From the President's column in the February 1996 Perspectives

The Last Eurocentric Generation

Caroline Walker Bynum, February 1996

In 1994–95, I spent a sabbatical year at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. I had never lived in Germany for an extended time before, and my spoken German was awkward. The public culture in Germany is, moreover, harsh and censorious; German universities are by American standards hierarchical and sexist. To a New Yorker like me, used to inefficiency, crowding, and in-your-face yet cheerful rudeness, Berlin seemed clean, homogeneous, obsessed with regulations of every sort, humorless, and even a little provincial. Yet when an American friend of my generation and background visited me and asked, as of course visitors tend to, what I found most striking about life in Berlin, I answered before I thought, "the fact that I feel so at home." My answer surprised my friend, and it also surprised me. I subsequently spent time puzzling over what I could have meant.

In a sense it is not surprising that I felt at home as a scholar in a place where I could wander morning after morning past rows of reliquaries in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, or discover at the Staatsbibliothek West a tiny devotional drawing made by a medieval nun to illustrate one of Henry Suso's prayers, or stumble upon a 14th-century Dance of Death being uncovered behind the whitewash in the porch of St. Anne's Church in the former East Berlin. I am, after all, a medievalist. But a brief consideration of my own reactions showed me that my sense of being at home had little to do with my scholarly vocation. What I found in the Berlin of 1994–95—a Berlin five years after the wall came down and fifty years after "the war" ended—was the world of my childhood. That is, I found the world in which I had become a thoughtful and moral being, a world that still exists, in horrible ways, for Germans but has, for my children and my students, vanished beyond recall. Recognizing this has led me to a surprising yet in some ways obvious insight about my scholarly generation.

I was born a few months before Pearl Harbor. One of my earliest memories is of my father's air-raid warden's helmet. From only a little later comes the recollection of carrying a tiny paper flag in one hand and a popsicle in the other as children in my suburban neighborhood paraded one summer afternoon chanting "the war is over," and from grammar school days comes the wrenching remembrance of a friend who cried when we had to sing "America the Beautiful" because her Daddy wouldn't ever come home. The Germans were the villains of history to my Roosevelt-Democrat parents; their guilt over American racism was exacerbated—and assuaged—in complex ways by horror at the Holocaust and pride in "our national sacrifice." I daresay most Americans a little younger than I and almost all those 10 years older were similarly shaped by "the war." Certainly my graduate student generation—for all it was influenced as well by the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the counterculture, and Vietnam—saw nothing odd in exploring the Middle Ages for an answer to the German "failure," moral and political, or in studying and teaching Western civilization as if it culminated in World War II, or in agonizing over our position on a very different war, the one in Vietnam, in moral terms set by the 1930s.

I point out only the obvious when I say that Germans between the ages of 45 and 65 are obsessed, as their older generation is not, by remembering and by managing memory. We have all heard of the Historikerstreit. What interests me at the moment, however, is how much my generation of Americans has needed this German self-awareness, how many articles have appeared in the American press not just about the American war experience but about contemporary German reassessments of the German experience. Jane Kramer's lengthy, powerful, and ironic New Yorker essay on Berlin's Holocaust Museum, entitled "The Politics of Memory," and Peter Schneider's eloquent plea, in a recent New York Times Magazine article, that German teenagers be allowed to feel distance from the past are two of many examples. Indeed I was struck in a way the author Anne Cronin did not intend by a New York Times op-ed piece of December 3, 1995, called "America's Grade on Twentieth-Century European Wars:" F.2 Whereas she was justifiably horrified to discover that only 60 percent of American adults knew that Germany was our enemy in World War II, and only 87 percent of teenagers could identify Adolf Hitler, I was far more horrified to learn that only 40 percent of adults surveyed could give "the name of the ethnic group that has conquered much of Bosnia and surrounded Sarajevo." If significantly more of today's adults and future adults can recognize the villains and heroes of World War II than the messy and horrible facts of contemporary conflict, we may deserve an "F" in more than European History 101.

Although my childhood was shaped by stories of sugar rationing, war work, and the atom bomb, films such as Schindler's List and Europa, Europa are, to my 20-year-old daughter and to my students, exotic evocations of a remote era. I do not of course defend our failure to teach European history to our children. But I do suggest that unless we look more intelligently and dispassionately at the particularity and situatedness of our historical moment, we will commit a far more serious moral and pedagogical error. My generation is, I would suggest, the last generation of Americans for whom the Holocaust, the Nazis, and World War II will be the shaping moral experience. What Peter Schneider wrote about today's German youth (and the fact that I resist his conclusions profoundly tells me much about myself) is even more true for American young people: they are not guilty; they were not there.

Of course European historians must and will teach the European past. And they must teach with a passionate commitment both to remember and to defeat those elements in the Western heritage that have led to scapegoating, sadism, despair, or genocide. But the world—and America's place in it— has changed since the 1940s. Our children and our students know, in these days of multiculturalism and of postcolonial studies, that Europe—that funny little peninsula jutting off the edge of Asia—is not the center of history. It is the task of my generation of historians to find ways of turning, responsibly and wisely, from the Eurocentric history into which we were born to the more global history our children will inherit.

I hope I will not be misunderstood when I argue that we must move toward a global understanding of history. I know how tedious, vacuous, and disorganized some world history textbooks are—smorgasbords of odd facts, not analyses of culture. I am aware of the trendiness and arrogance sometimes found in postcolonial research, especially when it claims to let the subaltern speak while refusing to learn any of his or her languages. Nor do I make the mistake, against which Michael Geyer and Charles Bright warn us in a recent issue of the American Historical Review, of assuming either that past history was global or that all pasts are equally part of an increasingly global present. As a medievalist, I shall continue to train medievalists, and I shall have to do so in a situation where students come to graduate school increasingly unlikely to command the European languages necessary for even minimally acceptable scholarship. I do not underestimate how difficult it is to do my own job responsibly while listening to new questions. Nonetheless, the lesson of my year in Berlin is clear. My generation's agenda is over and done with. We must learn from the next generation, and to that generation the agenda is—and must be—the world.

Actually I mean something rather modest by this call for globalization. I mean that I hope to preside over an AHA in which area studies associations play a more important role, an AHA in which the program for the annual meeting has many more sessions that are truly comparative across both time and place, with non-Western topics dominating the conversation more often. But I mean something else as well. For I am certain that historians of Europe and of the United States will write better history if they listen carefully when specialists in other areas of the world ask them questions.

My own teaching of the European Middle Ages has become more nuanced, I am convinced, as I have learned more about the Islamic civilization on Europe's borders (not just as influence or threat but as comparison). My own analyses of Europe's frontiers—and heartland—are more trenchant where they make use of concepts, such as "identity," "liminality," "diaspora," and "boundary," borrowed from other humanistic or social science disciplines. Most important, my scholarship and my pedagogy stay alive only when they allow themselves to be disturbed by questions my generation thinks to ask only when challenged by the next. So my call for globalization is not a call for any of us to abandon what we do. It is rather a suggestion that my generation of scholars, the last Eurocentric generation, should help new agendas to emerge—agendas in which curiosity about distant continents and periods of time, sensitivity to new groups in our midst, and above all the learning of new languages, will play an increasingly important role. Germans who focus attention on the Holocaust often fail to see the terrifying xenophobia that characterizes their daily life; Americans who cling to the idea of the "melting pot" will not notice (to give only two examples) the stunning rise of Islam in American cities or the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism; scholars who resist questions generated by the experience of new generations will find their work a little more boring to themselves as the decades pass. I felt at home in Berlin last year, more at home in some ways than I do in New York, but I have come to distrust that reaction. Neither as scholars nor as human beings can my generation remain in the world into which we were born.

Notes

1. Jane Kramer, "Better from Europe: The Politics of Memory," New Yorker, 14 August 1995, 48–65; and Peter Schneider, "The Sins of the Grandfathers," New York Times Magazine, 3 December 1995, 74–80.

2. Anne Cronin, "America's Grade on Twentieth-Century European Wars: F," New York Times, 3 December 1995, sec. 4, p. 5.

3. Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, "History in the Global Age," American Historical Review 100 (October 1995): 1034–60.