Social Share:
Twitter Facebook Email Comment More








From the Professional Issues column in the April 1996 Perspectives

The Future of European History

John R. Gillis, April 1996

For some time now attendance at the annual meetings of the AHA's Modern European Section has been declining. Sensing a shift, the organizing committee of the section asked me to conduct an informal survey of colleagues in preparation for a general discussion of the future of the field at the 1996 AHA annual meeting in Atlanta. In the course of nine months I talked to more than two dozen seasoned scholars. [1] The survey was in no way systematic, but it did identify a set of concerns and speculations that were presented at the section breakfast in Atlanta this past January.

This was not the first time that Europeanists in this country have paused to reflect on the state of the field. The first survey was conducted by Chester P. Higby in the mid-1920s. What he found was not exactly encouraging. Practitioners of European history on this side of the Atlantic were few, overworked, underpaid, and often unpublished. Many had never been to Europe, and few had done serious work there. "There are still professors of European history in the United States, however, who shy at anything written in a foreign language," he reported. To make matters worse, students were interested only in the recent European past, threatening to "reduce the modern European history curriculum to courses in recent politics and current events." The only really promising developments Higby could find were the advent of the Journal of Modern History, the creation of new university presses, and the founding of the Guggenheim and Commonwealth Foundations. [2]

Seventy years later the condition of the field is vastly different. Higby could not have anticipated the spectacular growth in numbers of Europeanists and their intellectual influence that began in the 1940s and accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s. But, among those I have spoken with, there is a sense that European history may well have reached its apogee in this country. Several noted that it can no longer be assumed that European history will be Americans' second history. As our national demographics change, so does our sense of origins. British history has been particularly affected by this, but so too has the rest of European history. While, to date, few European history positions seem to have been lost, there is the feeling that departments are much more likely to look to non-Western fields in defining future hires. European history is no longer the surrogate for world history, and, while many Europeanists are now involved in teaching a variety of global history courses, we may anticipate further displacement.

Several colleagues also expressed the belief that Europe was no longer the source of inspiration it once was. It has been a very long time now since the Annales and Past & Present moved large numbers of American historians. And now even the well of poststructuralist theory appears to have gone dry for those who only a decade ago would have eagerly awaited the latest French ideas. There is some feeling that Europe's intellectual capital has moved east to Berlin, but there is as yet little evidence of an intellectual Drang nach Osten.

Yet, even those most concerned by these trends are generally optimistic. Several of my interlocutors pointed out that whether or not one believes European history is in eclipse is really a function of where one looks. The gathering of the European Section at the AHA annual meeting may have lost its constituency, but the proliferation of nationally oriented journals and organizations with frequent regional meetings more than makes up for this. The emergence of strong regional interest goes back at least to the 1940s, when the Slavic Review and the Journal of Central European History were founded. By the late 1950s, the French and Italian fields had their own journals. British historians were the last to join the party, but by the 1960s they too had their own journal and organization. Furthermore, European history is now being practiced under a number of rubrics—gender, social, cultural, family, labor, comparative, and economic history—that have their own meetings, journals, and constituencies. Taken together, there is probably more activity in the European field today than any one scholar can ever comprehend, much less participate in.

As for teaching, those I have spoken with agree that while the quantity of students has dropped, the quality remains remarkably high. The current crop of graduate students and younger faculty is precociously sophisticated and remarkably productive. They cross disciplinary boundaries with admirable ease, and take on subjects previously beyond the range of their elders. If the job market were not so sour, we would have every reason to celebrate these developments.

When it comes to the definition of the field, however, there is general uncertainty. Everyone is aware that the political and economic geography of Europe is changing and that the definition of European history, previously largely Western, is bound to expand to embrace eastern and central Europe. Whether events in the former Soviet Union will make that region a subject of greater or lesser importance is not yet clear, but when we speak of Europe today, we mean something both larger and more complex than the area we studied a decade ago.

Everyone also stressed Europe's changing relationship to the rest of the world. Fifty years after the end of World War II and beyond the Cold War, Europe looks very different. Most agree that it has lost its spatial and temporal centrality, partly because both Marxism and modernization theory are less attractive than they once were. Consequently, Europe—the case both theories used to make their universal claims—can no longer provide a model or a telos. The history that once served as the measure of progress now functions, as one colleague remarked, as the world's laboratory of human error.

It is doubtful that infamy by itself can sustain a field of study, yet it is also true that no other regional history has stepped in to take Europe's place as a historical touchstone. The conditions of the late 20th century give us few clues to the future and thus even fewer guidelines to what we might usefully investigate in the past. But even when divested of its universality and seen as but one of a number of interdependent entities in world history, Europe has gained something. In what some would call its "postcolonial" moment, it is enjoying the luxury of self-assessment, which, in turn, has stimulated great interest in modes of historical consciousness, if not in the actual history itself. In no other place is so much attention being paid to memory. Some may think that this trend signals the end of history as we have known it, but it seems clear that reflexivity need be no threat to the historical profession, unless, of course, the profession refuses the invitation to rethink itself.

But how are changes in Europe affecting America's relationship to Europe and the practice of European history on this side of the Atlantic? The American perspective on Europe has gone through several stages during this century. As Leonard Krieger described it, America's relationship to the world has alternated between detachment and engagement, with European history acting as the "intermediary between America and world history."[3] Until our involvements with Europe in World Wars I and II, Americans treated European history largely as background. Interest centered on the distant past, and it was not until the 1920s that modern European history claimed our attention. As one might have expected, the first to engage with Europe were diplomatic and military historians concerned to understand the origins of the Great War and America's involvement. But beginning with the flight of scholars from fascist Europe in the 1930s, a whole new dimension was added. For the first time, the American practice of European history was Europeanized. A generation of distinguished ÈmigrÈ scholars directed attention to social, cultural, and economic matters, encouraging the kind of archival research that had been rare in earlier generations. The European field deepened but at the same time specialized along national lines. With the great expansion of the American university system in the 1960s and 1970s, departments grew so that it became possible to have specialists in France, Britain, Germany, and Russia—even, in some instances, historians of Spain or Italy. The emergence of social and women's history added still further depth without at all displacing the national focuses.

Today, American scholarship on European subjects is recognized as equal to that produced in Europe itself. While American scholars often feel unappreciated, invitations to prestigious European institutes continue to flow, and the number of American works in translation increases. Now it is European scholars who complain of the dif ficulties of reaching American audiences. (See "Non-American Historians and the Difficulties of Reaching a U.S. Scholarly Public," Perspectives, February 1996).

However, colleagues are concerned that American scholarship, organized as it is around national histories, may now be out of sync with European tendencies. Over the past decade, Europeans have been frantically Europeanizing, reeducating themselves to national histories other than their own. This has been partly in response to the imperatives of European union and the end of the Cold War, but it is also a product of globalization, which has made Europeans more conscious of their own peculiarities. Just as European anthropologists have "come home," examining European cultures as if they were unfamiliar "others," so European historians are beginning to reexamine their national pasts from the outside in, attempting to discover what is particular, even exotic, about European civilization.

To be sure, the Europeanization of European history is still more idea than reality. Most of the work to date has been comparative, an exchange among national specialists rather than a movement across borders. But however rooted senior European scholars remain, the younger generation now circulating among European universities is bound to bring a different perspective. Perhaps this perspective will be closer to the way European history has been taught, if not researched, in this country. After all, the European survey, often taught under the rubric of Western civilization, is an American invention. American familiarity with the survey format could perhaps allow Americans interested in Europe to take the lead in the reconceptualization and reworking of European history. It is quite possible that major contributions to the Europeanization of European history will come from outside the continent itself, a useful antidote to the "Fortress Europe" mentality that seems to be emerging.

I would be more optimistic about this prospect if it were not that the imperatives of our teaching and scholarship were not so at odds with one another. As we all know, it is monographs that count for tenure and promotion. General history, even the most innovative textbooks, rarely get more than honorable mention when professional awards are handed out. Thus, even as the Europeans steer toward transnational history, we seem bent on holding to the national course. I have come to envision this situation as two ships passing in the night, neither fully aware of the other.

American research and teaching are, however, bound to alter as America's relationship with the world changes. Since World War II we have seen Europe as the eastern frontier of what came to be called Western civilization. The study of Europe's failures became a way of confirming America's special destiny and legitimating its claims as a superpower. As Joyce Appleby has observed, "Exceptionalism is America's peculiar form of Eurocentrism." [4]Now, however, a process of mutual disengagement is occurring, with the result that Europe is ceasing to be the intermediary between America and world history. As Europe Europeanizes and America's sense of unique destiny wanes, historiography on both sides of the Atlantic is turning in new directions.

When Eric Wolf published Europe and the People without History in 1982, his intention was to restore to non-Western peoples some rightful measure of historical agency, to remove them from the category of "other" to which they had been previously assigned. Today, Europeans are the people in search of a history, and non-European historians have a good deal to offer them. Europe needs to borrow non-European methods and perspectives, but to do so, it must lower its traditional intellectual tariffs and rethink itself in unfamiliar terms such as diasporas, borderlands, and peripheries.

One would hope to see a renewed interest in Europe's multicultural and multiethnic heritages. This is already reflected in the growing interest in groups such as immigrants and ethnic minorities, once considered marginal despite their numbers. We are just beginning to understand the historical presence of "blacks" in Britain, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany, and so on. In this respect, Americans and non-Western scholars should be in a very good position to contribute to an understanding of hybridities. Indeed, Europeans' recent discovery of race as a relevant category should be an important bridge for global exchange.

From the perspective of the late 20th century, Europe no longer seems as much the product of its own internal dynamics as it once did. Its interdependence with other world regions stands revealed, a condition that is bound to prompt exploration of the history of relations with Asia, Africa, and the Americas, which have tended to be understood largely from a Eurocentric perspective until quite recently. The work that has been done on the Atlantic World of the 17th and 18th centuries has revealed the existence of multiracial, transnational working classes; this work needs to be extended into later periods. Cooperation between historians of colonial America and early modern Europe could provide a model for closing the gap between modern American historians and their European counterparts more generally. Until now, most of the emphasis has been on the Europeanization of the globe. Recent developments suggest that an equally profitable area of research is the globalization of Europe. This process has been going on for hundreds of years, but it has never gotten the attention it deserves. And here the driving forces of the global economy are bound to revive an interest in both the history of cultural exchange and in political economy more generally.

The globalization of European history will surely be an occasion for rethinking the relationship between western and eastern Europe, but it should also give rise to a reconsideration of the place of Europe's northern and southern regions. The privileging of western European nations in the narrative of Europe no longer seems as justified as it once did. The histories of the Scandinavian countries, so marginalized up to now, will no doubt gain greater prominence as interest in the fate of the welfare state grows. Spain's democratization and Italy's economic revival may also turn attention to those countries.

Europeanizing European history will undoubtedly involve a shift from national to transnational subjects. The very concept of nation is much more problematic than it once was and no longer provides a self-evident frame for historical investigation. The proliferation of microhistorical studies is one reflection of this change, but so too is the new interest in re gional and even transcontinental histories that defy the old geographies. As one colleague suggested to me, there is a global crisis of territoriality in which "decision space" is separating from "identity space." I suspect that we will see more historical activity at both ends of the geographical scale, reflecting the dialectic of the global and the local that is occurring everywhere in the late 20th century.

It also seems reasonable to predict that the distinction between political and social history will blur as the lines between the public and private spheres become increasingly clouded. The rise of new social movements and the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations in recent decades calls into question boundaries between social and political history. The definition of "The Family" and of private life is no longer so self-evident as it once was. New interest in civil society, or what some have begun to call the third sector, will no doubt be reflected in historical interest in realms like voluntary organizations that do not fit neatly into the old categories of private and public.

The work that has been done by medievalists and early modernists may provide a useful guide for modern European historians. Our colleagues working in earlier periods have been less burdened by the legacies of nationalism, the gendered separation of spheres, and the various secular culture-building projects that began in the 19th century and shaped our agendas until quite recently. I sense that right now early modern history is the more innovative field, perhaps because it has been less constrained by what Habermas has called the "project of modernity," more open to the complexity and diversity that has been there all along but which has become more obvious only in the last couple of decades. One need only to point to religion—an area largely neglected by modern historians—to see what benefits the abandonment of a priori notions of modernity might hold. It is now apparent that there are several modernities that need to be taken into account. This recognition offers us the opportunity to explore aspects of European history that have been treated condescendingly as mere survivals. It may be that we will end up questioning the distinction between the premodern and the modern that defines the way Europe has been approached on both sides of the Atlantic. In any case, our task will surely involve challenging both the periodicities and the geographies that currently prevail.

This is already apparent in the revisionism surrounding the French Revolution. And now that 50 years have passed since the end of World War II, it also seems time to reclaim contemporary history from the political scientists, making it something more than just a coda to modern European history.

As Michael Geyer and Charles Bright have recently pointed out, "we arrive at the end of the 20th century in a global age, losing our capacity for narrating our histories in conventional ways, outward from re gion, but gaining the ability to think world history pragmatically and realistically, at the interstices of integrating circuits of globalizing networks of power and proliferating sites of localizing politics." [5] Clearly, the boundaries are shifting and Europe is no longer the eastern frontier of what we used to call Western civilization. It is no longer our window on the world or our mirror of ourselves. As America's orientation shifts from west to east, from north to south, Europe can no longer serve as America's intermediary to world history. However, this is not a time for disengagement from European history, but rather the moment to find ways to reintegrate it within a new global history whose temporal and spatial boundaries are just becoming visible. The future of European history is now inseparable from the future of historical studies more generally. It is time to abandon the practices of enclosure that define history as a series of separate "fields," jealously guarded by overspecialized proprietors. Only when we accept our responsibility for our common history will we be prepared to take on the awesome tasks that a global age has assigned us.

—John Gillis is professor of history at Rutgers University. His interests have ranged widely since he took his doctoral degree at Stanford University. His most recent book, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, will be published by Basic Books this summer.

Notes

1. This report could not have been written without the generosity of William Bouwsma, Susanna Barrows, Thomas Metcalf, Reginald Zelnik, Martin Jay, James Sheehan, Thomas Laqueur, Bonnie Smith, Harvey Kaye, Lawrence Stone, Carl Schorske, Jay Winter, Robert Darnton, Margaret Jacob, Arno Mayer, Joan Scott, Lynn Hunt, Jerrold Seigel, Leonardo Paggi, Philip Nord, Kent Worcester, Louise Tilly, Jim Cronin, Charles Maier, Yani Sinanoglou, Michael Geyer, and Victoria de Grazia. I am only sorry that I cannot acknowledge each for his or her contribution to what is really a collective effort.

2. Chester P. Higby, "The Present Status of Modern European History in the United States," The Journal of Modern History 1 (1929): 3-8.

3. Leonard Krieger, "European History in America," in History, edited by John Higham with Leonard Krieger and Felix Gilbert (1965), p. 236.

4. Joyce Appleby, "Recovering America's Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism," Journal of American History 79, no. 2 (September 1992): 420.

5. Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, "World History in a Global Age," American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (October 1995): 1058.