Intellectual “Entanglements” and the Status of Modern British History

by Emily Rutherford

In my post about the History Manifesto last week, I wrote that one of the things I want to explore on this blog is the “crisis” in which the national history of modern Britain has found itself in the last fifteen or so years. As the historical discipline has become increasingly global in its outlook, British history rightly no longer enjoys the disproportionate emphasis it once had in North American departments. Now that it is no longer professionally viable for graduate students to focus in this one national field, and thanks also particularly to the theoretical interventions of subaltern studies and new methods in imperial history, it is much rarer to find a North American historian who will take the risk of specializing in British (rather than imperial, comparative European, or Atlantic World) history. (Given its status as the national history, the field is not in anything near the same level of decline in the UK.) Furthermore, it is harder to justify the relevance of studies which focus on actors who had little awareness of themselves as imperial subjects, whose lives were lived largely within Britain and shaped by distinctively British cultural and social factors. I write about people who, while they often corresponded with Europeans, Americans, Indians, and others, lived their professional lives in the Oxbridge-London triangle, rarely spoke other living languages (Latin and Greek were another matter), and only left the UK very occasionally for a lecture tour in America or a holiday in the Alps. It’s all a bit… parochial.

Still, I’d like to say a little about a new, very global, even anti-British-history, book that unexpectedly offers some opportunities for historians concerned with telling stories about intellectual cultures distinct to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. Kris Manjapra’s Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire, published by Harvard last year, undertakes an exciting experiment in deciding deliberately to leave Britain out of a story of encounters between German and Indian intellectuals in the period roughly 1880-1930. Indeed, argues Manjapra, Indian and German intellectual relationships in a variety of fields, from experimental science through philology and psychoanalysis to visual art, were formed in explicit opposition to a perception of British hegemony around the globe (9). He traces significant and surprising connections among both left- and right-wing ideas, which eventually had major consequences for European and world politics. German Orientalist scholarship produced in collaboration with British imperial agents was adopted by the Nazi ideology of Aryanism; an anti-imperialist discourse in which German and Indian Marxists participated had unintended consequences in fascist theories of Lebensraum. But before the rise of the Nazi Party, German “post-Enlightenment” thought and Indian collaborations carried the possibility of a third way for imagining the global order, between Western European liberalism and Soviet communism—potential that was eventually firmly eclipsed by the the Cold War’s binary division of the world and the rise of a “Third World” discourse to which India was consigned (276, 290). Manjapra deftly maps these rapidly-shifting political stakes through the first decades of the twentieth century, in the process making a good case for intellectual history’s ability to demonstrate how the unintended consequences of ideas can bear a causal relationship to world-historical events.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid how Britain as a national category and British actors who helped to broker connections between Indians and Germans haunt Manjapra’s account. There were two particular examples that grabbed my attention. First, the famous German philologist and Sanskritist Friedrich Max Müller took on Indian students and played a pivotal role in founding an academic school of German Orientalism whose fate in Germany and India Manjapra traces throughout the book. But Max Müller did his work in England, in Oxford, surrounded by English as well as German and Indian students and colleagues, in a rich intellectual and cultural context that bore a closer and more complicated relation to British imperialist, anti-imperialist, and simply-apathetic-to-imperialism thought than Manjapra seems to want to let on. Second, in a smaller episode, Manjapra describes Freud’s correspondence with the Indian psychoanalyst Girindrasekhar Bose, who along with other Indian psychoanalysts infused Freud’s ideas with classical Indian philosophy, creating a new form of psychoanalysis with a particular nationalist valence. But Bose did not know German: he and Freud corresponded in English, using not Freud’s own jargon but the English translations James Strachey had created, such as “id” and “ego,” and in the process telling the historian a great deal about what a British or English intellectual context might have to do with this Indo-German encounter.

In the story of Freud and Bose, Manjapra says that English functions merely as a “trade language” (225), but there is much more than this to be said about the role of a distinctively British intellectual context and actors who operated in relation to it. Manjapra and other historians have redrawn maps of geopolitics and intellectual encounters that destabilize uncritical assumptions of Britain’s centrality and relevance, but there’s no reason that British historians should not regard this as an invitation to reformulate and strengthen claims for the relevance of the British context to understanding transnational episodes in intellectual history such as the late-nineteenth-century development of philology or psychoanalysis. In the process, my suspicion is that it will become clearer how British historians’ rich understandings of the cultural milieux in which such ideas were developed can aid in understanding their movement across borders; what forms of intellectual and cultural exchange were practiced between British and German writers and academics (an under-examined topic in this period); and perhaps also what relationship there is between imperial might and less hierarchical forms of international intellectual relationships like those Age of Entanglement seeks to describe.


  1. A really interesting critique: I can’t wait to read Manjapra’s book and see if I agree with you. On the larger point: the decline of British history (and 19th century history more generally, to which this is a happy exception) baffles me. How can we hope to understand a world of empires if we don’t study the century in which they drove down their roots and built their institutions? And Imperial, Atlantic and the other fashionable histories won’t teach us what we need to know, or at least not all of it: Captives is great, but much better if read on top of Britons.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Tony! And I’d maybe go further and say that national British history in the imperial age doesn’t just illuminate what the imperial historians are doing, but has an intrinsic interest of its own. I think it’s worth pushing on Anglo-German intellectual exchange in particular, since that shows how it’s possible to talk about something other than imperial power without being parochial, and also might help us (as Manjapra does) to get past the problem of reading the twentieth century back into the nineteenth.


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