2018 Balzan Prize for Global History
Born in 1952 in Wipperfürth, Germany, Jürgen Osterhammel initially began his education in German literature, political science and history at the University of Marburg, and then in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science under the guidance of Ian Nish. In 1980 he earned his PhD in modern history at the University of Kassel. He was a fellow at the German Historical Institute in London from 1982 to 1986, when Wolfgang J. Mommsen was Director. From 1986 to 1990 he was senior lecturer in political science at the University of Freiburg. In 1990, he received his Habilitation in modern and contemporary history at the same university. From 1990 to 1997, he taught ‘Neuere und Auβereuropäische Geschichte’ (modern and non-European history) at the FernUniversität (Open University) in Hagen. From 1997 to 1999, as full professor, he taught the history of international relations at the Institut Universitaire des Hautes Études Internationales in Geneva. From 1999 until his retirement in 2018, he was Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Konstanz.
Jürgen Osterhammel is a member of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, the Academia Europaea, the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, the Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften Leopoldina, the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, and the British Academy. He has won prestigious prizes such as the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz-Preis of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (2010), the Gerda Henkel Forschungspreis (2012), the Sigmund Freud-Preis für wissenschaftliche Prosa of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (2014), and the Toynbee Prize (2017). In 2017, he was awarded the Order Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste.
After his doctoral thesis on British colonialism in the Far East in the 1930s, Britischer Imperialismus im Fernen Osten. Strukturen der Durchdringung und einheimischer Widerstand auf dem chinesischen Markt 1932-1937 (Bochum, 1983), and the Habilitation thesis, China und die Weltgesellschaft. Vom 18. Jahrhundert bis in unsere Zeit (Munich, 1989, with translations into Chinese and Italian), his novel approach met with immediate approval. Osterhammel’s tendency to analyse China’s involvement in Western economic, political and social contexts identified him – already in this early phase – as one of the most interesting European historians of his generation.
An even stronger impact on international historiography (and in general on culture) was made by his book Die Entzauberung Asiens. Europa und die asiatischen Reiche im 18. Jahrhundert (Munich, 1998). It was recently republished in a completely revised and updated American edition: Unfabling the East. The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia (Princeton 2018). Based on his exceptional erudition, which offers the community of scholars a great deal of hitherto neglected sources together with new interpretations of ‘classic’ authors, the book successfully refines – and in certain ways overturns – Edward Said’s famous interpretation in Orientalism (1978). Osterhammel gives a non-Eurocentric image of the Enlightenment, and, telling collective and individual histories, reveals scientific curiosity, admiration and a human approach as the characteristic way in which Western travellers and intellectuals of that era viewed the Orient (in its broadest sense, from the Ottoman Empire to India, from China to Japan). It was only towards the end of the period taken into consideration that Europe became oriented towards an ideologically rigid vision founded on its own sense of superiority. The brilliant style of writing enhances the creative dimension of the work, and at the same time inspires the reader’s critical sense.
It is impossible to trace Osterhammel’s contribution to studies in global history through the hundreds of articles in periodicals and in miscellaneous volumes published in Germany and many other countries. These skills, which have matured over some forty years of activity, shine through in what many consider his masterpiece as well as a milestone in global history, Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 2009, 1568 pages, with translations into numerous languages). The world history of a century emerges through myriad points of observation, from which the author has elaborated his connections and his comparisons. The processes of integration on a planetary scale are systematically examined in the various chapters of the work, which are dedicated to memory, time, space, the mobility of individuals, standards of living, cities, frontiers, imperial systems, war, revolution, the state, energy and industry, work, networks, hierarchies, knowledge, civilization and exclusion, and religion.
Although a historian of great erudition, Osterhammel also attributes primary importance to communication: the quality of writing, narrative talent, presence in daily newspapers, the publication of synthetic volumes – all of these have spread knowledge of his research and his ideas to audiences of unusual size for an academic historian, thus contributing to spreading knowledge of global history, its methods, and its public relevance. The six volumes of the History of the World (five volumes published since 2012), which he is editing with Akira Iriye, are a polyphonic work that has established itself as a reference point for the study of global history.