From the President

Historians Worldwide: Global Links among Historians, Past and Present

Patrick Manning, March 2016

As we historians adjust to the expanding global connections among scholars and teachers in our day, we might remind ourselves of historians’ international ties in earlier years. In the 19th century, historians born in the United States often completed their doctoral studies in Germany, where the field of history was strongest. The leader in the formation of the AHA in 1884, Herbert Baxter Adams, completed his PhD at Heidelberg in 1876; James Harvey Robinson received his doctorate at Freiburg in 1890; and W.E.B. Du Bois studied in Germany under a fellowship before completing his PhD at Harvard in 1895. J. Franklin Jameson, founding editor of the American Historical Review was one step removed: his 1882 PhD from Johns Hopkins University was the first under Herbert Baxter Adams. In the same era, American works were translated into Japanese to launch the study of world and Western history, while American scholars set up universities in Japan, China, and Korea.

Large-scale historical meetings in Europe began in 1898, convened by German scholars; they met twice more before the Great War. Out of the tradition of periodic congresses came the 1926 foundation of the Comité International des Sciences Historiques (CISH), with quinquennial meetings. The United States, a founding member, was represented by Waldo Leland, who had earlier been AHA executive secretary and became president of CISH in 1938. (The AHA’s Leland Prize, for an outstanding reference tool, was created in his memory in 1981.) The AHA continued to be represented at CISH, and after 1950 CISH gradually extended its leadership beyond Europe (electing board members from Mexico and Japan). Still, CISH has been predominantly Eurocentric for most of its history, meeting outside Europe for the first time in 1975, in San Francisco. Thereafter, as English gradually replaced French as the language of international discourse, the label of CISH became anglicized: it is now known as the International Congress of Historical Sciences, and it uses both CISH and ICHS as acronyms.

If travel was difficult, mail worked well. Historical journals, published in all areas of the world, circulated widely; American university libraries, large by world standards, subscribed to journals from all regions. The journals make clear the activity of professional historians in European countries and in Japan, India, Russia, China, Australia, Mexico, and (later) Turkey, Brazil, and Nigeria. Historians in the United States, relying on major libraries, have thus been able to draw on the historical writings of scholars in many countries. New universities and new historical journals took form after World War II, especially in decolonizing regions, including the Association of Historians of Africa, which formed in 1972 and joined CISH in 1976.

Besides study abroad, major conferences, flows of books and journals, exchanges among universities, and public debates, links among historians may also include new and old stories of maritime history and of the African diaspora.

Meanwhile, other international connections developed among historians. The International Economic History Association formed (and became an affiliate of CISH) in 1960, for which negotiations between Fernand Braudel of France and M. M. Postan of the United Kingdom were especially important. Braudel’s view of the Mediterranean world influenced Americans, most notably Bernard Bailyn, as he began studies of Atlantic history, and Immanuel Wallerstein, as he developed the notion of the modern world-system.

Another form of historical exchange, not always positive, has been the debates and history wars within and between countries. These public debates have been more about memory than about history, but historical evidence and interpretations are central to them. After 70 years, echoes of the Pacific struggles during World War II continue in debates about war guilt among partisans in Japan, China, and Korea. Echoes of the same war and of later wars ring throughout the Middle East even today. India and Pakistan sustain contending interpretations of the past that arise from the partition of British India in 1947. Australia has its national history wars over the role of indigenous Australians and the “white Australia” policy. Migration, as it spreads in every direction, brings disputes phrased in historical terms.

In other words, historians exchange information and interpretations across geographic boundaries by many means. Besides study abroad, major conferences, flows of books and journals, exchanges among universities, and public debates, one may also include new and old stories of maritime history and of the African diaspora, linking historians and populations among many regions.

Herbert Baxter Adams studied in Germany before helping to found the AHA. Matthew Brady/Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons  My point is that the historical profession of the United States, well organized as it is, has long fit into a worldwide network of historical studies. While the extent of international connection has grown recently because of expanded levels of historical study in many parts of the world (facilitated by Internet links), the international dimension of historical studies has existed from the first. While there may be generational alternations in focus, shifting from local to global and back, it is not uncommon that we historians balance the inward look at our own community with an outward gaze at lands beyond the next hill or across the waters.

By 2015, Eurocentrism had faded considerably and the worldwide conference of historians met in China. The ICHS conference brought 950 delegates from 90 countries (plus over 2,000 delegates from China) to Shandong University in Jinan. There, amid many well-attended panels, the ICHS leadership began an energetic campaign to increase the number of its national affiliates from 50. At the Jinan meeting, an international poster session brought numerous responses from early career scholars; Shandong University, which is building a program in world history, announced that it had designated $10,000 in prize money for top poster presenters at future ICHS conferences.

Individual historians from the United States played leading roles in the Jinan meeting—as delegates and in prominent panels on women’s history and digital history. Joel Harrington (Vanderbilt Univ.), chair of the AHA’s Committee on International Historical Activities, became a member of the ICHS board, just as Karen Offen of Stanford University stepped down. The ICHS presidency shifted from Marjatta Hietala (Finland) to Andrea Giardina (Italy); Eliana Dutra of Brazil succeeded Hilda Sabato of Argentina as vice president; and the office of secretary-general shifted to Catherine Horel, a historian of eastern Europe at the Sorbonne. Poznan, a charming medieval Polish city, was selected as the venue for the 2020 congress.

At the same time, the leadership of ICHS gave substantial attention to expanding studies in world and global history through its affiliate, the Network of Global and World History Organizations (NOGWHISTO). In a one-day conference and a major evening session within ICHS, NOGWHISTO cemented its position as the first federation of historians that is global in practice as well as in name. NOGWHISTO, which includes world-historical affiliates on every continent plus the International Big History Association, took form from 2007 to 2012 with assistance from the Universities of Leipzig, Pittsburgh, and Sydney.

In sum, global connections in the discipline of history have been continuous and are still expanding. Still, countervailing forces tend to keep historians within separate national or continental groupings. Here, for example, is a concluding footnote about the differences in academic conference schedules in North America and the rest of the world. North American academic meetings take place annually at the national level, in our isolated and continental countries. For Europe and Asia, the equivalent academic meetings are international and meet biennially or triennially. The two types of schedules don’t fit well. Of the meetings I attend, the Social Science History Association and the World History Association meet annually, but the European Social Science History Conference meets every two years, and the Asian Association of World Historians meets every three years.

I don’t know what changes in meeting schedules to predict, but I can see that historians are gaining a steadily longer list of good conferences to consider attending. In that context, I offer this reminder that the AHA has served not only to link elements of the historical profession within the United States, but has also played a role in historical studies internationally. AHA, with its strong institutions and its platform for the voices of historians, has supported international collaboration among historians in the past and is poised to sustain that role in the future.

Patrick Manning is president of the American Historical Association.


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