Laudatio Jürgen Osterhammel
Dominic Sachsenmaier (President, Toynbee Prize Foundation)
January 6, 2017
Annual Convention of the American Historical Association
It is my great honor to introduce this year’s Toynbee price winner, Jürgen Osterhammel. Our foundation awards this prize for more long-term achievements, not for single works. I will thus not only focus on Jürgen Osterhammel’s more recent global historical publications but I will also introduce his earlier academic contributions. These include some path breaking works, many of which may be less known within American academia since they have not been translated into English.
Jürgen Osterhammel is the first Toynbee Prize in many years recipient who has spent most of academic career outside of the Anglo-American system. He is a professor at the University of Konstanz – a picturesque medieval town, nestled at a lake framed by the Alps. He arrived there in 1999, after some time as a researcher at the German Historical Institute in London as well as faculty positions in Geneva and in Hagen/Germany.
Like many important protagonists of global history, Jürgen did not start out as a globalist but, in his case, rather as a historian of China and colonialism. His doctoral dissertation in that field was actually published as part of a Sinological book series. His second book appeared in 1989 and was entitled China und die Weltgesellschaft (China and the World Society). Here he investigated the changing roles of international political powers, multinational corporations and other agents in China from the 18th century to the present. In 1997, he authored another monograph that took the labor protests and anti-imperialist demonstrations in Shanghai on May 30, 1925 as its point of departure.
Already in his first works that took China as a starting point, Jürgen was fascinated with the entanglements of political, economic, social, cultural and other facets of history. He never became a scholar who could be neatly classified as an economic historian, a social historian, or an intellectual historian. Rather, he proves to be extremely well-read – actually amazingly so — in many branches of historical scholarship as well as in other academic disciplines. As one of our foundation’s trustees, Jeremy Adelman of Princeton University, observes: Osterhammel’s work demonstrates a “peerless grasp of multiple historiographic traditions, and an ability to combine lively empirical detail with brilliant conceptual insights.”
Yet there is another aspect of his early works which would remain a character trait of Osterhammel’s entire oeuvre: Jürgen is passionate about understanding large connections, transcontinental entanglements and global transformations. Yet at the same time, he never ascended to a level of macroscopic perspectives in the sense of becoming detached from historical details. Quite to the contrary, he has always been chiefly interested in the concrete local circumstances within which global dynamics actually play out.
Jürgen eventually left the China field, which was certainly a great loss for one research community but a huge gain for another: global history. Particularly during the past two decades, Jürgen has written about many facets of global history, ranging from colonial history to the history of globalization and from the history of decolonization to reflections on transcultural historical comparisons. He did so in a large number of articles, edited volumes and monographs. Some of them have already been translated into English.
There are two monographs that should be singled out due to their enormous international importance. The first one is entitled Die Entzauberung Asiens, (which in direct translation means The Disenchantment of Asia). An English version is currently in preparation. Here Osterhammel focuses on shifting roles of “Asia” (or parts thereof) as a reference space in European thought during the long 18th century. The work draws on an amazing body of primary sources, particularly travelogues and scholarly works that were published in a variety of European languages during the 1700s. Yet Osterhammel not only operates on the level of ideas but rather draws a wide range of social, institutional and other transformations – global and local ones – into the picture.
Then in 2009, Jürgen Osterhammels book Die Verwandlung der Welt came out. In the meantime, this work has been translated into a whole range of languages – including an English version which was published by Princeton University Press in 2014, under the title The Transformation of the World. As its subtitle indicates, this large tome, which in most editions has far more than one thousand pages, provides a global history of the 19th century. But again, it is a global history which is largely emerging from an entire landscape of micro-level perspectives. In the words of Selcuk Esenbel, another Trustee of our foundation, this book “provides a systematic list of factors and themes which can be used as guidelines to analyze historical information from local history and assess connections to global processes.”
Indeed, never losing touch with concrete local contexts, Osterhammel takes his readers along to fascinating expeditions through many parts of the world and across a long century. On these panoramic journeys, we encounter many worlds of interplay– small and large – worlds of power systems and exploitation, worlds of communication and connection, worlds of standardization and disruption, as well as worlds of hopes and fear.
Soon after its appearance, the book was praised as a milestone, not only of global historical scholarship but also of German or European historiography at large. Some influential figures in the field quickly predicted that this work would find its place in the thin ranks of almost timeless historical masterpieces. I believe they have already been proven right.
Yet the book not only was a success within academic circles – it actually became a bestseller of some sorts. I remember when in 2009 Berlin book stores had copies of the German version stapled on the floor to meet the demand for Christmas gifts. One of the recipients of such a gift was actually the German chancellor, Angela Merkel who invited Jürgen as a guest speaker to her own birthday party – but that’s a different story. In any case, the book was widely discussed in all major German newspapers, and it was covered on radio and television as well. It is hence small wonder that among the many prizes that Jürgen Osterhammel has won, there is also a major German literary award for academic works speaking to a wider audience.
While his academic reputation was spreading to many world regions, Jürgen thus also became a publicly visible scholar. I think he actually has come to emphasize the roles and responsibilities of historians vis-à-vis the wider public, particularly due to the magnitude of crises that many world regions currently have to face. He now fairly regularly writes articles for newspapers, and interviews with him have appeared in various mass media.
Yet all this happened while he was never actively seeking the limelight of public attention. Similar things can be said about institutions: the game for jobs, honors and professional power was simply not his. This is quite exceptional since particularly in the German academic system where full professorships are comparatively rare, one is easily showered with honors and executive responsibilities. Jürgen has always tried to keep a distance: Rumor has it that one bioblurb he submitted for a collective publication ended with the line “and he has never been the director of anything.”
I think that deep down ,Jürgen has always regarded the world of academic perks and competition with the ironic distance of a somewhat detached observer. Yet the irony was not only on his side: after all, the media, large academic foundations and famous institutions ended up approaching him. But perhaps we should not see all of this as ironic, but rather as a reason to feel at least somewhat optimistic about the current situation of historiography and its relationship with the general public. Academic quality, scholarly dedication and solid, but at the same time, daring thinking obviously still count for something, even outside of the thin realms of academic expertise.
In other words, not only we as professional scholars appreciate Jürgen Osterhammel’s ability to combine an appreciation for local details with a readiness to think daringly, in larger historical contexts. He did not need to make the sacrifice of oversimplification in order to reach the wider public.
For all these outstanding achievements, the Toynbee Prize Foundation has selected Jürgen Osterhammel as the recipient of the 2017 Toynbee Prize. As Darrin McMahon mentioned in his introductory remarks, our foundation recognizes both, outstanding work in global history as well as, more generally, academic contributions, as defined from a broad historical view of human society. We believe that Jürgen Osterhammel has excelled in both areas, and we proudly present this year’s award to him. Congratulations!