How and why does history get rewritten?
If you read a history book written in the United States from the 1950s, on the origins of the Cold War, you’d get a definitive answer on which country was to blame, backed up with extensive evidence to justify its points. The book would say it was the fault of Soviet Russia, under the leadership of Stalin, and it would refer to Stalin’s takeover of eastern Europe, his refusal to grant its governments the democracy he had promised them, and his desire to spread communism to all corners of the globe. His truculence at the 1945 Potsdam Conference, his execution of anyone who stood in his way, and his perfidy over Berlin would all be stated effusively. Historians who viewed the Cold War in this way have become known as ‘Orthodox’ thinkers.
If you picked up a US history book from the late 1960s, the chances are, you’d get a very different view. You’d read of America’s desire to take over economic control of Europe and tie the countries there to the dollar. You’d read of Truman’s aggressiveness at the Potsdam Conference, his use of the atomic bomb (was the second one actually necessary, or was it just a warning to the Soviets?), the setting up of NATO; in short, you’d be told that responsibility for the Cold War was Washington’s, and that Stalin merely acted defensively, after having lost around 25 million people as a result of the Second World War. This way of approaching the Cold War was termed ‘Revisionist’.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the story would be retold again. Historians would point out that the Cold War was inevitable, given the ideological differences that existed between East and West, and it is futile to try to blame one person or even one country in particular. Did the Cold War even start in 1945? Is it not more correct to trace its origins back to 1917 and the Russian Revolutions? Better still, why not to the publication of Marx’s works in the 19th century? Or even to the conditions that inspired him? This school of thought was given the name ‘Post Revisionism’.
The point is, that our retelling of what happened in the past changes constantly, and this is true with just about every major event in history. The causes of the Second World War used to be straightforward. Hitler was to blame. But then along came the British historian AJP Taylor, and iconoclastically revised our view by suggesting that Hitler was only doing what he was allowed to do, and the blame for the war should be levelled at the policy of appeasement, in which the British and the French gave away large chunks of Europe to him to keep him happy. Historians seemed to reach a consensus on the causes of the First World War by the 1960: it was more or less agreed that blame should be shared between the major powers of Europe, and that all had a part to play in the outbreak of fighting in 1914. But then Fischer came along, and suggested (much to the horror of his countrymen) that Germany alone was to blame, that they had intentions of taking over the whole of Europe, and that in encouraging Austria to attack Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, they had set in motion a series of events that they knew would lead Europe into major conflict.
So what affects our interpretation of the past, and why does it get rewritten? The following overlapping factors all affect the way in which history may be approached, and mean that it will inevitably be written from different perspectives, and change over time.
The availability of evidence for the historical account
The first of these factors is pretty straightforward. Everything we write about the past is based on evidence, and if we use different evidence, we will inevitably arrive at a different version of what happened in the past. Historians should, of course, use as much evidence as possible, and the evidence should be as varied and widespread as possible, to avoid building up a biased picture of the past. But sometimes they are not always able to access evidence, which later becomes available to other historians. Using the example above, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a huge range of archives, previously hidden behind the dreaded ‘Iron Curtain’ were made accessible, and historians were able to examine a lot more evidence on what – and who – caused the Cold War.
Certain documents revealed more about the conditions within Russia, leading one of the most famous Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis to harden his post-revisionist approach on who was responsible. Learning more about Stalinist Russia led him to conclude that Stalin was more able to compromise than Truman, the President of the United States, who couldn’t afford to look soft on the communists. Writing in 1997, Gaddis’ said (We Now Know, Rethinking the Cold War):
World politics was an extension of Soviet politics, which was in turn an extension of Stalin’s preferred personal environment: a zero-sum game, in which achieving security for one meant depriving everyone else of it.
The level of objectiveness used by the historian in choosing the evidence
But sometimes a wide range of evidence is available, but historians choose not to use it. Instead, they are so keen to prove a hypothesis that they have developed, that they are unwilling to consider evidence that might contradict what they believe. They may not do this consciously – sometimes after a historian feels that she has answered a question, they cease looking for the answer (contradicting Socrates’ dictum about never ceasing to ask questions in order to discover the truth), feeling, perhaps, that the answer fits in well with their wider paradigm. Sometimes, though, they may be very aware that they are fitting the facts around a theory, rather than the other way around, which is a guaranteed route to arriving at a false picture of the world. This is the approach of historians who have a specific purpose to history writing, rather than just investigating what happened, or are affected by the paradigm through which they view the world (see the sections below).
One example of using evidence selectively is the Marxist account of the start of the First World War. For Marxists, everything in history can be explained by class conflict, so the reason for the First World War kicking off had to be the same. Lenin decided to focus on the colonial conflicts that were going on in Africa and other parts of the world, as the European states tried to build up their back yards bigger than their neighbours, and enrich themselves as much as possible. He said that the war was just an extension of this colonial conflict, as capitalists tried to extend their markets even further.
Unfortunately, Lenin focused far too much on the colonial issues, and neglected other aspects that had nothing to do with class, such as the rise of nationalism and militarism in Europe. Indeed, most historians now play down the role played by the colonial conflicts, stressing that capitalists were now investing their money in non-colonial areas (such as the USA).
It seems that Lenin was far too wrapped up in his communist outlook of the world to see that other possible explanations existed for the start of the war.
The purpose of the historical account
As soon as there is a purpose other than trying to tell the truth about what happened in the past (regardless of whether it is possible to find out the truth), a historical account becomes tainted. This sounds easy to avoid at first sight – just tell the truth about what happened! – but in practice, very few of us are able to be so removed and objective. There are often other motives for doing things. For the historian, these other motives may be academic ambition (radical new theories on why an event happened always make a big intellectual impact), money (history books can be bestsellers, and get their authors into the popular press), to forward an ideological position, attack or defend a government, or toe the political line of the nation in which the history account is written.
The most obvious examples of this last factor would be works of propaganda to consolidate the position of a dictator: both Hitler and Stalin ‘rewrote’ history to portray their struggles to gain power as being inevitable, glorious, and popular, but such a manipulation of the facts is a feature of all authoritarian states. As George Orwell observed, ‘he who controls the past, controls the future, he who controls the present, controls the past.’
But this phenomenon isn’t only a characteristic of one-party states. School textbooks in democratic states are often selective in their use of evidence in order to present a country in a good light. Japan, which has struggled to accept its recent past, is one example of a nation in which certain groups have tried to whitewash more painful events in order to clean up the country’s image. The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform is one such group, and in 2000 they managed to influence the content being put into a textbook to downplay Japan’s aggressiveness in the 1930s. The resulting scandal led to the book being rejected by many school boards, unwilling to compromise their teaching of the subject.
Social, political, and psychological paradigms at the time of the historical account
It’s very hard to escape the influence of the prevailing political and social climate, and this is true for historians as much as for anyone else. How we see and understand the world inevitably depends on the intellectual fashions of the time, and it takes an unusually courageous mind to break free from such constraints.
The good news is that we can often learn just as much about history from the way history is told as from the events that are being covered. To put this in context, have a look again about what has just been said about different accounts of the Cold War. You have the orthodox view, the revisionist view, the post-revisionist view, and, if we include the changes that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-1991 view.
Apart from the last of these, it’s hard to imagine why accounts developed like this. But study the history of when each view was being developed, and you soon understand why the different ideas took hold.
The orthodox account appeared just after the Second World War. The USA and her allies had just fought in the most catastrophic conflict in history, and the events were still fresh in people’s minds. Patriotism and allegiance to one’s country were still strong, and no-one was yet willing to question the role of governments and politicians who had defended the free world, safeguarded families and societies, and, importantly, were still very much alive and in charge. Therefore, the view that the USA could have been responsible for starting a new conflict was unthinkable and unacceptable. The Cold War could only have been an initiative from the other side, or the USSR. Although Churchill’s famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946, in which he said:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “iron curtain” has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.
His speech was condemned by many governments of the day, but it took hold in the imagination of ordinary people, and academics (who held him in great esteem), and informed the way they viewed what was going on.
Times change, though. The Americans soon showed themselves willing to combat the threat of communism (as they saw it) using any means at their disposal. This started at home, and in the Red Scare of the 1950s fuelled by Senator McCarthy, it seemed for a time that the USA had become the authoritarian menace that it said it was struggling against. Then came Vietnam, a brutal conflict in which the Americans no longer to be wearing the white hat of the hero. People now questioned their government, and academics were in the forefront of this soul-searching. It became acceptable, moral, even, to realign your allegiance, and accept that there were other perspectives. Perhaps the USSR had just been acting defensively. Perhaps it was the USA that had deliberately enflamed the situation.
The post-revisionist standpoint partly developed as an logical intellectual extension of the debate, but there is little doubt that it was influenced by the negative feelings towards the Soviet Union during the 1970s and early 1980s which saw such events as the invasion of Afghanistan and the persecution of political opponents who spoke out against the ailing regime. The new thinking was that there was little to choose between these two powers, and that to a large degree, the struggle was inevitable result of the ideological differences between them. Ernest May in 1984 typified this approach by writing (From American History, A Survey, by Alan Brink, published in 1986):
After the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union were doomed to be antagonists…. There probably was never any real possibility that the post-1945 relationship could be anything but hostility verging on conflict… Traditions, belief systems, propinquity, and convenience … all combined to stimulate antagonism, and almost no factor operated in either country to hold it back.
The method used by the historian
Historians often have different approaches to history, and contrasting methods lead to different results. Going way back to the Greeks, and looking at the two men who are sometimes called the first historians, we can see that different methods were used from the very beginning of history-telling. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus set out to explain the origins of the long war between the Greeks and the Persians. Although he drew on an admirable range of academic disciplines, considering geography, anthropology, and natural sciences (as we would call these today), he was not afraid of drawing on accounts that came from before living memory, and incorporated rumour into his theorising.
In contrast, Thucydides, writing around the same time, and trying to analyse the Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta, had a stricter approach. He focused on political and military factors rather than digressing into other areas, and stuck to living memories, and was often sceptical in his judgement of opinions he encountered. The result is that his history is regarded as much more reliable than his peer.
In more modern times, the same principle applies. historians have to remain as objective and sceptical as possible, and if they don’t, their results can suffer. In 1983, a German magazine Der Stern published extracts of what it claimed were the never-before-seen diaries of Adolf Hitler.
The world’s media went into a frenzy. Everyone wanted to publish their own version of the story, which would mean, of course, paying large amounts of money for the diaries from Der Stern. In Britain, the highly-respected Sunday Times newspaper hired the Second World War specialist Hugh Trevor-Roper to verify the diaries before the newspaper put in a bit. He flew to Switzerland, and announced in an article for the paper:
I am now satisfied that the documents are authentic; that the history of their wanderings since 1945 is true; and that the standard accounts of Hitler’s writing habits, of his personality and, even, perhaps, of some public events, may in consequence have to be revised.
But Trevor-Roper, possibly affected by his position of power and his sudden emergence as the most famous historian in the world, had been tricked. Forensic experts, examining the diaries, quickly concluded that not only were the diaries fake, they were rather poor fakes at that. The editors of Der Stern and the Sunday Times resigned, and Trevor-Roper’s reputation was never the same again. The forger, Konrad Kujau, served three years in prison, although he emerged as a minor celebrity, and had some success in selling ‘genuine Kujau fakes’.
Different outlooks on the nature of history
Historians differ not just in terms of their method, but also in terms of their philosophical approach to history. Some embrace the Nietzschean idea that there is no truth, only our interpretation of it, something that is probably easier to apply to the past than to the present. Some maintain that it is possible to come close to a retelling of what actually happened, as long as one follows a strict method in accessing it. This will be discussed in the next section.
Another difference in outlook is in what determines the unfolding of events in the past. Is history shaped by forces that influence our society, as Durkheim and social scientists who follow a holistic approach would have it, or is it determined by the actions of individuals? A bitter argument occurred in the 1960s and 1970s between two eminent British historians on this very matter, and their different outlooks on history represent one of the central debates in how we ‘do’ history and view the past. EH Carr, who specialized in Russian history, wrote a famous book in 1961 called What is History? The book summed up his ideas on history, which forwarded the idea that a more sociological approach should be used when understanding past events. On the other hand, Geoffrey Elton, the Cambridge Tudor historian was equally trenchant in his views. His book, written 6 years after What is History?, and designed as a riposte to it, was The Nature of History. In it, he defended a scientific approach to the subject in which the actions of individuals are the defining engines of historical development. He was also very opposed to the use of other disciplines to further our understanding in the subject.