Writing Contemporary History as an Outsider

I have recently published an article in Britské listy in a series in which historians reflect on the pros and cons of researching on the history of a country that is not their own. Its organizer Muriel Blaive described the aim of the series as follows:

In May 2021, Jill Massino and I organized a roundtable at the annual congress of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in New York. It was entitled The Benefits and Burdens of the “Invisible Suitcase”: Writing Contemporary History as an Outsider.

Some of the greatest historians of the contemporary period are “outsiders” to their country of study, for instance Robert Paxton and Christopher Browning in the case of France and Germany during the Second World War. Outsider perspectives enhance, complement, and complicate existing narratives, and, as such, help to produce a more nuanced and complex portrait of the past. Yet our collective experience is that Western historians of communism in Central Europe struggle to establish their legitimacy among societies that remain attached to an ethnonationalist definition of identity. Also, many people believe that only contemporary witnesses are entitled to speak about contemporary history. This roundtable offered the cumulated experience of four scholars: Marci Shore, Jill Massino, Jan Čulík, and Muriel Blaive. We reflected on the way in which our status has affected our research, our writing, and our reception. As a result, our roundtable also offered insight into the societies we are studying and into the stakes involved in the production of history.

Britské listy has kindly offered us to publish our texts, as well as a few others on the part of colleagues who attended the panel and participated in a very lively discussion. 

My contribution began with reflections on a conversation in a Prague pub with a Czech colleague thirty years ago on a 1949 set of Czechoslovak postage stamps that he found absolutely unremarkable and I found utterly surreal. I titled the article “The Density of Unexpected Encounters.”

English text here.

Czech text here.

Earlier contributions were Marci Shore’s “Ostranenie, or the Epistemological Advantages—and Disadvantages—of Marginality,” and Anna Müller and Jadwiga Biskupska’s “Objectivity and the Polish Question: Two Answers.”

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