Review of EGO – European History Online

Whereas a growing number of websites aims to present history to a large public, the EGO project (European History Online) addresses an “international audience with an academic education […].”[1] EGO defines itself as a “transcultural history of Europe on the Internet”[2] and wants to present “European history from a new perspective”.[3] The Center for Digital Humanities of the University of Trier and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek are the two main institutions involved in the project. The publishers and editors come from various disciplines and European universities (mainly German).

Four categories

The site is structured in four different categories. Under “Time”, the periods are simply divided in centuries (from the 15th to the 21st century).

“Topic” is the second category; some of its subdivisions are more unusual, like “Economy, Technology”. Even though both cannot be completely separated, it might have been easier to link economy to society or technology to media. In some cases those divisions are not very consistent, as I stumbled for instance upon a text about Italian cuisine under the aforementioned subdivision.[4] The relation with economy or technology remains obscure.

“Area” suggests a division of Europe into different regions, like Eastern Europe, Western Europe or Central Europe. Not only does it reuse the Cold War division of East and West, but suggests also that the connections, networks and exchanges between the entities (villages, provinces, nations) in one of those regions are stronger than between entities of two different, neighboring regions: Western Europe, for instance, would be considered as a region for itself, more or less distinct to Southern Europe. Those divisions are therefore based on purely deliberate choices. Furthermore, under the aspect “Non-European world”, I found articles like “Orthodox Theology in Western Europe”[5]. Why this topic should be non-European remains questionable.

The last category, “Threads”, demonstrates the euro-centrism of EGO. This should not be considered as a reproach, as the site actually covers European history. Nevertheless, the introduction points to the fact that “Anyone trying to write (a) “European history” runs the danger of reinforcing the humanities’ Eurocentrism. “Europe” is without doubt a problematic category loaded with normative concepts.”[6] Bearing in mind the different subjects in “Threads”, one cannot ignore that they risk doing the same mistake. The topic “Europe and the world” rather creates a segregation (Europe vs. the world) than an inclusion (Europe in the world).

Suppose they talked about culture and nobody defined it

A major problem of EGO remains the definition of culture – a concept so complex, and yet so common that most people don’t really think about its definition. The authors describe why they use the term ‘transcultural’ instead of ‘transnational’ (which is completely understandable),[7] yet when it comes to the term ‘culture’, they only define it vaguely: ‘culture’ is not only understood as ‘high culture’, but “”culture” refers instead to the different frames of reference and interpretative systems, the boundaries of which are often, but not always, physical and geographical.”[8] Culture shouldn’t be separated from the other “realms” (politics, economy, society, etc.), which is true. But the authors put culture even above the other “realms”. Certainly, they do it on purpose, as the term ‘transcultural’ would then incorporate all the different “realms”. Yet, a critical reflection on culture is missing, and their definition is too vague to really serve as a guideline. Where are the limits of culture? When can we speak of a transcultural phenomenon? When can a culture be considered as such? The understanding of culture relies more on the intuition of the user, than on reflexive and critical considerations of the concept.

Oh transcultural approach, where art thou?

Finally, I would like to talk about the articles – the main aspect of EGO. First, some general considerations: the articles are divided in different chapters with a table of contents following a short summary in the beginning, reminding the structure used on Wikipedia. On the right side, a media bar contains various types of sources that are linked to some words, names or aspects in the text itself (and vice-versa). Every source is furnished with useful metadata (date, author, dimensions, original institution, etc.), allowing its contextualization. The articles respect academic standards and are referenced. Even a bibliography can be found under every text. The authors are known, albeit short biographical notes miss.

For the content, I choose as an illustration the text “Censorship and Freedom of the Press” by Jürgen Wilke.[9] Even though the form remains unobjectionable, the content is the downside to the article. It precisely misses what can be considered as the main aspect of the project: the transcultural approach. After a short overview of the history of censorship since the Antiquity, the article later on nearly exclusively gives examples and names personalities of the German-speaking world: Berthold von Henneberg, Emperor Maximilian I., Frankfurt Book Commission, Aulic Council, Imperial Diet of Augsburg, Joseph II. of Austria, etc. What is presented to the reader is a history of censorship through a German and Austrian lens.

The strong focus on Germany is underlined by the titles of the different chapters. Only one chapter (“Development in Other European Countries”) is explicitly dedicated to the rest of Europe, with barely two pages in the PDF-version (12 pages in total without the appendix). The transcultural aspect is missing and the bibliography contains mainly German literature. This might not be surprising, as the author is a German historian, and thus adopts a German view.

Conclusion

EGO excels at providing an academic platform, in a way that is rarely seen in the context of other projects. The footnotes, bibliographies, authors and metadata certainly are strong advantages. However, if the articles cannot even do justice to the main goal of the project, there is something really wrong. It is true that this critique is based on one article, but this also raises the question whether it would not have been better to promote a transnational collaboration of historians (on one article) to ensure a transcultural approach.

References

[1] http://ieg-ego.eu/en/ego [Last access: 12/12/2014].

[2] http://ieg-ego.eu/en/ego [Last access: 12/12/2014].

[3] Slogan on the main page [Last access : 12/12/2014].

[4] http://ieg-ego.eu/search?topic=10&sort_order=descending&b_start:int=5&Title=freigabe&portal_type=Document&sort_on=effective [Last access: 12/12/2014].

[5] http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/crossroads/religious-and-confessional-spaces/ivana-noble-tim-noble-orthodox-theology-in-western-europe-in-the-20th-century/?searchterm=None&set_language=en&set_language=en [Last access: 12/12/2014].

[6] http://ieg-ego.eu/en/ego/introduction#ATransculturalHistoryofEUROPEontheInternet [Last access: 12/12/2014].

[7] “”Transcultural” is in this sense a generic term for processes that are transnational, transregional, transconfessional, translinguistic, transethnic or which traverse legal systems.” (http://ieg-ego.eu/en/ego/introduction#ATRANSCULTURALHistoryofEuropeontheInternet [Last access: 12/12/2014]).

[8] http://ieg-ego.eu/en/ego/introduction#ATRANSCULTURALHistoryofEuropeontheInternet [Last access: 12/12/2014].

[9] http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/european-media/censorship-and-freedom-of-the-press/juergen-wilke-censorship-and-freedom-of-the-press/?searchterm=None&set_language=en [Last access: 14/12/2014].

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