“It is difficult for a foreigner to understand” the peculiarities of the seventeenth-century English government, maintained F. W. Cornish in 1887 in the English Historical Review in his review of Moritz Brosch’s Oliver Cromwell und die puritanische Revolution (1880). Two years later in the same publication, Charles Oman concluded similarly how it was certainly pleasing that foreigners studied English history, yet, they often committed easy mistakes because they were, well, not English. Nationality, thus, was a quality that a historian could not escape and consequently a constituent element of his scholarly self. It did not altogether prevent anyone from writing about topics that did not fall into the category of national history, nonetheless it was argued time and again that it set limitations to our ability to grasp the underlying institutional, ideological, and cultural meanings that defined the course of history. Nevertheless, historians recognized the challenges national biases posed for the credibility of their narratives and the benefits that an outsider’s view could provide. In spite of this, the emotional attachment to national history influenced the British historians in their evaluation of their foreign colleagues’ attempts to interpret English history.
No one, not even the eminent Leopold von Ranke, was able to escape the fact that only the native British had an access to the intimate knowledge about the history of the national institutions. John Richard Green was pleased with the new insights Ranke’s History of England offered about foreign relations, but complained about the “constitutional side” of the study. Ranke, just like “no foreigner” could understand “an adherence to forms and precedents, even in the face of ‘state necessities’” in England. Edward Freeman could not have agreed more with this. He congratulated Ranke for his treatment of “external matters” while detected numerous blunders “in the details of every judicial & parliamentary process.” This sprang from Ranke’s inability to understand “any purely English matter.” Although both Green and Freeman admitted that Ranke’s histories were useful for English readers, they could not ignore his shortcomings that were caused by his German background. The peculiar familiarity with the current national political and legal institutions was a prime requirement for producing accurate knowledge about history of England and could be gained only by personal acquaintance with these institutions. Although Freeman allowed that longer sojourns in Britain helped to gain deeper understanding of these institutions, only those who had been born in Britain could master the topic.
The insular, even protective, mindset can be partially explained with national jealousies. Peter Wende has observed that German and British historians carefully followed the publishing activities in their respective countries and introduced English and German books in their leading journals – the English Historical Review and Historische Zeitschrift. This curiosity in what was done abroad was shared by historians all over Europe; they eagerly followed the developments of their discipline elsewhere in order to learn more about the latest source discoveries and methodological discussions. This interest was also motivated by a wish to compare and evaluate own achievements in an international context. As Wende observes, the British and German reviewers recognized the merits of their foreign colleagues just as Green and Freeman did when admitting that Ranke’s History of England had value for English historians. Yet, the reviewers were often unable to escape the sensitive question of national pride. The Germans could barely hide their sense of superiority as the leading nation in the critical historical inquiry. In England, the reviewers continued to produce the familiar stereotype of German historians as unrivalled in their scientific exactitude, yet hopeless in their dry and unreadable narratives.
Nevertheless, there were exceptions to the conception that nationality restricted a historian’s ability to understand non-national history. This, though, was mostly limited to cases that did not treat the history of England itself. W. A. B. Coolidge considered the American historian Bernard Moses to possess “special advantages”that enabled him to analyze Swiss federal institutions. Coolidge gathered that as an American citizen, Moses had to be “well versed in the actual working of federal institutions.” He had another unique asset as well: he was a professor in California and hence lived closer by “than most of us to certain little-known states which boast of a perhaps not always uninterrupted enjoyment of federal institutions – the republics of Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, and the Argentine republic”. Coolidge was convinced that Moses’s background rendered him “able to illustrate Swiss matters.”
Indeed, the impact nationality had on a historian’s ability to comprehend historical events and institutions seemed to be unfixed. In the case of Moses, nationality was not a hindrance to writing excellent history. Contrary, according to Coolidge, the residency in California had furnished him with such first-hand knowledge about federal institutions that he was qualified to comment on the topic also in a Swiss context. However, equally confidently Henry Sidgwick pronounced that the Swiss scholar Johann Kaspar Bluntschli had allowed “his mind to be too exclusively possessed by a German conception” of constitutional monarchy. This had led him to “rather seriously to misrepresent the facts of English political history.” As my sample is quite narrow, caution must be taken when making generalizations. Yet it seems that reviewers tended to be more sensitive about the foreign author’s national background when they were evaluating books that professed to make a contribution to English history, than when they were discussing publications that explored history with no direct bearing on their own home country.
In spite of the suspicions, doubts, and sense of national self-importance, many a reviewer was earnestly surprised – and even moved by – when foreigners were so interested in English history that they were willing to invest their time in its examination and produced something that had value for English readers. Lucien Wolf, reviewing Dr. Goldschmidt’s Juden in England von den ältesten Zeiten bis zu ihrer Verbannung, admitted that “at the first sight it may appear strange that a foreigner should have undertaken – and, as far as it goes, successfully – to write the little exploited and less known history of the English Jews.” Wolf and many others complemented foreign historians for discovering virgin territories, sources, and novel viewpoints. The geographical distance gave the foreign historians perspective that the native historians lacked. Free from the burden of traditions and conventions that constrained English historians, they discovered topics and records that had so far been overlooked. The benefit that a distance may offer to a historian has certainly not vanished. Nevertheless, even today we might occasionally need to be reminded of the advantages the altering perspectives have on our notions on history.
Papers of Edward A. Freeman, The John Rylands Library, Manchester.
Coolidge, W. A. B., “Bernard Moses, The Federal Government of Switzerland,” English Historical Review 5:20 (1890): 798-800.
Cornish, F. W., “Moritz Brosch: Oliver Cromwell und die puritanische Revolution,” English Historical Review 2:8 (1887): 800-804.
Letters of John Richard Green, ed. Leslie Stephen (London: Macmillan, 1902).
Oman, C., “Fritz Hoenig, Oliver Cromwell,” English Historical Review 4:15 (1889): 571-73.
Sidgwick, Henry, “R. Lodge (ed.), Bluntschli’s Theory of State”, English Historical Review 1:2 (1886): 378-82.
Wolf, Lucien, ” Dr. S. Goldschmidt, Geschichte der Juden in England von den ältesten Zeiten bis zu ihrer Verbannung”, English Historical Review 2:6 (1887): 363-65.
Wende, Peter. “Views and Reviews: Mutual Perceptions of British and German Historians in the Late Nineteenth Century” in British and German Historiography 1750-1950: Traditions, Perceptions, and Transfers, eds. Benedikt Stuchtey & Peter Wende (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 173-189.