February 12, 2010


History's Isle: a review of Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent by Richard J. Evans (Mark Mazower, February 3, 2010, New Republic)

The problem is an interesting one: how to explain the divergence between Britain (and the United States), where a large proportion of historians concern themselves with the history of other countries, and its EU partners, where professional scholarship is much more nationally focused? Evans offers some rough and ready statistics to support his account of this difference, but one has no reason to doubt his basic thesis. British universities may offer expertise in Baltic, Balkan, or Iberian history, and no decent department lacks a goodly array of non-British subjects; but the poor Czech, Polish, or French student who is interested in digesting something other than the glories of his national story will find a much thinner menu.

Evans offers a range of explanations, some more persuasive than others. The most pertinent concerns the university’s relationship to state and society. British history departments are not in the business of churning out high school history teachers. Moreover, a commonly accepted conceptual division between ‘British’ and ‘European’ history encouraged some newer universities in the 1960s, seeking to distinguish themselves from Oxbridge and the red-bricks, to build up expertise in the latter. (Oxbridge colleges remained heavily concentrated in British history going back to the Anglo-Saxons, while places such as Warwick, York, and Sussex made a name for themselves in exploring the background to the then-emerging European Community.) Continental universities, operating with less autonomy and under greater central ministerial control, could never shape their own place in the academic market.

And in the background of this institutional analysis lurks something more general—an implicit contrast between the Continentals, egocentrically worrying about their own national identities, and the British, almost as obsessively unconcerned with theirs, and drawn for all sorts of reasons to the Sturm und Drang of the European past. Some British Europeanists, says Evans, take up the challenge out of what he calls a “sense of adventure.” Others simply find the stability of modern political life in Britain less noteworthy than the radical instability of the world of fascism and totalitarianism. Why bother with Oswald Mosley—a study in failure—when the Nazis give you the real thing?

Then there is the asymmetry of influence—between the British historian whose work on, say, Italy or Poland, is immediately read and discussed in those countries, and the rare Polish or Italian historian of Britain whose work, if noted at all, circulates only in small scholarly spheres. There are good and bad reasons for this. On the one hand—a note of self-congratulation sounds here—Brits just write better than most mainland scholars, encouraged as they are by a strong public demand for stylish, jargon-free general history. On the other hand, that same public has little interest in translated works, and British publishers do little to foster that interest. The result is a largely one-way stream of readable history translated from English into other languages.

...we inevitably understand it better than they do.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2010 11:23 AM
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