Transnational History as Spatial History: the case of the Esperanto Movement in the Early 20th Century

International Summer School logo, 21st - 25th June 2021

Tuesday 22nd of June

2.30 - 5pm

Bernhard StruckUniversity of St Andrews

English is today’s Globish. Today, English is the language that eases international trade, cross-border and cross-cultural communication. English is part and parcel of the most recent phase of globalisation and internationalism since post 1945. While there are pragmatic, historical, and linguistic reasons for English as the globally dominant language, such dominance is not without problems as a language – along with its cultural implications – imposes hierarchies. The native speaker will always be in a dominant cultural position vis-à-vis the non-native speaker.

Around 1900 English was not yet the dominant global language. French was in decline to some extent. German made up ground in the sciences and engineering during a phase of rapid industrialisation in the later nineteenth century, yet it was deemed as too complex to take over. It was the auxiliary, planned language Esperanto that promised to fill that void around 1900 as a universal second language. Esperanto was devised as an easy to learn and neutral language. As such it deliberately did not carry any culturally hegemonic context with it.

Esperanto was born in East Central Europe. It was the Polish-Jewish doctor Ludwik Zamenhof, a native of Białystok in Tsarist Russia (today’s Poland) who designed the language and published the first language manuals in the late 1880s. The language quickly found followers not only in Russia but in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Great Britain, Bohemia, Serbia and beyond Europe, for instance in Japan and China. Between 1900 and 1914 hundreds of local Esperanto groups sprang up. Journals were founded alongside national organisations. In 1905, when the first annual international congress was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, more than 8,500 Esperantists attended the congresses before 1914. By 1910 it was taught in 320 schools in 17 countries, with more than 1,200 cities and towns offering evening classes. The Esperanto movement around 1900 can be characterised as a loose and geographically broad transnational network of local internationalists. Among these were prominent professional groups including teachers, lawyers, engineers, doctors, and architects.

This workshop aims at providing an insight into the Esperanto movement in the early twentieth century. It will showcase a transnational historical perspective in theory and practice. The workshop is based on selected secondary reading focusing on transnational actors. Based around a number of selected primary sources (member lists, Esperanto journals, correspondence, postcards, congress participation) it will give an insight into archival practices, the ‘paper trail’ of transnational sources, as well as into different Digital History methods (datasets, databases, mapping and visualization).

Reading suggestions  

Alcalde, Ángel. ‘Spatializing Transnational History: European Spaces and Territories’. European Review of History: Revue Européenne d’histoire 25, no. 3–4 (4 July 2018): 553–67. 

Dietze, Antje, and Katja Naumann. ‘Revisiting Transnational Actors from a Spatial Perspective’. European Review of History: Revue Européenne d’histoire 25, no. 3–4 (4 July 2018): 415–30. 

Saunier, Pierre-Yves. Transnational History. Theory and History. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. – Selected Chapters 

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First published: 20 May 2021