Mr Raul Cârstocea is Vice-Chair of the OHTE Scientific Advisory Council, lecturer in Twentieth-Century European History at Maynooth University, Ireland and Honorary Research Fellow in Modern European History at the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Leicester, United Kingdom. He has previously worked as a Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Leicester... More here.
The deservedly famous line from E.P. Thompson’s landmark 1963 book that inaugurated a new phase in social history is one of those ‘quotes’ that has stayed with me since the first time I read it, a very long time ago in my days as an undergraduate student, and one that I employ, quite frequently, to draw attention to any number of things happening ‘below’ the level of ‘official’ history, much as the latter might have changed and pluralised since Thompson’s times. Ironically perhaps, it is the final words of that line, “the enormous condescension of posterity”, that historians tend to remember (and this one pleads guilty to such) rather than the concrete examples of people Thompson set out to rescue from it. But in doing so, and doing it convincingly, the British Marxist historian opened up new vistas for what history could be, definitively rescuing, if not necessarily the Luddite cropper, an interest in a more democratic version of history: one that is concerned not just with ‘great men’ (for it was overwhelmingly men, even in Thompson’s account) and their ‘great deeds’, but with the rich tapestry of lived experience in past societies.
Kickstarting a historiographical tradition known as ‘history from below’, his humanist approach to social history transcended the grand narrative of Marxism, did away with earlier applications of social science methods (often of the quantitative type) to history, and restored agency to previously neglected historical actors. In his book, ‘ordinary people’ were revealed as being always more than mere data-points in a statistical study, victims of circumstances (devised by the aforementioned ‘great men’) they could barely comprehend, or quasi-identical members of a ‘class’ seamlessly emerging from relations of production.
But in doing so, and doing it convincingly, the British Marxist historian opened up new vistas for what history could be, definitively rescuing, if not necessarily the Luddite cropper, an interest in a more democratic version of history: one that is concerned not just with ‘great men’ (for it was overwhelmingly men, even in Thompson’s account) and their ‘great deeds’, but with the rich tapestry of lived experience in past societies.
This was class struggle, to be sure, but one that was historically situated and played out in the everyday and at the micro level, constituted by while also constitutive of broader fields of contestation (Bourdieu 1990) that brought together politics and economics and culture and religion (and the list could continue). In consequence, “the working class made itself as much as it was made” (Thompson 1963: 194). But to understand the revolution in historiography that such an approach – so frequently taken for granted these days by academic historians, despite being still widely ignored and/or resisted by non-specialists – constituted, we need to take a step back and look at the origins of the modern historical discipline.
The making of the modern historical discipline
It is commonplace to point at the origins of the modern discipline of History in the Enlightenment, associating its emergence with a new philosophy that displaced earlier, religious understandings of the world, and contemporaneous with the development of nationalism as a political ideology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Broadening the lens with the help of Reinhart Koselleck (2004), we can better grasp the specificities of modern concepts of history in contrast to its earlier, pre-modern iterations, as well as, importantly, in relation to a new temporality associated with modernity. From antiquity and through the Middle Ages, history had primarily been deployed in accordance with its exemplary value. Cicero’s idiom historia magistra vitae (‘history is life’s teacher’) simultaneously presupposed that:
- a) lessons could be drawn from the past, implicitly assuming that some things are immutable, irrespective of notable differences between historical eras;
- b) that only some exemplary deeds (invariably by elites) were worthy of being preserved and re-used as lessons in the present;
- c) that their didactic value took precedence over their veracity: ‘truth’ could be modified to fit the ‘lesson’ (Koselleck 2004: 26-31).
Importantly for this essay, it also allowed for the coexistence of a plurality of such ‘histories’ – because different people needed different ‘lessons’ at different times, and because the ‘truth’ historia operated with was malleable.
In contrast to the earlier historia(e), its emergence in the context of the Enlightenment meant several things for the modern discipline of history, which was in this respect very much a child of its age. First, the discipline established a new relationship to factual truth, following a purportedly scientific method that would adopt a critical and impartial approach to the sources. Second, and in line with the Enlightenment’s more general quest for the identification of universal principles governing societies, akin to the natural sciences, ‘History’ came to be written in the singular and elevated from its previous status of exemplary tale to that of an immutable, universal ‘Truth’ of transcendental quality, which historians could only hope to approximate, but not accurately represent. Combined with the newfound reliance on a scientific, source-based methodology, this translated into a new aim for the modern discipline, its quest for objectivity. In the oft-quoted words of the leading German historian and founding father of the modern historical profession, Leopold von Ranke (1973 : 57), “the task of judging the past for the benefit of future generations has been given to History: the present essay does not aspire to such an elevated task; it merely seeks to show the past as it actually was (wie es eigentlich gewesen).” Finally, and most fatefully for the future evolution of the discipline, its emergence was contemporaneous with intensified processes of state-building, at least in the few countries in Central and Western Europe where the historical profession was first institutionalized. Whether in imperial or national contexts, inspired by or responding to the French Revolution, history was enlisted as a tool in an ever-growing state apparatus increasingly invested in mass education and in instilling a sense of pride in one’s nation (or empire).
The outcome was a certain type of history to be taught as part of state programmes that aimed at expanding literacy rates: highly selective and politicised, meant to elevate the greatness of one’s nation above (all) others and instil a sense of belonging to majority populations that were by and large indifferent to a nationalism that at this time was still an elite ideology espoused mostly by an educated minority (see, for example, Hroch 1985; Zahra 2010).
Finally, and most fatefully for the future evolution of the discipline, its emergence was contemporaneous with intensified processes of state-building, at least in the few countries in Central and Western Europe where the historical profession was first institutionalized. Whether in imperial or national contexts, inspired by or responding to the French Revolution, history was enlisted as a tool in an ever-growing state apparatus increasingly invested in mass education and in instilling a sense of pride in one’s nation (or empire).
With history education, one could say part of its magistra vitae function returned, albeit in very different form: no longer for the private use of elite individuals, be they political rulers or clerics, but in the service of states and state-building processes meant to homogenize and foster loyalty among diverse citizenries. Moreover, in contrast to the relativism of the previous exemplary tales, history education was now invested with the aforementioned ‘truth’ value associated with the modern discipline, translating into the notion that only one version of history could be the accurate and ‘objective’ one, reflecting the past “as it actually was”.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this brief excursus into the origins of the modern historical discipline. First, the institutional settings in which it was embedded represent themselves a first, very early case of democratisation, whereby (a selective version of) history was to be made publicly available to all citizens (a concept which had inherent limitations, excluding as it did at this time all women, as well as men belonging to the labouring classes and colonial subjects of all genders). Nevertheless, despite the bad reputation it has now, 19th century nationalism and the reforms it inspired, including in imperial polities, was clearly driven by emancipatory notions meant to democratise societies previously structured by rigid systems based on estates and inherited privilege. Second, a corollary of this revolutionary transformation of history writing and of the beginnings of history education was that it rendered history “not so much falsifiable as subject to manipulation. With the Restoration there came an 1818 decree forbidding history lessons on the period 1789-1815” (Koselleck 2004: 39-40). As such, when tracing the roots of the politicisation of history lamented today, mostly in conjunction with the “nationalist and chauvinist use of ethnocentric narratives” (Di Michele and Salassa 2022), it is useful to remind ourselves that these were features inherent in the birth of the modern discipline. Along these lines, history was constituted by and became constitutive of the nationalist narratives it developed in conjunction with, just like anthropology was complicit in European colonialism (Fabian 1983).
Creating spaces for plural histories
Considering its origins, it should come as no surprise that the democratisation of history below and beyond the level of the nation-state began after the end of the Second World War. The context was that of the nadir of nationalism, temporarily tainted by the extreme exclusionary and genocidal forms it had taken in fascist ideology, mirrored in the zenith of the alternative grand narrative offered by Marxism. Fernand Braudel drafted his classic La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II (published in 1949) as a prisoner of war interned in camps at Mainz (1940-1942) and Lübeck (1942-1945) in Nazi Germany (Hughes-Warrington 2008: 20-21). His focus on a broader region and on the longue durée, characteristic of the French Annales School of historical writing more generally, was poised not only against the dominant national frameworks of interpretation, but also against the relatively uncontested primacy of political history. And if Braudel transcended these by looking above the nation, and above politics, the response to this focus on overarching structure came in the shape of the ‘history from below’ that E.P. Thompson and others inaugurated. Heeding his call, in the last 60 years it was not only members of the English working class who were rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity, but also women, minorities and migrants, children, or members of subcultures. All of them came to be regarded not just as objects, but as subjects of history in their own right, their voices enriching the complex picture of the social fabric just as global and post-colonial history revealed the intrinsic connectivity of the modern world. Cultural history has come to explore the mentalities of people in the past, attempting to reconstruct their lifeworlds, while environmental history has connected humans with the natural world, looking at how environmental contexts affected processes of historical change, through factors such as climate, disease, flora and fauna, natural disasters, etc., as well as at the consequences of the human impact on nature as a result of industrialisation and modern agriculture.
Heeding his call, in the last 60 years it was not only members of the English working class who were rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity, but also women, minorities and migrants, children, or members of subcultures. All of them came to be regarded not just as objects, but as subjects of history in their own right, their voices enriching the complex picture of the social fabric just as global and post-colonial history revealed the intrinsic connectivity of the modern world.
As ever, the historical context is key for understanding both the timing and shape of these developments within the discipline. The immediate aftermath of the Second World War witnessed renewed faith in international institutions, within Europe and globally, in an attempt to establish fora for cooperation that would avert further catastrophes of its type, or the new and ultimate one that the possibility of nuclear war represented throughout the Cold War. It is no coincidence that the European Cultural Convention (Council of Europe 1954), which marked the beginning of the Council of Europe’s inter-governmental cooperation in the field of education and culture, and thus also in the teaching of history, dates from this period. As expanding welfare state systems delivered unprecedented prosperity on both sides of the Iron Curtain and with education systems advancing with great strides, calls for fairer, more just and more inclusive societies came to the fore. From second-wave feminism through the civil rights movement and the process of decolonization to an emerging environmental movement, these political processes both drew on and fed back into developments in the humanities and social sciences.
However, school curricula and non-academic history education more generally were slow to adapt to this democratisation of the discipline and continued to reproduce the earlier foci of ‘traditional’ history: toward political history as an approach, national history as a level of analysis, and elites as the main or even exclusive historical actors worthy of attention. Read in its historical context, this is understandable in view of the aforementioned expansion of the welfare state: if one side of it was the prosperity it delivered to the majority of the population, which led to different forms of empowerment, the other was the increased capacity of the state to directly intervene in society, an aspect whose ambivalence citizens of countries in the socialist bloc knew far better and far earlier than their counterparts in ‘the West’. While (extreme) nationalism was (temporarily) compromised as an ideology, the infrastructural power of the nation-state grew exponentially. As such, rather than the familiar story of a long-term decline and eventual return of nationalism in recent decades, it is perhaps more fruitful to conceptualise the post-war period in terms of “the rise and rise of grounded nationalisms” (Malešević 2018), whose dominance was punctuated but never seriously challenged by the new social movements. Taking this context into account helps us understand better the divergence between history as an academic discipline and history education. While methodological nationalism has been decisively challenged in academic spaces, to the point of outright dismissal in the present, it not only persisted but grew as the dominant paradigm in the classroom, backed up by the weight of the welfare state. Academic history came to be dominated by the former rebels of the 1960s and 70s; history education by the government actors who had made sure that theirs remained just a rebellion and did not turn into a revolution.
Taking this context into account helps us understand better the divergence between history as an academic discipline and history education. While methodological nationalism has been decisively challenged in academic spaces, to the point of outright dismissal in the present, it not only persisted but grew as the dominant paradigm in the classroom, backed up by the weight of the welfare state.
Thus, instead of reading this along a positivist and patronizing narrative of history education ‘catching up’ with the developments in academia, it would be wise to ‘mind the context’ and not just ‘the gap’ between the two when working toward closing it. With this awareness of context, it also becomes easier to understand why the dismantling of the welfare state, taking place since the 1980s but kicked into high gear after the collapse of communism, created the space for calls for a more democratic, plural and inclusive history education, more aligned with the diversity of society rather than the projected homogeneity of the nation-state. The very awareness of the multicultural nature of society was thus as much a result of the mainstreaming of the post-colonial paradigm as it was of the increasing failure of the nation-state to sustain the fantasy of its monolithic projection.
Decolonising the curriculum, democratising history education
Insights derived from global history and the inscription of “contemporary phenomena such as neoliberalism and multiculturalism […] in the effects and continuing work of imperialism” (Coloma et al. 2013: 559), as well as the decolonial paradigm (Quijano 2007; Mignolo and Escobar 2013) underpin the recent calls for decolonising the curriculum. This was given further political impetus first by the 2015 ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Cape Town (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2016) and subsequently by the global Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. While a very important and laudable development, it has once again remained limited to academia, more specifically for the most part to its Anglo-centric segment, although attempts are being made to extend it outside it, for example with the establishing of a network aimed at ‘decolonizing Eastern Europe’. A decolonisation of history aims not only at a more inclusive approach that would ensure the representation of a wider range of voices and perspectives, which it shares with the earlier post-colonial paradigm, but at a revision of the very terminology on which the discipline is founded, denounced as ‘colonial’.
While acknowledging its merits and recognizing its political potential, I personally find the notion of the democratisation of history preferable, at least when it comes to history education. Colonialism is certainly a very important structuring context, and one that was replicated in spaces that were not formally subject to colonisation (Cârstocea 2020), but one that can also act as a straitjacket if indiscriminately applied. Going back to the origins of the discipline of history and its public uses in early campaigns of mass education outlined above, it is clearly apparent that, unlike other disciplines, history was primarily deployed for ‘internal’ purposes of state- and nation-building rather than as a legitimation of the colonial project. Consequently, as outdated as this might appear in the academic discipline, where it has been consistently debunked, methodological nationalism remains much more of a problem in history curricula than any colonial hangover. Moreover, and learning from the classics of post-colonial theory, we should not make the mistake of assuming that “because essentialism has been deconstructed theoretically, therefore it has been displaced politically” (Hall 1996: 249). Finally, when considering certain concepts, their intended audience should be as important a consideration as their content. Along these lines, making the case for democratising the history curriculum should be more readily intelligible to all the stakeholders involved in such a process, from state authorities to educators and the students themselves, than its decolonising. While no longer the case within academia, it is commonplace for non-specialists to read ‘colonialism’ as an economic and political system pitting ‘Europe’ against non-European spaces. And with both notions sharing an implicit understanding that patterns of inclusion and exclusion are always-already intersectional, structured by race, gender, class, religion, etc., with each of these components operating in conjunction with the others, this ‘lesson’ can come across much more convincingly with concepts and practices such as multiperspectivity (Stradling 2003). These could then be made central to an overall drive to democratise history curricula and render them simultaneously more inclusive and more reflexive of the specific origins of the discipline and its associated biases.
There are clear advantages to the democratisation of history, both professional and ethical. For the profession, a more democratic history curriculum offers a more complete view of the past, one that does not limit it to major events and exceptional historical actors. Focusing on these is both historically inaccurate in terms of recovering the past “as it actually was”, and problematic in terms of engaging students coming from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds, most of whom do not have the elite status that would allow them to resonate with such narratives. As a result, history is rendered impersonal, distant, removed from the everyday life experience of students, their lifeworlds. In contrast, a more inclusive, democratic curriculum in which the diversity of past societies is more accurately approximated, even if it cannot be recovered in toto, can better stimulate personal engagement with the topics, implicitly promoting the goals of history education to advance democratic participation and active citizenship (Council of Europe 2018). A more democratic history education would serve to displace the methodological nationalism that still prevails in history curricula, despite its thorough deconstruction in the academic discipline. It would help students understand the complexity of society below and the intensity of connections beyond the level of the nation, as well as the unstable and constantly renegotiated nature of the state. Here as in many other instances, history can help to de-naturalise essentialist categories that most citizens take for granted, by showing for example how often borders changed across time (and, indeed, how their very relevance is in many ways a modern phenomenon), accompanied or not by shifts in population and/or identity, as well as how intensely crossed they were in the past, as a result of migration and other forms of population displacement.
A more democratic history education would serve to displace the methodological nationalism that still prevails in history curricula, despite its thorough deconstruction in the academic discipline. It would help students understand the complexity of society below and the intensity of connections beyond the level of the nation, as well as the unstable and constantly renegotiated nature of the state.
One of the recent developments in the academic discipline has seen increased attention devoted to the scales at which history operates, from the personal through the local, national, regional, European, to the global, challenging the privileged position of the nation and showing it to be simultaneously shaped by broader developments and criss-crossed by different fields of contestation internally. The focus on scalarity has revealed the intrinsic inter-connectivity of these scales, but also the tensions between them, acting as a corrective against the simplistic notion of their neat concentricity, like matryoshka dolls fitting perfectly. However, awareness of these different scales does not just mean introducing new topics and diversifying the field, but also returning to ‘old’ topics and approaching them differently. The ‘new political history’ (Vernon 1993; Craig 2010), for example, has profoundly transformed this most ‘traditional’ historiographical school, drawing on insights from social, cultural, or gender history to incorporate concerns about language, extra-parliamentary politics (protests, social movements), political culture and mentalities, informal politics, technologies of power, emotions, media, and even a “political unconscious” (Joyce 1996) into its field of vision.
Beyond the professional advantages, the democratisation of history also has significant ethical potential. A more diversified curriculum would give voice to marginalised groups, including women, whose glaring under-representation in historical narratives is all the more striking since they represent not a minority but literally half the population. Such an absence, persistent even in academic histories, despite significant advances in the last six decades, is all the more visible in history curricula, clearly showing how our view of the past is skewed and partial. For minority groups, their inclusion in the history curriculum is important to their members both for their recognition as equal members of democratic societies and as a first step toward undoing the inter-generational patterns of exclusion and structural racism that resulted in their marginalisation in the first place. Along these lines, the recent Council of Europe recommendation to member States on the inclusion of the history of Roma and Travellers in school curricula and teaching materials (Council of Europe 2020) is particularly welcome, as it draws attention to the distinct experiences of this particular minority, the persistent anti-Gypsyism in present-day societies, and the specific actions needed to redress their long-standing discrimination across Europe.
Beyond the professional advantages, the democratisation of history also has significant ethical potential. A more diversified curriculum would give voice to marginalised groups, including women, whose glaring under-representation in historical narratives is all the more striking since they represent not a minority but literally half the population.
Beyond the advantages to the groups in question in terms of visibility and recognition, a more democratic history curriculum provides clear advantages also for majority populations, allowing them to contemplate the intrinsic diversity of ‘mainstream society’ and its significant shifts over time, undermining essentialist notions of ethnic continuity and showing instead that getting from the past to the present is anything but a straightforward line.
I have started this short essay on a personal note and I would like to conclude it on one. At a recent conference, some of the leading scholars in the field I am active in, the modern history of Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe, reflected on some of the issues discussed above (as well as many others). Many of the discussions centred on ways of responding to the present challenges posed by the surge in nationalism and populism (often combined, but not necessarily an inseparable binomial), concerning for all humanists but particularly salient for scholars of the region in view of the Russian aggression and ongoing war in Ukraine. A focus on scaling historical events and processes seemed to be common ground, with its implications discussed for various types of histories and methodologies. A national history that has of late become the Cinderella of the academic discipline, in sharp contrast to its continuing dominance in history education, was brought into the discussion by Jochen Böhler, making the case for a return to it in light of the recent advances in historiography, integrating social and cultural history approaches that would ensure that a ‘new’ national history does not necessarily have to be nationalist. How different scales of analysis could be combined so that one individual’s experience can be employed to illuminate structure and vice-versa (and thus to render big and complex events more approachable and more appealing to students) was suggestively illustrated by Dominique Reill, who convincingly showed how the story of a lowly Habsburg civil servant can offer insights into the Ausgleich of 1867. Her call for using our awareness of scalarity “not to oust the old histories, but rather to bring them back in, in reconstructed form” could serve as a guiding motto for a more democratic history education that would draw on the state-of-the-art in the historical discipline and seek to close the gap between the two.
When confronted with populism, the return of exclusionary nationalism, and its murderous consequences currently on display in Ukraine, this is advice we cannot afford to disregard. A democratic history is only possible in a democratic society, but it is also key to the always incomplete project of building and maintaining one.
In imagining the democratisation of history, and of history education, as an agenda for the future, we should not shy away from acknowledging its political potential. In doing so, as Holly Case put it at the same conference, it would be good to keep in mind that different politics are entailed in thinking at different scales, but also, and most importantly, that “certain politics become impossible at certain scales”. When confronted with populism, the return of exclusionary nationalism, and its murderous consequences currently on display in Ukraine, this is advice we cannot afford to disregard. A democratic history is only possible in a democratic society, but it is also key to the always incomplete project of building and maintaining one. Rescuing “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity” (Thompson 1953: 12) might thus ultimately contribute to rescuing our precious yet always fragile democracy.
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*The opinions expressed in this work are the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Council of Europe.