History's Isle

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FEBRUARY 3, 2010

History's Isle

Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent
by Richard J. Evans
Cambridge University Press, 272 pp., $20.95

The effects of a great financial crisis ripple in many directions and last long. After a decade of expansion, for example, austere times lie ahead for British universities, with deep cuts on the horizon. There will be consequences for British scholarship and British culture. Richard Evans’s new study of the historical profession in Britain serves as a timely reminder both of what Britain’s historians have achieved over the past half-century, and what may be lost if their legacy is squandered. In particular, Evans celebrates his colleagues’ outward-looking mindset and their love-affairs with Europe, an engagement that is striking when compared to the introversion of their peers across the Channel, and—though he does not come out and say so—with the parochialism of contemporary British political and cultural life.

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

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

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

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

Evans is on to something, but proper answers to the questions he broaches would have required something less episodic or anecdotal. He mentions in brief the importance of Gladstonian liberalism, which made the fate of ‘small nations’ seem more glorious and morally worthy than the realists of a later Cold War generation would have ever admitted. In professorial piety he provides pen-portraits of some of his famous Cambridge predecessors, but while he notes the key role played by refugees and émigrés—especially from fascism—in broadening British intellectual tastes, he could have devoted considerably more space to these figures. The same is true of World War II, which decisively turned a generation of young men away from the colonies and the empire and towards a European theater in which so many great British scholars of the late twentieth century served. And there is much more to be said about the power of Marxism, especially from the 1960s onwards, in attracting British scholars to more continental and indeed global themes.

A more substantial concern is whether Evans has not been misled by his own expertise in modern German history—perhaps the success story of the postwar expansion in the historical profession—to exaggerate his subjects’ supposed cosmopolitanism. For the conceptual division between “Britain” and “Europe” was accompanied by another division about which Evans has almost nothing to say: the emergence of a category known still to the country’s most illustrious schools of history as “the Rest of the World.” Where in Britain’s universities are the Ottomanists, the Africanists, the experts on the Ming dynasty? They would be lucky to find a berth in some musty Oriental or Imperial Studies department, still calling itself by the vintage label. Oxbridge—paralyzed by its invertebrate collegiate structure—is the worst offender. As in much of Europe, it is the “new universities” of the 1960s that have been able to respond most flexibly to the changing realities of global power. Without government backing, however, the country has been shedding positions and expertise it can scarcely afford to be without: historians of Iran or Indonesia are as rare as red squirrels, and Oxford and Cambridge possess only a single Ottomanist each. So it is not just the Italians who are inward-looking.

Evans is understandably worried that falling enrollments for high school languages bode ill for Britain’s ability to produce a new generation of top-flight Europeanists. But how much does this really matter? There are plenty of reasons to worry when countries turn inwards: children should be learning more languages and not fewer, though it has taken New Labour long enough to recognize this fact. But I do not know that the impact on the historical profession is an important cause for concern. It might be if professional historians had a uniformly positive impact on the general culture or the views of policymakers, but that is very hard to prove. Ask professional Arabists, for instance, to give their opinion of the policy impact of Bernard Lewis’s best-sellers. Britain’s historians may be a cosmopolitan lot—though many of those Evans talks about are not exactly cosmopolitan in their sympathies: instead they have found themselves a home away from home in the embrace of one or another ‘small nation’—but they have not had nearly as much success as cheap air travel, or EU-sponsored exchange programs, in broadening the nation’s horizons. Thus Evans’s book is not only a lament for a certain postwar moment in historical scholarship; it is also, perhaps, a paean to a time when history’s public role could be taken for granted. This is no longer true, at least in Britain. And perhaps this is another, sadder, reason why so many British historians find their warmest reception abroad, not least in the United States, where history still seems to matter.

Mark Mazower is the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University.

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