December 22, 2006
By Robert A. Schneider, AHR Editor
The December issue of the American Historical Review is now available on-line at the History Cooperative:
The issue has articles on the impact of Woodrow Wilson’s vision in Asia, smoking in the Ottoman Empire, child welfare in early twentieth century Bohemia, and public healing in modern Africa. It should be noted that all four articles are transnational in scope, and thus serve as a fitting prelude to a new feature of the journal: an AHR Conversation on transnational history (about which, more below).
In “Imagining Woodrow Wilson in Asia: Dreams of East-West Harmony and the Revolt against Empire in 1919,” Erez Manela examines how intellectual elites in China and India began to see this president as a statesman who could transform international relations heretofore based on imperialism and domination into patterns of comity and equality, largely through the League of Nations. For in that body, Asian nations would be members on an equal footing with those of the West. Manela’s article expands our view of the international history of 1919 beyond the usual concern with the deliberations and decisions of the Paris Peace Conference. It suggests a path for integrating the transformative developments that took place in Asian societies into the wider international and transnational contexts of the period.
Historians have recently begun to wonder whether they can talk about “early modern” history on a worldwide scale. In “Smoking and “Early Modern” Sociability: The Great Tobacco Debate in the Ottoman Middle East (Seventeenth to Eighteenth Centuries),” James Grehan argues that this sort of global periodization can be seen in cultural history, in particular in the growth of a public culture of entertainment, sustained by a diffusion of new consumer goods—mainly coffee, tea, and tobacco. The last was especially popular in the Middle East, and recognizing the sociability that grew up around smoking is crucial for our understanding of this region, which is often mistakenly and simplistically depicted as essentially “Islamic.” In particular, it offers a corrective insight into a culture that was hardly as static, rigid and under the thrall of religious authorities as the label implies. The article shows that ordinary people, as much as religious scholars, played an active role in shaping and redefining cultural norms and religious expectations.
In ”’Each nation only cares for its own’: Empire, Nation, and Child Welfare Activism in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1918,” Tara Zahra tells the story of how child welfare activists in the Bohemian lands built a nationally segregated welfare system in the context of a multinational empire. German and Czech nationalist activists in this region competed for the loyalties of a bilingual and nationally mixed population, using education as a lure. During the social crisis of the First World War, Austrian government officials, in the hope of buttressing the state’s own flagging legitimacy, turned to these same nationalist welfare activists to build and manage an ambitious new Ministry for Social Welfare. But far from being disaffected, Czech and German nationalists in the late Austrian Empire willingly served as the state’s own trusted agents. This article not only offers a new perspective on the relationship of nation, empire and state in Central and Eastern Europe, it also challenges established narratives of welfare-state formation during World War I as a top-down process of state initiative and intervention into the private realm of the family.
“Conjuring the Modern in Africa: Durability and Rupture in Histories of Public Healing between the Great Lakes of East Africa,” by David L. Schoenbrun, argues that colonial and postcolonial studies of modernity tend to sever precolonial history from what comes after it. He confronts this historiographical divide by presenting a long-term history of persistent clusters of meanings and practices relating to public healing in the African region of the Great Lakes. In the last millennium and beyond, the practice of public healing, and the ideas of health and power it repeatedly enacts, have worked against other forms of authority rooted in intensive agricultural systems, centralized and expansionist monarchies, commodified economies, colonial states, and professional medicine. By analyzing a single field of historical experience, public healing, this article cuts across the tight spaces of ethnicity and deepens otherwise shallow chronologies to reveal a hetero-temporal modern Africa that contrasts with the hybrid or alternative modernity so prevalent in the literature. By relying on narratives from overlooked historical actors and unconventional sources, Schoenbrun raises new questions about the basis of moral community and the sources of collective well-being in Africa today.
Finally, a new feature makes its appearance in this issue, which we are calling an AHR Conversation. Titled “On Transnational History,” our first such conversation is the transcript of an online discussion among six scholars, moderated by the AHR Editor, on an approach to history that has become something of a buzz-word in the writing and teaching of history. The conversation, which began in May and ended in October, offers a wide range of perspectives and insights that should allow readers to reflect on the possibilities and challenges of doing history in a global age.
Readers should note that this issue no longer lists Maria Bucur as Associate Editor. Indeed, Maria left that position, after three years of brilliant and energetic service, this last August. The AHR has had a tradition of extraordinary and extraordinarily active Associate Editors, and Maria set a new standard in this respect. Her worthy successor is Sarah Knott, a historian of colonial and early national America and the Atlantic World. Her critical skills have already been at work in the editorial process, and the pages of the journal will soon yield evidence of her own brilliance, wide historical knowledge, and acumen.