Postgraduate Spotlight: Konstantin Wertelecki

Konstantin is a final year PhD student in Modern History. In this post he writes on the research of ‘Others’ and why history is so important.

If I had to summarise in a word why I chose to research history, it would be the word ‘human’. In political science, people are dehumanised to calculations, flow charts and digits of mechanical proportions. In the arts, people are pedestalised and crafted beyond authentic recognition to a fantastical scale. But in history we comb through both the ugly and the elegant, the bewildering and the bewitching. As historians we seek to discover the genuine patterns of ‘human-ness’.

My research looks into the lives of the expatriate British community in Florence between the First and Second World Wars. While upon first glance this seems a rather unextraordinary subject compared to the study of spies, humanitarian heroes and other grand figures, this topic overflows with a hidden complexity that forces us to face our ‘human-ness’, not only as historical observers, but also as historical participants. 

Old-fashioned historians love to ‘tidy’: countries are categorised by print-friendly borders, people are sorted into easily distinguishable labels of ‘ethnicity’, ‘nationality’ and ‘race’ and sweeping generalisations of ‘us’ and ‘others’ allow for a quick-and-easy history that politicians can parade as a ‘national story’. Rarely, however, is history so precise.

When I first began my research, I, too, very much fell into the trap of arranging my historical subjects tidily into ‘British’ and ‘Italian’ camps. I sought to sculpt a narrative of a ‘transplanted’ Little Britain to the idyllic Tuscan hills. My naïve perceptions were soon challenged, however, as I came across ‘unusual’ cases of ‘Britishers’ who were also Italian, ‘Britishers’ who had been born and lived their whole lives in Florence, ‘Britishers’ who took Italian spouses and had Italian children and ‘Britishers’ who unabashedly declared their distaste for all that the United Kingdom represented. It was at this moment that I realised what great responsibility (but also what great privilege) historians, as historical participants, have in highlighting this ‘human’ element for future historical observers.

In addition, my own personal perspective as an expatriate in Scotland aided me in learning more about the British in Florence from the questions that philosophically challenged me, and no doubt challenged them as well: What is it to be ‘x’ nationality? What is to be ‘patriotic’? Is one no longer an ‘x’ national if the ‘purity’ of one’s patriotism has been diluted by experiences abroad?

If there is one message I would deliver of my experiences on the practise of history to the historian and non-historian alike, it is this: our discipline is the most enriching for the very ‘weaknesses’ by which it is criticised. It is not (nor should it try to be) a science that artificially contours people, places and ideas of the past to a painfully corseted fit. Nor is it of the arts that embellishes, romanticises or spectacularises the ordinary to grotesque or wondrous dimensions. It is an honesty-seeking discipline that braves the messily splashed remnants of past fortunes, failures and forged attempts. It is a discipline which is underutilised in its strong potential of pointing to the paradigms of the future from the patterns of the past. It is the discipline that teaches us what it is to be ‘human’.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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