Forget a common past, find a common future

May 18, 2007

Building a national identity on history can be dangerous, warns Stefan Berger, who leads a European project studying the subject. Below, his colleagues Uffe /stergard and Attila Pok examine collective responsibility and collective memory

Gordon Brown has spoken regularly about the importance of Britishness. In this, the Chancellor and Prime Minister-to-be reflects a general concern of the Government, which last year ordered a review of how British history could be inserted into the citizenship curriculum at schools to strengthen notions of national identity and national unity, albeit unity in diversity.

The central place of history in strengthening national identity is neither peculiarly British nor an invention of new Labour. Arguably, for long periods of their history the British took nation for granted more than many of their neighbours on the Continent. Indeed, during the 19th century and much of the 20th, the English seemed regularly to confuse Englishness and Britishness, and the Scots and Welsh did not seem to mind too much. Had it not been for the Irish, national identity would have posed no serious problem - at least this is how it looks if we compare Britain with Eastern and Central Europe, where debates surrounding national histories and national identities were far more intense.

Attempts to hang national identity on notions of national history are as old as the modern discourse on nations itself, and some early modernists and medievalists would argue that they were even older. The idea that a nation has to have a preferably proud and heroic national history and that this national history becomes the foundation of national identity has been key to a variety of constructions of national identity across Europe and the wider world.

This is what prompted the European Science Foundation's five-year programme on "Representations of the Past: The Writing of National Histories in 19th and 20th Century Europe" (NHIST). More than 100 scholars from more than 20 European countries have worked together to explore how national histories are made, unmade and remade, analysing issues such as the institutionalisation and professionalisation of history-writing, narrative strategies, the interrelationship between national histories and sub- and transnational histories, and the role of borderlands in national histories.

The first book in a six-volume series based on their research will be published this year.

A particular strength of the programme is the way it has brought together histories and historians from Western and Eastern Europe, for so long divided by the Cold War. But this has not always been easy, largely due to present national notions of history. Some parts of Europe have a much more acute sense of the importance of national history in underpinning a sense of national identity than others. Post-Cold War, this sense has been particularly noticeable in the Baltic states, in the Balkans, in some post-Soviet states and in Slovakia, but also in Germany, Belgium, Spain and Britain.

In the Baltic and some of the post-Soviet states, and in Slovakia, for example, the emergence or re-emergence of independent statehood has put the nation and national past back on the agenda. In Belgium, Flemish nationalists use the freedom of Flemish cities in the Middle Ages to argue for an independent Flanders and the break-up of the Belgian state. Germans have been trying hard to develop "normal" Western patriotism after reunification in 1990. And political commentators in Spain and Britain have been wondering whether devolution will be able to accommodate national ambitions voiced in Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and the Basque country.

Our research programme has highlighted how historians have managed to see themselves as a transnational community of professionals adhering to the same standards of "objective science", while at the same time fulfilling a role as "pedagogues of the nation", and in the process have often come to speak for the nation. It is the scientific status of history that has given it an advantage over other genres such as literature, although this power has varied between nations.

It is also clear from our research that certain key institutions and personalities have had a disproportionate influence on framing national histories right across Europe. Individuals such as Johan Gottfried Herder in the 19th century or Fernand Braudel in the 20th, or institutions such as the University of Berlin in the early 19th century and Maison de l'Homme in Paris after 1945, were crucial in shaping understandings of national narratives in many parts of the Continent.

The programme has established that for about a century between 1850 and 1950, national history was the predominant mode of history writing in Europe. It was never the only show in town, and its interrelationship with other forms of history writing varied from nation to nation, but both local and regional histories were often constructed as the foundation stones of national histories. At the same time, transnational histories often took their starting point from the nation. Only more recently have historians tried to Europeanise history outside the framework of the nation-state.

Nor have potential alternatives to the master narrative of nation, such as class, religion or race, really succeeded. National histories have been extremely successful in subsuming these potential "others" into their national narratives, nationalising religion, class and race and making them an integral part of the national storyline.

But perhaps our most important finding is the need for Europeans to build solidarities below the level of identities grounded in histories. It is striking to see how constructions of common national histories have time and again led to exclusion of those who did not belong - for territorial, social, religious or ethnic reasons. Such exclusion at times took the form of discrimination, wars, civil wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

If our research can teach any lessons to the policymakers of Europe today, it is not to fall back on the trappings of identity politics, which belittles the political and seeks refuge in allegedly cosy feelings of belonging and togetherness. Brown should therefore not get too worried about Britishness. Instead, he and politicians elsewhere should be more concerned with developing political projects for which people are willing to come together. Arguably, the most important political projects today, such as development in much of the so-called Third World and environmental protection, are projects that left the framework of the nation-state behind a long time ago.

For obvious reasons of self-protection, historians are always keen to emphasise the importance of their profession for society at large. And history is indeed an important means of criticising traditions and questioning established truth. But there are many good reasons to avoid history becoming the basis of identity formation. It seems wiser to assume that society would be better off with weak and playful identities, not those underpinned by a strong sense of a common national past.

Stefan Berger, professor of modern German and comparative European history at Manchester University, is chair of the European Science Foundation's NHIST programme.

For more information on the programme, see www.uni-leipzig.de/zhsesf/

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