Jürgen Osterhammel, Professor of History at the University of Konstanz and author of The Transformation of the World, used the 2017 Toynbee Prize Lecture to speak to the legacy of historian Arnold Toynbee.
Delivering his lecture to a full audience of attendees of the American Historical Association’s 2017 Annual Convention in Denver, Colorado, Osterhammel sought to pay tribute to the British historian by following the example of Joseph Schumpeter’s 1926 tribute to the economist Gustav von Schmoller (Gustav von Schmoller and the Problems of Today), first locating Toynbee in his twentieth century context and then exploring the ways in which the global historiography had changed since Toynbee’s death in 1975.
Beginning his remarks, Osterhammel noted the paradox any historian has to deal with in Toynbee’s career: by the late 1960s, Toynbee was hailed by some “as the greatest historian alive” and enjoyed a global celebrity. He was frequently asked to comment on major world events, such as the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s.
Yet Toynbee’s reputation among academic historians was much more divided. This, in Osterhammel’s view, had little to do with the fact that Toynbee’s crowning accomplishment was his mammoth A Study of History. While many academic historians had turned their back on large world histories written for general audiences like Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, mainstream successful scholars like the Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich did not harm, and even enhanced their reputation, through works like A Little History of the World. And while he did not enjoy the popular celebrity of Toynbee, many of the works of French Annales historian Fernand Braudel – think Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme (XVe–XVIIIe siècles) – show a similar engagement with the world as a subject. All of these examples of attempts at writing world history, explained Osterhammel, show that we need to go deeper to understand Toynbee and shifts in the writing of world history in the twentieth century.
One answer to the puzzle, continued Osterhammel, might have to do with the ways in which Toynbee did (or did not) provide models for others, or engage the social sciences. In his master work, The Meditteranean in the Age of Philip II, Fernand Braudel, for example, “provided a model of how to analyze a large geographical space where several civilizations coexisted and interacted. Models are always easier to apply and to adapt than theorems and even general laws. This explains why a Braudelian perspective was highly influential and could easily be modified for the study of other seascapes and, in general, vast spaces all over the world.” Similarly, whereas a Braudel engaged explicitly with the different layers of time organizing the Mediterranean economy, Toynbee’s work was less oriented toward producing “useful distinctions rather than elaborate theories.” Particularly in an age marked by the ascent of the social sciences, Toynbee remained more oriented toward the master narratives of an Oswald Spengler, rather than the kinds of social science dialogues with figures like Immanuel Wallerstein that embedded Braudel’s work into multiple academic settings.
Hence, even though Toynbee was widely sought after by the Press, he “was never appointed to a big chair in the British university system or a leading position in an Oxbridge college.” Within the British scene, he remained an outsider compared to figures like G. M. Trevelyan, Lewis Namier, or Kenneth Clark. For students of Osterhammel’s generation, who were exposed to “political globality” via the Vietnam War, the Frankfurt School, and dependencia theorists like Eduardo Galeano, Toynbee remained remote. When Osterhammel studied East Asian history in London with the British historian Ian Nish, for example, “world history” as such was more a political project that one engaged with through the study of non-Western cultures, rather than through explicit engagement with the kind of Geschichtsphilosophie embodied by Toynbee’s work.
In light of all of this, Osterhammel sought to explain Toynbee’s ongoing importance for global historians, in spite of this ambiguous reputation he enjoyed among academic audiences in the 1970s. For one, explained Osterhammel, Toynbee’s reputation was to a large extent saved by the English schoolmaster David Churchill Somervell. Beyond Somervell’s own activities as the Master of Tonbridge School (the alma mater of 2016 Toynbee Prize winner Christopher Bayly) and his own historical writing, Somervell excelled as a condenser of other historians’ works. His condensed version of the original twelve-volume A Study of History made Toynbee accessible to lay raders. More than just an excision of select material, Somervell’s abridged version of A Study “is arranged systematically in a way requiring careful study and puzzling the unprepared reader. It is hard to imagine what to expect behind chapter headings such as “The Stimulus of Hard Countries” or “The Mechanicalness of Mimesis.” Why such a complex theoretical work became a bestseller among the less adventurous as well is not difficult to explain. Somervell’s resistance to popularization put the abridgement in a relation to the original like that of a bottle of brandy to a cellar full of good white wine. In other words, you get the value at a fraction of cost and effort. Whether read or resting untouched on the shelf: the high-proof digest preserves the mystique of the original.”
Secondly, explained Osterhammel’s, A Study of History found a welcome audience in the post-war West. “He offered a comprehensive world-view suitable for liberals and moderate conservatives in the US-dominated West. The integrative scope of his vision – Big (or biggish) History avant la lettre – in a way distracted from the horrors of the recent past and assigned everyone a legitimate place in the great drama of civilizational evolution. This is why he had many admirers in West Germany. For some, Toynbee’s ideas served to counter the only other historiographical grand design pitched at the same level of generality: the Marxist drama of class struggle, modes of production and imperialist exploitation. Yet, intellectual Marxism had been bled white under Stalin’s tyranny and offered few attractions until the rise of a less arid neo-Marxism in the 1960s.” In this climate of anti-Marxism and a desire for postwar stability, it was no wonder why Toynbee found many admirers in both the postwar West as well as among developmentalist elites in the Third World.
While one might criticize Toynbee’s lack of intellectual precision compared to contemporaries like Raymond Aron, Ralf Dahrendorf, or George Kennan, all things being equal, he performed well at the task of a “spokesperson who prove the usefulness and legitimacy of ‘soft’ disciplines to people who have no time to read books.” In doing so, even this “the media virtuoso disguised as a quaint English professor” created crucial space and legitimacy for young German academics of Osterhammel’s generation who labored under a much more structured set of research programs and who were trying to carve out a legitimate space for themselves at the margins of a field still very much focused on European history.
Beyond these more proximate reasons for Toynbee’s success and relevance, however, Osterhammel noted the implicit theoretical contributions to the field in Toynbee’s work. Toynbee, he noted, “did not really care for globality as such: His preferred levels of analysis were intermediate structures, large spaces, civilizational ecumenes, empires. Many of us, too, feel more comfortable with such units than with the planet as a whole.” “Civilization” may seem too sloppy a category for historians writing today, Osterhammel noted that scholars of global history still often find themselves reaching for macro-units of narrative as they seek to avoid narratives centered around the nation-state. Perhaps rather than dismissing Toynbee’s use of “civilization” as a core unit of analysis, we might see him as the progenitor to discussions about the proper use of scale in global history narratives – discussions, noted Osterhammel, continued most profitably since by the late Shmuel Eisenstadt and Johann Arnason.
Some aspects of Toynbee’s work have, Osterhammel noted, been passed by as the discipline of global history has moved on since the 1970s. While Toynbee’s work was more interested in comparisons between different world civilizations, since the 1990s, scholars of global history have increasingly embraced a model more centered around transfers and connections. At the same time, Toynbee’s work (including his day-to-day work as the Director of the Royal Institute for International Affairs for decades) reminds us that these new global historical approaches need to engage the problem of international order and organized violence if they hope to attract audiences and interest. “Toynbee,” he noted, “would be surprised that global history and international history have parted ways. For some readers, a long chapter in my Transformation of the World on international orders and war appeared as a superfluous relic of an out-of-date type of historiography. “
Yet, Osterhammel continued, this kind of engagement with problems of war and piece is essential to any global history research agenda. “The most pressing problems of global significance – above all, climate change and nuclear armament – cannot be solved by the benign working of global governance alone. They still require the old instruments of inter-state diplomacy. Toynbee knew all about it. So did Raymond Aron and George F. Kennan, and so does Sir Brian Urquhart–at age 97, the oldest living member of our imaginary Toynbee Prize club.” While we might engage in theoretical reflections about the future of our field while eschewing some of Toynbee’s concepts, Osterhammel concluded, we still might emulate his hard-nosed interest in speaking plainly to “the burning issues of war, peace and the military” that could not but interest Toynbee (who lived through both World Wars) but do not today occupy a central preoccupation of the discipline. Citing the title of one of Toynbee’s later (but less well-known) books, Surviving the Future (1971), Osterhammel suggested that historians look to Toynbee’s legacy as they seek to make sense of a world threatened by global warming, international terrorism, and the breakdown of the post-1945 world order. “It is,” Osterhammel concluded, “with [Toynbee’s] encouragement that we should now turn to the task ahead: surviving the future.”
As this year’s Toynbee Prize Winner, Osterhammel joins a distinguished roll of previous Toynbee Prize recipients: the diplomat and historian George Kennan, the social scientist Albert Hirschman, and, more recently, fellow historians Natalie Zemon Davis, William McNeill, Christopher Bayly, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Most recently, the Foundation has awarded the Toynbee Prize to University of Chicago historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (2015) and the late Christopher Bayly (2016). The next Toynbee Prize will be awarded at the American Historical Association Annual Convention in 2019, in accordance with the Foundation’s tradition of alternating its activities at the AHA Annual Convention between the Toynbee Prize Lecture and a sponsored panel on global history.