Vienna School of History
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Vienna School of History

The Vienna School of History is an influential school of historical thinking based at the University of Vienna. It is closely associated with Reinhard Wenskus, Herwig Wolfram and Walter Pohl. Drawing upon recent theories drawn from sociology and critical theory, scholars of the Vienna School have utilized the concept of ethnogenesis to reassess the notion of ethnicity as it applies to Germanic tribes. Focusing on Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the Vienna School has a large publishing output, and has had a major influence on the modern analysis of barbarian ethnicity. It has been characterized by critics as revisionist.[1]


The origins of the Vienna School of History can be traced to the works of the German historian Reinhard Wenskus. During the 1960s, there was as reaction against previous scholarship on Germanic tribes. Drawing upon studies on modern tribes, Wenskus posited that the Germanic tribes of antiquity did not constitute distinct ethnicities, but were rather diverse alliances led by a dominant elite continuing "core-traditions" (Traditionskerne).[1] Wenskus argued that members of the Germanic tribes were not actually related to each other by kin; this was rather a figment of their own imagination.[2] Though Wenskus' pioneering book has been immensely influential, "it is not an easy read".[1]

More recent scholars associated with Wenskus in the Vienna School are Herwig Wolfram and Walter Pohl.[3] The Vienna School is associated with the European Science Foundation and the Transformation of the Roman World project.[4] The support given by the European Science Foundation to this project has been given with the ambitious aim of correcting previous theories on the fall of the Western Roman Empire, particularly through downplaying the role ethnic identity, migration and imperial decline played in this process.[5] According to certain observers, this support is politically aimed at furthering European integration.[5][6]

Drawing on theories drawn from sociology and critical theory,[7] scholars of the Vienna School introduced the concept of ethnogenesis (Stammesbildung) to deconstruct the ethnicity of Germanic tribes,[3] proceeding from a "strongly politicized concept of ethnicity" and emphasizing the situationality of tribal ethnicities centered around a core of tradition.[8] These scholars also emphasize that the influence of Germanic history extends beyond northern and western Europe. Wolfram points out the contribution of Germanic tribes to the histories of regions such as the Balkans and southern Europe in general, extending even to North Africa, in order to counter the view that Germanic history ought to be identified only with the Germans.[a]

The ethnogenesis theories of the Vienna School have initiated a "revolution in historical approaches to early medieval ethnicity" and "overturned the foundations of earlier research into the ethnic groups of the early medieval period". It has since become the model with which "barbarian" ethnicity is analyzed.[2] They have had an immense publication output.[b] English-language scholars that have been influenced by the Vienna School include Patrick J. Geary, Ian N. Wood and Patrick Amory. However, Geary, Wood and Pohl approach the theories in "a more flexible manner" than Wenskus and Wolfram.[11] Guy Halsall notes the favorable effect of these approaches on the study of late antique ethnicity, pointing out that Pohl's views on the mutability of ethnic identity run counter to prewar notions of ethnic essentialism which survive in some other modern scholarship.[12]


Pohl's theories of the Germanic tribes have been criticized by Wolf Liebeschuetz as "extraordinarily one-sided" and a form of ideological "dogmatism" evincing "a closed mind".[4] He further suggests that according to the Vienna School view represented by Pohl, the Germanic tribes had no institutions or values of their own, and therefore made no contribution to medieval Europe. Liebeschuetz also takes issue with Vienna School arguments against his notion that "these tribes were essentially racial organizations".[c]

Shami Ghosh accuses Vienna School scholars of occasionally resorting to "rather dubious sorts of evidence" to push their interpretation of the sources in a particular manner, while conceding that this school has contributed greatly to our understanding of late antique and early medieval history.[11]

Toronto School

The Vienna School has been contrasted with the Toronto School, of whom Walter Goffart is a leading member.[11] Like the Vienna School, members Toronto School have received "a great boost" from the European Science Foundation, which some critics claim reflects a "multicultural" and "relativist" political agenda on part of the European Union.[6] While the Vienna School considers to Old Norse literature and works such as Getica by Jordanes to be of some value, this is completely rejected by the Toronto School. They consider these works to be artificial constructions entirely devoid from oral tradition.[11] While neither of the schools are entirely homogeneous in their approach, discussions between the two schools are characterized by an unusually intense passion and highly polemic dialogue.[11]

In 2002, On Barbarian Identity, a work by scholars associated with the Toronto School and edited by Andrew Gillett, was published. In this work, the Vienna School was accused of being composed of "crypto-nationalists",[14] and of enforcing "a new historical orthodoxy".[2] These critics deny that the Germanic tribes, neither as a whole nor as individual groups, had core traditions. They consider Old Norse literature, Roman literature and other primary sources unreliable for the study of Germanic history and culture. Previous scholarship on Germanic tribes is to them politically unreliable. In their view, Germanic culture was entirely derived from the Roman Empire.[d] Wolf Liebeschuetz has criticized these theories as "very strongly ideological, deriving from the rejection of nationalism and the acceptance of multiculturalism", and "flawed because they depend on a dogmatic and selective use of the evidence".[16] Liebeschuetz contends that the proponents of these theories are motivated by a political agenda, which revolves around pan-European identity.[16]

Oxford School

In recent years, scholars associated with University of Oxford have been leading what Guy Halsall describes as a "counter-revisionist offensive" against the more "subtle ways of thinking" of the Vienna School and Toronto School.[17] This group has been referred to as the Oxford School.[18] Historian Peter Heather is considered the senior figure among them.[17] Heather disagrees with both the core-tradition theory pioneered by the Vienna School, and the theories of the Toronto School.[19] Heather contends that it was the freemen who constituted the backbone of Germanic tribes, and that the ethnic identity of tribes such as the Goths was stable for centuries, being held together by the freemen.[20] He traces the Fall of the Western Roman Empire to external migration triggered by the Huns in the late 4th century. The theory of the barbarians peacefully being absorbed by the Western Roman Empire rather than invading it, as proposed by the Vienna School and the Toronto School, has been described by Heather as one which "smells more of wishful thinking than likely reality".[5] Like Liebeschuetz, Heather describes such theories as being boosted through "huge" support from the European Science Foundation, which, in order to advance a pan-European ideal, has sought to minimize the importance of migration and ethnic identity in the Migration Period. Heather notes that despite such tremendous efforts, these revisionist theories are yet to be generally accepted.[5]

Heather has been criticized for his views by Michael Kulikowski, a member of the Toronto School, who accuses him of neo-romanticism and of wishing "to revive a biological approach to ethnicity".[19][21] Halsall has accused Heather and his associates of "bizarre reasoning" and of purveying a "deeply irresponsible history".[17] According to Halsall, the Oxford historians have been responsible for "an academic counter-revolution" of wide importance, and accuses them of carelessly providing assistance to the rise of "far-right extremists".[22]


  1. ^ "The Germanic peoples have left traces in large areas of Europe and around the Mediterranean, even where their languages have long ceased to be spoken. [...] The present-day Germans have as much a Germanic history as do the Scandinavians, British, Irish, French, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Hungarians, Romanians, Slavic nations, Greeks, Turks, and even the Tunisians and Maltese... By naively equating Germanic peoples with the Germans... one loses not only the subject of "Germanic peoples" and their history but also history as such, and eventually oneself. The goal of the present book is to prevent this from happening."[9]
  2. ^ "The publication output of the Vienna school is immense..."[10]
  3. ^ "Walter Pohl, had a completely closed mind to any view that admitted that these northern gentes had genuine histories and traditions of their own. Not content to demolish the view that these tribes were essentially racial organizations, they relied on sociological theory that ethnicity is nothing more than a negotiated system of social classification, and that ethnic differences are "situational," to deny these peoples any institutions and values of their own, and so to reduce their contribution to medieval Europe to nothing at all... Theories of the ethnogenesis of the Germanic tribes are associated particularly with the "Vienna School" and K. Wenskus, H. Wolfram, and W. Pohl."[13]
  4. ^ "The argument of these... is that there was no core culture-- either of the Germani as a whole, or even of the separate Germanic tribes. They assert that if we know practically nothing about any of these peoples before they entered the Roman empire, that is because they did not know anything themselves... Those `Germanic' customs which we know the Germans acquired in the empire, and from the Romans. We cannot therefore identify any specifically Germanic contribution to the post-Roman world... To demolish the view that the Dark Age tribes had an identity based on ethnic core-traditions... [they] devote a great deal of energy to disqualifying the scholarship of earlier generations as distorted by mainly nationalist ideology. Yet they show no awareness that their own positions are very strongly ideological..."[15]


  1. ^ a b c Liebeschuetz 2015, p. 87-88.
  2. ^ a b c Hakenbeck 2015, pp. 19-20.
  3. ^ a b Liebeschuetz 2015, p. 314.
  4. ^ a b Liebeschuetz 2015, p. xxi.
  5. ^ a b c d Heather 2018, pp. 80-100.
  6. ^ a b Rutenburg & Eckstein 2007, p. 110.
  7. ^ Halsall 2007, pp. 15-7.
  8. ^ Roymans 2004, p. 3.
  9. ^ Wolfram 2005, p. 12.
  10. ^ Hakenbeck 2015, p. 21.
  11. ^ a b c d e Ghosh 2015, pp. 16-21.
  12. ^ Halsall 2014, pp. 517 n. 12.
  13. ^ Liebeschuetz 2015, pp. xxi, 314.
  14. ^ Liebeschuetz 2015, p. 89.
  15. ^ Liebeschuetz 2015, pp. 89, 100.
  16. ^ a b Liebeschuetz 2015, pp. 99-100.
  17. ^ a b c Halsall, Guy (July 15, 2011). "Why do we need the Barbarians?". Historian on the Edge. Retrieved 2020.
  18. ^ Wood 2015, p. 5.
  19. ^ a b Kulikowski 2002, pp. 71-73.
  20. ^ Halsall 2007, pp. 19-20.
  21. ^ Kulikowski 2002, p. 83.
  22. ^ Halsall 2014, pp. 517-518.


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