Migration and Narration: How European Historians in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries Told the History of Human Mass Migrations or Völkerwanderungen

Historians’ interest in the history of human migrations is not limited to recent years. Migrations had already figured as explanatory factors in connection with cultural and historical change in the work of classical and ancient studies scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the writings of these scholars, migrations acted as historical landmarks or epochal thresholds and played a key role in the construction of geo-historical areas. This model has been called “migrationism” and cannot be explained simply on the basis of the history of individual disciplines, but must be seen in its complex interaction with scientific and historical contexts. However, “migrationism” does not relate to fixed political and scientific positions or movements. For this reason, it cannot be explained adequately by using a historically or ideologically based approach. Relying on narratological approaches, this article examines migration narratives that historians of this period used to explain the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. Referring to contemporary historiographical representations of the ancient Near East, it distinguishes three main narratives that are still common today: narratives of foundation, narratives of destruction, and narratives of mixtures. In this sense, analyzing older migration narratives helps us to sharpen the critical view on the genealogy of our own views on the history—and present—of human migrations.