Sometimes history is just another story

“Only times will tell”, the saying goes, and people always repeat that to truly understand the meaning of an event you need the perspective of history. This argument has a point, because having the opportunity to gather and consult a large amount of historical sources on a subject is a privilege that the people “experiencing history” often do not have. The same argument is also fallacious however, because it grossly overstates the possibilities of history and of future historians of being impartial and gives the illusion that historians are infallible, providing for some sort of universal tribunal of time.  One of the greatest ancient historians, the Greek Thucydides, who wrote a history of the Peloponnesian Wars, was on the contrary convinced that one could write only of the events of which one had been an eyewitness, a sort of proto-reportage school of history. This kindf of modesty seems to be a rare thing among modern day historians, who by definition of their profession, express judgments on events they did not experience first hand, facts they have no direct knowledge of and people they never met. Writing history is often nothing more than sifting through archives, spending a lot of times reading books, selecting and repeating what others have said before, according to ones own beliefs. Modern historians, however, are never tired of telling us that the writing of history has now become a rigorous and scientific occupation which through the rigorous application of the scientific method can aspire to objectivity. Certainly modern history writing is not the creation of immortal myths in the tradition of the national epic poems which constitute the foundation of the historical narrative of many nations, but objectivity? Hardly anyone who is familiar with even only a few history books would agree with that.

One of the difficulties lies in the fact that time, like memory, dilutes the importance of events. What looks important now, maybe will not do so in 5 years, what looks important to the historian 30 year later, maybe went unnoticed to contemporaries busy with their daily lives. Almost two years ago, the journalist and historian (and Pulizer Prize winner) Anne Applebaum, the day after a column of Russian tanks probably entered Eastern Ukraine, warned about the danger of total war with Russia, comparing Russia’s alleged invasion of Ukraine’s war torn Donbass region with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. As of now, almost two years later, the conflict has remained localized, not spreading into a total nuclear war like Applebaum suggested. I do not know how many people remember that day in the end of August now. Hardly it will go down into history: Applebaum may have been disappointed that her apocalyptic prophecy was not fulfilled.

Of course history can help us put events in perspective and make us realize which events had important consequences and which events were just transitory phases. But history is also an abstract notion. When history is made, it is not immediately clear to everyone. Many people live with the genuine belief that at some point, sooner or later, with the help of the study of history, the truth will always come out. Well, maybe truth, if there is one such thing, always does come out, but it seems rather likely that when or if it does come out in the end, thirty years or so later, it might be just a bit too late and nobody cares anymore. It is difficult to challenge the established version of the past: once a narrative is established in the mind of people, it becomes almost impossible for a new interpretation of history to challenge this narrative.

Then what is history? Who writes history? Can there be a universal history, which is true for all? If history is an objective science which presupposes an objective truth, this should be a more than legitimate expectation. These questions may have been much easier to answer when we had a single book on a particular historical event or period, and that was the sole source we had. Now for anything that is happening in the world we have dozens of books published almost instantly and nobody could possible master all the information available on a subject and coming to a balanced assessment would be an immense feat. Different historians of different persuasions will look at the same event or personality and see different things. And in the end, to look at events which happened far away in the past and expecting to get a truthful impression of the massacre of the battle of Borodino only by reading a few pages from a book while sitting comfortably in a sofa seems to be a rather foolish idea.

National governments and other institutions are very interested in the promotion of history, but not too much of it: the official history, which serves at the promotion of values such as patriotism, is generally a history deprived of all controversial (and more interesting) stuff and of the contrasts of human life, it is a story more than history, a narrative which cements the unity of a nation, a civilization. It is generally a typically progressive narrative, which portrays our world, our society, as the peak of a long successful process of civilization, of democratization, of material enrichment and spiritual refinement. It is particularly effective because probably for most people, even people of considerable education, their school history text books, which they will probably never open again after having left school, will always provide the standard against which they will measure and fact check any historical notion they may come across. Even if they will not remember exactly events of particular dates, their school history books (approved by the Ministry of Education of their country) will likely set the tone for their whole perception of their past. Not many of us have time to pursue true historical research going at the sources, and even those of us who do will probably end up finding only the sources that confirm their preexisting opinion of facts. Some people will watch a movie or a documentary, but it is extremely likely that the version of history illustrated through these sort of films will be simplistic at best and overtly ideological at worst.

It is not that people care too much about history or that should live in the past, but history, or rather the historical and cultural narratives that surround us, define what sort of men we become. To make us of the world around us is pretty complicated. But to think that compressing 30 years of cataclysmic changes involving millions of people in a few pages means better understanding is also a mistake. History is often just another story because it sees in retrospect a direction and a trend in a stream and a chaos of events where there was no such clear thing. Some cultural historians had tried to explain the rise of Nazism in Germany going back to XIX century Germany philosophers like Herder or Nietzsche. But the problem with history, like in general with our lives, is that at no point we can be sure that it will go one particular way. Historians like to claim seeing structures and patterns when these things are probably just in their mind. It is too easy to be a retrospective prophet.

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