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I am a social researcher studying nations and nationalism from a comparative perspective, with a particular interest in Central and Eastern Europe and a focus on societally shared and newly emerging national history narratives. I have published a number of articles showing how the long nineteenth century, often considered the golden age of nationalism, is confronted and contrasted with earlier periods as a general logic of national history is established. Currently I am moving from in-depth analysis of country-specific cases to the transnational history of narratives about events of supranational significance.
One such event is the First World War. It is interesting not only because it marks the end of the long nineteenth century and the beginning of contemporary history, but also because it involves all European states. The starting point of my study of narratives of the First World War in contemporary European textbooks was the question of how, and to what extent, the former opponents and eventually enemies, which are today’s partners in European integration, managed to create a shared narrative on the war. I was primarily interested in the structure of the narratives, as opposed to their content alone, and had to consistently pay attention not only to what was present in a given textbook chapter, but also to what was omitted although it figured prominently elsewhere.
The four weeks which I was fortunate to be able to spend at the GEI were almost wholly dedicated to collecting, organising, and reading into the sources. I photographed over 3000 pages of 127 textbooks from 21 European countries. I found myself able to cover the ambitious scope I had set myself for my research during the period of my stay because my research subject referred to a strictly defined historical event covered within one specific chapter of each textbook. Had I chosen a more abstract theoretical subject, such as humanitarian crises or wartime propaganda, I would have had to focus on a much smaller number of countries in order to be able to to look through all the selected textbooks from cover to cover in search of the relevant content. Further, I would never have managed to do even the most preliminary analysis of the sources on my own even if I had been able to read fluently in the languages of all the countries of interest to me. As it was, I had enough time to prepare a presentation based solely on the new findings made not prior to, but during my stay.
When planning the study, I formulated the hypothesis that there would be no single shared European, or even Western European, narrative about the First World War. What I had not expected, however, is that the cross-national differences between narratives would be so huge, nor that textbooks from different publishers within each country would be so consistent. For example, in most German textbooks, the chapters on the First World War focus on the colonialism and imperialism preceding the war and the new European order created after its conclusion, but contain surprisingly little about the war itself, with a particularly noticeable lack of content in the style of traditional military history. The content and even the evaluations of key events and actors appear to be quite similar across countries, but the understanding of what the story of the war is about differs, so that textbooks from different countries tell very different stories. One could say that on the issue of the First World War, different European countries disagree on the ways in which they could agree.
My period of work at the GEI was a rewarding and stimulating experience. It was strange and thought-provoking to spend half of my university lecturer’s holidays reading about trenches, chemical weapons and revolutions in the beautiful peaceful setting of Braunschweig. The friendly colleagues from the GEI helped me to find all the necessary materials and not to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of the resources available. I believe I will be able to develop the results of my study into a book. For the future, my work at the GEI gave me the idea of comparing narratives about other events in European history with cross-culturally similar content but different structures. These cases are particularly interesting because they show that for the emergence of a shared notion of history it is not enough to agree on key points. It is also necessary to master a way of telling this agreement as a coherent story.