National History

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The professionalization of history in nineteenth-and twentieth-century European universities was so closely related to the construction of the nation-state that national histories came to be seen as the only objective form of historical writingindeed, criticism of national histories was seen not only as unpatriotic, but as a threat to the integrity of the historical profession and its claim to objectivity.

National histories regard the nation-state as the primary unit of historical analysis, and social, economic, intellectual, and other processes are contained within it. The nation is the subject of history, and the object of historical development is the realization of the nation-state. The nation is said to have long existed in a latent state, and its members are regarded as having an unchanging character. In Hegelian fashion, the nation becomes conscious of itself by overcoming obstacles such as linguistic diversity, fragmented trade patterns, and foreign occupation. National histories are morally judgmental and teleological. Specific periods of history are judgedin all senses of the termaccording to the degree to which they advanced or retarded the national cause. "Great men" figure prominently in national histories: they act creatively because they understand the movement of history. National histories are also populated with villainsrepresentatives of foreign powers and traitors to the national cause. While noxious in the short term, their efforts are doomed historically.

Nation Building and Professionalization

National histories were written before history was professionalized. Whig historians like Thomas Babington Macauley (18001859) located the English national genius in the development of parliamentary liberty. The Whigs' French counterparts held that history provided the unifying force that prevented individualism from undermining the social body, and that the Orleanist regime (18301848) represented the culmination of French history because it reconciled individual liberty with the national good. Some amateur national historians, influenced by positivism, felt that the triumph of the nation was scientifically inevitable. National histories represented one element in disparate amateur historical writing, which also included social, economic, religious, revolutionary, and women's history, and which were united by special pleadingoften explicit. They were written as much to inspire as to inform.

The professionalization of history in the nineteenth century was predicated, as Lord Acton (18341902) put it, upon the removal of the poet and patriot from history. Acton's hero, Leopold von Ranke (17951886), rejected Hegelian teleologies on the grounds that individual periods should be understood in their own terms. The uniqueness of a set of events would be grasped by careful criticism of primary sources and their arrangement into an interpretation. Historians would constitute a profession, endowed with a special ability to understand the past objectively through the mastery of special skills.

In practice, it might be argued, professional historians merely provided scientific authority for existing ideas about the nation-state. Modern universities were created in periods of nation building, for which governments expected historians to provide historical legitimacy. In Prussia the universities expanded after defeat in the Napoleonic wars, in France after defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, and in Britain during a period when global preeminence seemed to be threatened by the rise of Germany and America.

It was not inevitable that nationalism should have acquired a historical dimension. The French revolutionaries (at least in theory) had preached a territorial nationalism, dependent upon the democratic choice of a people to live under a particular government. It was widely believed, however, that abstract rights had led to the dissolution of the social body and to the Jacobin Terror. Even democratic nationalists feared that abstract rights nationalism might permit the overthrow of any government at the behest of the people. A historically rooted nationalism limited a people's freedom to choose and provided a defense against unrestrained individualism, anarchy, and the recourse to despotism.

Moreover, nationalists and national historians were impressed by the pseudo-scientific pretensions of theories of race, Social Darwinism, and group psychology that depicted individuals as products of national and racial origin. But the extent to which individuals were prisoners of their nationality varied. Women, "inferior" races, workers, and peasants were seen as passive embodiments of the nation, who grasped the national idea "instinctively," or through the "fetishization" of national symbols and great men. The active carriers of the national idea were bourgeois men, who alone possessed the ability to understand the national idea rationally. To govern effectively, this elite needed to take account of national character and provide a people with a system of government in keeping with their characteristics. National history became an essential part of training for government, and in societies where gendered separate spheres were an integral part of bourgeois culture, it became an essential attribute of manliness too.

There were also intellectual reasons for privileging the nation-state. Ranke followed Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803) in seeing peoples as "thoughts of God." Through a process of intuition, combined with careful documentary research, the historian could grasp the nation's unique spirit. While the historian could not discern the end of history, God was present in history, and the objective historian could glimpse something of God's divine plan.

Varieties of National History

Historians varied in the extent to which they were willing to endorse the particular version of nationalism espoused by their governments. In Germany professors were appointed by authoritarian conservative governments that monopolized power until 1918, and they shared the ruling nationalist ethos. In Britain political pluralism and the greater autonomy of the universities ensured a more diverse profession, but most historians wrote national histories of one sort or another.

The structures of national histories were flexible enough to encompass many different types of national history, including left and right wing, state and opposition nationalism. For some national historians the core of the nation is parliament, for some the state; for others it is the people defined in linguistic, historical, cultural, ethnic, or other terms. Contest over the meaning of national history was all the greater because professionals have never monopolized the writing of history.


Ranke's nationalism was relatively benign. He saw all nations as equal before God and urged historians to understand rather than judge. He was also conservative in an age when nationalism was a movement of the revolutionary and democratic left. His History of Prussia (1847) depicted Prussia as a territorial state rather than as the precursor of German unity. Nevertheless, Ranke held in The Great Powers that "the greatest possible unfolding of the rule of the spirit reveals itself among the most resolute" and believed that history should serve the state. The latter ideas were taken up by the neo-Rankeans of the 1890s. Max Lenz (18501932) saw the state as the expression of a people, engaged with other states in a struggle to preserve its uniqueness. He justified the expansionism of the German Reich while claiming to be wholly objective. Lenz's nationalism was not, however, aggressive enough for some extreme nationalists, who attacked both the "caution" and the "narrow specialization" of university historians. Amateur writers like Julius Langbehn (18511907) rewrote the history of Germany with a racially defined Volk, rather than the monarchical state, as its subject, and developed ambitious schemes for expansion in eastern Europe. Conservative nationalists survived the challenge of the extreme right, just as they did the German Revolution of 1918. Like Völkisch historians, the Nazis were critical of the "bloodless objectivism" of the historical establishment, but they too failed to breach the hegemony of the professoriat. While professional historians largely rejected the extreme racism of the Nazis, early medievalists in particular made concessions to the notion that the Volk was the agent of history, thus providing historiographical legitimation for Germany's mission in the east. From 1936 the prestigious Historische Zeitschrift published a rubric on the history of the "Jewish Question." After 1945 most historians continued to write traditional national history, denying German guilt for the outbreak of the Great War and reducing the Third Reich to a diversion from the normal path in German history. The German destiny was updated to lie in the Western alliance.

This picture was upset only in 1961, when Fritz Fischer published his Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegszielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschlands 1914/18 (1961; English trans. Germany's Aims in the First World War, 1967). Whereas German historians had traditionally regarded all powers as equally responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914, Fischer claimed that German politicians had consciously risked world war. Furthermore, in a reversal of the usual assumption that foreign policy determined the character of a nation, he argued that both the Great War and the accession to power of Nazism were the result of the attempts of the Prussian aristocracy to preserve a social position threatened by modernization. Neither Fischer nor his many heirs broke with the national framework, however. Borrowing from Max Weber (18641920), they assumed a normal pattern of national "modernization" (an updated version of the idea of "progress") and attributed the disasters of German history to the attempts of her leaders to work against the grain of historythey did not act as "great men."


British historians embraced national histories as enthusiastically as their German counterparts. They assumed an unchanging national character and rooted the English constitution in the forests of Germany, but they disagreed on whether state or parliament was the vehicle of the national idea. Some historians had much in common with German partisans of power politics. The conservative J. R. Seeley saw Britain's racial destiny in imperial conquest and wrote his Life and Times of Stein in 1878. Geoffrey Elton did not speculate on the racial origins of English virtue but felt nevertheless that the English had discovered the perfect blend of order and liberty. In his Tudor Revolution in Government (1953), he claimed that the foundations of a unitary modern state had been laid in the 1530s by Thomas Cromwell, chiefly through the removal of the influence of the Catholic Church from government. He added that English rule over the "disordered" and "wild" Irish and Welsh was both beneficial and necessary. Interestingly, Elton, although a vociferous defender of value-free empirical history, argued for the theoretical primacy of political history. It concerned, he said, the ways in which people used their reason to organize society into a "properly constructed, continuously living body"note again the Hegelian notion that through the development of the state a society becomes conscious of itself. Like Fischer, Elton assumed a necessary process of modernization, and the greatness of Cromwell lay in his ability to realize the meaning of history.

The liberal E. H. Freeman (18231892) developed the idea of an innate English love of liberty into a vast Aryan project, and his history of the Norman Conquest took the side of the Anglo-Saxons against despotic French invaders. In the interwar period, in the face of the Nazi threat, George Macauley Trevelyan wrote a history of England as the home of liberty yet repeated conventional prejudices about the Irish. Postwar left-wing historians abandoned racism but retained the notion of an English predisposition to liberty. For A. J. P. Taylor, German authoritarianism represented the antithesis of Englishness. The crux of his Origins of the Second World War (1961) was that Hitler's foreign policy represented a continuation of traditional German national aims. Taylor was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and believed that the peace-loving British were ideally placed to find a middle way between the two superpowers. The Marxist historian E. P. Thompson was also a leading campaigner against nuclear weapons. In "The Peculiarities of the English," Thompson described himself as a "socialist internationalist speaking in an English tongue" (p. 37). In his classic Making of the English Working Class (1963), he argued that the English bourgeoisie, frightened by the French Revolution, had betrayed the cause of liberty and failed to carry out a bourgeois revolution. The working class became the bearers of the tradition of the free-born Englishman.

The adaptability of the structures of national historical writing is illustrated by the historical works of opposition nationalists. John Davies's History of Wales (1993) is based on the assumption that although Welshness might be expressed in many ways (the author is especially concerned to reconcile industrial English-speaking Wales with rural Welsh-speaking Wales), there is a core national identity. He traces the resistance of "Wales and its attributes" to predictions of imminent oblivion that go back to Tacitus in 100 c.e. "This book," he concludes, "was written in the faith and confidence that the nation in its fullness is yet to be." The nation constitutes the subject of the historical process, and its realization in the nation-state represents the end of history.

John Davies's book is one of the major sources for Norman Davies's The Isles: A History (1999), which attacks the Anglo-centric Whig view of history and predicts the break-up of the British state. The book was welcomed by the Left and condemned by the Right. Yet its structure is typical of national histories, and in its emphasis on the reconciliation of Celt and Anglo-Saxon, and in the author's interest in J. R. R. Tolkien's dream of harmony between races, the book owes something to the new right's vision of a Europe made up of unique peoples. For Norman Davies, Britain has since the fourteenth century consisted of four distinct nations, all integrated into a European culture. The long separation of Britain from Europe, beginning with the Reformation, is an "aberration" in the history of the Isles. Britain returns to its true vocation with membership of the European Union.

Nation and History Today

Challenged by social, demographic, women's, and gender history, national histories no longer occupy the monopolist position they once did. In The Practice of History (1967) Geoffrey Elton reacted to the rise of explicitly theoretical social history with a vigorous defense of the objectivity of political history. In fact, the national framework has remained essential to historical writing. The social and women's history of the 1970s and 1980s continued to be written within the confines of nation-states, and much of it, as in Thompson's Making of the English Working Class, dealt with the question of national specificities. The impact of poststructuralism upon historical writing has not substantially altered the situation. Poststructuralism has led to suspicion of essentialist definitions of nation, class, and gender but has caused historians to focus upon the historical, and mutual, construction of identities, including national identities. As yet few historians have taken up the critique of national histories advanced by cultural transfer theorists.

The international political climate also sustains interest in national histories. In the Balkans, contemporary diplomats are as ready as their counterparts at Versailles in 1919 to use historical arguments to justify territorial claims. In eastern Europe postcommunist states are engaged in reassessing their pastsoften presenting the communist period as an aberration in the normal path of national development, just as German, Italian, and French historians explained away Nazism, Fascism, and collaboration. The European Union is also tempted by the use of history for purposes of historical legitimation. The Maastricht Treaty (1992) called upon the commission to "bring the common cultural heritage to the fore."

See also Historiography ; Nationalism .


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Kevin Passmore


National History