Introducing Ángel Alcalde: New Lecturer in Twentieth-century European History
“Ultra-nationalists from different European nation-states strive to break the European Union, but at the same time they have no qualms about getting in touch with each other, copying and sharing their practices and policies across borders.”
Incoming Lecturer in European History Ángel Alcalde brings expertise on the social and cultural history of war, transnational history and the history of fascism. In an interview with Ross Karavis, he discusses his inspirations and academic interests.
Ángel Alcalde completed his PhD at the European University Institute in Florence in 2015. Spanish by birth, but European in outlook, he has undertaken post-doctoral fellowships in key research centres in Europe, the United States and China. He is the author of War Veterans and Fascism in Interwar Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2017); Los excombatientes franquistas (1936-1965) (The Francoist veterans (1936-1965)) (2014); and Lazos de Sangre (Blood Ties – a book on wartime urban mobilisation during the Spanish Civil War) (2010); and co-editor (with Xosé M. Núñez Seixas) of War Veterans and the World after 1945: Cold War Politics, Decolonization, Memory (Routledge, 2018). Dr Alcalde is currently working on a project on war veterans’ international organisations and is broadly interested in researching the relationship between warfare and globalisation.
Dr Alcalde is looking forward to experiencing an anglophone country with a strong Indigenous culture, Mediterranean lifestyle, global outlook and proximity to the Asian region. As he begins his time in Melbourne, he responds here to six questions about his experience of working and studying in multiple countries across multiple continents, his areas of academic interest and expertise, and his intellectual inspiration.
You have studied and worked in Spain, Italy, Germany and China. How has your experience of working and studying in multiple countries influenced or challenged your approach to history and historical research?
This internationalisation broadened both the scope of my research interests and the type of questions and theoretical approaches I have used. Travels and long stays in different countries are beneficial for everyone but for historians they are crucial to think “outside of the box”. As I became immersed in different “national” traditions of historical thinking and writing, I realised the profound differences across historiographies. I became aware of the relative importance of some debates that can be very dominant in some countries but not in others.
I also started to introduce concepts from other traditions into my own historiographical context – for example applying the “very French debate” (as Pierre Purseigle characterised it) about culture de guerre (war culture) to the history of the Spanish veterans during the Franco regime and to the Spanish discussions about “consent” under the dictatorship (a debate that, in turn, was imported from the Italian controversies about “consenso” under Mussolini).
Multi-archival, multi-national and multi-lingual research also most clearly revealed the paradoxes of prevalent interpretations and opened the way toward new original ideas. Yet the biggest challenge was that in the end a historian has to write history mainly following the standards and conventions of a single language/tradition.
I chose to work and write in English because it is the most “international” language for our profession and it allows me to reach much wider audiences than writing in my native language. For me, the transition from one mode of expression to the other was a hugely rewarding experience.
What sparked your interest in the historical relationship between warfare and globalisation?
Two kinds of experiences, professional and personal.
Professionally, while I developed my primary expertise on the history of war and warfare, I embraced transnational and global history as innovative perspectives and methodologies for my work – particularly during my doctoral studies at the European University Institute and later as a postdoctoral fellow in Germany and China. Interrogating the relationship between war and globalisation was the consequence of juxtaposing these two strands of my work. I am not the only historian doing so – in the last few years many others have become equally interested in the relationship between warfare and globalisation.
Personally, after jumping from “national” history-writing to a more European and “transnational” practice at the European University Institute, circumstances of my life led me further to become acquainted with extra-European history and societies, particularly India, and to travel “globally” — for instance to China. Recently, living in Geneva, a hub of international activity, has made me familiar with the inner workings of IOs and INGOs. Not just border-crossing but globalisation became a sort of personal everyday experience for me, which raised new questions and interests.
And, after all, war is a global experience and one can find war veterans (the key topic of my research) in virtually every country of the world.
What contemporary insights can we gain from studying and understanding the history of Fascism in Europe?
There are many insights. Beyond the realisation of the fragility of democratic systems, and the danger of nationalist-populistic movements, I would stress the interdependence between the different European nation-states regarding the impact of political phenomena. My work talks a lot about cross-border connections, transfers and collaboration between fascists from different countries.
Today, Europeans should be more aware about similar processes taking place in contemporary politics. Ultra-nationalists from different European nation-states strive to break the European Union, but at the same time they have no qualms about getting in touch with each other, copying and sharing their practices and policies across borders.
Even so, as a historian I observe fundamental differences in the context of today and the interwar period: the direct experience of total war with all its societal consequences has practically faded from most European regions (with the sole exceptions of the Balkans and now Ukraine).
Yet this is also a lesson for Europe’s present: better to work for maintaining and constructing peace than to let armed conflict proliferate throughout the world.
Why is it important to understand international veterans’ organisations during the Cold War?
Veterans’ international organisations offer an excellent window to observe the paradoxes, intersections and contradictions between, on the one hand, the ideal of international collaboration and understanding between nations (the United Nations system), and, on the other hand, “realist” international politics and confrontation between states and political blocs (of which the Cold War is exemplary).
Veterans were the legacy of the latter “confrontational” system, but through their international organisations such as the World Veterans Federation placed themselves within the former “collaborative” system. The tensions between these two worlds — war versus peace, rivalry versus cooperation, nationalism versus global consciousness — are most tellingly revealed through the history of veterans’ international platforms during the Cold War era.
Looking at how veterans’ issues evolved internationally during the second half of the twentieth century will also be useful for finding new ways to rethink veteranhood and military service today — an important matter in some countries, such as Australia itself.
Name three texts that have shaped your scholarly practice as a historian of Modern Europe
I love this kind of question because it is so difficult to answer! Most inspiring for me were Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land. Combat & Identity in World War I (Cambridge University Press, 1978) and George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers. Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford University Press, 1990), although the kind of history that I practise now, and what I wrote ten years ago, is very different from that model. A third text that has opened new horizons for my scholarly practice is Jürgen Osterhammel’s, Die Verwandlung der Welt (The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century) (Princeton University Press, 2014).
What do you believe are the key challenges for the historian in our contemporary times?
The digital era has brought a new challenge to the authority of the professional historian. Now that people believe all world history is already in our smartphones, historians need to reassert their role not as guardians of the past who memorise and remember old events, but rather as providers of critical thinking, analytical tools, and rigorous reasoning about societal matters. These skills will allow us to differentiate the fake from the true and to build scientific and clear explanations about complex past and present problems.
Ángel Alcalde commenced in January 2019. He will be located in the West Wing of the Arts West Building. In 2019 he will be teaching the second-year subjects ‘Holocaust and Genocide’ (Semester 1) and ‘Hitler’s Germany’ (Semester 2), as well as teaching into ‘International History’ (MA level, Semester 2).