The 19th International Congress of Historical Sciences: A Report

Renate Bridenthal, November 2000

Editor's Note: The AHA was represented at the 19th International Congress of Historical Sciences, by Arnita Jones, executive director, and Renate Bridenthal, chair of the AHA's Committee on International Historical Activities. We publish below Bridenthal's report on the congress itself as well as reports by other scholars on some of the affiliated meetings held in conjunction with the congress.

About 2,000 participants from 78 countries gathered August 6–13, 2000, in the picture-perfect city of Oslo to share new perspectives in historical thinking. A vast variety of topics were addressed at the conference: an opening and closing session, 3 full-day major themes, 20 specialized themes, 25 roundtables, panels offered by 23 affiliated societies, 16 internal commissions, 12 workshops, and 55 poster sessions. As the AHA delegate to ICHS, I was privileged to attend the event, but obviously can only report on a few of the sessions of this very rich assortment.

The opening session consisted of statements by Ivan T. Berend (USA), who is the outgoing president of ICHS; Hans-Ulrich Wehler (Germany); Romila Thapar (India), who is the incoming second vice president of ICHS; and Roger Chartier (France). Titled "The 20th Century as Seen by History and Historians," this panel set the agenda for much of what followed: global and comparative history and epistemological problems, sometimes called the "crisis" of history. Berend noted that while the 20th century had seen an improvement in the standard of living on every continent, it had also brought a sharp increase in the income gap from 10 to 1 at the beginning of the century to 40 to 1 at its end. He mourned the erosion of the welfare state, which had—through its redistribution of wealth—allowed "capitalism with a human face." Wehler echoed this sentiment, observing that a market economy has led to a market society that established new hierarchies and inequalities. Nationalism has survived to press states for homogeneity, which has led to civil wars. The juridic state, he argued, was not equivalent to an ethnic state. Thapar noted the demise of some mythologies of South Asian history, such as the Aryan brotherhood of British and Northern Indians being best equipped to rule India. She welcomed the rise of multicultural and subaltern studies, gender analysis, and oral history legitimated by its own methodology. She recommended that historians study another culture before writing about their own, as an aid to perspective. Chartier spoke about the epistemological revolution, which challenged linear narrative, creating perhaps a "crisis" of history. He argued that voices of the past previously neglected should be heard without, however, historians surrendering their discipline which seeks objective criteria of judgment.

The first major theme was "Perspectives on Global History: Concepts and Methodology," organized by Jörn Rüsen of Germany. Its first subdivision asked, "Is Universal History Possible?" After six presentations, the question mark remained in place, leaving this to be an exciting frontier of research and rethinking. It was argued that connections needed to be firmed up between local, regional, national, and global history, showing their mutual impacts. A global metanarrative was confronted with the idea of universal history as a dialogue between the histories various peoples have given themselves. A neo-Darwinist inclusion of the notion of contingency challenged a teleological or law-driven conception of change. Gender variations of common human experience would lead to comparisons about population growth and policies, labor force changes, exclusions and inclusions in nation building. A regional approach, for example, to the Pacific area and its rim, would bring a better understanding of the place of China and Japan in the world, than would any attempt to "integrate" those countries into a Western trajectory parading as global history.

The second subdivision, "Cultural Encounters," addressed the problem of historical centricisms, such as European, American, and Asian. Again, it was argued that global history should be seen as a complement to local and national histories and not as a threat. A global consciousness that would stress the commonalities of human experience, de-center all points of origin, conceptualize the past in multiple units besides the nation-state, and abandon the notion of "failed transitions" was recommended. However, a missing ingredient in this discussion was the question of inequalities of power, past and present, which might disturb the proposed equivalencies.

A specialized theme, "Regions," also spoke to the concerns of globalization. A definition of the term was offered as an area larger or smaller than a state, with no set boundaries and a fluctuating history based on its inhabitants and their imaginary of it. The panelists spoke to regional hybridization of cultures as in the Caribbean and cross-national cooperation as in parts of Nigeria. The political aspects of this approach were varied. In Africa and Canada, European colonial elites were seen as the architects of regionalism on behalf of their own social and economic interests. In Finland, the notion of the region Karelia outlived its inhabitants, most of whom had emigrated to Finland proper after the Russo-Finnish war of 1939. Northern Norway was developed as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, which resulted in its having a regional identity more European than that of southern Norway. In U.S. history, the focus on the conquest of the West was criticized for underestimating factors such as cross-regional labor movements. A theorizing paper reiterated that regions, like nations, were deliberate constructs for political mobilization, and not necessarily the most important identity for their inhabitants.

Another specialized theme, "Minority Cultures," established a consensus against any essentialism of minorities and reaffirmed the enduring validity of the crosscutting element of social class. Examples of blurred or lost boundaries of minority groups were offered: Jews in medieval Europe who suffered religious doubt as to the true way to God; poor Jews and Christians in 18th–19th-century Ottoman Damascus, who shared dwelling space with those not of their faith; assimilated Huguenots in South Africa who now seek to resuscitate their lost identity; the coexistence of assimilation and identity maintenance among the Chinese in Vietnam; and the fluidity of historical self-perceptions of American Indians in U.S. history. A shared conclusion seemed to be that minorities are not as isolated as we used to think, but that social life dilutes their boundaries while politics seeks to maintain these.

The roundtable, "Comparative History," was mildly contentious. One panelist argued that the phrase was an oxymoron, since history was by definition particularistic and noncomparable. Another argued that particularism in fact depended on comparison for establishing its uniqueness and that "family resemblances" could supplant the notion of essential components or ideal types. There was some agreement, however, as to the usefulness of interdisciplinary work in making comparisons.

Another major theme of the conference was "The Uses and Abuses of History and Responsibility of the Historian, Past and Present," organized by Georg G. Iggers of the United States. At the very outset, the distinction between use and abuse was questioned, revealing yet another blurred boundary. It was pointed out that historians have not been free of the agendas of their societies in any part of the world, ours included. Every state and group has sought its own justification in the past and has denied or omitted contradictory information. Examples were given from ancient China, where the search for immortality led historians to court sycophancy, from medieval Europe, where historians assisted institution building of religious and secular rulers, from the Soviet Union, where workers' oral history was used to justify revolution, and from Poland, North Korea, and Romania, where essentialist nationalism supported both pro- and anticommunism. The sessions of this major theme reflected the intense self-reflection of historians today, sometimes labeled "the crisis of history." But this is a healthy process, signifying the maturation of our field, and opening many new avenues of inquiry.

—Renate Bridenthal, who teaches at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, is chair of the AHA Committee on International Historical Activities.