Of what use is history? It’s a question we may ask and, I would contend, should ask ourselves.
A lot of people would suppose that is of no real use at all – just part of one’s “education”, by which they mean gaining test certificates with favourable results, a number of which, at a high enough percentage of marks scored, will help gain access to desired employment. A probably smaller number would believe it is of some use, probably in giving them a sense of pride of belonging to a group. From my observation, it would seem that this sector, in Ireland at least, is mostly composed of working and lower middle class people. Some of these will go to third level education and study history – but very few.
Since History is a core subject on primary and secondary schools’ curricula in most countries around the World, and since at third level education entire departments of universities cater for the subject, one assumes that it must be widely considered to be of some use — by educational authorities at least. But those university departments receive funding so there must be people in political parties and perhaps industry who also think history is of value.
Many extensive libraries could be filled easily with published books of and about history, without taking into account related subjects of social studies and archaeology (for examples), not to mention historical novels, poetry and songs dealing with history, biographies, paintings, drama …. Clearly enough people think history sufficiently important to write it or to integrate it into their writing and enough companies can make a business out of publishing those products.
However, though many might agree that history is of use, the precise nature of that ‘use’ is a matter of some debate. It is linked to the question of what history is — and there’s an ongoing debate about that too. So it would be worthwhile to look at that issue first, if only to ensure that we agree on what we’re talking about.
WHAT IS HISTORY?
Los Angeles Police Sergeant Joe Friday, in the Dragnet television series of the 1950s, often asked witnesses to a crime to give him “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts”. Which is actually what most people probably think of as being history – the facts or “what happened”. They might add “when”, “how” and even “why” to the definition “what happened”. But “what happened” is not, of itself, history. And when “what happened” IS history, there’s a lot more to it than just the bare facts.
Joe Friday from the “Dragnet” TV series: “Just the facts, ma’am.” (Image from Internet)
Let’s imagine that John was knocked down in the road by a vehicle. We might say that those are facts, if there is sufficient evidence for them and, in a “history” of the event, they should be recorded. But more happened. John was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed as being in a coma; he was operated on and put on life support regime. Those too are facts that should be recorded in the “history”.
But there are a myriad of other facts involved; for example: where John was going and why, what he was thinking, what his general health was like, what he was wearing, what he had for lunch – and that’s just about John. We could ask lots of questions also about the vehicle driver, staff at the hospital, relatives and friends visiting the hospital. And about the vehicle, the weather, the road ….. In fact, we could smother the story in an avalanche of facts. We have to select the facts that seem to us relevant and confine ourselves to those, if we want to write a meaningful (and readable) history of the event.
And how do we know which are the relevant facts? We don’t, at least not all of them – the selection of them is based on subjective opinion which may or may not be “informed” by experience. But also by ignorance, superstition, prejudice, bias – and even experience is not infallible, since it too is conditioned by place and time, among other variables.
Ask two people what, in their experience, are the dangers to watch out for in crossing rivers: the person accustomed only to African conditions might say that the main dangers are drowning, being killed by hippopotomus or being eaten by crocodiles, while another, accustomed only to European conditions, might say that drowning or slipping and incurring an injury in falling are the only possible dangers and perhaps, in winter, contracting pneumonia after hyothermia. Yet others around the world might reply “Being cheated by the ferryman” or “Bandits on the other side” and still a fifth might consider contracting illness from polluted water to be the most prevalent risk of all.
Obviously, the same question can receive different but equally valid answers in different contexts.
BIAS AND SUBJECTIVITY IN HISTORY-WRITING
EH Carr directly addressed the question we are discussing in a series of lectures which were published by Cambridge University Press in 1961 under the very title: “What Is History?” I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the study of history to the ordinary reader who, if she or he were to read nothing else about the subject would, despite its publication date and the volumes written on the subject since, gain a good basis for understanding what history is and what it is about. And it is short.
In an extract from The Uses of Facts, historian G. Kitson Clark comments on EH Carr’s work:
“Invited to deliver the 1961 George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, he chose as his theme the question ‘What is History?’ and sought to undermine the idea, then very much current, that historians enjoy a sort of objectivity and authority over the history they study.
“At one point he pictured the past as a long procession of people and events, twisting and turning so that different ages might look at each other with greater or lesser clarity. He warned, however, against the idea that the historian was in any sort of commanding position, like a general taking the salute; instead the historian is in the procession with everyone else, commenting on events as they appear from there, with no detachment from them nor, of course, any idea of what events might lie in the future.”
The historian is an observer but she is not impartial. She has her national or ethnic cultural background conditioning her, her class background, her gender, her sexuality and her political-religious-philosophical outlook. She can try for detachment but can never truly achieve it and, if as became the fashion for a while, she claims detachment or lack of bias, her history becomes accordingly suspect. Those historians who truly believe in their objectivity are the most dangerous of all. The historian herself is in the march of history, another actor – and people in her generation will be influenced by her writing to some degree, as may others in generations to come … and future historians will have something to say about her history writing.
The bias of the historian affects not only his interpretation of what he sees but also where he looks and what he looks for. Investigating a historical battle, for example, our past traditional historians would look to see who were the generals, who the overall commanders, what regiments participated, what weaponry and tactics were deployed and, of course the political-military objectives.
The political social historian will look for the economic causes underlying the conflict and the objectives of each side, the class and ethnic make-up of the leading participants but also of the participating masses, their culture and even their food. And at the attitudes to the conflict and the battle in the home grounds of the participants. Emperors may command (thinks this historian) and generals order battle … but which economic class rules and benefits or loses? Who does the actual fighting? What do they think? How fare the people at home and those where the military campaigns are being fought?
These are not small matters, even in affecting the outcome – we know the effect of morale on soldiers. The Russian Tsar’s participation in the First World War was one of the precipitating causes of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 – it exacerbated civilian class tensions and economic complaints, as well as impeding delivery of food from the countryside to the cities as the use of trains was diverted instead to transporting troops. Lack of supplies and effective leadership, as well as defeats, affected the morale of soldiers; the failure of Kerensky’s Government to abandon that War was even more a cause of the October Socialist Revolution later that year. Soldiers and sailors took a decisive role in supporting both revolutions.
A year earlier, the morale of the insurgents in the 1916 Rising in Dublin was such that they were able to put up amazing resistance to attacking forces at least ten times their numbers, armed with artillery and machine guns, of which the insurgents had none. Later, during the War of Independence, in May 1921, General Sir Nevil Macready, in command of all British land military in Ireland, reported to the British Cabinet on the adverse impact of the resistance of the Irish people, both military and otherwise, on the morale of the British soldiers and police under his command.
Morale was also a big factor in the long attritional but successful defence of Leningrad, Stalingrad and of Moscow against Nazi forces in WWII, grimly positive on the defenders’ side and slowly seeping into negativity among the invaders.
Jumping forward in history, there was eventually huge civilian opposition to the Vietnam War in the USA as well as vehement support for it, which was splitting its society more seriously than probably at any time since the American Civil War. From 1969 to 1972 there were nearly 900 incidents recorded in which US troops in Vietnam attempted to or succeeded in killing or injuring their superior officers, typically by fragmentation grenade – they had become so common that the act gained a nickname: ‘fragging’. History records, ‘Rambo’ fantasies aside, that the USA lost that war.
THE CONSTRUCTION BASE OF THE NARRATIVE
There is no great mystery about the construction base of the story, the narrative of history. It is composed of primary sources, artifacts, secondary sources and bibliography.
Primary Sources are accounts by observers or participants, related or written (or otherwise recorded) during, shortly or a long time after the event. Those must be the most reliable, surely? Well, not necessarily. A soldier might want to justify why he ran from battle or a general to justify why he ordered a retreat or why he was defeated. A participant might want to denigrate one side, question their valour, discipline, intelligence or to depict their behaviour as bloodthirsty – while of course painting his own side’s behaviour in different colours.
We also know that witness accounts of the same event vary and that time and reflection and discussion or external manipulation can remove or add to some elements observed, in addition to ‘remembering’ ones that were not actually observed (imagined memory). Let’s imagine that John was knocked down in the road by a vehicle. What colour was the vehicle? Answers from witnesses immediately after the event may vary from green to blue to a number of other colours and shades. At what speed was it travelling? Some might say 40mpm, others 50 or 60. What was John’s behaviour immediately before? He wasn’t paying attention/ he was crossing with due care but the car was too fast/ maybe he could have avoided it had he been a bit more alert …. the brakes didn’t seem to work very well. And so on.
Now suppose John was well-liked and the driver whose vehicle hit him is unknown or a member of any group that might be the subject of mistrust or dislike. After a few weeks, all actual witnesses might be convinced that John had been crossing with due care and attention, the car had been speeding and driving erratically and had hit John without giving him a chance. Furthermore there might now be a widely-held belief, the origin and justification for which may murky, that the driver had been drinking. Or that he had been involved in previous accidents. Or a theory may even have arisen that the driver had some reason to kill John – it had been no accident!
On the other hand, can an investigator ignore the accounts of eye-witnesses? Of course not – but they need to be treated with caution.
Secondary sources is the name given to accounts written by people who gather the accounts of participants and contemporary observers and other evidence. What they report finding and their conclusions form the secondary sources – somewhat like the report of the investigator of a traffic accident. So surely the removed investigator, who writes a report, can be considered more reliable?
Well, perhaps the investigator didn’t like John or was bribed by a member of the driver’s family. Or she could be suspicious of or even hostile to the ethnic group to which the driver belongs. Perhaps the investigator drove the same make of car and thought the brakes were fine, or perhaps she was on a retainer from the car manufacturers. Or most of the witnesses were female and she felt they were trying for attention and tended to discount their evidence. Or she discounted the evidence of the witnesses from a particular social class because they used unscientific words and interjected swear words and on the whole she didn’t think their education was sufficient for her to rely on their accounts. Or she was aware that John was well liked and had a lot of powerful friends and that reporting that he crossed the road without due care and attention would do her career no favours.
No investigator is completely impartial and nor is the historian, as we discussed earlier.
Artifacts are a variety of inanimate objects such a trenches, weapons and fragments of tools and utensils, medals, uniforms and clothes, jewelry, tunnels, buildings, roads, vehicles, skeletons, grave stones, letters, graffiti, drawings, rubbish tips. All inanimate and, apart from some like drawings and gravestones, must surely bear impartial witness?
Impartial perhaps but they actually bear no witness at all – they must be evaluated, described and interpreted and it is the historian or archaelogist who does that. The investigator at the scene of the accident must measure the tyre skid marks, check the brakes, identify the model, check MOT examinations, collect the reports of the paramedics and pathologist. And remember, the investigator is never completely impartial and even less so is the historian.
Bibliography (or literature) is what other historians or investigators have written about the period or events, or biographies, or additional reading throwing some light on periods, people, lands, societies or some aspect covered in the history. Sometimes they contain accounts purporting to be primary sources which cannot be checked as they are anonymous or of which the source is not clear. It is not indeed unknown for some accounts to be deliberately falsified. But even without going to those extremes, we have already commented on the many sources of bias operating upon the historian.
The political social historian, the one who is consciously and admittedly investigating from a political and social standpoint will want to know what were the economic, social and cultural backgrounds of the combatants – and not just of both supreme commanders and their generals. She will want to investigate their conditions at home and at the war front, how well they were dressed and fed. What was their opinion of the war, of their officers, of the enemy?
Letters home and from home, testimonies and biographies, oral history records, courts martial records, food commissary records, equipment inventories, reports of public meetings at home, church sermons, political speeches, demonstrations for and against war – all these will be examined to build the story. Some of these are classified as Primary Sourcess, while others are Artifacts.
Of course the historian is unlikely to examine the original sources of all these and will be relying in many cases on special-focus work done by other historians, in published articles or books. Although their original authors draw on primary sources, unless the historian now goes to these directly herself but instead quotes from the literature, they become secondary sources, in the way that they are being used.
And here we have another factor – it is difficult to examine what cannot be found. If there were no letters or personal accounts surviving, as for example from the Peloponnesian Wars, we are reliant on the accounts of historians, while taking their probable bias into account – these contain Secondary Sources and are contained in the Bibliography, i.e the books and articles written about the period or events.
In those cases we are reliant too on archaeological finds – back to artifacts again. To take another Greek example, the truth or otherwise of most of the events recounted in Homer’s Iliad are a matter of speculation and the factual existence of the city of Troy was established only by comparatively recent archaeology – later in the 19th Century (most historians by that time had come to believe it all a fable). More recent archaeology and geographical work has come to the conclusion that a battle or battles did occur and that the probable site of the Greek invaders’ camp corresponds with the account given by Homer.
To continue with the role of archaeology, the investigation of the wiping out of five companies of the US 7th Cavalry in 1866, went some way to undermining the myth of Custer’s “charge” against hostile Native American indigenous people and a long “last stand”, of a static battle against the surrounding Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe who gradually wiped out his 7th Cavalry and himself. Many elements of this story were disputed by witness accounts of Indigenous people and by their folk history or “historical memory”. According to Indigenous accounts, the battle was a short running one, as Custer’s troop had tried to attack a camp, believing it to be mostly occupied by women, children and the elderly. He didn’t know it was full of braves sleeping late. As the warriors poured out of their tents, according to those accounts, Custer and his men turned to flee, firing as they ran but were soon killed “in the time it takes a hungry man to eat a meal”. Much later, archaeological work with metal detectors found a pattern of shell cases that tended to bear out the Indigenous account.
In 1955-’56, Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition team to Easter Island were told a legend in which the people on the island had been ruled by a group called “long ears”, who were represented in the giant carved stone heads, against which the “short ears” rose up. Across one end of the island, to which the “long ears” retreated, the story went, they had dug a trench which they filled with flammable material, ready to fire if they were attacked. During an actual attack, the “long ears” fired the material in the trench but the “short ears” had found a way around and attacked them from behind, forcing them into the flames. There was indeed a depression in the ground across that part of the island but the story could have been created to explain the depression rather than the origin being the reverse. Excavating in the trench, Heyerdahl’s group found charcoal and human bones and teeth.
What there is left to examine is of course a great help to the historian but it can also be a curse. We know how useful the Internet can be but also how much trivia and even incorrect information is stored there. Sifting through and making sense of it now is difficult enough but what will historians centuries from now make of it? In some historical periods, large number of household accounts were kept and these were preserved. Useful information, certainly but since they were available they were examined and written about by historians to a degree that was arguably out of proportion to the historical value of the information extracted.
All those things, the artifacts, the records, the personal stories, the marks left on the land, become history. But only when they are spoken about (oral history) or written about (written history). And in telling or writing about them, the historian is looking at them through his bias and, in doing that, becoming part of history himself.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE OVERALL NARRATIVE ITSELF
One might say that history is a story, a story of how we became who we are. In telling that story, it must also come to some kind of belief or statement about who we are now. In fact, the story teller makes an assumption about who we are now, then looks back to history, then according to findings adapts the view of who we are now, then looks back again and adapts the view of who we were and the road we travelled to get where we are now, and so on. And it is a story. In order to be history, it cannot be a totally imagined story unrelated to artifacts or scientific knowledge — but it is still a story.
So history is a story — and it needs to be, to an extent, an interesting story. Who wants to listen to a boring story? But not just for the reason of not boring the audience – the facts need to be significant. If “for the want of a nail a kingdom was lost”, as the old adage tells us, and that can be shown, then the loss of that nail was significant. But that doesn’t mean that every loss of a nail will be historically significant – indeed we might assume that most will not be. So we don’t want to fill every narrative with lost nails but nor would we want to exclude the loss of that particular nail, in that particular time, at that particular battle: the one for which the horseshoe was lost, and for which the horse stumbled, through which the king fell, and his troops lost heart and his kingdom was lost.
But was the nail loss, though significant then, a once-off, a chance in a million? If so, it is still history but not a general event in history, not one that we could apply to other battles. I don’t know, but perhaps examining horses’ shoes for possible loose nails became part of standard cavalry preparation for battle. Perhaps the cautionary tale arises from that practice and the knowledge that badly-disciplined or badly-trained cavalry or mounted infantry had suffered through insufficient attention to their horses’ shoes.
CHANCE IN HISTORY-WRITING
Some historians, especially perhaps from the Marxist school, have sought to eliminate the question of chance as factor in history. EH Carr was famous for his attack on historians who gave chance as an explanation for historical events and this is well expounded in the substantial Wikipedia article on his theory of history. What is not documented there, however, is that Carr conceded that chance had indeed influenced some important historical events and gave the example of the leader of an army who had become very ill at a crucial point during a military campaign. What Carr went on to say from that example was that yes, chance had affected the outcome but that one cannot generalise on chance and that therefore it is not worthy of historical study.
Despite my regard for Carr as a historian and a historiographer, i.e. as one who writes about the study of history itself, I wonder whether he was right on this. Napoleon famously asked about young officers being recommended to him, whether they were lucky. He seems to have ascribed great importance to “luck” and thought good luck accompanied certain people and bad luck others. He seems to have considered himself, on that basis, as lucky – but he did not neglect his study of military history, science or collection of current intelligence. His decisions then might have been influenced by feelings of luck but were not totally dependent on them.
Napoleon Bonaparte — asked “Is he lucky?” when told about a new commander in his army. (Image from Internet)
And luck does seem to exist. Apart from the fact that we all know individuals who seem to be lucky and others who seem the opposite, some individuals are demonstrably more lucky at cards, for example. In scientific tests on drawing high or low cards, even when the human element is removed from the testers, some test subjects do score a higher than average rate of success. I don’t know but would expect that some subjects would also regularly achieve a lower than average score.
So it would seem to me that one can generalise about chance and luck – but only to extent that it is an unpredictable factor about which we need to be aware. Chaos theory in physics hints at this, although patterns are also being found in deeper study of chaos. And there exists a saying which sums up the importance of chance: “The first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack.” This does not come from a famous military strategist but from a writer, Cory Doctorow, in a kind of science fiction novel, For The Win (2010). This statement is becoming so widespread now that I expect it to become an adage widely quoted not only among civilians but also among military strategists.
WISE SAYINGS FROM LESSONS OF HISTORY
There’s a general warning in our cultures not to underestimate the enemy. And there are many examples in history of generals underestimating the fighting ability or determination of their opponents, or their ability to cross difficult terrain. The Romans under several successive military leaders underestimated Spartacus and his band, for example, until the end of the uprising, thinking that these were a rabble to be easily defeated by Roman soldiers. Those Roman leaders paid for their mistake with their lives and the lives of many of their soldiers.
Statue in Bulgaria celebrating Spartacus, leader of the slave rebellion against Rome 72-71 BCE. (Image from Internet)
The British at Singapore in 1942 had all their major artillery pointing to sea, because the Japanese could not march through the thick jungle on the peninsula mainland– but nobody told the Japanese that, so they did and took 130,000 British, Commonwealth and Empire troops prisoner after little fighting.
The German Nazis at Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad in 1941, thought they would take the cities in weeks at most; not only were the struggles there long and hard but they turned out to be locations or sources of disaster for the invaders. The leaders of the French military at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 did not consider that the Viet Minh could haul artillery up mountain sides in order to fire on the French forces below. The USA overall, in the Viet Nam war, a superpower fighting essentially a “Third World” enemy in a territory smaller than the US State of Virginia, expected to win through massive firepower, airpower and technology; history records that they did not.
So we could say that the danger of underestimating one’s enemy has been a constant throughout history with harsh lessons periodically for those who failed to take account of it. Presumably its opposite, overestimation of the enemy’s potential. is also possible and no doubt there are historical examples of this too.
But this article is about history and not all of history by any means involves military affairs, although certainly a great deal of it does.
HISTORY IN EDUCATION
When all of Ireland was under British occupation, for a time the Catholic Irish (which is to say the vast majority) were obstructed from receiving education of any kind. But in the 1830s the National School System was set up and it proceeded to teach a history that would make each Irish child “Thank the goodness and the grace …… that made me a happy English child” (short school prayer). Patrick Pearse, himself a progressive educationalist though without formal qualification in that field, called this system “The Murder Machine” and wrote an essay about it under that title. It was important for Britain, as a colonial power, that the Irish should identify themselves ideologically and culturally with their colonial master, in order to reduce the likelihood of movements for self-determination gaining a large following or to reduce the supply of manpower for its imperial armed forces. This was a process imposed not just on Irish people by British colonialism but was the general rule practiced by colonial powers on their subject peoples.
After Ireland gained partial independence in 1921 and the new Irish state had defeated its internal Republican opposition, it was concerned that the education system foster a kind of Irish nationalism and, apart from the addition of the Irish language to the national education curriculum, this was perhaps reflected nowhere as much as in the teaching of history.
Nations are built from different elements and it is necessary for those involved in nation-building to create a narrative that validates that which upon they are engaged. Therefore a largely shared history is necessary and where there are different elements, these need to be stitched or woven into the whole – or some deleted. The narrative may be largely ‘true’ or largely ‘not’ but all nations and all states embark upon creating such a narrative.
The national historical narrative for Ireland was basically that the Irish were Celts, Irish-speakers, sharing a common culture and ruled by the Brehon Laws, until we were first part-occupied by the Vikings and then by the Normans. The Normans in Ireland became largely Gaelicised while their brethren in England became English and then, largely because of the English King declaring himself Head of the Church instead of the Pope, most of the Irish-Normans allied with the indigenous Irish and fought at a number of junctures during the 17th Century but were defeated and the old Gaelic order destroyed. Subsequently the Irish (now including descendants of invaders and settlers) rallied and rose up again but this time for an independent Irish Republic, which subsequently they kept doing or trying to do until the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, when they finally succeeded in part-defeating the English and won Independence for part of their country. Such was the narrative.
Since the new state was a Catholic confessional one, in which the Church was in close alliance with the temporal power, it was important that the historical narrative reflect that too and so the representation of “the island of Saints and Scholars” was prominent and the Brehon Laws, which were essentially a product of a pre-Christian, i.e. pagan society and later of “Celtic Christianity”, were not represented in standard primary or in secondary education. Furthermore, as the almost exclusively Anglican and Presbyterian leadership of the United Irishmen in 1798 could not be swept under the carpet, nor the overwhelming Presbyterian membership of the Antrim rising, it became necessary to promote the Wexford and Mayo uprisings (although it also true these lasted longer than the others) and to promote the role of Catholic priests in the Wexford Rising. It should be noted that this is not a matter of falsification but a process of emphasising the desired and glossing over the undesired aspects.
It was less logical during the 20th Century that the oppositional national movement to the colonial State, the Irish Republican movement, should also seek to represent itself as Catholic in so many ways, from public praying with rosary for their fighters condemned to die, for example, to incorporating religious services and personnel into Republican political ceremonies. This accommodation might seem particularly bizarre in view of the abiding public hostility of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and much of the priesthood to the Republican Movement from the time of the United Irishmen up to the present.
Not only national states create a historical narrative but also national movements, both before gaining independence and after. In this narrative imagining an essentially Catholic nationalist movement, Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army were represented as nationalists – somewhat different to the Irish Volunteers, perhaps, but nationalists nevertheless. It would not do for them to have been represented as socialists with a very different programme to that of the IRB and the Volunteers, however united they were in their desire to free Ireland from British colonialism.
“James Connolly, the Irish Rebel” was the title of this LP by Eugene McEldowney, which also featured the song by the same title — curiously enough, because McEldowney was not a nationalist and espoused a socialist republicanism. (Image from Internet)
As stated, not only the State created this narrative but also the Irish Republican movement, the leaders and members of which would see no contradiction in listing Connolly among the martyrs of 1916 and as one whose principles they were following while at the same time the IRA formally banned communists from membership in the 1930s A song about the execution of Connolly sums it up in the title and refrain: “James Connolly, the Irish Rebel”: “He went to his death as a true son of Ireland” one of the lines of lyrics tells us but not one mention of the working class, the Irish Citizen Army, Connolly’s trade union or his socialist ideas.
Revisionist historians in Ireland have come to be viewed not only as hostile to nationalism or Republicanism but further, as apologists for colonialism and imperialism. They are associated in the minds of nationalists and republicans with character assassination on martyrs and iconic figures of the anti-colonial movement and with depictions of the anti-colonial struggles which are even more distorted and partisan than any of the nationalist-republican view. The media courting of these historians, seemingly out of all proportion to their academic importance or degree of rigour in their investigation and research, has deepened their effect on historical perception in Irish society and caused much bitterness among those holding to the previously-dominant narrative or to a general anti-colonial and anti-imperialist viewpoint.
But in many other countries, historical revisionism has been espoused and promoted by progressive movements. In those parts of the world, historical revisionism has been concerned to ask questions like “What did so-and-so period mean to the workers/ women/ ethnic minorities at that time?” Also, “What was the role of workers/ women/ ethnic minorities in bringing about significant historical changes?” Historical revisionism also exposed the collusion with the German Nazi Occupation in a number of European countries where historians had previously sought to show the people in those countries as overwhelmingly actively resisting the Occupation. This debunking of the previous post-Occupation narratives had both positive and negative aspects, as with the debunking at times came an undervaluing of the heroism and sacrifice of those who did resist. Completely different of course were the revisionists who sought to deny the extent of the Nazi Holocaust (on Jews especially but also on Roma, Sinti, communists and socialists, homosexuals, disabled people).
But what is revisionism, actually? It is going over previous narratives and re-examining them critically, looking at alternative sources and documents, examining from a different perspective …. In fact, one might say that ALL historical writing is revisionist, to one degree or another. And essentially, that is as it should be – shoddy and dubious methodology and political motivation apart.
SO – AGAIN: WHAT IS HISTORY?
So, we can say that history is an account of events which are judged (subjectively) to be significant to the culture in which the history is being written, based on available evidence (subjectively chosen) and human accounts (subjectively “remembered”) and the whole subjectively interpreted by a person who is product of a time and place and a social, political and economic environment.
So anyone’s history is as good as another’s? I don’t think so. A historian who makes no attempt to allow for his or her bias and subjectivity, to weigh the evidence for and against, is not writing worthwhile history. And a person who does substantial research and then all the required weighing and sifting, but neglects to attempt a judgement, or whose prose is so boring that merely reading it becomes a great effort, is not writing worthwhile history. Of course, that is my subjective opinion too.
The narrative should be meaningful, based on sound research, open about its author’s bias, honest in its evaluation of sources and artifacts– and readable.
OF WHAT USE IS HISTORY?
Well, we have spent some time on answering the question “What is history?” — and now we need to go back to the original question, “OF WHAT USE IS HISTORY?”.
Of none, if we were to take Henry Ford at his word; “History,” he is famously quoted as saying, “is bunk!” Yet I doubt if even this anti-intellectual, anti-semitic and nazi-sympathiser Capitalist was entirely serious in that reply. He would surely have drawn some lessons from the history of motor-car development and mass production. Ford’s anti-semitic book, “The International Jew – The World’s Foremost Problem” (1920), drew on history and pseudo-history.
The Nazis, which Ford financed for a while, and who in 1938 presented him with their highest honour for a foreigner (though he subsequently made big money from the USA’s war against them) were certainly big on history. In proclaiming the start of the “Thousand-Year Reich” (“reign”, or “kingdom”), they were consciously seeking to surpass the 400 years of the Roman Empire; the adoption of the Swastika also drew on a historic (and pre-historic) symbol. Despite the non-Teutonic origins of the Roman Empire, the standards and flags of Nazi units with the eagle on top copied those of the Roman Legions and even the Nazi’s salute mimicked what is believed to have been the Roman salute.
The Nazis cared so much about history that they consciously went about searching for items that would agree with their view of the past and predict the future (upon some of which they had already decided), and consciously concealing items that would not support their view. Ironically, that process is most closely mirrored today in Israel’s study of the history of the Jews and of Palestine, which most non-zionist historians would agree is, for the most part, riddled with non-historical assumptions and inconsistencies. We may look with distaste or contempt at these attempts and yet need to be aware that all history is a construct and ‘national’ histories are constructed to suit a national identity. National identities in turn are constructed to suit a specific narrative which suits the dominant caste or class in the state in question.
HISTORY TELLS US WHO WE ARE, THE PATH WE HAVE TAKEN – BUT WHAT IF ….?
History tells us that we are human beings and, more precisely than any physiological examination of homo sapiens, of what we are capable – not so much as individuals, although that too, but as societies. It shows us that we are capable of measured reflexion and inflamed madness, of sadistic brutality and of great compassion, of incredible courage and craven cowardice, of sacrifice for principle and of self-seeking, of greed and of sharing, of honesty and of hypocrisy and deceit. And it also has something to say about which kinds of conditions have favoured the expression of one or the other attribute.
History shows us the path we have taken that has resulted in us being where we are now. In that, it is like an inquest or forensic examination (but on a living body), or a biography of an individual. Of course, in all cases there are some assumptions made about the body or the individual.
It also tells us what paths we have not chosen and we can only speculate, from educated to wild guesses, on what might have happened if we had chosen those other paths instead. Many historians have declared this “What If-ery” to be a fruitless field – “it didn’t happen and that’s that”, they say. Although indulging in endless “What If-ing” or failing to study what actually did happen may indeed be fruitless, it seems to me that some speculation on what might have happened is actually useful. Because we may be in a similar situation again and on that occasion may wish to try out a different path and having thought about it in advance will certainly be useful. Also, considering alternatives helps us to understand the nature and extent of what actually happened and its causes.
I hadn’t read the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essay when I wrote the above but he makes a similar point: he said Carr’s dismissal of the “might-have-beens of history” reflected a fundamental lack of interest in examining historical causation. Trevor-Roper said examining possible alternative outcomes of history is not a “parlour-game”, but is an essential part of historians’ work and that a historian could properly understand the period under study only by looking at all possible outcomes and all sides; historians who adopted Carr’s perspective of only seeking to understand the winners of history and treating the outcome of a particular set of events as the only possible outcomes, were “bad historians”.
History tells us some mistakes to be avoided but also tells us that doesn’t prevent people from repeating them. Nevertheless, it must surely be better to study those mistakes than to ignore them. In our own history, we saw a part of the Republican movement rely on non-interference by the USA’s ruling circles in 1886, when the Fenians invaded Canada; for their support during the War of Independence, when the movement sought representation at the Paris Peace Conference and at the League of Nations; yet again during the recent 30 Years War in the Six Counties. The notion that the ruling class of the USA, at the behest of a pressure group within, no matter how numerous and organised, would go against its own foreign interests and confront another imperial power to do so, was silly in the extreme. It was silly the first time it was thought of, although at that time the US had a solid gripe against British imperialism, which had helped the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But the second and third times, there was no excuse for thinking that whatsoever. US Imperialism DID confront British imperialism sternly, and French Imperialism too and even its own protege, Israel – it did so when those three, in alliance, invaded Egypt to overthrow Nasser and seize the Suez Canal. When US Imperialism publicly condemned them, however, its rulers did so in their own interests and were telling the other two which power was now Boss of the World.
History tells us about the political biases of historians and the times in which they have written. We need to be aware of this because most of what we are going to learning about history is going to be from historians. Historians’ bias was discussed earlier on but we need to be aware of it in the specific conditions of the historian and the time, in order to understand where their writing is “coming from”. That helps us to judge how much of it to accept, how much to reject and upon how much to keep an open mind for the moment.
History is not only often about battles but is itself a battleground. In our own time we see history written from a nationalist perspective clashing with not only that written from a colonialist perspective, for example in Britain, but also from a neo-colonialist perspective, by Irish historians apologising for colonialism and imperialism. But nationalist-perspective history has also come under attack from social democracy, revolutionary socialism, left-wing republicanism and feminism. And these historical viewpoints criticising nationalist history, also clash against one another.
History hints at the future. This is strange, because the subject of history is the past.
We may view the existence of humanity as a tree, or perhaps as a tightly-knit copse of interwoven trunks: the roots are our past and history, the trunk (or interwoven trunks) our present and the branches spreading overhead, seen dimly, our possible futures.
ALL our history is important,
not just 1916,
teaching us what we are
and what we have been.
How we came to reach the now,
of those who fought
or those who bowed,
through bloody pages,
down through the ages;
it relives the struggle to be free
and whispers soft what we might yet be.
Diarmuid Breatnach, April 2016
Carr, E.H, What Is History? (1961) University of Cambridge Press.
E. H. Carr’s Success Story”, Encounter, Volume 84, Issue No 104, 1962 pp. 69– 77.