As a historian, Henri Pirenne (1862–1935) profoundly influenced his discipline, notably through his contributions to economic history, his role as a forerunner of the Annales school and his much-debated interpretations regarding the origins and nature of medieval civilisation. Yet there is another dimension worth considering: as a Belgian intellectual of international renown, Pirenne was a historical figure in his own right. The two books under review remind us of Pirenne’s historicity because their very existence is closely entwined with Belgium’s fate in the Great War. As a professor at Ghent University, Pirenne opposed the German authorities’ efforts to transform the Francophone institution into a Dutch-speaking one. This measure had been part of the Germans’ largely unsuccessful attempt to gain support among the Flemish population. In March 1916, Pirenne’s defiance resulted in his deportation to Germany. Following internment at camps in Krefeld and Holzminden, as well as a few months in the university city of Jena, Pirenne was sent to Creuzburg on the Werra, a small town in Thuringia. Being confined to Creuzburg from January 1917 until the end of the war, he began writing his Histoire de l’Europe. The manuscript remained a draft until, shortly after Pirenne’s death, his son Jacques prepared it for publication. Jean-Pierre Devroey and Arnaud Knaepen’s excellent new edition is based on Pirenne’s original notebooks. It contextualises the material, removes Jacques Pirenne’s alterations, corrects factual errors and makes hitherto unpublished sections available. The editors have also included Pirenne’s memoirs of his imprisonment in Germany, the Souvenirs de captivité, first published in the Revue des Deux Mondes (1920). Pirenne’s wartime experience enhanced his national and international reputation, reflected in his appointment as Rector of the University of Ghent (1919–21), his election to the presidency of the International Union of Academies (1919–23) and his role in founding Belgium’s Commission on War Archives in 1920. Hence, when the Carnegie Endowment launched its monumental Economic and Social History of the World War (comprising an astonishing 152 volumes) Pirenne was the obvious choice for editing the Belgian books in this series. Moreover, in 1928, he published La Belgique et la guerre mondiale: Histoire économique et sociale de la guerre mondiale, a synthesis that formed the Belgian flagship contribution to this venture. The second book under review here, Belgium and the First World War, contains Vincent Capelle and Jeff Lipkes’ translation of this book, augmented by contributions from medieval historian David Nicholas and Pirenne specialist Sarah Keymeulen. Why should we read these texts today? The most evident answer is that they allow us to revisit a formative figure in our discipline. Devroey fittingly describes the Histoire de l’Europe as ‘an exceptional access key for understanding Henri Pirenne’s historical thought’ (Histoire I, p. xxxii). Both texts showcase Pirenne’s ability to explain the interaction of economic, social and political processes. The texts also testify to his chronological breadth. The 1936 edition of the Histoire de l’Europe began with the ‘barbarian invasions’ of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries; the new edition adds an introduction in which Pirenne offers a sketch from ‘the most ancient populations that left their traces on European soil’ (Histoire I, p. 10) to the Roman era. Pirenne had planned to take his account up to the recent past, aiming to conclude with chapters on socialism and imperialism. However, he abandoned the project in August 1918 as his wife and youngest son joined him in Creuzburg. As it stands, his discussion terminates in the sixteenth century. Yet Pirenne was certainly willing to analyse contemporary matters, as illustrated by Belgium and the First World War. One general feature of both books is their clarity: the Histoire de l’Europe is written in an accessible style, partly building on Pirenne’s experience in lecturing on his subject. Meanwhile, his book on the Great War succeeds in rendering Belgian experiences comprehensible to non-Belgian audiences. The Histoire de l’Europe is a significant document as it contains influential theses which Pirenne subsequently developed elsewhere—for instance in his posthumously published Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937). Pirenne argues that it was Muslim expansion in the seventh century, rather than the earlier Germanic invasions, that transformed European civilisation. According to Pirenne, the Arab conquests closed the Mediterranean for European trade, meaning that ‘for the first time since the foundation of the Roman Empire, Europe found itself isolated from the rest of the world’ (Histoire I, p. 112). He suggests that, as a consequence, Europe’s economic focus shifted from trade to agriculture. Other sections in the Histoire anticipate arguments that Pirenne fleshed out in his Medieval Cities (1925). For example, he describes the development of cities in the eleventh century as ‘profoundly altering the social condition of Europe’ (Histoire I, p. 361) and argues that the emergence of a merchant bourgeoisie amounted to ‘a veritable revolution’ (Histoire I, p. 370). Seen from this angle, the Histoire articulates ideas that came to inspire substantial debate among historians. The two publications also illustrate the relationship between history-writing and ideas about nationhood. Jo Tollebeek has shown how Pirenne’s works (notably his seven-volume Histoire de Belgique [1900–32]) formed part of a wider discourse on Belgian nationhood. To Pirenne, Belgian civilisation predated the country’s independent statehood. Accordingly, his book on Belgium and the First World War casts the German occupation as part of a wider history: he alludes to Louis XIV’s attack on the Spanish Netherlands in 1667 (p. 111), the French Republic’s conquest of the Austrian Netherlands in 1794 (p. 91) and the Belgian Revolution of 1830 (p. 129). Belgian resistance to German measures is portrayed as ‘a revival of what promoted … [Belgium] to rise against Spain in the sixteenth century, against Austria in the eighteenth century, and against the Netherlands in 1830’ (p. 228). Pirenne viewed a shared civic culture as a key feature of Belgian identity; his text on wartime Belgium cites the activities of the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation as a manifestation of the latter. To Pirenne, ‘[i]t’s not race at all, or even a common language, that brings people together; it’s shared feelings and beliefs’ (p. 68). These comments illustrate a theme that also runs through the Histoire de l’Europe: the rejection of race as a historical force. The prominence of this point derives from Pirenne’s ambivalent relationship with Germany. Geneviève Warland has shown the depth of his links to German academia before the war. As Keymeulen notes in her introduction to Belgium and the First World War, Pirenne therefore experienced the nationalist pronouncements of many German intellectuals in 1914 as ‘nothing less than a smack in the face’ (p. xxiii). The Souvenirs de captivité are particularly instructive in this regard: Pirenne denounces the ‘incredible blindness of the “intellectuals” of modern Germany’ (Histoire II, p. 433) and, commenting on one German academic, deplores a ‘spirit completely led astray by prejudices or … the victory of the most exclusive and narrow-minded nationalism’ (Histoire II, p. 452). Similarly, Belgium and the First World War criticises the Germans’ ‘voluntary subordination to the state’ and their celebration of militarism as ‘the highest form of civic spirit’ (p. 70). Pirenne disagreed with German historians who stressed the importance of ‘race and its historical influence’ (Histoire II, p. 465). The Histoire de l’Europe can be read as a rebuttal of their ideas. A hitherto unpublished chapter discusses the impact of the Germanic invasions of Rome, arguing that the subsequent reconstruction ‘owed nothing or nearly nothing’ to the Germanic tribes (Histoire I, p. 59). To Pirenne, the latter merely emulated Roman culture rather than making distinct and positive contributions. Furthermore, as Geneviève Warland has pointed out, Pirenne insists on German ‘belatedness’ at various points in the Histoire. For example, in discussing the eleventh century, Pirenne notes the absence of a commercial centre in the German lands (Histoire I, p. 348) as well as the Germans’ lack of ‘intellectual hegemony’ (Histoire II, p. 81). Historians such as Bryce Lyon, Cinzio Violante and Peter Schöttler have debated whether the wartime experience triggered anti-German and methodological shifts in Pirenne’s work. It is certainly clear that Pirenne opposed what he viewed as a wrong turn in German intellectual life. However, if one considers the undeniable hardships that Belgium experienced under German occupation, Pirenne’s analysis of the occupation itself does not seem disproportionally hostile. Of course, he denounces the brutality of German actions, including the deportation of Belgians for the purposes of forced labour in late 1916 and early 1917, and he discusses acts such as the ‘merciless and systematic’ destruction of Belgian machinery (p. 190). Yet, as the translators point out, the German atrocities of 1914 feature relatively briefly—and Pirenne primarily explains the violence against civilians as the result of the troops’ ‘auto-suggestion’ (p. 59) or ‘psychosis’ (p. 61). Moreover, he acknowledges the dilemmas faced by Moritz von Bissing, Governor General of occupied Belgium from December 1914 until April 1917. Pirenne notes Bissing’s warnings against Berlin’s mounting financial demands (p. 98), his opposition to the deportations (p. 176) and his ‘desire to save Belgium … for the future’ (p. 196). For Pirenne, the problem was that German officials such as Bissing ceded to the High Command despite their better knowledge. Hence, when viewed in its 1920s context, the study contains less vitriol than one might expect. In this respect, the book resonates with the agenda of the Carnegie series which, as Katharina Rietzler has put it, was part of an effort ‘to take the heat out of the “history wars” of the interwar period’. As these comments indicate, the two texts certainly reward the reader’s attention. What, however, are their merits as scholarly editions? Devroey and Knaepen’s version of the Histoire de l’Europe is an exemplary undertaking, starting with its insightful introduction. The annotations indicate marginalia from Pirenne notebooks, offer factual details or corrections, and point out differences between the original manuscript and Jacques Pirenne’s 1936 edition. The inclusion of the Souvenirs de captivité is another boon as it offers additional context. The care that has gone into the preparation of this edition is evident throughout. Belgium and the First World War does not quite reach the same level. It certainly has its merits: Nicholas’s overview on Pirenne as a scholar, Keymeulen’s helpful introduction and the highly readable translation by Vincent Capelle and Jeff Lipkes. Other aspects, however, could have been improved. There are occasional issues with presentation. For instance, a typesetting error means that, in the introduction, the first paragraph after each sub-heading has been italicised. More significantly, the annotations are rather sparse. At times, the translators have added explanatory footnotes, but without doing so in a systematic fashion. It is also unclear why James Shotwell’s original preface was left out or why the translators condensed ‘[a] few of Pirenne’s observations’ (p. xlvii) without indicating where this occurred. More generally, it would have been desirable to set Pirenne’s text in relation to more recent scholarship on the war, for instance Sophie De Schaepdrijver’s important study on Belgium in the First World War (1997), John Horne and Alan Kramer’s book on German Atrocities 1914 (2001) and Jens Thiel’s work on deportations and forced labour (2007). Nonetheless, the edition has its use—especially given the shortage of texts in English that cover the entire occupation period. On the whole, the publication of these two texts has to be applauded—especially as they are made available at an affordable price. As Peter Schöttler suggested in 1998, Pirenne tends to be evoked more often than he is read. The two publications invite us to (re-)familiarise ourselves with his ideas and to consider the historical context in which they developed. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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