Eric Vandenbroeck 5 June 2018:
Ever since David Hackett Fischer's book Historians' Fallacies have been a hotly debated topic.
Each of us lives in overlapping geographical and temporal units that affect our views about history. And especially world history since it is concerned with everything that has ever happened. Most historians simple approach it by reducing it in size, and condensing the events that we are interested in investigating. Knowing how far to do this is very, very tricky, and depends to a large extent on the level you are studying it.
Also, when history was first taking shape as a university discipline in the nineteenth century, elite young men were fed a diet of Greek and Roman history.
The misuse of antiquity and the Holy Roman Empire
As a result of the above mentioned, including to a degree also today, Historians in the early 20th Century viewed modern peoples as superior to the ancients, and, as a corollary, portrayed Western Europe and eventually the West as superior to the rest of the world. The belief in progress – validated by the triumph of reason and science – helped solidify the Western sense of ascendancy over other regions; the West and its version of secular modernity now represented the future of the entire world.
In the early 20th century this racialized history has often been perceived as somehow Germanocentric. Plus then next, given the exclusionary nature of National Socialist racism, the Nazis were to a degree obligated to embellish the history of Frederick’s Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire and to illustrate the family tree that connected Hermann der Cherusker (Arminius the Cheruscan) to Hitler.
But references to classical antiquity were legion in public discourse, while the regime’s official architecture revived Rome’s monumental classicism and Nazi sculptors rediscovered the Greek nude. The reinvention of history, the fabrication of an origin myth, and the many alleged trials and tribulations of the Indo-Germanic peoples helped create the Nazi subject, whose racial identity and history was inflated by the annexation of a culturally prestigious past.
The annexation of antiquity gave the new man an identity he could truly be proud like. The prestige of his predecessors required and commanded that his contemporary exponents work to build a future that would be equally glorious. The past showed that despite the vicissitudes of a mediocre and unpredictable present, the inherent potential of the race remained and demanded to be fulfilled.
The building of the present and the construction of the future would lean upon the was achievements of the Nordic peoples of antiquity, just as the great Greek and Roman thinkers would be read, contemplated, understood, and followed.
But Nordicist theory on the Indo-Germanic roots of the Greeks and Romans wasn’t restricted only to the cloistered, at times almost confidential, a world of professional scholars. A much wider readership awaited and was targeted in a variety of ways.
SS ideological propaganda, for example, repeated the point incessantly. One booklet illustrated the Nordic origins of Greco-Roman civilization with a series of blueprints retracing the evolution of the Germanic house in comparison with the Greek temple: “It was from the Germanic house, with its vestibule at the entrance, that the Greek temple developed, copying and perfecting its form. . . . We see here a proud trace of classical architecture. The Greek temple is thus additional proof that the great civilizations did not come from the East, but from the North. (1) Another of these SS pamphlets(2) presented a portrait of a young recruit side by side with the profile of “a Roman head of state.” The virile pose of the young SS soldier apparently displayed a familiar echo of Roman’s masculine gravitas: “The SS soldier, son of a German countryman, carries the same Nordic blood as the men we are about to see. We will show him side by side with a Roman statesman, to remind us that the Roman Empire itself, like that of the Persians, the civilization of the Greeks . . . [was] built by the creative force of the same Nordic blood.”(3)
Nationalism based on Religion and Language
As we initially have seen when I started this website, beliefs about political authority changed during the Thirty Years’ War. Around the same time, I also analyzed how religion and Nationalism intertwined in countries like lceland, ltaly, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine.
As seen in the above examples some of the factors that tend to shape religious nationalism are religious frontiers and threats.
For example the lrish nation began to identify in opposition to this new threat, but the lrish sentiment did not begin to take on religious tones until after the English Reformation, at which point the English became not just a threatening other, but a religious other as well, and lasted in the N.Ireland to this day.
In Poland, the threat from religious frontiers has also been clear. The religious divide between Poland and its non-Catholic neighbors (Russia and Germany) has been one of the more prominent features in the history of the Polish nation. Significantly, the role of threat is also demonstrated through the diminishing power of the Polish state following the Golden Era. The subjugation of the Poles to Russian and Soviet rule further enhanced the nation-building power of the Catholic Church.
In Greece, as in many nations formerly under Ottoman rule, the Orthodox Church played a critical role in national differentiation. This was due to the fact that Greeks were most dearly differentiated from their oppressors by religion - the Ottomans were, of course, Islamic. The threat from Turkey continues today on a variety of fronts, perhaps most notably in Cyprus. As a result, the Greeks continue to emphasize the importance of Orthodoxy in their national concept.
Also England reinforced this understanding by demonstrating that the threatening nature of a religious frontier can change - and with it, the religious links to nationalism. As British power expanded, the lrish threat diminished, and Protestantism was no longer essential in national differentiation.
However many of the cases I investigated as indicated at the time also be seen to be on a borderline. Italy, for instance, is difficult to categorize. Is it a secular nation that is very religious? In other words, are the Italian people largely religious, although the linkage does not carry over into nationalism? Or is ltaly a case of a weak religious nationalism, wherein there is a linkage between religion and nation, albeit weaker than Ireland, Poland, or Greece? An argument could be made either way.
Thus the basic problem with rational choice explanations of secularism or religiosity (in this case at least) is that they get the process reversed. The demand for religion is not fixed. Rather, demand for religion varies according to a variety of factors, including religious frontiers and threats. As such, the assumption that supply shapes overall religiosity is faulty. Rather, as is true of most economic situations, supply is driven by demand. In Poland, there was a strong demand for Catholicism due to historical and political circumstances. In Britain, there was a more subdued demand (in general) and a wider demand across the spectrum. In the end, the evidence simply does not support the argument.
An interesting case as I pointed out is the American civil religion has its own "holy scriptures," the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which are treasured and venerated like the Tables of the Law. It has its own prophets, such as the Pilgrim Fathers. It celebrates its own sacred heroes such as George Washington, the American Moses.
Going beyond the aspects of religious frontiers and threats thereafter I analyzed a number of other countries with a different Nationalist setting, like those with language as the central subject of historical inquiry, including more recently such like the concept of Han Chinese.
Nationalism and the misuse of History
And while in the case of the Nazi's or Italian Fascism (not to mention many other forms of Nationalism), I pointed out nationalism and the misuse of History there are of course governments who deliberately may create or support an alternative narrative to mobilize people in rapidly changing societies such as we have seen, in the case of China. Thus the recent national history of China has been characterized as a miserable past when China suffered due to the force from the outside. This historical belief has been institutionalized by the education system in China since 1991. In combination with people’s pride of ancient Chinese civilization, the historical education with an emphasis on the country’s miserable past resulted in the construction of Chinese nationalistic identity: their collective desire to recover the central position of China in the world became the driving force to build their modernity. This mythically projected future leads to the concealment of internal conflicts and violence inside the national history in many cases.
Also, educational institutions themselves can attempt to exert their own perspective on history, as in Japan with the debate over Japan’s history textbooks focusing on wartime victimhood and victimization. Progressive and conservative power coexisted in the education sector in Japan including the Yoshida Doctrine. The former tried to emphasize malefaction done to Asians and Japanese people’s responsibilities during that imperialism period. On the other hand, the conservative force attempted to include remorse for the past and Japanese nationalistic view of history. And as described in the above link this narrative regarding the wartime suffering of the Japanese people can induce a critical perspective on imperial wars and their disastrous impact on ordinary people, apart from the original intention of the conservative branch of the Japanese educational establishment.
Of course in industrialized society, there are multiple narratives of national history, and depending on the kind of historical schedules, different values are associated with national identification. Especially, knowledge about identity construction could be valuable in the globalized world: both to a country that is already multicultural like Australia, to a country that has just become a multicultural society, and to countries that are bewildered by globalization. The thesis and further research in line with it could give practical implications regarding how to avoid exclusive national identity in international contact settings, how to resist to political manipulations of historical narratives, and how to promote international relationships in the globalized world. More profoundly, the thesis implies a prediction about future, that globalization would create a more complicated map of culture in the world or even in a country, resulting from conflicts and reconciliation between traditional values and modernity, and between material development and mental life.
The future of History
What we need more than ever now are histories that are deep and wide and histories that are minutely particular and histories of dimensions and units in between because we live in a world of many dimensions, from the local to the national and the global. History as an academic discipline assumed that humans were the proper subject of history or at least humans who could write and therefore produce documents. Increasingly, however, historians have recognized that humans do not live and have not lived alone on the planet and do not make history just about each other. People are always interacting with the environment in which they live, with the animals and machines that inhabit the same spaces, and with the microbes and pathogens that make human life possible and sometimes miserable. Awareness of a deeper and broader sense of time has helped draw historians to studying the interactions between humans and their environment, settlement their animals and machines, and their diseases. Humans do not entirely control these interactions, like hurricanes, epidemics, recalcitrant animals, and crashing computers all show. The environment, animals, microbes, and perhaps even machines have their agency in the world; they act independently of humans and shape the human world. Histories of these interactions enable us to recognize that humans are not masters of the universe and that our disregard for the planet and other species has created problems that we must now face.
Research on such questions is now popping up everywhere. Elephants, common in China 4,000 years ago, were steadily pushed southward into smaller and smaller areas as farmers claimed land, destroyed the forest habitat, exterminated elephants who threatened their crops, and finally hunted them for ivory. Medievalists have shown that access to water in Europe shaped settlement patterns and conflicts over property rights. Studies of Native Americans in the United States have demonstrated the devastating agricultural and social effects of the acquisition of horses by some tribes at the end of the seventeenth century. In what has been termed “the Columbian Exchange,” the European conquest of the New World opened the way to massive transfers of plants, animals, diseases, and human populations between the New World and Europe. To cite only one more example among many, global cooling in the seventeenth century encouraged Europeans to seek colonial outlets while also hampering early attempts at settlement in North America: extreme weather produced high mortality rates among would-be colonists in Jamestown, for example, and also made the long ocean voyages even more dangerous. Attention to whole earth time is enlarging the canvas of historical analysis, and the pictures that are emerging are often very different from those familiar in the past.
While it might be said that humans, oceans, horses, airplanes, and the syphilis bacterium occupy the same time frame, because humans have invented the time frames that encompass them, they do not experience the progression of time in the same way or even experience the passage of time as progression at all. But more important still, the heterogeneous communities of humans in the present and the past have experienced and conceptualized time in many different ways. Another of the exciting new perspectives of historical research is the study of different organizations and experiences of time. We live in a globalizing world in which synchronicity and simultaneity are increasingly important, but time zones did not even exist before the end of the 1800s, and they only came into use because of the needs of railroad schedules. The experiences of nighttime before gas lighting, of seasons before industrialization, and of work before wireless communication is almost as foreign to us now as the notions of time of the pre-Hispanic Maya, for example, who recorded the passage of time in hieroglyphic texts.
The history of different systems of organizing time shows how contingent and variable those systems have been and so reminds us that ours, too, is a product of history and not universally valid. Not to mention that national and global histories are constructed on the building blocks provided by a localized history.
The tension between our own history and someone else’s is likewise very productive of new insights. Every nation’s or group’s history tries to establish its singularity, but identity histories tend to follow similar narrative patterns: the search for roots, the story of overcoming obstacles, and the laying out of challenges still to be faced.
Attention to groups that have been excluded in the past from the narrative disrupts the familiar story and leads to the drafting of new narratives. The conflict has been especially intense in settler societies. Should the national history focus on the settlers, or those who were displaced, or both?
The “Aboriginal history wars” of the 2000s in Australia provide a prime example, and they show that resolution if it comes at all, comes from discussing and debating the tensions, not from trying to make them disappear.(4)
The tension between our history and theirs can extend to a global scale. Earlier writers of the history of the West, have too often presumed the West’s superiority over the non-West, but consideration of the long history of Western relations with other regions reveals other possibilities. For the Romans, Europe was the land of the barbarians, the very antithesis of civilization. The thoughts of Greek thinkers such as Aristotle that was eventually posited as the fount of Western civilization came to Europeans via translations from Arabic into Latin between ca. 1150 and 1250. Many historians now agree that the dominant economic power in the world between 1100 and 1800 was China, not Europe. Much of the impetus for Europe’s interest in international trade and hence for the development of trans-Atlantic slavery, and even arguably for industrialization, came from the European desire for goods from the east: at first spices, then later, and most significantly, silk, tea, and porcelain from China and calicoes from India. Superiority, whether in trade, technology, military power, or culture, has shifted from region to region around the globe and will continue to shift in the future.
One aspect is also that maintaining the tension between academic and popular histories seems the most desirable option; historians have to find their way between the profession’s and the university’s demands for new information and interpretations, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the imperative to translate that knowledge into accessible forms.
Balancing past and future
Balancing past and future, the last of the sets of tensions outlined here, presents unexpected difficulties. We want to know how we came to be where we are now to be better prepared for meeting the challenges of the future, but we also want to know where we have been in order to maintain a sense of continuity over time with our families, nations, or the earth itself. Unfortunately, the former – shaping the future – has begun to overshadow the latter – preserving the sense of continuity.
But the future is meaningless without the sense of continuity. As the discipline of history has evolved, and as popular and public history has drawn more interest, the center of gravity of history has shifted toward the present. It is inconceivable to us now that every Harvard University student would have to take a course on Roman history. There is very little agreement among professors or the public about what every educated person ought to know. Even within the discipline of history, which is by definition about the past, research now focuses more often on the last century or two than on the further distant past. Until the 1970s, most scholars who aspired to be considered great historians in Europe or the United States wrote about the foundational periods of state formation, that is, either the Middle Ages or the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Europe or the colonies and the early republic in the United States. In France, the period ranging from the Renaissance of the fifteenth century to the French Revolution is still called “the modern epoch,” whereas history after 1789 is “contemporary,” by implication more suitable to journalism than historical scholarship. Nineteenth-century history got a foothold in France in the 1970s and the twentieth century followed in the 1990s. Now the great historians in France, like those in Britain and the United States, are more likely to be those who write about the twentieth century.
AAs enrollment figures at just about any institution of higher education will show, students prefer to take history courses on the most recent periods of time. They can still be lured to ancient or medieval history by a charismatic instructor, or a university requirement, but they flock to courses on twentieth-century. Thus history is in danger, as an academic field, of neglecting much of what has happened in the past. (5)
“Presentism” takes various forms and not just an interest in more recent history. It also includes judging people in the past by present-day norms. Hegel was presentist in the sense that he considered the German conception of freedom as the benchmark for all people, but we are equally presentist when we criticize Hegel for not sharing our understanding of the world today. Presentism is an enduring tension in history’s relation to the past; history would have no interest at all if it did not speak to our present-day interests, so we need a dose of presentism, but if we only view the past from our own standpoint, we simply impose our standards on it. The dose of presentism cannot be too high, or it will lead us to commit anachronism, that is, the failure to respect chronology. Then the past just becomes an inert mirror of ourselves rather than a place that we can discover and from which we can learn. But the dose of presentism also cannot be too low; sometimes we have to judge the past according to our own values. Would we want to analyze Hitler as just another politician or his treatment of the disabled, Jews, Roma, or Slavs as just another policy option? Getting the right dose of presentism is a constant challenge, and we probably only have a chance of getting it right if our choices are constantly up for discussion and debate.
Even with the emergence of a deeper and broader notion of historical time, the two earlier approaches are with us still, and each one provides a unique access to historical knowledge. A globalizing culture still needs exemplars, which can be found in many places and not just ancient Greece and Rome. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the sayings of the Buddha, the teachings of Confucius, and the oral traditions of countless African or South American tribes are just a few examples. Wisdom is not fundamentally altered by changes in technology, growth in population, or specialization of occupations. Wisdom can be found in learning about how people in the past confronted their challenges.
Progress may be in question, but the very act of telling a story – and all history consists of stories in one form or another – requires a beginning and an end and therefore some sense of progression. Not everything in the past need lead inexorably to the endpoints that we choose for our stories, but the end does influence the way the story is told. The tension between explaining how the end came about and maintaining a sense of the choices being made along the way is one of the most difficult to negotiate when writing history. The story is not exciting if there is no sense of choice, but the story makes no sense if there is no logic to the choices. We still need grand narratives, therefore, though they need not be the story of progress. Thinking about what those narratives should be is one of the undertakings that makes history as a field so exhilarating.
New vistas are constantly emerging. As media have become more omnipresent in our lives, historians have begun to pay more heed to the role of visual representations of all kinds. History as a field has been defined by its relationship to textual documents, and this focus will not disappear, but other ways of delivering information are now being considered, too. In societies without universal literacy, which means all societies before the end of the 1800s, visual forms played a major role: monuments, processions and parades, reliquaries, and woodcuts spoke more directly to ordinary people than did tracts, treatises, or official documents. Similarly, the advent of the digital world is prompting new approaches. Historians now have access to massive databases of all kinds that can be searched in seconds, and the number of them will only increase. Scholars have to learn not only how to use them but also how to evaluate their reliability.
The emergence of new fields such as visual and digital history reminds us that history cannot predict the future but can benefit from the changes it brings. Only our imaginations can predict the future, and we will not know which predictions are right until the future becomes the present. But we can know the past, however incompletely, and we do not need a time machine to get there. All we need is curiosity and a willingness to learn how those before us made sense of their worlds. Why we need to do so was explained by the Roman politician Cicero more than 2,000 years ago. “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of a human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”(6)
1) Deutsche Geschichte, Lichtbildvortrag, Erster Teil: Germanische Frühkeit, “Das Licht aus dem Norden,” ed. Reichsführer-SS, Chef des Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamtes (Sonderheft, 1942, Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde/ RD/NSD 41/87, 16–17.
2) Das Blut, seine Bedeutung, Reinerhaltung und Verbesserung, ed. vol. 1, Blut und Boden: Lichtsbildvortrag, ed Reichsführer-SS, Chef des Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamtes
(Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde/RD/NSD 41/87.
3) Ibid., 25. The men the book was about to show were Reichsgraf Maximilian von Spee and Horst Wessel, both of whom “incarnated the German essence” and were “combatants for the Nordic blood and carriers of its spirit, linked by blood to the modern German man.”
4) Bain Attwood, Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History (Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2005)
5) Ben Schmidt, “What Years Do Historians Write About?” (Sapping Attention, May 9, 2013). Available at: http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2013/05/what-years-do-historians-write-about.html
6) Peter G. Bietenholz, Historia, and Fabula: Myths and Legends in Historical Thought from Antiquity to the Modern Age (Leiden: Brill, 1994), p. 57.