I got great feedback on Bubblews to my introductory notes to the 19th November informal discussion on the question of What Is History. Here is how the group responded to it when I presented the intro to them.
Mary R Crumpton who runs the meetings, asked us all first to briefly introduce our favourite historic figures and ourselves.
Responses included Guy Fawkes, and Lady Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter and an early computer programming engineer, noted for her work with Charles Babbage).
The British Labour movement pioneers were seen as heroes, and two attendees said their own mothers were the most important historic figures in their lives. This emphasises the value of personal, family and local history today.
Hitler was referred to as a great example of how not to do it, and Nelson Mandella as a still living mover and shaker of historic events as just the opposite.
Oliver Cromwell was listed as a powerful republican and military figure, possibly in response to my own historic hero being King Charles 2nd – hero of the British Restoration that swept aside Puritanism and gave us the great rebuilding of the arts and of post Great Fire London.
We broke down into about five groups of three and four to discuss the points I had suggested. I added extra considerations for Great Man theory, where history is seen as shaped by the charismatic powerful and famous, Luther, Charlemagne, Bismarck, Napoleon, Churchill, Mandella, etc. as well as Inventors, genius’s like Mozart, tyrants, etc.
There was also the question of whether history as a whole shows humanity in a positive progressive light. From the invention of the wheel, through medical defeat of various diseases, and aside from setbacks like wars, famines, and depressions, has the lot of humanity improved over the centuries?
On top of that, can history as taught at schools be too centred on a nation’s own outlook on the World? British history seems to be very Anglo-centric, seeing us as the little North European island that once conquered by the French Normans in 1066, quickly anglicised them and then batted aside the armadas, and Luftwaffe while building and then losing her own mighty empire.
After moves to show a wider global and at least Euro-centric view of history, the trend is now for a return to centric-centric propaganda as standard curriculum education.
The discussion I joined in with myself reasoned that while interpretation of history moves it away from being simply factual lists and chronology, it largely fictionalises history. It turns the textbook catalogue into a novel or story, filled with opinion and conjectures as much if not more than facts.
Causation theory sees events determining other events. I remember once answering a question on the causes of the Russian Revolution, and going back over four hundred years from 1917 to do it, only to be criticized sarcastically by my tutor for stopping so short of the Creation.
History composition is clearly an artistry involving sifting, selecting, targeting and ruthlessly editing to see what is to be included or not included in a study. Suetonius gives very different views of Rome to those of Pliny, Cicero and Tacitus. Gibbons was drawing very much on seeing the weakening Roman hold on an increasingly Christian culture.
We often look at the past as a clue to how we got into the present state of affairs. One problem is that with so many conflicting historic viewpoints available, we can draw on theories and interpretations that suit our current intentions anyway.
The current government policy for severe economic austerity measures, reducing welfare payments to drive people off benefits, has some successful precedents in the past. The trouble is that so do the failures of stringent austerity measures. Politicians therefore get to pick and choose from history and economic source materials, any line that supports their current chosen course of action anyway.
The warnings of history can easily be overlooked. The current excessive lending by the Western Government and World banks leads many to try to remind them of the great Depression of the 1930’s and the terrible aftermath it led to. The governments believe they are actually already in the period of overcoming such horrors and see that as then, and now as now. We may well see history repeat itself here. We are now in another recession or another recovery depending who you believe.
History is so awash with interpretations and theories that reading the past has become like reading the Bible – it can be used to justify or condemn pretty much anything or anybody. There are too many options to choose from. There isn't one history of any given event or individual in the past but a whole smorgasbord so the potential of history to serve as a warning is terribly diluted.
At least one study of the JFK killing is probably spot on, but the sheer volume of counter-theory means there is always doubt - each solution and definitive account buries the truth rather than pinpoints it - the more vague and foggy the past gets, the easier it is to use it to our own ends. Sadly, Poirot and Holmes were not in Dallas this time in 1963 or the JFK matter would have been solved right away, but my bet is that it was (just) Oswald, in the Library window, with the high velocity rifle. Professor Plum's alibi holds out.
This is more the fault of the readers and the politicians than the historians themselves. We can’t blame a drunk driving fatal car crash on the invention of the motorcar. It is down to the drunken irresponsible driver.
Our current politicians are not reading the past properly, but skipping to the bits that suit their current plans and policies. The worst offender in this has to be Gordon Brown, as he was a fully qualified economic historian before becoming a terrible prime minister at a time of severe economic decline.
The more conflicting accounts of the Final Solution get, the easier it is for neo-Nazi morons to claim it never happened.
History was important to the great kings of old, as they needed to be able to learn and share the great exploits of their forebears and ancestors to enable them to feel able to show the people such greatness was inherited by them too.
International history studies should include historians of all countries involved working in union to gain a greater sense of objectivity. French, British, German and Austrian historians need to unite to analyse the battle of Waterloo in which they all played such prominent roles.
Summing up comments from the various groups showed the subject took on several lives and directions of thinking. One group noticed that the past can’t be tested as science can apply tests and create repeat results. No history can ever claim to be the definitive and complete answer to the problem of any given past.
Another group saw ours as a golden age of history with so much raw data available not just of the past, but also generated now on blogs, web forums, saved phone messages, etc. Events now present multiple records and reactions from people of every social class. We are all social historians now.
Hollywood versions of history were severely lambasted, with a well-respected heroic Roman leader in actual events being treated as the chief villain in the movie Gladiator. Similarly, many Americans believe the movie of The Battle Of Britain is inaccurate for its lack of American warplanes. The film in this case got it right.
So, do we really learn from the catastrophes of the past? No. The Great War was seen as the war to end all wars but it took only two decades for us to be at each other’s throats again. We see the economies of the World again on the brink of going to Hell in a hanging-basket. Neo-Nazis seem to actually relish the idea of having some nasty ghosts of the past come back to haunt us afresh.
Many historians have been biased in favour of their publishers and sponsors and readers. Victorian historians suppressed much Greek and Roman sexuality and decadence. Today’s historians seem eager to relish the Bacchanalian and Saturnalian excesses. The truth lies somewhere in between the polar extremes.
We need history, and there is plenty of it – perhaps too much – we need to learn to pick the right history, and that is down to the reader as much as the historians.
A massive thanks to everyone who attended and contributed to the discussion and listened so attentively to my introduction. A special thanks to Mary R Crumpton for organizing the event.