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The History of Contemporary Europe

Avenues of Historical Research

Having at first explored an evolutionist approach to the history of European integration, historians have gradually adopted a new way of writing this history, making use of several time and space scales, and approaching the subject from at once social, cultural, political and economic perspectives.

The contemporary era is marked by major upheavals both internal and external in various parts of Europe. A large part of historical research has focused on these traumatic moments as a way of grasping the whole of Europe. This type of research has underlined pan-European convergence — from west to east, or from north to south — on responses to war, to the rise of industrial society, the emergence of new nations, social movements and democracy, or the advent of writing and, later, mass communication.

With the production of more and more monographs exploring these questions, historians came to see the accumulating evidence as arguing against the established, strictly evolutionist understanding of the history of European integration which emphasises an ineluctable convergence towards a “European society”1 that holds most things in common above and beyond national boundaries, especially when compared with societies like the US, Russia/USSR or Japan.

The main lines of Western society transformation have, upon closer examination, taken different specific forms in different parts of Europe, even from one country to its neighbor. In order to give full value to these intra-European specificities, historians have worked to establish more finely-toothed comparisons on topics such as “The persistence of the Ancien Regime”2, or the first forms of the industrialisation in France, in Germany, and in England and their effects on workers, or the “nationalisation of the masses”3 as it occurred to varying degrees. Other rich comparative topics include diverse models of collective mobilisation, cultures of war4, or varying forms of social, political, and cultural relations between the sexes. Comparisons must at the same time avoid falling into the trap of ready-made, generalised explanations based on longstanding cultural divisions between Catholic Europe and protestant Europe, old-nation Europe and new-nation Europe, or between Europe lightly and deeply affected by the French revolution, and the like.

A comprehensive history of Europe which would steer between a teleological unity on one hand and a mosaic of specificities on the other is difficult to achieve for a single historian who cannot master all the languages necessary for this research. A history of this sort necessitates a combined exploration of national and thematic specialisations, and historians have taken thus to working in networks. In addition, the end point of this research is little visible to the general public. It usually appears in the form of collected works published by academic publishers or themed issues of scholarly journals. This new way of writing Europe's history with many hands avoids the pitfalls of both schematic syntheses or rough-sketched essays. The list of “further reading” provided below gives an idea of research in this field through several examples of works on bourgeois Europe, middle classes in the second half of the 20th century as compared to those in Japan and the US, the comparative history of three European capitals (Berlin, London and Paris) during the first world war, the comparative history of the rise of new forms of trade unionism at the turn of the last century, or the history of Europe's cultural capitals.

The play of historical focus across different time scales, across space and from various cultural, political and economic angles fulfills the requirements of a history of Europe; it allows historians to take into account divergence and convergence, to give true weight to variety of origins, and to counterbalance standard textbook treatments with their predominantly politico-national approach. The latter may seem “natural” but can often be misleading. The challenge now before historians of Europe is to broaden their audience and especially to reach secondary and university students — future citizens of a united “big” Europe — with these findings that dismantle stereotypes. Reaching this goal would hopefully go a long to obviating the centuries of ignorance and more or less witting nationalist antagonism on which have been built the official histories of Europe's various countries.



à lire

Les bourgeoisies européennes au XIXe siècle. Kocka Jürgen (dir.). Paris, Belin, coll. Socio-histoires, 1997.
Le aristocrazie terriere nell Europa contemporanea. Malatesta Maria. Bari, Laterza, 1999.
Les intellectuels en Europe au XIXe siècle. Charle Christophe. Paris, Le Seuil, 1996, 2e éd., 2001.
Social Contracts Under Stress. The Middle Classes of America, Europe and Japan at the Turn of the Century. Zunz Olivier, L. Schoppa, N. Hiwatari (eds). New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.
Capital cities at war, Paris, London, Berlin 1914-1919. Winter Jay & Jean-Louis Robert (ed.). Cambridge U. P., 1997.
L'invention des syndicalismes, Le syndicalisme en Europe occidentale à la fin du XIXe siècle. Boll Friedhelm, Antoine Prost, Jean-Louis Robert (dir.). Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 1997.
Capitales culturelles, capitales symboliques, Paris et les expériences européennes XVIIIe-XXe siècles. Charle Christophe, Roche Daniel (dir.). Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2002.
L'Europe en mouvement. La migration de la fin du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours. Bade Klaus-J. Paris, Le Seuil, 2002.


Christophe Charle
Professor at University Paris I
Director of the Institut d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine

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