Where Is Central European History? Looking In and Looking Out

AHA Session 58
Central European History Society 1
Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Riverside Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
James J. Sheehan, Stanford University
When Central Europe Wanders: Austrians Abroad
Alison Frank Johnson, Harvard University
Our Empire: Habsburg Central Europe, 1780–1948
Pieter Judson, European University Institute
Mapping Imagined Germany, 1660–1870
Helmut W. Smith, Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

Where is Central European History? Looking In and Looking Out

This roundtable brings together historians of Germany, the Habsburg Empire, and Russia in order to think about the place of central Europe in how we do research, construct narratives, and simply think about the histories of lands in what feels like—and on maps, looks like—the middle of an already-vaguely delineated land mass called Europe. Twenty years ago, Larry Wolff wrote a path-breaking intellectual history called Inventing Eastern Europe. It made historians self-conscious about terms of convenience that so easily become sets of assumptions and bases of broadly generalizing theses of historical change. Central European historians have not submitted their own category to a similar scrutiny, and nor have those historians (and others) who routinely use the term to distinguish themselves from what goes on “there,” wherever “there” might be.

Yet unlike Gertrude Stein’s childhood home in Oakland, there has always been and remains a “there” there, and this roundtable will try to articulate it. It will focus on specific events (i.a., wars), on-going interactions (i.a., trade, state-building, map-making), and historiographical/disciplinary traditions (i.a., political history, economic history, cultural history, cultural geography, linguistics). All the roundtable discussants have wide-ranging and geographically-dispersed experience in writing about Central Europe and the countries around it. James Sheehan, past AHA President (2006), will moderate the roundtable. Kate Brown is a historian of Eastern Europe, the Russian Empire, and international/comparative history; she will draw on her past work (A Biography of No Place) on the area in eastern Europe that went from “ethnic borderland” to “Russian heartland” and on her current work concerning the meaning and burden of place for the displaced peoples of central and eastern Europe (Being There). Alison Frank Johnson is a historian of the Habsburg Empire; she draws on her past work (Oil Empire) based in Polish Galicia and her current work (Invisible Empire: A New Global History of Austria) on the empire’s maritime entanglement with gun trafficking, smuggling, and the slave trade. Pieter Judson is a historian of the Habsburg Empire with particular attention to the Bohemian and Slovakian lands; he will draw on his many books and articles about “language frontiers”, borderlands, and Eastern European “difference” within Central European empires. Finally, Helmut Walser Smith is a historian of modern German history; he will draw on his current work concerning map-making and changing political and cultural imaginaries in central Europe from the sixteenth century to the present. 

All the panelists understand place-making as more than just a process of inventing or imagining, but something material and, literally, grounded. In this sense, a key text for the roundtable, more important perhaps that Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe, is the recent work of Karl Schlögel, the German historian of Russia, on “the history of civilizations and geopolitics”—Im Raum lesen wir die Zeit (“reading time in space “).  “Where is Central European History” will contribute to such a reading, as well as the reverse work of reading space in time.

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