Report: Junior Workshop of the Association for British Studies (AGF), 5/6 May 2021
On the occasion of the 9th Junior Workshop of the German Association for British Studies, 12 graduate students and Post-Docs working on the history of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the British Empire presented and discussed their current research projects. The event took place online. The five thematic panels on transnational mobility, intellectual history, community and belonging, Empire and infrastructure, and the end of empire, generated a lively debate on methodological approaches, research tools and British history.
The first panel addressed transnational mobility in the 19th century: Christian Schuster (Dresden) presented his project on the English colony in Saxony and Saxons in London and Lukas Fallwickl (Salzburg) talked about how British diplomats and travel writers shaped the image of the Habsburg monarchy. While the former writes a history from below and analyses conflicts in lower social classes to explain images of the respective other, the latter regards actors who are largely middle- or upper class and acted as cultural or official diplomats of the British state. Both partially have worked with the same source editions, which generated a lively debate. We discussed the influence of the history of the urban and of religion on their respective topics.
Both presentations of the second panel were dedicated to intellectual histories. Pierre Sfendules (München) uses the study “Hippolytus and his Age” by the diplomat Christian Carl Josias von Bunsen to write an intellectual and material history of the interpretation of Early Roman church history and its influence on religious debates in the nineteenth century. Questions of dissemination and reception are also central to Patrick Rummel (Bamberg). He engages with concepts of “Greater Britain” including the white settler Dominions of the British Empire developed by the 19th century British historians John Robert Seeley and Edward Freeman and their reception in the post-Brexit United Kingdom – an issue with much relevance at the present time. Both used biographies to describe the mechanisms of the production and circulation of ideas.
Writing the history of adoption also bears on present-day debates on Whiteness and Britishness, as we learned from Lena Jur (Marburg) and her project on the adoption of non-White children during decolonisation. Issues of national identity and belonging were thus at the core of the third panel. Heidrun Mühlbradt (Göttingen) used a different method – body history – to deconstruct how nations were defined during the Irish and the German revolution during and after the First World War. By choosing this approach, she offers new insights into how social movements are constructed and exercise political impact through acts like rituals or clothing. Focussing on questions of paternity suits and alimony, Lukas Schretter (Graz/Wien) showed how children fathered by the British occupying army in Austria after the Second World War were caught in struggles over political power and the construction of national identity, using political, legal and oral history material.
In the fourth panel on infrastructures in the British Empire, global movements and their impact on societal negotiations over national identity were also front and centre. For Friedrich Ammermann (Florenz), imaginaries of empire played out in the Cape-to-Cairo-railway project. Franziska Hermes (Berlin) looks at the global consciousness of Britons in the early modern period via their debates on the British East India Company and their shipwrecks. Both look at moments of rupture and failures of imperial expansion. The Cape-to-Cairo project in particular deconstructs the role, limits and legacies of railways as imperial infrastructure and tool of empire, and both show how fragile infrastructures of empire and globalization often were.
Finally, and most fittingly, we discussed the “end of empire”, which of course brought conflicts around national identity to the fore. Stephen Foose (Marburg) uses the material and political history of the British passport to talk about signifiers of belonging and mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion as well as racial hierarchisation in the post-colonial Commonwealth. Sabrina Jost and Miriam Adler (Tübingen) look at how Britain’s turning away from its former colonies Australia and New Zealand left a void in the self-image of these countries and how decolonisation shaped the “imagined geographies” of the Pacific with regard to Australia and New Zealand. The rearrangement of the political order was reflected, and shaped by, the relationship with their Pacific neighbours as well as the emotional practices in the context of cultural belonging and national identity in the former dominions.
These stimulating research projects used a wide and innovative range of methods – from the history of emotions, to material or oral history – and sources to grasp who and how identities are shaped in a globalising world, reflecting current trends and controversies in historical scholarship. In particular, global history and transnational perspectives stood out as generating new questions and insights. The circulation of ideas, practices and techniques as well as transnational migration stood against racism, oppression and control (however fragile it was). These two days of peer reviewing research projects were immensely productive and insightful.