This week’s readings have revealed the tension on which the world studied by transnational historians is built: that of the necessary coexistence between openness and closedness, fluidity and reification of categories. Indeed, both Conrad and Sugata show that labour mobility and the presence of minorities in a region or state trigger strong movements of rejection, discriminatory politics and hardening of national boundaries.

Reading these chapters, I could not help but draw parallels with the present. While the end of the Cold War briefly offered the prospect of a borderless and integrated world, we are today witnessing a hyper-securitisation of borders and a rise of nationalisms in the face, to take Europe’s example, of influxes of migrants. Today like in the 19th century, identity always builds itself against a threatening Other. Globalisation carries within itself the causes of its own limits.

This has made me reflect about what I thought practicing transnational history meant. The discussions and readings of the previous weeks have tended to make me dismiss the nation state as a relevant framework of study, and to consider it as an unnatural and simplifying construction imposed on a complex world. I naively fell into the excess that both Conrad and Ruger in his OXO article denounce. However simplifying the discourses creating imagined communities may be, nation states are both a physical and discursive reality arising from complex processes. As shown by Conrad who still takes the German state as his reference, the task of the transnational historian is therefore to find a middle ground and to make sense of history at the crossroads between the “destruction” and the “acknowledgement” of the state category. Easier said than done…

Finally, Conrad’s chapter on Polish labour mobility aroused my interest in the notion of borders: while they are often seen as edges located far from the centre and therefore of marginal interest, their very status of “in-between” spaces makes them a relevant topic for transnational history. Indeed, they are both barriers and porous spaces that facilitate movements and exchanges. In addition, a focus on borders would perhaps address the tension mentioned above as it acknowledges both the importance of the state and territorialisation processes and the presence of populations and historical phenomena that cannot be accounted for from a state perspective.

Reflections on the nation state