Send in the history platoon

March 31, 2000

Harvey Kaye suggests how American scholars might help represent European history in the 'Museum of Europe'

To help keep the peace, it looks like we Americans may need to send not only combat troops to Europe, but also historians. New conflicts, this time over Europe's past and how it should be publicly represented, seem to demand our intervention.

The New York Times recently reported on an official European gathering convened to formulate plans for the creation of a "Museum of Europe", to be constructed in Brussels near the European Parliament. As European Commission president Romano Prodi explained: "We are seeking a shared identity - a new European soul We need to build a union of hearts and minds, a shared sense of common destiny, of European citizenship."

Nice sentiments. Yet, not surprisingly, the deliberations seem to have gone rather poorly. Talk of "national heritage" alone regularly incites competition, contestation and, often, real rancour. Trying to concoct a transnational citizenship, identity and memory becomes all the more challenging and contentious a task, even in this age of corporate globalism or, as political scientist Benjamin Barber puts it, "McWorld".

For starters, the Greek government has strenuously objected to the museum planners' historical perspective. The Hellenes discovered that, instead of emphasising Europe's origination of the "democratic idea", the museum's curators-to-be had decided to build the institution's historical narrative around the idea of a "united Europe". As the latter envisaged it, the story should commence not in ancient Greece and the classical world but, rather, in the early Middle Ages with tales of Charlemagne's empire and Latin Christendom.

New York Times journalist Michael Wise did indicate that several "pan European" cultural exhibitions were already under way on the Continent. However, fully expecting further fireworks, he pointed out that the Italian government had yet to weigh in on the question.

What about the British? Will they simply defer to Gallic ambitions? Wise noted that one British participant in the gathering proposed, with a smile on his face, that the museum procure one of Margaret Thatcher's handbags for exhibition "as a symbol of her angry opposition to taxpayer support for the European Union".

I enjoyed the humour, but is that the best Britain can do? You could subscribe to The Economist's view of things. A recent cover bluntly asked, "What is Europe?" To which the editors replied within: "Forget geography, forget culture. The thing called 'Europe' is about politics and economics."

Anyhow, before the euro joins the ha'penny in the dustbin of numismatic history and the EU disintegrates, I want to urge European leaders to seek the renegotiation of the Atlantic alliance. Rather than merely seeking to stretch its geographical reach eastwards, they should petition the United States government to enlarge Nato's purview to include cultural affairs. Then they would be entitled to request the stationing of American scholars in Europe, scholars who could effectively cultivate European history and heritage.

I do not suggest you simply model European history on American history. That would be foolish, if not impossible. We Yanks, too, find ourselves amid rather contentious deliberations about grand narratives, specifically America's own - though, arguably, contentiousness is what the American narrative has been about.

Nevertheless, I do think you folks could learn about European history from us. We have been teaching it for generations. Early in the past century, as part of a broader public campaign to integrate diverse immigrant communities into a common national culture, American historians crafted courses in "Western civilisation" (sometimes now referred to as "From Plato to Nato"). They really rendered a grand history of Europe and the world made by Europeans, culminating in the ascendance of the United States. As University of California at Los Angeles historian Eugen Weber has observed: "French, British, Italian, German historians treat Europe and the wider world as context; Americans treat Europe as text - as 'roots'."

Larger American universities do offer courses in the respective European national histories, but the foundation courses are almost always organised along pan-European lines. In fact, the teaching of British history has more and more often been incorporated into European "survey classes".

Admittedly, in an increasingly diverse America we have had to rethink the content of "Western civ". But that just means you Europeans could buy our old textbooks at discounted prices. Of course, I should warn you that the better volumes do cover the Spanish Inquisition, the transatlantic slave trade, the establishment of overseas empires, the two world wars and the Holocaust. But what's "heritage" without a little blood?

Still, if you think mass murder and exploitation will detract from a "proper" appreciation of European history and heritage, you could restrict your request for American aid to conservative public intellectuals. As we see in Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball's The Future of the European Past, their culture war campaigns persistently involve condemning the US professorate for failing to revere and transmit the greatness of Western civilisation and Europe's contributions to the making of the modern world.

I can see and hear it now: squadrons of historical scholars, armed with textbooks, singing George M. Cohan's "Over there, over there! / Send the word, send the word, over there! / That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming over there "

Harvey Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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