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Towards a History of European Intellectuals

The study of intellectuals and European integration is a relatively unexplored field that requires a look at cultural exchange, networks of intellectuals, and the building of a united Europe. The Groupe de Recherche sur l'Histoire des Intellectuels headed by Nicole Racine, an associate at the Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences po (CEVIPOF, CNRS / FNSP) and the late Michel Trebitsch (Institut d'histoire du temps présent — IHTP, CNRS) has carried out a study of this sort 1.

A Europe of minds
The first phase of the project looked at the entre-deux-guerres period, in particular examining the “European reviews” of this period, conceived of as the groundwork for a truly supranational editorial committee and serving as vectors of analysis of the international circulation of persons and ideas. This research program revealed the existence of veritable networks of intellectuals, a Europe of minds, bringing together those who despite their differences shared a belief in the link between thought and power, between cultural and political dimensions of society, and between modernisation and the Europe project. These networks each had their key figures, their means of communication, their “cultural capitals” - first among them at that time being Paris - their structures and organisations, and were often tied to institutions put into place after the Great War by the League of Nations (the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, the International Labor Bureau). Organisations such as the PEN Clubs, founded in 1921, which were conducted by leading European intellectuals2, were significant forces acting in favor of writers' freedom (in the name of political neutrality), a role they would have the occasion to fill again during the Cold War.

The contemporary role of an intellectual
Simple interpretations of the period between the two world wars, as far as the history of European intellectuals is concerned, are to be avoided. Rather than a pre-historic period of European intellectual unification it was, to the contrary, a golden age. Before 1914, European consciousness barely existed even though the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries now appear as an idealised era for a transnational intellectual aristocracy (portrayed in Le Monde d'Hier by Stefan Zweig). It would also be easy to imagine that after the catastrophe of the Second World War, in a period marked by economic development and the confrontation of two blocs, any integrated European intellectual life would be a rare phenomenon. But things were more complex than that (even if the main instigators of European intellectual life were themselves pre-war figures like Denis de Rougemont and Salvador de Madariaga), as the findings of the international research program “European Identities in the 20th Century”3 have shown.

European thought as such can be seen as a complex phenomenon beginning in the 1970's, in part due to questions and challenges coming from the “Other Europe”, even before the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Although European intellectual networks have continued to serve for circulating ideas and exerting pressure through expertise or lobbying, it is much more in the areas of cultural politics and the history of representations that the contemporary role of intellectuals in Europe can be discerned. Early forms of academic cooperation along these lines were important precursors even if they failed in their goal of founding a true “University of Europe”. Meanwhile other important cultural and artistic initiatives flowered, such as the European capitals of culture. Similarly, observers cannot fail to notice the albeit slow and difficult burgeoning of a European set of symbols, corresponding to the contemporary penchant for memory and heritage but which, being neither local nor national, break with traditional identity contexts. From commemorative stamps to “places of memory”, new European symbols likely draw on the creativity and production of European intellectuals, as exemplified by a recent Europartenaires survey on the leading figures who laid the foundations for a unified Europe.

This research theme was an extension, from 1988 to 2001, of work done on the intermingling of intellectuals beyond national frameworks. While Europe has served as the ideal context for observation and reflection on the history of intellectuals, it is also been put to good use as the framework for a methodological and epistemological look at comparative studies in general, the results of which are published as Pour une histoire comparée des intellectuels, Marie-Christine Granjon and Michel Trebitsch (ed.) Brussels, Complexe, 1998.



à lire

Intellectuelles. Du genre en histoire des intellectuels
Nicole Racine and Michel Trebitsch
Bruxelles, 2004, Editions Complexe, Coll. Histoire du temps présent, 347 p.
ISBN 2-87027-988-4


Nicole Racine

Michel Trebitsch (1948-2004)
Researches at the CNRS
Institut d'histoire du temps présent.

Michel Trebitsch died in March 2004. He was one of the founders and leaders for many years of the Groupe de Recherche sur l'Histoire des Intellectuels. His latest work, Intellectuelles. Du Genre en Histoire des Intellectuels, co-authored with Nicole Racine, was published by Complexe editions.

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