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Response to Review of Histories of Nationalism in Ireland and Germany: A Comparative Study from 1800 to 1932

I thank Jean-Michel Johnston for his erudite and engaged review of my book. As his main point of criticism is that the study of the book’s protagonists and their historical narratives is not sufficiently contextualised and that the reception of these narratives with respect to contemporaneous political, cultural, and social debates is largely unexplored, I will focus on this point in my response.

The relative lack of attention given to the wider context is to some extent inevitable given the book’s focus, and the fact that it deals with a hitherto-unexplored area: the comparative study of nationalist intellectual culture in Ireland and Germany. For this reason, it was necessary to devote the primary focus to illuminating the points of similarity and difference in order to address the question, posed by Stefan Berger and other historians, as to whether a specific common form of nationalism in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The level of attention given to exposition of a number of ‘canonical’ works of German and Irish ‘national’ history in the book was necessary given that many of its readers may not be fully conversant with nationalist intellectual culture in Ireland and Germany during this period.

However, the question of reception and how the written or printed word influences wider debates in society is a particularly thorny one for cultural and intellectual historians, one which escapes being fully resolved. Possession of a book is in itself no guarantee of it having been read, and before the period in which recognisably modern academic standards took hold, it was not uncommon for writers to recycle the work of others and claim it as their own. As argued by Quentin Skinner, there are different meanings of ‘meaning’: is the meaning attributed to a text by its author more important than that attributed by its reader(s), or vice versa, or can one be said to be more important than the author’s?(1) This, ultimately, is a question that has no single, simple answer. Without exhausting the relevant archives to comprehensively deal with the matter of ‘reception’, we must consider the way in which certain tropes, expressions, and vocabularies gained a popular hold and recurred in political commentary, until they gained the status of ‘common sense’. As the Jewish German-American intellectual and cultural historian George L. Mosse argued, it is in popular works and ‘minor’ writers that we must seek the reasons for the power and success of ideologies such as nationalism. The protagonists of my study were all key figures in the development of a canonical idea of nationalism in their respective societies, as study of the secondary literature amply bears out. The forging of intellectual partnerships such as that between Heinrich Treitschke and Gustav Freytag and Eoin MacNeill and Alice Stopford Green (who also, unlike MacNeill, claimed W. E. H. Lecky as a positive influence) bears out how particular ideas and narratives of the past became authoritative and later institutionalised, while others assumed lesser popular significance. On the other hand, historians, as much as they framed the political and cultural debates of the societies they inhabited, were also inevitably products of it. This interplay of originality and striving for authenticity among historians and the place it occupied in the writing of their historical narratives stands at the heart of the book.

The extent to which these historians in these societies during this period, with their specific historical obsessions, were commentators on contemporary political events and problems is something reflected in their writings, hence the level of analysis devoted to their narratives. This is well reflected for example, in the fraught arguments waged in print over which confessional community bore responsibility for the seventeenth century religious wars in both countries, in the debates over the role played by particular contested regions in the ‘national’ past. Or, to take more specific examples, the way W.  E. H. Lecky rejected the conventional Protestant Irish historical narrative of native Irish (and Catholic) savagery that had been used to justify and excuse English and British (mis)government in Ireland; or the way in which Eoin MacNeill’s cool eye towards the history of the ‘Anglo-Irish’ of Ireland dovetailed with his scepticism towards ideas of nationalism that prioritised political power over cultural renewal. Without dismissing the important point about always keeping at least one eye on the wider context, the book is and could not have been intended to offer a comprehensive summary of politics in Ireland and Germany in this period, but rather a closer-focused intellectual history. By analytically grasping the concepts of these historians and thinkers, following their distinctions, recovering their beliefs, and ‘seeing things their way’, we can better understand, hopefully, why among other things history exercised such a powerful attraction on the minds of nationalists in this critical period.

I do agree with the reviewer that the book offers a starting point, not only for those interested in the comparative histories of Ireland and Germany, but also to students of other ‘peripheral’ nationalisms in Europe that have traditionally been overlooked in the general historiography, and that Histories of Nationalism in Ireland and Germany offers – hopefully – some heuristic tools with which to pursue this kind of comparative history.


  1. Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics (Cambridge, 2002).Back to (1)