The VI International Congress of Historical Sciences in Oslo in 1928 was notable in three respects. It was the first congress after founding of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (ICHS). Moreover, it successfully established the principle that all countries be given the right to participate, making it a forum for international reconciliation and collaboration. Finally, the Congress was in many ways the work of one person, Halvdan Koht, professor of history at the University of Oslo, whose position and networks permeated the event.
Koht was instrumental in the creation of ICHS in Geneva in 1926 (although the idea came originally from the American historian Waldo Leland) and was elected as the first chairman of ICHS. From this position he issued an invitation for the next congress to be held in Oslo. The other serious candidate was Warsaw, but as Józef Piłsudski’s coup d’état took place while the delegates were assembled in Geneva, the Polish representatives withdrew the candidacy. Athens was a less serious candidate, and the Hague offered to host the congress if there were no other candidates.
The Congress took place in Oslo from 14th to 19th August 1928. Koht had managed to raise both Norwegian governmental and private funding, as well as American money (Rockefeller Foundation). The event had a secretary and an assistant, but Koht and the other members of the organizing committee put in a lot of work. There were about 950 participants altogether. They came from 38 countries. 17 of them sent more than 10 participants: Norway 273, France 132, Germany 121, Great Britain 56, the USA 51, Poland 40, Denmark 34, Sweden 30, Italy 28, Austria 23, the Netherlands 21, Romania 18, Belgium 15, Soviet Union 15, Czechoslovakia 12, Spain 12. As there were probably no more than a dozen professional historians in Norway at the time, the large number of Norwegians must have included people from archives, gymnasiums and historically interested people from the public at large. The Oslo Congress was to a large extent an European affair but historians from the countries outside Europe were more numerous than in the previous congresses. Participants came not only from the United States, but also from Algeria, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Egypt, Japan, South Africa, Turkey and Uruguay.
Historians from 30 countries contributed with lectures and reports, headed by France (77), Germany (42), Poland (33), Norway (24), Italy (15), Great Britain (13), the USA (12), Romania (12), Soviet Union (10), and Belgium (10). The variety of topics and themes was wide, so wide that Marc Bloch reported to have been so annoyed by the number of parochial and minor themes that he never would attend another congress of ICHS. However, some themes out as more central to the Congress than others. The writing of national history had gradually fallen into disfavor after world War I. The role of nations (or national states) was problematized without historians discarding the idea of the nation. The transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages was intensely debated, in particular the so-called Pirenne Thesis about Islam cutting short Northern and Central Europe’s Mediterranean connection. A third and recurrent theme was methodology, with debates on theory, Marxism, and historical comparisons. The latter became a part of the long-standing debate with German historicism (Historismus).
The 1928 Congress was about much more than professional exchanges between historians, getting together exchange ideas and empirical results. It was about international understanding and reconciliation. This had been an aspect of all previous congresses as well. International understanding and peace efforts stood high on the agenda of many organizations from the 1890s onwards. The catastrophe of World War I made these efforts even more important. Germany and Austria, who were held responsible for the war, were excluded from the Congress in Brussels in 1923. The Belgians and the French had been particularly resistant. To the founders of the ICHS and organizers of the ensuing Oslo Congress international reconciliation was imperative, and the losers in the war had to be invited. Especially Koht was adamant on this (he later became Norway’s foreign secretary). It must be mentioned that the Rockefeller grant presupposed the inclusion of Germany and Austria.
In this respect, the Oslo Congress seemed successful. Much emphasis was placed on organizing various social events. After the Congress, some of the participants went on a trip to Bergen, led by Koht. The German historian Hermann Oncken spoke of “the spirit of Oslo”, of course referring to the diplomatic “spirit of Locarno” three years earlier. However, the attitudes of some of the Italian and Soviet representatives in Oslo was to be an omen for the ideological atmosphere at future congresses.
K.D. Erdmann, Towards a Global Community of Historians. The International Congresses and the International Committee of Historical Sciences, 1898-2000, New York-Oxford 2005.
H. Koht, The Origin and Beginnings of the International Committee of Historical Sciences, Lausanne 1962
J.E. Myhre, Wider Connection: International Networks among European Historians, in: Setting the Standards. Institutions, Networks and Communities of National Historiography, ed. I. Porciani, J. Tollebeek, Basingstoke 2012, pp. 266-287.
Å. Svendsen, Halvdan Koht. Veien mot framtiden, Oslo 2013.
Jan Eivind Myhre