What I’m Reading: An Interview with Historian Michael Goebel

tags: interview, Michael Goebel

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.

Michael Goebel has been Professor of Global and Latin American History at Freie Universität Berlin since June 2015. His latest book – Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism – was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. It has won the AHA'sJerry Bentley Prize in World History in 2016. His first book – Argentina's Partisan Past: Nationalism and the Politics of History – was published by Liverpool University Press in 2011, and his articles on the history of migration and the global history of nationalism have appeared in journals such as theAmerican Historical Review,Past and Present and Geschichte und Gesellschaft. A co-founder of theGlobal Urban History blog, his main current interest is the global history of urban ethnic segregation. Follow him on Twitter: @mgoebel29.

What books are you reading now?

I am reviewing, and thus reading, The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History, edited by Peter Clark, from which I am learning a great deal about cities I didn’t know, particularly in times well before my usual purview. I am also reading Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World, which teaches me a lot about a region, the Middle East; I am far too ignorant about. It’s a fascinating read also because so many of the ideas that it examines have uncanny echoes today.

What is your favorite history book?

If it were only one, my life would be much easier. I love Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World, to the chagrin of some of my students, who find it too long-winded; and in disagreement with many of its American reviewers, who faulted it for lacking a catchy thesis. I admire it for its erudition and its resistance to flashiness. For much the same reasons, I loved The Contemporary History of Latin America by Tulio Halperín Donghi, an Argentine historian, whose prose is so convoluted you have to read every sentence twice. A book that greatly influenced my ideals of how to practice history is José Moya’s Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires. It’s an amazingly researched microscopic social history without the flaws of an earlier kind of social history, with its anemic reliance on serial sources alone. On a more theoretical level, I love Frederick Cooper’s Colonialism in Question, essentially a demolition job of concepts long held dear by historians. By contrast, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes made a great impact on me when I read it in my early twenties, but I’m not sure if I’d still recommend it to students today.

Why did you choose history as your career?

It never felt like a choice to me and it was certainly much more accidental than autobiographical hindsight leads me to claim. I considered medicine, since almost all my family are physicians, but at age 14 I had summoned the family council to issue a warning that I wouldn’t follow the beaten track. When I was 19 I wanted to study medicine again but felt I couldn’t fold, so I had to choose something else. I picked history with the idea of becoming a journalist. Then that career flopped, so I tried to make the best of the leftovers. That’s not so say that I wasn’t interested in history. Recent history in particular played a big role in my German upbringing and in everyday politics. During my second year at university, for example, I read a German translation of Mark Roseman’s A Past in Hiding, the story of a young Jewish woman from Essen, my mother’s hometown, during World War II, which for the first time made me consider pursuing history as a career.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Generally, curiosity and persistence help. A healthy skepticism towards simple explanations, humility, and resistance to sloganeering are qualities that I appreciate in people in general, but particularly in historians. Although we are a temperamentally conservative discipline compared to our neighbors, you still need to be able to think outside the box and come up with new ideas and connections. Finally, assiduousness and diligence are good, though not specific to history. More broadly, however, I don’t think all historians need the same qualities. In fact, our profession, like most others, lives from the cohabitation of very different temperaments and inclinations.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are the periods I know best and, perhaps for that reason, also like most. It’s sufficiently far away to feel excitingly exotic, but also close enough to illuminate many things that are with us today. Living in Berlin, most of the built environment I move in on an everyday basis comes from that period, and so do many of our ideals, fears, habits, and problems.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

Before I began my Ph.D. at University College London in 2002, I had never had a teacher for more than one seminar. So, my only real student-teacher relationship throughout my career was with my two doctoral advisers in London, Nicola Miller and Christopher Abel. And I could not have wished for better ones. They were approachable and encouraging, but also intellectually demanding, and they taught me how to write. When I moved to the European University Institute in Florence after my Ph.D. it opened a whole new world in global and transnational history to me. I learned a lot from Sebastian Conrad and Kiran Patel there, but as a postdoc my relationship with them was – and still is today – more collegiate than that with a classic “teacher.”

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

Above all that they come together more effectively. Global history as a subfield has surely been the rising star of the last twenty years or so, although a growing number of historians now demur that it may have “had its moment” or that it has become too unmoored from studying concrete places and people who aren’t constantly on the move. Some of this criticism is overdrawn in my opinion, but I do share its reservations against a kind of history overly enamored with networks and long-distance connections. One antidote to the danger of such an imperial overstretch is to remind ourselves of some of the virtues of old-school social history.

For many good reasons, the social history of the 1960s has been subjected to several decades of criticism. But at its best it did have the advantage of bringing to life concrete people in specific places, with tangible aspirations, worries, cheers, and sadnesses. If you want human drama in concrete places to be tied into global processes, urban history is a good place to start. With several colleagues, I am thus running a blog (https://globalurbanhistory.com/) and a larger project (http://globalurbanhistory.org/) dedicated to bringing urban and global history together.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

Neither, I’m afraid. I used to collect stamps as a kid, with my dad, but abandoned my collection long ago. Having a four-year-old son myself now, maybe I should try to find that again in my parents’ basement.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

It’s a great luxury to be paid to pursue my fascination with history, read books, and write about what interests me – and live in a society that by and large values this pursuit. This doesn’t go without saying and it is very rewarding. I also like the teaching. We have a Master in Global History here at Freie Universität Berlin, with no tuition fees, with students from all over the world, who are extremely committed and bright. It’s immensely gratifying to teach them. But I also love the writing, which is really possible only if you are able to reduce the teaching, so I’m grateful I can do that once in awhile, too. Having a young family, the flexibility of working hours is also a great advantage; and though currently a little reduced in order to see enough of my family, I quite like the traveling, too.

The frustrating things are thankfully minor, but the long career uncertainty, particularly here in Germany, probably tops the list of nuisances. Ossified professorial hierarchies are also worse here than in America.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

Two changes stand out: First, it has been very much internationalized, so that national histories are no longer the norm against which everything is judged. In Germany, this has come later than in the U.S. or the U.K., but the last ten years have made a big difference here, too, perhaps particularly at my university. This also means more reading and teaching in English, a much more diverse student body, and more recently growing numbers of non-German faculty – something that is still a novelty. Second, digitization has changed our entire practice.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians in particular nowadays have many million primary sources at their disposal through a few mouse clicks. Granular search within documents and, by extension, throughout the entire internet has made it incredibly easy to find information on individuals, places, or organizations in contexts I am not especially familiar with. In a great article in the American Historical Review last year, Lara Putnam convincingly explained why the two processes – digitization and internationalization of research topics and professional practice – have come hand in hand. That’s also why, in contrast to some of my colleagues, I doubt that the recent political turn towards nationalism in many countries will have immediate repercussions on what professional historians do.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I’m not much into sayings, but I laughed when I first heard Alan Bennett’s definition that “history is just one fucking thing after another.” I usually dislike the army of quotes about whether history repeats itself. A particularly silly example is by Eduardo Galeano, whose writing has perhaps done more harm than anyone else’s to my students’ understanding of Latin America’s past: “History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘see you later.’ ” I’ve found it harder to come up with something either funny or true myself.

What are you doing next?

I want to write a global history of ethnic segregation in port cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s something that comes out of my earlier work on immigration in Argentina and on French colonial subjects in Paris. It’s a topic that resonates in Europe today, as well as one that the mass digitization of sources has made easier to research. It also jibes nicely with some old nerdy strains of mine, such as reading and drawing city maps.

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