David Blackbourn’s ‘Germany in the World’ and Dreaming of Transnational Histories

I’ve only got about a week remaining in Moscow before I depart to Los Angeles, which means that – in addition to the usual schedule of copying stuff from archives and, this week, giving talks – I’m scrambling more than usual to write up a legitimate first draft version of my D.Phil., both to keep a scheduling promise I made to myself this summer as well as to give my academic advisers enough time to consider this version before I go in for another round of edits this January, February, and March.

That means a couple of things. For one, there’s more treks and sit-ins at the Starbucks of Moscow than usual for me, as I try to finish polish chapters and conclusions. It means talks like the ones at the American Center, in order to force myself to come up with something to say by imposed deadlines. And it also means trying, in the spare time one has between archives and writing and sipping cups of tea at home – as I do now – trying to read eclectically, not just in fiction but also in other scholarly fields to generate ideas for possible approaches and frameworks to one’s own work.

Hence, rather than trying to plow through dozens of works on Russian peasants in the 1920s, say, I’ve been reading many essays on development by the Stanford Africanist and anthropologist James Ferguson, which themselves suggest reading inroads into the Theory Belt: Homi Bhabha, Manuel Castells, and so on. Reading Ferguson’s essays on Zambia or Angola, there are often points of interesting crossover … or at least that’s what I’m telling myself as I look into a kind-of three-day weekend to re-write a chapter on Soviet advisers in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan in the 1980s. Hopefully I can report back in a few days with good news.

Your humble narrator’s home for another week-and-a-half

In addition to reading through essays on my Kindle, however, there’s also plenty of interesting potential points of connection in the real world. This Tuesday evening, for example, I had the pleasure of attending the annual Humboldt Lecture at the German Historical Institute, ‘Germany in the World, 1500-2000: Writing a Transnational History’, given by Professor David Blackbourn of Vanderbilt University. More than sounding incredibly ambitious, given the time scope, the lecture sounded promising for promising to focus on the ‘transnational’, a word that historians today are prone to throw around with an equal mix of avant-garde chic and disgust. Given that we live, or so we’re told, in a second great age of globalization, it’s perhaps no wonder that historians are prone to look for ‘global’, or ‘transnational’ moments in the past periods we study. Many historians, your author included, live transnational lives, so they’re often bound to sympathize on some level with people who themselves had transnational biographies in the past. And there can be an aura of inevitability, of the wave of the future, about ‘transnational history’ as an idea, too: in an age when the nation-state often seems to be either a debt bomb (Greece), a failed multi-national platform (Syria), or impotent compared to the power of trans-national corporations or financial institutions (Argentina, much of Sub-Saharan Africa), ‘transnational’ sounds dynamic, lean, invigorating, and youthful as compared to national history.

Yet as both skeptical defenders of ‘national’ history are likely to point out, and as even historians who write more transnational projects like myself would hopefully admit, sometimes it’s hard to see what exactly the term means. One issue is logistical: it may sound great to say that you want to work on the dynamic border-crossers of the 16th century, but once one is thrown back onto the archives of the German Agricultural Ministry, or the Soviet Commissariat for Heavy Industry in Pskov oblast’ as the only documents that might exist or be available, dreams of sexy, nimble projects soon fade into the nimbus. Other times, when works with sources like, for example, the files of the State Department or the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, it’s hard to say what exactly distinguishes ‘transnational’ history from the older-school diplomatic history. Sometimes it seems to me that the former has to do with non-state actors as opposed to state-to-state contacts, but there’s little consensus here in the field, I think.

That’s not all. Adding to the confusion is that there were, especially before the 19th and 20th century, and even during it, plenty of organizations that existed independently of nation-states, or had institutional imaginations for themselves that are hard to translate into the terms we 21st century writers are used to: think of the Jesuits, the Muslim League, or (as I’m writing on) the Komsomol – para-national organizations that often had some institutional grounding in nation-states, empires, or regions, and yet were clearly not a part of them in the way that the State Department ‘belongs’ to the United States today.

As should be clear, many of these questions represent less open or closed books and more possibilities for rich debates about how to understand history or institutions. And yet as a befuddled doctoral student in need of words, cuts to chapters, and, most importantly, complete chapters for my dissertation, I came to the Blackbourn talk curious to see what one of the most distinguished historians of Germany, a country that I spent part of my undergraduate education studying and which I have great affection for, might have to say on some of these questions.

‘German history’: hard to locate on a map in Europe, much less the globe

As Blackbourn began, the main question that he wanted to engage in the lecture was one that we might creatively re-purpose for Soviet, or British, or other fields of history: ‘Where did German history happen?’ Germany, obviously, one might say, but this would only run into several problems. Most obviously, ‘Germany’ did not exist as a country until 1871 (although then in a different institutional configuration and geography from ‘Germany’ today). Perhaps even more so than France or Britain, Blackbourn noted, there’s long been a juxtaposition between the German state and the German cultural nation, which one might stretch to include German humanist scholarly communities in Italy or the Netherlands in the early modern period. Perhaps the preëminent figure of the German cultural nation, Goethe, may have expressed it best: ‘Germany: but where is it? I don’t know how to find it. Where the learning begins, the political ends.’

More than that, even if we try to ground our answer to the question of where German history took place back in institutions – of the overseas German Empire of the late 19th and early 20th century, or of the Nazi version in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, we run into conceptual difficulties: just as French colonialists often thought of their holdings in Africa in terms l’Afrique utile and l’Afrique inutile (referring to areas where resources could be easily extracted versus those where this was not so easy), as Blackbourn highlighted, Nazi-era intellectuals and popular discourse of the time was obsessed with ‘space’ (Raum). Perhaps most infamously, Hitler would often speak of Germany’s need for more Lebensraum in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; but other figures in Germany at the time would often contrast the ‘packed’ and ‘overcrowded’ nature of Germany with the so-called leeres Raum (’empty space’) of Eastern Europe (which was of course actually populated in large part by Jews and Slavs).

Political thinkers like Carl Schmitt got in on the action, too: he and figures like Werner Daitz were convinced that the appropriated areas of Eastern Europe and the USSR won during the war could become not just additional inert space to be annexed to the old core German state, but would take on some different fundamentally different role in the empire. Rather than being a global maritime empire, like Britain, a Mediterranean empire, like Fascist Italy, or a territorially bound state like France, Germany would become a state, so thought Schmitt, wherein space would become Leistungsraum (‘achievement space’) – an area where increasingly radical, reckless and genocidal policies could be carried out. If it all sounds abstract, abstruse, and a bit, well, weird, noted Blackbourn, that’s because our justified aversion to this strand in German thought has caused us to become extremely nervous about attempting to understand history in terms of ‘space.’ And yet, if we want to understand how Germans in the 1930s, and probably before and after that, too, understood the place of German history, we might need to find ways to re-inject these concepts – treated critically and extracted from their original interwar fascist context – into our historiography today. Walk down Telegraph Avenue, or across the campus of SOAS in London today, for example, and you can find no shortage of people telling you how ‘global finance capital’, the IMF, and the US Treasury Department are wrecking Africa through debt. Yet it seems like we read less frequently in our historiography of the way in which German, especially West German, financial institutions reached into Eastern Europe in the 1970s, and of the role that German capital plays in Russia today. Maybe thinking less in terms of identities, and more in terms of space and institutions, might help us get there.

Months of traversing under such conditions on the Moscow Metro: surely one reason for Tim’s newfound obsession with ‘space’

In any event, the main meat of the lecture – which I will briefly summarize – explored how some of these ideas about transnational history might be concretely applied to different periods of German history: in effect, a rehearsal of the book that Blackbourn is using these lectures to develop. As Blackbourn underscored, for example, we might productively re-think the place of German history in the early modern history by locating it more in the Low Countries, or even in the Atlantic World. In the case of the former, Dutch painting and music was probably the most influential model for the German arts throughout much of the 16th and 17th centuries. Goods flowed from the Dutch Empire to German port cities like Hamburg, Lübeck, and Danzig, which in turn become mini-metropoles for the north German hinterland to receive and engage with Dutch models of erudition and culture.

Nor was the flow in just one direction: the Dutch shipping industry needed logs, which flowed down the Rhine. Growing economies in the Low Countries, meanwhile, raised the demand for peat, for heating, which spurred the 17th century’s version of migrant labor, or WOOFing: so-called Hollandgänger (‘Holland-goers’), groups of young men, would travel together to the Netherlands to participate in the peat harvest, while also finding time to enjoy themselves with the delights and women that the Dutch metropole had to offer. Some of them, as well as some of the scholars interesting in the intellectual scene in Northwest Europe of this period, got even farther to the West: about a century earlier, the German cartographer Martin Behaim came to Lisbon via Antwerp, going on to assist Portuguese expeditions around Africa when not back in his hometown, Nuremberg, designing globes.

The point of episodes like this one – as well as many others which Blackbourn highlighted (Berlin’s role as an anti-imperial metropole in the 1920s, the influx of Polish workers into Germany in the late 19th century, or the proliferation of expeditions led both by scholars and adventurers in the mid-19th century) is, so it seems to me, to de-center our understanding of ‘where Germany happened’, to point out how Germany – maybe especially so among European nations because its lack of formal or developed overseas empire – was a transnational nation in ways that we maybe only begin to recognize with our 21st century eyes. Look at a 19th century map, or simply visit multi-ethnic Paris or London today, and it’s easy to understand that those great empires, the British and the French, were international, if in a bygone form. What if  the German episodes of transnationalism slipped our eye precisely because they took place in institutional forms – scholarly exchange, business, agents of empire but not people in the service of their own ‘national’ empire – that only became common, or at least legible to us late 20th century and early 21st century dwellers?

For example: empire, at least formal empire is gone, but thanks to institutions like the DAAD, and the Humboldt Stiftung (both creations of the Cold War, designed to facilitate scholars in a different international context than today), German international scholarly exchange seems robust as ever to me these days. Even if it is second-generation Korean-Americans and Norwegian hackers sitting in office parks in Mountain View who are the preëminent mappers of the day, German exporters’ appetite for expanding markets – this time in China and India, not the Atlantic World – seems as ravenous as it was in the early modern period and the 19th century. Understanding how ‘Germany’ became, and remains, international in a way that didn’t mirror the British or French, much less the American or Russian/Soviet experience, seems likely to be a stimulating project to me.

Germany at the UN: an interesting story?

Still, as I raised to Blackbourn in the question and answer session, there are still some open questions for me. While I’m a fan of writing histories of itinerant scholars and accidental servants of states and empire, too, it strikes me, particularly coming off of reading Mark Mazower’s Governing the World, interesting to ask how countries like Germany engaged with internationalist institutions, like the League, or the United Nations, once they were finally set up. As Mazower suggested in a response to my review, one of the most interesting potential historical projects on the table these days – and one which is probably logistically do-able, too – has to do with how Nehru, and India, understood international order and the United Nations after independence. Yet one could perhaps ask the same question of sterner Teutonic climes just as well. (Both countries only became full members in 1973.) West Germany, Blackbourn noted while giving props to a Timothy Garton Ash book on the subject, was a state that seemed obsessed with the idea of multi-lateralism and the various UN agencies that sprung up over the years. Germany, he noted, perhaps because of the contraints that the economic beefcake but military lightweight West German state faced, remains a big power which acts less like the 4th biggest economy in the world, and more like a Scandinavian country.

What East Germany wanted from the UN, other than to be in it, is less clear: what would seem interesting, however, is how almost immediately after getting into the UN, élites in Berlin, facing dwindling subsidies from Moscow, had to move away from the Third World consensus and the New International Economic Order being promoted in the General Assembly and UNCTAD, and more towards economically viable partnerships with West Germany, Western European banks, and China. The extent to which the UN might play an interesting role in the international history of East Germany during this policy turn remains unclear, possibly something to be unearthed in future trips to the archives in Berlin.

This all said, did I get what I wanted from the evening? I think so. Not only was the lecture a fine opportunity to relive my earlier years when I was more interested in German history, I found Blackbourn’s reflections on ‘the transnational’ a useful and welcome addition to my diet of readings and reflections as I myself figure out where Soviet history happened. In the case of my particular project, the straightforward answer to that question is Afghanistan, but what I mean by ‘happened’ is, I hope, something I can resolve over mucho cups of coffee while staring at my computer’s screen over the weekend. If I can turn an interesting draft out what I’ve written thus far before making my own transnational turn a week from Saturday, I’ll be happy.


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