National History and New Nationalism in the 21st Century

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the international conference “National History and the New Nationalism in the 21st Century”, which will take place on April 11–13, 2018 at the German Historical Institute Paris. The event is organized by Thomas Maissen and Niels F. May of the GHI Paris in collaboration with the GHI London, the GHI Rome, the GHI Warsaw, the DIJ Tokyo, the OI Istanbul, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the LabEx Écrire une histoire nouvelle de l’Europe.

Please find the program and more information on the conference here.

Niels F. May studied history, philosophy and comparative literature in Bonn, Perugia and Paris and graduated with a PhD degree (thesis en cotutelle) from the University of Münster and Paris-Sorbonne. From 2013 to 2016, he was a post-doc fellow at the French-German Institute for History and Social Sciences in Frankfurt. Since 2016, he is the scientific coordinator at the German Historical Institute in Paris.

Non à la Maison de l’Histoire de France. Picture: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Why did you organize the announced event on National History and New Nationalisms, or more precisely, why do you think it is crucial to discuss these topics particularly in current times?

In current discussions all over the world we observe a rise of nationalism – just think about Trump’s slogan “America first”, Brexit, or the successful campaigns of right wing parties in many European countries. Today, political debates quite often focus on national identity originating in national history. Politicians use historical narratives to justify their political argumentation, for example in debates about in- and exclusion. In some countries historians take an active part in these debates. They defend historical facts and figures when quoted out of context. In other countries though it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the standards of academic research; the new legislation in Poland or the repression of historical research in Turkey are just a few examples. In addition to these debates within societies we also strive to examine how historians and historiography are affected by such phenomena. Since it has become almost impossible to read a newspaper these days without stumbling over the political exploitation of the past, it is time to analyse this issue in depth.

The participants of your conference come from around the globe: the program features talks by scholars from India, the U.S., China or Senegal to name just a few. How will your conference benefit from this truly global perspective, and why is it particularly important considered the overarching theme of the conference?

The practice of using history in political debates seems to be quite similar in many countries: Not only the construction of a supposed historical continuity stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years but also often an attempt to define, e.g. by religious arguments, a homogeneity of a people, which, through heroic struggles for freedom led by prominent leadership figures and the sacrifice of martyrs, has succeeded in asserting dominance over neighbouring peoples. We want to examine these structures more closely. Is this a uniquely European pattern that then proceeded to spread all over the world? Or is there a global transformation of this narrative which emerged in the 19th century? For example: Is the use of history in the current debates in China or Senegal inspired by a western tradition of nationalistic argumentation? And do they have a comparable impact on historiography as in Europe? Beyond that, the global perspective will hopefully initiate a discussion between different traditions of analysing the problem. We are almost certain that the specialists talking about Japan and Argentina never met before because the problem is typically treated in a regionally limited way.

Finally, which questions do you want to raise during your upcoming conference and what kinds of future discussions do you envision might emerge out of the event?

The leading question will be how we, as historians, are influenced in our way of doing historical research by these processes and how or if we react to these omnipresent debates – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. To me, one thing seems to be quite clear: We cannot ignore these discussions. I think historians should take responsibility. We hope the conference will present ways how to do this and will encourage historians to defend history, especially national history, from being used as raw material that can be shaped into what it has to be to serve one’s purpose. It is not the historical source that says “no” (“the power of veto” as Koselleck called it) to an interpretation of history. This is, and always will be, the task of the historian.

Citation: “National History and New Nationalism in the 21st Century – Interview with Niels F. May”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.04.2018,

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