Hereditas Historiae

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George Iggers - A retrospect at the beginning of the twenty-first century (2005)

'It has been seven years since this book* first appeared in English and more than ten years since the original German edition was published. The important changes in the world scene brought about by the end of the Cold War had by then been reflected only in small part in historical studies. In the last third of the twentieth century, the turn from an emphasis on the analytical social sciences to cultural factors continued, but with more diversified foci in the face of the rapidly changing world scene.

At the end of this book considerable attention was paid to the so-called postmodernist challenges to objective historical scholarship, but in recent years postmodernism has received less attention among historians. In fact, the radical postmodern position was largely restricted to the United State - and, as we shall see, Indi - and to a lesser extent to Great Britain, although many of its intellectual roots derived from French poststructuralism. Its basic assumption - that language is a self-referential system that does not reflect but creates reality - denied the possibility of reconstructing the past as it was actually lived by human beings and abrogated the borderline between historical narratives and fiction. An extreme formulation of this radical position was voiced by Keith Jenkins in 1997, when he wrote that the whole modern conception of history (that is, that the historian can recapture the historical past), “now appears as a self-referential, problematical expression of interests, an ideological interpretative discourse…. In fact, history now appears to be just one more foundationless, positioned expression in a world of foundationless, positioned expressions.”

But this hardly corresponds to the assumptions with which historians operate, even today after the postmodernist challenge. The question of how one re-creates the past has become considerably more complex than it was either for the older political school or for social science–oriented historiography. The sheer objectivism of older historical scholarship has long been abandoned. As a matter of fact, it had never been unqualifiedly accepted by serious historians. Yet the awareness grew in recent years that historians approach their subject matter with questions and that the way to answer them is affected by the linguistic and conceptual tools with which historians construct their account. But the radical form of postmodernist epistemological relativism has had little influence on historical study and historical writing. Nevertheless, ideas deriving from postmodernist thought and from the “linguistic turn” are reflected today in a great deal of historical writing, although these ideas originate not directly from postmodernism as such but from related developments in historical thought and practice.

Thus, indirectly, ideas similar to those of postmodernism continued to exert a profound influence on the reorientation of historical thought. This involves the questioning of history as a unilinear directional process leading to present day Western civilization. The radical consequence drawn from this redefinition of history - that history lacks all coherence - did not necessarily follow. Yet historians began to turn from constructing macrohistories to paying greater attention to smaller segments: to the lives and, significantly, to the experiences of little people. All this also had relevance for the way in which historians dealt with sources. The great impact here came less from postmodernist theories than from cultural anthropology, linguistics, and semiotics, which all shared in the transformation of the intellectual climate in the last decades of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. As we already saw, since the “linguistic turn” of the 1980s, attention increasingly was paid to the role of language in the form of discourse. Nevertheless, historians differed on the significance of language for historical inquiry.  While Joan Scott  argued that the texts with which the historian worked had no direct relation to an actual past—that language did not reflect but created reality—many more historians saw language and discourse as important tools for historical understanding yet also were aware that this linguistic turn occurred within specific sociohistorical contexts.

At the same time, the conviction held by many social science–oriented historians, that political changes and events can best be explained in terms of social and economic factors, continued to lose credence. In the last ten years there have been two distinct new emphases in the treatment of political history. The conception of what constitutes the political sphere broadened. Much political history, including that written by social science historians, still in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the state, generally the nation state, as the center of political activity domestically and internationally. This was true not only of historians in Europe and the English-speaking countries but also in China, Japan, and Korea, where national history had replaced dynastic history early in the twentieth century and in the states in Asia and Africa that became independent after 1945. Yet even in the former colonial states, the idea of the nation state has been challenged in recent years, most importantly in India, where since the 1980s historians of the group around the Subaltern Studies have emphasized not only that the Western idea of the nation state is elitist but that it is inapplicable to older Indian history with its social and cultural diversities. But new foci appeared - particularly in the United States - which placed greater emphasis on social, ethnic, and gender-related factors. The nation was now less frequently seen as an organic unit with a unified sense of identity but rather as a conglomerate of subordinate identifiable units. The exhibit of the National Museum of History in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s reflected the notion of a multiethnic nation with different traditions, yet it is this multiculturalism that is reshaping American identity without dissolving it.

Moreover, the concept of class - still popular in social history - underwent change. E.P. Thompson in Making of the English Working Class (1963) understood class no longer solely in socio-economic terms but as also involving outlooks and patterns of thought - in brief, aspects of culture. But this view with roots in Marxism, even if now Cultural Marxism, which still saw class as an integrative and integrating unit, seems outdated today, because it fails to take into account the much more complex character of societies. Ethnicity, gender, religion, and ideologies, among other factors, have assumed much greater importance in the analysis of politics and societies. At times this has led to an isolation of cultural history, neglecting the larger configuration of economic and political factors.

Moreover the concept of what constitutes not just the political, but also the social, sphere has broadened in two ways. One, which we have just mentioned, is the extension of the political and social spheres to encompass the diverse elements of culture; the other entails understanding the private sphere in terms of power relations that involve aspects of everyday life. Michel Foucault had already prepared the ground for understanding how power relations operate on the interpersonal level. While the exercise of power previously had been seen in terms of such powerful central institutions as government or the economy, the extragovernmental forms in which power operates and permeates all aspects of life received greater attention. Again the danger remains that the socio-political and economic contexts of culture are neglected.

And this brings us to recent feminist history, in which the broadened conception of power plays a central role. A key idea of feminist history was the subjugation of women. Earlier feminist history had been accused of being “too white, too middle class, and too heterosexual.” Feminist history increasingly gave way in the 1990s to “gender” studies, that is, the relation of women and men in a historical and social context. Here questions of economic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, legislation, mores, and customs were addressed.

Postmodernist ideas played a greater role in feminist theory than in other areas of historical thought. For some feminist theorists, like Joan Scott, patterns of patriarchal domination were deeply embedded in traditional language and in the “logo-centric” tradition of Western philosophy since classical antiquity, thereby calling for the deconstruction of all historical, political, and philosophic texts of the West. On more empirical grounds, feminist scholars studied the means by which women and other subordinated or marginalized groups sought to affect the status quo and also reexamined from a new feminist perspective such crucial aspects of history as the emergence of capitalism, the French Revolution, slavery and emancipation, social reform in North America and Europe, civil rights, and national liberation movements in the colonial world. Increasingly since the mid-1980s, examinations of the differences among women have supplemented those between men and women. But an important development of the last fifteen years has been that women’s history and gender history have been increasingly integrated into general history.

Another area that was affected by ideas parallel to postmodernism without fully sharing its epistemological relativism concerns the central role of memory. A great deal of the reconstruction of historical memory relies on oral history. Oral history was well established by the 1980s. As early as the 1930s, a major publicly funded project in the United States interrogated the few surviving former slaves. As mentioned earlier in the book, an extensive German oral history project in the 1980s explored how common people, particularly industrial workers, experienced the Third Reich. In the final days of the Soviet Union the Memorial oral history group sought through individual interviews to reconstruct life under Stalinism. By the 1990s, not only the experiences of victims of the Nazi Holocaust but also testimony by perpetrators were extensively studied. Although aware of the unreliability of oral testimony, the purpose of these interviews was still to gain a better understanding of a real past. A second, very different, approach to historical memory was initiated by the French editors of the collection Lieux de Mémoire (Places of Memory). The editors proposed an alternative to established academic history, which sought to reestablish the past on the basis of documentary evidence, and instead focused on history as it was remembered collectively. Instead of individual memories, it relied on such tangible reminders as monuments, national holidays, and sacred places that shaped collective identity. For the editors of Lieux de Mémoire this was national identity and specifically a French identity. A major project at the German Historical Museum in Berlin explored how European peoples as well as those in the United States and Israel remembered their past, studying the key roles that legends and myths played in the invention of national identities.

While on the one hand historical writing tended more often to turn from macro to microthemes and from large processes and structures to the small and local, the condition of the contemporary world made inescapable large-scale investigations of the transformations that present-day societies are undergoing. Two very different syntheses resulted from the changed conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We have already briefly mentioned Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, published in 1992. “All countries undergoing economic modernization,” he argued, “must increasingly resemble each other.” This leads Fukuyama to the question of “Whether at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of mankind that will eventually lead the major part of mankind to liberal democracy,” a question that he answers in the affirmative. The driving motor for this development is for him the capitalist market economy; the model that heralds the future is the United States. Fukuyama was confident that a world made up of liberal democracies would have little incentive to wage war.

This conception turned out to be an illusion, as the events after the end of the Cold War soon showed. It rested on a very simplistic model of modernization that must have appeared inadequate to many social and political historians who, even before 1989, already were very much aware of the role of culture and of cultural divisions. It also operated with a conception of liberal, capitalist democracies as harmonious societies that failed to take into consideration the role of social inequality and conflict among various interest groups, be they economic, ideological, religious, gender, or ethnic. And it set Western conditions as the norm for non-Western societies.

Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations (1996), presented a countermodel that stressed the role of culture, while de-emphasizing economic and social factors. “In the post-Cold War world,” he wrote, “the most important distinctions among people are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.” Like Spengler and Toynbee earlier in the last century, he identifies a number of civilizations as the decisive units on the world scene and foresees continuing conflicts among these civilizations, especially among the West, the Islamic world, and China. But he sees these cultures in essentialist terms, as organic units in which transformations in time and internal divisions did not play a major role. Jettisoning all hopes for international peace and coexistence, he argues: “The survival of the West depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilization as unique and not universal, and uniting to renew and preserve it against challenges from non-Western societies.” For him this also means that the multiculturalism endorsed by many social and cultural historians today represents a cancer that threatens to destroy the West.

Neither Fukuyama’s nor Huntington’s model has been taken seriously in recent historiography, not only because of the political implications of their work but also because they operate on a speculative plane of global history alien to historians who avoid such schemes in their empirical work. However, the developments of the past decade and a half have shown that neither the turn to micro-history nor the older patterns of national and regional history are sufficient for dealing with the transformations that are taking place on a global scale. It is important to reexamine the character of modernization. With the cultural turn in historical thought since the 1970s, the very notion of modernization went out of fashion. Modernization assumed the progressive replacement of “traditional” by “modern” outlooks, institutions, and behavior. The driving forces were intellectual, scientific, technological, and, most important, economic. Its roots were in Western culture, but its scope was universal. It assumed the interrelatedness among “the emergence of capitalism, industrialization, the rise of liberal democratic structures, the building of the nation state, the emergence of pluralist society and social relations built on achievement, the advancement of science, certain personality structures, certain belief systems, and [various] states of mind.”21 The idea of modernization was rejected on two grounds, first of all because of its macrohistorical character. It imposed a master narrative on history, but history, as its critics argued, was not a coherent, directional process. Second, it was rejected because it viewed the development of history as normative and desirable, desirable not only for the West but for the world generally. It overlooked the negative sides of progress and modernization, the great catastrophes of the twentieth century: world wars, genocide, and fascist and Communist dictatorships. For many of its critics it was closely connected with Western imperialism in its colonial and post-colonial forms, involving the political, economic, and cultural domination of the non-West. The critique of modernization and Western modernity with its supposed roots in the Enlightenment offered by some Indian intellectuals in recent years also took a form similar to that put forward by postmodernist thinkers in the West.

Yet it is indisputable that there are processes of modernization taking place before our eyes, most clearly in the scientific, technological, and, of course, economic spheres, and that in these areas modernization, although largely Western in origin, has transformed societies globally. Thus modernization must be taken seriously on a world scale. The older models of modernization are obviously insufficient when applied to non-Western societies, and in previous chapters we saw that these models also proved to be inadequate for the analysis of developments in the West. As we saw earlier in this book, German historians in the 1960s and 1970s sought to explain why the course of German history in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries deviated from what they considered the normal process of modernization as represented by Great Britain or the United States, in which industrialization was accompanied by democratization. Recent studies have shown not only that there were differing paths of modernization in Europe - German National Socialism, Italian Fascism, and Soviet Communism also represented forms of modernization - but that the much-praised English model did not reflect the complexities and contradictions of modern English, French, or American history. (…)

The study of modernities by necessity leads to comparative global studies. The years since 1990 have seen an increasing expansion of historical studies beyond national and Western themes. Yet at this point there have been many discussions of the desirability of global historical studies and of the methodologies required but little actual work. The professional historians have been at a disadvantage compared to historical sociologists. Particularly in Europe, historians have concentrated until now on their national histories; in the United States since World War II relatively more historians have become specialists in non-Western fields, but generally with an expertise on a particular region. Historians also have been trained to rely on archives and primary materials, which tended to tie them to national or local history. In contrast, many sociologists, economists, and even political scientists viewed their science in nomothetic, macrohistorical terms, seeking generalizations. Historians today increasingly turn to comparative intercultural studies. (…)

The need for global history is obvious today, yet a large number of conceptual and methodological problems still need to be solved. Given the complexities of societies and culture, comparative studies—and this is even more the case when comparisons operate on an intercultural, global plane—require clear definitions of what is to be compared and by what methods. In this sense the Weberian conception of “ideal types” is not outdated. But we are aware today that globalization, driven by market forces, has not resulted in homogenization on cultural, social, political, or even economic planes but rather in diversifications rooted in indigenous traditions. Aware of the complexities of intercultural and intersocietal comparisons, and also realizing that globalization is not a one-way process by which the patterns of the highly developed capitalist countries are transferred abroad, historians and social scientists engaged in comparative studies have in the last few years begun to speak of “entangled histories.” It is also evident that global studies cannot be carried out by individual historians in isolation but instead require the coordinated cooperation of researchers in various fields as well as interdisciplinary methodologies that integrate historical inquiry with the social and cultural sciences and the humanities. At this point we are still very much at the beginning of such coordinated projects. (…)

So far in this book we have dealt primarily with Western historiography. In part this dates its first edition. There is, however, some justification for this approach. The flow of historical, or for that matter social-scientific, work has until now been largely in one direction, from Western countries outward. (…)

A final word about recent histories of historiography. Many of the works have followed traditional lines little affected by the literary turn which Hayden White introduced with Metahistory in 1973. A number of books on the history of historical writing appeared in the 1990s in Western languages, yet all of them, including this book, dealt only with European and North American authors. There was no comparative intercultural examination of historical thought. A number of collections of essays have appeared that dealt with approaches to history in individual cultures, important stepping-stones to a broadly comparative approach. But this comprehensive perception is still lacking. The problems we have mentioned that make it difficult to write global history also confront an intercultural, comparative study of historiography. Such a history is still a project for the future.' 

Note (*). The mentioned book was: Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivitity to the Postmodern Challenge (1997).

Postcript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

The (abridged) quotation is taken from the epilogue from the 2005-edition of George Iggers' Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivitity to the Postmodern Challenge (2005). Iggers republished the original text, but wrote a new epilogue. Quotations from the original 1997-book are also to be found in this section of "In pursuit of truthful history stories". 

George Iggers is professor at University at Buffalo (State University of New York). The book was written while Iggers , German born but with a career in the United States of America, was professor at this university. From 1995-2000 he was president of the International Commission for the History and Theory of Historiography. Having fled the Nazi’s as a child, he has been active in the Civil Right movements in the US.

Iggers is the editor of a collection of writings by Von Ranke. Leopold von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History. Edited with an introduction by George G. Iggers. New translations by Wilma A. Iggers (London & New York 2011).