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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded solutions to enduring geopolitical problems

By invite only

The Engelsberg Applied History Programme, run between the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London and the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge, is delighted to host a half-day online workshop for the trans-Atlantic Applied History Network. The session is designed to broaden the discussion around the methods, practice, and utility of Applied History in the present day.

The workshop is supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

The practice of Applied History has a long tradition within the United Kingdom. It was here that the Regius Professor of History John Robert Seeley, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1870, first spoke of history as the ‘school of statesmanship.’ Later, his successor, Lord Acton, carried on the tradition, writing that:

The science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the stream of history, like grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to the making of the future.

As we look forward to the workshop in September, we aim to carry on this tradition of addressing present and future challenges through a historical lens. In keeping with the themes of the previous two Applied History Network conferences, a panel will focus on a pressing question of international affairs, in particular international catastrophes and their effect on contemporary experience and historical study. And in what we hope will be a new addition to the wider network, we aim to explore some aspects of applied history which have been overlooked in recent years, namely historiographical and even philosophical approaches. Far from esoteric discussions among exclusive groups of historians, such questions have been the focus of some of the most famous applied historians of the twentieth century and are topics which we believe the Applied History Network will benefit from engaging with going forward.

The online workshop will take place in the late afternoon and evening (UK time) and will consist of two panels and a discussion session.

  • Panel 1: ‘Debates with Historians: Patterns, Generalizations and Laws in Historical Study’
  • Panel 2: ‘Ruptures in History: How Catastrophes Shape Contemporary Experience and Historical Study’
  • Group Discussion: Methods, Purpose, and Next Steps for the Applied History Network

Speakers will deliver a presentation of no more than 10 minutes each. The chair of each session will be an active participant in the panel, and we encourage all participants to contribute to each panel discussion. The workshop will conclude with a group discussion about the methods and purpose of applied history, as well as next steps for the Applied History Network.



Introductory Remarks 3.00 – 3.10pm BST (10.00 – 10.10am EST)

Professor Brendan Simms, Centre for Geopolitics

Dr Maeve Ryan, Centre for Grand Strategy

Mattias Hessérus, Ax:Son Johnson Foundation

Panel 1: ‘Debates with Historians: Patterns, Generalizations and Laws in Historical Study’ 3.10 – 4.20pm BST (10.10 – 11.20am EST)     

This year marks the 66th anniversary of Pieter Geyl’s collection of essays titled Debates with Historians, in which the eminent Dutch historian offered critical reflections on the approaches of a number of his predecessors, including Leopold von Ranke, Arnold Toynbee and E.H. Carr. Much of Geyl’s reflections concerned whether and to what extent historians can draw generalisations, patterns and even laws across space and time. In this panel, we will explore these themes in the present day, posing the question of how might individual approaches to historical study influence the wider concept of applied history.


Mary Sarotte (Johns Hopkins University)

Philip Zelikow (University of Virginia)

Chair: Frank Gavin (Johns Hopkins University)

Break 4.20 – 4.30pm BST (11.20 – 11.30am EST)

Panel 2: ‘Ruptures in History: How Catastrophes Shape Contemporary

Experience and Historical Study’ 4.30 – 5.40pm BST (11.30 – 12.40pm EST)

Much of history is catastrophe, moments when the existing order is overturned at great human cost. How these events are remembered and weaponised is worthy of attention from historians and policymakers. Looking at three separate ruptures – the ‘German Catastrophe’ (Friedrich Meinecke) of the First World War and Nazism, the Palestinian Nakba, and Mao’s China – this panel will explore how sudden and traumatic change not only determines human horizons for generations but fundamentally shapes our understanding of the past.


Robert Gerwarth (University College, Dublin)

Beatrice de Graaf (Ultrecht University)

Hisham A. Hellyer (University of Cambridge)

Frank Dikoetter (University of Hong Kong)

Chair: Brendan Simms (University of Cambridge)

Break 5.40 – 5.50pm BST (12.40 – 12.50pm EST)

Group Discussion on Methods and Purpose of Applied History 5.50 – 6.20pm BST (12.50 – 13.20pm EST)

Chaired by Brendan Simms


Tuesday, 21 September, 2021 - 15:00 to 19:30
Event location: