Stefan Berger, Chris Lorenz. The Contested Nation: Ethnicity, Class, Religion and Gender in National Histories. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 634 S. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-230-50006-8.
Reviewed by Daniel Woolf
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2009)
S. Berger u.a. (Hrsg.): The Contested Nation
In 1815, a Parisian teacher named Louis Taillefer defined the tasks of a teacher of history. Such a man, said Taillefer, should confine himself to the simple exposition of historical facts and the natural connections between them. Douglas Johnson, The Historians, in: D. G. Charlton (ed.), The French Romantics, vol. 2, Cambridge: 1984, pp. 274-307, quotation at p 275 (my translation). Taillefer went on to recommend a number of history books, including, Louis-Pierre Anquetil’s (1723-1806) Histoire de France. The most noticeable feature about Taillefer’s list is that every author on it was a cleric. The clergy would continue to have a considerable role in French historiography through the next century. At the same time, they would be rivaled by a number of lay authors who would exceed most of them in fame. The tensions between religion and secularization form one of the principle dynamics of what was arguably history’s golden century, and one of several major themes of The Contested Nation.
This, was the era, before the Great War, in which the influence of history and historians on public policy peaked, and the impact of nationalism had a great deal to do with this. Euro-American historians would be intimately bound up not only with writing the past of their countries but with their business as nation-states. A significant expansion of history at British and American universities occurred to promote the education of the nation’s future leaders, and in France, for similar reasons, history reaped much of the benefit of late nineteenth-century reforms.
Against the post-Napoleonic conservatism that manifested itself most strongly in the homeland of the philosophes and the Jacobins, a more moderate current of liberalism was also taking shape, and trying to steer a course between radicalism and “ultra” reaction. This included a movement within the catholic church by “liberal” Catholics to restore the clergy’s reputation through historical research and teaching, and to make use of the latest developments in philology. There was no direct correlation between political power and historiographic influence: as Pim den Boer has pointed out elsewhere, liberal historians such as Guizot, Barante, Thiers, and Thierry flourished during the Restoration (1815-30), while more conservative historians did so in the more liberal regime of the July monarchy (1830-48); a position of opposition to ruling authority stimulated the use of history to criticize and undermine those in power.
This strongly supports the central thesis of The Contested Nation, of swirling undercurrents and cross currents alternately supporting and undermining nationalist impulses. One of the themes best handled in this book is that of religion, which as an issue has a longer pedigree than ethnicity, class or gender, the three other major subcurrents addressed by many of the contributors. Historians, like scientists, mainly failed to uncover irreconcilable contradictions between their research and their faith, or even between a mechanical view of History and belief in a higher power. Religious fissures between Catholic and Protestant, which “pillarized” society in some countries (notably the Netherlands), and even within Catholicism between liberal and conservative, would exercise considerable influence over the direction of historiography, and the setting of agendas, well into the twentieth century.
A hallmark of nationalist historical writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and of that deeply problematic term, ‘historicism’, is a developmental view of History, which has been taxed, not unfairly, with having given rise to the more dangerous forms of exceptionalist nationalism, most notoriously Germany’s Sonderweg. In that sense, it supplied the nationalism of the nineteenth century with a new historical underpinning to replace the old discredited legends of the past. Why trouble with Trojans, Scythians and mythical or pseudo-biblical heroes such as Spain’s Tubal, grandson of Noah even as figures of exemplary virtue, when the entire course of a nation’s past could be shown to be as an organic process, as natural and predictable as the blooming of a single plant? From the spirit and character of a nation, opined the Herder-influenced Czech historian František Palacký, “a nation’s history is born, as a flower from a seed and a fruit from a flower” (455-6), a point well made in Maciej Janowski’s chapter. At the same time, the door still lay open to take indisputably historical figures and weave a whole new set of myths around them, and certain venerable tropes—the Tacitean image of the free and virtuous Germanic warrior and its various national counterparts, Czech, Slovak, Dane and so on—continued to exercise a potent influence.
The past in toto still had an essential role to play in both the shaping of new, national states and in the making of a citizen body with primary loyalties to that state. This is the period at which “modern” nationalism emerged (a process continued in colonial areas during the twentieth century), complete with public celebrations of past heroism, the construction of statuary and other lieux de mémoires, and even the outright “invention of tradition”. One of the most outspoken postcolonial critics of nationalism, Partha Chatterjee has pointed to the central place it plays in the modernist narrative of the progress of liberty and civilization, and the capacity of some of its students to explain away its more destructive manifestations as somehow deviant. Chatterjee is right to point out the problem with making nationalism the exclusive property of either the left or the right. Nationalism was and is in itself neither essentially liberal nor conservative though it has often been associated with both.
The Romantic nationalism of the first part of the nineteenth century was often linked to a sense of identity built upon a shared sense of a people’s ethnic or even political past—for an example one need only think of the Greek war of independence against the Ottomans (1821-28), a conflict out of which the modern Greece was born, complete with an identity, the common understanding of an ethnos, and a common language, all of which had largely been lost in previous centuries. The impact of nationalist historical consciousness was magnified, following the revolutions of 1848 and the return of progressive ideas in liberal or even radical political clothing, by national unification movements such as the Italian Risorgimento, and in the emerging independence of former satellites in Europe from imperial rule and that of other former colonies in North and South America. Yet even then it retained a conservative side: the Austrian historian Josef Alexander Helfert, advisor to the minister of education, thought that a nationalism defined by cohabitation in the same boundaries and loyalty to the same government needed protection: an “Austrian” history had to be invented and promoted, ideally through a new Nationalgeschichte which would head off any repetition of the class tensions of 1848.
Though there had certainly been eminent historians in newly established kingdoms like Belgium prior to their independence, sovereignty or the drive toward it provided an urgent need to establish both the shape of a national past and the capacity to write about it: recent struggles for independence were grafted on to a longer master-narrative that included much earlier, medieval conflicts with external oppressors, as noted in the Beyan and Majerus essay in this volume. Even those regions such as Bohemia that did not achieve political autonomy during the period still celebrated their separate identity and marked out a distinctive past. Thus Palacký’s five-volume account of the Czech nation from earliest times to the Habsburg union of 1526 espoused a highly romantic and nationalist view of the Czech heritage—he boasted that the Czechs had existed as a people since before the Austrians and would still be around after them. The chapter on Scandinavia makes it clear that this was not strictly a Habsburg phenomenon. European Jews, after centuries of rabbinically-dominated treatments of their past, acquired a modern national history for the first time, well-treated in Ulrich Wyrwa’s chapter.
As we all well know, nationalism was not necessarily a good thing for history under all circumstances. Although many nationalist-minded historians like Palacký saw no contradiction between their promotion of a political agenda and their duty to the emergent “profession”, and though, with some exceptions, outright documentary forgery in the medieval and early modern mode was rare, there were inevitably points of conflict between strict devotion to the evidence and the impulse to tell a coherent narrative (though this is only a problem if one assumes that such a thing as an unbiased and transparent narrative can potentially be written). Nationalist history could be extraordinarily blinkered in focus and aristocratic in tone—were not the great heroes of the past principally nobles and monarchs rather than the common man? As recently as 1884 the politician and historian Kálmán Thaly (1839-1909), answering the charge that Hungarian historians were woefully insular, declared that world history, positivism and democracy were values and subjects alien to the Hungarian historiographical tradition.
German romanticism and Hegelianism traveled well outside their nominal borders, and influenced the historical writing of the nineteenth-century Nordic countries: the Volk concept appears (as Folk) in national histories of Sweden, Norway (affiliated with Sweden through royal union from 1814 to 1905), Denmark and Finland (the latter detached from the former’s influence and moved into the Russian orbit in 1809). Folklorists like the Norwegian P.A. Munch and the Finnish novelist-historian Zacharias Topelius (1818-98) used their countries’ heroic pasts to construct national histories where none had existed, as demonstrated by Peter Aronsson and his coauthors, though as in Germany the folk heritage was an ambiguous tool—it supported regional, pan-Nordic sentiment as much as it did the formation of independent states in Norway and Finland. It was somewhat less problematic for the dominant powers of the region, Sweden and Denmark. South of Finland in the Baltic region, nationalist sentiments were much slower to develop. The histories of Estonia and Latvia were written largely by their Baltic German intellectual elites prior to their independence in 1918, national sentiments from the 1860s producing relatively little by way of historiography. Lithuanian historiography has been more fully documented, though its story is similar. Tied to Poland through much of the late medieval and early modern periods and dominated by Russia in the nineteenth century, Lithuania had actually lacked a written language prior to the late fourteenth century—early historical sources emanated from Russian, German or Polish writers. Unlike other ethnic groups, Lithuanians thus had little by way of historiographical tradition prior to the romantic-era historian Simonas Daukantas (1793-1864), who wrote in Lithuanian and created a dubious pedigree for his people in a remote barbarian tribe; there is a comparison to be made here perhaps between Baltic and Balkan, given the Greek example. Daukantas had no immediate followers. Between 1832, when the Russians closed the University of Vilnius, and the early twentieth century, Lithuania produced no academically-trained historians of its own, though distinguished Poles such as Lelewel, who taught at Vilnius, wrote about the Lithuanian past. The creation of a sense of national identity where none had existed fell to non-professionals: minor noblemen, poets and linguists, who were more interested in creating a heroic past than in following the canons of western historical scholarship. Collectively, their work provided an essential ingredient for the establishment in 1918 of Lithuania’s own short-lived independence. Unsurprisingly, the peoples of many of these territories were often considered as falling outside the main stream of History in accounts written by Russian, Polish and German historians, or they were simply shoehorned into the larger national narratives of the larger states, as were many of Russia’s subordinated ethnic groups, most notably Ukraine as described in the chapter by Anna Veronika Wendland.
Taken as a whole, The Contested Nation is a deconstructive effort to uncover the cover-ups in nineteenth-century nationalist historiography, including Europe’s internal equivalent of the subaltern, whether class, gender or religious minority. It does an excellent job of highlighting many tensions within the master-narrative of nationalist history. It thus contests and enriches, though it does not utterly subvert, our historiographic master narrative, according to which the nation and history were both invented in their modern forms in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We have known for a very long time that forces such as language, religion, and ethnicity did not align perfectly with the building of the nation, or more specifically, of the nation-state, but I know of no single book that has brought these contradictions to the fore quite like this. Gender is a more recent discovery, but it too recurs as a theme in these chapters, and the twentieth century sections of the individual chapters emphasize its importance, which has outlasted class in a post 1989 world.
One of the strengths of the volume is that it also interrogates its own concepts. Before launching into its impressive series of national and regional surveys, and unravelling the loose threads of odd colour from various nineteenth- and twentieth- century tapestries, it pauses to impose some conceptual clarity on the matter, in the introduction to the volume, in Chris Lorenz’s careful examination of the various categories at play and warning against philosophical category-confusion, and Krijn Thijs’s decoding of the different meanings of the word ‘master’ in connection with master narratives. I wish that ‘The Other’ had been subjected to the same scrutiny as it is in some danger of becoming the buzzword de jour. As an umbrella term for the kinds of “othering” that are a major theme of the book however, I find especially compelling the notion of ‘codes of difference’, useful term to group ethnicity, language, gender and class together despite the clearly different planes on which they belong.
This is already a long review of an extraordinarily lengthy tome, and it would be entirely unfair to criticize the book for Eurocentrism in view of the very specific focus of its umbrella NHIST project on Europe’s national histories, and the very careful way in which the successive volumes in the series collectively examine the relationship of nationalism and history within a dazzling number of contexts. I do wonder if there might have been room for at least one chapter by a non-Europeanist to provice perspective from that greatest of all ‘Others’, the world of the colonies, of the east, of Africa and India, of China and Japan. There are hints of this in occasional references to Latin America, and in a very interesting parallel examination of Turks and Greeks. Nor am I proposing that ‘orientalism’ be expressly added to the mix, though there is something to be learned from the self-orientalization of certain national historiographies, notably Iran, which rejected its Arabic and Muslim past in favour of a rediscovered Herodotean connection to the Achaemenids (not unlike, again, the Greek rediscovery of Hellas). Similarly, the kinds of tensions between class and nation that are so well covered in this volume clearly had parallels in the East and Southeast Asian histories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the late Qing Chinese historians, and their republican and communist successors, had the unenviable task of constructing a national history in the face of over 2000 years of dynastic history—a much deeper problem there than perhaps in Europe, since while there was an ethnic sense of China and the Zhongghuo, it was not predicated on notions of nationhood in any European sense.
But perhaps these are issues for another volume in the future. The history of historiography in Europe will have to take account of this book and its forthcoming companions. We stand at a transitional point between an older, much more linear narrative of the history of history and a much more difficult and complex, but surely more accurate version of the same story.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/.
Daniel Woolf. Review of Berger, Stefan; Lorenz, Chris, The Contested Nation: Ethnicity, Class, Religion and Gender in National Histories.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2009 by H-Net, Clio-online, and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact H-SOZ-U-KULT@H-NET.MSU.EDU.