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Quarterly 2/2016 |  07/06/2016Peter Clark

Early years of the European Association for Urban History

The early development of the European Association for Urban History (EAUH) which holds its thirteenth biennial conference in Helsinki in August 2016, owes a great deal to two men: Herman Diederiks (1937–95), the first Secretary (1989–95), and Bernard Lepetit (1948–96), the first President (1989–92): both were my close friends.

Diederiks was Reader in Social History at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He was a warm, dynamic, multi-lingual man, a highly effective academic innovator and entrepreneur with many interests (he loved parachuting and swimming, and he also founded the International Association for the History of Crime). His great gift was in networking and interacting with younger scholars, listening, encouraging and stimulating. Lepetit was director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales at Paris and co-director there of the Centre de Recherches Historiques; from 1986 to 1992 he was editorial secretary of Annales E-S-C. Although he had a glittering conceptual and analytical intellect in the French style, it was tempered by great personal modesty, a strong interest in empirical research, and a wonderful sense of humour. At conferences listening to papers, Lepetit displayed an impassive face framed by his drooping moustache, but his eyes sparkled with mischievious, ironic laughter and a sharp appreciation of the ridiculous and banal.

The establishment of the EAUH in 1989 built on two previous initiatives in urban history. The first was the creation in 1978 of a European Commission-funded ERASMUS and later TEMPUS exchange and teaching programme led by Leicester and Leiden universities. From the mid-1980s this organized annual international postgraduate workshops on European urban history, involving nine major universities across Europe and with the participation of leading professors like Herman van der Wee, Walter Prevenier, Heinz Schilling and Vera Bacscai. Some of the workshop alumni are now well known professors of urban history and prominent figures in EAUH.

The second initiative also dates back to the late 1970s with the creation of the Groupe International d’Histoire Urbaine by Maurice Aymard, after Fernand Braudel administrator of the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (MSH) in Paris, to give new momentum to international urban history studies. (Since 1956 the Commission International pour l’Histoire des Villes, one of many post-war scientific commissions established to promote dialogue with the Soviet Bloc countries, had held annual meetings, but these had a closed, rather ‘clubbish’ format). With the development of European momentum in the 1970s, Aymard’s initiative was well timed. A first international colloquium was held in Paris in June 1977, the second in London (organized by Anthony Sutcliffe) in 1979; a third meeting on immigration and urban society at Göttingen 1982. The colloquia of the Groupe Internationalstimulated, as Aymard had hoped, a wave of international cooperation. By the time of the meeting at Lille in 1987 – on the theme of European Small Towns – I had been co-opted with Herman Diederiks into a small circle helping to advise on running the the Groupe International, along with Lepetit, by then Aymard’s right-hand man.

By the late 1980s there was growing collaboration between Diederiks, Lepetit and myself, after 1985 director of the Centre for Urban History (CUH) at Leicester. It was recognized that urban history in Europe was at a cross roads. There was a growing volume of research in different countries, but there was too little connectivity or comparative analysis; research was constrained and distorted by national agendas. The later 1980s was a fertile and optimistic time for closer European cooperation on the scientific level. The new momentum of the European Commission (EC) under Jacques Delors, the Single European Act in 1986, and the negotiations for a European Union and single currency leading eventually to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, generated a growing public enthusiasm for a European vision that had strong support in the universities. In Britain, for example, it was believed that the depressing university cut-backs under the Thatcher government, could be offset and redressed through increased cooperation at the European level.

About 1988 the EC launched a new programme to encourage the formation of pan-European organisations for scientific cooperation. After discussions with colleagues at Leicester (David Reeder, Richard Rodger), Diederiks and I approached Aymard and Lepetit for their support for the idea of a new European Association for Urban History. I was concerned that they would see this as threatening the MSH’s own Groupe International. But both men gave their warm blessing, reflecting recognition of the need for a wider international organization in the field. In the event, MSH became one of the co-sponsors of the new Association, along with the Leicester CUH, thus preserving continuity with international networking in the field since the late 1970s.

The new European Association for Urban History (EAUH) was granted EU funding in 1989. A meeting at Leicester of Clark, Diederiks and Lepetit agreed that Lepetit would become the first President, Diederiks Secretary, and Clark Treasurer. An international committee meeting was held in Paris at MSH and a Register of European Research in the field organised. Covering several hundred researchers, this work was subsequently published and distributed free of charge to contributors. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the EC extended its scientific programmes to Central and Eastern Europe. A further grant to the Association enabled a committee meeting in Budapest in 1991 and the publication of a second Register including scholars in Eastern Europe. But then the EAUH ran out of steam. EU funding ceased and it proved difficult to raise alternative finance. Without EU funding for attending meetings most of the first EAUH international committee decamped!

In late 1991 Clark and Diederiks discussed the future of the EAUH at Frankfurt airport on the way back from an EU funded meeting in Poland. It was decided that the EAUH needed to be put on a new footing with open conferences on the model of the Social Science History conferences in the USA (the European variant had yet to be founded). At Frankfurt we agreed the meeting would be held in late summer 1992 at Amsterdam. Clark and Diederiks drew up a list of topics and would-be session organisers and wrote to them asking them to organise sessions. Most accepted. 140 participants came to the first EAUH conference at the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam – the biggest gathering of European urban historians to take place up to that time. Those attending included young people from Bulgaria, Hungary and other former Communist bloc countries, free to come after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was an exciting occasion- friendly, lively, highly sociable and unforgettable for many of us there! Lepetit organised one of the main sessions and Maurice Aymard gave the opening lecture – clever and good humoured.

The EAUH constitution was approved and Lynn Hollen Lees from Philadelphia presented an impressive, wide-ranging concluding lecture. Diederiks and his wife Hester threw a big party for session organisers at their home. At its end, Jean Luc Pinol, the organiser with Denis Menjot of the next planned conference in Strasbourg in 1994, was elected the new President. At Strasbourg in 1994 a new international committee gathered for the first time, just the officers with a few other members. Lepetit gave the keynote address to the 350 or so participants and Michael Conzen from Chicago the concluding lecture. Again it was a considerable success. Alas, during the next two years both Diederiks and Lepetit died suddenly from tragic accidents.

During the early years the EAUH was on life support – without the backing of the MSH which paid for Paris meetings of the International Committee and the Leicester CUH (and its wonderful secretary Kate Crispin, who did a lot of EAUH administrative work) it could not have survived. In 1996 Vera Bacskai, the new President, organized the conference in Budapest – a great adventure because of the absence of a modern banking system in Hungary at that time! But highly memorable because it was the first time the new enlarged international committee gathered, with its new highly effective secretary Pim Kooij from Groningen; because of the balmy boat trip on the Danube; and because of a stunning concluding lecture by Penelope Corfield, who sang urban songs to the 270 or more audience.

The conference in Venice in 1998 was a turning point. Organized by the next President Donatella Calabi it was an enormous scientific and sociable success. The 300 or more participants, including a number from Japan and the Americas, attended a large number of sessions, and enjoyed a beautiful reception on a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, as well as a visit at night-time to St Marc’s cathedral. But it was also the last conference organized by post (not email and the web) and the first to make a profit for the EAUH and to put it on the path to solvency. The EAUH had come of age.

Since 1998 the biennial EAUH conferences, planned systematically in different regions of Europe by rotation, have steadily grown in scale and organization but retained their reputation for interdisciplinarity (almost all the human and social sciences participate), openness, serious scientific debate (on a kaleidocope of themes reflecting new trends in the field), and sociability. The vital presence of a large number of younger scholars – the future of the field – has been helped by the competitive bursary scheme (since 1996). The work of the officers and steadily enlarged international committee, operating in tandem with local committees in the host countries, has inevitably grown. A brief tour d’ horizon might include, among more recent conference events, the award to Maurice Aymard of an EAUH medal at Berlin (2000); the bagpiper playing mournfully at the conference reception at Edinburgh Castle (2002); a brilliant illustrated final lecture by Jean Luc Pinol at Athens (2004); the vivid post-conference excursion to the abbey of Cluny and a Burgundian vineyard led by the Lyon organiser, Denis Menjot (2008). At Stockholm (2006) it was proposed to reform the international committee, terminating the old membership and introducing eight year mandates for new members, so that by 2010 (Ghent) a largely new committee and set of officers, younger and more gender balanced, had taken over the EAUH leadership.

The conferences at Prague in 2012 and Lisbon 2014 brought together record numbers of urban historians from across the world – over 600 on both occasions. The EAUH was starting to acquire a global reputation, at a time when the field of urban history was taking a Global Turn. Another necessary development is also in process. The early constitution of the EAUH, largely that approved at Amsterdam in 1992, has served it well, but the new scale of operation has created an imperative for a more formally constituted and legally regulated organization. The EAUH is now registered under Finnish law and its new constitutional life will start at the Helsinki conference in August 2016. No doubt EAUH Helsinki, led by its president Marjaana Niemi, will be an exciting, challenging conference in many other ways too!

Peter Clark is Emeritus Professor of European Urban History at the University of Helsinki. He was EAUH Treasurer in 1989–2010.

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