This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
"European history is whatever the historian wants it to be… There is only one limiting factor. It must take place in or derive from the area we call Europe. But as I am not sure what exactly that area is meant to be, I am pretty well in a haze about the rest."
AJP Taylor's haze, on the face of it, is the natural reaction for the historian when confronted with the issues of European history. Where does Europe begin? Can it be defined? Does its influence on the globe distort the way we view the rest of the world? The arguments that rage, in particular, around Europe's legacy, mean that daunting as writing a history of Europe is, it still is a vibrant area of historiographical study.
The recent launch of the single European currency brings the question of the experiences of the peoples of Europe into sharper, contemporary focus. Barely half a continent has formed an exclusive economic club – but does this have the right to be presented as an event as significant for the residents of Krakow as it is for those in Lyons, or Milan? Failing to appreciate the fact that Europe can, according to some definitions, have its heart in locations as diverse as "the suburbs of Warsaw or in the depths of Lithuania, the dead centre of geographical Europe"
leads to difficulties when looking critically at the various histories of the continent. Moreover, it can blind readers to the fact that while there may be great differences in those experiences of the citizens of Europe, there is also a lot of common ground between them.
AJP Taylor et al, 'What is European History?' in What is History Today?, ed Juliet Gardiner (London: The Macmillan Press, 1988), p 143. 2 N Davies, Europe: A History (London: Pimlico, 1997), p 14.
2 The idea that the 'experiences' of Europeans are too diverse for a history of Europe can and should be argued against for a number of reasons, not least because the postmodern desire for discrete histories of every ethnic and cultural group invalidates the notion that histories can be written at all. Are we saying that human experiences of eating, sleeping, family life, work, domesticity, leisure are so altered by the borders of nation states that nothing coherent or unifying can be written of them? In looking at these issues of whether a definitive history of Europe can ever be reached, it is first necessary to examine the multiplicity of ways in which Europe can be defined. Comparisons between the approaches and the contents of various histories of Europe can reveal how those definitions affect the writing of the continent's history. The vexed question of whether there is such a thing as 'European peoples' is important, not least because if there are such creatures then that suggests that there should be histories written for them. The influence of postmodernist thinking upon the practice and writing of history arguably suggests that diversity can inhibit meaning. This is not necessarily the case: the postmodern influence on history will be discussed, particularly in the context of whether a 'meaningful' history implies the use of a 'narrative'. Finally it is valuable to explore those areas of commonalty in European experiences, those of war and Americanization of the continent in the twentieth century, as well as the rise of capitalism before 1900. In this way the practice of writing European History will be shown to be one which still has a relevance, and one which can transcend such limiting notions as the search for unity rather than the search for the past.
3 Part I – Defining Europe Defining what Europe is, as we have seen, a task to vex even the most of brilliant of historians. Politicians, on the other hand, generally have less reticence: "Oui, c'est l'Europe, depuis l'Atlantique jusqu'à l'Oural, c'est l'Europe, c'est toute l'Europe, qui décidera du destin du monde." De
Gaulle, that most capricious of Europeans, here has defined Europe as most scholars and thinkers conceive of it, stretching from the shores of Portugal up to the Urals, deep in Russia.
The lack of a natural frontier on the Eurasian continent, between the majority of the landmass and its Western peninsula, is only the beginning of the debate over where the geographical boundaries of Europe can be drawn. Other descriptions are available to us. The division of Europe into Western and Eastern halves is well documented, and almost natural in the minds of politicians, scholars and map-makers alike. This was particularly acute when Europe became the one of the frozen battlegrounds of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR.
The division of Europe need not be strictly an East/West affair. Europe can be seen in terms of a North/South divide. Most notably this has been espoused by Fernand Braudel who was able to see the history of the Mediterranean as being unique enough from the remaining Northern parts of Europe for it to warrant its own monumental history. Having suitably
established this, it then becomes logical that there should be competing
General Charles de Gaulle in a speech to the people of Strasbourg as reported in Le Monde, 24 November 1959, p 4. 4 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II; Vol I (France: 2nd Ser, 1966; London: Fontana Press, 1990).
4 histories of Northern Europe, North Western Europe, even Scandinavian Europe.
Recent work by historians from Eastern Europe has also challenged conventions of what is traditionally considered to be the boundaries of that part of the continent. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera was one of the first intellectuals to argue for a recognition of a 'Third Europe', Central Europe. In an article The sequestrated West, or the tragedy of Central Europe in 1984, he argued that World War II had created a new Europe distinct from both Western and Eastern Europe. Roughly comprising Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (as was) he argued that this Third Europe was a Europe in miniature, "that part of Europe which is geographically in the centre, culturally in the West and politically in the East."
The big question mark over any geographical definition of Europe has always been whether Russia is to be excluded or included. For every argument that suggests in terms of cultural inclination she is a necessary part of Europe, there are others which point to her isolationist, imperialist posture and the lack of commonalty in religious traditions between her Orthodox Christianity, and the Catholicism of her neighbours. Most definitions of Europe, as hinted at by de Gaulle, want to have it both ways, accepting Russia but only up to a point. This ambivalence has often also been shared by Russian intellectuals. Fyodor Dostoyevsky despised Western Civilization, believing that Orthodox Russian nationalism was destined to triumph over the decadent Western World. Says Ivan
Quoted in Bronislaw Geremek, The Common Roots of Europe (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p 5.
5 Karamazov, left unenlightened after all his attempts at improving himself via Western education, "I want to take a trip to Europe, Alyosha… I know it's a cemetery I shall be going to, but it's the dearest, dearest of cemeteries, that's all…", neatly expressing Dostoyevsky's view of Europe.
Defining the very idea of Europe, the essence of its civilization, is just as important as setting out its geographical borders. Despite what those who believe in a very definite Central or Eastern or indeed Western Europe might argue, at these regions' foundations, as most scholars agree, they share the same bedrock: the legacy of Christianity and Graeco-Roman culture that constitute the cornerstones of Western Civilization. There certainly are changes in inference over how important certain currents of cultural transmission might have been to different areas at different points. It certainly is the case that some regions see themselves as possessing qualities that are the polar opposite of those that the notion of Western Civilization implies. But those two intertwined legacies are the alpha of European culture, societies, language, politics, art, education.
'Europe' as an idea emerged from these roots, most particular from the one that represented the Christian/Graeco-Roman currents best; 'Christendom'. Denis Hay argues that not only was Christendom's virtual identity with the area of Europe one of the most important factors in the latter's development through the course of the Middle Ages, but that their congruency fostered a sense of cultural unity which cemented the emergence of 'Europe', and the acceptance of the European peoples as
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, (London: Penguin, 1993 edn [1st pub 1880]), p 264.
6 politically one. Of course it must be recognised that the idea of Europe was
one that was developed and driven by Europe's elite, a political and cultural concept invented and experienced by them, especially in times of crisis and confrontation, they the Europeans against the barbarian invaders.
These various questions of how to define Europe meant that the debate over whether Europe was an intelligible field to study was only really settled by the end of the 1950s. But with that question settled, the
proof that there is a demand for histories of Europe at the continental rather than the regional level can be seen by the range of European histories discussed below.
Part II – Comparing Historians' Approaches To Europe & European History Comparison of the relative merits of certain historians' approaches will reveal that not only is the very definition of Europe still constantly being refined and tested, but that meaningful histories of the continent can emerge. The range of definitions of Europe discussed indicates the variety of European histories available; from those that tell the story of the entire continent, to those that look at Europe from a regional and cultural viewpoint.
"It is the view of one pair of eyes, filtered by one brain, and translated by one pen." At least that statement cannot be called into question in
Denis Hay, Europe: The Emergence of an Idea, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1957), p 120. 8 Peter Rietbergen, Europe: A Cultural History, (London: Routledge, 1998), p xvii. 9 Hay, op cit, p ix. 10 Davies, op cit, p x.
7 Norman Davies' impressive if controversial Europe: A History. He has set out to turn some long-standing shibboleths of the writing of European history on their head, the greatest of these being the idea that the history of Europe can be written without far greater consideration of Eastern Europe, the part of the continent that Davies feels has been unjustly neglected for far too long.
The book is also novel in its presentation of the evidence that Davies has gathered. In addition to the central narrative, which now gives equal if not greater weighting to the events that occurred in the Eastern half of Europe, he has assembled over 300 capsules of information on topics ranging from democracy to the origin of 'Irish jokes', and littered them throughout the text. This pointillist technique, as he describes it, is there to illustrate some of the quirks, novelties and more humorous moments of European history.
In his lucid introduction, Davies acknowledges that the geographical parameters of the East of Europe have always been open to debate. He also makes it clear that in the absence of any universal political institutions, it is cultural criteria that has defined European civilization, and Christianity is the most important strand of this. With this in mind, Davies then goes on to attack many of the failings of the way that European history is traditionally presented. His first target is that of 'Eurocentrism'. Historians writing in this tradition he argues have been guilty of regarding their civilization as superior, and only looking for their own beauty. This is then combined with a more trenchant attack on 'Western Civilization', something
8 that Davies feels has clearly been a distorting factor. His core complaint with the concept appears to be that it has not been rigorously applied to the whole continent, and that Eastern Europe's contribution to European history has been downplayed and devalued. Viewing European history through the distorting lens of 'Western Civilization' can hide the East's contribution; when Davies' asks whether or not Poland contributed to the Renaissance, you know that the answer is going to be in the positive. He again emphasises the fact that the East/West division only has the appearance of permanency because of the events of the Twentieth century, and that Western supremacy has not been true all the time, drawing a favourable parallel between the Byzantine empire at the expense of Charlemagne's. "Eastern Europe is no less European for being poor, undeveloped or ruled by tyrants," he writes. The greater weighting on the
events of the East within the narrative does lead to new perspectives. For example, the barbarian invasions become the 'drive to the west' by the tribes of the Steppes. Davies leaves himself open to charges of indecision. Russia is mentioned despite his reservation, but what of Turkey? Is there not a case to be made of its European status?
Davies succeeds in balancing out the history of Europe – his work is vital for redressing the gap in knowledge of Eastern Europe, and presenting it in a different light from that of 'also ran' status. But to imply that previous histories have not focused on the Eastern half of Europe because of institutional scholarly prejudice alone is not enough. The fact that we do not talk of an 'Eastern Civilization' is surely not just down to historians' bias.
Davies, op cit, p 28.
9 Why didn't these Eastern countries go and get empires, and go on to rule the world? It’s a question worth asking, that Davies seems not to want to answer.
In comparison, JM Roberts' The Penguin History of Europe is a model of scholarly restraint, covering the same extended time span as Davies does, but in roughly half the number of pages. His approach is markedly different from Davies' in its conventionality, reflected in the absence of such tools as 'pointillist' capsules. He is perhaps less guilty of the charges that Davies may wish to lay at the door of other historians working obviously in the 'Western Civilization' tradition; he does counsel caution about the meaning of Europe, arguing that Europeans have shared different things at different times. And even his geographical definition of Europe is broadly similar: up to the mountains of the Caucasus.
There are of course similarities in both of the books. By definition, both are discussing the same events; it is their interpretations that differ. Both open with a geographical discussion of Europe, looking at the features and the resources that helped to shape the continent. Both show the importance of Ancient Greece as the cradle of European Civilization (although Roberts might go further and argue that it ergo was the cradle of World Civilization.) Davies writes that, "enough has survived for that one small East European country to be regularly acclaimed as 'the Mother of Europe', 'the Source of the West', a vital ingredient if not the sole fountainhead of Europe." while Roberts describes, "the onset of an era which we can now recognise to have been of cardinal and enduring importance in
10 shaping Europe and its future." Both suffer from what could be described
as a ‘telescoping effect' in their narratives. As they both race towards the present day, and recounting near-contemporaneous events, an uneven pace prevails.
But what of the differences between them? Tim Blanning, in a review of both books highlighted what he felt to be Davies' weakest suit, his near neglect of economics and the importance and effects upon Europe of the Industrial Revolution. Roberts in contrast was praised for his chapter on 'The World's New Rich.' The balance given in both to the relative weighting
(and therefore implicit importance) of events in Eastern Europe is another crucial difference. Both books' final sections deal with Europe in the age of the Cold War, Roberts prefers to deliver the narrative from a mostly Western view, the events in Eastern Europe being dealt with in a subchapter. Davies, in contrast, is scrupulous in the equal space given to the events in both West and East. Davies scores in his (slightly superficial) record of some of the cultural changes of the last fifty years. Roberts makes up for this shortcoming with a more nuanced discussion of both the causes and roots of de-colonization, and the effect that that particular process had on areas around the world such as the Middle East.
Most of all, Roberts is willing to defend himself against charges of 'Eurocentrism'. He does acknowledge some of the criticisms that Davies et al have made. He recognises that Europeans have denigrated other
Davies, op cit, p 139; JM Roberts, The Penguin History of Europe (London: Penguin, 1996), p 23. 13 Tim Blanning, 'Gibbon goes East', The Times Literary Supplement, 20 December 1996, p 3.
11 civilizations and been prepared to make ill-considered judgements, such as that of the Victorians about the Chinese. He agrees with the view that Europeans did believe that they were 'better' than those that they subjugated however ‘badly behaved’ they were as oppressors. But 'Eurocentrism' can be defended on the grounds that Europe's impact on the history of the world, was for a period, greater than that of Asia, Africa and the Americas. It was Europeans that took up the study of other cultures. However, "It is a simple fact that the practices of some other societies encountered by Europeans were often just as cruel, barbaric and beastly as those of the conquering European;" a view which is either deliberately
ignoring its inherent cultural relativism, or is some form of ironic apologia.
There are other histories, while not necessarily sharing this continent wide focus, give equally important insights into the history of Europe. Braudel's The Mediterranean, as mentioned earlier, is one such way that Europe can looked at regionally. Here it is less the continent of Europe that is the shared characteristic but rather that of the sea – it shared a common destiny, the Turkish Mediterranean sharing the same rhythms as that of the Christian one. It is perhaps the defining example of the Annales tradition, the most complete flowering of the historiography offered by the radical French historians of the 1920s, who first achieved notice in the eponymous magazine.
Borrowing from geography amongst other academic disciplines, the Annales school believed that the historian had to look at the landscape
Roberts, op cit, p 666.
12 itself to uncover the personal forces which were the ones that shaped man's destiny and future. This also meant a focus upon the slower rhythms of social trends and cycles. The Mediterranean exemplifies this, featuring an extended discussion of the climate, other ecology, boundaries of the sea and the region before looking at the social and economic trends that these conditions helped to facilitate. Stuart Clark, in his article on the Annales historians, identifies these divisions clearly, and the structure is one that is strictly followed by Braudel. The opening section is the historie de la longue dureé, this environmental vision where the perspective of centuries is required. Secondly, the broader movements of societies, economies and political institutions (which could be in cycles of anything from five to fifty years) are denoted conjunctures. And the short-term political history, the 'froth of history' involving individual actors is what sits atop this structure.
Braudel put it more elegantly: "[The] actions of a few princes and rich men, the trivia of the past, bear[ing] little relation to the slow and powerful march of history which is our subject."
Due to the startling nature of his work, Braudel has often been criticised, not least for what could be described as a lack of interest in humans, as opposed to his Annales colleagues Lucien Lefebvre and Mark Bloch. The lack of linkage between the tripartite structure does question whether Braudel was ever actually that interested in presenting a rounded picture of human affairs. But The Mediterranean remains a bold attempt to focus attention on one part of Europe, and show (in part) how the sea’s destiny affected the continent’s.
Stuart Clark, 'The Annales Historians', in The Return of Grand Theory in The Human Sciences, ed Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p 177-199. 16 Braudel, op cit, p 18.
A differing account of Europe's creation can be found from another continental historian, this one Spanish. Josep Fontana's The Distorted Past: A Reinterpretation of Europe highlights what could be called that of the 'barbarian' element in European history, the role played by that of the outsider to challenge and – indirectly, sometimes inadvertently – to shape Europe's past and future. What he describes as the "fabrication" of an external enemy conceals the fact that the interests of Europe and her émigrés are the same, preventing a consciousness of solidarity. Fontana then goes on to argue for a dismantling of the linear view of history, which he feels interprets all change as progress, and its replacement with a "Multidimensional history [which] will be able to aspire to being legitimately universal and will also restore to us the diversity of our own European culture." Fontana's history here is of slightly less value, as it arguably
downplays other vital elements of European history in order to give the idea of the struggle against 'invaders' of any sort priority. One might suggest that the multidimensionality he aspires to remains precisely that for him, an aspiration.
But Europe is nothing if not a cultural creation; a cultural history will be of as much value as works that focus upon politics and the environment. Peter Rietbergen's Europe: A Cultural History is precisely such a volume. The cultural roots of the European elites' conception of Europe are explored. He questions the age of the 'European concept': "the Europe that now projects itself with such a pretence of historical inevitability is, indeed,
Josep Fontana, The Distorted Past: A Reinterpretation of Europe, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p
14 only a recent creation; some would even say that this Europe is really a creation of the late nineteenth century."
More importantly, he identifies that 'Europe' is made up of a number of traditions which do constitute a coherent culture. These include the nascent democracy of ancient Greece; the legal structures of classical Rome; the moral value of Christianity; the tolerance that developed through interregional/interconfessional contacts within the narrow confines of Europe; the emergence of printing and hence the spread of cultural diversity; and the emergence of industrial society where, in theory, 'chance' was open to everyone. His approach leads to some insights less easily
gained from other histories, most notably that 'European' can be used as an adjective – it implies a criterion for quality. While sometimes his
discussions of certain cultural topics border on the esoteric, others such as those of the effect of travel and migration on European history are genuinely revelatory.
Two earlier histories of Europe are worthy of attention for an attempt to provide a coherent history of Europe. These histories are by DH Lawrence, and some of the European history contained in the lectures given by François Guizot at the Sorbonne in 1828. Lawrence was commissioned by OUP to write a textbook aimed at adolescents. It may now seem like 'bad history', its traditional framework avoiding any new synthesis. But at the same time, it offers vivid portraits of historical
18. 19 20
Rietbergen, op cit, p xxi. Rietbergen, ibid, p xxiii. Rietbergen, ibid, p 459.
15 personages from Europe’s past. While the epilogue of 1925 is a bleak affair, ruminating on the aftermath of the Great War, what has gone previously is uplifting in tone. Lawrence's history was, "an attempt to give some impression of the great surging movements which rose in the hearts of men in Europe, sweeping human beings together into one great concerted action, or sweeping them apart forever on the tides of opposition."
Guizot, returning to the Sorbonne in 1828, recognised diversity as crucial to a concept of European history. In his first lecture on 'The History of Civilization in Europe', he stated baldly that, "Modern Europe presents us with examples of all systems, of all experiments of social organisation… not withstanding their diversity, they all have a certain resemblance… which it is impossible to mistake." He also saw within Europe's diversity her
superiority – progress according to the intentions of God. As with diversity, Guizot was also one of the first to proclaim Eurocentrism.
In view of the obvious effects that Europe has had upon the rest of the world, it perhaps becomes apposite to see what non-European views of Europe say, and whether they concur with much of this 'Europe first' attitude. Japanese intellectuals of the Meiji Restoration looked to Europe for templates of how they could strengthen their own civilization in the face of the nineteenth century challenge from the West. Fukuzawa Yukichi, in his An Outline of a Theory of Civilization, showcased both the positive and negative effects that a European-derived Western Culture would have on
DH Lawrence, Movements in European History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921 [1981 edn]), p xxvi. 22 François Guizot, Historical Essays and Lectures; Edited and With an introduction by Stanley Mellon, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1972), p 163.
16 Japan. There is a trenchant critique of the havoc that the West is causing in Japan. But he also argues that, despite the problems that he sees in Europe, "Western Civilization is an incomparable means for both strengthening our national polity and increasing the prestige of our imperial line." Fukuzawa was here arguing for an adoption of the spirit of Western
Civilization rather than a wholesale absorption of its outer trappings, but for our purposes shows a conception of a progressive conception of Europe which agrees with certain European's claims of being the engine of civilization.
Considering the importance of diversity in Europe, it is appropriate that there are so many different approaches to its history. This diversity is reflected in her peoples as well – but in amongst their differing identities, can a 'European' identity be seen to exist?
Part III – Is There Such a Thing as 'European peoples'? Such has been the pervasiveness of nationalism in the last 200 years that very few people would consider their primary identification would be with their continent rather than their nation. That testifies to its success – one of "the most persuasive political forces ever", as it was recently described. Taking Benedict Anderson's definition of a nation, that of the imagined political community as inherently limited and sovereign, then it can immediately be seen why there are problems in trying to apply such a doctrine to something as broad as membership of a continental
Fukuzawa Yukichi, An Outline of A Theory of Civilization, tr D Dilworth and GC Hurst, (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1973 [1st pub 1875]), p 28. 24 Professor RJ Evans, in his inaugural lecture as Oxford University's Regius Professor of Modern History, Trinity Term 1998.
17 community. And the "deep horizontal comradeship" that he describes as
being necessary for a nation to exist, must be hard to foster between former enemy states. It is only now with the development of (democratic) supra-national governmental institutions and bureaucracy that a European identity may be possible. Economic integration, as Hobsbawm suggests, means that supranational identities may be becoming logical choices.
There are certain similarities between the various European nationalities which mean that the emergence of 'European peoples' is not an impossibility. These include genetic and ethnic similarities between Europeans, but there are also congruences in terms of language – most European dialects are from the same Indo-European family of languages, while the Latin influence on modern European languages is clear.
Europeans have always defined themselves against those who have been different from them, in terms of ethnicity, race, and also religion. Yet a European history which, for example, does not feature an Islamic threat to Christendom, a Europe whose economy was unaided by the money lent by Jewish financiers, does not exist. Europe was created in opposition to what she did not recognise in herself; but she also relied upon these hostile sources. For example it was only in the academic and religious institutions of the Near East that the study of those Greek texts fundamental to European identity prevented them from being lost forever.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London: Verso, 1991 [2nd edn]), p 6. EJ Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1870: Programme, Myth and Reality, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p 182.
18 Even those defined as outsiders can still claim European identity. As Elizabeth Tonkin et al point out, groups and individuals don't have one identity, but potentially a wide variety of possible identities and affinities, which only incompletely or partially overlap in space and/or time. Under
this conception therefore, one could happily be European, as well as being a Londoner, Asian, English and British.
One final example should perhaps be remembered. There has been a successful development of a continental identity, shared by peoples of differing nationalities with European roots. That the United States of America managed to create such a persuasive form of national identity suggests that the creation of a European identity is also distinctly possible. As in the American case, if stress was laid upon the shared experiences of the various peoples of the continent, then this could lead to a new supranational identity.
Part IV– The Influence of Postmodernism on History According to the dictionary, something that is 'meaningful' conveys information, and is purposeful, significant and expressive. In historiographical terms, there is an implicit value judgement within the word. It suggests that the qualities of purpose, significance and expression can only be achieved within a certain type of history. For our purposes let us call it a 'narrative' history, wherein a series of events are recounted in a chronologically continuous order, and then analysed for their causation and their consequences.
Elizabeth Tonkin et al, (eds), History and Ethnicity, (London: Routledge, 1989), p 17. Lawrence Stone, 'The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History', Past & Present 58, 1979, defines narrative as the organisation of material in a chronological
This has been the way in which traditional history, that of kings, politicians, wars and diplomats has been presented. But the increasing academic influence of the social sciences in the last 35 years, and that of currents of postmodernist thinking over the last 15, have profoundly affected this conception of history. For one, subjects that can be considered as history have broadened immeasurably. While studying social and economic history are hardly revolutionary concepts, they have become more influential; as we slide towards an autonomous, anonymous mass culture, understanding the 'pressures from below' has taken on a new relevance. Moreover, we hardly bat at an eyelid at our ability to study cultural history, the history of gender, Afro-Caribbean history and so on. But at the same time, the increasing specialisation of historians has meant a concomitant decline in the integration of their findings into ‘traditional’ narratives. Greater understanding is being reached; it is being achieved at the cost of greater specialisation. Continuous narratives are being replaced by discrete histories, limited by their often recherché subjects and lack of linkages to the other discrete histories around them.
But postmodernism has posed a fundamental challenge to history itself, in suggesting that it is not possible to do history at all, that history is just one of many possible discourses, whose language does not relate to anything but itself. Moreover, the work of textural deconstructionists such as Barthes and Derrida have challenged the very idea of Rankean history based on analysis of text based sources. Arguing that language changes its
sequential order, where the content is focused in a single coherent story with subplots, where description rather than analysis is present, p 3.
20 meaning every time it is read, and that everything is a text, this therefore poses insurmountable problems for the historian. There can be nothing outside of the text, and fact and fiction become indistinguishable. Hence, history loses its validity as the search for the truth and merely becomes another outpost of creative writing.
It is these two influences, those of the increase of discrete histories and the attack on narrative and therefore history itself which can lead to the question being posed as to whether ‘European peoples’’ experiences are too diverse to lead to a history that is meaningful. For history is nothing if it cannot reflect diversity, and the problem lies less in diversity preventing the emergence of meaning, but in a failure to integrate diversity into overarching frameworks, to show links and commonalties, and to tell a good story of causes and consequences.
Fortunately help is at hand to plot a new way for history in the light of these particular intellectual currents. Richard J Evans' In Defence of History is an elegant yet trenchant attack on those postmodern critics of history, which while recognising that postmodernist as well as other academic concerns can have a valuable influence on history, argues that the lengths gone to by postmodernists are problematic.
Defending his craft in the face of the postmodernist hordes, Evans writes: "The language of historical documents is never transparent, and historians have long been aware that they cannot simply gaze through it to the historical reality behind. Historians know, historians
21 have always known that we can only see the past 'through a glass, darkly'. It did not take the advent of postmodernism to point this out. What postmodernism has done is to push such familiar arguments about the transparency or opacity of historical texts and sources out to a set of binary opposites and polarized extremes."
He argues that, although historians cannot impose a single meaning on a text, this does not mean that any meaning is possible. "We are limited by the words it contains, words which are not, contrary to what the postmodernists suggest, capable of an infinity of meaning." Historical
language has always detailed varying levels of certainty, while historical sources are not necessarily the same as literary texts. Hence some postmodern critiques tumble – the tools of literary analysis are not useful when dealing with a set of statistics for example. The postmodern attack on sequential time (implied in a continuous narrative) as a construct – "Historical time is a recent and highly artificial invention of Western Civilization." he quotes Frank Ankersmit as saying – is dealt with by pointing out that the very existence of postmodern concepts is contrary to the notion that there are no time periods. Once postmodernism's principles
are applied to itself, he implies, many of its arguments collapse under the weight of their own contradictions.
Evans then goes on to enunciate what he believes historical narrative should be about. He argues that it seldom consists of a single, linear strand. It should consist of a mass of subjective, local narratives (or indeed 'discrete' or 'diverse' narratives.) This does not necessarily mean that these local narratives are claiming universal validity, but neither do master29 30
Richard J Evans, In Defence of History, (London: Granta, 1997), p 104. Evans, ibid, p 106. 31 Evans, ibid, p 141. Frank Ankersmit, History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor, (Berkley, 1994), p 33-4.
22 narratives have to be oppressive in their scope. "History has always been seen by historians as a destroyer of myths more than a creator of them."
Narratives can also reflect the uneven nature of historical time; Evans takes Braudel as an example of this. But ultimately Evans is pessimistic about how successful this process of binding local narratives into a larger framework might be. Citing the example of the 60 volume Fischer Europäische Geschichte, which presents comparative studies of broad aspects of 'European history' rather than any 'history of Europe', Evans' writes, "There can be no definitive history any more." Any synthesis of historical knowledge becomes avowedly personal, as in Davies' Europe, whose argument intends to provoke as much as inform.
Is this last judgement fair? To an extent, but to judge from earlier criteria, an avowedly personal narrative can still be meaningful if it is expressive, conveys information and is significant; on these terms Davies succeeds. And if diverse and differing personal narratives are being created, then our picture of what constitutes the past can only become more detailed and vivid, as long as it is recognised that discrete histories are the start, not the end of any historical process. Far better for attempts at this sort of multidisclipinary ‘many narratives’ history, which can incorporate a wide range of experiences, rather than a writing framework for doing history. A Marxist framework for history, for example, merely sees diverse experiences as having the same root causes somewhere within the resolution of productive relations.
Evans, op cit, p 151. Evans, ibid, p 175-6.
23 When dealing with obviously diverse histories such as those found in Europe, it is apposite to remember that histories will not just 'emerge' from the intellectual morass. Historians will create European history from any process of 'emergence'. But in short the quasi-postmodern notion that diverse experiences do not allow for the emergence of meaningful histories is wrong. It is diversity and the various accounts of those diversities that allow for a better, deeper and more complete understanding of what the past is.
Part V – Experiences Which Are Common to All Peoples of Europe The celebration of diversity in experiences of the peoples of Europe should not blind us to the idea that there are certain experiences that all peoples, nationalities in Europe have been through. This does not mean that all European peoples lived through these 'experiences' – historical events, social, political, economic and cultural trends – in the same way, at the same time, that they were caused by the same factors and that they had similar consequences for everyone. It is merely recognising the fact that they can be said to have an existence which transcends national boundaries.
At one level some experiences will be shared by most European peoples. Those experiences which constitute human relations – familial life, friendships, marriage, the idea of romantic love, sex, violence and so on – while hard to validate historically, can be safely assumed to be fairly common to the mass of European peoples. Naturally there will be differences in the way that these variety of human relations are
24 experienced. One could possibly argue that familial life in the Mediterranean has a different tenor to that of Northern Europe for a number of reasons, but the fundamental experience remains the same.
Experiences which could be said to be equally pervasive are those that can be defined as a trend of some form or other. One could argue that most European peoples have been touched at one point by the effects of the demographic fact of population increases, and the presence of ‘invaders’, ‘barbarians’ or their modern equivalents. The experience of literacy has provided the means of accessing a shared culture. Most Europeans live in a world which is a product of the spread and influence of religion of whatever denomination; thus they can be said to have shared some religious experience, even if it is merely participating in a culture which at some point has been shaped by religion.
The example of religion also indicates some of the limits of these cultural trends. For example, the growth of secular thought in the last 200 years, the disestablishment of the church from the state in certain countries, and the way in which more and more people view themselves as atheist rather than religious, all show that the twentieth century in particular has meant that what was once assumed to be an experience for all is not necessarily so. Take invasion as an example of an experience that one might assume all European peoples had been subjected to at some point, especially in this century. Britain however, withstood the threat of invasion and extended occupation.
25 Before the advent of the twentieth century, it can be said that all European peoples at some point experienced the rise and emergence of capitalism. Immanuel Wallerstein has argued that 'Europe' is a convenient shorthand for the what is the central zone of the world economy, which has developed from what he terms the 'long sixteenth century'. It is his contention that modern European history is the story of the genesis and functioning of a particular historical system which originated in Europe and now covers the world.
But it is perhaps the experiences of the twentieth century which are most clearly common to all European peoples. The obvious one is that of war. The calamitous effects of the two world wars that had Europe as their cockpit were clear enough. Even those that stayed out of the fighting were affected, as the recent controversies over the extent of Switzerland's neutrality during World War II have shown. Civil war is another facet of the murderous experience that all European countries have had the horror of seeing this century. The means of war changed, with opposing governments viewing rapid destruction of enemy populations as the quickest way to ensure success. The populations of other countries were viewed as totally expendable, a gruesome irony considering that the actual business of war became reserved for those members of a technologically advanced military elite.
In particular it is possible to see World War II as the bloody resolution of the three ideologies that were competing for global dominance at the
Wallerstein in Taylor et al, op cit, p 146.
26 time. The idea of this conflict as a struggle to the bitter end between Fascism, Communism and Liberal Democracy is one that has been advanced by Michael Howard and, more recently, Mark Mazower.
After 1945, one could forgive most Europeans for asking where the peace dividend was. Their continent yet again became divided, this time between the competing spheres of two superpowers. But Europeans have benefited from the other side of war; the evolution of modernity. For example, most Europeans drive on roads which were built by machines which have the same caterpillar tracks as the tanks which once ranged across the same land.
The role and presence of Americans on European soil during World War II and since, helped the process of cultural transference that most Europeans have wittingly or unwittingly experienced in the later part of the twentieth century, that of the Americanization of Europe. The Americans played a major role in the political and economic reconstruction and the securing of Europe, most overtly through the tools of the European Recovery Programme (Marshall Plan) and later the creation of NATO. The scope and scale of cultural transmission which also took place across the Atlantic was staggering. Food, TV, movies, music and fashion were all exported to Europe as the brand new thing. One other experience could be described as being common to all European peoples. If, as suggested earlier, there has been no creation of a
Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p 119; Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century, (London: Allen Lane, 1998), p x-xii.
27 European identity, then this suggests that every European has experienced the process being defined under a particular nationality. (Which in turn leads to the idea that the only meaningful history of Europe would be a history of the emergence of European nationalisms.) But for such diverse peoples, it is those global experiences and cultural processes which seem to provide seemingly the greatest unity for 'European peoples'.
Part VI – Concluding Remarks Has the haze lifted? Would AJP Taylor be any happier in looking at European history now? One would suspect so, if he bore in mind that diversity is the key to understanding Europe and European history. It is in the diversity of experiences, as well as those that are common, that the history of the peoples of Europe lies. Diversity does not prevent the emergence of any meaningful history of Europe, for diversity is meaningful, and has to be an essential part of any European history.
But it is a diversity built upon shared foundations, and whatever interpretation is made, whatever route is taken through nearly five millennia of history, those shared foundations will need to be stressed. Europe may stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara, may be responsible for all of the world's glories and all of her ills, but its civilization came from the a single cradle.
Diversity is everywhere in Europe. Diverse are the definitions that she can apply to herself and the challenges that they pose in recognising her
28 borders. Diverse are the historians and their approaches to the task of writing European history. So diverse are the European peoples that a single European identity may never be created. And diverse are the reactions to even common shared experiences.
At times this diversity can be problematic: "This panoply of national cultures, histories and values does make it hard for Europeans to act cohesively and subjectively in moments of crisis," writes Mazower. But it is
not problematic enough to prevent the emergence of a meaningful history of Europe. Postmodernist currents in history should not be allowed to turn diverse experiences into discrete ones, and then proclaim that there is no need for them to be integrated into a narrative. There is, and there will always be a demand for histories that tell the story of Europe, even if it is in the guise of the "story of 'Europes'".
Mazower, op cit, p 409.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.