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Jörn Leonhard

Jörn Leonhard (*1967 Birkenfeld) received the State Research Prize for his work in the area of Early Modern and Modern History.

Leonhard was awarded the 100,000-euro prize for his extensive monographies Bellizismus und Nation: Kriegsdeutung und Nationsbestimmung in Europa und den Vereinigten Staaten 1750–1914 (“Belicosity and Nation: Interpreting War and Defining the Nation in Europe and the United States, 1750–1914”) and Liberalismus – Zur historischen Semantik eines europäischen Deutungsmusters (“Liberalism – On the Historical Semantics of a European Interpretative Paradigm”). In his work on belicosity and the nation in particular, the Freiburg historian shows how different and yet sometimes also how structurally similar war and violence were regarded in different countries in the past and what impact the conflicts of the past centuries have had on nations’ images of themselves and of others. It is no accident, for instance, that politicians and the media are so careful about how they talk about the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan, avoiding using the word “war” whenever possible. 

In the Anglo-American world, on the other hand, there is no such reluctance to make use of this appellation.

“Most people are aware of the fact that wars have a defining influence on a society. No one knows better than the Germans what a deep-seated trauma a world war can engender,” says Leonhard. “But national self-images develop over the course of centuries, and they always also reflect the sum of the conflicts a nation has engaged in with other nations in the past.” The historian demonstrates in his research how and why the USA, England, France, and Germany have each developed distinct collective self-images and their own specific relationship with their war experiences since the 18th century. France, for instance, long held true to its self-image as a militaristic nation, combining it with the notion of the democratic participation of the citizen and the myth of the progressive values of the French Revolution. “This idea remained evident even up until the 20th century, in the context of the bloody decolonization conflicts, and made it more difficult for them to deal with the experience of violence, for instance in Algeria,” explains  Leonhard.

In Germany, by contrast, there was never a positive link between war and national revolution in the national consciousness. Here it was the experience of foreign domination, under Napoleon until 1815, that played a decisive role. Unlike in France after 1871, the Germans did not succeed in formulating a positive redefinition of their defeat in 1918: “Germany did not find a collective answer to the defeat after the First World War. The ideologically polarized search for the scapegoat remained the order of the day,” says Leonhard.

The English-speaking world presents a completely different picture. The British public had reservations about keeping a standing army even into the 18th century because it was regarded as a sign of absolutism. But the wars against Napoleon soon raised the military to the status of a national symbol: “Thus, the army became a favored instrument of the civilizing mission the British followed in the colonies in the 19th century,” explains the historian. “The military presence demonstrated superiority over the colonized people. The idea of war as a war of destruction, the model that became established particularly in Germany before 1914, remained largely foreign for the English.”

It is also useful to take a look at historical experiences concerning the interplay between war and national self-image in the United States. In contrast to the situation in Europe, none of the wars the United States has been involved in since the Civil War in the 1860s have taken place on the country’s own soil. The citizenry was involved only directly in these wars and did not have the direct experience of foreign rule on the home front. Moreover, the country’s positive stance toward war as a means of progressive politics is and always has been informed by the idea of the universal mission of democratization.

In sum, Leonhard’s work traces the dynamic development of nations in the course of their own particular experiences with war. His books demonstrate that it is possible to identify considerable historical differences in the way European countries experience war and in the national self-image these experiences have brought about – despite all of the assertions that European countries are becoming more and more integrated and similar to one another. There is no such thing as a pan-European idea of nation and war: The terms “Krieg,” “war,” and “guerre” have each been shaped by different experiences, and these experiences have brought about different definitions of nations.