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Response to Review no. 103

It is a great pleasure to respond to a review of our book which has treated it so generously. Most of the critical points that Stuart Woolf raises are well made and we find ourselves in broad agreement with him. There are so many suggestive points in his review, that it would be impossible to deal with all of them. We have therefore chosen to take up briefly seven of his points:

1. We would like to underline Stuart’s suggestion to place greater emphasis on questions of cultural transfers in historiography. Although the writing of national history became the key focus of the profession across Western Europe by the second half of the nineteenth century, the practice of writing national histories did not take place in national isolation. The perception and reception of ‘foreign’ national histories did play an important role in the construction of ‘one’s own’ national histories. And, of course, national histories were written by ‘foreign historians’. If and how they impacted on the shape of national historiographies over time could be another important theme for future research. We have included the example of Ranke’s reception in England, but many other interlinkages and connections could be explored. In the Anglo-German case, alone, historians have looked at the reception of German historians in the English Historical Review, the influence of German exile historians on British historiography, the reception of Clausewitz among British military historians, the attempts of British and German historians to legitimate their country’s actions in the First World War and many other issues. [1]

2. Stuart is right that there is a degree of ambiguity in the way that contributors have approached their subjects. Some have focused upon the conscious and unconscious influence of the national framework and of nationalism upon historians; others have looked at the role played by historians in constructing national identities. Some have dealt with professional historians, some with amateurs and some with pamphleteers. Without wishing to disagree with the point that a stronger editorial hand might have ironed out some of these variations, we can only say that some of the richness of the individual perspectives might have been lost had we been more dictatorial. We could have insisted that contributors dealt only with historians who actively propagandised on behalf of the nation-state. There would then, however, have been no possibility of comparing these historians with others who did not do so, or with those who were influenced less consciously by the national framework within which they worked. Furthermore, certain of the differences in emphasis are related to the circumstances in which history was produced in particular periods. Inevitably, contributions on the early part of the nineteenth century deal with amateur historians. And to give one further example, given the weakness of the right in the French historical profession, it is unavoidable that Hugo Frey should have drawn upon amateur historical writing in order to elucidate the Gaullist view of national history. Ultimately, perhaps, the coherence of the book lies in its preoccupation with elite history, whether of the right left (in either its liberal or socialist variants). What might be seen as a lack of coherence from one perspective might be regarded as a strength from another.

3. We agree too that imperialism (and gender) could have found more of a place in this volume. There is much to be said for Edward Said’s view that western scholarly writing in general, not just that explicitly about the east, has been informed by racial stereotypes, and has, in a sense, derived its legitimacy from its positioning relative to a colonial ‘other’. Edgar Quinet, one of the historians cited by Ceri Crossley, argued that it was essential for historians to confront the ‘strangeness’ represented by Asia. The latter, Quinet said, produced prophets while Europe produced scientists. So Quinet represented the learned western man who uncovered and articulated the secrets of the silent, passive and feminine east. One is reminded here of the Victorian notion of the historian as ‘explorer’ – the civilised male discoverer of the barbarous and feminine facts of history. Many more examples could be given. Benedikt Stuchtey shows that J.A. Froude identified Ireland with irrationality and femininity, while WEH Lecky admitted that England could learn from medieval Irish culture, but regarded the modern Catholic Ireland as unfit to govern itself.

4. There is only so much that one can do in a single volume. However, Stuart’s point about incorporating the historians of small nation states is well taken. Focusing on the ‘big’ states might indeed produce a one-sided image of the evolution of national historiographies in Europe. Yet, attending an ESF- funded workshop organised by Guy Marchal of Luzern university in Nov. 1999 on the topic of ‘Construction and Deconstruction of National Histories’, Stefan Berger was struck by the many similarities of national history constructions across Europe. Common elements seem to include: – the high level of political functionalisation of national history
– the existence of a plurality of national histories (including the production of alternative histories of gender, class and race as well as the continuous shaping of national histories in a gendered, classed and raced way)
– the importance of specific institutional contexts of academic knowledge production
– ideas of the ‘birth’ of national character (foundation myths)
– ideas of some kind of ‘point of no return’ in the development of nation states
– the importance of centre-periphery relationships in the construction of national narratives
– the link between a national history and a national mission
– the importance of geopolitical arguments (e.g. nations forming bridges between other nations)
– the idealisation and ‘heroicisation’ of ‘national’ characters or events
– the importance of borders and in particular the violation of borders producing a variety of complex scars and interlinkages on the map of national historiographies of European states
– debates about the relationship between ‘scientificity’ (objectivity in historical writing) and partisanship.
Obviously all of these common ingredients of national histories (by no means an exhaustive list) are to be found in different mixtures and combinations in specific national contexts, and it would make for a fascinating project of European intellectual history to map the construction and deconstruction of European national histories in a comparative fashion. In this respect it is to be hoped that a planned application for an ESF-funded network project on this topic will be successful.

As for the national history constructions of smaller nations, Jo Tollebeek has demonstrated convincingly the importance of historical representations in romantic Belgium. [2] The legitimation of the new nation state took place in the context of mainly French claims that Belgian identity was nothing but ‘une nationalite de convention’. Nineteenth-century Belgian historians busied themselves proving the contrary: they invented a mission for their country – as ‘keeper of the old Catholic civilisation’ (Tollebeek, 336), and the Belgian government undertook strenuous efforts to popularise the work of Belgian historians. Belgium was a country which lacked a history of geographical and political unity. Its history was marked by many ruptures and regime changes. Hence national mythologies such as the ‘national genius’ (Herder’s Volksgeist), religion, the special way of life of the Belgian people, the image of Belgium as the battlefield of Europe, the portrayal of Belgian history as a pattern of conquest and oppression, all of these had to fill the void and attempt to overcome the lack of unity and independence in the Belgian past.

Many of the Belgian mythologies mentioned above will sound familiar to historians of historiography of other nations. Yet the particular difficulties of constancy and dependency will sound particularly recognisable to historians of Eastern Europe. In the long period of the Cold War little independent research was possible on the question of historical national identity production. Only recently have historians begun to reconstruct the ways in which historians of Eastern Europe have constructed national stories. [3] The Soviet Union in particular has often been understood as a monolithic bloc and its history has been written from the perspectives of St. Petersburg and Moscow. The multi-ethnic peripheries, such as the Ukraine, the Caucasian region, the Baltic states, the territories in Asia and White Russia have traditionally been neglected. Yet if we look at attempts to represent these nations in the past we often find the production of foundation myths, geopolitical arguments, rise and fall metaphors, religion, the battle against overmighty neighbours, the centrality of borders and all of the familiar themes mentioned above. In future it will be important to integrate East and West European perspectives on the writing of national histories.

5. Contemporary German debates on the involvement of key figures of the post-Second World War West German historians with the Nazi regime precede the 1998 Historikertag. Its origins can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Winfried Schulze first raised the issue about the origins of West German social history in the Nazi Volksgeschichte, and when Karl Heinz Roth and Angelika Ebbinghaus first published Theodor Schieder’s memorandum on the future of Poland. [4] Subsequently Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, Hans Rothfels, Franz Petri, Karl Dietrich Erdmann and many other historians’ careers have been scrutinised and the continuities and discontinuities between Nazi and post-Second World War historiography have been extensively discussed. Hans Schleier, in his contribution to our book, does discuss the impact of Volksgeschichte on the historical profession in National Socialist Germany in some detail and hence he provides the crucial background against which contemporary debates on the German historical profession under National Socialism should be seen.

6. Perhaps one of the few areas of real disagreement with Stuart Woolf is over the usefulness of Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm changes in the scientific world. Kuhn’s hugely overrated book is immensely misleading in its suggestion that academic ‘progress’ is made via paradigm changes, i.e. the accepted opinion is challenged by a minority opinion which subsequently becomes the accepted opinion until it is challenged and so on and so forth. In our view, at least in the human sciences, a plurality of paradigms is always present. It is the continuously contested nature of academic discourses in which no claim for superiority is accepted which is one of its core characteristics. True, academic opinions portray themselves as true, dominant etc, but they rarely, if ever achieve such dominance. Hence we would argue to forget about Kuhn for a while and concentrate on the exploration of the intricate webs of competing academic knowledges.

Where we find ourselves in agreement with Woolf is that history writing is not influenced by politics alone. Other elements, such as ‘choice of topics, approaches and methods of historical research’ (Woolf) or career patterns clearly play an important role. However, all of these things are not unpolitical. Hence politics enters into those factors too. And we would maintain that the relationship between history writing and politics is an integral one which merits close attention. Clearly, one of the problems is how wide or narrow an understanding of politics one adopts. If one chooses a wide concept of politics, then we would claim that politics permeates the whole production of historical knowledge.

7. As Stuart Woolf rightly remarks, the consumption of history, a topic of enormous significance, is treated patchily in Writing National Histories. Nevertheless, some general points can be made. We are not absolutely convinced that historians were more able to reach and influence public opinion before confidence in ‘national narratives’ allegedly collapsed in the late twentieth century, or that historians ever had any exclusivity on the production of the national idea. (Historians such as Rudy Koshar are perhaps too ready to accept that old cliché of historical writing, that in any given period ‘old certainties were breaking down’). Clearly, historians like Quinet and Macauley wrote for a non-academic audience, and they influenced public opinion. But their public remained small, largely educated and bourgeois. The professionalisation of history writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did nothing to enhance the appeal of academic history writing. The great bulk of historical writing has probably never had much of a direct influence on the great mass of the population, for it has had to compete with oral traditions, myths, journalism and various forms of popular entertainment, from music hall to films. Our own suspicion is that the sort of historical writing dealt with in Writing National Histories is of more importance in shaping the ideas and identities of the various components of the elite (even there only as one of several influences). British historians from Macauley to Hobsbawm, for example, regarded the study of the past as an essential training for those destined to govern. It is perhaps because of the role of historical writing in shaping the views and projects of those with power that governments have been so sensitive to what is produced in universities. Governments and regimes have certainly also attempted to inculcate particular views of the past into the mass of the population, but these often failed to take root at all, as in East Germany. In other cases ‘academic’ views of the past are assimilated into, or interact with, other views of the world.

[1] See Benedikt Stuchtey and Peter Wende, eds, Traditions and Transfers. British and German Historiography from the 18th to the 20th Century (Oxford 2000); Stefan Berger, Peter Lambert and Peter Schumann, eds, Dialogue of the Deaf? Historiographical Connections between Britain and Germany, c. 1750-2000 (Goettingen, 2001, forthcoming).

[2] Jo Tollebeek, ‘Historical Representation and the Nation-State in Romantic Belgium (1830-1850)’, in: Journal of the History of Ideas (1998), pp. 329-353. For Switzerland see also Guy P. Marchal and Aram Mattioli, eds, La Suisse Imaginee. Bricolages d’une identite nationale (Zurich, 1992).

[3] Stephan Velychenko, National History as Cultural Process: The Interpretation of Ukraine’s Past in Polish, Ukrainian and Russian Historiography (Edmonton, 1992); Rainer Lindner, Historiker und Herrschaft. Nationsbildung und Geschichtspolitik in Weissrussland im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Munich, 1999).

[4] For this debate, its origins and developments see Stefan Berger, ‘Nationalism and Historiography’, in: German History, vol. 18:2 (2000), pp. 239-259.