a distinguished Marxist tradition of historical writing as well as of the confessional mindsets of an older religious history.

As these older stage-sets of European historical writing fell away, so it was the European which came to seem more essential, and simply more visible. But, as the opening manifesto of this debate rightly makes clear, the definition of the European was always problematic. It rested on mental maps of the shape of Europe and also of its frontiers which carried within them assumptions which at their most benign were essentialist and often verged on the colonial. The reasons for this were of course much larger than the practice of history. The definition after 1945 of a smaller and more homogenous Western Europe excluded territories such as the Near East and Turkey, as well as those on the southern littoral of the Mediterranean, which in previous eras would have been unproblematically regarded as part of a European zone. Above all, the collapse of the Cold War division of Europe in 1989 sucked the former Socialist states of the east into a unified but western-led Europe, the centre of which lay somewhere between Brussels, Frankfurt, and Berlin.

A tacit Franco-German axis

The project of writing European history was complicit in these larger changes. The post-1945 project of contemporary history had long rested on a tacit Franco-German axis, in which British and Italian scholars also played a notable but supporting role. This implicit hierarchy was abruptly rendered much more explicit by the reconfiguration of the universities and research institutes of east-central Europe that occurred after 1989. As an older generation of historians from the Socialist era were marginalised, so they were replaced by historians from the west, or by those of a younger generation who succeeded in re-tooling their methodologies for a post-socialist era. The imbalance which this created in east-west historical relations was evident in the ambitious projects of European history which flourished in the new landscape of the 1990s. Though continent-wide in their scope, these were directed in large part from the major scientific and academic institutions of Western Europe, who supplied much of the funding and personnel, and also the methodologies and agendas.

That this Western ascendancy should over time have been challenged by the emergence of more national schools of historical writing within east-central Europe was not surprising. But, at the same time, the definition of European history was also destabilised by the resurgence of the global. Much of the writing about European history in the final decades of the twentieth century was remarkable for the way it established a distance between Europe and the non-European world. It acknowledged the importance of the European imperial experience (as well as its crimes and abuses), but also defined it as a process that happened outside of Europe, and which belonged to the pre-1945 past. In the project of writing the contemporary history of Europe after the Second World War, empire was a problem inherited, wrestled with, but then resolved through the retrospective rationales of decolonisation.4

From the 1990s onwards, however, these separate histories of Europe and of empire converged, or more simply collided. Again this was a process which had origins wider than the writing of history: the engagement of European powers in quasi-imperial interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, as well as the emergence after 9/11 of Islamic-inspired violence within European cities brought the interconnectedness of Europe and projects of empire, past and present, to the fore of contemporary politics. But it also reflected the emergence of new forms of global historical writing – perhaps most influentially the work of Jürgen Osterhammel – which located modern structures of European imperialism in much more complex and continuing narratives of interaction between Europe and the other areas of the globe.5

The resurgence of the global

The idea of writing a history of Europe separate from these larger stories came to seem myopic, or even a deliberate evasion of a shameful past.6 Dipesh Chakrabarty’s highly influential concept of ‘provincializing Europe’ – as expounded in his book of the same title, first published in 20007 – serves as an encapsulation of this new orthodoxy. In the manner of the imperial statues which remain a prominent element of the topography of many European towns and cities, Europe must be pulled down from its privileged plinth, and studied on an equal level with other areas of the world. This also implied a need to study the history of Europe in a new way. The inward-facing mentalities that had long taken precedence in the writing of histories of Europe needed to be replaced by an outward-facing history of Europe, which studied European societies – emphatically in the plural – through their multiple interactions with the non-European world. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there has been a shift of historiographical focus from the European to the global. The prism of a global history of Europe offers an agenda better attuned to our times, but also to the scholarly recognition that the contemporary history of Europe for too long ignored the ways in which Europe was shaped profoundly by forces that emanated beyond the continent. So much we unreflectively thought of as European has turned out not to be distinctively European at all.

This new approach is demonstrated most strikingly by the success of the collective volume a Histoire mondiale de la France, published by Seuil in 2017.8 In truth, this volume might seem to be the fruit of a very French conception of global history, as indicated by the fact that nearly all of its 122 contributors are French, and all but a small number are employed in French academic institutions. But perhaps what is most interesting is the way in which the book, for all of its apparent radicalism, is a reconceptualization of a very traditional national enterprise. Taking its inspiration from the universal ambitions of Michelet’s history of France, its purpose is to provide ‘une histoire mondiale de la France’, rather than ‘une histoire de la France mondiale’. The word order is significant. The volume is intended as a study of France open to the world, rather than of how the world has made (or unmade) France. Perhaps most significantly, there is no place in the Histoire mondiale for Europe, which one searches for in vain in the titles of its many brief chapters. Europe, it seems, has no explanatory force for approaching the history of France, thereby demonstrating rather starkly the decline of the European paradigm for the writing of history, at least as seen from Paris.

A need to re-think the history of Europe

This effacement of Europe, crushed between the global and the national, serves as a demonstration of the need to re-assert, but also to re-think, the history of Europe. This is no easy task. Vacuous plaidoyers for a European history floating above national agendas risk becoming the formulae of inaugural professorial speeches which display all too visibly their historical and political vintage. Times have changed, and the embattled and defensive priorities of the contemporary European Union no longer have the same historical legitimacy as once did the federating ambitions of Mitterrand, Kohl, and Delors.9 The academic and scientific landscape too has changed. The drive, so visible in the two decades following 1989, to create transnational research teams of historians, spanning the diversity of Europe’s academic cultures, has lost energy over the last decade, and has been replaced by the more individual and rooted projects supported, ironically enough, by the European Research Council. This has been accompanied by a decline in mobility within the European historical profession. In difficult times, historians – and especially those understandably enough in search of a post – tend to stick close to home, reinforcing the distinctively national character of academic cultures. Indeed, it is striking that the system of higher education and research which has most markedly opened itself up in recent decades to historians from Europe (and elsewhere), namely that of the United Kingdom, is the one that is becoming, in formal terms, the least European.

And yet, as historians well know, crises are never the end of the matter. There remains a need for a historiography which asks questions about the contemporary history of Europe, rather than providing answers; and which is willing to confront its complexities and diversity, rather than seeking to elevate a particular definition of Europe. Above all, it is a history which needs to read the messy contemporary history of Europe forwards rather than backwards. We have had too many examples of the writing of European history which knew where they were going to end up; now we need a history of Europe that has no idea as to where it – and we – are going.

July 2020

Cite this article as:

Martin Conway: The Crisis of European History, in: Sonja Levsen / Jörg Requate (eds.), Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research, October 26, 2020,

  1. Students of lost causes might wish to consider the Historians for Europe manifesto signed by 307 British historians (including myself) ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK: []
  2. Perry Anderson, et al, L’Europa oggi, Turin 1993. []
  3. Martin Conway / Kiran Patel (ed.), Europeanization in the Twentieth Century. Historical Approaches, New York 2010. []
  4. Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization. The Algerian War and the Remaking of France, Ithaca, London 2006. []
  5. Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World. A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton 2014. []
  6. Robert Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present, Cambridge 2019. []
  7. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton 2000. []
  8. Patrick Boucheron / Nicolas Delalande / Florian Mazel / Yann Potin / Pierre Singaravélou, Histoire mondiale de la France. Paris 2017. []
  9. I have written about this in Martin Conway, Writing European Unification Backwards, in: Contemporanea 23 (2020), pp. 103-107. []

Why Europe, Which Europe? Present Challenges and Future Avenues for Doing European History

Sonja Levsen and Jörg Requate

What is the current status of European history as a field of research, and what are its challenges at present? Why should we research European history at all, and how should we do it? Surprisingly, there has not yet been a Europe-wide debate on these issues. Despite many demands for a transnationalisation of historical perspectives, historiographical debates in Europe are still predominantly framed within national contexts. This also concerns debates about the methods and topics of European history. Up until now, these have only taken place within national or narrow transnational contexts, with few partners, and so by no means encompass ‘all’ of Europe. But the questions historians put to European history, the challenges they perceive, and their diagnoses of the current state of research and future potential of the field differ, not least, along the boundaries of established national historiographies. While scholars of European history in Brexit Great Britain, for example, possibly share some concerns and approaches with their colleagues in Hungary or Finland, there are also many, possibly more, concerns and approaches that separate them.

We would like, therefore, to invite historians from within the diversity of European and non-European historiographies to enter into a new discussion on European history as a field of research: on the status quo of European history, its goals and its future, its relationship to both national historiographies and global history. The project, then, is about discussing the opportunities, limits, and challenges of European history. Above all, however, it is about doing so in a new way: by expanding the debate and inviting a pluralistic approach within and beyond Europe.

European history as a discipline has become increasingly self-reflective. A few years ago, many optimistically viewed it as ‘the’ means to break out of national history. The upswing in transnational and global histories has since made it clear, however, that European history needs more than just the aim of transcending borders to legitimise itself. We see this challenge as productive, because it lays the foundation for a reflective choice of space and scale in designing research projects. It prevents a naive, seemingly natural focus on areas within Europe, or on areas which have been defined according to European perspectives. European history must define more precisely its place in relation to national and global history. In politics, voices propagating a return to nationalism have become stronger for some time. Today’s political climate, then, also raises questions about the task and potential of European history.

So what is European history? There are a number of uses of the term ‘European History’ which mean very different things. At US universities, for example, ‘European History’ as a term includes scholars specialising in French or Italian history. In this case, ‘European’ refers to the geographical area in which a research project or research focus is located, even if the project takes a nation-state perspective. At the same time, there is a long tradition of writing European history, which focuses on Europe as a whole (with more or less clearly defined borders) and seeks to create grand narratives. This debate is not about ‘European History’ in either of these two forms.  Rather European history, for us, is about what could be called ‘doing European History’: empirical research that transcends the nation-state in various ways – e.g. projects which are conceived in a transnational, comparative, trans-local way and which at the same time are located in Europe in one way or another. In order to provide some coherence, the debate will focus on research into contemporary European history, broadly conceived, and particularly on the period since the late 19th century. In our view, some of the challenges identified below are particularly relevant to research on the 20th century.

We would like to open the debate by putting forward eight propositions:

1. European history’s position within the various national historiographies appears to be as varied as it is unclear. To ask for its place in these historiographies respectively forms an important basis for fruitful dialogue.

In the early 2000s, turning the focus to Europe appeared to German historians as a quasi-natural response to calls for an expansion and correction of the historiography that had hitherto been focused on the nation-state.1 The historiographical debate in Germany reflected the growing public interest in Europe, and was driven by the assumption that the same or similar considerations held true for other national historiographies in Europe. But while a number of papers on Europeanising German History were published,2 no comparable papers on Europeanising British History, on l’européanisation de l’historiographie française, or – as far as we can see – on Poland, Hungary or Portugal came into print. Since the end of the 20th century, however, these historiographies have also undergone processes of transnationalisation, sometimes more pronounced, sometimes less. In many of these cases, however, methodologies that overcame national borders were not primarily interested in neighbouring European countries. For many years, for instance, British historians have focused mainly on Atlantic and post-imperial relational histories.3 Although a lively interest in ‘European’ (signifying continental European) history developed in Britain, it remained largely separate from British history. Within French historiography, the broadening of historical perspectives has often meant focusing on the Mediterranean region, and for Portuguese historiography, the reappraisal of the history of transatlantic relations with South America has become central.

The first step, then, would be to investigate which geographical areas have come under scrutiny in different historiographies, and which areas have been left out and to ask what the reasons for these choices could be. How do institutional structures and established mental maps shape the spaces of investigation of historians? What are the different conceptions of European history to be found in the respective national historiographies, and to what extent does European history interact in each case with national history?

2. We need a dialogue about the mental maps of historiographies within Europe and empirical research that interrogates their implications.

Historians have often discussed what is meant by Europe and asked how to define its borders. In answer to this, a social-constructivist concept of Europe has proven to be helpful: an approach to Europe as something that is in a permanent process of construction and reconstruction. Particularly in the case of Turkey and Russia, but also for North Africa, we can observe how central the debate on their belonging or their relationship to Europe has been for self-perceptions. However, analysing discursive constructions of spaces and their consequences applies to Europe as a whole and the question of its borders, but also particularly to the mental maps, the concepts of political and cultural spaces within Europe.4 Notions of Eastern or Central Europe have changed radically numerous times since the 19th century. Western Europe, too, has taken on many different contours and connotations. The concept of Western Europe commonly adopted in German historiography has found little resonance among British European historians. All of these constructions of geographically named, but conceptually meant spaces within Europe, indicate that Europe is far from uniform and highlights the central role that debates on different concepts of Europe may play for European history.

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call to ‘provincialise Europe’ hit a nerve; it became a figure of speech.5 The author, however, was not interested in Europe as a region or its history, but in the emancipation of historiography from interpretations that take ‘European’ developments as a benchmark, not least by adopting European terminology. That was an important point. The popular concept of provincialising Europe has, however, developed a life of its own, and has come to suggest a unity that does not exist. Here in particular, a dialogue with non-European historians would be necessary and fruitful. But the debate can also be taken up within Europe. A challenge and a great potential for European history is what could be described as ‘internal provincialisations’.6 These would include the deconstruction of ‘normal’ and ‘special paths’ and of implicit teleologies, as well as a critique of narrative structures based on notions of a norm and deviation from that norm. An assumed ‘Western’ development in European history often functioned as an implicit norm and ‘deviant’ pathways of development were characterised as deficient, backward, or delayed. Self-positioning of countries or regions in Europe and the demarcation of European regions became the basis for powerful historiographic narratives, the deconstruction of which is one of the core tasks of current and future empirical research. The refutation of the theory of a German Sonderweg or ‘special path’ is one example of the immense heuristic gain of such deconstructions. Many comparably powerful patterns of interpretation, however, are still deeply rooted in Spanish, German, Greek or Polish historiography – as well as in the respective public spheres. An intensive dialogue between these historiographies would provide an opportunity to emancipate ourselves from such narratives and to generate new questions.

3. Interlinking historiographies would boost innovative research.

The ‘pluralising Europeanisation’ of historical debate can only be understood as part of the necessary process to internationalise historical scholarship, a process which does not end at the borders of Europe. It would, though, be an important step towards such internationalisation. A recent goal envisaged for global history is to interweave historiographies: scholars, it has been said, should interweave ‘European’ and ‘Asian’ historiography.7 As desirable as this is, we have to recognise that it is by no means possible to speak simply of a ‘European’ historiography. For many topics, periods, and research areas, more than a superficial weaving and interweaving of the many national historiographies within Europe is still a distant goal. Very often ‘European history’ has taken the form of edited collections, in which national case studies stand next to each other, but interact to a very limited extent.

Barriers to dialogue exist between Eastern and Western European history, as has already been widely discussed. But such limitations also apply to those historiographies that appear from an outside view to be closely interwoven and are often grouped together as ‘Western European’ perspectives: French, British, German history. Interpretative approaches from national contexts – such as ‘After the Boom’, a term coined by Anselm Doering-Manteuffel and Lutz Raphael within the German context, or the concept of ‘vingt décisives’ introduced to the debate by Jean-François Sirinelli for France – are hardly ever received and applied beyond national borders.8 This is true even when claims made by such interpretations reach beyond national boundaries. Thus the decade of the 1970s, which historians have flagged as an epoch of ‘transnationalisation’, continues to be debated primarily within national discourses. Even large projects of ‘European’ historiography such as the project ‘Écrire une nouvelle histoire de l’Europe’ remain clearly anchored in one nation; they are shaped by historians from a specific historiographical context, which brings with it its specific questions, patterns of interpretation, and methodological approaches.9 True, there are some fields of research in which transnational communication and cooperation have become more intense: the late 19th century, the First World War, and more recent fields of research such as the history of migration. Research on the First World War, in particular, shows the innovative potential of an intensified exchange of historiographies. Dutch universities have developed as places of productive interweaving of different historiographical traditions, as has the European University Institute in Florence.

However, the 20th century, in particular, is still shaped to an astonishing degree by national narratives of research. This applies especially to the historical phase following 1945, in which transnational developments have increased massively on many different levels. Even the dialogue between German and French historians remains limited; Spanish, Greek or Swedish historiography coexist with little connection. The United Kingdom holds an ambivalent position. On the one hand, its universities are key points of interaction and networking since the British academic labour market has been relatively open up to now.  At the same time, however, ‘British History’ itself remains largely cut off from the historiographical debates beyond its borders.

4. The methodological diversity of European historiography offers an important laboratory for analysing more accurately the relevance of the nation as well as transnational interdependencies in empirical studies.

Exploring the relevance of national, transnational and subnational, local and regional spaces and their interrelationships is, especially for the second half of the 20th century, a desideratum that has remained largely unfulfilled. We need the combination of comparative and transnational perspectives both for a precise assessment of the importance of national path dependencies and especially where transnational processes have crossed these paths. Between the grand narratives on the one hand and empirically dense descriptive histories on the other, comparison and histoire croisée in particular seem suitable methods to arrive at conclusions of a ‘middle range’, because they offer an important point of friction for established national narratives.10

European history could enable balanced, detailed and differentiated comparisons and analyses of transfer, interweaving and exchange processes between the different historiographies. In many fields, such research is still lacking. In this context, the study of the history of border regions has proven to be especially fruitful for multi-perspective interpretations. Thus, European history provides a virtually inexhaustible laboratory of possible constellations of investigation with which to pinpoint precisely similarities and differences, convergences and divergences. It could allow scholars to deconstruct national histories empirically. By no means does the nation-state have to be the primary object of investigation. Cities and regions – including cross-border ones – form, as repeatedly shown, equally meaningful objects of comparison or regions for investigation.

A dialogue on spatial categories, methodological instruments, concepts and variants of a European history would bring national historiographies, with their respective methodological trends and questions, into play and thus help to critically reflect on these trends and questions and their national characteristics. This would create a basis for broader and more closely-knit research cooperation across national borders.

5. European and global history are variants of transnational history with many common features. Instead of binary oppositions of ‘European’ versus ‘global’, it is important to ask about the relevance and the contours of transnational spaces, depending on the issue at hand, and to select and delimit spaces of investigation accordingly.

As a subject for research, the integration of European societies with other world regions was long overlooked; here there have rightly been calls for new approaches. Today, awareness of the epistemic trap of Eurocentrism has increased considerably. Nevertheless, the resulting pragmatic and conceptual challenges for research are still considerable.

The same can, however, be said of the state of research on entanglements within Europe. For many topics, themes and epochs of modern history, it is hardly better, if at all. Empirically, the ‘national container’ has often remained the dominant frame of investigation. For key phenomena of the 20th century, such as Second Wave Feminism, neither the European integration of movements, their interactions, transfers, similarities and differences, nor those that transcend Europe’s borders have been sufficiently investigated. The pragmatic challenges remain considerable, particularly in view of the plurality of languages.

Not least for linguistic reasons, British historiography has proved better at investigating ‘global’ relationships – especially within the region of the former Empire – than it is at researching the no less significant integration, relations, differences, and similarities with the European continent. The British ‘New Imperial History’ has achieved something that still remains a distant goal for British European history: the investigation of the repercussions of transnational interdependencies on British society.

A polarity of ‘European’ versus ‘global’ arises in current debates, although many practitioners of global history repeatedly distance themselves from this. This polarity reifies borders rather than overcoming them, and creates secondary exoticisms in some cases. Transnational history can focus on a range of fruitful geographical areas, each of them coming with their own heuristic gains and losses. The significance of influences and interdependencies within Europe as well as beyond its borders will have to be worked out and determined precisely for different regions, phenomena and developments. Thinking within boxes, binaries or ‘containers’ of any kind is not helpful for this study.

6. European contemporary history as a field of research must be aware that it stands in a specific political context. This challenge should be taken up by historians in a conscious and purposeful way.

With some reason, European history has in the past been under the latent suspicion of being used to legitimise European unification. Some studies looked for commonalities and convergences or even assumed these unquestioningly. European history, however, must generate questions, not presuppose answers. Investigations into the extent of convergence as well as into existing or growing differences between European societies must be carried out with an open mind, be empirically founded, and argued in a differentiated manner. The desire to leave the nation-states behind, both politically and in academic debate, must not tempt us to underestimate the significance of the nation-state.

Without doubt, historical scholarship should counter the suspicion that it serves to legitimise the project of European unification. This does not mean, however, that European historians should abstain from taking political positions. Especially in times when there are strong political currents that maintain that Europe is the problem and the nation-state the solution, it seems both scientifically and politically necessary to deconstruct old and new national myths while also deconstructing European unification myths. There are many ways of doing this, of which transnational-European perspectives are just one variant, but nevertheless an important one.  At the same time, this also means that a European-oriented historiography must emancipate itself from questions of possible political interest or disinterest in Europe. Moreover, it should not mirror political or social cycles without thoughtful deliberation.

As mentioned above, however, there is also an associative proximity between the preoccupation with European history and a suspected Eurocentric perspective on history as a whole. This can be countered by pointing out that Europe should be seen as one of the world regions whose research is on an equal footing with others and is in an ongoing dialogue with them.11 Eurocentrism is to be distinguished from an engagement with European history. Questions concerning asymmetric processes, the formation and development of interdependencies do not only arise between Europe and the global world, but also within Europe.

The political context of history is not independent of the place where and when history is written. What political implications do historians in different European societies perceive in their choice of research spaces? What about the implications for those who research European history outside of Europe? How do cycles of public interest and academic interest interact? National public spheres and historical research are related in many ways. Discussing the diversity of these territorial constraints would create an important basis for the dynamic development of European history as a field of research.

Finally, the last two propositions concern questions of research structures.

7. New and different research infrastructures are needed to promote the Europeanisation and internationalisation of historical studies.

National research funding programmes continue to target primarily relatively closed academic labour markets in each individual country. They are not designed to promote transnational, European research collaborations. Cooperation programmes exist, but their scope is very limited. The funding opportunities through EU programmes are relatively small compared to national programmes and the EU bureaucratic hurdles are relatively high. The EU ‘Societal Challenges’ programme offers just a few opportunities for the whole field of humanities and cultural studies and is designed to produce directly applicable results. The ERC (European Research Council) and Marie Curie programmes support basic research, but not primarily cross-border collaborations and thus contribute little to Europeanisation in the sense of an interweaving of historiographies. Language barriers, and nation-specific career paths, hinder more extensive mobility and cooperation.

8. We need a change in the publishing world, and we need to address the issue of linguistic boundaries and the associated limits to dialogue.

The eighth and last point relates to the market for scientific books and journals, which is at present still very national in scope. The English language transcends language barriers to a certain extent, resulting in a whole range of journals and forums with a European focus. However, the book and journal markets are still largely shaped by national cultures, which are decisive for the formation of disciplinary cultures and interpretations of history. The resulting discourses remain largely bound by national and linguistic borders. Without being a panacea, increased open-access in publishing could improve the situation just as much as an intentional and systematic internationalisation of the review culture. The digitisation of communication has so far contributed disappointingly little to the internationalisation of historiographical debates. Creative and innovative solutions need to be sought in this field with new determination, if historiography wants to meet the challenges of the present. New and more effective answers must be found to the question of language barriers and to the limitations on dialogue that accompany them.  This is an important challenge, especially for doing European history.

Certainly, the arguments formulated here are to a certain extent attributable to our German perspective and also in other respects to our own research priorities. We have tried to address conceptual, methodological, research pragmatic, structural and, last but not least, political issues. Our goal for the course of this debate is not to ‘defend’ these points in any way. Rather, they are intended to provide an initial impetus for debate, which will generate its own questions, themes, theses, focal points and controversies.

Cite this article as:

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,

  1. Cf. especially Konrad Jarausch / Thomas Lindenberger (eds.), Conflicted Memories. Europeanizing Contemporary Histories, New York, Oxford 2007. []
  2. E.g. Ute Frevert, Europeanizing German history, in: GHI Bulletin 36 (2005), pp. 9-24. []
  3. Cf. e.g. J.G.A. Pocock, British History. A Plea for a New Subject, in: The Journal of Modern History 47.4 (1975), pp. 601-621; J.G.A. Pocock, The New British History in Atlantic Perspective. An Antipodean Commentary, in: American Historical Review 104.2 (1999), pp. 490-500; James Vernon, The History of Britain is Dead. Long Live a Global History of Britain, in: History Australia 13.1 (2016), pp. 19-34; Robert Aldrich / Stuart Ward, Ends of Empire. Decolonizing the Nation in British and French Historiography, in: Stefan Berger / Chris Lorenz (eds.), Nationalizing the Past. Historians as Nation Builders in Modern Europe, Basingstoke 2000, pp. 259-281; Roquinaldo Ferreira, Taking Stock: Portuguese Imperial Historiography. Twelve years after the e-JPH Debate, in: e-JPH. E-Journal of Portuguese History 14 (2016), []
  4. Cf. e.g. Frithjof Benjamin Schenk, Mental Maps. Die kognitive Kartierung des Kontinents als Forschungsgegenstand der europäischen Geschichte, in: Europäische Geschichte Online (EGO), ed. by the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), Mainz 2013-06-05. URL: URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-2013052237 [2020-03-09]; Martin Schulze Wessel, Die Mitte liegt westwärts. Mitteleuropa in tschechischer Diskussion, in: Bohemia 29 (1988), pp. 325-344. []
  5. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, New Jersey 2000; for criticism e.g. Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History, Berkeley 2005. []
  6. Jörn Leonhard, Comparison, Transfer and Entaglement or How to Write Modern European History today, in: Journal of Modern European History 14.2 (2016), pp. 149-163; Lars Jensen, Provincialising Scandinavia, in: KULT. Postkolonial Temaserie 7 (2010), pp. 7-21. []
  7. Margit Pernau / Monica Juneja, Lost in Translation? Transcending Boundaries in Comparative History, in: Heinz-Gerhard Haupt / Jürgen Kocka (eds.), Comparative and Transnational History. Central European Approaches and New Perspectives, New York 2010, pp. 105-129. []
  8. Anselm Doering-Manteuffel / Lutz Raphael, Nach dem Boom. Perspektiven auf die Zeitgeschichte seit 1970, Göttingen 2008; Jean-François Sirinelli, Les vingt décisives, 1965-1985. Le passé proche de notre avenir, Paris 2007. []
  9.; other important digital projects on European history are e.g. European History Online,; Themenportal Europäische Geschichte, []
  10. Michael Werner / Bénédicte Zimmermann, Vergleich, Transfer, Verflechtung. Der Ansatz der Histoire croisée und die Herausforderung des Transnationalen, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 28.4 (2002), pp. 607–636. []
  11. For area studies see e.g. Birgit Schäbler (ed.), Area Studies und die Welt. Weltregionen und neue Globalgeschichte, Wien 2007. []
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