The reaction against the ‘nation-state’ paradigm as the inevitable status quo has become well entrenched in recent historical discourse. Gellner’s and Anderson’s seminal works in the 1980s have spawned a plethora of re-evaluations of how we can conceptualise the world. Patrick Geary’s Myth of Nations examines a handful of ‘foundation’ myths, showing how they can be easily deconstructed to demonstrate holes in the teleological ‘nation-building’ charade which so many governments throughout the world continue to propagate. Too many of these narratives are inward looking, painting a rich tapestry of the ingenuity of the ‘people’ of a geographically confined area on the path to full nationhood. The categories of chance and interaction with external powers are almost entirely whitewashed out to produce an epic tale of nations emerging in isolated processes.

As historians, we are instantly aware that these creations are anachronistic, and the deconstruction of such myths is closely tied to the discipline itself. We are immediately sceptical of events and movements that purport to take place in a vacuum, so is it in fact the case that transnational and global history (at least in twenty-first century scholarship) has already become subconsciously subsumed into the practice of history?

The nation is not the only historical ‘actor’. Sebastian Conrad has shown how nationalisation and globalisation are not “two stages of a consecutive process of development, but rather were dependent on each other.” It is only through cross-border interaction that the identity of the nation became constructed. Catherine Hall states: “We can understand the nation only by defining what is not part of it.” By this token, all nations were created transnationally. In the United States, for example, links were not one-way, but were very much reciprocal; people, ideas, and institutions moved back and forth. The trend for ‘Atlantic History’ departments in North American universities reflects this rethinking; however, relations with the ‘Atlantic World’ were arguably just as important as relations with the ‘Pacific World’, but this is often left out of the picture of ‘Atlantic histories’. The value of transnational and global history perspectives is that they take into consideration all of these connections. How, then, should a transnational history of a nation be constructed?

Of course, it would be unrealistic to suggest that a single volume could claim to be a definitive ‘transnational history’ of that nation under study. We should, rather, speak of ‘transnational histories’- the plural form implying that each constituent study contributes to the corpus of the transnational history of that particular nation. Perhaps this is too broad a canvas, but it remains necessarily so if one is to incorporate all the flows and connections, taking everything into account. Eventually, one finds that ‘globalisation’ grew in tandem with ‘nationalisation’. In Germany, for example, the debates around 1900 centring on Chinese labour, Conrad shows, “must be seen as a reaction to the increasing mobility and connectedness of the era.”  In rhetoric about protecting national identity and character, the degree of racial difference between the ‘Germans’ and ‘Chinese’ was perceived to be so extreme that there was no risk of the ‘German’ race becoming diluted. This was part of the justification by the Prussian landowners in their support for the prospective importation of such labour, rather than ‘Polish’ labour, where the risk of miscegenation was considered to be far higher. It is no coincidence that the foreign ministries of burgeoning ‘nation-states’ became the most important governmental departments at this time; local and national problems were embedded within global structures

Naturally, all of these labels- ‘Chinese’, ‘Americans’, ‘Germans’, and ‘Poles’- are constructs themselves. It was only through the ‘discovery’ of the ‘Other’ that such identities could be created. As historians, we know that the world cannot be analysed in these black-and-white terms. Levels of identity are, and always have been, far more multilayered than this. Transnational history ensures this dialogue continues.


Conrad, S. Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany (Cambridge; New York: 2010)

Tyrrell, I. Transnational Nation, United States History in Global Perspective since 1789 (Basingstoke: 2007)


The transnational histories of nations
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2 thoughts on “The transnational histories of nations

  • February 9, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    I would like to pick up on the plurality of histories that is or could potentially be offered in or by transnational history. Personally, this is where I see one of the manyfold potentials – in writing plural, less linear, less teleological history. Transnational history, to my taste, could be plural, fragmented, could be multi-authored as it needs variations of expertise. This could lead to the multi-perspectivity that Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann have argued for in their “histoire croisée”.

    In many ways this is how I would read Jürgen Osterhammel’s “Transformation of the World” in that is is not a history of the nineteenth century that is ordered around time and periods (or any inherent master narratives such as modernisation), but an ensemble of different perspectives across different places rather than time.

    The question, of course, is would we sacrifice our (the historian’s) task to argue, analyse, create order of and in the past or provide master narratives of the past in order to reach a wider audience?

  • February 10, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    Sweet post, Harri!

    In Hong Kong, where we’re living through a strange tussle for autonomy and identity as a special administrative region (S.A.R.) of China, we see this ‘nation building’ charade manifest as a battle over the local curriculum… it’s a regular and ongoing feature in our most widely circulated English newspaper. I think the huge dissent and disagreement around “national education” probably prematurely quelled its intended sentiments…
    Personal favourite:

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