Impressions of The Fifth European Congress on World and Global History, Budapest 31.8–3.9.2017

I recently had the pleasure of attending the fifth iteration of the European Congress on World and Global History, a symposium that is arranged every third year by the European Network in Universal and Global History (ENIUGH). The conference, held in Budapest and subtitled “Ruptures, Empires, Revolutions”, was a testament to the enduring attraction of the global perspective among scholars of history, as evidenced by roughly 150, each with their own take on how to approach the study of history in a global way. Organized into eight sets of parallel panels, the conference proceedings ran over four days, punctuated by roundtables summarizing the themes thus far, a reception, a concert, and a dinner cruise along the Danube.

With such a large number of panels and a maximum of eight for any one person to attend, a truly comprehensive summary is an impossibility. However, after participating in a panel on imperial intermediaries in the long nineteenth century, and having attended panels on such diverse topics as the loss of knowledge in times of regime change, biography and global microhistory, and inter- and intra-imperial diplomacy, certain themes seem to have been more prominent than others. These should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the historiography concerning global history: mobility, of people as well as of goods, ideas, objects, and living things; connections, both material and imagined; and the nature of the spaces that facilitate or hinder mobility and connectivity.

From my point of view, the most fascinating presentations were those that combined an insightful empirical approach with previously unexplored circumstances and the history of “failures” of different kinds. Several examples of this were on display, such as studies focusing on the 1820s, previously often misrepresented as a period of dormancy in revolutionary political activity in Europe, examples of intermediaries facilitating previously unproblematized diplomatic encounters, and fascinating biographical accounts of transnational lives. A particularly interesting discussion concerned the topic of untouched source material and research ethics, in this case pertaining to caches of personal letters. The letters, still in their unopened envelopes, are unalterably changed or lost when a researcher opens and reads them: details of the seal, the folding of the paper, sometimes even contents besides the letter itself (such as small particles of plant matter), are often lost to everyone but the opener. This presents a relation to the sources very different from reading microfilm or even leafing through a volume of manuscripts previously perused by dozens, if not thousands, of colleagues through the years. Another ethical consideration was raised regarding the all-too-common rhetoric surrounding the “resurrection” of historical actors. Of course, no scholar of history literally refers to resurrecting the dead or giving them a voice – any text written by a researcher is the creation of that particular scholar, not the “voice for the sources” presented in an unbiased manner. However, even as a figure of speech, the rhetoric of resurrection should be turned on its head: it is the generations of the past, with the sources that they have left behind, that give us as scholars of history a vocation and a career to pursue. We should take this relationship seriously.

The keywords for the conference meant that empires and revolutions were to be expected among the key themes, and this expectation was met: several presentations concerned revolutions on the move through time and space – often interacting with structures and ideas of empire – while other scholars took a microhistorical approach, focusing on actors and spaces of rupture and change. At the more exotic end of the analytical spectrum, a panel convened on the topic of historical empires in video games: how do video games present empires and how do the game mechanics affect our contemporary understanding of historical reality? For all the manifold themes that were on display, some subjects of research did not receive the attention that would be expected, given the global issues facing the world today. The most glaring absence was that of ecological and environmental history, represented by only a single panel – albeit one stretching over five hours. Considering the highly global nature of climate change, the varied but ubiquitous problems of balancing human needs and the preservation of the environment, and the various actors that make up the international arena of environmental debate, global environmental history is definitely a field that deserves more study and attention.

Overall, and speaking from my perspective, the fifth ENIUGH congress was a success: not only were scholars made aware of the work of their peers, but they also engaged each other in debates on history writing, ranging from the philosophical to the highly practical. For my own part, I developed my thesis project considerably, finding much to incorporate into my analytical framework from the theoretical approaches on display. I will be sure to attend the conference again in three years’ time, hoping to see a further widening of the themes that global historians dare to tackle.

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