An Interview with Jürgen Osterhammel
Jürgen Osterhammel is a distinguished scholar of the history of modern China and professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Konstanz. He is the 2010 recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany’s most prestigious academic prize. His books in English include Globalization: A Short History (Princeton) and Colonialism.
What motivated you to write this book?
The book originated in the context of debates about the possibility of writing global history. I was involved in those discussions but felt a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of robust historical analyses. Theory was sorely in need of practical application. The book comes after several decades of hugely impressive international research on many different regions and aspects of the nineteenth century. It couldn't have been written fifteen years ago, and in another fifteen years the amount of available knowledge will overwhelm the individual historian.
Taking off from the title of your book, how was the world "transformed" in the nineteenth century?
The German word Verwandlung in the original title is difficult to translate. "Transformation" captures the essence of the term, but Verwandlung--Franz Kafka wrote an eerie novella with that title--can also mean "metamorphosis," adding a touch of magic and uncanniness and suggesting the unintended consequences of human action. The world was changed by countless men and women in the nineteenth century, but often in ways they hadn't anticipated. This change involved the material conditions of life as well as norms, worldviews, and mentalities.
In what ways is the history of the nineteenth century relevant today?
It's fascinating to gauge our distance from, and closeness to, the nineteenth century. Sometimes it seems utterly strange and remote; sometimes it looks like our immediate prehistory. Just talking about proximity: Many of the basic technologies--from building construction to the automobile--still in use today date back to that period, and so do most forms of today's politics. I myself witnessed one of the many ends of the nineteenth century when, during the 1950s, farmers in my village in one of the poorer parts of Germany switched from horses to tractors.
What is the most surprising thing you learned when researching and writing the book?
On a personal level, I had to familiarize myself with large areas of historiography that had up to then remained beyond my professional horizon, above all North American history. Global historians should always maintain a stake in their fields of specialization, in my case modern China and the history of the British Empire. But they have to undertake all sorts of risky excursions into unknown territory. My main surprise was that, in accounting for the myriad differences in the world, it's much less difficult to link cultural and functional explanations than many scholars tend to think.
How does your book differ from other histories of the nineteenth century?
There are several good world histories of the twentieth century, but not so many of the nineteenth century. The few that exist offer distinctive historiographical approaches and my book will certainly be compared to them by readers and critics. We, as authors, are bound to learn a lot from those comparisons. One of the reasons why the nineteenth century has not stimulated a greater number of general syntheses is what might be called the teleological fallacy. Reading history backward from the outbreak of the First World War diminishes the intellectual challenge. I tried to avoid that temptation.
Your book is monumental. How long did it take to write?
Of course, a lifetime of reading goes into this kind of broad panorama. In a sense, my preparations began way back in the 1960s when, as a schoolboy, I discovered the great novelists, philosophers, and composers of the nineteenth century and also read plenty of travel books about many different parts of the world. For the next three decades I was busy with many other things. My work as a historian focused on the twentieth and, later, the eighteenth centuries. For the most part, I steered around the nineteenth century. The idea of The Transformation of the World was finally developed in 2002, and the manuscript was delivered to the German publisher in 2008. Writing proceeded by stop and go since much of my time went into the normal teaching and administrative duties of a professor. Under such circumstances, a task of this size can be accomplished only by cutting back on other commitments. For a couple of years, I attended very few conferences.
What is the "long nineteenth century"?
For several decades it has been a convention among historians to talk about a long nineteenth century, stretching from the French Revolution of 1789 to the outbreak of the First World War. Eric Hobsbawn is often quoted as the originator of the idea, which has almost become a cliché; nobody works anymore with a nineteenth century that is strictly defined by the calendar. My own nineteenth century is left deliberately vague, and I have refused to include dates in the titles of the German and American editions. In global history, periodization is especially difficult. For example, "1789" doesn't make much sense in terms of Asian or African history. Sometimes I begin my stories in the 1760s or 1770s, and sometimes I pursue them beyond 1914 or even 1918. History resists being sliced up into neat portions.
Are any of your arguments controversial?
For an openly provocative book you don't need twelve hundred pages; a quarter of that size would do. This isn't a book promoting one major argument or turning our previous understanding of the nineteenth century upside down. It's a book, as the Greeks (and Isaiah Berlin) had it, not for hedgehogs that are after one big idea, but for foxes that know--or are interested in--many different things. I try to establish a great number of connections between different parts of the world; my style of reasoning is relentlessly comparative; and I'm experimenting with ways to combine narrative flow and analytical precision. That, by itself, may cause controversy.
What surprised you most in how the book has been received in Germany?
The book is an explicit attempt to provide and exemplify up-to-date historiography that absorbs advanced scholarship from many different fields of historical science. It was deliberately not targeted at any particular group of readers, certainly not at university students. It soon turned out, however, that the book works quite well for teaching, especially if you read the book selectively, which can be done easily without losing track of the overarching narrative. At the same time, general readers wrote to me saying that they enjoyed the book. The scholarly response was especially intense and gratifying in neighboring disciplines, such as historical sociology, political science, and even musicology (there are a few pages on music in the book, including an interpretation of Wagner's Siegfried).
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File created: 10/10/2013