What’s in the June AHR ?
Robert A. Schneider, July 2014
The June issue of the American Historical Review is now available, both in print and online. It includes two articles, one on the French Revolution, the other on Russian soldiers in the First World War. They are followed by an AHR Roundtable: nine shorter essays in which a group of historians living in Europe discuss the researching, writing, and teaching of American history. Our usual extensive book review section includes seven featured reviews and two hundred regular reviews. "In Back Issues" draws attention to articles and features in the AHR from one hundred, seventy-five, and fifty years ago.
In "The Overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre and the 'Indifference' of the People," Colin Jones reexamines the events of July 27, 1794 (9 Thermidor Year II in the revolutionary calendar), surely one of the key turning points in the French Revolution. On that day Robespierre was overthrown. In the following year, the "Thermidorian Reaction" would see the French national assembly, known as the Convention, reject the Terror, in which Robespierre had played a leading role, and move unambiguously to the right. Historians have invariably ascribed the lack of support for Robespierre in the city of Paris that day to the supposed indifference of the popular sans-culotte movement, which had brought him to power, but which he had increasingly alienated and helped to demobilize. Jones challenges this view, offering a new interpretation of the day's action and significance by focusing on a huge and largely neglected body of source material, most notably police records. These show the people of Paris as far from indifferent or lacking in political will. On the contrary, they acted decisively and in force. Overwhelmingly and energetically on that day, they supported Robespierre's opponent, the National Convention. That the Parisian popular movement had not been alienated from politics, but rather supported the path of constitutional legality more fervently than has been thought, Jones argues, suggests that we need to reevaluate the character of popular politics in the Revolution as a whole.
Although the history of emotions is now a well-established field, the analysis of how feelings may affect the course of historical events remains a vexing problem for historians. In "Reading Soldiers' Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I," William G. Rosenberg takes up this problem by examining the difficulties tsarist military censors had in accessing the moods of Russian soldiers during World War I through their correspondence, a task deemed essential to prevent dissidence and deploy army units effectively. His article is based on a rich trove of archival materials revealing the ways in which censors configured soldiers' emotions within circulating fields of assumption and expectation, filtering their expression into "useful" categories at some distance from the actual emotional fields. While these documents may have served the needs of military commanders, they also reflected processes of mediation that were not ultimately in the army's interests. In analyzing these processes, Rosenberg uses historical specificities to raise a more general question: How do the ways in which emotions are read make it more difficult for historians to access them? In other words, when expressions of emotions in our sources are filtered through our own social and cultural norms, how can we be sure that the feelings being described reflect what was actually felt?
The Roundtable "You the People" is a rather unusual project for this journal. Normally the AHR does not publish articles that address professional or pedagogical concerns-those more generally related to the practical side of history as opposed to historical scholarship itself. These essays, however, produced by a group of historians working in the UK, Poland, France, Italy, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, and Australia, offer what we imagine to be a novel perspective for most readers: reflections on what it means to be an American historian living and working in Europe. An introduction is followed by six essays, along with two comments.
In the introduction, Nicolas Barreyre, Michael Heale, Stephen Tuck, and Irmina Wawrzyczek set out the overarching theme of "You the People"-that the writing of history is influenced as much by the place in which it is written as by when it is written.
"Characteristics and Contours: Mapping American History in Europe," by Susan-Mary Grant, Michael Heale, Halina Parafianowicz, and Maurizio Vaudagna, focuses on the principal characteristics of the writing of American history in Europe. Before World War II it had virtually no practitioners; afterward, as the authors document, its expansion was significant. And it was shaped by competing influences: the new US presence in postwar Europe, the different political agendas across Europe, the growth and decline of Marxist ideology, and the appeal of American-style liberalism, tempered by a skepticism toward US "exceptionalism," among other factors. Increasingly, historians in Europe found themselves addressing both their fellow Europeans and also readers, especially historians, in the US. In short, the changing conditions in postwar Europe-the Cold War and its end, the move toward the European Union, the impact of "globalization"-had a profound impact on how European historians of the US viewed their subject.
In "'Brokering' or 'Going Native': Professional Structures and Intellectual Trajectories for European Historians of the United States," Nicolas Barreyre, Max Edling, Simon Middleton, Sandra Scanlon, and Irmina Wawrzyczek examine the impact of professional structures and academic institutions on scholarship. They suggest that professional contexts explain why those scholars have traditionally divided along two paths: "brokering," in which they study topics that bridge US and European domestic histories; and "going native," which entails their full immersion in American historiography, while downplaying any difference their location might effect. The essay notes some of the consequences for scholarship of following these paths, asserting that historiographical debates should take such factors (in the US and elsewhere) into account.
"Teaching in Europe and Researching in the United States," by Trevor Burnard, Jörg Nagler, Simon Newman, and Dragan Živojinović, acknowledges that while the pedagogical approaches to American history in Europe vary, they are still shaped by common features. One is the general standardization of curricula in higher education across the European Union. Another is a bigger divide between research and teaching. A third is the greater involvement of state authorities in monitoring research and teaching performance. Finally, traditionally the teaching of American history has been on the general, "survey," level, as opposed to more specialized courses. Consequently, the tension-sometimes problematic, often creative-between teaching and researching the subject in Europe has increased over time. Instructors need to satisfy several audiences-students, the general public, the state-in ways that encourage generalist teaching at a time when strong efforts are being made to encourage research specialization.
In "American History and European Identity," Mario Del Pero, Tibor Frank, Martin Klimke, Helle Porsdam, and Stephen Tuck explore European historians' efforts to make American history relevant to the European present. European writing about the United States and its history often reflects, and reflects upon, national self-perception. This essay highlights the influence of national academic traditions, contemporary political imperatives, and popular expectations of history, as well as authors' personal investments, on historical writing about the United States.
In "Europeans Writing American History: The Comparative Trope," Susanna Delfino, Marcus Gräser, Hans Krabbendam, and Vincent Michelot discuss the institutional, cultural, and intellectual factors that have long prompted European historians to adopt a comparative approach to the study of American history. Historians often draw explicit comparisons between European countries and the United States on one or more specific issues or aspects of their histories. Yet comparison is also ever-present, however implicitly, in the work of Europeans writing solely about the United States. Even when they claim to do "purely" American history, and pursue the same research agenda as US-based historians, they use methodologies and analytical tools that are part of their distinctly European educational training and intellectual formation. Appreciative of the diversity of European historical traditions, the authors contend that through the preservation of the best expressions of their respective national historiographies, the comparative approach might bring significant insights to the ongoing process of internationalization in historical writing.
In "The Weight of Words: Writing about Race in the United States and Europe," three historians of race relations, Manfred Berg, Paul Schor, and Isabel Soto, ponder the difficulties of translating and adapting the American terminology of race in their respective languages. Although "race" is a seemingly simple and comprehensible term, it has different connotations in English, German, French, and Spanish. In many ways, the word exemplifies the problems of conceptualizing and expressing ideas across different national and linguistic contexts. Even though most scholars in Europe view race as a social construct, the word has retained a strong link with the history of racism and the Nazi Holocaust, which renders its use as a social category or an analytical concept problematic. This makes it difficult for European historians of the United States to write about race as a social and cultural force in American history and to translate the vocabulary of American race relations for their domestic non-specialist readers. By considering these linguistic and conceptual difficulties and differences, American historians of the United States may gain a clearer view of their national history.
There are two comments on this Roundtable, offered by historians who, in different ways, embody the US-European exchange in historical research, writing, and teaching. In "Location, Location, Location: We Are Where We Write?," Nancy L. Green, an American who works in Paris at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, argues that in addition to the consideration of location in these essays, other themes need more systematic attention, including time, politics, and disciplinary boundaries. While she acknowledges that the authors have a valid point in calling attention to the conditions under which they-and all historians-work, she also suggests that they tend to reify background, whether it be a nation or "Europe." The second comment is by Sven Beckert, a native Swede who is now at Harvard University. In "The Travails of Doing History from Abroad," he suggests that the situation these authors describe is not so unique among historians: with the internationalization of academic life, histories are increasingly being written by "non-nationals." And, in fact, he criticizes them for falling into the "exceptionalist trap" often ascribed to American historians. In general, Beckert urges his European colleagues to be less defeatist, to be more self-confident about what they have to offer to the understanding of US history, and to embrace a more global, less national or even continental perspective on history.
In addition to an AHR Forum, "Early-Twentieth-Century Japan from a Global Perspective," the October issue will include articles on economic life in eighteenth-century France and music in early America.
We also want to convey our heartfelt thanks and gratitude to Jane Lyle, who since January has been performing two jobs: articles editor (her normal position) and reviews editor. All readers of this journal are in her debt. And we also want to welcome Allison Madar, our new permanent reviews editor.
Robert A. Schneider is professor of history and editor of the American Historical Review.