Publication Date

November 1, 1990

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

The Seventeenth International Congress of Historical Sciences convened in Madrid, August 26 through September 2, 1990, with over 2500 historians from around the world in attendance. More than one hundred historians from the United States took part in the sessions, and perhaps an additional hundred attended. Celebrating the discovery of America by Europeans and its consequences was a major theme of the congress, and the opening session featured an inaugural lecture on the Spanish environment of Christopher Columbus by Miguel Angel Ladero Quesada, Complutense University (Madrid).

Sessions on the grand themes, methodology, and chronology (ancient, medieval/ early modern/modern, contemporary, mixed periods), convened from Monday through Friday, though with a heavy concentration at the beginning of the week. Overlapping with these sessions were the briefer meetings of the international affiliated organizations (such as the International Commission on Comparative Military History; the International Federation of Societies and Institutes for Study of the Reformation; and the International Commission for the History of Historiography); and internal commissions (such as the International Commission for Demographic History; the Society for the History of the Crusades and the Latin Orient; the International Commission for the Application of Quantitative Methods in History; and the International Federation for Research in Women’s History). Thematic round tables on topics such as “Historians, Politics, and Ideology,” and “Gypsies’ History and Their Sources,” took place from Thursday through Saturday, followed by the closing session Sunday morning. Sessions met on Spanish time, that is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by a long lunch and siesta break, then reconvening from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., at which point all concerned were more than ready for a late dinner, often at outdoor restaurants in the older part of Madrid or along the tree-lined boulevards.

Among the highlights of the congress was the grand theme session, “Revolutions and Reforms: Their Influence on History,” chaired by ICHS bureau members Joachim Herrmann (DDR) and Carl N. Degler (USA). This session, perhaps more than any other at the congress, was marked heavily by the recent political developments in central and eastern Europe and signalled the end of the Cold War even at the level of historical scholarship. Most of the papers had been proposed and prepared well in advance of these developments, but discussion quickly revealed a new openness on the part of the East European and Soviet scholars to reevaluating the topic. One young man from the USSR observed that there were two kinds of revolution, the “natural” revolutions of the United States and France, and the “unnatural” revolution that founded the USSR. Another Russian scholar remarked that Marxism had explained why the French Revolution had never reached its goals, but no one had yet explained why the October Revolution had not succeeded. Meanwhile, in the corridors, a young historian from Soviet Georgia lobbied actively to establish relationships and exchanges with historians from other countries separate from those controlled by the Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Another innovative feature of the Madrid meeting was women’s history and gender analysis, which attracted considerable interest from the Madrilene and foreign press as well as from those in attendance. Women’s history projects featured prominently in the methodology session on biography, with papers by Kathryn Kish Sklar, Penny Kanner, Tom Dublin, and John Garraty. The newly established International Federation for Research in Women’s History held its first two-day congress as an internal commission of ICHS, inaugurated with keynote addresses by Gerda Lerner (USA) and Gisela Bock (Germany). For the first time as well, women historians from Europe and North America were present in significant numbers, reflecting their increased presence in the historical profession. Women historians from Spain, Brazil, Canada, India, USSR, and China participated actively in a wide range of sessions at all levels of the congress. Europeans still offered the dominant presence at the ICHS congress, but it is important to insist on the presence of increasing numbers of historians in attendance from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as from Latin America and North America. Asian historians were especially well-represented in Madrid, with historians from Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and India participating in many sessions. Several sessions were specifically devoted to comparative themes, such as “Concepts of Time in Historical Writings in Europe and Asia,” and “Feudal Systems in Asia.”

Without doubt, the most important impetus for United States historians to participate in such an international gathering is the extraordinary opportunity it offers them to meet and exchange views with colleagues from around the world. In the course of this one short week, I became acquainted with colleagues from Finland, China, India, Australia, Switzerland, the USSR, Venezuela, among others, and of course, from the host country, Spain.

The congress did not lack its festive side. Participants and attendees were feted at receptions offered by the city and mayor of Madrid, the rector of Complutense University, and various embassies. The Spanish government even issued a special commemorative postage stamp to honor the occasion of the congress. Many historians participated in the well-organized tours to Toledo and other points of interest in Spain during and following the congress, and even more sneaked off to indulge their artistic interests in the newly air-conditioned Prado museum or in the beautiful Retiro Park.

All sessions were held at the Faculty of Medicine of the Compultense University of Madrid. The hotels were at some distance from the conference site, not an ideal situation for those not lodged in university dormitories to be sure. But with the aid of taxis, the excellent underground system, buses, and good walking shoes, access was possible within ten to fifteen minutes from most lodgings.

The ICHS General Assembly designated Montreal as the 1995 congress site, following an enthusiastic and well-organized bid by the Canadian historians, with formal support at the city, provincial, and national levels. Other bidders were Tokyo, Jerusalem, and Glasgow. The next general assembly will convene in Czechoslovakia in 1992. Theo Barker (Great Britain) was elected president of ICHS and I. Berend (Hungary) and Eloy Benito Ruano (Spain) were elected vice-presidents. François Bédarida (France) replaced Hélène Ahrweiler (France) as secretary-general, while A. Dubois (Switzerland) continued as treasurer. Elected to the Bureau, following some dissent from the floor and a contested election, was the slate proposed by the nominating committee: Natalie Zemon Davis, Joachim Herrmann, J. Karayannopoulos, M. Miyake, S. Nurul Hasan, and A. Tchoubarian. Former ICHS Presidents A. Gieyszitor and E. de la Torre Villar were elected as advisory members.

Suggestions for grand themes and topics for comparative sessions reflecting problems and topics in current historical work are now being solicited for the 1995 congress. The AHA (which represents the United States to ICHS), the various external organizations and internal commissions, and individuals all have the opportunity to propose themes for consideration. Suggestions should be sent to the chair of the Committee on International Historical Activities, in care of the AHA. Final selection of themes by the ICHS Bureau and General Assembly will be determined in 1992, and suitable individual proposals from U.S. historians will be solicited thereafter. Themes and deadlines will be announced in Perspectives.

Karen Offen is the chair of the AHA Committee on International Historical Activities, 1986–1990.