Category: historiography

    Cultural History and the History of Knowledge

    In a blog post earlier this month, “From Cultural History to the History of Knowledge”, Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad examine the attraction and potential utility of the history of knowledge as an historiographical approach. Particularly helpful is their attempt to tease out its relationship to cultural history.

    Global History’s Blind Spot

    "Global history preferred a scale that reflected its cosmopolitan self-yearnings. It also implicitly created what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land (2016) called ‘empathy walls’ between globe-trotting liberals and locally rooted provincials. Going global often meant losing contact with – to borrow another of her bons mots – ‘deep stories’ of resentment about loss of and threat to local attachments. The older patriotic narratives had tethered people to a sense of bounded unity. The new, cosmopolitan, global narratives crossed those boundaries. But they dissolved the heartlanders’ ties to a sense of place in the world. In a political climate dominated by railing against Leviathan government, big banks, mega-treaties with inscrutable acronyms such as TPP, and distant Eurocrats, the pretentious drive to replace deep stories of near-mourning with global stories of distant connection was bound to face its limits. In the scramble to make Others part of our stories, we inadvertently created a new swath of strangers at home....

    I did my own part in the global pivot. For several years, I oversaw Princeton’s internationalisation drive, creating global knowledge supply chains. It never occurred to me, or to others, to ask: what would happen to those less sexy, diminutive, scales of civic engagement? We didn’t worry much. They were the remits of provincialism, quietly escorted from the stage upon which we were supposed to be educating the new homo globus.

    Jeremy Adelman, "What is Global History Now?," Aeon, March 2, 2017

    A Hard Thing to Teach

    What was once seen as standing ‘outside’ history, demanding silent contemplation but resisting explanation or contextualisation, has now been firmly historicised. Comparative genocide studies, histories of colonialism and genocidal violence, studies of western penal practice and more besides have demonstrated that the processes which led to the Holocaust were integral to modern history, not an aberration from it.
    Neil Gregor, “‘To Think is to Compare’: Walther Rathenau, Trump and Hitler,” History Today, February 20, 2017.

    Military History

    Check out Mark Grimsley, “Why Military History Sucks Sucked,” Blogging Them out of the Stone Age, June 2, 2016 (originally 1996). This is an older critique, and I agree there has been much improvement. Still, negative examples abound, making this short piece as worthwhile as ever.

    History under Trump

    Interesting comment today by Cameron Blevins: History and Its Limits under Trump.

    Tonight’s Lecture

    My initial personal takeaway from tonight’s lecture on digital mapping: It looks useful as an analytical tool, and for presentation, but in the end we still have to write narratives. Historians have to make choices, not present facts that merely speak for themselves.

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    A Few Notes on the History of Knowledge

    One of the new research focuses at the GHI since our director, Simone Lässig, began her tenure last October is the history of knowledge.[^1] The study of knowledge in its societal context (as opposed to thought experiments about truth in the discipline of philosophy) has some tradition in sociology and anthropology, but it is still a relatively new focus in English-language historiography, at least in my experience.[^2]

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    Experts <—> Public

    In most of today’s university disciplines, professional training serves to distance an individual from the public, to refine them into an ‘expert’ whose speech and writing are marked by incomprehensible formulae and keywords. But history-telling came out of an age before the era of experts, and its form is inherently democratic.

    – Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (2014; Cambridge UP, 2015), 56.

    Rates of Change

    Technology, institutions, mentalities and practices change at different rates. Technology, especially in the age of what has been called ‘the institutionalization of innovation’, changes rapidly. Society and its institutions change more slowly, a result of what has been called institutional ‘inertia’. Last to change are mentalities and practices, illustrating the presence of the past in the world of today.

    – Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge II: From the Encyclopaedia to Wikipedia (Polity, 2012), Kindle ed., chap. 9, “Chronologies of Knowledge.”

    Historiographical Impasse

    I have had to withdraw from an interesting handbook project because of excessive overlap with two other chapters. My topic was on the matrix of gender, war, and nation in European wars in the 1850s through the 1870s. Given the limited historiography, I chose a thematic approach, but that produces the undesired overlap. What is needed instead, I’m told, is a gendered history of these specific wars. Leaving aside the insufficient historiography, to say nothing of the challenges inherent in collaborations of this kind, where project requirements and individual research have to somehow come together and adapt to changing parameters, the impasse I’ve reached seems to have deeper epistemological roots.

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    Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

    Officers on foot and horseback posing for a picture at one of the big annual maneuvers held for the emperor.

    Officers, some on horseback, at a Kaiser Maneuver in 1898. Source: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg.


    I recently noticed that the English translation of Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumente, edited by Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Groß, is now available from the University Press of Kentucky under the title The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I. Interestingly, Terence Zuber, who sparked much of the debate on German war planning prior to the Great War, declined to allow his chapter from the German original to be included in this English translation.1 It wasn't his best piece anyway, far more peevish than usual, and there is plenty of his work on the supposedly nonexistent Schlieffen Plan already available in English. Be that as it may, if Zuber's thesis about Schlieffen's war planning has been conclusively disproven, the assumptions underlying his work have received less attention.2 That matters because his work on Schlieffen continues to be widely read and discussed, having made a big splash when it first came out. Moreover, he continues to write and publish books on German military history.

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    'Not a Military Historian'

    At a recent lecture on the Great War, Roger Chickering said, “I'm not a military historian.”1 The phrase stuck in my mind because he said it two more times during the course of the lecture and discussion. I’m sure he was trying to avoid letting the discussion get sidetracked by narrower debates about military operations, which was fair enough in the context of his talk about a series of common structural elements in Germany’s, France’s, and Great Britain’s wars. Nonetheless, his words bothered me.

    Of course, there was nothing surprising about the statement. And Chickering really can’t be called a “military historian” in the narrow sense of the term. Nor can I, his former student. But if stating that one is “not a military historian” makes sense in terms of the prejudices of too many academic historians, it also cedes the ground of professional competence to those historians who only focus on the battlefield.

    As legitimate as narrower operational and tactical studies of warfare are, their authors cannot be allowed to enjoy a monopoly on the interpretation of the more military-technical aspects of warfare. The broad expertise and perspective of the historian who studies war’s manifestations away from the violence is also needed for the battlefield and everywhere else that people were killing or being killed for ostensibly political aims.


    1. Roger Chickering, “Imperial Germany’s Peculiar War, 1914–1918,” Georgetown University, October 23, 2014. 
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