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A History of the World in One Cathedral

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The talk investigate the extraordinary global history of German’s most national monument: Cologne Cathedral. Its nineteenth-century completion, after more than 600 years of construction, ‘as a monument to the German nation’ has often come to stand for the course of German nationalism from popular movement to top-down Prussian enterprise. Yet this narrative not only edits out the more complicated interactions between local and national forces during the period of completion, it also side-lines an important transnational, and indeed global, dimension. The talk highlights the multidirectional ways in which the cathedral was fashioned, and the impact it had beyond the borders of Germany. It examines how personal networks helped initiate the nineteenth-century completion, looks at international financial support (as well as the global and colonial dimension of local money), the place of the cathedral in cultural diplomacy and foreign heritage policies, and analyses the broader reception by international audiences beyond the completion in the twentieth century, with particular attention to the two world wars and processes of reconciliation. The last part gives an outlook onto recent decades – a time in which the cathedral has played less of an international role despite its newly acquired world heritage status – and discusses how it has been used to mediate global themes – in particular climate change –, before discussing its recent uses by the European far right, the anti-racist responses as well as echos of the second world war and reconstruction in the wake of the pandemic. The cathedral’s unique eminence in popular and historiographical consciousness makes the building a particular pertinent example to rewrite the history of heritage in Germany as a microhistory of the global. It allows us to go beyond the highlighting of ‘connections’ to investigates their specificities and embodied realities. Drawing on extensive archival research in Germany, France and the UK, and published primary sources from further afield, the talk reflects on how recent debates and methodologies about global microhistory can be linked to sensory and emotional histories. As such, the proposes how recent controversies over memory in Germany and the UK, can be addressed through complex and nuanced histories of a single monument to better understand, critique and shape the role of the built environment in processes of belonging.

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This talk is part of the Wolfson College Humanities Society series.

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