Nationalist historiography

Historiography is the study of how history is written. One pervasive influence upon the writing of history has been nationalism, a set of beliefs about political legitimacy and cultural identity. Nationalism has provided a significant framework for historical writing in Europe and in those former colonies influenced by Europe since the nineteenth century. According to the medieval historian Patrick J. Geary:

[The] modern [study of] history was born in the nineteenth century, conceived and developed as an instrument of European nationalism. As a tool of nationalist ideology, the history of Europe's nations was a great success, but it has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism, and the poison has seeped deep into popular consciousness.[1]

Origins of national histories

Although the emergence of the nation into political consciousness is often placed in the nineteenth century, attempts by political leaders to craft new national identities, with their dynasty at the center, have been identified as early as the late Roman Empire. The Barbarian rulers of the successor states crafted these new identities on the basis of descent of the ruler from ancient noble families, a shared descent of a single people with common language, custom, and religious identity, and a definition in law of the rights and responsibilities of members of the new nation.[2]

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw the resurgence of national ideologies. During the French revolution a national identity was crafted, identifying the common people with the Gauls. In Germany historians and humanists, such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, identified a linguistic and cultural identity of the German nation, which became the basis of a political movement to unite the fragmented states of this German nation.[3]

A significant historiographical outcome of this movement of German nationalism was the formation of a "Society for Older German Historical Knowledge", which sponsored the editing of a massive collection of documents of German history, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. The sponsors of the MGH, as it is commonly known, defined German history very broadly; they edited documents concerning all territories where German-speaking people had once lived or ruled. Thus, documents from Italy to France to the Baltic were grist for the mill of the MGH's editors.[4]

This model of scholarship focusing on detailed historical and linguistic investigations of the origins of a nation, set by the founders of the MGH, was imitated throughout Europe. In this framework, historical phenomena were interpreted as they related to the development of the nation-state; the state was projected into the past. National histories are thus expanded to cover everything that has ever happened within the largest extent of the expansion of a nation, turning Mousterian hunter-gatherers into incipient Frenchmen. Conversely, historical developments spanning many current countries may be ignored, or analysed from narrow parochial viewpoints.

Other Languages