Socialist Historians and UNESCO’s History of Humanity (1978-1989)

by Bogdan C. Iacob

at the panel Global Institutions and the East-South Circulation of Knowledge, the Fifth European Congress on World and Global History (Budapest, 31 August – 3 September, 2017)

Abstract

In the second of the fifties, socialist states found a new arena to showcase and perfect their identity narratives – the United Nations system. UNESCO, for instance, would often have for East Europeans the same role as it had for other so-called peripherials – the recently de-colonized societies. It was a platform for cultural emancipation. Peoples whose histories had often been doubted, marginalized, or ignored in Western centric frameworks would claim their place in a global exchange based on the alleged mutually beneficial interconnectedness of civilizations.

My paper will discuss this common ground between the socialist East and the post-colonial South in the context of UNESCO-led efforts to design a new universal history. In 1978, UNESCO decided to draft a second edition of “History of Humanity. Scientific and Cultural Development”, as the first (English title History of Mankind, published during the sixties) was deemed too Eurocentric and out-of-date in contrast with the rise of the Global South. I will examine various stages of the activity of the International Commission created for the new edition simultaneously with developments within the field of historical studies, as evidenced at the International Congresses in Bucharest (1980) and Stuttgart (1985). My aim is to flesh out different responses to the accelerated globalization of history-writing within UNESCO and the International Committee of Historical Sciences.

I am going to focus on East Europeans readings of specific issues such as imperialism, national originality, revolution, or development. I wish to signal out moments of overlap or dissonance between state socialist scholars and representatives of the Global South on matters such as the critique of the West or the affirmation of national/regional identities. In parallel, I will analyze how the dialogue between the East and the South within international fora expanded and internationalized the former’s conceptualizations about modernity.

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