Historians as Nationalists

By Johnson Hubert C. | Canadian Journal of History, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Historians as Nationalists


Johnson Hubert C., Canadian Journal of History


What kind of people become historians, and why do they choose this vocation? A majority of them have been interested in the history of their homeland states for a variety of reasons: a majority of American historians prefer to study US history while a majority of French historians prefer to study French history. Nationalism in the minds of historians is a potent influence. The minority who have opted to work elsewhere have migrated to such foreign fields for other reasons. The second group is more cosmopolitan than the first. But in each state those historians who opt to work in their own national field find that their governments often will reward them; the academic profession of historian has always been tied to political realities.

Before Johns Hopkins University launched its first PhD program in the 1870s, universities in the United States, Great Britain and its Empire and Commonwealth, France, and Germany did not have full-fledged departments of history, nor did they employ large numbers of historians. The great journals such as the Revue Historique, the English Historical Review, and the Historische Zeitschrift (1) were products of the nineteenth century and were not started until the universities expanded their curricula in the face of the growing demand for higher education coming from the ambitious middle class created by the Industrial Revolution. After 1890 especially, the emerging technical and scientific forces generated demand for the formation of engineering and scientific institutions. Academic history was merely one of a number of new disciplines such as political science, economics, chemical and mechanical engineering, and biology. In the old universities, the traditional faculties of theology, natural history, philosophy, and medicine were transformed and divided because of the enormous expansion of knowledge in the nineteenth century; medieval notions of scholarship hardly sufficed.

In each country, the emergence of academic history was closely connected to major political currents of the day. In the German states before unification in 1871, the state of Prussia was the most prominent, and its historians included Leopold von Ranke and Friedrich Meinecke. To them the "defining moment" of history was the unification of Germany under Bismarck. During this period, German universities turned out many historians who found their jobs in the gymnasia, universities, and the civil service. To most of them, the rise of Germany was an exciting and determining factor in their careers. Even in economics, Gustav Schmoller and his students pushed National Economics, a glorification of the stated-directed economy introduced by the Zollverein before unification, and continued onwards. The culmination of nationalistic history was the lavish work of Otto Hintze, Die Hollenzollern und ihr Werk, which was published during the First World War as a five hundred year jubilee of the ruling dynasty. (2) Hintze argued that Imperial Germany was surrounded by enemies just as the Prussia of Frederick the Great had been during the Seven Years War. The First World War was a struggle for survival.

If the "defining moment" of German history was unification, that of France was the French Revolution. After French defeat in 1871, the new republic spawned a generation of new historians who re-examined the great revolution. By the end of the century, the leading historian of the revolution was Alphonse Aulard, who occupied the new chair at the Sorbonne. After Aulard, a succession of revolutionar3, historians followed. Albert Mathiez, Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, and Michel Vovelle (3) each occupied the premier chair in France and trained legions of students who went on to other universities. If the German tradition was rightist, even reactionary, the French tradition was leftist, often socialistic and even communistic. Perhaps this reflected the rise of the republic in France after 1890, when the revolution became the symbol of the rise of the French people. …

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