Nationalizing the Past: Historians as Nation Builders in Modern Europe
Historians traditionally claim to be myth-breakers, but national history since the 19th century shows quite a record of myth-making. This volume compares how national historians in Europe handled the opposing pulls of fact and fiction and shows which narrative strategies have contributed to the success of national histories.
The historiography of ‘high imperialism’ within the British and Russian empires forms the central focus of this chapter. The chapter first explores the relationship between nation, state and empire, and how the interconnection between each concept influenced the development of imperial historiography in the late 19th century in both cases. It then considers the key texts of two influential historians of the period, The Expansion of England by John Robert Seeley (1834-1895) and the Course of Russian History (Курс русской истории) by Vasily Osipovich Klyuchevsky (1841-1911), highlighting the similarities in their re-conceiving of their national-imperial narratives. In their most recognised and important works, both Seeley and Klyuchevsky strove to redefine the histories of their respective nations in such a way as to bring the imperial dimension into the foreground. In an age of socio-economic modernisation which encouraged the spread of nationalist and democratic ideologies, both historians explicitly challenged established historiographical traditions in their respective countries, which focused exclusively on the development of state institutions, law, and ‘high’ politics. The chapter assesses the extent to which each historian adopted a common approach to address the trichotomy of nation, state and empire. It explores in what ways Klyuchevsky and Seeley extended the boundaries of national-imperial histories and the extent that they successfully renegotiated the relationship between nation, state and empire, and how other concepts, such ethnicity, class, religion and gender impact on the two texts.