Sunday, August 26, 2007


Clio, the Muse of History, after the sculptural relief by Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844)

This blog represents a combination of longstanding professional and personal interests. Although I am a professional historian, it is not concerned primarily with academic history teaching and research, as such. Rather, because historical topics regularly crop up in the traditional news media, and now on the internet, and because historical allusions and analogies form an integral part of our political and cultural discourse, the aim is to follow the evolving dialogue between the scholarly and popular domains.

To begin with, it is worth noting which topics are deemed worthy of general coverage. In the case of television’s History Channel, for example, war and religion seem to predominate (to the extent that it has not simply and bizarrely reallocated its air time to barely or non-historical topics such as dangerous jobs). Further, we may ask whether the media (old and new) succeed in their avowed aim of distilling and more widely disseminating complex new information. To what extent does popularization entail a narrowing of scope or distortion of content, loss of complexity?

It should be emphasized: To ask the question is not necessarily to assume a pessimistic answer, at least to the extent that the nature of the media, as such, is at issue. These questions are not new ones. As I have suggested elsewhere, many of the more misguided complaints about the internet and blogosphere today echo the charges raised against newspapers and journals two centuries ago and derive from similar cultural biases and ideological needs.

The historical allusions that non-historians employ in other contexts pose a different, arguably greater challenge, for they have a dual impact, both objective and evocative. To make a historical analogy is to make a statement about our values and ways of reasoning, and the nature of that choice can open up or close off conversation, clarify or cloud our thinking—often with fateful consequences. This is why comparisons with Nazism are often so problematic. A case in point is the lessons that politicians presumed to draw from the experience of “appeasement” during the interwar years. Anthony Eden and the British government, concluding that Gamal Abdul Nasser was the next Hitler, seized the Suez Canal by force in 1956, only to find that their actions, far from preserving British dominance of the region, instead effectively ended it. The Cold War belief in the “domino theory,” which led the United States into the débâcle of Vietnam, is even more familiar. The examples could be multiplied. (Two decades ago, Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May of the Kennedy School addressed these themes in a political-managerial context in their Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.)

One of the simultaneously most challenging and rewarding aspects of academia is teaching students to think historically: that is, to approach each topic as at once distinctive and situated in a wider flow of phenomena and events, to be able to see similarities and differences alike. To begin with, one has to overcome the erroneous belief (fear) that history is about mere names and dates (as if these in themselves were worthy of serious study). In place of that simplistic and empty notion one can scarcely do better than to recommend the simple definition of the pioneering French historian Marc Bloch, who in the now-classic The Historian's Craft called history “the science of men . . . in time.” What he meant was that we explore the unfolding of human nature in varying chronological, geographical, and cultural settings. Time, he said, is not simply “a measurement.”

The historian does not think of the human in the abstract. His thoughts breathe freely the air of the climate of time. . . . .
Historical time is a concrete and living reality with an irreversible onward rush. It is the very plasma in which events are immersed, and the field within which they become intelligible . . . .
Now, this real time is, in essence, a continuum. It is also perpetual change. The great problems of historical inquiry derive from the antitheses of these two attributes.

One of the most satisfying attempts to impart some of the lessons of continuity, context, and comparison occurred early in my career around the time of the first Gulf War over Kuwait. I happened to be teaching about the appeasement of the Nazis and Italian Fascists in the 1930s. My own views on the matter were very clear: Appeasement represented one of the greatest moral failures and strategic miscalculations of modern times. At the same time, I wanted students to know that historians need be able to understand the mentalities of all the historical actors (though to understand is not to excuse): to remember that, in 1938, without the benefit of our hindsight, the necessary point of reference was 1918 and not 1945; to understand why the trauma of the trenches led many decent, intelligent leaders and citizens to believe that virtually anything was preferable to another continental war; to understand why even experienced politicians and sophisticated thinkers failed to grasp that fascist regimes were qualitatively different from others; and then to understand how the Nazis shrewdly exploited these hopes and fears to the fullest. I also wanted them to understand that even like-minded people sometimes looked at the same evidence and drew radically different conclusions: Some “progressive” thinkers concluded that the only proper response to war and dictatorship was diplomacy or pacifism, while others rushed to Spain to take up the fight.

The students were doing very well with the material. At the end of the unit, I screened a powerful documentary about the Munich Agreement of 1938, and the cynical betrayal of Czechoslovakia by her erstwhile British and French allies. In the final scenes, as subdued passages from Smetana’s “Má Vlast” played in the background, Nazi troops proceed to occupy a snowy Prague, making a mockery of the promise of “peace in our time” half a year earlier. Immediately afterwards, one student approached me with a question. She had been deeply moved by the class unit and the film, and wanted to know more about the topic. She also wanted to know what lessons she was supposed to draw.

“It was so terrible,” she said. “They should not have let that happen.” She paused.
“But,” she continued, with some nervousness, “If I am against this, does that mean that I have to be for war against Iraq?”

“Not necessarily, I replied.” “But you owe it to yourself to ask that question—and then to think very carefully before answering it.”

To this day, I do not know what decision she reached, but I do know that, unlike many, old and young, she took the time to interrogate both the evidence and her own preconceptions, and that is all that one can ask. When one watches a young citizen and an evolving intellect wrestle with the complexity of moral and political choices and realizes that she has gained an insight to carry with her in the years to come—on days such as that, one has the feeling that the practice of the profession is its own reward.

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