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There is hope for better times for the past

What is global history
HISTORY / National-cultivating historiography has characterized Norway for several decades, but Leidulf Melve and Eivind Heldaas Seland show the way out of disability.


The debate over Marte Michelet's books Jews og holocaust has shown how emotionally connected many Norwegian historians have been to one major national past presentation. IN The biggest crime (2014) and What did the home front know? (2018) challenged Michelet's writing of history in recent decades, where Norwegian Jews and their experiences in practice have been written out of history.

The Home Front had been notified of the extermination of the Jews three months before the October 1942 arrests.

Oskar mendelsohn, who was affiliated with the Mosaic Faith Society, had to write himself The history of the Jews in Norway (1969/1986). But Michelet was the first to grab Gunnar Sonstebys statement in 1970, recorded on audio tape by Ragnar Ulstein, that the home front had been notified of the extermination of the Jews three months before the arrests from October 1942. The argument from historians Bjarte Bruland, Mats Tangestuen and Elise B. Berggren is that Sønsteby "must" have remembered wrongly. After all, he said this 28 years after the events, "something that increases the chance of memory displacement". Well, that is possible, but why did no Norwegian historians grasp the statements before Sønsteby passed away in 2012?

The blind spots and omissions confirm the necessity of Michelet's project, as Espen Søbye shows in What do historians know? (2021). Considering that 738 Norwegian Jews were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, it should have been obvious that racism and the fate of the Jews is a very central part of Norwegian history. And not just a footnote.

The nation-states and the power of the past

The angry reactions against Michelet recalls how Historik Tidsskrift received the undersigned and Stians Bromarks Norway – a small piece of world history (2005). The book dealt with the influence of the Sami, the Jews, immigrants and the world on Norway throughout the ages. But Jan Eivind Myhre reviewed the book under the unscientific title "Norway – a large distorted picture". There is thus a "wrong side" and a "right side" to understanding Norway's past, if one is to believe the "patriotic" representations from the institute at the University of Oslo.

In Vinduet (27 January this year), editor Ola Innset explained why the reactions are so strong. The reason lies in the fact that "the modern subject of history emerged in the 1800th century, with the rather explicit purpose of creating founding myths for Europe's new nation-states. This is the original function of the history subject [...]".

At least with the modern one Historythe subject's function with the rise of nation-states in the 1800th century. Especially in small and resource-poor countries, such as Norway, people become extra concerned with creating myths and one unifying, patriotic narrative about the past. While the international professional community has had a "global turn" since the 1990s, little has happened in Norway, as the Bo Stråth committee showed in its critical report Beyond the nation in time and space: the power of the past and the possibilities of the future in Norwegian historical research (2008)

Something Eurocentric

But something is going on at the University of Bergen, which we see with the perspectives of Leidulf Melve and Eivind Heldaas Seland. This summer they came out with the book What is global history, in the University Press What is-series. Melve has done important work, for example with Global historiography (2014), Sealand with Global historical atlas (2019)

What is global history unfortunately does not have a review of the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian writings, such as Ea-iddins Babylonian Chronicles from the year 500 BC. Neither of the historiography of Herodotus, who grew up under the Persian Empire, took a source-critical approach to Greek representations and traveled up the Nile in his exploration. Chinese Sima Qian (b. 145 years before our era.) they only mention briefly. And they don't include Ban Zhao (b. approx. 50 years before our era) and her completion of the historical work Hanshu – which makes her the world's first known female historian.

Instead, Melve and Seland begin the chapter "The History of Global History" with the Greek Polybios. But without mentioning the global historical perspectives of, for example, the Persian historian Abu'l Ali al-masudi (b. 886) and his Fields of gold (947), or Persian Rashid al-Din (b. 1247), or Turkish Mustafa Ali (b. 1541). Something at least Sebastian Conrad do in What is Global History? (2016)

Ironically, the presentation becomes somewhat Eurocentric, while at the same time they point out that the global historical attempts from the 1960s until today have been strikingly Eurocentric. Here they could advantageously present the many works of, for example, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, which would have nuanced the presentation of global history in recent decades.

Despite these suggestions for improvement: Melve and Seland have delivered a good introduction. There is hope for better times for the past – also in Norway.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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