, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 1-22
Date: 09 Aug 2012

The role of national archives in constructing national master narratives in Europe


This article analyses the role of national archives for the construction of national master narratives. It starts off by discussing the different origins of national archives, the merits of talking about proto-national archives and the importance of the French revolution for establishing the modern national archive system. It goes on to highlight the difficulties of historians with obtaining access to the archives in the nineteenth century. The importance of archives in authenticating and legitimating the authority of historical work meant that archives became increasingly important for the professionalization of history writing. As history writing saw one of its prime tasks in legitimating the nation-state, archives soon occupied an important position for nation-building projects. They got involved in editing sources regarded as being of national importance, and they played a role in projects of national pedagogy. The article also charts efforts to centralize archives at the national level which resulted in failure almost everywhere. Nevertheless, whilst archives were clearly important for imperial and also subnational projects, it was the national archives that captured the imagination of nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Despite the importance of national archives, the articles goes on to argue that it is striking that most national master narratives in the modern period were not based on archival work.