In Defense Of History

Richard Evans writes in this 1999 book:

* Virtually all historians, for example, assumed that the nation-state was the primary object of historical study. The emerging historical profession was dominated by the view that the historian’s task lay principally in the study of the origins and development of states and in their relations with one another.

* The Prussian school of historians, led by such figures as J. G. Droysen, was happy to proclaim that “the German nation has outstripped all others” in its application of the critical method to historical sources, but it was just as critical as Trevelyan was of the notion that this was sufficient to constitute history in itself. “History,” declared Droysen, “is the only science enjoying the ambiguous fortune of being required to be at the same time an art.” He complained that because the German middle classes had for so long considered “the German method in history pedantic, exclusive, unenjoyable,” they all read Macaulay instead, or turned to the great French historian and statesman Thiers, so that “German historical judgment” and even “German political judgment” were “formed and guided . . . by the rhetorical superiority of other nations.” The German middle classes did indeed look to the examples of English liberalism and the principles of the French Revolution for much of the nineteenth century. The Prussian school of historians set themselves the task of demonstrating through a mixture of scientific method, historical intuition, and literary skill the superiority of Prussian values and their inevitable triumph in the unification of Germany in 1871. They could claim at least some credit for the drift of middle-class opinion in Germany from a liberal to a more authoritarian form of nationalism in the last three decades leading up to the First World War.

* Already before 1914, therefore, the ability of the scientific method to deliver a neutral and value-free history was under some doubt. Its credibility was even more severely shaken by the events of 1914–18 and their aftermath. Professional historians in every country rushed into print with elaborate defenses of the war aims of their own governments and denunciations of other Great Powers for having begun the conflict. Substantial collections of documents on the origins of the war were produced with all the usual scholarly paraphernalia and edited by reputable professionals, but on principles of selection that seemed manifestly biased to colleagues in other countries. The rigorous scientific training which they had undergone seemed to have had no effect at all in inculcating a properly neutral and “objective” attitude to the recent past, a view that was underlined as the 1920s progressed by the continuing violent controversies between extremely learned and scholarly historians about the origins of the war. 22 Moreover, among British, French, and American historians, the support for the war of the overwhelming majority of the “scientific” German colleagues whose work they so admired came as a further blow. 23 Many historians who had studied in Germany now rushed to denounce German scholarship as pedantic and antidemocratic. “The age of German footnotes,” as one of them declared in 1915, “is on the wane.” 24 And for G. M. Trevelyan, the defeat of the Germans also represented the defeat of “German ‘scientific history,’ ” a mirage which had “led the nation that looked to it for political prophesy and guidance” about as far astray as it was possible to go. 25
The war also revealed previous, apparently neutral scholarly histories of, for example, Germany or nineteenth-century Europe to have been deeply flawed in their interpretations. Events such as the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles, the triumph of modernism in art, music, and literature increased this sense of disorientation among historians. Reflective historians of the older generation realized that their faith in objectivity had accompanied their sense of living in an ordered and predictable world.

* The idea of the relativity of observer and fact was applied to history by a number of interwar philosophers…

* In making moral judgments on the past, historians have far more powerful rhetorical and stylistic weapons at their disposal than mere denunciation: sarcasm, irony, the juxtaposition of rhetoric and reality, the factual exposure of hypocrisy, self-interest, and greed, the uncommented recounting of courageous acts of rebellion and defiance, the description of terrible acts of hatred and violence. All this can be achieved without the direct application of the transient moral vocabulary of the society the historian is living in.

* Most historians have always believed the establishment of general laws to be alien to the enterprise in which they are engaged. This clearly differentiates them very sharply from natural scientists.

* Nor does history enable one to predict revolutions, however they are defined. Historians notoriously failed to predict, for example, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989–91. 25 In any case, although Carr argued repeatedly that the historian’s role was to use an understanding of the past in order to gain control of the future, very few historians indeed have shared this concept of their function in the sense of using the past as the basis for concrete predictions. The fact is that while a chemist, for instance, knows in advance the result of mixing two elements in a crucible, the historian has no such advance knowledge of anything, nor is trying to gain such knowledge really central to the business in which historians are engaged.

* An instructive recent example has been that of the Yale historian Paul M. Kennedy, whose profoundly researched and carefully argued study of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers argued that there was a pattern in modern history according to which wealthy states created empires but eventually overstretched their resources and declined. Illustrated with wealth of historical detail, the book attracted attention not because of its learned demonstration of the reasons for the failure of the Habsburg Empire to achieve European domination in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but because of its conclusion that the United States would be unable to sustain its global hegemony far into the twenty-first century. At a time when U.S. President Ronald Reagan was about to ride off into the sunset, this gloomy prophecy struck a deep vein of anxiety in the American people. The book became a best seller overnight. Written in 1987, the book also made a point of arguing that the Soviet Union was not close to collapse, so that the situation situation seemed to many American readers to be ominous indeed. 26 Within a few years these prophecies had been confounded. The Soviet Union had indeed collapsed, not in the international war which Kennedy had argued was the invariable and inevitable trigger for such processes, but in a process of internal transformation and disintegration. The world hegemony of the United States seemed more assured than ever and in the economic boom of the 1990s showed few signs of suffering from the “imperial overstretch” which Kennedy had prophesied. In the first seven chapters of his book, in other words, Kennedy, writing as a historian, had produced some instructive and workable generalizations about the rise and fall of international superpowers and the relationship of economic and military strength. These chapters also incidentally demonstrated the continuing vitality and viability of “grand narrative” in history. Had Kennedy stopped here, his book would not have attracted the attention it did and would not have sold so many copies. But it would also have been better history. As soon as he turned his generalizations into laws and used them, in his final chapter, to prophesy the future, he ran into trouble. It is always a mistake for a historian to try to predict the future. Life, unlike science, is simply too full of surprises.

* Mommsen’s skepticism about the necessity of even a very modest degree of training in the making of a good historian was echoed a century later by the Oxford specialist in modern French history, Theodore Zeldin, who argued in 1976 that “the ideals or models that historians have set before their pupils have always been rapidly forgotten.”

I have no wish to urge anyone to write history in any particular way. I believe that the history you write is the expression of your individuality; I agree with Mommsen that one cannot teach people to write history; I believe that much more can be gained by encouraging young historians to develop their own personality, their own vision, their own eccentricities, than by setting them examples to follow. Original history is the reflection of an original mind, and there is no prescription which will produce that.

* As three American historians have recently pointed out in their reflections on the current state of the debate, “history is much more than a branch of letters to be judged only in terms of its literary merit.” …Few historians write competently; fewer still display any real mastery of the language in which they publish their work. Most history books are hopelessly unreadable. For this situation, the dominance in the past thirty years of social science models bears a lot of responsibility. Professional historians publish works that no sane person would attempt to read from beginning to end, works that are designed explicitly for reference rather than for reading. They usually lack the kind of literary ability that would make their work rival that of major poets or novelists. If they had it, no doubt most of them would be writing poems or novels. …The historians who can be read for literary pleasure are few indeed, and most of them, such as Gibbon, Michelet, Tocqueville, and Carlyle, wrote in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which is no doubt why literary analysts have concentrated their attentions on this period rather than applying their techniques to historians of the twentieth, when the desire to be scientific has increasingly driven literary qualities out of their texts.

* “The techniques of deconstruction or discourse analysis,” declares Professor Arthur Marwick of Britain’s Open University, for example, “have little value compared with the sophisticated methods historians have been developing over the years.” 44 In view of his stout championing of the historians superior sophistication, it seems legitimate to ask how Marwick has deployed these “sophisticated methods” in his own work. Here is one sample, taken from Marwick’s discussion of the popular novels of Jeffrey Archer in his book Culture in Britain since 1945 : “I have read only one of these novels: I found my attention firmly held while reading, but, the book finished, I had only the feeling of deepest nullity: no perceptions broadened, nothing to think about, just nothing—the classic outcome of empty entertainment, the opposite pole from serious art.” 45 Does this kind of judgment really reflect the “sophisticated methods historians have been developing over the years”?

* History, in the end, may for the most part be seen as a science in the weak sense of the German term Wissenschaft, an organized body of knowledge acquired through research carried out according to generally agreed methods, presented in published reports, and subject to peer review. It is not a science in the strong sense that it can frame general laws or predict the future. But there are sciences, such as geology, which cannot predict the future either.

* The intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes has leveled the charge that historians in the United States “seem to have forgotten—if they ever properly learned—the simple truth that what one may call progress in their endeavors comes not merely through the discovery of new materials but at least as much through a new reading of materials already available.” 27 Hughes of course has a strong vested interest in asserting this “simple truth,” since he has never discovered any new material himself in any of his publications but has devoted his entire career to going over old ground. His view is shared by William H. McNeill, of the University of Chicago, who used the occasion of his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1986 to castigate his colleagues for practicing a “historiography that aspires to get closer and closer to the documents— all the documents and nothing but the documents”—because this meant “merely moving closer and closer to incoherence, chaos, and meaninglessness ,” 28 Coming from a historian whose lifelong specialism had been in the history of the whole world from the beginnings of humanity to the present, and whose acquaintance with original documents was correspondingly limited, this view was perhaps unsurprising, if somewhat tactlessly expressed.

* “Documents cannot be viewed as simple manifestations of a creator’s intentions; the social institutions and material practices which were involved in their production played a significant part in shaping what was said and how it was said.”

* “The whole modern method of historical research is founded on the distinction between original and derivative authorities. By original authorities we mean statements by eye witnesses, or documents and other material remains that are contemporary with the event they attest. By derivative authorities we mean historians and chroniclers who relate and discuss events which they have not witnessed, but which they have heard of or inferred directly or indirectly from original authorities.”

* follows a prominent vein in postmodernist thinking, in which the secondary rather than the primary becomes paramount; rather than study Shakespeare, it is often argued, we should study what critics have written about him, because one reading of Shakespeare is as good as another, and the text itself has no particular priority above interpretations of it, since all are forms of discourse, and it is wrong to “privilege” one discourse over another.

* Language and grammar are in fact not completely arbitrary signifiers, but have evolved through contact with the real world in an attempt to name real things. In a similar way, historical discourse or interpretation has also evolved through contact with the real historical world in an attempt to reconstruct it. …Language is not in the end purely self-reflective. Experience tells us that it mediates between human consciousness and the world it occupies…

* “The work of historians in analysing and unmasking forgeries … is a paradoxical and ironic way of reasserting the capacity of history to establish true knowledge. Thanks to its unique techniques, the discipline of history is skilled at recognizing fakes for what they are and, by that token, at denouncing forgers. It is by returning to its own deviations and perversions that history demonstrates that the discrete knowledge it produces is inscribed within the order of a confirmable, verifiable knowledge.”
In this sense, genuine historical documents do have an integrity of their own; they do indeed “speak for themselves.”

* THESE issues, and others besides, were made painfully concrete in the American historical profession in the 1980s by the so-called Abraham affair. When the young American historian David Abraham’s book The Collapse of the Weimar Republic was published by Princeton University Press in 1981, many reviewers (including myself) hailed it for its originality, while at the same time finding its structural Marxism rather too schematic. Indeed I thought that its central arguments were at such a high level of abstraction that they could not really be empirically validated at all and that the book was best regarded as a work of political science rather than history, conforming therefore to a set of rules and conventions that were not strictly historical. 29 Other, more specialist reviewers were critical in a very different way. In particular, the conservative and avowedly anti-Marxist American historian Henry Ashby Turner, who had himself worked on the same source material, went on record accusing Abraham of deliberately inventing and falsifying archival material in order to discredit German capitalism and blame it for the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Appalled at these allegations, Abraham went back to the archives to check his sources and replied to Turner, admitting some minor errors but rejecting the main charges leveled against him. 30
At this point another American specialist in the history of big business in the Weimar Republic, Gerald Feldman, entered the fray with a further string of accusations. Feldman had originally recommended the book for publication by Princeton University Press, despite numerous errors which he had said should be corrected. But he then discovered that one of his former graduate students, Ulrich Nocken, was checking over every reference and every quotation in Abraham’s book. Nocken reported that there were hundreds of egregious mistakes, including the printing of inaccurate paraphrases as if they were direct quotations from the documents, wrongly attributed letters and documents, mistranslations, misconstruals, inventions, and falsifications of the sources.This persuaded Feldman that he had been wrong to assume that because Abraham had been awarded a Ph.D., his scholarly integrity could be trusted. As if to atone for his earlier gullibility in passing the manuscript for publication, Feldman now unleashed a ferocious campaign of denunciation, in which a large number of specialists in modern German history, including myself, were sent circulars exposing the errors in Abraham’s work and declaring him unfit to be a member of the scholarly community. Abraham replied with a vigorous self-defense, lobbying the German history community on both sides of the Atlantic in his turn. But in the face of Feldman’s campaign, which included denunciatory letters and phone calls to universities considering Abraham for an assistant professorship, this was in the end to no avail. As a result of Feldman’s untiring hostility, Abraham was hounded out of the profession and went to law school, where he graduated with distinction and duly reentered university employment, this time as a lawyer rather than as a historian and therefore in a subject which is perhaps more comfortable with the manipulation and tendentious interpretation of evidence than history is.

* Lawrence Stone, for instance, said:
When you work in the archives you’re far from home, you’re bored, you’re in a hurry, you’re scribbling like crazy. You’re bound to make mistakes. I don’t believe any scholar in the Western world has impeccable footnotes. Archival research is a special case of the general messiness of life.” 42
But this, too, was a debatable point.
Stone should know about “the general messiness of life” in the archives. He was far from being an unimpeachable witness on this issue. When he was Abraham’s age, in 1951, his own work had been subjected to a series of devastating and merciless attacks by his Oxford colleagues Hugh Trevor-Roper and J. P. Cooper in the Economic History Review , which had shown a similar catalog of gross error to that discovered in Abraham’s work. Stone had published an article arguing that English aristocratic landowners in the early seventeenth century were extravagant, financially inept, and declining in economic power. The conclusion was that this hastened the “rise of the gentry,” which was regarded by left-wing historians like R. H. Tawney as one of the main causes of the English Civil War. Trevor-Roper, however, pointed out that Stone had confused different generations of aristocrats with the same title, got many, if not most, of his sums wrong, and altogether misunderstood the nature of landownership at the time. In arguing that aristocratic ownership of manors had declined, for instance, Stone took county samples without realizing that aristocrats owned land in many different counties, and would readily sell their holdings in one to build up their estates in another; moreover, manors differed substantially in size, a factor Stone ignored completely, so that his figures showing a decline in the number of manors held by aristocratic landowners in some cases concealed an actual growth in the acreage and quality of land they possessed overall.
Trevor-Roper’s critique was described variously as “terrifying,” “brutal,” and “one of the most vitriolic attacks ever made by one historian on another.” Stone himself was forced to admit that there were “very serious mistakes” in his article and confessed to his “unscholar-ly treatment” of much of the evidence. 43 When I was an undergraduate in Oxford, indeed, the dons, sniffy as ever about American universities, even Princeton, where Stone had gone to teach, were wont to sneer that he had been forced to seek employment in the United States because his position in Oxford had become untenable as a result of the controversy. Although he in fact subsequently went on to a highly successful career, publishing a series of major (though never less than controversial) works in the process, his mauling at the hands of Trevor-Roper clearly rankled even more than thirty years afterward, and his defense of Abraham, with whom he evidently had a certain fellow-feeling, has to be regarded with suspicion. More to the point, however, was the fact that Stone had recovered from this early débâcle and during his later career had exercised a major and undeniably significant influence on the study of early modern English history and, through his perceptive and readable review articles, the study of history in general. To deny Abraham the same chance of making amends, as Feldman ultimately did, was surely wrong.

* THE Abraham affair was taken up into the debate on postmodernism not least because it touched on the issue which was proving the crucial test of the claim that history was incapable of establishing any real facts about the past. Nazi Germany seemed to postmodernism’s critics to be the point at which an end to hyperrelativism was called for. Postmodernists realized this. In replying to critics, Hayden White pointed out (in a footnote to one of the essays in The Content of the Form) that the Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz had attacked all previous writers on Nazism for misrepresenting, neglecting, or trivializing the “Holocaust,” thereby implying that they, too, were writing more in literary than in factual terms and that the Third Reich was no different from any other historical subject in this respect. But Dawidowicz’s book The Holocaust and the Historians has rightly been generally viewed as distorted, exaggerated, overpolemical, and grossly inaccurate in its account of the subject. There is in fact a massive, carefully empirical literature on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Clearly, to regard it as fictional, or unreal, or no nearer to historical reality than, say, the work of the “revisionists” who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all is simply wrong. Here is an issue where evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was indeed inherently a tragedy and cannot be seen as either a comedy or a farce. And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings, events, institutions, people as well. What then are the implications of this for postmodernism?

* In a conference devoted to this subject, published in Probing the Limits of Representation , edited by Saul Friedländer, a number of postmodernists and their critics sought to address this problem. Hayden White in particular retreated from his earlier position in order to defend himself against the accusation that his hyperrelativism gave countenance to the “revisionist” enterprise of “Holocaust denial.” He conceded that the facts of the “Holocaust” closed off the possibility of using certain types of “emplotment” to describe it. But in making this concession, he implicitly acknowledged the primacy of past reality in shaping the way historians write about it, thus abandoning his central theoretical tenet. The past turned out not to be completely at the mercy of historical “narrativity” and “emplotment” after all.
White himself summed up his change of position by saying that in his early writings he was more concerned to point out the ways in which historians used literary methods in their work and, in so doing, inevitably imported a “fictive” element into it, because their written style did not simply report what they had found but actually constructed the subject of their writing. In his later work he came to draw a sharper distinction between fiction, on the one hand, and history, on the other. Rather than imagine the object first, then write about it in a manner that was therefore mainly subjective, history existed only in the action of writing, involving a kind of simultaneous production or identification of the author of the discourse and the referent or thing about which he or she was writing. White made this shift of position in response to the debate on postmodernism and “Holocaust denial,” and it seems to me to sum up more realistically than his earlier arguments the way in which historians actually go about their business. Historical imagination, he says, calls for the imagining of “both the real world from which one has launched one’s inquiry into the past and the world that comprises one’s object of interest.”

* The distinction between primary and secondary sources on the whole has survived the withering theoretical hail rained down upon it by the postmodernists. The past does speak through the sources and is recoverable through them. There is a qualitative difference between documents written in the past, by living people, for their own purposes, and interpretations advanced about the past by historians living at a later date.

* Long ago, Sir Herbert Butterfield pointed out in his little essay The Whig Interpretation of History that many of the greatest and most important developments in modern history were the unintended consequences of actions whose originators had had something entirely different in mind. The Protestant Reformation, for instance, and its Catholic counterpart in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe had intended to make people more godly, but the religious upheaval and conflict which followed eventually produced such widespread disillusion that the secular rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was the result.

* Take E. H. Carr’s claim, for instance, that while millions of people have crossed the river Rubicon, the historian is interested only in Caesar’s crossing of the river because it affected the course of history.

* Hugh Trevor-Roper, too, writing as Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford in 1965, declared that Africa had no history, merely “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.” 33 As late as the 1990s John Vincent was still writing off Asian history as an impossibility (“we do not understand Asia and will not need to”), 34 surely a rather unwise statement in an age when the global influence of the new Asian economies was already exerting a major impact on the advanced industrial economies of the West.

* The cosmopolitanism of the historical profession in Britain and America contrasts starkly with the insularity of the profession on the European continent…

* THE argument that each group in society creates its own history as a means of building its own identity has worrying implications. As the American historian Laura Lee Downs has noted,
The politics of identity, feminist and otherwise, rests on a disturbing epistemological ground, in which the group’s fragile unity, rooted in an emergent sense of identity as an oppressed other, is shielded from white male colonization by asserting the inaccessibility of one’s experience. Only those who share the group identity and have lived its experience, whether seen as biologically given or socially constructed, can know what it means to be black, a woman, blue-collar, or ethnic, in an America constructed as white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.” 38
One might of course argue that it follows that none of these oppressed groups can possibly write the history of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males since they in turn have not shared the experience which makes the writing of such a history possible. The ultimate implication indeed is that no one can know anything beyond his or her own bodily identity. Experience is the sole arbiter of truth. There is no universal truth; there are only truths particular to specific groups of people.
Thus white male historians can write only about dead white males, and that, in the opinion of many postmodernists, is why the dominant perspective on the past purveyed by the historical profession has written so many other groups out of the story.

* Does postmodernism therefore give a license to anyone who wants to suppress, distort, or cover up the past? Where do you draw the line between all this and legitimate reinterpretation?
THESE issues, and some even more serious, were raised in 1987, when a young Belgian scholar discovered that one of the leading postmodernists, Paul de Man, a professor at Yale University who had been born and grew up in Belgium, emigrated to the United States after the war, and died in 1983, had written some 180 articles for a Nazicontrolled newspaper in Brussels during the German occupation from 1940 to 1942. Their focus was cultural, but they included encomiums of collaborationist writers in France and—most controversially of all—attacks on the Jewish contribution to European culture in the twentieth century, which de Man decried as mediocre and without great value. At a time when Jews were being rounded up in Belgium and deported to Auschwitz, de Man wrote an article arguing that if the Jews were deported to a Jewish colony outside Europe, European culture would suffer no great loss. After his emigration to the United States, de Man never mentioned this to any of his colleagues or pupils and indeed always denied any kind of collaborationist involvement in Belgium during the war. Like the Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, he had rewritten his own past without reference to the evidence. On this basis he built a successful career in American academia and became an extremely influential literary theorist, leading the “Yale school” of literary “deconstructionists” who argued for the irrelevance of authorial intentions and the multiple, indeed virtually infinite possibilities of textual interpretation. 19 The point of these revelations about his wartime writings was quickly grasped by deconstruction’s critics. Literary criticism, for de Man, seemed to be a way of denying his own past.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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