The roots of many still popular institutions of professional history can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century. This is also true with a scholarly conference, which is one of the youngest and least studied products of the professionalization of history. History conferences in all shapes and sizes – regional, national, international, general, particular – became popular around the turn of the twentieth century. The very first International Historical Congress was held in The Hague in 1898. It is not a coincidence that history conferences gained momentum at this specific moment. The disciplinary development of history together with heightened nationalistic sentiments and increased interest in internationalization created a fertile ground for founding innovative international forums for scholars all over the globe to get together to talk about history – and to advance their nationalistic agendas.
Before conferences became the bread and butter of scholarly networking, historians, just like the other members of the Republic of Letters, had relied on correspondence and occasional encounters to stay in touch with their colleagues. Constant debates and discussions were crucial for scientific and scholarly innovations and the professionalization of different disciplines certainly did not lessen the need for continuous dialogue. But what changed were the modes of communication. When the nineteenth century drew to a close, the scholarly communities and distribution of knowledge had witnessed dramatic alterations. The traditional methods of letter writing and sporadic meetings appeared sadly outdated and inadequate for coping with the rapidly expanding scholarly communities and unprecedented growth in the number of historical journals and publications. Like Edward Freeman, many asked in despair how to come to grips with the information overload. This frustration prompted historians to search new tools for keeping abreast with the latest developments of their field. Conferences seemed to provide one solution for the problem: in just a few days it was possible to hear about the most recent historical discoveries, methodological innovations, and to meet other historians with similar research interests.
Conference programs were crafted to serve these purposes. The core of a scholarly conference was its’ academic program: lectures and short presentations. Almost equally important was the social program. Organizers understood that historians came to conferences to meet, greet and socialize with their fellow historians and made sure that their program included enough dinners, receptions and excursions to nearby sites so that the participants could fulfill their intellectual and social needs. Conferences were just as much about learning as they were about amiable sociability.
But dark clouds loomed over the conference venues. The ever-present nationalistic sentiments and growing political tensions of pre-World War I Europe underpinned scholarly discussions and pleasant dinner-parties. The nineteenth century was the heyday of nationalism and history was a popular source to turn to when ethnic and national identities were crafted and legitimized. The overlapping and entangled national histories complicated matters when historians with diverse backgrounds gathered together to discuss history. What for one was a national victory, was for another a traumatizing defeat. When the participants arrived at a conference armed with the nationalistic interpretations, the risk for unpleasant disputes was real. As a precaution, some historians chose not to talk about the most contested topics. Henry Biaudet adopted this strategy when he participated in a conference in Gothenburg in 1912. Instead of presenting his highly controversial interpretation of the Nordic Counter-Reformation, he spoke about early modern watermarks. He predicted that no one would come to listen to him if he argued for a long Catholic-presence in Sweden, but if he explained how the classification of watermarks helped to date previously undated documents, he hoped to attract a large audience.
The scholarly conformity was often merely an illusion and the fact that international conferences were politicized institutions further tested the veracity of transnational camaraderie. Internationalization became fashionable during the last decades of the nineteenth-century, but the frenzy in holding conferences and congresses, organizing world exhibitions or participating in international sports events was often inspired by nationalistic motives. An appearance on an international arena was great publicity. Furthermore, taking part in various international events allowed nations to measure and compare their own achievements with those of the other nations: a success in an international competition – whether it was about science, history, sports, art, commerce or something else – gave a positive boost to national self-esteem. Internationalization was widely encouraged as long as it served nationalistic purposes.
Historians were not able to escape the fact that international conferences were more than just a great opportunity to learn and network. This tended to complicate matters. Even the decision of participating in a conference could be understood as a political statement. When the first Nordic history conference was organized in Lund in 1905 the Norwegian as well as the Finnish-speaking historians in Finland chose to boycott the conference as a protest against Swedish politics and arrogance.
In the present day, conferences have become part of the nuts and bolts of professional history. The political undercurrents which were so defining for the early years of the conferences have mostly faded away. Of course there are exceptions to this, but mainly the organizers and participants fix their attention to what is the essence of a conference: the many faces of historical research. Lectures, papers, the ever important social program, and other rituals of conference-culture highlight the most valuable aspects of the institution: fruitful discussions and an opportunity to meet historians with similar interests.
If this appears too rosy for some readers, I advise them to turn to The Times Higher Education for a realistic account of the Q&A sessions in conferences. These brief discussions inevitably follow each paper. Unless, of course, time runs out because the presenter belongs to the tribe of scholars notorious for ignoring all the time-limits given to individual papers. The species is so common that it deserves an enshrinement in the Hall of Fame of scholarly archetypes. Yet, no matter how irritating it is to listen to someone rambling on and on and on without ever reaching the main argument, it must be admitted that such presentations make excellent anecdotes and unforgettable conference memories – in good and bad.
Summer being a busy season for conferences, this post was inspired by the last-minute preparations of a paper for a book history conference Creativity and Commerce in the Age of Print in Edinburgh and Jan Eivind Myhre’s article “Wider Connections: International Networks among European Historians” in Setting the Standards: Institutions, Networks and Communities of National Historiography, eds. Ilaria Porciani and Jo Tollebeek. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2012.
Edit: fixing the link