I’ve been brushing up on my European history recently.
“Fascinating,” I hear you say, with barely concealed sarcasm. But believe me, it really is. Of course, I think all history is absorbing, but the book I am currently reading concerns the turbulent period Europe underwent between 1880 and 1945. It is something I find particularly interesting.
It was certainly a time of great social, economic and political upheaval. Countries changed rapidly, fresh ways of thinking were introduced and new technologies were developed that altered lives and social relations. The period was marked by perennial political and ideological ferment; revolutionary ideas were being lobbed like hand grenades, detonating old certainties and precipitating the sharp invasion of hitherto-unthinkable propositions.
And one must not forget the fact that the most advanced collection of nations in the world (aside from the United States, Canada, Australia, NZ and Japan) were, during this period, plunged into devastating war – not once, but twice. Within this heady, destructive mix, empires were swept away, whilst new nations were fashioned out of whole cloth. Like islands that suddenly appear after a volcanic eruption, many European countries sprang up, seemingly overnight, in the wake of the continent’s two, great conflagrations. Others disappeared, like chaff in the wind.
That is a potted rendition of what I am reading. The details are utterly absorbing (for me, anyway), but the concerns of this post are a little different. Reading this book has stimulated a number of (admittedly half-formed) thoughts on history and history writing. I don’t claim originality, for I am sure they have been conceived, articulated and discussed elsewhere.
Delving into this book invited me to think, first of all, about the nature of history itself: what it is, and what distinguishes it.
At first sight, the question seems straightforward enough: history is the retelling of past events, of lining them up in a row and arranging them in simple chronological fashion.
If only it were that simple. To be sure, history is about the retelling of past events. But is that a sufficient definition? It’s certainly necessary; one can simply recite a series of dates and occurrences, and one is participating in history. However, there seems to be a difference, however inarticulate, between mere recitation and the systematic (and sometimes unsystematic) treatises that go some way to providing a meaningful account of the past.
Meaningful. This seems to be a way forward. History could be seen as the provision of a meaningful account of the past. Whether it’s someone’s personal history, or the history of a nation (or even of several nations, as they interact with each other), history aims to give some semblance of meaning – of significance – to what might otherwise be seen as a vast jumble of events without much truth beyond their own contents.
How this meaning is derived may vary, which further complicates the historical project (and is another arrow that pierces the facile definition with which I began). When confronted with a mass of events, it is natural enough to want to place them in some kind of order; to try and discern any causal connections between the morass of seemingly disparate occurrences that make up the past. This is a preliminary step: A said B, which led to C, causing D to declare E, and creating crisis F. This is all true, so far as it goes. But this doesn’t begin to cover the notion of “meaningful”, even if it manages to develop a causal account of the past.
Some authors try and go beyond this process of mere causality. For instance, I read a wonderful book last year, on American history. The writer grouped his analysis around three, broad concepts: liberty, empire and faith. It was gripping stuff, but I suppose it could be faulted for having imposed an artificial framework onto the last 240 years of American (not to mention pre-American) history (to be sure, the author did admit that his was a synthesis, and so less detailed than specialist works). As with so many countries, The United States has undergone radical changes. So diverse a country possesses a sprawling past, and one might think that trying to map overarching ideas such as “empire” or “liberty” on so fragmented a history is nigh impossible. Still, it’s not an uncommon attempt, and not something I necessarily disagree with. Indeed, humans seem quite adept at generating meaning – coherency, intelligibility, thematic unity, intentionality – out of what seems to be the dunghill of senseless, discrete happenings. Happenstance is transmogrified into intelligible history, and meaning is bestowed upon (or coaxed out of, depending on your point of view) what might otherwise seem bereft of significance.
History – or at least the historical project – is more than simple recapitulation of past events. It involves meaning, story and interpretation. This is not to say that all history is nothing more than the result of subjective viewpoints, as if historical truth were completely inaccessible. However, it does rely upon (as far as I can tell) a fair degree of interpretative skill and narrative flair. How else might one tell the story of the United States – a vast polyglot country, with some 300 million citizens under its banner – using the aforementioned rubrics? So much of history, as a matter of course, is synthesised and translated; that is the nature of story, for in order for history to mean something – beyond dates and places and battles and speeches – it needs to be finessed, corralled, channelled. Some facts are left out, whilst others receive what might seem to be inordinate attention. This inevitably means straining the deluge of information through whatever “grid” one finds most appropriate (not that the whims of the individual historian should ever determine whether a particular framework is apt).
Further, history cannot escape the fetters of different thought worlds, and the ultimately inaccessible inner lives of historical subjects. Historians can draw credible conclusions from literary and physical evidence, but unlike, say, a tree or a moon or a glacier, a historical figure has motivations, intentions and a will. This, the “subjective” pole of history, cannot be fully overcome. One can peer into it, but only so far. And historians, even when they don’t wear thick ideological blinkers (such as doctrinaire Marxists) are wont to view the historical process through certain lenses. That is not so unusual; we all do it, whenever we view reality. Indeed, it’d be impossible to write history in the first place, and the project would be a non-starter.
However, even if we try to eschew the more overt influences of ideology, questions still remain. Is history fundamentally driven by individuals? Or is it, at base, the result of impersonal drives and forces – whether political, cultural, economic, geographic or spiritual? Are humans the captains of their (collective) fate? Or is our present era – including we, the people, who reside within it – completely determined by what has gone before us (and so on, back through the rivers of time)? Are individuals able to exercise some kind of freedom over their historical circumstances, or are we be better off capitalizing themes such as “Liberty”, “Empire” or even “Nation” as thematic drives with their own, substantial existence? I ask that last question somewhat flippantly, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that interpreting history via certain philosophical or hermeneutical grids can superimpose an artificial sense of “fated-ness” upon contingent events. Some authors write with what seems to be a false (or at least, deeply contrived) goal in mind – as if all historical circumstances were inexorably leading to a particular point. The dialectical materialism of Marxist historians is only the most explicit example. We might also cite the Enlightenment narrative, which speaks about the seemingly irresistible march of reason and progress, as human beings make their way upward towards the summit of their existence.
I suppose historians will lean one way or the other when it comes to the respective roles of individuals and broader forces in the shaping of history. In any case, these questions were sharpened by reading my current tome, featuring as it does men (they were usually men) who seemed capable of rising above the masses to carve out for themselves a place, not only within history, but seemingly over history. The example par excellence in the period about which I am reading is, of course, Adolf Hitler. Although his ghastly project was (thank goodness) unsuccessful, he more than most seemed able to bend the historical process towards his will. He rose up out of the mire of post-war German misery to turn an entire nation upon a new course. A glance at the history of Germany during these years might suggest that Hitler was some kind of deus ex machina: a ghost out of the machine; a man out of time; an individual endowed with the capacity to break free from the shackles of the normal historical order. At the same time, however, we must remember that he was just as conditioned by events as everybody else, from the lowly Bavarian day worker, to the aristocratic Prussian general. Even he might have said that he was simply a humble servant, doing what was fated for him. Indeed, he saw his origins lying within the mythological matrix of Aryan and Pan-German ideology – as if the German nation itself had birthed him, offering up an embodiment of the disparate longings of the volk (one should also regard as significant the less mystical factors that merged to “create”, if you like, the man Hitler. Examples might include Prussian militarism, turn-of-the-century German workers parties, and even the earlier philosophical influences of Romantic nationalism).
One might say, then, that there exists a mutually reinforcing relationship between individuals and the historical contexts within which they live and develop. A kind of “feedback loop” is formed, quite unconsciously, where individuals who compose a culture are simultaneously moulded by it. I remember reading a piece by Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist, who spoke of the interplay between “structure” and “agency”. On the one hand, we recognize the inescapable influence broader forces have on us (“structure”), whilst open to the stubborn reality that we are nonetheless capable of shaping those same forces (“agency”). Perhaps history is much the same, writ large across a much broader canvas. Perhaps the discrete events that compose the historical process represent, to some degree, the more mundane, though no less meaningful, acts of individuals. Perhaps it is possible to say that historical meaning is an emergent process – that is, it emerges out of the chaotic ferment, where the myriad decisions people make every day somehow result in a broader coherency that exists apart from any one individual’s conscious participation in it. Indeed, it could be said that the past is pregnant with meaning after all, which then goes on to exert an unseen, yet irresistible, power over its denizens.
Of course, much more can be said than the little precis I have offered. As you can see, the reading of history can be very stimulating. That we engage in it – on whatever level – is, I think, one of the main differences between humans and the rest of the natural world. The fact that we can not only recollect the past, but reflect upon it, suggests that, to some extent, we can shape our environments. We are deeply influenced by what comes before, but perhaps our capacity to situate ourselves within the historical stream means that we can at least play some role in its future course. Not only space, but time as well, is malleable – at least to a certain extent. Reading the violent, rancorous history of Europe between 1880 and 1945 compels me to hope for this, in any case.