Friday, January 2, 2009: 1:20 PM
Sutton North (Hilton New York)
During the 1920s and 30s Britain witnessed an unprecedented vogue in the publication of globe-spanning histories. According to their authors, these works were responses to the Great War. Economic, diplomatic, and techno-military entanglements had recently and for the first time crisscrossed the entire world, and this had culminated in disaster. Such authors blamed myopic and materialist perspectives; they drew from Christian conceptions to rewrite history in the service of a new world order.
This paper argues first that the logic and motivation of these histories concerned less the war itself than the subsequent problem of potential decolonization, that is, the assertion by colonial subjects of their own historicity, what John Gallagher called the “Crisis of Empire” that began in 1919. In general, these histories were caught in a contradiction between a Christian ideality of globalism and British primacy. Second, the paper argues that this contradiction rested in part on a formal – rather than purely ideological – historicization of global difference.
Analysis starts with Wells’ The Outline of History (1919), tracing its Anglican evolutionary communalism to the years before the war. After 1919, a revival of Augustine began to sweep through Britain, especially among historians, who could see in The City of God a parallel case of imperial collapse. Dawson read in Augustine the historical basis of Western freedom, which now had to be made global, while conversely, Toynbee emphasized the pagan as incommensurable other. In opposition to this revival, various authors entirely synthesized religion and world politics, for example, Alexander Raven with a fascist defense of civilization, and Lionel Curtis with a liberal rendition of the kingdom of Christ. Taken together, these works show the inextricability between colonialism and British global historiography of the time, but then too, they show perhaps the insurmountable ideality of “global” history itself.