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What Problems Face Historians History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

History may be the past but the reflections on that past and the different mediums that inform and shape us about the past must be examined for their veracity and usefulness. These documents and sources present the historian with many problems as they are often used as a cumulative examination of a period under study. Yet what are the difficulties that are inherent in these sources and testimonies.

Both primary and secondary sources contain pitfalls that can trap and blind the historian in his pursuit of historical accuracy. The veracity of the particular source, the motives behind the source and the origins of the evidence are all concerns for the historian. In conjunction with these problems can be the temptation to subsume personal and contemporary reports and evidence for the purposes of a grander and more wide-ranging historical narrative.

Hew Strachan believes that hindsight can disfigure and reduce the essence of history. Hindsight refers to ‘the ability to understand an event or situation only after it has happened’ [i] 1and Strachan believes that this can imbue the historian with an arrogant view of those who did not see the bigger picture or understand the deeper motives behind historical events. Does this have some truth and if so can it distort history to such a degree that it almost erases the individual struggle or achievement? Or does this problem exist merely within a wider spectrum of historical concerns? History must be about balance so is a merging of both the personal and the panoramic possible?

Strachan writes that hindsight distorts history through fostering arrogance. In his book’ The First World War’ he talks of ‘the fact that just because other ideas and ideologies seem foreign to us, this does not deny their charge for those who went to war in 1914’ [ii] so therefore this muting of the past does not push us to understand it merely obfuscates the truth. Yet what is history, but an attempt to see the grander picture and how ideas fit into individual histories and testimonies.

The primary sources that are around for historical examination bring with them not just their face value but an attempt to recreate the conceits and facets behind them. In 1946 Ellen Hammer wrote in an article on America’s relations with the Vichy government that ‘throughout the war information filtered into neutral capitals but only on the spot sources could report with any authority’ [iii] , but just how problematic are these on the spot accounts?

It is certainly true that primary sources retain an immediacy and relevance that is difficult to ignore. It is through letters, diaries and newspapers that we have built up much of our knowledge of the First World War. Without these sources we would be dependent on fractious second-hand testimony or oral traditions resplendent with hyperbole.

For the historian it is necessary to look at the facts behind the facts. The researcher must certainly avail himself of hindsight and retrospection but must not allow themselves to become victims of them. Isaac Deutscher wrote that ‘the historian deals with fixed and irreversible patterns of events; all weapons have already been fired’ [iv] and as the historical inquiry gathers pace the historian is aware that he is surveying a spent battlefield but how accurate are the bullets he has examined?

There is perhaps nothing more alive in the consciousness of Europe than the concerted attempt to exterminate European Jewry by the Nazis during the Second World War. According to Gilbert in his study of the subject ‘merely to give witness by one’s own testimony was, in the end, to contribute to a moral victory. Simply to survive was a victory’ [v] and it is a testament to the human condition that so many survived. These terrible events have continued to be explored in witness accounts and literature and another event that has been extensively written about has been the Great or First World War. The last remaining survivor of that conflagration recently passed away so now that the survivors have died out and can no longer contribute to their own victories, will future generations have their knowledge shaped by hindsight and retrospection when it comes to those times?

It is important to note that both hindsight and retrospection can give us many valuable lessons on historical experience. Dr Johnson wrote that ‘when a design has ended in marriage or success, when every eye and every ear is witness to general discontent or general satisfaction, it is then a proper time to disentangle confusion and illustrate obscurity’ [vi] 2and it is within this statement that a major part of the rationale behind history can be identified. Although the canvas of history is vast, the minutiae helps build up the overall picture and hence hindsight aids that process as well as retrospection. There are certain elements in any event that are not known and cannot possibly be known at the time of the event. At the end of the Great War who could have known that the aftermath would ‘provide the bedrock for the Soviet Union and force a reluctant United States onto the world stage’ [vii] but these were the consequences of that conflict, although not recognized in their scope at the time. The problem that the historian faces is that this knowledge can give special onus to events that had none and rob other events of their posterity. However, how can we disentangle and illustrate without letting individual values and beliefs, perhaps vastly removed from those we are studying, intrude on the historian’s research? This is what Strachan talks of when he mentions the disadvantages of hindsight.

Kenneth Baker writes that ‘memory plays tricks with the past, events are sometimes remembered only in part’ [viii] 3and in today’s contemporary media saturated society, it may seem strange to consider just how diverse and varied accounts of the past were.

Yet this removal from the events that unfolded can give us, real and imagined distance, between the understanding and interpretation.

The two biggest conflagrations of the twentieth century, both World Wars, are probably two of the most written about subjects in history. Their respective arcs spanned the globe and brought devastation and change to many aspects of people’s lives. However, their documenting and recording throw up countless testimonies and accounts of those times which are not always possible to examine with straight forward simplicity.

One of the first problems that the historian is presented with is the sheer dearth of material that is available. Fest writes that ‘once in a while it is necessary for the chronicler to put aside his magnifying glass. For the way things fit together has a significance of its own and can give us information that no mere examination of details can’ [ix] but this chronicle involves thousands upon thousands of minute details that are its integral parts. The motivations and recollections of those at the time as well as their possessions and other sources can easily be brushed aside as hindsight condemns them to the undergrowth of history. After Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, accounts have been written of the jubilation that greeted the announcement. The joy and euphoria may have been real but despite the later disillusionment with the war, this does not mean we can learn nothing from that day. These testimonies are still valid and tell us more about attitudes to war than about the war itself. The temptation for the historian is to conclude that the destruction of WW1 shows how the enthusiasm evaporated but up until the very end, there were those who embraced the war. Adolf Hitler, then an obscure corporal speaks of the war years as ‘the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence’ [x] but despite what we know about Hitler’s later life and his absent moral compass, this testimony is still relevant because of its immediacy.

The combination of personal and professional in the recollections and remembrances of participants can add interesting texture and nuance to historical investigation. Strachan writes in his book on the Great War about Conrad Von Hotzendorff, the Austrian Chief of the General Staff and of how Hotzendorff was in love with a married woman. Hotzendorff saw a triumphant return from the battlefield as an integral part of gaining acceptability for this relationship and Strachan writes that ‘Conrad’s response to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was more visceral than rational’ [xi] . This highlights an important problem when dealing with sources. The actions and motivations of participants can seem indicative of one course of action but this motivation can contain a number of individual facets and aims.

As well as the difficulty of gleaning motive, testimonies and documents of the period can fall victim to retrospective thinking. The particular feelings and emotions of a person can undergo transformation as time flows and if that particular person is not around at that moment, then the historian’s interpretation could be colored by emotions that only resurfaced at a present time. The human condition is so multi-faceted that it constantly fluctuates and seeks to change into a particular set of perceptions that are prevalent at the time.

The actions and thoughts of individuals also present problems when constructing historical timelines as they are often belied by diplomatic effort and political reflection. Strachan again writes of the events leading up to the Great War that ‘the experience of earlier crises had conditioned statesman to put events in the broader context of European international relations’ [xii] and this goes in tandem with subjective testimonies related by individuals or groups. Richard J Evans argues that ”the historian’s questions should be formulated not by some present theory but from the historical sources themselves’ [xiii] which leads to the observation that whose history is being recorded?

The emphasis on high politics and political history has a tendency to negate the other factors that can determine events. In the case of primary sources, the testimonies of survivors can be brushed off as subjective ruminations that incorporate too much personal experience. It is the major players in the games of politics and power, the elite, which therefore can and must be relied on because they are the ones who were in the driving seat. This rationale takes on the very characteristics of the people it reveres as it reduces history to an elite club of statesmen and hierarchies whose actions were the engine in world history. Yet a solitary emphasis on the actions of the people or social history can be just as exclusivist. Much of the writing on the First World War concerns the massive loss of life during the military campaigns of The Somme and Ypres and in this sense it can give a picture of an event being merely the sum of its battles and military maneuvers.

Yet Strachan writes of the Home Front that ‘at the end of 1917, the British people were desperately tired’ [xiv] and Gilbert observes ‘all over Europe, and in every country that had sent men to fight in Europe, the memorials to those who had been killed were being designed and put in place’ [xv] so any reliance on one type of source of history can in Johnson’s words obfuscate and hide the greater picture.

The reason for statements and articulations also have to be taken into account when considering historical evidence and never more so than when considered in a war situation. The Great War threw up some such examples of this practice. It is natural in wartime to seek to demonstrate how much of a threat the enemy is. Strachan uses this example in his book citing the Governor of Bosnia in 1914 as saying of the Serbs that ‘towards such a population all humanity and all kindness are out of place’ [xvi] and this can be contrasted with Hitler’s utterances to his Generals during the Second World War regarding the Russians and Jews. Propaganda and the uses that particular pieces of testimony were created for can create an obstacle in tackling historical sources.

Stanley Weintraub writes in his book ‘Silent Night’, which deals with the Christmas truce of 1914 that ‘for rival governments, for which war was politics conducted by persuasive force, it was imperative to make even temporary peace unappealing and workable’ [xvii] which for today’s Western governments seems even more callous than war itself. Politicians of all persuasions unite to cite how this episode was a call to arms for us all and how in the madness of war, sanity was temporarily regained. This is in itself an example of both hindsight and retrospection. The ideals that were being fought for during that war were those of liberalism against force, freedom versus tyranny and since those ideas have been won for a majority of the world, it is seen as an episode of hope amidst war.

This may be true but it was these exact governments that frowned upon this truce at the time and now in retrospect see its benefits. Thus, in some measure history can be distorted.

Weintraub goes on to write that ‘this impromptu truce seemed dangerously akin to the populist politics of the streets, the spontaneous movements that topple tyrants and autocrats’ [xviii] and one does not need to go far to see just how Strachan might be right in writing of hindsight as arrogance. The not too distant past saw a sitting government ignore the protests and cries of its people during the recent Iraq debacle. Once again it seems that the lessons of history are that those in power know best.

It is important to remember that much of the sources that we have from the end of World War One were from captured documents but most importantly from the views of the Allies themselves, the victors. In such an environment it is possible for particular viewpoints to emerge that reinforce such origins. Wohlsetter writes that ‘after the crisis, memories fade and recriminations take their place’ [xix] and this underscores much of what we know of our own history. The aftermath of both wars saw the division of Europe into different spheres of interest and thus once again the victors to an extent dictated the course of history.

This use of sources could take place within the sphere of Eurocentrism. Nordenbo describes this as ‘an historical point of view which perceives modernity, first and foremost as a unique modern European invention’ [xx] , a construct which sees the West as the leader in civilization and invention and the rest of the world as a kind of other. This ‘Europe appears to non-Europeans as a land of milk and honey, a promised land’ and certainly contains the seeds of a European hegemonic system.

Edward Said writes in his thesis ‘Orientalism’ about the construction of this ‘other’. It is contained in Marx’s maxim that ‘they cannot represent themselves, so they must be represented’ and Said argues that ‘to the West, the Orient is an other-worldly realm peopled by exotic, hedonistic infidels’ [xxi] and though dealing with the Orient this can be transposed to the examination of sources. It is possible because of the difficulty of obtaining documents in many places to merely stereotype and generalize using Western maxims and rationales. The problems of translation from other languages can also impede investigation and again ties in with this idea of ‘Eurocentrism’, that English lexicons and idioms are the natural record of history. To maintain this thought system is to deliver an irrevocable blow to the historical mindset.

Hindsight also relies on the process of causation. This links a series of causes and sketches a rough timeline between events. This can blur the line between reality and impression. It is sometimes asserted that the Treaty of Versailles and its perceived harshness was instrumental in causing the Second World War. This was not the only factor and its overall impact can be negated. Several other factors must be considered, such as Hitler’s own personal bent and drive, the expansionist drive of the German military and political elite and the notion of a Messianic savior, a ‘Strong Man’, destined to lead Germany to greatness.

It is possible to agree with Strachan that hindsight does breed arrogance. The ideas and realities of contemporary life are quite removed from the realities of yesteryear.

It is the job of the historian to make sense of these past times and draw conclusions and lessons from them. This can be problematic as the sources are as rich and varied as the events that shaped them.

There is arrogance in history, people find it hard to laud and identify people who gave themselves for ideals and causes, and hence label them with contemporary judgments However just as hindsight does not give us the complete picture, so not all historical investigation is tainted by this thinking. The problems and difficulties of looking at sources are myriad and sometimes frustrating but only through careful sifting and collaboration of method can we attain that knowledge of the past that so informs the historian’s rumination on the present.

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