Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

Jeremy Black – Clio’s battles (2016)

“Stalked by the past” – Peter Hain, former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, about the impact of the past and the need to let go of it, 7 April 2014


‘The weight of the past is heavy and insistent, at times brutally apparent, but frequently more prone to insinuate and influence. This weight is presented as positive - offering continuity and lessons from experience, and yet also as negative, indeed, a curse. As an instance of the latter, empowerment through grievance is especially damaging, in particular, locating both grievance and empowerment in a misleading, as well as destructive, historical context. Linked to this empowerment is the prevalence of “history wars,” disputes about how to present the past, which are the heavily historicized equivalent of the American “culture wars.” These disputes take the “could” of academic discussions about how the past could be presented, and turn it into a “should” of how the past should, indeed “must,” be explained. In this context, the past becomes a validation for the present and, as such, a matter of great significance. History, whose muse is Clio, is thereby made the ammunition of politics, and this ammunition is potent precisely because the past serves as the basis for ideas and practices of identification. (….)’  

The use and abuse of history

‘Historiography began as foundation myths, the myths of peoples, dynasties, and religions, and this theme is still powerfully present today. Indeed, there is a parallel between the origin-myths of the nations and states of two and three millennia ago, and those propounded for the new or revived states established from 1945 to the present. One major difference, however, is the role of religion, which played a key part in early origin-myths, but has been conspicuously absent - or negligible - in most recent ones (although with important Muslim exceptions, as well as Israel), or has been presented in secular guises. Indeed, to a degree, nationalism is a modern form of religion, one in which the state worships itself and its community, with the nation encouraged to think in terms of a continuous mission. The weakness of some states, for example Iraq and Syria, is linked not only to very bad government, but also to a failure of nationalism to overcome other allegiances, allegiances that in part reflect, and are reflected in, the nature of this government. Religions themselves have origin-myths, and some religions are aspects of the development of nations, notably in the case of Jews and the Japanese.

Modern history is generally understood in the West as an eighteenth-­century Enlightenment project that endorsed the secular analysis of cause and effect, and notably did so in a clear programmatic fashion. This was the type of history that provided the basis for the subsequent rise of university history. It was a type that deliberately departs from religious accounts and, indeed, offers a secular analysis of cause and effect for religious factors and developments such as the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. (….)’

‘As a reminder of the non-continuous nature of the historical imagination and historical writings, the ideological theme, while still present, both changed in character and became less significant in Christian Europe from the mid-seventeenth century, and this remained the case until the French Revolution led to a reconceptualization of the role of history. In the intervening period, conventionally from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to 1789, there was still, however, a major commitment to both religion and the Church’s role in framing history and identity, as well as a strong interest in the past. Such an interest served a range of interests and drives, notably, as before and as also outside the West, dynastic prestige and the protection of local interests. Ruling houses sought status and legitimation from the past. Thus, in 1701 a medal was struck at the request of Electress Sophia of Hanover to mark her being named heiress to the Crown of England. The reverse depicted “Matilda [c. 1156-1189], daughter of Henry II, King of England, wife of Henry the Lion ... mother of Emperor Otto IV ... progenitor of the House of Brunswick.” The medal grounded the claim on the succession in primogeniture and the history of the House of Guelph, and not on the Act of Settlement passed by the English Parliament in 1701. History thereby served to establish and strengthen an alternative claim.

Such dynastic locating was scarcely new, and it is too easy to forget such conventional uses of history, and such established goals of new works, when focusing on the new developments in this period and others. Interest in history in the eighteenth-century West more generally reflected a continuing sense that the past had shaped the present, as well as a concern with organic development that is not always associated with the thinkers of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment(s). History also provided the central source of evidence for political and religious polemic, as with English Royalist historians under Charles II (r, 1660-1685) who, in tracing the origins of seditious ideas, linked Presbyterians, sectarians, and Catholics as opponents of the monarchy.

The location of historical work with reference to the Western Enlightenment of the eighteenth century engages most attention today. (…)

As an aspect of their radicalism, the French philosophes were happiest to reject history. They disparaged much of the past, the Middle Ages for being barbaric, the age of the Reformation for being fanatical, and the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), on which Voltaire wrote Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751), for its supposed obsession with gloire alongside the brilliance of the civilization. At the same time, Voltaire’s study was impressive for his employment of actual events, rather than presenting simply a parade of facts. This was history as argument, not as chronicle. The philosophes also found that history as written by the érudits, who focused on textual criticism, could not provide the logical principles and ethical suppositions that were required to support the immutable laws the philosophes propounded. (….)’

‘The public use of history has become far more widespread and urgent in recent decades. Since 1945, over 120 new states have been created across the world, each of which has had to define a new public history, even if partly under the guise of reviving older ones. Moreover, earlier independent states have been transformed, in large part due to the pressures of political history, in the shape of developments that made previous arrangements redundant? This shift can be seen with new constitutional and political systems, as, for example, in Germany, Japan, Italy, France, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and South Africa between 1945 and 1994.

At the same time, public histories in both old and new states have been, and are, contested. Far from there being any “Death of the Past” (J. H. Plumb, 1969) or “End of History” (Francis Fukuyama, 1989), this process continues to be active and important, albeit at very different levels. In 1779, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya painted Truth, Time, and History - a benign and harmonious, as well as allusive, account of their relationship - which hangs in the National Museum in Sweden. The reality of this relationship has been very different; and this is not simply a matter of key episodes or major countries. Instead, the corollary of the use of the past to offer identity in continuity, and continuity in identity, is that both also provide a basis for contestation.

Overlapping with that contestation can come academic work, but the pattern of change can differ, Moreover, in many countries, the state approach takes precedence. For example, in China, growing academic stress on the iniquities and harshness of the rule and regime of Mao Zedong, the Communist dictator from 1949 to 1976, clashes with the state orthodoxy, which has been willing to admit to his mistakes but not to there having been a very bloody, cruel, and inefficient tyranny under Mao. As a result, the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-1962, a murderous and unsuccessful attempt to force-modernize Chinese agriculture, is not discussed in public with the freedom with which it is treated by scholars, notably outside China.

Changes in the public use of history, both by government and by the public as a whole, are crucial to the general understanding of the past, and these developments stem largely from current political shifts and pressures. Thus, for example, the collapse of Communism across much of Eurasia in 1989-1991 was followed by a recovery of non- and anti-Communist themes, topics, and approaches (…). For example, in newly independent Estonia, it became possible, indeed appropriate, to emphasize the destructiveness of Soviet conquest in 1940 and, again, 1944 and occupation, and to discuss both the many victims of this occupation, and those who resisted. It will be instructive to see how far the same process occurs in Cuba once the Castro system ends, as is likely to be the case.

At the same time, the collapse of European Communism threw up bitter political contentions that also had strong historical resonances. This was readily apparent in 2013 when the government of Ukraine rejected an agreement for its association with the EU (European Union). Russian pressure was, in part, responsible for this decision by Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, and this pressure owed much to history as well as geopolitics. Linkage with Ukraine provided Russians a sense of historical identity, in that Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the center of the first Russian state (founded in the late ninth century) and the site that supplied Russia’s connection to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and Orthodox Christianity. The collapse of the Soviet Union and of Communism made this linkage more important in Russia, not least as Slavic identity and Orthodox Christianity became more significant there, while also requiring definition and inviting expansion. Opposing EU expansion is pertinent to this process of identification as historical foes of Russia, namely Poland, Lithuania, and Germany, are particularly associated with this current expansion as far as Ukraine is concerned. Thus, the seventeenth-century struggle between Russia and Poland-Lithuania over control of Ukraine appears relevant in Russia.

In turn, Ukrainian popular anger with the president’s action helped to provoke his overthrow in February 2014. (….) This overthrow threw to the fore in Russia a different historical reference: the willingness of some Ukrainians to cooperate with the German invasion in 1941. Russian commentators repeatedly, and misleadingly, asserted continuity between this case and that of Ukrainian nationalists in 2014.

The role of history in politics is significant, and it is scarcely surprising that politics accordingly has affected the character of the history that is offered. Issues of national identity and political legitimation are central. The context is often a long-term one. When, for example, members of the Polish Parliament from two populist parties occupied the chamber in 2002, they were criticized for reviving what were presented as the anarchic traditions of the old Polish Commonwealth. This was a very charged comparison. Although other factors, such as a lack of defensible frontiers, were significant, anarchic impulses were seen as a significant factor in the weakness of this Commonwealth that led to the partitions of Poland by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1772-1795. These partitions removed Poland from the political map of Europe until these empires collapsed at the close of World War I. Thus, critics discerned a self-destructive politics that was quasi-treasonable in 2002.

More commonly, the frame of historical reference is less distant. The World Wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945) dominate attention, especially the second. World War I attracted attention in 2014 with discussion in terms of what commemoration of the centenary was appropriate. However, it proved easier to deploy memories about World War II and to derive “lessons” from the war, and its background, and thus to make them apparently relevant. For example, the unwillingness of Britain to help the Spanish Republic against the German-backed nationalist uprising during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) bolstered the cause of the Communist Soviet Union, which did provide assistance for the Republic. This example was cited as a reason the Western powers were wrong to opt for inaction over Syria in 2010-2014, as, more generally, were the apparent lessons of the “Appeasement” of Hitler’ s Germany in 1938. On the other hand, the complexities of choice and action were indicated by these examples. Had Franco, the Nationalist leader, not won in Spain, the Cold War with the Communist bloc from 1945 to 1989 would have been more difficult for the West as it would have faced a Communist Spain. The choice in Syria, moreover, looked less attractive if presented in terms of Assad or jihadists as opposed to Assad and liberals: and this contrast is instructive as far as the future historical treatment of the civil war in Syria is concerned.’

The role of academic historians working at universities

‘Historiography owes something to academic politics, whether personal, sub-disciplinary, disciplinary, or institutional. Yet, factors that are non-political also play a role. For example, the balance of academic appointments is related to the emphasis both on teaching and on research, which is not a balance struck largely in political terms. As far as institutional politics are concerned, the state of history as a subject in part reflects the tensions arising from fiscal pressures, and thus the competition for resources between disciplines. In such battles, history suffers from being unable to raise significant research income. On the other hand, the discipline benefits not only from being relatively cheap to teach, such that a true market of costs for courses in various disciplines would make it attractive to students, but also because, even when subjects are charged at the same level, there is much demand for undergraduate history courses. As a result, there is, in this respect, a close relationship between public interest and the academic world. However, this relationship does not generally extend to the content of the teaching. Indeed, there is frequently a striking mismatch between what students wish to study on history courses and what they are usually offered. This mismatch is a component of the historiographical world at the university level and echoes a wider failure of most professional historians to satisfy “a mass thirst for knowledge.” That situation casts an ironic reflection on the pledge, in the prefatory note of 1886, that the English Historical Review would be devoted to general readers as well as scholars. The call for history teaching to serve as “inspiration” finds relatively few echoes within the academy, which helps to explain the limited wider relevance of the latter. The profession has turned inward. Historians go to enormous trouble to unearth interesting things, then bury them in books and periodicals that nobody (except other professionals) ever reads. The collection À quoi sert l'histoire aujourd'hui? (Paris, 2010), responses by forty historians, scarcely offers encouragement about the situation in France, but, at least, it could be found in bookshops there.

More generally, the pseudo-scientificization of academic history poses a serious problem as far as the popular resonance of this history is concerned. (…)

Alongside institutional pressures, the practice of the profession is more significant for historiographical development at the university level than is suggested by the usual stress on intellectual trends and leading thinkers. Indeed, it is striking, when responding to questions about “developments in history,” to consider the degree to which the profession is atomized, with dynamic specialisms and sub-specialisms taking the bulk of attention. In practice, most historians feel a sense of identity in terms of these fields. Thus, there are eighteenth-century historians, or medieval economic historians, and their knowledge of, or concern for, other specialisms is limited in the extreme. The same is even true of the relatively new subject of world history. This limitation has been exacerbated by the extent to which teaching has become narrower in focus, while the growing size of the profession and the rising volume of output makes it very difficult to keep up with work in sub-specialisms, let alone elsewhere in the subject. Individual sub-disciplines have suffered greatly from a concern with professional interests and assertion within the discipline, rather than with reaching out to a wider audience.

There has also been a significant cultural change. The image and self­image of the academic as a man (Iess commonly woman) of letters, an intellect abreast of wider currents, able to chat in the staff/common room on such topics and to read the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement (or, in scurrilous fiction, to drink and debauch), is now essentially redundant. First, there is no time; as teaching and professional duties rise, notably, in Britain, in response to greater student numbers, the energy is devoted to marking. Secondly, the domestic context of most academies’ life has been transformed, leaving them less leisure for such activities. The “bachelor don” (less commonly spinster don) has long ceased to be the typical figure. Thirdly, and most significantly, the emphasis now is on scholarly development in terms of work in the particular specialism of choice, as is the case in both America and Europe. Thus, historians attend conferences, read books and articles, participate in internet sites, and advance their career through publications, but all in a specific field, generally a highly specific field. (….)

Specialization, however, ensures that there are a range of historiographies. Within each one, historians think, read, and write with reference to past and present scholarship that prompts their work by stimulus, whether by complementing it, opposing it, or offering alternatives: counterfactuals or otherwise. The absence of a big idea or a set of big ideas means that this range of historiographies lacks coherence and, instead, is part of the general atomization of the discipline. (….)’  

New challenges for historians and academic historic institutions

It is sometimes difficult for the world of academic history to shift gears as quickly as students would like in order to meet the students’ interests of the moment, let alone to respond to changes in government policy, but there can be related questions about the willingness and ability of academies to respond.

In terms of content, there are also major challenges, but empiricism as a foundation for the profession has persevered and remains a major focus of historiographical discussion. Despite the emphasis here on variations between national traditions of scholarship, there is a widespread commonality in the tension between empiricism, or fact-based research, and, on the other hand, the need to draw broader conclusions. This is a tension that overlaps with that between argument from evidence and the emphasis, instead, on theoretical understandings. Traditionally, history as an academic discipline has put the emphasis on research, notably in archives. The influence of nineteenth-century German ideas and practices on the development of the American university system was particularly important here. Moreover, academic historians have presented this characteristic as a means to draw a contrast with the use of the past by other specialists and subjects, for example by political scientists and sociologists, let alone with public myths. As a reminder that prestige and power also play a role, the emphasis on the scholarly skills linked to archival research has served as a way to accumulate intellectual prestige, and thus establish expertise and rank, notably at the expense of amateurs.

The academic stress on empiricism, the role of facts, took a battering in the late twentieth century from a number of challenges, culminating in postmodernism. However, the stress on empiricism, albeit with a greater awareness of the multiple interpretations possible of those facts, remains characteristic of academic scholarship, with “referentiality and historiography” marking the distance from fiction. Therefore, empiricism is a key point of methodological and historiographical discussion. This is the case whatever may be the caveats of those with a turn to philosophy and to discussion about the nature of meaning. In so far as the practicalities of research and teaching are concerned, the interests and concerns of those engaged in these philosophical questions are shared by only a small minority of the academic profession, let alone popular historians.’

‘History as a subject may deal with the past, but it is a living discipline and thus has a future. Historiography necessarily should consider this future, not least because it will help to establish the significance of the current situation and of earlier developments that already are the subject of historiographical discussion. This is the case not only for the content of history but also for its forms in the changing shape of historical method and of intellectual discussion of the nature of history. (….)

It is probable that the nature of academic teaching will be transformed, and this transformation may well have major consequences for the process of research. (…) The current model of universities as distinctive institutions for the face-to-face teaching of young people is already being replaced by a far more varied menu including distance learning through the internet, as well as shorter and sandwich courses, and most-age teaching, that is, for most ages rather than largely the 18-22 cohort. (….) However, as history is a subject lacking a vocational structure or oversight, and a subject that is very much presented in the vernacular, so it will be especially prone to influence not only from the political questions of the day but also from the wider currents of social expectation.  (…) The result is likely to be an expectation of a clarity that may seem like simplicity to many academic commentators.

This development will probably be taken further if history is increasingly taught as part of a general course of studies. Such a location for the subject encourages the broad-brush approaches of social scientists, with their emphasis on abstraction, generalization, and semi-automatic patterns of cause and effect, rather than any stress on contingency, the individual or individuals, and the moment. The second group of factors offers a perspective currently understood, accepted, and respected as valid by many historians, notably in the Western empirical tradition. As another aspect of context, governments want all university activity to be considered in terms of output, with this output, including the graduates themselves, to be much more useable and employable for the benefit of the economy, and in the shortest possible term. Training is their ideal, not education.

A drive for simplicity in explication may well be furthered by a general decline of social deference that is linked to an attack on expertise and professionalism, both seen as inherently un-democratic and as constraints on accountability. Excess deference certainly is unhelpful to scholarship when it deters students from challenging their teachers’ ideas. In some countries, students essentially are expected to reproduce the lessons of their teachers rather than to engage in independent research. This is the case, for example, in many Italian universities. However, in the contrary direction, in societies where views are validated by conviction and emotion, the expert will have a contested role, and his or her status will be challenged. There has also been the rise of the “secondary intellectuals,” such as journalists, novelists, and television personalities, who supersede academic historians. This rise is an aspect of a general media­driven present-mindedness. It is accompanied by a shrinking of attention spans with a consequent demand for readily digested views of the past. (….)’

‘The idea that historical research and teaching is dependent on politics and events is one that will not surprise historians considering historiography. A somber instance of developments affecting the perception of the past is provided by the impact of some recent episodes, notably Rwanda in 1994, on the historiography of genocide. Some academics, however, prefer to underplay, if not sometimes ignore, the dependence of historical work on politics because it challenges the ideas of professional autonomy and intellectual independence, as well as the desire for freedom of enquiry that leads to an assumption that such freedom should, and will, obviously pertain. Suggesting that this sense of entitlement may be of scant relevance for the governments of many states, and that authoritarianism may become more prominent on the world scale, raises issues of scholarly engagement. These can be seen with discussion both of the importance of Western liberal values, and of the dangers of authoritarianism. Freedom of enquiry in practice has a wider cultural value than one limited to the West. To write, therefore, of the decline of the West in terms of the “end of history,” or at least of this liberal interpretation, would be overly alarmist. First, there would be states that do not develop in this direction. Secondly, authoritarian systems are less monolithic and ideologically coherent than they might seem or pretend. Thirdly, historical processes will continue, and be recorded and discussed, however much the recording and discussion are slanted and biased.

Yet, at a deep level, the decline of the West might challenge history understood as an aspiration freely to provide independent accounts of the past. That does not have the ring of the “end of history,” but the prospect is alarming. Outlining such a prospect should remind us of human agency, of the role of each generation in affecting not only the present, but also in influencing the future and presenting the past. Those telling the past, both academics and others, have a particular responsibility in this sphere as they can also help shape perceptions of the present and for the future. To abdicate this responsibility by preferring to focus on points of scholarship while underrating the wider context for intellectual life is a potent neglect of a public responsibility to maintain liberal values of free inquiry and free debate. As such, a liberal interpretation of history is a good tradition that should be preserved. These values are central to democratic culture and practice.’

‘Contrasting notions about learning from the past in an incremental fashion, those offered here, assume not a millenarian perfectibility of mankind nor an ending of history, but, rather, a notion of improvability. President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland, visiting Britain in 2014 on the first state visit by an Irish President, argued that “affecting a kind of amnesia is of no value” and that, instead, it was necessary to “show humility about the past” and say sorry. The wrongs of the past are not forgotten, but their reiteration as admonition can only take us so far. The notion of improvability is a more helpful way of considering lessons from the past than that of perfectibility. However, like the more strident approach, improvability poses a danger, that the past may be jettisoned if it does not contribute to, or correspond with, the lesson sought. The most accurate history, one that notes the ambiguities of the past, the diversities of motives, and the complexities of causation is not one that corresponds with political and religious strategies, or with public needs for clarity, heroes, and villains. Such a history is one that tells us most about the past and about ourselves. It is one that repays examination.’  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

All Quotations are taken from: Jeremy Black, Clio’s Battles. Historiography in Practice (2015). Irène Diependaal rearranged the sequence of the quotations. The subtitles in this text, arranged for Hereditas Historiae, are her responsibility.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. A short introduction in his own words, taken from the website of the University or Exeter: 'Jeremy Black studied at Queens' College Cambridge, St John's College Oxford, and Merton College Oxford before joining the University of Durham as a lecturer in 1980. There he gained his PhD and ultimately his professorship in 1994. He joined Exeter University as Established Chair in History in 1996.'