Summary of Stefan Berger’s “History and national identity: why they should remain divorced”

(One of my first university pieces)

Stefan Berger’s article is intrinsically critical of historiographic nationalism in its description of the development of this over the past few centuries. It explores the ideas of patriotism and implores that a separation between national history and national identity is key, though this is often confused or ignored.

Berger begins introducing the idea that national history and national identity have long been associated as a simple matter of political pride; this is evident in Gordon Brown’s concern for a lack of so-called ‘Britishness’. However, as the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries demonstrate with the nationalist swing to the American and French revolutions, the idea of historiographic nationalism was born largely liberal, only developing its right wing agenda towards the late-nineteenth-early-twentieth centuries. At this point in time we see an event of what Berger refers to as ‘hyper-nationalism’[1], an event that sees nationalism associate itself with decades of violence, war and genocide in early twentieth century Europe.

Moving on, Berger discusses the slight lack of distinction between east and west Europe in terms of their attitude towards historiographic nationalism, though it is notable that some parts of Europe have a more distinct understanding of the relationship between their national history and identity. In this, the independence of the state highlights the issue of the nation and national agenda, as in post-Soviet states. Subsequently, political commentators have been led to question whether devolution in nations such as Britain will allow for a more comprehensive appreciation of historiographic nationalism despite the fact that even some modern historians openly promote it.

Intellectual development over time has directed perspectives on historiographic nationalism to change; from the Enlightenment historians who wrote to map trends in human development to the Romantic historians of the early nineteenth century who were more concerned with the development of specific countries in their progression to creating a national identity. Originally, efforts to write local or global histories failed to achieve great substance on their own due to the resounding importance of nationalism in issues such as class, religion and race and indeed the way that these histories were written.  However, attempts to avoid a nationalistic approach to history have vastly accelerated in progress since the 1980s.

As well as the growing transnationalisation of historical writing, the growth of constructivism proved hugely important. Expansion in the study of deliberate creation of a national identity for a political agenda curbed the significance of nationalism as an academic standing. Furthermore, the existence of new fields in history exacerbated the decline in nationalism; progression in world history, historical anthropology, gender studies and comparative histories all played a part in this. Particularly fields such as women’s history took off in the late twentieth century providing a new perspective on history that did not concern national interests but looked at history in two parts – the role of the male and the corresponding role of the female. Similarly, comparative historical writing has progressed to allow historians to take a step away from bias in the form of nationalism.

To conclude the article, Berger sums up his argument with some key arguments. Firstly, that the developments in historiographic nationalism mean that historians are less prone to promote nationalism despite the fact that it remains unquestionably popular. Secondly, that politicians would be astute to leave nationalism in the political past due to its history of exclusion and consequently unspeakable violence and war – alluding that Gordon Brown’s concern with Britishness is somewhat misguided. Finally, a proposal that focus on projects such as Third World development and global environment protection is the key to ignoring nationalist agendas and ultimately progressing to a world of greater solidarity.

[1] Stefan Berger, “History and national identity: why they should remain divorced”, (December 2007) <http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/history-and-national-identity-why-they-should-remain-divorced&gt; [accessed 10th October 2013]

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