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Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent [Paperback]

Richard J. Evans
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

14 May 2009
In Cosmopolitan Islanders one of the world's leading historians asks why it is that so many prominent and influential British historians have devoted themselves to the study of the European continent. Books on the history of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and many other European countries, and of Europe more generally, have frequently reached the best-seller lists both in Britain and (in translation) in those European countries themselves. Yet the same is emphatically not true in reverse. Richard J. Evans traces the evolution of British interest in the history of Continental Europe from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century. He goes on to discuss why British historians who work on aspects of European history in the present day have chosen to do so and why this distinguished tradition is now under threat. Cosmopolitan Islanders ends with some reflections on what needs to be done to ensure its continuation in the future.


Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (14 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521137241
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521137249
  • Product Dimensions: 1.7 x 13.8 x 21.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 576,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Richard J. Evans is Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. His previous books include In Defence of History, Telling Lies about Hitler and the companions to this title, The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power. He lives outside Cambridge.

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Review

'Richard J. Evans: the magisterial chronicler of the Third Reich … was recently appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. Expanded from an inaugural lecture, his book … asks how an often insular culture managed to nurture two generations of world-ranking historians whose passions and positions made them 'a good deal more cosmopolitan' than most of their peers across the seas.' Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

'Evans makes a convincing case for his thesis of British historians of Europe as cosmopolitan islanders, discussing the work and influence of the present generation of practitioners …' A. W. Purdue, THE (Book of the Week)

'Richard Evans's new study of the historical profession in Britain serves as a timely reminder both of what Britain's historians have achieved over the past half-century, and what may be lost if their legacy is squandered.' Mark Mazower, The New Republic

'This book has all the advantages one expects of a text by Richard Evans: an interesting subject, clear prose, a broad sweep, decisive opinions, snap judgements - and thus the ability to provoke on a missive scale.' German Historical Institute London Bulletin

Book Description

Richard J. Evans traces the evolution of British interest in the history of Continental Europe from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century. He discusses why the many British historians who work on Europe have chosen to do so and why this very distinguished tradition is now under threat.

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, has written a fascinating book about why so many British historians have devoted themselves to the study of European countries' histories.

In Chapter 1, he studies the writing of foreign history in the universities of France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the USA, examining the work of 1471 historians. He sent a questionnaire to more than 60 British historians, asking them about their choice of subject.

In Chapters 2 and 3 he looks at the evolution, since the Enlightenment, of British historians' interest in the history of Europe. In Chapter 4, he examines how and why so many devoted their careers to studying and writing about countries other than Britain. In Chapter 5, he asks how these historians learned the relevant language and how they see the future of European history-writing when language-learning here is in such decline.

Entries for Modern Languages at A-level fell from 52,000 in 1996-7 to 31,100 in 2006-7. Universities have imported European historians to teach history courses here. Government pressure to complete PhDs in four years gives no time to learn a language or spend time abroad, reducing the scope of the PhDs.

Evans' research shows how historians reflect imperial interests: the more imperialist the country, the more its historians study other countries, especially non-European countries.

He also notes that from 1789 to about 1870, British historians fought the principles of the French revolution, in order to praise the established order in Britain. Then they turned to denouncing Germany, and later to denouncing the Soviet Union. All too often, these British historians had close links to the Foreign Office.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Worrying about history 17 Mar 2012
By Radcliffe Camera - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Evans has expanded his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, in which holders normally talk about themselves in the context of the development of their discipline and their predecessors' work, to form a book of some 230 pages. The basic theme is British historians' time-honoured interest in studying the history of other, in particular European, nations, and writing about them so well as to become authorities and to appeal to broad audiences in some of those countries (one thinks in particular of Christopher Clark's fine history of Prussia, which did both). For much of the last two hundred years this has been a very one-sided affair: historians in European countries have generally not matched British historians' interest in other nations, and they have not achieved such broad appeal either. Along the way Evans explores the reasons for this tradition - historical and cultural as well as educational and biographical (had Gibbon not converted to the RC his father might not have sent him to Switzerland... und so weiter).

This triumphal parade ends rather abruptly when Evans catches up with the present. The British might still be interested in reading non-British history but the British are increasingly *not* producing historians linguistically capable of writing about it seriously. As a result history depts in the UK are increasingly staffed by young European-born academics who do have the linguistic capabilities to research European history. Universities are starting to look like the toilets at King's Cross: staffed by foreigners because the locals don't want to do the job. Evans rather grudgingly admits that attracting international talent is an implicit compliment to the UK university system, but he is clearly concerned that the indigenous tradition is fast disappearing - or simply becoming multicultural, much like most other aspects of British life. The main cause that Evans singles out is the devaluation of the the study of languages in the UK education system.

The decline can probably only be reversed, says Evans, by reinforcing the importance of the study of languages at school, and providing more generous graduate funding to allow for language acquisition at that level. But the decline in the study of history among the British and the devaluation of language study are part of a general dumbing-down of British culture, the flight from Aristotle to X-Factor, and it is hard to be optimistic that the trend will be reversed soon (especially through govt. funding). In a society that has promoted `going to university', turning polytechnics into universities, etc., larger numbers study the humanities - without a deep interest in the subject. Many simply do not have the kind of cultural interests that animated some of the best British historians of last century: they want a degree that gives them a job. Similarly, the gifted students that studied History last century now study subjects such as business - the road to success as defined by contemporary society.

Evans' focus is of couse very subject specific. Nothing about Classics, where non-British scholars are also increasingly appointed to academic positions in the U.K. And of course British classicists are quite used not to studying their own island. Similarly there is only a little on the American scene, and nothing on the study of history in the Commonwealth countries. I suspect that much of the increased bulk of this book comes from Evans' endless quotation from the survey he circulated amongst his contemporary historians. Some of them I was interested in hearing from (Clark, Kershaw, Elliott), and they provide good general observations; many very biographical ones. But the result is often a meandering impressionistic account. The disciplinary background is informative but dry, and Evans seems rather too keen not to say anything that might upset anyone. In the end, I think I would have preferred the original 30-page inaugural lecture. These are still printed, individually and elegantly, by the University Press at Cambridge.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating study of British historians of European nations 5 Oct 2009
By William Podmore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, has written a fascinating book about why so many British historians have devoted themselves to the study of European countries' histories.

In Chapter 1, he studies the writing of foreign history in the universities of France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the USA, examining the work of 1471 historians. He sent a questionnaire to more than 60 British historians, asking them about their choice of subject.

In Chapters 2 and 3 he looks at the evolution, since the Enlightenment, of British historians' interest in the history of Europe. In Chapter 4, he examines how and why so many devoted their careers to studying and writing about countries other than Britain. In Chapter 5, he asks how these historians learned the relevant language and how they see the future of European history-writing when language-learning here is in such decline.

Entries for Modern Languages at A-level fell from 52,000 in 1996-7 to 31,100 in 2006-7. Universities have imported European historians to teach history courses here. Government pressure to complete PhDs in four years gives no time to learn a language or spend time abroad, reducing the scope of the PhDs.

Evans' research shows how historians reflect imperial interests: the more imperialist the country, the more its historians study other countries, especially non-European countries.

He also notes that from 1789 to about 1870, British historians fought the principles of the French revolution, in order to praise the established order in Britain. Then they turned to denouncing Germany, and later to denouncing the Soviet Union. All too often, these British historians had close links to the Foreign Office.

Too many of the historians Evans cites made adolescent comments like, `British history was boring'. He notes their `patchy knowledge of British history' and how `partial' their views were. For example, Sir Ian Kershaw, absurdly, writes of `the relatively continuous, undramatic course of English/British history'. Some feebly argued that studying another country improved their understanding of their own.
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