This article addresses the relationship between history and the international. Starting from the ‘history controversy’ in IR in the 1980s and 90s, it shows that that debate hinged on the political import of history as a form of knowledge. This political meaning, to which agency and freedom were central, was challenged through the theorisation in IR of the problematic relationship of the international, as a fragmented political form, to historical time: the spatial inside–outside division was understood as carrying a corresponding temporal and historical division, between progress and repetition. To explain why history carried this political significance, the article explores the connection of historical consciousness to sovereignty and political subjectivity. It shows that history as a distinctively modern form of relation to ‘the past’ is inseparable from the rise of modern sovereign authority and its accompanying political subject and idea of freedom: sovereignty’s reformulation of political space went along with a refashioning of the character of historical time. However, history’s conceptual attachment to sovereignty also ties it to the fragmented form of the international. History thus finds its limits in the international and IR becomes a cite for the critique of the relationship between history, political form and subjectivity.