In the realm of economic history, I have come across a few recent papers that take on the view that far-off history explains everything.
The first argues that Catholicism had a causal effect in holding back Irish development. That sounds controversial, but the paper does two additional things. One, it establishes plausible mechanisms: lower illiteracy and savings. Two, it shows, as you would expect, that the effect has been dramatically weakening over time. Moreover, read the conclusion: it is probably not what you would expect. (That said, I would not call the paper outstanding; right now, it is just interesting.)
Outstanding is a paper by Jeremiah Dittmar (LSE) and Ralf Meisenzahl (Federal Reserve) called “State capacity and public goods: institutional change, human capital and growth in early modern Germany.” Let me go to the abstract:
What are the origins and consequences of the state as a provider of public goods? We study legal reforms that established mass public education and increased state capacity in German cities during the 1500s. These fundamental changes in public goods provision occurred where ideological competition during the Protestant Reformation interacted with popular politics at the local level. We document that cities that formalized public goods provision in the 1500s began differentially producing and attracting upper tail human capital and grew to be significantly larger in the long-run. We study plague outbreaks in a narrow time period as exogenous shocks to local politics and find support for a causal interpretation of the relationship between public goods institutions, human capital, and growth. More broadly, we provide evidence on the origins of state capacity directly targeting welfare improvement.
They do not push the analysis to the modern day, but they do cover a 300-year span. In a sense, they are rehabilitating the idea that culture matters and pushing back (a little) against the idea that European state-building was all about war and the preparation for war.