Histories of Nations

Histories of Nations: How their Identities were Forged
Peter Furtado (ed.)
Thames & Hudson   320pp   £24.95

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When I was a young history undergraduate I attended a riveting lecture by that brilliant and charismatic medievalist Walter Ullmann, an Austrian immigrant to Britain and one of the world’s great experts on the papacy. He was speaking about the so-called Donation of Constantine, an infamous document of dubious origin whereby imperial Rome was purported to have ceded authority to the Church. Ullmann painted a vivid picture of the clash between political and spiritual power in early medieval Europe, homed in on the Donation and concluded with a gleeful rhetorical flourish: ‘This,’ he exclaimed, ‘was how the supreme authority of the medieval papacy was forged!’ We students couldn’t avoid a silent giggle at the double-entendre.

A great deal of what passes for history might be said to be forged. Or, at least, the facts of the past constantly reconstrued to fit changing perspectives. And this is particularly true of national histories. Was Russia (or ‘Rus’) the creation of Norsemen? Yes, if – like Peter the Great and his successors – you are a determined westerniser; emphatically not to centuries of equally adamant Slavophiles. Has it been right for historians of ‘France’ to incorporate events that occurred long ago in Provence? Was the Risorgimento an heroic uprising against Austria that united Italians in their aspirations for a nation state, or a civil war in which the chief loser was the papacy? For some nations, such as India, the early record is sparse (and its history mostly written by foreigners), so one can understand the need to resort to myth; in China, by contrast, a continuous historiographical tradition going back to ancient times has been recurrently invoked by regimes seeking ancestral reinforcement. In the US historians have often presented their nation as having been unique, a new kind of state transcending the historical processes and transformations of others.

These and similar issues pop up throughout Peter Furtado’s immaculately edited and superbly illustrated new book. It can have been no easy task to co-ordinate the efforts of 28 historians from around the world, each contributing a chapter about his or her own ‘nation’ and its history, but it is one for which Furtado, a former editor of History Today, is well equipped. One suspects he ruled his roost with a light hand and a finicky reader might carp about variable definitions of nationhood and of the time periods considered. ‘Egypt’ begins some 4,000 years ago but the chapter contains little about shifts in Egyptian historiography, while ‘Japan’ has interesting material about the nation’s alternating bouts of exceptionalism and modernity but goes back no further than Admiral Perry in 1853.

Minor reservations aside, there is no doubt about the timeliness of this volume. In recent decades a number of fierce ‘history wars’ have broken out in which revisionist scholars have attempted to pin new interpretations of the past onto hitherto accepted national narratives. Thirty years ago Australian history was widely interpreted as starting in 1788; today that has been pushed back 40,000 years or more. In Germany, where some solace was formerly achieved by regarding the Hitler regime as a 12-year aberration, recent scholarship has explained Nazism as the culmination of a far longer historical process, one that led, moreover, to unimaginable suffering not only by the victims of German aggression but also by millions of ordinary Germans. In Spain civil war historians have increasingly come to highlight the atrocities of the Franco regime, while in Israel controversial prominence has recently been given to brutalities committed against the Arab foe during the nation’s war of independence (or Nakba – ‘day of catastrophe’ – depending on your perspective). Turkey, like Britain, a nation whose history is deeply marked by the ambivalent legacy of a former empire, agonises over alternative readings of the massacre of its Armenian minority after the First World War; while Russia, nationally re-assertive, gives renewed emphasis to the leadership of Stalin in helping achieve victory in the Second.

All these nations and many more are represented in this rich and multi-layered volume. Like all histories those about nations (including our own) evidently seem to involve a never-ending job of – not forgery exactly – let’s call it ‘reconstruction’.

Daniel Snowman's books include a study of the 'Hitler Emigres' and The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (Atlantic, 2010)

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