Book of the week: Cosmopolitan Islanders

A.W. Purdue reflects on Britain's abiding interest in the Continent's past

July 9, 2009

A well-worn caricature of the British is of a mentally as well as geographically insular people, preoccupied with themselves, their own history and culture, and fundamentally uninterested in abroad. Yet we are great travellers, and the cover illustration of Cosmopolitan Islanders, an early 20th-century cartoon, depicts John Bull vainly trying to tempt tourists embarking for foreign parts with the alternative delights of Britain; two centuries earlier there were continual but ineffectual grumbles about the popularity of the Grand Tour. It is also the case, as Richard Evans makes clear in this expanded version of his recent inaugural lecture as Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, that British historians have shown a far greater interest in the histories of countries other than their own than have their continental counterparts.

A formidable list could be assembled of British historians of most parts of the world, but Evans, himself a distinguished historian of Germany, praises British historians of continental Europe. As he demonstrates, there have been, since at least the time of Gibbon, influential studies of European history and individual continental countries by British writers. He charts the ebbs and flows of British historical writing on Europe, the changing reasons for its preoccupations, and its development as history became established as a university discipline. British universities have, Evans points out, more chairs and departments of European history than have continental universities, and there are "flourishing societies in Britain devoted to continental history, each with its own journal", while British historians of the modern period have published major books on individual countries, and "for many British historians of the medieval and early modern periods, writing about the European Continent is almost second nature".

It may well be that much of this interest in European history stems from the very fact of islander status: other countries and their histories are more intriguing when one has to cross water rather than merely frontier posts to get to them. Initial interest, as with Gibbon's, also owed much to the centrality of Classics in the British educational system and the contrast between Roman civilisation and Europe in the 18th century. British history could hardly be pursued without focusing on major events elsewhere that have directly affected Britain: the French and Russian revolutions, the major European wars and the Third Reich. Although some of the contemporary historians quoted by Evans condemn British historians for neglecting comparative history, much of the writing of British historians has always been intrinsically comparative, although not perhaps in the way that modern historians approve, with continental developments explained in the light of a "progressive" British model. Thus, for instance, the admiration for Mazzini, Garibaldi and Italian unification, expressed by many 19th-century British historians, can be seen as grounded in a view of Italy as belatedly following the path of Britain and ridding itself of popery, superstition and reaction.

Evans makes a convincing case for his thesis of British historians of Europe as cosmopolitan islanders, discussing the work and influence of the present generation of practitioners, even if at times the extended lecture becomes almost a prize-giving. Perhaps the real puzzle is not so much why the islanders are cosmopolitan but why the continentals are less so, and concentrate more on the histories of their own countries.

The answer may lie in the different natures of university history teaching. From the beginning of the teaching of history as a distinct discipline in Britain, schools and universities have tended to divide teaching into British and European history, and many more scholars end up specialising in the history of other European countries than in Germany, France or Italy. In much of Europe, history is seen as largely a preparation for school teaching, whereas in Britain it is seen as a general education that can provide an outlook on life and serves as a suitable preparation for careers in politics, the Foreign Office and a multitude of professions.

The centrality of the essay in British history education is also important, as is the tradition of history as a branch of high literature. This has made the communication of ideas, rather than their obfuscation via specialised language and page-long footnotes, the priority. German historians may have set the model for the systematic study of history but, as Volker Ullrich comments: "Solid knowledge of the sources and the literature, methodological awareness, clearly outlined questions - all of this belongs to the historian's toolkit. But that does not make for great historical writing." The considerable contribution not only to the history of Britain but to that of Europe by those exiles from Europe based in British universities, including Geoffrey Elton, H.G. Koenigsberger and Sidney Pollard, can be seen in part as the result of a synthesis between continental and British approaches to historical writing, a tradition continued by the many continentals now working in British universities, which are far more prepared to employ foreign nationals than most European universities.

Evans' focus is very much on social, economic and political history, which leaves out that most cosmopolitan of fields, the history of art. His historians are exclusively academics, which means the omission of that important dimension - significant books written by civil servants, politicians, journalists and freelance writers. The lack of a gap between the best work of academic historians and that of many other writers is one of the strengths of British and indeed American historical writing.

The fact that books on the history of continental countries and of Europe generally have frequently reached the bestseller lists in Britain depends on the demand side of the equation - the readership. A great swath of the educated British public is interested in history of all sorts: political history, biographies, military history, social history and even, let's whisper it in a journal for academics, the historical novel. This has resulted in a publishing industry prepared to accept as mainstream books by academics who write well. In Germany, as Evans points out, dissertations have to be published and there is a subsidised academic publishing industry, while in Britain all academic publishing has to be commercially viable. The nature of British publishing gives historians an influence that extends beyond the monographs and articles in learned journals read by the clerisy and enables academic research and debate to be filtered to a wider public, while books that sell well to an Anglo-American readership are often attractive prospects for translation to publishers in Europe.

Evans' grand tour of British writing of European history concludes with a warning of the problems created by the rapid and continuing decline of language teaching in British schools and with Norman Davies' fear that as "Philistine professionals apply themselves ever more obsessively to mere research or to academic disputation", the established British tradition of writing European history is an endangered species. Yet, at present, our cosmopolitan British historians of Europe continue to write original, stimulating and eminently readable books, while the demand not just for books but for magazines and television programmes devoted to many varieties of history shows no sign of abating.


Richard J. Evans, Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, has been described by his students as a "rock-star" historian, and is featured in the book Fifty Key Thinkers on History (2000).

Indeed, Evans' work on German history has led to some high-profile appearances. A notable example was his testimony as an independent witness in the libel case brought by David Irving, the Holocaust denier.

The case was later portrayed by a television docudrama, where Evans was played by actor Michael Kitchen.

Evans met the man playing him and said of the meeting: "I told him he had played me better than I had myself; he had a chance to rehearse the lines while I didn't."

Evans also appears in the bonus features of the DVD version of Valkyrie (2009), the Tom Cruise film about a wartime plot to assassinate Hitler.

Evans has taught at Cambridge since 1998, with previous stints at the University of Stirling and Birkbeck, University of London, among others.

Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent

By Richard J. Evans

Cambridge University Press

2pp, £35.00 and £12.99

ISBN 9780521199988 and 137249

Published 14 May 2009

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