Jürgen Osterhammel Delivers 2017 Toynbee Prize Lecture on “Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today”

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…

The 2017 Toynbee Prize Lecture: “Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today” (Jürgen Osterhammel)

The 2017 Toynbee Prize Lecture:
Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today”

Professor Jürgen Osterhammel (University of Konstanz)

January 6, 2017
Annual Convention of the American Historical Association

It is one of the greatest possible privileges for a speaker to give a surprise address under nothing but a formal title. Today: “The Toynbee Lecture”. This precious opportunity not to be constrained by a topic chosen many months in advance and to present one’s work and thought almost at the moment of creation allows me to share a few vague and fleeting ideas with you. In this lecture, gratefully overwhelmed by an award that is much too big for someone who is anything but a “typical” global historian and who represents no particular tendency or school, I am going to take Arnold Toynbee as my guide.

The same role might have been played by several others on the list of illustrious recipients of the Toynbee Prize: by Christopher Bayly in whose memory I had the sad privilege to speak in Cambridge last June; by Dipesh Chakrabarty whose turn to issues of climate will become even more urgent and important in the future (as will John McNeill’s work in environmental history); by Ralf Dahrendorf whose books I have been reading continuously since 1968 and whose lectures I followed at the LSE in 1977; or by Raymond Aron who was one of the most astute observers of the twentieth century. Aron, perhaps even more so than the other scholars und intellectuals mentioned, was a truly universal mind – in the universe of universalisms the very opposite of Toynbee, though there were certain proximities in their respective comments on their own age.

I will be playing, if you forgive this conceit, Dante to Toynbee’s Virgil leading the way. Rather than confront you head-on with my own ideas about what global history is or ought to be, I will let my thoughts pass through the prism of the work of a master, a master remote and strange enough not to keep me in intellectual bondage. In other words: not my master.

My chosen title is “Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today”. It echoes one of the greatest, though nowadays almost entirely unknown, essays ever written in German by an economist and sociologist. In 1926, Joseph Alois Schumpeter published a long article entitled “Gustav von Schmoller und die Probleme von heute” where he paid tribute to the influential Nationalökonom and economic historian. Proceeding from his homage, he then used motives from Schmoller’s work to shed light on a contemporary scene that had changed dramatically since the time of Schmoller, who had died during World War I.…