Histories of Nations: How Their Identities Were Forged

Jerry Brotton considers an ambitious, if flawed, attempt to offer new accounts of the formation of national identities

Histories of Nations: How Their Identities Were Forged
Author: Peter Furtado
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: Jerry Brotton
Price (RRP): £24.95

This bold and intriguing project, the brainchild of its editor, Peter Furtado (the former editor of History Today), sets out to offer a different perspective from the one usually adopted by historians when examining their national past. It asks 28 leading historians “to step outside their usual frames of reference and write about how history is understood in the culture of their homelands at large,” in essays of around 3,000 words. The countries selected are from every continent and constitute two-thirds of the global population, from ancient countries like Egypt, Greece, Iran and China to more recent creations like Israel and the Czech Republic, as well as more surprising inclusions like Ghana and Hungary.

Furtado concedes that “this is less a history of the world than a selection of histories, planned in the belief that a single point of view, a single overarching agenda, is neither possible to realise successfully, nor desirable in our polycentric, postmodern age”. And so it proves: part of the fascination of reading it is seeing how historians interpret their national past (and future), and rise to the challenge of saying something novel and interesting in such a short space.

Such collections of diverse voices and approaches are always by their nature likely to be uneven, and this is no exception. Most of the contributors tell well-worn stories that hardly rise above good broadsheet journalism: Hussein Bassir’s Egypt is full of pharaohs, kings and presidents (with some acknowledgement of the unfolding revolutionary events of the Arab spring); Giovanni Levi’s Italy is a “demoralised and disenchanted land,” and the “shallow” historical consciousness of today’s Germany is chronicled by Stefan Berger.

There are some deft and revelatory exceptions; it is interesting that most of them deal with the former and current superpowers (are they better at writing national history?). Zhitian Luo offers a fascinating account of China’s obsession with history – the longest continuous tradition in the world – which collapsed under 19th-century western influence, and is only now making a return. “Thus,” argues Luo in his reflections on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, “what was on display in the opening ceremony can be described as Chinese history from a western perspective.”

In direct contrast Peter Onuf provides a wonderful vignette of the “historylessness” of the United States, “a ‘chosen people’ beyond history” who after 11 September 2011 realised that “they could not escape history after all”.

The peerless Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie offers a wonderfully intemperate account of the many “misunderstandings about France and its history,” but in the post-London Olympic glow it is unsurprising that the gold medal goes to Jeremy Black’s typically fluent yet pugnacious piece on Great Britain as a “confected state” that began as late as 1707.

Overall this is a collection that goes too far (why so many European nations?) and yet not far enough (why so few east Asian or African ones, why not every single nation?). The writing is not consistently good enough to make it more than an intriguing curiosity.

Jerry Brotton is the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Allen Lane, 2012)

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