What’s in the April AHR?
Robert A. Schneider, April 2014
When members open the April 2014 issue of the American Historical Review, they will find five articles, six featured reviews, and over 200 book reviews. An eclectic mix, representing the great range of the practice of historical scholarship today, the articles take us from Britain and Germany in the North Sea in the generations leading up to World War I, to China and the exploration of coal in the 19th century; from post-World War II France and the right of housing to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey looked at from two very different perspectives. Readers also might want to look at “In Back Issues,” which calls attention to articles from 100, 75, and 50 years ago.
Jan Rüger’s “Sovereignty and Empire in the North Sea, 1807–1918” is situated right at the edge of the European continent, where national and colonial contexts intersected throughout the 19th century. This was Heligoland, a small island 50 miles off the German coast and, between 1807 and 1890, a British colony. It was a place where the range of different laws, practices, and traditions made it impossible to establish a clear-cut boundary between the British Empire and the different Germanies that existed on the continent between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. This article focuses on the ways Germany and the British Empire were “made” in this North Sea enclave. It thus contributes to the extensive historiography on borderlands in Europe, engaging with arguments about sovereignty and colonial governance, and with methodological questions about scales of analysis and narrative as well. Exploring the history of a border island that sat awkwardly between the British Empire and the rising German nation-state prompts Rüger to think about how we can write the British Empire into European history or indeed European history into the imperial British past.
In the modern Turkish Republic, May 29 is a day of celebration, memorializing the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In "When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and Its Contribution to World History," Gavin D. Brockett traces the transformation of public engagement in the anniversary of this event from elite ceremony in the Ottoman Empire to a pervasive point of cultural reference today. Despite the upheaval in Turkish society and politics in recent years, he shows that public memory of 1453 has served the important purpose of anchoring the country as it comes to terms with the difficult history of nation-building. Türk Istanbul, Cumhuriyet,
In “The Search for Coal in the Age of Empires: Ferdinand von Richthofen’s Odyssey in China, 1860–1920,” Shellen Wu examines the work of the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905), the Chinese response to his discoveries, and in particular the creation of a modern Chinese discourse on coal. While coal had long been mined both in the West and in China, in the 19th century it became fundamental to industrialization, its supply a crucial energy source. For Qing officials and writers, coal was viewed as an essential fuel of imperialism and the foundation of a new industrial economy. Richthofen is best known in the West for coining the term “Silk Road.” His work and influence in China illustrate how ideas about mineral resources and industrialization circulated globally beyond political and geographical boundaries. In this article, Wu confirms the economic convergence of China and the West by the end of the 19th century at least in terms of one measure: the theory and exploitation of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels.
In “Oriental by Design: Ottoman Jews, Imperial Style, and the Performance of Heritage,” Julia Phillips Cohen suggests that our awareness of the constructed nature of Orientalism, as well as the power of the Orientalist gaze, has made it difficult for us to see individuals who performed their “Orientalness” for international audiences and in commercial venues outside of this gaze. She asks, what did the world look like from where they were standing? Can we really assume that their only interlocutors were the Western tourists and travelers they encountered on different occasions? Rather than reject the theoretical insights of the literature on Orientalism, her essay builds upon studies of self-Orientalism, while also suggesting ways for placing that literature in the context of the modern politics of empire. Taking as an example Ottoman Jews, who sold and consumed Oriental goods in various realms, she frames their self-Orientalizing gestures as performing an imperial heritage. Indeed, Cohen wants us to understand such performances as part of a global development that witnessed the proliferation of folkloric forms of national or imperial identification during the 19th century.
At a time when few countries celebrate the legacy of empire, commemoration of the Ottoman past has become a prominent feature of Turkish society. In “When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and Its Contribution to World History,” Gavin D. Brockett examines the commemorative traditions related to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, exploring the development of public memory in Turkey as part of the process of modern nation formation. He traces the transformation of public engagement in the anniversary of this event from elite ceremony in the Ottoman Empire to today’s widely celebrated event. In the modern Turkish Republic, May 29 celebrations have been a way of appropriating the imperial past for the national present. After an initial period of ambivalence following the founding of the republic, public memory embraced the quincentenary of Constantinople’s conquest in 1953. Indeed, the Turkish nationalist narrative vaunts the conquest as representing a significant contribution to world history. And since 1980, amid upheaval in Turkish society and politics, public memory of 1453 has served to anchor a country coming to terms with the difficult history of nation building that a modern historiography is now beginning to explore.
During the post-World War II housing crisis, homeless families in Marseille, France, helped form a national squatters’ movement, asserting housing as both a human right and a right of citizenship. This was a moment when Western European nations considered developing robust welfare institutions, a time when the newly founded United Nations declared that social rights, including the right to a quality of life, or to housing, were also fundamental human rights. In “Citizens, Squatters, and Asocials: The Right to Housing and the Politics of Difference in Post-Liberation France,” Minayo Nasiali looks at the national squatters’ movement in France, which, she shows, lent a sense of urgency to these debates about the meaning of welfare. She notes that while recent studies have focused mostly on social insurance, family allowances, and the role of gender and class in constituting welfare institutions, little attention has been paid to the question of housing—despite the fact that the post-World War II housing crisis raised important questions about the universality of social rights and the relationship between citizen and state. Furthermore, her essay calls attention to the greater imperial context of the French welfare state, highlighting the often differential nature of social security institutions. Indeed, conceptions of ethnic differences developed in the colonial context often shaped welfare discourses on the problem of inadequate housing in the metropole.
June’s issue will include articles on the “mood” of Russian soldiers in World War I and on the overthrow of Robespierre in the French Revolution, along with an AHR Roundtable, “You the People,” which assembles a number of essays by historians in Europe on researching, writing, and teaching the history of the United States.
Robert A. Schneider is editor of the American Historical Review.
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