Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Historiography of the Early Midde Ages and National Homogeneity

Götz Aly (via Ralph Luker and Dale Light) writes that it's time for a "complete overhaul of the historical contextualisation of the Holocaust" and points to the work of Raul Hilberg ("The Destruction of the European Jews") and Jacob Burckhardt ("The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy"). As a medievalist, Aly's reference to Burckhardt's work caught my eye and called to mind something important about the historiography of the Early Middle Ages. According to Aly:
[Burckhardt] showed, and he still shows today, how Europe freed itself from the tightly woven veil of "faith, illusion and childish prepossession."

Admittedly, the twentieth century forces us to assume that on the path towards emancipation, the Europeans succumbed to their own modernity, falling victim to more than just a new illusion. In World Wars, in revolutions and also in peace treaties, they put two old ideas into bloody practice: national and social homogenization. (emphasis in original)
Aly goes on to discuss the good and bad aspects of this homogenization in modern European history and his effort to re-contextualize the Holocaust is important. More on that later. My immediate interest lay in the tangential topic of how the contemporary influence of the "national and social homogenization" of the early to mid- 20th century is revealed in the historiography of the early middles ages.

The first important point to make is that the concept of a homogenous people did not originate in the 19th century with the disciples of Ranke or Hegel. The ancient Roman writers Pliny the Elder, Tacitus and Ptolemy already had classified "other" peoples with whom they came into contact in a generic sort of way. In short, there has always been a tendency to homogenize (or generalize) about a society different than one's own. Yet, that is only part of the story. It was the ancient's method of assigning specific identities to the variety of Germanic groups that attracted the attention of the modern historians. (I'm going to focus on the Germanic peoples, who were but one of many groups of "others"--lest we forget Caesar and his Gauls--because I'm most familiar with that particular historiography).

Working from ancient sources, the 19th century historians mined written sources and oral tradition for linguistic evidence to set various Germanic tribes in time and place. According to Patrick Geary (Myth of Nations, p. 16), the impetus for this research was the compilation of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH). Unfortunately, the conclusions derived from the research behind the MGH, which relied heavily on classifying people according their language family, led to the derivation of various historic nationalities based on this new "scientific" evidence. This new evidence was used--and ultimately misused--by eager archaelogists and the new field of ethnoarchaeology was born. Gustaf Kossinna was at the forefront of these efforts.

Malcolm Todd explained that (The Northern Barbarians, p. 20-21) the centerpiece of the ethnoarchaelogists' theory was an idea of ethnic homogeneity that allowed them to link particular people mentioned in the classic works of Pliny, Tacitus, and others to both the work of the philologists and to specific archeological finds. By determining through philology where a people lived, the ethnoarchaeologists assigned the relics found in those areas to those pre-identified groups. Perhaps Christopher Wickham (Early Medieval Italy, 68) best explained the flaw in this theory, writing,
A man or woman with a Lombard-style brooch is no more necessarily a Lombard than a family in Bradford with a Toyota is Japanese; artifacts are no secure guide to ethnicity.
Nonetheless, the goal of those like Kossinna was to provide continuity from ancient sources, through the middle ages, and to their own time by providing "historical evidence" to buttress claims of a sort of natural right to nationhood. Kossinna’s method convinced himself and others that the Germans had been an ethnically homogenous people from the Bronze age through the Roman Iron Age.

Using this evidence, a race of people, whose forefathers could claim bloodlines from ancient times, would be justified making a legitimate claim to a specific geographical area, even if it lay outside the current borders of a defined nation. Thus, a viable foundation for the establishment and expansion of an ethnically homogenous nation could be made and this fed into the hyper-nationalism that swept Europe and was used to such nefarious ends by the Third Reich during the Second World War.

In the years immediately following World War II, an understandable reaction within the historical community occurred against this nationalistic, ethnically homogenous interpretation. Initially, some historians disclaimed any such thing as a Germanic culture prior to 100 B.C. Subsequent scholarship has since determined that there did exist a traceable Germanic culture during the Iron Age. However, the idea of of an ethnically and culturally united Germanic people is no longer supported.

[SIDENOTE: For instance, as Todd explained in Everyday Life of The Barbarians (p. 10), archaeology has shown that the Celts and Germans were not so ethnically distinct as portrayed by Tacitus and Caesar and that the Rhine as a dividing line between the two cultures was not only misleading, but it obscured a third people who were neither Celtic nor Germanic, though they were culturally similar to both.]

This brings us back to Aly's piece, which explains how the Holocaust--while not the first example of ethnic cleansing in Europe--serves as a "touchstone" for the subsequent "ethnically and socially motivated mass mobilization and 'cleansing'" in Europe. As I've explained, historians have for the most part disavowed the scholarship that undergirded the ideology of a nationhood based on a historically homogenous society. However, the concept of an a priori, historically self-contained, ethnically and culturally consistent nation remains central to the historical narratives of many European nations.

As Aly explains, a new historiography that links the various occasions in which different European nations attempted to purify their societies would highlight the inherently false structure of the perpetually and naturally homogenous society. Hopefully, it would lead nations down the path toward dealing with the "other" in their midst in a different way.

Every nation has its own cultural mores which contribute to a society's sense of self (so to speak) and sovereignty. A nation's willingness to embrace people of different cultures (who are there legally, of course!) by both accepting their differences and helping them to understand the expectations that their new society has of them can only make itself stronger.

1 comment:

josh narins said...

My comment was that language is the principle vector for culture.

That not religion, which is often cited by people, but language, is the most important thing to study when trying to understand terrorism.

I point to historical periods when important events end up being determined by language.

The Great Schism of 1054, Latin vs Greek
The Protestant Reformation, Romance vs Germanic
The Peace of Westphalia, which seems to have divided Europe along linguistic lines
The 1815 Congress of Vienna, which did the same.
The propaganda of Hitler, who first tied Austria, then Sudetenland, then Poland, to German speaking people.
The Iron Curtain, which divided Romance and Germanic people from Slavic and Finno-Ugric.
The redivision of Yugoslavia, mostly along linguistic lines
the seccessionist Quebecois

and then I look at the major international terrorism problems on Earth:
The Uyghur(Altaic) in China(Sino-Tibetan)
The Basque(Basque) in Spain(Indo-European Romance)
The Chechen(Caucasian) in Russia(Indo-European Slavic)
the Tamil(Dravidian) in India(Indo-European Indic)

and then say to myself, that this explains Arabic-English conflict, too.

We don't communicate.

All irritants necessarily get more inflamed.

Here is the first page in my Language and Conflict series.