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From the International column of the November 2007 Perspectives

After 80 Years of Existence, Is the ICHS Still Relevant?

Jean-Claude Robert, November 2007

Editor's Note: The essay being re-published online here—with the permission of the author—originally appeared in the bilingual Information Bulletin of the International Congress of Historical Sciences (Number 32, Montreal, 2006, pages 8–13). The original punctuation and capitalization have been preserved.

In 2006, the ICHS marked its 80th anniversary. On May 15, 1926, 19 countries came together in Geneva's Palais de I'Athénée to lay the ground-work for the Committee. Now is a good time to review the organization's accomplishments and ponder whether it has lived up to its raison d'être. I suggest taking stock of the following three points: the ICHS and international cooperation, the ICHS and the transformation of history, and the challenges that currently face the Committee.

I. The ICHS and international cooperation

The ICHS's main raison d'etre—in my opinion, its only reason—is to support the international cooperation of historians. Its core mission is to foster on-going dialogue among historians in all countries and of all periods and fields. I would like to paraphrase the historian Marc Bloch, who, as early as 1928, asked historians to move beyond their national histories, as peoples could not understand one another. Bloch was emphasizing the need for mutual understanding and an end to the isolation of historians within their respective national histories. This is not an easy path to follow because many obstacles have barred the way in the past, and we continue to encounter them in the present.

The ICHS has experienced three main phases in the past 80 years. The first phase, which lasted from the birth of the organization in 1926 until World War II, was characterized by a desire for reconciliation after the tribulations of the First World War. In particular, French and German historians resumed dialogue through the mediation of their American and British counterparts. For the emerging countries of Central Europe, this first phase of the ICHS was a window onto the world, as the historian Jerzy Kloczowski wrote. There were three Congresses: in Oslo in 1928, in Warsaw in 1933, and in Zurich in 1938. This phase was cut short by the catastrophes of 1939–1945, and the ICHS narrowly missed being silenced forever.

The Committee regained life after the war, and the international Congresses resumed in 1950. During its second phase between the Paris International Congress in 1950 and the Madrid Congress in 1990, the ICHS served as an interface between historians in the Communist Bloc and those in the West, acting as a forum for their sometimes uneasy contacts and exchanges. It also played a distinctive role in maintaining communication among historians in East and West Germany. This period also witnessed the decolonization process, which brought new players and new visions of history to the fore.

The ICHS' third phase began after Madrid and has been characterized by the Committee's desire to become a worldwide association. Turning its back on its Eurocentric tendencies, the Committee has sought to welcome historians from and the world. Still in this phase, we face major challenges that successive Bureaus have undertaken to solve.

From its inception, ICHS life has been guided by the goal of bringing together historians. It is fascinating to re-read Henri Pirenne's comments made in Geneva that underline his satisfaction at the renewal of an international body for historians, a forum where historians can gather freely to discuss their work and issues related to the development of their discipline.

From its infancy, the ICHS has insisted on freedom in research and stood up to the dictates of a vision of history dominated too largely by the concerns of nationalist environments. The Committee has been an anchor for institutionalizing international cooperation. Since the 1950s, however, the ICHS has not been alone in promoting international cooperation. This period has been marked by an explosion of exchanges among historians.

UNESCO has played a major role in promoting a worldview of history and international cooperation, initially through a series of publications such as History of Humanity(First volume published in 1963) and other major regional histories, and later through the work of various Committees. One example that comes to mind is a report on the state of history by Professor Geoffrey Barraclough, carried out long ago as part of a larger study on research trends in the social and human sciences conducted between 1965 and 1972. Another UNESCO contribution has been occasional conferences like the one held in 1986 that resulted in the publication of a book with the very telling title of Être historien aujourd'hui (Paris, 1988). Closer to home, UNESCO has been partnering with the ICHS since 1998, allowing the Committee to organize a dozen conferences in various regions of the world.

As well, with increasing funding for university research and instruction since the 1950s, international cooperation has been enhanced by the proliferation of agreements between teaching and research institutions.

Historians are also coming together in other ways than through the ICHS; for example, the completely independent World History Association was founded in 1982. Many such associations maintain exchange networks, organize congresses and conferences, and publish scholarly journals. Most recently, the Internet has become a vehicle for new networks with branches linking all the continents. The ICHS has therefore become one player among others in a major movement of worldwide exchanges that put scholars in touch with one another. The Committee is pleased and thinks positively of such a profusion of international collaborative efforts.

Nevertheless, the ICHS has a specific function, its own niche: to operate as a generalist historians' association and to remain accessible to all historians and to all fields in the discipline. The Committee does not report to any external, open, or secret society. It relies solely on the actions of its members. It has no projects other than those approved at its General Assemblies, nor any hidden agendas or intentions.

The Committee's future, therefore, rests with the development and longevity of international cooperation. So far, recurring international congresses have justified the efforts of our founders. Now we must decide how the ICHS should adapt in order to continue diversifying its mission and works. The Committee is currently working on this question, but care must be taken not to lose sight of its accomplishments while chasing the unknown. Its achievements and experience are self-evident and must be maintained.

II. The ICHS and the Transformations of History

During the course of its eighty years, the ICHS has recorded and been influenced by the transformations of history. It would be very presumptuous indeed to suggest that the ICHS has driven the evolution of history, and that is not my intent. But through its congresses and activities, the Committee has recorded the changes that have swept the historian's profession. And this role is important. At the same time, the ICHS has helped to reduce the confusion created by these changes, facilitating intellectual exchanges among historians and providing a forum for dialogue and discussion.

Three great movements have contributed to the transformation of history. First, the field has evolved through increased professionalization and the sheer increase in the number of historians. Historians today are more concerned with epistemological debate, while—thankfully—remaining firm believers in the virtues of archival research. I cannot resist reminding readers of Lucien Febvre's comments during a debate on urban-rural issues in 1951: "[translation] Why, after striving so hard, can we not comfortably solve the problems that sociologists have put before us? No doubt it is because we always begin with documents; instinctively, we throw ourselves on them with perverse joy", instead of formulating research hypotheses. Since then however, historians have become more concerned with epistemological debate, as evidenced by new interest fostered by the linguistic and other "turns" of history.

A second change has influenced the chronological reach of the field of history. On this subject, François Bédarida referred to "expansion": backwards in time through prehistory and forwards in time to the present. Indeed, more is known about prehistory and it is better integrated into the historian's discourse, and recent periods are given fuller consideration. In my student days, the professors' mantra was "the study of the post-1914 period is not history, but journalism". This position, as narrow as it is stereotypical, has since been cast aside. Historians no longer exclude the present or contemporary history from their studies. With their tools of analysis, they are able to construct an enlightened interpretation of the present.

The third movement is globalization, a phenomenon that has not only changed world economy and society but transformed culture. The practices and knowledge of historians are evolving. History is increasingly spilling out of its national borders, and advocacy of the comparative approach has never been closer to succeeding. Some historians have been promoting this approach for a very long time. Henri Pirenne did it as early as 1923 in his opening address at the Brussels Congress entitled De la methode comparative en histoire. His statements were in line with issues first expressed at the Paris Congress in 1900 and at the Rome Congress in 1903.

Nonetheless, other transformations were needed to broaden interest in this approach. Stimulated by the expansion of social and cultural history that began in the 1970s and by international exchanges, historiography welcomes and even requires a transnational vision. It has become evident that research into wide-ranging phenomena such as urbanization, industrialization, demographic transition, the evolution of cultures, or the permanence of rural structures, can not rely simply on a national framework and that the historiographical framework must be enlarged; comparison therefore takes on its full importance.

Current debates surrounding comparative history, transnational, intertwined or entangled histories, point to a degree of maturity in the field of comparative historical study and are fulfilling some of the objectives of the founders of this movement. However, much work remains to be done.

III. The ICHS's Current Challenges

The resilience of nationalism across the world and the increased fragmentation of identities within countries and regions are realities that cannot be ignored and that may potentially hinder the globalization of history. However, this diversity is also an asset: our colleagues from other countries can show us new ways of seeing history.
Similarly, the proliferation of multiple identities in today's world underscores history's socio-political role, which, for better or for worse, is crucial to the construction of identity.

Within the ICHS, these issues are highlighted in the latent tensions between the National Committees and the International Organizations. In certain cases, National Committees reflect their government and espouse the ideological view of their nations. Recently, we saw that pressure could be exercised to silence historians who were critical toward their nation's governing party.

Such longstanding challenges have left their mark in the past, and we could say that the ICHS has learned to live with them. I believe, however, that we face another, greater challenge: that of making gains other than in the West. The ICHS has virtually no footing in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the South Pacific. Even more worrisome is the absence of Muslim countries in the organization.

Despite our ongoing efforts over the past 15 years, we are still faced with the same facts. When we number the countries represented at each quinquennial Congress, we sometimes note a little progress, and other times, a slight retreat. But, in my opinion, the problem is even more complex; for one reason or another, the ICHS is simply incapable of attracting historians from these parts of the world except at Congresses.

I believe the reasons for this situation are manifold, but three in particular stand out: disparities in living standards, intellectual problems, and political issues. By definition, disparities in living standards are an obstacle to exchanges. The resource chasm between the West and the East and South is so vast that it is virtually impossible to set up self-financing organizations. Moreover, there are often no government resources to aid in the international representation of these countries' historians, making it almost impossible to establish national or regional organizations in some areas like Africa or elsewhere. These conditions make it almost impossible for our colleagues to have a significant presence in the organization. The most the ICHS can do, as it did in Sydney, is to mobilize extraordinary logistical and financial resources to bring a few specialists to its Congresses. But these are only stopgap measures and short-term solutions.

The intellectual issues are just as significant, and maybe even more fundamental. Long ago, Fernand Braudel alluded to a historiographical disparity between Europe and the rest of the world. The rapid development of national historiographies since the 1970s suggests that this inequality is disappearing, but its consequences are not. Some time ago, the Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty called for the "provincialization of Europe." In his view, the history of Europe has formed the metadiscourse underlying all histories and their prioritization, relegating non-European history to the margins. There has been a groundswell of reaction to this state of affairs for some time: we need only think of the Subaltern Studies, the development of Afrocentrism, or Edward Said's critique of orientalism.

European history continues to dominate at ICHS Congresses. The vast majority of communications are delivered by Europeanists, to Europeanists. I make this statement as a Canadianist who became enmeshed in the history of the ICHS since the Montreal Congress in 1995. I am still astonished by how little Canadianists and specialists of US history are drawn to the ICHS. These groups do not see themselves in the ICHS. This is a matter we should ponder if the ICHS is to advance the cause of universalism in the history community.

Lastly, and I will not expound on this subject too long, we come to national policy. Some States view international cooperation negatively and set up roadblocks to stop historians from being a part of this movement.

Conclusion

These then are some of the challenges that I consider to be important and for which the Committee should attempt to find responses. Nonetheless, all things considered, the picture is quite positive: the ICHS is an institutional pillar of international cooperation that is as important as it is fundamental, and its achievements of the past 80 years are remarkable. In the proceedings of the Oslo Congress of 1928, the first Congress held after the creation of the ICHS, historian Francois Ganshof commented on the principal significance of the event by noting that the community of historians had been reconstituted. This sentiment was echoed by Karl Dietrich Erdmann in 1987 and by Wolfgang Mommsen in 2004.

The historians of the world have created a useful tool; let us continue to learn how to refine it. As Jurgen Kocka stated at the opening of the Sydney Congress, we rely on the tensions that arise from national, regional and international forces to propel us toward a degree of universalism.

—Jean-Claude Robert is the secretary general of the International Congress of Historical Sciences, commonly called by its French acronym, as CISH.