Contesting Universalism – Provincializing Europe? Part II of the Conference series "A Europe of Differences"

Contesting Universalism – Provincializing Europe? Part II of the Conference series "A Europe of Differences"

Irene Dingel / Johannes Paulmann, Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz
digital (Mainz)
Vom - Bis
24.03.2021 - 26.03.2021
Joachim Berger, Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz

From 2020 to 2022, the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) is organizing a conference series to discuss the key findings and overall perspectives of its current research programme on negotiating differences in early and late modern Europe. There is a specific focus on the interaction of different categories of difference and their contingent hierarchization.[1] The conference series also looks at the fluid boundaries of Europe, which were subject to diverse processes of negotiation. This was the starting point of the second conference in the series. As the theme of negotiating differences is understood as both a historical object and a research perspective, the conference approached "provincializing Europe" on two levels. Firstly, the papers investigated concrete historical events and processes of exchange between Europe and other parts of the world. Secondly, they reflected on historiographical approaches and methods for studying European history as a history of relations. This report will group the central arguments put forward during the conference into three main research approaches to provincializing Europe and contesting its alleged universalisms.

(1) The conference asked how Europe could be decentred by looking at it as one region of the world, and, from the outside, as a province.

Although the term "global" did not feature in the conference title, JOHANNES PAULMANN (Mainz) pointed out in his introduction that the conference did ask how to treat Europe as one part of global history.

Challenging the simple dichotomy of Europe and the (rest of the) world, MADELEINE HERREN-OESCH (Basel) put up for discussion her model of Europe as a transit space. The processes through which transit regulations were negotiated in Europe make visible how local societies and discourses affected deterritorialization. The task, Herren-Oesch suggested, is to historicize the private and state control of flows of goods, people and information. Conceptually, she argued that global history is not a topic but a method that can also be used on the European level. From her perspective, European and global history are not alternatives, but rather the task is to elevate the microhistorical to the global level.

KIRAN KLAUS PATEL (Munich) took a global perspective on the history of the European Union by placing Europeanism in the context of other pan-isms and pan-movements that challenged the rise of the paradigm of the nation. Some of these had European or Eurocentric origins while demonstrating that Europe was also on the receiving end of ideas from elsewhere (for example, Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-Europe was inspired by Pan-Americanism). As regards concepts and semantics, Patel showed that the turn towards union and integration employed a (northern) transatlantic jargon from the early years after 1945. More broadly, he argued in favour of paying greater attention to the voices of “others” from outside of Europe.

MARCIA SCHENCK (Potsdam) responded to this challenge by focussing on Pan-Africanism – a group of movements in the wake of decolonization that resisted the suppression of African heritage and celebrated African achievements. Schenck presented the Organization of African Unity (founded in 1963) with its refugee convention of 1969 as a knowledge-generating entity where ideas about the conditions under which people could access refugee status were negotiated. She thus challenged the Western European narrative of the 1951 Geneva Convention as the basis of international refugee management. As Patel added, many of the early actors of European integration referred to developments in Africa.

In the concluding discussion, EVELINE BOUWERS (Mainz) brought a second objective of the conference into focus: historiography should not only try to provincialize Europe by "zooming out" (and thereby constructing the category of Europe) but also by "zooming in" and focussing on differences within Europe.

(2) Several papers addressed how to conceptualize cultural and conceptual "provinces" within Europe, and at its centres and peripheries. They attempted to delineate these centres and peripheries by focusing on contact zones and border regions with an emphasis on conflicts and asymmetries.

To this end, one panel was dedicated to the case of Islam, which for some time has been a topical issue in debates about provincializing Europe, particularly in relation to the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. MANFRED SING (Freiburg/Mainz) made a case for de-provincializing Islam instead of provincializing Europe. He pointed out that Islam is not a geographical continent with relations to other continents; rather it is itself a component of the complex population of the continents and the networks between them. Sing argued for de-provincializing Muslim histories, freeing them from their "Middle Eastern cage" and placing them in the context of their global connections.

GUDRUN KRÄMER (Berlin) cautioned against dispensing with the concept of Europe (in relation to Islam and to Muslim history), as otherwise one would end up with "Christianity" (or "Christendom"). With regard to modern Africa and the question of mutual recognition of colonial possessions, Europe is indeed a useful category, Krämer argued. She agreed with Sing that the antidote to Eurocentrism is not Xenocentrism or Islamocentrism. Rather, one should highlight local agency and look at the entanglements involved without hypostatizing them.

In her own paper, Krämer demonstrated that Europe was largely peripheral to Middle Eastern perceptions and experiences up to the late 19th century. "For well over a millennium, Europe was not Islam’s most significant Other." The balance of power only shifted in the late 19th century. This shift was initially not linked to colonialism but to the rise in European power and to changes in the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire, where capitalism was now actively promoted, slavery was abolished, and the nuclear family evolved. All these developments were due to the influence of Europe, but they were not imposed on the Middle East. More broadly, Krämer argued against the narrative that post-Enlightenment Europe was the inventor of all things "modern", including the Middle East and Islam as a (world) religion.

DENISE KLEIN (Mainz) asked Krämer about the trend towards writing Middle Eastern history into European history by considering simultaneous but not necessarily connected developments (e.g., a shared age of confessionalization). Krämer replied that such a comparison can be productive if carefully handled (and not used to overemphasize European dominance), but it is less useful than comparing the Middle East with other adjacent regions. After all, the Ottoman Empire was very much a European empire. Klein herself took up this point. Focusing on Istanbul around 1700 as not only one of the largest and most diverse cities of early modern Europe but also a city of immigrants, she portrayed the Ottoman capital as a transcultural European contact zone.[2]

Highlighting the diversity of early modern Catholicism, CHRISTIAN WINDLER (Bern) added another twist to the relationship between centre and periphery, both of which he used in the plural. While one cannot think of Catholicism without the concept of "centre", early modern Catholicism had several centres, he argued, and there was not a clear-cut opposition between centre and periphery. Rather, one should try to conceptualize the peripheries in the peripheries. In the context of the universalist stance of (the Roman Catholic branch of) Christianity, this statement points to a third level of analysis.

(3) As Paulmann indicated (referring to Dipesh Chakrabarty), the project of provincializing Europe has to consider how European ideas, concepts, and practices were appropriated and changed as they were brought into the provinces of European empires and beyond. The conference thus asked how "European" knowledge regimes and value systems changed and were reconfigured in the confrontation with the "other". How did European actors, in their attempt to communicate with other religious or semantic systems, both relativize and reformulate their universal claims? How were these supposed universalisms contested in translocal practices, and what was European about them in the first place?


Windler once more challenged the universalist claim of Roman Catholicism in the early modern period. He argued that, from a global perspective, post-Tridentine Catholicism was as much informed by processes of pluralization as it was by processes of unification. The global missionary movement increasingly led Catholic clerics from Europe to interact with different religious and cultural regimes. When adapting to local circumstances, these practices bore the potential for conflicts which in turn had an impact on European Catholicisms. This is where the concept of contact religiosity developed by JUDITH BECKER (Berlin) came into play. It serves to analyze modifications in the religiosity of Europeans in global contact zones, in Becker's case of Protestant missionaries in 19th century India. Windler agreed with RONNIE PO-CHIA HSIA’s (Penn State, PA) interjection that, from the 18th century, Rome increasingly strove to marginalize pragmatic and non-centre knowledge, while processes of disambiguation and exclusion intensified.


In his own paper, Hsia turned to China. He argued that the Chinese lacked a continental (i.e., "Asian") consciousness analogous to the sense of European consciousness. As regards doctrinal issues and confessional differences within (European) Christianity, Hsia pointed out that the Chinese were less interested in terminology than in religious practices. These practices formed a sort of free market of floating religious ideas and practices – with the exception of the Muslims. From the 16th century, the Catholicism of the Jesuits came to stand for "the Christian religion". In turn, by 1700 Jesuit missionaries in China had been successful in constructing and conveying an idealized universal image of Europe as a peaceful region. This image was damaged by conflicts among the Jesuits themselves between 1694 and 1700, during the reign of Louis XIV. By the time of the French Revolutionary Wars, the idealized construct of a universalist civilization had long since been eroded.


RENATE DÜRR (Tübingen) offered recent research perspectives on global knowledge transfers. From these we learn that Enlightenment ideas were less European than is generally assumed. On the contrary, ideas generally referred to as enlightened arose in various parts of the world. Moreover, Jesuit missionaries’ letters from contact zones reflect the refusal of indigenous populations to adapt any European categories at all. These letters demonstrate that the Jesuits encountered many aspects that we associate with the European Enlightenment – e.g., the concept of deism (in China) – and they contained many contradictory remarks. This ambivalence, Dürr stated, must not be read as inconsistency.

"Eastern" Christianity

STANISLAU PAULAU (Mainz) set out to decentre Western European perspectives on, and connotations of, the concept of spreading "global Christianity". He presented as a case study the Russian Orthodox mission to Alaska in the 19th century as a non-Latin (i.e., neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant), non-Western European form of Christian globalization. Paulau thus argued that "Eastern Orthodoxy" became global before the 20th century. In the discussion, Paulmann called into question the use of the term "spreading", which could have the effect of re-centring global Christianity on Eastern Orthodoxy. He suggested speaking of interaction, intermission and hierarchies instead. For Hsia, it is crucial to determine at what point these Christianities became decoupled from Europe. Language (of the liturgy) and clergy (who was admitted to the priesthood?) could serve as a litmus test. If both of these tests fail, then the Russian example cannot serve for provincializing Europe, Hsia argued.


DANA ROBERT (Boston) raised the question whether the ecumenical movement actually was a movement of/for European unity. She outlined the transformation of the grand narratives of European Christianity from 1910 to 2010, beginning with the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, when a European Christianity was being constructed in relation to the rest of the world. From that point on, the grand narrative evolved that Europe itself was united and Christian because of its relationship with mission fields throughout the world. The question of whether Europe itself could be a mission field proved a central argument within the grand narrative. A hundred years later, the discourse of European Christianity’s imperialistic history has been paradoxically layered with a discourse of universal decline. It suggests that an enfeebled Europe has become the new "frontier" for Christian evangelization, and the "other" against which Christian vitality is measured.

Sovereignty, humanity and authenticity

With the International Red Cross Movement, ESTHER MÖLLER (Munich/Mainz) discussed another example of the contradictory dimensions of universal claims. The movement was strongly shaped by Western-dominated ideas of civilization and progress, which also met with opposition in non-Western societies. This was particularly evident in the Arab world, where conflicts affected not only the states directly involved, but also the international humanitarian community. In opposition to a narrow understanding of sovereignty tied to the nation state, a new concept evolved in the ICRC of ”humanitarian sovereignty” – the claim for sovereignty through humanitarian aid – which local actors in the Egyptian Red Crescent could utilize as an instrument of anti-colonial solidarity, a claim to regional power and an expression of self-determination. The idea of humanitarian aid, Möller argued, did not move from the West to the East. Instead, concepts of philanthropy emerged in all parts of the world.

ANDREA REHLING (Augsburg) added a case study on the question of whether to return artefacts to former prisoners of the German concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on the grounds of individual property rights, or to retain and exhibit them in the museum. Rehling's overarching point was that attributing universalisms to their European roots does not take into account that they could be subject to competing and contradictory claims by a multitude of stakeholders who in turn cannot be neatly divided into Europeans and non-Europeans. Rather, one should ask who benefits from invoking humanity or similar universalisms (and in so doing – one might add – reveals their particularism).

In the discussion, Robert referred to new microstudies that discuss European Christians without regard for their (missionary) relationships with other parts of the world – that is, Robert pointed out, provincializing European Christianity! For a historian of "World Christianity" this was a good punchline. However, it is doubtful whether this applies to other features of the Eurocentric worldview in historiography. The next conference in the series "A Europe of Differences" will engage with one of these grand narratives. It will go "beyond secularization" and deal with "(de)sacralization in modern European history" (24 to 26 November 2021, online).

Key contributions from the conference series will be published in revised form in the "Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Europäische Geschichte Mainz".

Conference overview:

Johannes Paulmann (Mainz): Introduction

Panel 1: How to Provincialize Europe – Reflections on Historical Perspectives

Kiran Klaus Patel (Munich): The Province of a United Europe: A Global Perspective on the History of European Union

Marcia C. Schenck (Potsdam): Pan-Africanism, Decolonization and the Organization of African Unity’s 1969 Refugee Convention in Global Perspective

Dana Robert (Boston, MA): Provincializing Christianity? Constructing and Collapsing the "Grand Narrative" of Modern Christian Europe

Panel 2: Provincializing Europe – the Case of Islam

Gudrun Krämer (Berlin): Realities of Power, Dreams of Omnipotence: The Middle East, Islam, and Europe

Manfred Sing (Mainz): Muslim Histories as Global History

Panel 3: Contact Zones – Conflicts and Asymmetries in Transcultural Settings

Christian Windler (Bern): Cultural Diversity and Competing Norms in Early Modern Global Catholicism

Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia (Penn State, PA): Identities in Conflict: Catholic, European, and National Interests in the Jesuit China Mission

Denise Klein (Mainz): Negotiating Difference in a City of Immigrants: Ottoman Istanbul between 1453 and 1800

Stanislau Paulau (Mainz): Mission as a Mode of Provincializing Europe? The Making of Global Eastern Orthodoxy in the long 19th Century

Panel 4: Contested Universalisms – Translocal Practices and Claims

Esther Möller (Munich/Mainz): Provincializing the Red Cross. Humanitarianism in the Arab World in the Twentieth Century

Andrea Rehling (Augsburg): Whose Heritage? UNESCO Balancing between Common Heritage of Mankind, Sovereignties and Individual Property Rights

Panel 5: Provincializing Perspectives, Concluding Comments

Renate Dürr (Tübingen): Practices of Knowledge. Microhistorical Perspectives on Global Transfers

Judith Becker (Berlin): "European" Religion in Global Contact Zones. The Concept of Contact Religiosity

Madeleine Herren-Oesch (Basel): Europe in Transit – Conceptualizing a Global History of Europe

[1] See the report on the first conference: Einheit und Vielheit – Europa pluralisieren?, 02.11.2020 – 03.11.2020 Mainz and digital, in: H-Soz-Kult, 15.02.2021, <>.
[2] For this approach see the work of the research group "The Ottoman Europe: Methods and Perspectives of Early Modern Studies on Southeast Europe", <>.