Throughout the period of modern Europe from around 1750 onwards, the space of the nation and the nation-state (by no means the same!) were important spaces for historical writing. Historians often constructed both nations and nation states. The institutionalisation of a historical profession went hand in hand with a nationalisation of history writing that fully comes into its own with the search of Romantic historians for national authenticity and peculiarity. The high point of historiographical nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century showed the full destructiveness of attempts to construct national superiority through history. Historians became deeply embroiled in acts of warfare, genocide and ethnic cleansing. It was only through a delayed break with such historiographical nationalism, kicking in during the late 1950s that more critical forms of history writing came to the fore. However, these critical historiographies often remained as national as their apologetic counterparts and the face of historiographical nationalism resurfaced in the second half of the twentieth century, be it in the Communist national histories painted red, be in the regional histories of multi-national states wanting to reconstruct regions and nations, be it in the Yugoslav civil wars or be it in the Eurosceptic wings of virtually all states belonging the European Union.
Yet in contemporary Europe, arguably more so than ever before, professional historians are also holding the line against historiographical nationalism and championing methods and forms of history writing such as comparative and transnational history that work against a national tunnel vision in historiography, whilst others are attempting to arrive at more self-reflective and playful forms of national history writing that avoid the nationalisms of the past but retain the historiographical interest in the nation state and its development. Dutch historians, such as Maria Grever and Siep Stuurmann, problematizing the attempt of the Dutch state to formulate a prescriptive canon of history teaching for Dutch schools in the 2000s, are a good example of a far more aware historical profession regarding the pitfalls of historiographical nationalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Grever & Stuurmann, 2007).
National history writing has been the dominant form of history writing in Europe for a very long time, and it would be foolish to underestimate its power even in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Its strength has been related to its remarkable ability to subsume many of its potential spatial and non-spatial rivals under its remit. Thus local and regional histories were constructed as major components of national history. National histories were invested with a variety of transnational missions, be they European or imperial. Many global and universal histories were structured along national lines. And histories of class, religion, ethnicity, culture, civilisation and race were effectively nationalised over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All of this had important repercussions for history learning through a wide variety of scenarios from reading about history in national newspapers to learning history in schools and through reading historical novels, looking at history paint?ings or listening to opera and symphonic music that adopted national themes. Professional national historians reached limited audiences, but amongst this limited audience were many multipliers of grand historical narratives who in turn popularised those narratives through diverse media and in different settings. Hence national historians were able to set the tone about national history in European societies for a very long time, and I would argue, despite an undeniable loss of status in contemporary Europe, they remain important, self- proclaimed but also wide recognised “guardians” of the past today.