Narrating The Nation: Historiography and Other Genres of Arts and Media

Nation is narration The stories we tell each other about our national belonging and being constitute the nation. These stories change over time and place and are always contested, often violently so.

Few paradigms in the realm of cultural sense-production have been as powerful as the national one, and the prominence of nationalism as an ideology and social movement in the world of today testifies to its continued and global appeal.

The need for a better understanding of national narratives and how they have functioned from the early nineteenth century to the present day led the European Science Foundation to fund a five-year programme entitled ‘Representations of the Past: The Writing of National Histories in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Europe’ (NHIST), which ran between 2003 and 2008.2 Under this programme, four teams co-operated closely to investigate the institutions, networks and communities that produced national histories and were themselves influenced by the idea of national history.

They explored the construction, erosion and reconstruction of national histories in their relationship with other master narratives structuring diverse forms of historical writing (such as class, race, religion and gender).

They discussed the interrelationship between national histories and regional, European and world histories. Moreover, they investigated the impact of borderlands and overlapping national histories on the spatial construction of national narratives.

The programme focused on a systematic and comprehensive comparison of national historiographies in Europe that took into account the processes of cultural transfer between these historiographies. However, the programme directors and team leaders were not blind to the need to explore the importance of other genres to the evolution and shaping of national narratives, which is why they organised a conference on this topic at the University of Glamorgan in May 2004.3 This book is largely the result of that conference.

It begins with three chapters on the relationship between scientific history writing and the promotion of national narratives, followed by explorations of national narratives in other genres. The second part deals with literary representations of the national past, while the third part discusses film, and the fourth part analyses the relationship between national identity, architecture, the fine arts and music. A final section introduces some nonEuropean perspectives on narrations of the nation. For more than ten years now the topic of nation and narration has been a major theme in arts and humanities research.

In particular, the recent turn towards research on memory has deepened the interest in the diverse ways in which collective identities (such as national identities) have been constructed.4 Although one still encounters regularly the use of memory as synonymous with history, many writers have pointed out that the two need to be kept apart.

One does not have to go as far as Pierre Nora in arguing that history and memory are incompatible. In fact, as many of the contributions to this volume suggest, history has contributed to the shaping of collective memories just as the latter have impacted on the writing of histories. This introduction will relate the arguments of the contributions in this volume to the wider research project of NHIST and point out in which ways they shed new light on our understanding of how stories of the national past have been and are being told.5 In part one Alan Megill’s thoughts on the relationship between scientific enquiry (Wissenschaft) and national history start from a detailed critique of the programme proposal underlying the NHIST project.

He is especially mistrustful of what he perceives as the political commitment of the programme, namely to help denationalise European history. Instead, he pleads for a form of history writing which is committed only to the search for truthfulness. The more the historians are able to distance the national past from the present, he argues, the more they are likely to fulfil what should be their major aim: to debunk mythical and untruthful speaking about the national past. He draws on a wide range of thinkers about history, from Ranke, Marx and Nietzsche to Febvre, to provide a powerful critique of presentism, where the past only functions as confirmation of present prejudices.

Megill also draws attention to the dangers inherent in conflating memory and history.6 Where the former is rooted in personal experience and opinion, the latter, he argues, has to go beyond it, if it wants to fulfil its scientific ambitions, i.e. if it wants to be truthful.

Megill posits the decline of both grand narrative and master narratives that, in his view, allows for the creation of many parallel stories that are based on different, sometimes even mutually incompatible memories.7 The result may well be, he argues, a severe lack of societal cohesion. Megill ends with an extended reflection on the relationship between history and identity. Although he acknowledges the constructed nature of identities, he points out that those identities are also ‘found’ by individuals.8 They have the power to appear ‘natural’. To construct nations on identities rooted in history is unwise precisely because they tend to essentialise particular ways of belonging to the nation and exclude others.

Megill ends by pleading for more self-reflective ways of determining belonging to a nation. He argues that allegiances should be based on answers to questions such as: what do we want to be loyal to? Moreover, what can serve as a basis for solidarities below the level of identity? Overall Megill provides us with a compelling critique of an identity politics rooted in history and championed by (professional) historians.

I find myself very much in sympathy with this critique. However, where I need to contradict Megill is in his particular reading of the NHIST proposal. Here he is, I argue, in danger of misunderstanding the basic underlying assumptions of the programme.

I am grateful to him for engaging so directly with the aims and objectives of NHIST and will use part of the introduction to this volume to try to lay to rest his fears regarding NHIST’s rationale. For a start, the NHIST project does not seek to analyse histories from a ‘would-be universal perspective’. Rather, it is specifically European in its focus and asks how modern national histories have worked in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. Neither does NHIST seek to contribute to the political project of debunking national histories and identities in order to strengthen Europeanness.

Given the rather dubious balance sheet of nationbuilding processes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, it makes no sense to attempt nation-building at the European level. However, it does seem reasonable to want to contribute to a Europeanisation of history writing that starts from specific themes that are relevant to many European societies and pursues those themes in a comparative and transnational fashion.

Furthermore, like Megill, NHIST starts from the assumption of the perspectival nature of all knowledge and it has laid out its own perspective as clearly as possible. Unlike Megill, I do not believe that national master narratives are currently outdated and beleaguered. They may well be in particular European situations and locations, but not in others.

As much of Eastern Europe has been emerging from the Soviet Union’s ideological grip in the 1990s, national master narratives have enjoyed a strong revival, often actively and ably supported by national historiographies. Equally, in Western Europe, national master narratives have not only been challenging multi-national states such as Spain and Britain, but they have also enjoyed something of a revival in the face of fears over the creation of a European super-state transcending the nation-states.

If national master narratives are continually being constructed and reconstructed in contemporary Europe, then historians, following Megill’s own invocation of Febvre, have the task of drawing attention to the ways in which those narratives have been constructed in the past. In my view it is entirely legitimate to draw the questions which guide our historical writing from contemporary concerns.

With Febvre, NHIST is very much seeking to draw the agenda of historical research from the present in order to liberate us from the burdens of the past. This is why NHIST seeks to relate contemporary construction processes of the nation to the construction of national histories over the past two centuries. Both continuities and discontinuities with past construction processes should be highlighted by such analyses precisely in order to prevent historians from discursively constructing national histories which have already demonstrated their problematic potential in the past.

By demonstrating the problematic aspects of constructions of national histories, the programme does not seek to promote alternative forms of history writing. By foregrounding the ways in which national histories contributed to rooting state allegiances in national identities, the programme does not seek to suggest alternative forms of fostering solidarity among large groups of people who often have precious little in common.

However, if the results of our research make others promote alternative forms of history writing and question the traditional (national) basis for providing allegiance to a state, then all the better. In so many ways Megill’s response to the programme proposal is already one such reaction to a research programme focussing on the inner workings of the construction processes of national narratives in history writing.

Where Megill is mistaken is in his assumption that the programme will help to create alternative historical identities to those provided by national histories. Rather, and ironically entirely in line with Megill’s own conclusion, it will restrict itself to analysing and criticising national identity claims based on historical writing.

It is precisely because these historical constructions of national identity appear so easily as natural and eternal that NHIST insists on the constructed nature of such historical identity creation and highlights changes in the construction processes over time. By doing this it seeks to open a space where self-reflective allegiances, which tolerate difference and ‘otherness’, can replace essentialised (national) identities as the basis for solidaristic behaviour in larger communities. These allegiances may well still be national ones. After all, as Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny have written: ‘Being national is the condition of our times …’ Whether they are correct in their optimistic assessment that ‘belonging to a nation may be the kind of “cultural recovery” that could potentially lead – not to a politics of blood – but to acceptance, even celebration, of differences’ remains to be seen.10 Of course, researchers seeking to understand the national conundrum from a variety of different perspectives are, themselves, not outside the discursive construction of the past but are participating in this process. Thus, they cannot adopt a universal perspective but are necessarily participating in the ongoing struggle over capturing the interpretative high ground and establishing stories about the past that are accepted by large parts of the people. What Megill takes as an explicit denial that historical opinion can go beyond personal opinion is not the deliberate conflation of memory and history. Rather, it is meant as explicit acknowledgment that historians cannot set themselves up as existing outside the continuous public discourse on the meaning of the past. They participate in it and cannot stand above it. Their specific training and expertise makes them authoritative voices in this discourse, but they have no exclusive or prior access to the truth. Historians cannot set themselves up as purveyors of truth and truthful ‘science’ against peddlers in and purveyors of myths. They need to recognise that they themselves are part and parcel of a wider public discourse over which meaning to give to the past. A democratic and pluralistic conception of debates about the past does not deny the importance of historical knowledge and of professional historians’ role in providing and interpreting it. However, it does insist on the historians seeing themselves as an inclusive part of an ongoing process of reinterpretation. They are neither seeking nor establishing truths outside interpretation.11 This point is explicated in a powerful way in Chris Lorenz’s paper that challenges the traditional juxtaposition between history as science and history as myth. Instead, he argues that myths, in particular religious myths, were built into the conception of scientific history right from its beginnings. Discussing the work of Leopold von Ranke and Wilhelm von Humboldt in particular, Lorenz demonstrates that the founding fathers of ‘scientific’ history were anything but hard-boiled empiricists. They adhered to the notion that ideas found expression in historical events and actors. It needed the historian’s act of interpretation to extract these ideas from the mere facts of history. Yet, as Lorenz argues, it was through this act of interpretation that historians introduced new myths, the biggest of which was the invention of the nation and the subsequent writing of national history. The recent dominance of the constructivist school in nationalism studies has heightened our awareness of the roles historians played in the construction of the myths of the nations.12 Through national history, they created a specific form of historical representation that accompanied the formation of the nation-state or sought to influence the existing self-definitions of a national consciousness. They shaped a variety of national master narratives that were situated within and were themselves part of cultural and political power relationships. Lorenz concludes that the terms of the debate have been set up in the wrong way. Rather than juxtaposing ‘scientific’ history and myths (as in William McNeill’s idea of ‘mythistory’, which forms the starting point of Lorenz’s reflections), Lorenz urges us to acknowledge that ‘scientific’ history always already was mythistory. The demarcation lines between myths and history have collapsed for good. This also has been one of the fundamental preconditions of the NHIST programme, in which Lorenz is heavily involved as team leader of a team investigating the narrative constructions of national master narratives vis-à-vis their non-spatial ‘others’, especially religion, class, ethnicity and gender. Mark Bevir’s search for a possible way of narrating the nation at the beginning of the twenty-first century starts from his unease with both social science history and what he calls ‘developmental historicism’.13 Social science history, he argues, neglected meanings, beliefs, desires and the whole range of human behaviour in a futile attempt to determine objective social factors by seeking to establish regularities, classifications and quantitative correlations. The growing recognition that people’s choices determine actions and processes led to a return to narrative from the 1970s onwards. National histories since then have again been primarily concerned with narrating national characters and traditions. The danger he identifies in such an undertaking lies in the production of a cultural memory that constructs nations as organic units constituted by traditions. Therefore, Bevir suggests moving from ‘developmental historicism’ to ‘radical historicism’. ‘Radical historicism’, in Bevir’s understanding, would not give way to the relativism of the postmodernist stance of a ‘free for all’ in terms of the construction of national identity. Instead, it still seeks ‘justified knowledge’ about national identity, and does so on the basis of shared normative practices and rules. However, ‘radical historicism’ would also not lead us down the path of essentialising national histories. Rather, it insists on denaturalising the nation by stressing fragmentation, interruption and dispersion. Together with Lorenz’s chapter, Bevir’s is making explicit some of the fundamental assumptions on which the NHIST project is based. In line with Bevir’s ‘radical historicism’ NHIST highlights the importance of constructions of porous national borders. It underlines the existence of a plurality of contested national traditions and customs. It draws our attention to the transformations of national identities over time. And, last but not least, it uncovers the transnational flow of ideas which make all national identities hybrids. Hybridity has been a crucial concept in discussions of national identity for a number of years now. Scholars have been exploring the various discursive formations and flows of transfers between different cultures in order to show how sets of ideas around the nation were adopted and adapted in different spatial and social settings in order to serve a great variety of different purposes and powers. Pointing to the hybridity of the diverse constructions of the nation has allowed them to emphasise the provisional, relational and elusive character of constructions of national identity.14 A selfreflective ‘radical historicism’, as practised by the NHIST programme, already takes into account that every critique of the nation and every description of it is shaped by the theoretical commitments and concepts of the narrator. Such ‘radical historicism’ moves beyond narrations of the nation towards narrations of the histories of networks of peoples and their agency.

Overall, the first part of the book has helped to clarify and outline some of the basic presumptions of the NHIST programme. If, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there must be serious question marks behind the scientificity of scholarly historical writing,15 the borders between ‘scientific’ representations of the national past and other such representations has become increasingly porous. History writing has never been the sole guardian of national narratives, and today histories and historians play only a limited role in the process of continuous reinterpretation of the national pasts. A range of other media and genres play a much more important role in shaping national discourses. Traditionally, literature was one of the strongest competitors of history in its claim to narrate the nation to the widest possible audience. In part two of the book Ann Rigney points to the popularity of the historical novel and argues that the impact of fiction on national narratives was greater, particularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even if historiography has enjoyed more ‘cultural authority’. Literature became a major device for creating cultural memory precisely because it had greater possibilities of imagining the past and fitting it into a coherent plot structure. Fiction, Rigney argues, travelled more easily and spoke to a greater number of people than history. It also often had a longer shelf life than history. John Neubauer, in his contribution, highlights the proximity of nineteenth-century historians and literary scholars, who both invested an enormous amount of energy into narrating the nation. The institutionalisation of historiographies and the rise of national histories was paralleled by the institutionalisation of literary scholarship and the nationalisation of a literary canon across Europe. The idea of a national literature forming the core of a national culture was particularly prominent in areas of Europe, where national identities were strongly contested, such as Germany and East-Central Europe.16 National literature often had at its core a strong emphasis on folklore – in various sanitised and aestheticised versions. Arguably, no novelist was as influential in using folklore to establish national founding epics as Walter Scott. As Linas Eriksonas argues, Scott’s interest in national history was aroused following a visit to the battlefield of Waterloo. Subsequently, battles and military heroes became crucial ingredients in his constructions of Scottishness, which set an important model for ‘national novelists’ across Europe and the wider world. Scott linked his heroic battlefield narratives to the tales popular among the common people, thereby trying to ensure the widest possible appeal of his own narratives. However, his ambition went beyond popular success. He was keen to merge the multiple stories into an authoritative, uniform and homogeneous national narrative. Post-Waterloo, Eriksonas demonstrates, Scott was not alone in linking nations tightly to battlefield narratives. Military heroes and great battles came to dominate the national imagination across Europe.

The power of literature in framing and shaping national narratives is also brought out clearly in Sigrid Weigel’s exploration of the importance of the concept of generation for national narratives. She finds that generational discourses are often strongly related to identity politics. Narrative sense making seems to rely heavily on the desire to relate personal experience to the experiences of an entire age cohort. Appeals to generational experience sometimes carried nationalist overtones, as was the case in the National Socialists’ exploitation of the idea of the soldiers of the First World War (Frontkämpfergeneration). But, of course, war-time experiences were also instrumentalised to underline a pacifist message and the need to transgress national egotisms and move towards common European institutions and frameworks. The same generational experiences could service very different versions of identity politics.17 Arguably, if literature had the most powerful hold over national narratives throughout much of the nineteenth century, then film, the subject of part three of this book, has had the most powerful impact since the second half of the twentieth century.18 After 1945, films about the holocaust have contributed widely to the problematisation of national identity discourses across Europe, as Wulf Kansteiner’s contribution to this volume emphasises. Early representations of the holocaust in film were indeed often more concerned with national identity and national suffering than with genocide. With the exception of early Czech cinema, which succeeded in developing a new visual language in which some of the most honest representations of the holocaust were conveyed, most national cinemas in Europe only began to discover the holocaust as a major theme in the 1970s. Kansteiner proceeds to relate the representations of the holocaust in film during the 1980s to a variety of national identity debates in different nation-states. At the same time, however, he also highlights an increasing transnationalisation of holocaust memory in film, which found one of its most remarkable examples in the global reception of Claude Lanzman’s ‘Shoah’. The many uses of film as vehicle for nationalism and as a means of transnational dialogue and understanding are also brought to the fore by Hugo Frey’s chapter on the Cannes film festival. The festival itself was designed as a showcase for French cultural nationalism. Yet it propagated internationalism and took its message of international reconciliation seriously. Films accused of offending other nations were frequently withdrawn from the programme. Nevertheless, as Frey demonstrates, the contributions to the festival were frequently carrying a nationalist message throughout the 1950s. At Cannes national cinemas competed for international glory and recognition. By the end of the 1970s, Frey argues, nationalism’s erstwhile strong connections to film were weakened considerably. Films shown at Cannes were now more often problematising and critically engaging with the national past. They were frequently discussing questions of national guilt and reflecting self-critically on the nation’s history. However, film was not abandoning the national theme altogether. From the 1980s onwards, the trend was moving in the opposite direction – with neo-nationalism gaining ground in the cinemas across Europe once again. Collective national memory has been influenced not only by history, literature and film. Public monuments, the fine arts and music have all been hugely influential in putting forward and emphasising national narratives. They are discussed in part four of this volume. Monuments to national heroes and events of national significance litter the European landscape. While the patterns, motifs and models of narrating the nation through monuments are limited and therefore invite transnational comparisons,19 we also have the case of transnational events being widely commemorated in monuments. The Napoleonic wars, the revolutions of 1848, the First and the Second World Wars are examples of such truly European events that produced a monument culture across the continent. Historians played an active role in these cultures of commemoration across Europe, and the NHIST programme will provide specific answers as to how the European historiographies influenced these memorial cultures. Heidemarie Uhl’s chapter reviews the interplay between monument construction and the development of a holocaust memory in Austria since the 1980s. After 1945, the Soviet liberation monument in Vienna was brought into line with the theory of Austria as first victim of National Socialist aggression – an interpretation that became the crucial foundational narrative of the second Austrian republic. The victim theory allowed the Austrian state to honour the resistance to National Socialism (excluding, under the conditions of the Cold War, the Communist resistance) and, at the same time, to honour the Austrian soldier who allegedly did only his duty to the fatherland. When a more critical attitude to Austria’s Nazi past surfaced in the context of the 1960s it still brought no effective challenge to the victim theory, but only underlined the importance of highlighting the Austrian resistance to Nazism (now beginning to incorporate the Communist resistance as well). Only following the Waldheim debate in 1986 was there a rediscovery of Austria’s involvement in National Socialist crimes including the holocaust. Since then two crucial monuments in Vienna have been dedicated to the memory of the holocaust, making it an official part of Austria’s commemoration culture and linking the Austrian holocaust discourse to international developments. National and transnational memorial cultures were also intricately connected in the fine arts, as Michael Wintle demonstrates. Thus, tensions between national and European representations of the past were an important theme in nineteenth-century works of art.20 Before the nineteenth century, representations of Europe were more prominent than representations of individual nations. They tended to stress the supremacy of Europe over the other continents. Such discourses of supremacy were easily adapted by visual images of the nation, when they became more prominent in the course of the nineteenth century. Attributes that were previously given to Europe were now transferred to the nation, but equally, Europe continued to be prominently represented as a family of nations, albeit one which looked increasingly cantankerous. Wintle’s chapter powerfully underlines the fact that narrations of nation and narrations of Europe were by no means mutually exclusive. They often went hand in hand, with one narrative re-enforcing the other and vice versa. Monuments and the fine arts provide powerful visual representations of the nation. Music, by contrast, is, as Philip Bohlman shows, fundamentally non-representational. And yet, the relationship between music and nationalism has been a very powerful one. Music gave voice to a wide variety of national struggles. National musical canons strengthened national allegiances, as musical styles were interpreted as giving expression to national characters. A variety of different musical genres interacted in diverse ways with narratives of the nation – often producing highly ambiguous and unstable messages. The specific performativity and narrativity of music requires agencies and subjectivities to shape and interpret the national meanings contained in music. Music’s narratives about the nation, like those of other genres, were not so much about the past as about the understanding of the past in the present. How then, one might ask, do these individual articles impact on our understanding of the construction of national narratives in Europe? What links are there between these different genres and their diverse ways of narrating the nation? By creating virtual communities, including national communities, literature played an influential role in shaping the cultural memory of nations. National ‘awakenings’ often started with language revivals. Once a national language was recovered, it had to be given a prominent place both in everyday life and in literature. Language societies and national academies played a crucial role in developing a national canon in literature and across a variety of different genres in the arts and in music. These canons tended to stress monolingualism and mono-culturalism, thus contributing to the destruction of the dense network of multi-lingual and multi-cultural communities across Europe. They also made extensive use of histories everywhere. The attractiveness of history for other genres becomes most obvious when considering an iconic novelist, such as Scott, for whom it was evidently not enough to achieve unparalleled success as a writer of fiction. He ultimately wanted to make his mark as a popular historian. Given the huge importance of interlinkages between the different genres and their practioners, both historians and scholars of literature, music, film and the arts need to study fictional, artistic, musical, visual and historiographical representations of the national pasts alongside each other.21 Ultimately, therefore, the book becomes a plea to integrate further our studies of different genres and bring together in a truly interdisciplinary manner research on history, literature, film, the arts and music.

Furthermore, the contributions to this volume raise a range of interesting questions regarding the relationship between memory and history writing, which will also have to be considered by the NHIST project more generally. Weigel’s emphasis on the importance of the category of generation for discursive constructions of the past has implications both for collective memory and for history writing. Strategies of distancing oneself from the past or of bringing the past closer to the present often have their origins in desires either to wriggle out of one’s responsibility for that past or emphasise precisely that responsibility. However, research on historical constructions of the past should also take note of Weigel’s concept of ‘transgenerational traumatisation’, where the memory of one event in the nation’s past becomes central to the identity of generations which have no direct personal memory of that event. National Socialism and contemporary German identity is her chosen example, but one could equally point to the centrality of the Republic of Salo to contemporary Italian identity debates or to the Vichy complex in France.23 In fact, one might ask whether the more recent construction of negative national pasts through a variety of different genres has not contributed to a European-wide culture of atonement of past national crimes which is based on the idea of ‘transgenerational traumatisation’. If the national past is the major source of contemporary trauma, the search for non-national futures becomes all the more urgent. As several commentators have pointed out over recent years, holocaust memory as cosmopolitanised memory has led to the universal proliferation of global human rights discourses.24 Critical memory discourses focused on traumatic events such as the holocaust thus might serve as a way of fostering more self-reflective collective memories. However, we should be aware that memory discourses retain a great affinity to nostalgic identity discourses keen to construct borders between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. And in many parts of Europe, let alone the wider world, critical memory discourses are deeply unpopular. As Kansteiner reminds us in this volume, the absence of a holocaust discourse in Russia would thus explain the disregard of Russia for that human rights discourse. However, Kansteiner also points out that in the cases of the United States and Israel, adherence to such a human rights discourse encourages selfrighteousness and legitimates war and violence in Iraq and Palestine. Here the holocaust memory is used for the ruthless pursuit of national interests under transnational guises. Thus, transnational memories have their own problematic and cannot necessarily be read as unproblematic alternatives to outdated national memories. Such a message is underlined by the ambiguity of international film festivals, such as Cannes, which clearly fostered transnationalism as well as nationalism. Equally, Wintle’s chapter on the fine arts underlines how nationalists keen to portray the nation easily adapted transnational European images. NHIST should take note of the complex interrelationship between different spatial identities in film and the fine arts and ask how spatial identities were related in regional, national, European and global histories throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If Kansteiner is able to point out for the genre of film that the holocaust has been received increasingly as a transnational subject since the 1980s, it begs the question whether the NHIST project will be able to identify similar developments in the area of historiography. It will be of the utmost importance to differentiate between diverse national receptions and interpretations of key historical works, such as Raul Hilberg’s classic on the destruction of European Jewry.25 At the same time we will have to ask to what extent the Europeanisation of historiographies has tended to undermine distinct national traditions and produced complex interrelationships between local, national and transnational representations of the holocaust through historical writing. Other key events in modern European history need to be identified and we must ask whether a transnational European consciousness has been developing around such key events as the Napoleonic occupation of much of Europe in the early nineteenth century, the struggle for European constitutions in the half-century after 1815, the experience of the First and the Second World Wars, the Armenian genocide and the Gulag. The last part of the book provides some much-needed non-European perspectives on the theme of nation and narration.26 Peter Seixas compares the representations of national history in schoolbooks and on TV in Canada and the United States. TV history in both countries tends to be largely biographical and oriented towards major events in national history – with the theme of inner national unity central to the programme makers’ choice of topics. Seixas finds Canadian TV less historiographically aware than its American counterpart. School history has witnessed a conservative backlash in the 1990s in both Canada and the United States. There are then, according to Seixas, clear indications that North America is returning to more traditional forms of narrating national history and turning its back on the attempt to move beyond national history, which was associated with the heydays of oppositional ‘people’s history’ in the 1970s. The historiographical clocks in North America thus seem to chime to the same tune as the historiographical clocks throughout much of Europe, where the 1990s also witnessed attempts to return to national narratives.27 The NHIST programme must be attentive to these chronological caesuras, whilst asking at the same time, for the realm of historiography, whether what seems at first a cyclical development might not at second glance indicate an important discursive shift. The recent German discourse on the German victims of the Second World War is a good example of this. On the surface, German public discourse seems to return to a trope already prevalent in the 1950s. However, what is returning has gone through three decades of intense working through the National Socialist past and is thus reappearing in an entirely different context to the one of the 1950s.

Inventions of the modern nation originated in North America and Europe, but colonialism exported the narrative strategies and hierarchies of European national narratives across the globe. As colonial nations frequently sought to emulate what was presented to them as a distinct European path to modernity, their elites were left with a paradox. On the one hand, their own attempts to narrate the nation could only be a reflection of the ‘hegemonic mirror’ of the Europeans, but on the other hand, they could never hope to be able to construct histories that would equal those of the Europeans. The colonial nations found themselves trapped in the ‘“waiting-room” version of history’, in which the ‘“first in Europe, then elsewhere” structure of global historical time‘ condemned them to an eternal ‘not yet’.29 Hence, the characteristic framing of national histories in the colonised world was one of backwardness and attempts to overcome backwardness in the hope of approaching the European model. Even following the rupture with colonialism, the narrative strategies and techniques remained heavily indebted to European models. Therefore, national histories outside of Europe (and North America) almost inevitably became ‘discursive prisoners’ of Eurocentrism. Jie-Hyun Lim traces the emergence of Japanese national history, which was first written exclusively for Western readers at the end of the nineteenth century. Japanese national historians attempted to escape the Orientalist paradigm by inventing their own Orient in the form of China and Korea. The construction of ‘Japanese exceptionalism’ became a means with which to establish Japan as Europe’s equal. From a global perspective, historians of historiography will have to ask in future, what precise role Western historiographical models of constructing national histories played in the non-Western world. If we take China, for example, Chinese historians argued that it was necessary to construct a Chinese equivalent of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This could be done thorough a renewal of indigenous cultural traditions. Hence, at least in China, an imported sense of the national merged in complex ways with an insistence of local authenticity.30 After all, in China as in India forms of narrating the nation existed for considerably longer than in Europe.31 What was the relationship between those non-European national histories to the evolving idea of ‘scientificity’ in nineteenth-century Europe? Did European Romanticism or positivism in historical writing have equivalents in the nonEuropean world? What impact did the global advances of Marxism in the second half of the twentieth century have on the merger between European and non-European perspectives? How much does the strong interrelationship between different spatial identities in the European context find a parallel in non-European histories? In other words, is the concept of Heimat useful also outside of Europe? Similarly, can we talk about transnational ‘meso-regions’ also outside of Europe? What tensions were produced by the growing internationalisation of historical networks and associations and the parallel growth of ‘scientific nationalism’? Which significant ‘others’ emerged to rival the narrative dominance of the nation outside of Europe? What role did Islam in particular play in this respect? Were there similar ‘history wars’ ravaging the historical profession and the wider national public sphere outside Europe? Were the ‘official’ and the ‘unofficial’ histories of colonialism both inside and outside of Europe produced as a result of first imperialism and then decolonisation? Future research into the global history of national history writing will have to seek to provide answers to these questions, which are all touched upon by the contributions of Seixas and Lim in this current collection. All of the contributions to this present volume problematise the narration of the nation in different genres and thus contribute to more self-reflective approaches to national histories. They point towards the need to explore the links between different genres more closely and to question clear-cut boundaries between national and transnational constructions of the past. As Maurice Samuels has recently shown, the visual and the textual came together in the early nineteenth century to produce a ‘new spectacular mode of historical representation’.32 Panoramas, dioramas and museums were early places where the visualisation of the past satisfied the wishes of the people to experience history as reality. Images became instruments with which to produce and strengthen collective identities, and textual representations of the past increasingly invoked spectacles of the past – especially battles and battlefields. Of course, this book cannot treat its subject matter in any exhaustive manner. Whole genres that have been important for the construction of national narratives are absent here. Newspapers,33 the heritage industry,34 radio35 and the theatre36 come to mind, as do other academic disciplines than history, especially linguistics, geography, theology, anthropology and archaeology. Historical narratives were often enthused with a specific sense of geography. The forces of geography and landscape determined the shape of the nation. Particular landscapes became symbols for the nation. Frontiers played a crucial role in national narratives in the United States and Australia. The Alps were as crucial to Swiss national history as the Amazon rainforest was to constructions of Brazil. As specific climates became connected to distinct national characters, environmental and natural history became important for the narration of the nation. How national pasts were represented in and through a variety of different genres needs many more comparative and transcultural explorations. This volume is just one small step to a deeper understanding of how national narratives contributed to cultural sense-production in the modern world.


  1. H. Bhaba, ed., Nation and Narration, London, 1990. The literature on the constructed
    nature of the nation is legion. A.D. Smith, The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism, Cambridge, 2000, is a good introduction to the many strands of the constructivist school and its opponents.
  2. For details see and, including an overview of a planned six-volume ‘Writing the Nation’ book series to be published with Palgrave MacMillan between 2008 and 2010 and many stand-alone volumes of the NHISTprogramme.
  3. U. Jensen and K. Naumann, ‘Tagungsbericht: Representations of the Past: The Writing of National Histories in Europe. Forms of Representation and Representational Techniques: Narratives, Genres, Media, University of Glamorgan, 20–22 May 2004’, in H-Soz-u-Kult,
  4. Kerwin Lee Klein, ‘On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discouse’, Representations 69, 2000: 127–50; Alon Confino, ‘Introduction’, in Alon Confino, ed., Histories and Memories of Twentieth-century Germany, special issue of History and Memory 17, 1/2, 2005: 5–14. Here the reader will also find a wealth of further references on publications on memory which have looked specifically at the constructedness of national pasts.
  5. For more details on the NHIST’s interpretative arguments, see the mid-term reports of all four teams in Stefan Berger and Andrew Mycock, eds, Europe and its National Histories, special issue of Storia della Storiografia 50: 4, 2006. The NHIST’s programme proposal and its conceptual framework are also laid down in the NHIST programme brochure (Stasbourg, 2004) and the two newsletters produced by NHIST in the autumn of 2004 and the autumn of 2006.
  6. On the issue of history, memory and forgetting, there is, of course, a huge literature. See especially P. Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, Chicago, 2004; also inspirational on this topic are the many publications of Aleida and Jan Assmann.
  7. For an excellent attempt to delineate the diverse conceptions of grand and master narratives in the philosophy of history, see K. Thijs, ‘Master Narratives in the National Historical Cultures of Europe. Reflections on the Concept of “Narrative Hierarchy”’, in Stefan Berger and Chris Lorenz, eds, The Contested Nation: Ethnicity, Class, Religion and Gender in National Histories, Houndmills, 2008.
  8. On identity construction and history, see H. Friese, ed., Identities: Time, Difference and Boundaries, Oxford, 2002; also A. Assmann and H. Friese, eds, Identitäten. Erinnerung, Geschichte, Identität 3, 2nd ed., Frankfurt am Main, 1999.
  9. On the paradox of the resilience of nationalism in an age where the nation-state is declining in importance, see B. Jenkins and S.A. Sofos, Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe, London, 1996.
  10. G. Eley and R. Grigor Suny, ‘Introduction’, in G. Eley and R. Grigor Suny, eds, Becoming National: A Reader, Oxford, 1996: 32.
  11. On all of these issues see also the wonderfully perceptive introduction to historical theory by C. Lorenz, Konstruktion der Vergangenheit. Eine Einführung in die Geschichtstheorie, Cologne, 1997.
  12. S. Berger, M. Donovan and K. Passmore, eds, Writing National Histories: Western Europe since 1800, London, 1999; going well beyond historiography and including in particular the genre of art are M. Flacke, ed., Mythen der Nationen. Ein europäisches Panorama, Munich, 1998, and M. Flacke, ed., Mythen der Nationen. 1945: Arena der Erinnerungen, 2 vols, Mainz, 2004.
  13. I would still prefer the term ‘historism’. As I first outlined in an article in Past and Present in 1995, ‘historism’ (German, Historismus) is an evolutionary, reformist concept which understands all political order as historically developed and grown. It is often connected with the works by Leopold von Ranke who is sometimes regarded as a founding figure of historism. ‘Historicism’ (German, Historizismus) is based on the notion that history develops according to predetermined laws towards particular ends. Such a notion of history has been defined and powerfully critiqued by Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, London, 1957.

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