Posts Tagged history
The return of historical artefacts to their place of origin is an issue loaded with controversy and debate. It’s also an emotive subject for many, and discussion can quickly descend into argument about historical guilt, right and wrong, and a ‘them versus us’ rhetoric. The subject is too large and unwieldy to do it full justice here, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves that this is about more than old bits of rock or statues of dead rulers. The debate over historical artefacts demonstrates just how important history can be to matters of modern identity and foreign relations.
On the face of it, the debate is quite simple. Many of the world’s greatest museums hold pieces of art, sculpture, jewellery and artefacts that have come from other countries, often acquired under contentious circumstances. Some governments/organisations are asking for these items to be returned to them, but many museums do not want to do this. Mixed in with this seemingly simple argument about ownership are far more complex matters of nationalism and internationalism, as well as feelings of anger, patriotism and blame. So what are some of the key issues in this debate?
Advocates of returning historical objects often argue that such items should reside in the country from which they originated, plain and simple.
The problem with this argument is that throughout history, the borders of many of the countries we recognised today have been malleable, porous, or non-existent. Indeed, many modern countries did not exist a few decades ago, let alone centuries. India was only united as one country in 1947 (Pakistan did not exist until this point). Italy as we understand it today was only created in 1861. What makes a country a country (is it ethnicity of the people residing within certain internationally recognised borders? Is it a particular all-encompassing structure of government? Is it a language? A religion?) is not only debatable, but it is also unfixed and ever changing.
Closely related to this issue of origin is that of ownership. Returning historical artefacts to their original owners sounds straight forward enough, but determining ownership (like country of origin) is fraught with difficulty. Is it the original creator of the piece that owns it? If so, how do you trace the creator? This may be feasible for certain items like a painting or a sculpture, but what about an ancient death mask or a carving on a temple, which was created by an unnamed, unknown person or people? Does such work belong to the state? What if said state did not exist at the time of the artefact’s creation? Which brings us back to the issue of origin.
This is an interesting and tricky issue, mainly because how an artefact is ‘valued’ is so hard to define. Illustrative of this is the Koh-i-noor diamond. Perhaps the world’s most renowned jewel, it was first recorded in the history books around the 14th century. Originally 793 carats, its size was reduced by various botched attempts to cut it, until, in the 1850s, it was cut by the Victorians to its present size and shape (105 carats). Since cut is one of the ways a diamond is valued (together with carat and clarity) it can be argued that although the operation reduced the size of the diamond, by cutting it properly, the British increased its value (and can thereby claim ownership).
Yet the Koh-i-noor is a good example of an item that is worth more than its intrinsic characteristics. This diamond’s value lies not just in its cut, clarity and carat, as most diamonds do, but in its history and thus the meaning that is placed on it. Its symbolism of empire, monarchy (sitting in the crown jewels as it does), subjugation and the spoils of war means more to people than its monetary worth.
Indeed, some might say that more important than financial worth (or a better way of measuring value) is meaning. The Rosetta Stone is simply a piece of rock; its meaning lies in the fact that it allowed Western scholars in the nineteenth century to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, which opened the door to understanding ancient Egyptian life.
Because meaning is so subjective, it is hard to evaluate a historical object in this way. The meaning of an item like the Rosetta Stone (or the Koh-i-noor) might be different for different people, cultures or countries, so how do you judge to whom the item has more meaning?
Seeing an artefact in its original context is in large part what can give an object value and meaning – so argue those who want the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece. Only by seeing the frieze in the Acropolis Museum, as close to their original position as possible, can people appreciate not only the aesthetics but the context (and thus meaning) of the sculptures.
Context, however (like meaning), can be a tricky measure by which to evaluate where an artefact should be held. The Rosetta Stone is a case in point. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo might want to hold the stone themselves, arguing that it needs to be seen in the context of other Ancient Egyptian artefacts for its full meaning to be understood. Nonetheless, on display as it currently is in the British Museum in London, the piece tells the story not only of Ancient Egypt, but of the Napoleonic Wars, of Western scholarship, of the development of Egyptology and the almost obsessive pursuit of understanding this ancient culture which gripped Britain, America, France and other countries in the nineteenth century.
A strong argument often in favour of keeping historical artefacts in certain museums is that of access. In 2013/2014 the British Museum received 6.8 million visitors; the Acropolis Museum just over one million. Numerous factors attribute to these figures, but the ultimate conclusion is that more people get to see the contents of the British Museum than the Acropolis. Another key point to consider is freedom of access – the British Museum, along with others like the Smithsonian in the US, do not charge an entry fee. Which means anyone, regardless of economic background, can access great works of art and historical objects.
A further point to take into consideration is which institution is better able to take care of an historical artefact, both in terms of preservation and/or restoration of the object, but also in regards to security. Certain museums attract the most talented of the world’s curators, conservators and scholars, so that a piece will be properly looked after and be available for the enjoyment of future generations. Certain countries also have more stable governments than others, and are less likely to witness war or extremism, which can prove fatal to historical pieces.
A poor argument in favour of retaining such objects where they presently are is that of the slippery slope – ‘if we return this item, we will have to return all items and then our museum would be empty’. Unfortunately, the slippery slope argument is always a fallacy and comes across as an excuse not to engage with the debate. Each artefact is unique, with an individual history, meaning and value. Each case needs to be considered on its own merit, rather than a blanket rule applied to all. The slippery slope argument only adds to discord between countries arguing over the return of historical artefacts, and does not serve reasonable and considered deliberation.
There is by no means an easy answer to the matter of returning historical artefacts, and those who try to reduce the issue to one or two factors do not do the debate any favours. Each object needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis, and the important measures by which return should evaluated appear to those of access and care, closely followed by meaning and context. Trying to remove emotion and negative discourse from the discussion is difficult, but it can blur the matter at hand. Ultimately, historical objects are the possessions of humanity and only those who can ensure the greatest care and best access, so that millions of people across the world can enjoy these pieces, should be allowed the great privilege of looking after them.
Recently, I gave an interview to a website known as Women in Foreign Policy. Aside from being an opportunity to shamelessly plug myself (if you want to read the interview it’s here) it made me think about the connection between foreign policy and history. I suddenly had a small panic: ‘what if readers wanting to know more about working in foreign policy stumble across my profile? Will they be disappointed by my history qualifications?’ It also made me think about this blog, and how many posts were about international relations and how many about history. Again, if foreign policy devotees read my blog, would they find it lacking?
In thinking on the topic I came across by George Lawson, an Associate Professor in the International Relations department of LSE. Ultimately, Lawson argues that history and social science need each other:
…the eternal divide is more imagined than real. Indeed, there are various tools that can help to construct an alternative understanding of the relationship between social science and history… Much of the time, these differences are elevated into insurmountable barriers. [My] argument…is that history and social science should be seen as a common enterprise.
Trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounder… Among other things, it’s useful to know how other societies see the past even if you don’t agree with their interpretation, so make sure you read histories written by citizens of other countries.
Both writers extort foreign policy devotees to understand history better. On the other hand, what can historians learn from practitioners of international relations? Gordon A. Craig, late president of the American Historical Association had to say:
Th[e] audience is interested in foreign affairs, as can be seen from many signs and portents, ranging from its continuing fascination with diplomatic memoirs to the nuclear freeze movement, and not excluding the revival, on some campuses, of international relations programs outside and at the expense of history departments. The general public has a right to feel that our work should bear some relevance to its concerns…
Craig was a renowned scholar of German history and his point about what the public wants from historians is particularly interesting when considered in the light of Nazism, the Second World War, the Cold War and so on. There is a danger, however, of practitioners of foreign policy using historical example to support their current decisions – for instance, ‘appeasement’ seems to have become a dirty word following Chamberlain’s failed attempt to deal with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Likewise, it becomes unfortunate when some historians feel the need to prove the value of their work by shoe-horning in a connection between history and current affairs.
The editors of Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists and the Study of International Relations, talk about this in further detail. The book is a collection of pieces written by historians and international relations academics; some chapters discuss key aspects of the study of both disciplines, others look at world events from each perspective. It’s an interesting read, although it does focus on the academic study of these two subjects. How useful debate on theory is, for example, to those working outside of academia, I am not sure. It’s certainly a book I’ll explore deeper later on – but perhaps in a different blog post. In fact, I think this entire topic is one that requires more thought and discussion. For now, I’m happy to end this short post with the corny saying that there is more that unites us than divides us.
In a celebration of some of the fantastic blogging done by historians, I’m proud to be hosting this month’s History Carnival.
Let’s kick off with a little soul-searching and the question of how we study history, in George Campbell Gosling’s post Flattening History: ‘As historians, we spend half our time insisting the past was more complex than is typically appreciated and the other half simplifying everything beyond our central focus at that moment.’ Following this theme of looking at some of the deeper questions in history, the many-headed monster site asks ‘who were “the people” in early modern England?’ This etymological research discusses the rhetoric of ‘the people’ during moments of political crisis and in an ecclesiastical or geographical sense too.
More questions are asked by Emily Rutherford on the JHIBlog when she looks at why Edwardian costume dramas are so popular. The answer takes us on a journey into the history of popular perception of the British Empire. Evolutionary ecology is discussed in Natural History Apostilles with a nineteenth century argument about plagiarism between Patrick Matthew and John Claudius Loudon.
In the latest post on Doing History in Public Patrick Seamus McGhee uses three cases to take a look at the history of atheism between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Meanwhile, on Thoughts on Military History, we learn something about leadership styles and the issue of control during the Battle of Britain.
The reach of history is born in mind when we read about Sophie Coulonbean’s work for the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers scheme on the CRECS site. Sophie has been looking at the trials of agitators for reform to the British political system in the wake of the French Revolution and we look forward to seeing the film on the BBC Arts website in March.
Sticking with television, we read about Loretta Young in Jack Le Moine’s History Moments before moving to some classic literature with a discussion of the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its ability to shape discourse on American race relations, in US Studies Online.
In a recent post on Zenobia: Empress of the East, the Amazons are discussed and we literally take a look at the face of a female warrior, ‘Princess Ukok’, buried in a Siberian burial mound around 500 BCE. We follow on our look at ideas of femininity and beauty at Early Modern Medicine and Katie Aske’s discussion on beauty spots. This French cosmetic fashion of the eighteenth century was also used to conceal scars and signs of disease. In England, they even took on a political meaning, with the Whigs and Tories adopting opposing sides of the face.
And lastly, the Medical Heritage Library announces its creation of recommended practices for those looking to access manuscript and archival collections containing health information about individuals.
So enjoy your fill of reading and we’ll see you again for the next History Carnival!
1) Otherwise known as ‘Shrove Tuesday’, Pancake Day precedes ‘Ash Wednesday’ which is the start of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent marks a period of fasting in the run-up to Easter. Shrove Tuesday became a day of using up all fatty foods before Lent, like butter and eggs.
2) ‘Shrove’ comes from the old English word ‘shrive’ roughly meaning ‘to confess’.
3) Before Christianity, Pancake Day was originally a pagan holiday. The Slavs believed that the change of seasons was a struggle between Jarilo, the god of vegetation and springtime, and the evil spirits of cold and darkness. The most important part of the celebration of the arrival of spring, Shrovetide week, was the making of pancakes. It was believed that the hot, round pancakes symbolised the sun and by eating them the Slavs got power, light and warmth from the sun. The first pancake was put on a window for the spirits of the ancestors.
4) According to sources, Britons eat roughly 52 million eggs on pancake day – this is approximately 22 million more than on a regular day.
5) The tradition of tossing pancakes is said to originate from 1445 when a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it as she went.
6) Around the world, different countries have their own name for Pancake Day:
- Mardi Gras in France.
- Fastnacht Day for German-American populations.
- In Portugese, Spanish and Italian speaking countries, it is known as Carnival (or carne levare, meaning ‘to take away meat’). It’s often celebrated with street processions or fancy dress, like the Brazilian Carnival in Rio de Janerio.
- In Maderia, on Terça-feira Gorda, they eat malasadas (using up the lard and sugar in the house, much the same was as Pancake Day in the UK). This tradition was taken to Hawaii as Malasada Day.
- In Denmark and Norway it’s known as Fastelavn.
- Iceland = Sprengidagur (Bursting Day).
7) In London, the Rehab Parliamentary Pancake Race takes place every Pancake Day, with teams from the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Fourth Estate doing a fun run to raise awareness of the charity. Elsewhere in England, many towns had traditional ‘mob football’ games which date from the 12th century until the practice died out in the 19th century.
1. On 5 November 1605 Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament with 2,500kg of gunpowder, about to light the lot and kill King James I.
This was one of the most important terrorist plots against the British monarchy in all its history. Had the plan succeeded the British government would have been destroyed. Four centuries later, we still celebrate the fact our Parliament and monarch were saved from a fiery destruction…by lighting bonfires and watching fireworks displays. Ironic?
2. Guy Fawkes wasn’t the only one involved.
Fawkes may have gained notoriety by getting caught with the barrels of gunpowder, but there were 12 other main plotters, including: Robert Catesby, John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham. The point is, the plot wasn’t the work of one lone disaffected man but a group of conspirators.
3. The plotters intended to replace James I with his nine-year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, and force her to convert to Catholicism
The men were organised and had a plan. The explosion was to occur during the State Opening of Parliament when not only the King but all members of the House of Lords and House of Commons would have been present. Senior judges, bishops, members of the Privy Council and many of the royal family were also present and would have been killed, making way for the plotters to erect their new government.
4. All the plotters were Catholic and wanted to kill James I because he was Protestant (and a Scot).
Despite the fact that James I was relatively tolerant when it came to his Catholic subjects, there were still deep divisions within England when it came to the issue of religion. Also, James was originally James VI of Scotland and inherited the English throne when his predecessor, Elizabeth I, died without producing an heir. He united the two kingdoms under his rule, much to the annoyance of some Englishmen (and Scots).
This sounds like a crucial oversight by the government of the day, but in the early 17th century the Palace of Westminster (where the Houses of Parliament sit) was a warren of buildings that was easily accessible to merchants, lawyers and others who lived and worked in the lodgings, shops and taverns. Security wasn’t considered in the same way as it is today.
6. This lead to the ceremonial searching of the cellars by the Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeaters) before the State Opening of Parliament which still happens today.
A small reminder that history is deeply ingrained in so much of British life, from our politics to our legal system to our national celebrations. The symbolism should not be forgotten.
7. Today, the mask of Guy Fawkes is worn by political protestors across the world, in countries where the Gun-Powder plot is almost unknown.
Although many would say that Fawkes was a terrorist, others now see him as a hero and freedom fighter, largely as a consequence of the film V for Vendetta. In the film, a vigilante wears a Guy Fawkes mask as he fights a fascist government. Activists (particularly the group Anonymous) have since adopted the mask as a symbol of their anti-establishment movements.
(or why Jeremy Paxman has got it wrong).
In yet another attempt to flog himself as a self-proclaimed expert on the First World War, Jeremy Paxman has been lamenting the apparent way in which the history of this conflict has entered public consciousness. Speaking at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai last week Paxman argued that war poetry, such as that by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, serves to confirm peoples’ ‘prejudices…to see the whole thing as a terrible pointless sacrifice’. Paxman believes that:
‘the events [of the First World War] now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged. So what I wanted to do was re-engage with the events themselves. How did they seem to people at the time?…Forget the poems’
Unfortunately it seems that Paxman has become confused with how history is studied (not surprising given that, despite his wish to be an authority on the First World War, he does not hold even an undergraduate degree in history). You can study events in history, and you can study the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and opinions of those who took part in these events. Sometimes you can study both together. But the two do not necessarily equate. In fact, rarely are they the same thing. No two people ever view the same series of events in the same way – which is what makes history so damn interesting in the first place. So if Paxman wants to study events that’s one thing. If he wants to understand how such events seemed ‘to people at the time’ he has to realise that Sassoon and Owen were people of the time. They were not propagandists – they wrote about what they felt and heard and saw, and the fact that they put these thoughts into the form of poetry does not make them any less valid as primary sources. To ‘forget them’ is to refuse to engage with an important historical source simply because you don’t like what they say.
What Paxman also fails to acknowledge is that Sassoon and Owen were not alone. Although Paxman and Michael Gove might not like it, there was a real sense of horror in Britain at the time of the First World War over the sheer scale and brutality of the conflict. The war touched the lives of ordinary people in a way that no previous conflict ever had. It’s easy to forget in today’s day and age where we are constantly exposed to images of soldiers in Afghanistan and bombs exploding in Gaza that for the average person in 1914 – 1918 the death and destruction of the war was a shock. People who had no previous experience of the military were pulled in to fight and nurse and grieve in a way that had profound consequences for the future of British society.
Mutiny and Revolution
One such consequence was the severance of traditional feelings regarding authority. The hurt and anger which the public felt at the destruction they saw came to focus on those who they believed were to blame for taking Britain to war in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, many British people did blame the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence for the First World War. It was believed that the secret machinations of elitist Foreign Office officials had led Britain into an unnecessary conflict that had caused the death of thousands of working class men. After 1918 there were veracious calls for reform of the Foreign Office recruitment process, for example, to counter the dominance of the aristocracy in the making of future foreign policy. It was also argued that all future foreign agreements and treaties should receive parliamentary approval – a suggestion made as a result of the belief that Britain had been pulled into the war in the first place because the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, had taken it upon himself to make various promises to the French and Russians. The economic crisis that followed the war only exacerbated these bitter feelings as unemployment spread and labour unrest rocketed. In January 1919 police and workers clashed violently in Glasgow to the point where tanks and machine guns were called in to occupy the city. Initial plans to release men from the military in phases so as to allow better re-integration into civilian work had to be cancelled when troops stationed in Folkestone and Dover mutinied. In 1918 and 1919 the police themselves went on strike. By 1920 there was a likelihood that should a general strike occur (as was being threatened for that Autumn) the authorities might find the police and ex-soldiers joining the workers. As a report of the Home Office put it, ‘in the event of rioting, for the first time in history the rioters will be better trained than the troops’. So serious was the situation that in January 1920 the Chief of the Imperial General Staff set his men to prepare plans for ‘mutiny and revolution’ in Britain.
This unrest was not confined to Britain either. Throughout the world people were starting to question the status quo. The First World War had seen the destruction of many of the great empires of the day and brought forth Communist revolution in at least one country. Everywhere the old ruling elite appeared to be collapsing and boundaries and borders shifting. America, with its proclamations of self-determination for all nations, was now front and centre of the international stage. The concept of ‘authority’ was evolving. When Gandhi, a small Indian man in a loin cloth, appeared able to challenge the might of the British Empire, then all ideas of authority, tradition and status quo were up for questioning. The First World War broke common faith in authority. People felt betrayed by the very people who professed to be their betters. While it would still take decades for British society to make real headway in eradicating notions of privilege, class and elitism, it was arguably in 1918 that such profound change began.
Call of Duty
Paxman’s other argument centres on the idea that should such a conflict break out today Britain’s youth would not be rushing to sign up to fight as they did in 1914.
‘We live in such a relativistic society now, and materialistic, self-obsessed and hedonistic; it’s hard to imagine circumstances under which people would say that ‘it is worth it, I’m willing to risk my life and well-being for this’…What would [the younger] generation fight for? The right to use your iPhone? What are the great noble causes?’
In his typical fashion of trying to argue a point that is based merely on opinion and conjecture, Paxman resorts to the cliché of ‘young people today’. Expanding further, Paxman argues that one of the reasons the younger generation would not sign up to fight ‘is probably that ideas of duty, clearly strongly felt by many people, have diminished as the international significance of the country has diminished’. The problem here is that Paxman equates a lack of sense of duty with a lack of social conscience; that because young people today may not feel a sense of responsibility to Queen and country that they are therefore inherently selfish and superficial. This is a very poor argument indeed. I believe that young people today are still capable of incredible acts of generosity, bravery and self-sacrifice, if they believe in the cause. Perhaps they will not blithely sign-up to kill others simply because their elders say so; perhaps they would not believe it would be over by Christmas; perhaps they have seen too many photos and videos to be ignorant of the grim reality of warfare. That does not mean they do not believe or care about important issues. Thousands of men and women still enlist in the British armed services every year even though they face the real possibility of actually being shot at (unlike Paxman’s generation). And in 1939 when world war broke out once again, thousands of men and women still rushed to pledge their help. The reason? Part of it may have been about duty – but a large part would also have been because they believed that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped and that they needed to defend their homeland from foreign aggression. Their trust in authority may have been broken, but their understanding of right and wrong was not.
Hello, my name is Heather and I’m a historian…
I have studied history for over ten years. I’ve written about history, researched history, taught history, attended many history conferences, had my work scrutinised and criticised by other historians. I am, by all definitions, a historian. But the reason this comes across as something of a confession is that lately I’ve felt that being a historian is decidedly uncool. As a PhD graduate looking for employment outside of academia, I admit I’ve tended to downplay my background in history and instead emphasised my interest in foreign policy and my ‘transferable skills’. I doubt there are many employers who are looking specifically for someone with an in-depth understanding of the Cabinet debates of 1919 on the recall of British troops from Persia. But somebody might be interested in the fact that I can write quite well and know a bit about project management…I’m hoping.
Don’t get me wrong – there is huge public interest in history, as the various events, literature and TV programmes surrounding the First World War centenary have shown. Social media has also made history more accessible to the public than it has ever been and has created a community feeling among #twitterstorians. However, while there is an apparently insatiable appetite for history, I don’t see a corresponding respect accorded trained historians. Maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m a bitter PhD graduate feeling unappreciated. I’d certainly like to know what other historians think. But there is, I feel, a subtle yet pervading attitude in our society towards the study of history that troubles me.
Importance Accorded Historians
One example is the attack Michael Gove made, not too long ago, on the historiography of the First World War. Gove may have been trying to make a point about the way the subject is taught in schools, but his actual argument, instead, came across as a criticism of the way historians have studied and written about the event – that (some) historians had misrepresented the war because of their own political beliefs. There is no right and wrong in history, the discipline is built on the basis of debate and argument. The BBC programmes on whether Britain should have entered the war was a fine example of eminent historians in debate. Michael Gove is not an historian nor is he an expert on the First World War – he therefore has zero right to criticise how historians do their job.
Related to this is the value that is accorded to the teaching of the subject of history generally. Every few months it seems somebody is questioning whether history should be absorbed into ‘citizenship’ classes, or scrapped entirely from the curriculum. How often are we being told that Britain needs more scientists, mathematicians and technologists? I saw a scheme recently that is trying to encourage PhD graduates to go into secondary school teaching – the salary for those who have done a science PhD is double that of the arts. And yes, this may be due to the fact that there is a lack of STEM teachers. But the overall message constantly being projected is one that says those who have training in the sciences are more valuable members of society than those who have trained in the arts. Not that this is an ‘us versus them’ situation. Indeed, I have no time for the arts versus science debate – both are equally valuable pursuits. And I in no way hold any ill will towards my STEM peers – my sister is, in fact, doing a PhD in Biology. But am I allowed to feel a little jealous when her lab had the funds to buy her a MacBook when I don’t know a single history PhD student who’s department could have done that for them?
This in turn is linked to a prevailing attitude that while you need to be trained to be a scientist/mathematician/engineer etc, anyone can be a historian. All you need is a library card. The concept of being trained in analysis of primary sources, construction of argument, critiquing of historiography, use of methodology, even citation systems, are all lost on most people. For instance, I always find it interesting that for some types of book (usually to do with psychology, healthcare, even economics), the author’s academic credentials are often very prominent. But you won’t find a history book on the shelves with ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ on its cover. I can only conclude that while the fact that the author holds a PhD or MD is important to readers who want advice on their diet, it’s not so important if they want to learn about the Suez Crisis. Yet, how does the average reader know that the author of a history book is properly trained, that they have looked at all of the sources and facts, that their argument and opinion is well informed and based on years of research and study? It’s notoriously hard for an early-career historian to get published, despite the fact that have gone through a gruelling process of writing a 100,000 word thesis (often together with articles, conference papers and book reviews) and had their work constantly scrutinised and criticised by their peers. Yet a certain well-known journalist who has no training whatsoever in history can easily publish history books and speak at high profile events on history matters.
The Value of History
One of the sad results of this lack of respect for historians is it has forced us to start having to justify what we do, using a framework that often is less about the value of historical knowledge and more about telling people what they want to hear. The Gove argument is again a good example of this – the reason we should be talking about the First World War is because it boosts national morale, or so the education secretary believes. Aside from the great danger that comes from having politicians involved in how history should and should not be studied, this sets a bad precedent for judging the inherent value of historical knowledge. No longer does the act of studying history have meaning in and of itself. Instead, something needs to be done with the product of our endeavours – we need to enhance our country’s reputation, we need to hold bad people and regimes to account, we need to learn the lessons so as not to repeat mistakes. History which aims to do any of these things is at best, bad history, at worst, dangerous propaganda.
‘Those who do not understand their past are doomed to repeat it’ – too often this phrase is taken to mean that by looking at history we can somehow stop future mistakes. I think most historians would agree that the ability to predict the future based on past events is limited. Instead, what I take to be the real meaning behind this saying is that understanding history gives you skills and abilities to hopefully reduce the chance of making the same mistakes in the future; that in training people to be analytical, critically thinking, engaged members of society, always looking to understand the other point of view and ready to question the status quo, certain aspects of our past would not be able to replicate themselves in the future.
Unfortunately, the ever increasing need to justify what we do causes some historians to try to shoe-horn this ‘lesson learnt’ aspect into their work. I’ve read work and listened to talks where very tenuous links have been made between the historical subject at hand and some current affair. Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have brought forth a plethora of Cold War analogies; every conflict involving territorial competition between foreign powers is a ‘new Great Game’. I don’t really blames these people – when it’s hard to have your voice heard you have to give the people what they want. You also have to try to connect with what people already know. And I know some people will call me a hypocrite, being that I am a historian who writes about current foreign policy. However, I’m not saying you can’t talk about history and current affairs together, just that if this is a forced element of an article/book/lecture then it doesn’t work. Again this goes back to the issue of why we should study history. I believe that knowing the history between two countries (for example Britain and Russia) can help policy makers to have more sympathy for the other’s point of view. People are shaped by their past, and for me, good history can help inform the way we look at the world as it is today. To illustrate: understanding the previous wars which have occurred between Britain and Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries can perhaps help western decision makers to better understand the attitudes that the Afghan people may have towards Britain today; it does not provide a template of what one should or shouldn’t do when going to war with Afghanistan today.
I know there are many people who will see what I’ve written as simply another ‘so-called expert’ whining about not being given the deference they feel they deserve. But I think it’s quite a natural human reaction that, when you have a passion for a subject and have dedicated significant time and effort to being trained as an expert in it, you then seek recognition of your abilities from others. So how can we change things? Well, for one thing, when you look to buy a history book, check to see if the author is a trained historian, rather than a journalist, politician or TV personality. If the public starts to demand their history writers are actually historians, we have a better chance of becoming published. That has a knock-on effect for the standing of historians. One small step but a big boost to us closet historians!