Department of History

During the last two decades, the writing of history has suffered numerous changes. Historians have extended their research to new social categories and areas of inquiry, have incorporated meta-theoretical and methodological borrowings from other disciplines, and have questioned the main tenets of "traditional" approaches. Given the multitude of approaches associated with the writing of history, in general, and the great plurality of historiographic traditions co-existing in Central Europe, in particular, this short essay cannot claim to offer a complete overview of the evolution of the discipline in the last decades. Instead, I will try to concentrate on several new trends that have occurred in the post-communist historiography in/on Central Europe, with a focus on the interaction and mutual influence between Eastern and Western historiographies and the role played by CEU's History Department in enabling this fruitful transnational dialogue.

The most interesting developments of the last 20 years in your discipline

The most important new development in the writing of history in the last decades has been the emergence and exponential expansion of the field of cultural history, as part of the larger cultural turn that occurred in Western Europe in the fields of humanities and social sciences. The "new cultural history" was deeply influenced by the linguistic and postmodern turns that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, marked by the theories developed by Richard Rorty, Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, and the deconstructionst method of Jacques Derrida. These theories and methods have had a great impact on the writing of history.

First, the linguistic turn increased the historians’ awareness and sensitivity to issues of vocabulary, terminology, and social categorization, leading to novel approaches bridging conceptual and social history. The German school of Begriffsgeschichte used the analysis of political discourses in order to explore not simply the history of political thought but also the social structures of a given society, while British intellectual historians representing the “Cambridge school” focused on the discursive structures of “political languages.”

Second, there occurred an expansion of anthropological and semiotic approaches to cultural and social history, facilitating the development of the history of gender and sexuality, oral history, and the history of everyday life. A plethora of new works explored the history of representations, of practices, of memory, and remembering. Applying the new methodology of social constructivism, they pointed to the construction of reality through the continuous production and reproduction of meaning.

Third, challenged by the new cultural history, social historians (who used to dominate the discipline in the 1960s and 1970s, before the emergence of the new cultural history) shifted their research focus from macro-social to micro-social perspectives. Microhistory has enabled historians to gain new insights into patterns of behaviors at individual or collective levels; yet it has also posed new theoretical and methodological challenges to historians, relating to the constriction of scales and the relation between micro and macro perspectives of research.

The evolution of history writing in the Soviet-dominated Central Europe followed a markedly different dialectics than in Western historiographies, for reasons that had to do, first and foremost, with the communist cultural policies and their legacy. Due to political interdictions, “local” historical writing shunned (with few yet notable exceptions) the international research trends mentioned above. It was only in the post-communist period that the dialogue and exchange between Eastern and Western historiographies could freely develop, as national historiographies in the region have been challenged to overcome “parochialism,” to internalize the theoretical and methodological achievements that marked the development of Western social sciences, and to open up to comparative regional and global perspectives. The trend is best exemplified by studies on communism, which I believe has been the most productive field of cross-fertilization between Eastern and Western historiographies. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of Western social historians changed the face of comparative communist studies in general, and that of Soviet studies, in particular. These ”revisionist” historians rejected simplified accounts of communist societies as being made up solely of the ruling communist elite and the working people or, in moral terms, of “victims” and “victimizers,” with no intermediary social strata in-between.

Instead, social historians emphasized the complexity of communist societies, made up of a multitude of social strata and interest groups who vied for political power and influence. In the 1980s and 1990s, communist studies were further transformed by a new generation of anthropologists and cultural historians who conducted fieldwork in Central Europe. Informed by primary research and equipped with a set of innovative theories and methods, these Western or local anthropologists and cultural historians promoted a new research agenda aimed at the interdisciplinary study of communist societies focusing, among other things, on time and space, everyday life and everyday culture, social and political relations, political discourses and the issue of national identity, all studied in their original locus.

In the 1990’s, one could already identify the beneficial effects of this East-West academic interaction and exchange: On the one hand, Western authors have gradually adjusted their research agenda addressing local issues and concerns, such as nationalism and national identity. On the other hand, emulating Western scholarship, numerous new works authored by young scholars in the region approached the study of communism with the specific tools and methods of political science, oral history, gender history, and social and cultural anthropology. These developments have contributed to a gradual shift in the local research agenda from political to socio-cultural history, and to an increasingly interdisciplinary orientation and scholarly interaction. The growing convergence of research and the multiple avenues of international institutional collaboration have currently blurred the previous sharp distinction between “Western vs. Eastern,” or “local vs. external” scholarship.

CEU's Department of History has been at the forefront of these novel developments: The Department has offered a uniquely cosmopolitan environment, enabling a truly transnational academic exchange. During the last two decades, we have assembled a distinctly international faculty over a dozen countries in three continents: our faculty come primarily from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States. Equally important, during its 20-year existence, the department has trained—at MA and PhD levels—over 700 students from 30 countries on several continents, stretching from North America to East and Southeast Asia. Many of our graduates are now active members of the academic community in their country, acting as leaders of change in their own field of professional activity.


The most interesting emerging/new developments in your discipline

One of the most interesting phenomena occurring in world historiography today is the growing trend toward transnational history, prompted by numerous factors. First, the enlargement of the historians' analytical focus from the history of political elites to that of wider socio-political groups has stimulated the comparative study of societies at micro- and macro-levels. Second, challenged by the sweeping political changes set into motion by the collapse of the communist system, the end of the Cold War, and the increasing globalization of the world, historians pay greater attention to the issue of geographical spaces, transcending their previous concentration on national history and moving away from the rigidly defined and excessively politicized Cold War understanding of "area studies."

Within this context, new analytical frameworks have been elaborated for approaching global, continental, or regional history from cross-national or transnational perspectives, such as world history, shared or entangled history, histoire croisée, and the history of transfers. Although arguably stemming from the tradition of comparative history, these new transnational approaches attempt to critically re-evaluate the comparative method and to shift the focus of research from variable-dependent methodology and causal reasoning to multiple levels of interaction. For the proponents of transnational approaches, the “classical” comparative method is too mechanistic. In order to identify similarities and differences among various case-studies, it treats units of comparison as stable, compatible, and neatly separated entities; in doing so, it unavoidably obscures reciprocal influences and inter-relations among them. In contrast, influenced by post-colonialism and subaltern studies, new transnational approaches set the emphasis on processes of reciprocal perceptions, asymmetric mutual influences, and entanglements among inter-related historical actors. Surely, in many respects, these approaches are not brand new; they have been applied, implicitly or explicitly, by historians and social scientists over a long period of time. Yet, in their most recent articulations, these approaches challenge comparative historians to reflect on their analytical categories, their units of comparison, and their own position in the process of research.

What are the prospects of transnational history in Central Europe? Despite much talk about the need to study history comparatively, historical studies in the region have largely remained a national enterprise. The promotion of comparative history is therefore an imperious scholarly, civic, and even political need in Central Europe: topics such as historical regions, empires and their legacies, contested borders and borderlands, and so on, need to be systematically studied. There is an urgent need to re-conceptualize the history of the region by employing a relational and transnational approach, as part of a more general effort to re-write continental and global history from an integrated perspective. Historians in Central Europe are challenged to place a greater emphasis on the “shared” and “entangled” history of the peoples in the region, to assess international influences and transfers, and to account for the process of European integration and its impact on societal development. They need to transcend the prevailing narrow and national-based historiographic perspective and to redirect their research focus toward new areas of inquiry, such as physical and geographical mobility, transnational circulation of ideas, migration, and the environment.

This new research agenda is not just an exercise meant to catch up with the “developed West”; contrary to received clichés, Central Europe is not simply a latecomer, a passive receiver that would transfer and adopt ready-made academic paradigm to its own tradition of area studies. The new historiography in Central Europe is able to contribute to the process of re-writing European history from an integrated perspective. Currently, European history-writing is in a process of transformation, moving away from its concentration on the historical experience of Western Europe and toward considering the history of other regions, as well. Countries in Central Europe can actively contribute to enhancing the plurality of historical and cultural experiences defying “Europeanness” and European values. They can expose the tendency of essentializing the experience of historical regions such as “the West” or “the East,” by promoting a more integrative perspective. In the long run, the fruitful cross-fertilization between Western and Eastern scholarship should lead to the reconfiguration of European and global history. This effort does not merely presuppose the integration of Central European history into pan-European or global master narratives, but devising new analytical frameworks informed by transnational history and the history of transfers.

There are encouraging signs that this effort is currently under way; our department has actively contributed to these developments. CEU's Department of History and Pasts, Inc. Institute of Historical Studies have over the years accumulated a substantive expertise in comparative history, and our systematic activity in this field has made us one of the most active comparative history departments in Europe and the world. Through the CEU-HESP Comparative History Project, our department has been at the core of dynamic academic and professional networks promoting a special blend of tradition and innovation in historical studies and related fields. One of our main aims has been to contribute to the elaboration and dissemination of new theoretical and methodological paradigms for approaching regional history from a comparative and relational perspective. We do that by focusing on the theory and methodology of comparative historical studies, but also in connection with specific fields of academic research.


The most important contributions to the field by  your department or by department members

CEU's Department of History has been, throughout its 20-year existence, an active agent of change and a forum of exchange and interaction between Eastern and Western historiographies. In the global context, the department is singled out by: 1) its focus on comparative and transnational history; 2) the interdisciplinary character of its curriculum; and 3) the high quality of its research activity, combining empirical work with cutting-edge methodological and theoretical reflection.

1) We offer a unique intellectual environment that encourages a comparative study of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe in relation to each other as well as to other parts of Europe, Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. All our degree-writing programs are programs in comparative history. They explore comparative themes in the history of Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe within a wider European context, such as: patterns of social development, cultural history and everyday life from the Reformation through the Enlightenment to modernity; problems of modernization, backwardness and unequal development; modern ideologies; empires and imperial structures, nationhood and the nation state; varieties of authoritarianism such as fascism and communism, and their historical reflection. In order to foster a critical spirit of inquiry and high standards of verification, these empirical themes are supplemented by a solid training in methodology, especially the epistemological issues related to the study of history and historiography. Our  department's concentration on comparative history singles out its profile in Central Europe and also well beyond this region. We offer one of the few programs in the world that effectively enables students to study comparatively the history of the Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Empires and their successor states.

2) Our department has an interdisciplinary outlook. Our faculty have a strong research profile in a multitude of areas, including the history of ideas, social history, gender studies, nationalism studies, urban studies, the comparative history of empires, history of life science, and comparative politics. More recently, besides our traditional strength in comparative cultural and intellectual history, social and political history—especially nation-, state- and empire-building, modern authoritarian regimes, and so forth—the department has opened toward other areas crucial for the history of the region, such as religious studies and Ottoman studies. First, the Department of History has been instrumental in promoting religious studies at CEU. Second, we have started a major focus in Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies. The mission of the new focus is to study, teach, and research Ottoman history in its entirety that is inclusive of all the peoples and cultures that made up the Empire and continue to comprise its successor states. What makes us different from other programs is that we focus primarily on the Ottoman and Turkish presence in the Balkans, Central Europe, and the greater Mediterranean world in general.

3)The rich research agenda of the department reflects the interdisciplinary training and diverse national and linguistic identities of our faculty. The department has initiated numerous ambitious research projects on the history of Central, Southeastern, and Eastern Europe from the 16th century to present times, in a comparative perspective. Three of our faculty members have been awarded major grants by the highly prestigious European Research Council; research teams involve the collaborative effort of additional faculty members and doctoral students in our department. Innovative and cutting-edge research in the department has resulted in over 50 books, 145 book chapters, and 130 articles published in the last five years. Among the most important academic contributions made by members of our department I mention selectively: Judit Bodnár's work on urban history (see Fin-de-Millénaire Budapest: Metamorphoses of Urban Life. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); András Gerö's work on the history of the Habsburg Empire (see Emperor of Francis Joseph, King of the Hungarians. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001); Katalin Péter's work on the history of childhood (see Beloved Children: History of Aristocratic Childhood in Hungary in the Early Modern Age. Budapest: CEU Press, 2001); László Kontler's work on Enlightenment studies and the history of Hungary (see Millennium in Central Europe. A History of Hungary. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002); Alfred J. Rieber's and Alexei Miller's work on the Russian empire (Alexei Miller, The Ukrainian Question. The Russian Empire and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. Budapest: CEU Press, 2003; Alexei Miller and Alfred J. Rieber, eds. Imperial Rule. Budapest: CEU Press, 2004); Maciej Janowski's work on liberalism (Polish Liberal Thought before 1918, Budapest: CEU Press, 2004); Roumen Daskalov's work on the Balkans (The Making of a Balkan Nation. Budapest: CEU Press, 2004); my own work work on comparative fascist studies (see Constantin Iordachi, Comparative Fascist Studies: New Perspectives. London: Routledge, 2009); Victor Karady's work on the history of the Jews (The Jews of Europe in the Modern Era. A Socio-Historical Outline, Budapest: CEU Press, 2004); Nadia Al-Bagdadi's work on Arabic studies (A Brief Introduction to Arabic Erotic Literature. London: Saqi City, 2010; Jacek Kochanowicz's work on economic history (Backwardness and Modernization: Poland and Eastern Europe in the 16th-20th Centuries, Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006); Balázs Trencsényi's work on the history of nationalism (Balázs Trencsényi and Michal Kopecek, eds. Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770-1945): Texts and Commentaries. Vol. 1-2); István Rév's  work on the intersection between history and memory in post-communist societies (Retroactive Justice, Prehistories of Postcommunism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); and Susan Zimmermann's work on in the field of gender studies (Die bessere Hälfte? Frauenbewegungen und Frauenbestrebungen im Ungarn der Habs­burger­monarchie 1848 bis 1918 Wien-Budapest 1999). In addition to individual faculty publications, the department has gained a respected voice in regional and global debates in the discipline by hosting several high-profile publishing venues, among which are two academic journals (East Central Europe; and European Review of History/Revue d’histoire européenne) and two book series (Pasts Incorporated. CEU Studies in the Humanities, published by the CEU Press; and Central and Eastern Europe. Regional Perspectives in Global Context, published by Brill, Leiden). These publications provide a forum of academic expression and interaction to our faculty members, to the CEU academic community as well as to wider academic circles in the region.

Plans to celebrate our department's 20th anniversary

 We envision the following events:

1) A major international conference on "Eighteenth-Century Crossroads in Ottoman Studies: Negotiating Communal, State, and Moral Boundaries. (organized by the CEU in conjunction Columbia University, New York and Başak Tuğ, Bilgi University in May 2011).

2) A major reunion with alumni and former professors in our department in June 2011;

3) A research project on “Historiography in Central Europe: 20 Years of Change” which will end with a major conference in June 2011.

4) A major international interdisciplinary workshop on "Competing and complementary visions of the social: history, sociology, anthropology” organized jointly with the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology in Fall 2011.

For the anniversary at the university level, we propose:

  • A debate or a series of events on the history of the concept of Central Europe. As a matter of fact, Central European University is an outcome of the revival of the concept of Central Europe in the 1980s in literature, in academia, and then in the political practice (see the Visegrád alliance). It would be timely to revisit various visions of reviving Central Europe as a space of exchange and interaction among people in the region, 20 years after the fall of communism.
  • The commemoration of important personalities from our department, such as Peter Hanák, an eminent cultural historian of Central Europe, a founding member of CEU and the first chair of the Department of History. Hanák was animated by his own vision of Central Europe as a cultural utopia, a republic of letters emulating the pattern of Enlightened societies but built on the cultural legacy of the Habsburg empire.