Increasing Professionalisation and Nationalisation of History Writing After 1850

In many European countries the generation of Romantic historians was severely criticised by a generation of self-consciously professional historians that came of age in most regions of Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. They were usually employed at the universities and academies of Europe and, because of their professional training as historians, regarded themselves as the only authoritative interpreters of the past. What did their professional ethos consist of? Much of it was due to a notion of rigorous source criticism mixed with the rigid application of the philological-hermeneutic methods that had already been championed by the early modern source collecting schools as well as philologists and historians such as Barthold Georg Niebuhr around 1800 (Witte, 1979). Whilst much of the methodology that nineteenth-century university historians were to use to justify their special professional status had already been in place during the Renaissance (Burke, 1969), it was nevertheless that reference to the special methodological and theoretical training that allowed university-based historians to claim greater professionalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. Professional university historians invented their own myths of origin with reference to the towering figure of Leopold von Ranke and the Berlin school of history writing. Based on philology and the close familiarity with the archives and sources, Rankean forms of history writing and the training it presupposed in historical seminars located at the universities became the precondition for all “true” forms of history writing in Europe.

The professionalisation of historical writing made huge advances from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. The historical seminar was introduced everywhere and schools of history emerged within identifiable historiographical traditions that were institutionalised in the universities and academies of European states. The number of history professors increased and they also came to dominate many of the historical societies in Europe; history prizes associated with academies and societies were awarded to academy- or university-based historians by their peers. National archives, libraries and museums were professionalised with the help of university- or academy-based historians who played an influential role in the running of those institutions or on advisory boards. The teaching of history in schools was also increasingly scrutinised by professional historians, who, like Ernest Lavisse in France, wrote school books and helped supervise curricular developments (Porciani & Raphael, 2010; Porciani & Tollebeek, 2012). Transnational processes of reception and adaptation were crucial in spreading the professionalisation of history writing across Europe during the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century (Den Boer, 1998; Lingelbach, 2003).

Critical as the new professional historians were of their allegedly unprofessional predecessors and contemporary amateur historians (Grever, 1997; Smith, 1998), they did not break with the strong national orientation of history writing established by the Romantic historians. Quite the contrary, historiographical nationalism increased, as professional historians realised that the national theme in emerging and existing nation states could secure them important patronage and resources from the nation state, if only they were willing to serve that nation state. Yet it was not only pure functionalism that made professional historians prophets of the nation state. In an age of nationalist movements, many historians were convinced of their national mission and followed their vocation passionately. The variants of nationalism they espoused could be quite different. Take, for example, the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke and the Ukranian historian, Mychajlo Hrusevs’kyj. Both penned key national historical narratives for their respective countries. Both were formidable organisers of science, founding and editing journals, playing an important role in historical associations, influencing the edition of sources and building and developing historical institutions. Both had a keen political influence and understood their history writing as a political act. Both, at various times, allied themselves closely to the state in pursuit of their historical and political ambitions. Yet their national historical narratives were on opposing ends of a sliding scale that marked the full span of possibilities when it came to the construction of those national historical narratives. Whereas Treitschke became increasingly a vociferous monarchist, anti-liberal, anti-parliamentarian, anti-socialist, antiCatholic and anti-Semite historian who cultivated a whole host of national enemies, both external and internal to the German nation, Hrusevs’kyj remained more Herderian in his endeavour to formulate the essential characteristics of the Ukranian nation without necessarily degrading other nations or resorting to a rabid othering of particular social, religious and ethnic groups (Langer, 1998; Plokhy, 2005). Within European national historical narratives there remained much of that tension between a cosmopolitan and a xenophobic construction of the nation through history.

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