The real stuff of history
The New Criterion
reprinted in Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball (eds.) The Future of the European Past, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1997
If an Oxford don had set out in the 1960s on the formidable task of writing a history of the world in the last millennium, there is little doubt that his main theme would have been the rise to dominance of the West, especially in the areas of science, politics and economic and military power. This would have been true no matter which side he supported in the great ideological divide of the Cold War. Both the political Left and the Right had little doubt the West was the vanguard of history. The major Asian civilisations might have held vastly greater populations but for at least 500 out of the past 1000 years they had been on the receiving end of the great historical movements of the era rather than out in front, setting the pace.
In the Sixties, the history of Asia would have been written as something of a tragedy, a story of opportunities lost, of the closing of minds, of political weakness and disintegration. China, in particular, would have been treated as a sorry case, a country that began the millennium technologically advanced, wealthy, politically and militarily powerful, keenly interested in navigation and exploration, but which ended the era as one of the most backward countries in the world on almost every one of these scores, its population decimated by famine and ruled by an inept tyranny. In contrast, the small fiefdoms that constituted Christendom in the eleventh century had risen to become masters of the world, with their populations wealthy beyond belief, well-educated and spread around the globe, throughout Western Europe, the Americas and Oceania.
How things have changed within thirty years! I am not, mind you, referring to the reality of the comparative distribution of wealth, intelligence and power in the world, but to the way our Oxford don would address his subject matter in the 1990s. Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a member of the Modern History Faculty of that university, has provided in his recent book Millennium just such a dramatic reappraisal. He sees the old version of the story reflecting not the truth about global influence but merely the inflated egocentrism of Western commentators. The imagined dominance of the West was 'later, feebler and briefer than is commonly supposed,' he claims, and was 'neither foreordained nor enduring'. Rather than China being the great loser of the period, the author sees the most stable feature of the past millennium as 'an almost continuous history of Chinese preponderance'. Europe has been but 'a small promontory of Asia'. The latter is where the most important and lasting business of humanity has been taking place all this time. Moreover, at the end of this millennium, he says, the brief initiative enjoyed by the West is now returning to the shores of the Pacific. So, he begins and ends his book with the achievements of the civilisations of Asia, especially Japan and China.
Throughout the text he rebukes Western ethnocentrism at almost every opportunity. Not for him the assessment by Adam Smith that the two most important historical events of the last one thousand years were the decision of the Portuguese to round the Cape of Good Hope and open a trade route to India, and the funding by Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella of the voyage of Christopher Colombus to America. No, both events were overshadowed even in their own day by the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into the Mediterranean, by far the most world shattering imperial expansion of the fifteenth century, he maintains. Moreover, the rise of capitalism in western Europe was neither unique nor as momentous as economic historians and theorists like to imagine. Up to the early nineteenth century, for instance, the merchants of Canton were vastly richer than those of Europe. Wu Ping-Chien could have bought and sold banking empires like that of the Rothschilds several times over, he claims. It was only through military victory in the Opium War of 1839-42 that the European 'barbarians' and 'parasites' (his terminology) managed to claw back the difference. Eventually, he notes with satisfaction, the gains the British made on Chinese territory turned out to be but transitory toeholds.
This kind of approach dominates Fernández-Armesto's methodology of selection and judgement about what is important. The most prominent individuals who bestride his historic stage turn out to be those people most of us had regarded as the losers and has-beens. For instance, he has several pages about Montezuma but no mention of Ferdinand and Isabella. He devotes more space to Juan and Eva Peron than to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt combined. He has more pages on Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin than any other political figures in the book, despite the fact that neither built a Communist regime that survived more than one generation beyond his own death. St Elizabeth of Hungary gets a mention but Elizabeth the First of England gets none. As for Western intellectuals, neither Francis Bacon, John Locke, David Hume nor Immanuel Kant are discussed at all. Neither Mozart nor Michelangelo make the team. The index does not list the category 'philosophy' but does contain thirteen pages of references to shamans and shamanism.
Most of the individuals Fernández-Armesto writes about are selected for their literary interest, because of what they reveal about the cultures he is describing or because they enliven the story with idiosyncrasies and paradoxical behaviours. Only a minority are there because they have been powerful or influential enough to affect the course of history, that is, to change history. Though he eschews the kind of simplicities familiarly associated with theoretical or sociological explanations of history (he easily demolishes, for example, the thesis that the Protestant work ethic created capitalism) the author is operating with his own version of the great impersonal forces that change the fortunes of nations. His thesis is that the fate of civilisations has been defined by the seas and that the current of world history has shifted over the last thousand years from the China Sea to the Mediterranean, then to the Atlantic and now back again to the Pacific rim. Crucial to his story are the opportunities provided by things like the direction of the prevailing winds, the navigability of the rivers, the quality of the climate and the nature of the topography. Compared to these great forces of destiny, the impact of the Alexanders, the Caesars and the Napoleons of the world, and the political influence of systems such as democracy, autocracy and bureaucracy, have been puny.
As the year 2000 approaches, Millennium, a generously illustrated book of 830 pages published by Bantam Press simultaneously in several translated editions, is the first of what is likely to be a number of its kind. It should have been a matter of some satisfaction that a well-accredited scholar like Fernández-Armesto had got in so early to set the standard for the genre. Instead, this book and its inevitable imitators tell us far less about the real fate of humanity in the last thousand years and far more about what has gone wrong with the writing of history in recent decades.
Millennium was published in 1995 but written between 1991 and 1993. This timing seems to be part of its author's problem. He began writing at the end of the economic boom of the 1980s which saw both Japan and newly capitalist China set record breaking economic growth rates that appeared to be recasting the order of the world's wealth and power. What should have been apparent to any historian taking the long view, of course, was that such bubbles usually burst. By the time Fernández-Armesto had finished writing, economic recession in Japan and runaway inflation in China had removed the aura of apparent economic invincibility from both countries and had reduced their prospects from the celestial to a more earthly level. In this sense, the symbol the author chooses in his prologue to show how the world has changed so dramatically -- a London restaurant which used to serve French food but now offers Japanese -- is only too appropriate. Today, in all the major Western cities, fashions in ethnic food change as rapidly as fashions in clothing. The restaurateur who switches his menus and decor from one cuisine to another is making the most trivial comment possible about the shifting stakes of world power.
However, there is a malaise at work here far more crippling than the common mistake of assuming the short-term detours of one's own time have set the long-term course of the future. Fernández-Armesto's book is an agglomeration of several of the most debilitating tendencies that have emerged in the writing of history since the Second World War. Some of these afflictions have been political, especially the tendency to diminish our European past and to elevate that of just about every other part of the globe, no matter what the record. Others have been methodological, the adoption of practices in historical research and writing that have complemented these political judgements and without which, indeed, the political points could not have been made. Ironically enough, the worst methodological offenders have been the practitioners of the most nationally chauvinistic of all the post-1945 European schools of history, that of France.
The writer upon whom Fernández-Armesto has most modelled his work is the French historian Fernand Braudel, the editor from 1956 until his death in 1985 of the journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale. Braudel has written great tomes about periods almost as expansive as the millennium itself including the huge three-volume Civilisation and Capitalism 15th-18th Century and the two-volume The Identity of France which stretches from Roman Gaul to the Second World War. Like the other practitioners of the Annales school, Braudel describes himself as a 'structuralist historian', although his work is sometimes also called 'total history'. The term 'structuralism' derives from anthropology and emphasises not the cut and thrust of historical action but the purported framework, or underlying constants, that govern what action takes place. While other French historians of similar persuasion, such as Michel Foucault, describe the underlying framework as ideological, Braudel claims it is geographical.
The first half of the book that made his name, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, (1949) is devoted to the role of the environment in the late sixteenth century, with chapters on objects such as peninsulas, mountains, plateaux, plains, seas, coasts and climate. Only in his second half does the author stoop to focus upon the affairs of man, but even here he is mainly interested in trends in demography, trade balances, transportation and social classes. Though Phillip II of Spain is acknowledged in his title, this is merely to date the period under discussion. Braudel regards monarchs as interesting only in that they represent the category 'monarchy'. Phillip himself left no mark of substance on his era. 'Peasants and crops', the author assures us, 'food supplies and the size of the population, silently determined the destiny of the age.' With Braudel as editor, the Annales often expressed its scorn for the staples of the pre-war discipline: political history, narrative and episodic history. Under his influence, typical articles published in the journal would be entitled 'The history of rain and fine weather', and 'Amenorrhoea in time of famine: seventeenth to twentieth century'.
Part of the package that comes with this view of how to write history is the notion that particular historic events are of little consequence since they cannot influence, but merely express, the great underlying forces that cause them. 'Resounding events often take place in an instant,' Braudel writes in The Mediterranean, 'and are but manifestations of that larger destiny by which alone they can be explained.' Similarly, the role of the individual in history is hardly worthy of notice. 'When I think of the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand, fixed in a landscape in which the infinite perspectives of the long term, la longue durée, stretch into the distance both behind him and before. In historical analysis, as I see it, the long run always wins in the end. It indubitably limits both the freedom of the individual and even the role of chance.'
This approach has won for Braudel an unmatched international reputation. He is widely claimed to be one of the century's great practitioners of his discipline, praised even in Gallic-jealous Britain by conservative historians such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and radicals such as Gareth Stedman Jones, alike. His journal Annales has been seriously described by some as 'the greatest historical journal in the world' and his more enthusiastic academic reviewers have ranked him with Thucydides, Gibbon, Macaulay and Burckhardt. These accolades have been showered despite the fact that Braudel himself has openly acknowledged that the origins of his approach derived from an experience that was anything but reputable.
Braudel first major opus began in the 1920s as a graduate thesis on the diplomatic history of Phillip II's Mediterranean policy. He says he had the idea for the eventual book, and wrote the first draft of what was to become The Mediterranean, while held in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in Lübeck for most of the Second World War. During his 'gloomy captivity', he wrote in Annales in 1958, he 'struggled a good deal to get away from a chronicle of those difficult years (1940-45). Rejecting events and the time in which events take place was a way of placing oneself to one side, sheltered, so as to get some sort of perspective, to be able to evaluate them better, and not wholly to believe in them.' The event he would have most liked to disbelieve was, of course, the fall of France in 1940. For the Frenchmen of his generation, this event, coupled with the German occupation of Paris without a shot being fired, plus the subsequent collaboration of France with the Nazi regime, was a source of humiliation and anguish.
The concept that most assisted Braudel to distance himself from these events was that of the 'longue durée', the structuralist view of history. This is the time span over which he claims the historian can trace the destiny of a civilisation, a structure that particular events are powerless to alter, and a broad enough perspective to exonerate men of responsibility for events such as the defeat and occupation of their country. Over the course of la longue durée, what did a transient event like the fall of France matter? In The Identity of France, Braudel writes that even while the collaborators of the Vichy regime were in power, he believed: 'The real France, the France held in reserve, la France profonde, remained behind us. It would survive, it did survive
Ever since those days, I have never ceased to think of a France buried deep inside itself, within its own heart, a France flowing along the contours of its own age-long history, destined to continue, come what may.' In other words, the concept of la long durée has its origins less in a theory of history and more in a peculiarly French combination of nationalist hubris and nostalgia, coupled with shame over their non-performance in the Second World War.
While such an approach might endear him to his countrymen, it obviously does not explain Braudel's success outside France, especially among English-speaking historians whom one would have expected to be the least inclined to support the notion of la France profonde. His reputation came largely because he provided a model of how history could be modernised. In the wake of the war, historians were keen to bury the last vestiges of the Victorian emphasis on the heroic individual, especially the chauvinist accounts of imperial heroes like Clive of India or Gordon of Khartoum that had dominated school textbooks as late as the 1930s. Modernisation also meant taking on board the work of the fast-growing field of economic history which had found that politics, especially in democratic societies, was more a matter of economic management than had previously been appreciated. Up to the 1960s, anthropology and sociology were still intellectually respectable and some historians felt their own work should be more integrated with these and other social sciences. Braudel showed them how all these aims could be pursued.
One of Braudel's most enthusiastic fan clubs was formed by the generation of Marxists who came to prominence in the 1960s, especially in Britain. While some of the older English Marxist historians, like Edward Thompson, remained immune, enthusiasm for French ideas raged among Marxist students like a pandemic. Urged on by the most fashionable leftist journal of the day, the London-based New Left Review, the generation of sixties student radicals struggled to incorporate structuralist themes and methods into their theses. Karl Marx himself was something of an ambiguous hero to the editors of NLR. Marx, as both historian and revolutionary activist, saw the need to keep some space in his theory for political activism to make a difference to the course of history. His well-known introduction to the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte emphasised the constraints of history and the limitations on free action but stopped short of full-blown determinism. 'Men make their own history', he wrote, 'but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted'.
The academic Left of the 1960s, however, preferred Braudel's insistence on the irrelevance of individual action. NLR editor Perry Anderson wrote Lineages of the Absolutist State to press the argument for a determinist approach. By the 1970s his journal was the most ardent advocate of the structuralist brand of Marxism developed by the French Communist Party theorist, Louis Althusser. To Althusser, individual men and women have no part in shaping their world. They are merely the bearers of roles that are defined by them by the 'social formation', little more than robots programmed by the prevailing capitalist ideology. Though not a Marxist himself, Braudel nonetheless endorsed precisely the theory of history his New Left supporters wanted to hear. 'Men do not make history,' he wrote in the final passage of The Identity of France, 'rather it is history above all that makes men and absolves them of blame.'
In the wake of the failure of the attempted student revolutionary movement of 1968, and the attendant recall of Charles de Gaulle and election of Richard Nixon, this kind of historical determinism became a comfort blanket for the academic Left. There was no longer any need for a radical to be politically active since activism could make no difference to the great determining structures. All that remained was to study, theorise and debate the nature of the structures themselves. This was an agenda perfectly suited to the academic world of seminars, conferences, cafes and bars, and to the careers, tenure and promotions that have focused their minds ever since. By the 1980s, the tenured radicals had dropped Marx and Althusser (the latter now an embarrassment since in 1980 he had strangled his 74 year old wife and been declared insane) but retained their structuralist baggage. Many looked to alternative gurus, notably the former French Marxists Jean Baudrillard and Jean François Lyotard who preached postmodernism and spoke of 'the end of history'. Others turned to Friedrich Nietzsche and the French Nietzschean historian Michel Foucault who assured them history was no better than a 'fictional discourse'. 'I am well aware,' Foucault said, 'that I have never written anything but fictions.'
There are very few academic historians outside France, however, who are happy about characterising what they do as writing fiction. Though Foucault still sets much of the agenda for the topics that graduate students research in the 1990s -- the study of deviants, criminals, the insane, the sick and other so-called marginalised minorities -- most English-speaking historians are reluctant to openly accept the radical consequences of his views. Nonetheless, since the 1940s, at the same time as structuralism and determinism have risen to methodological prominence, a parallel and entirely complementary movement has grown to dominate the debate over the epistemological status of the writing of history.
There is a genteel expression of just this point of view in Fernández-Armesto's Millennium. 'History is a creative art,' he says, 'best produced with an imagination disciplined by knowledge of and respect for the sources.' But he goes on: 'To me
the test of a good history book is not so much whether the past IS verifiably "reconstructed" and cogently expounded as whether it is convincingly imagined and vividly evoked.' Few readers today would question such a declaration. It pays homage to the need for the historian to do more than a novelist and to go out and research the sources. But it also emphasises, especially through the quotation marks around 'reconstructed', that it is not trying to tell what really happened in the past. In short, it is ruling out of court the notion that the historian can get to the truth of the matter.
There has been a long debate between historians about whether the pursuit of the truth is their ultimate objective. In the nineteenth century, the German historian Leopold von Ranke tried to lay down the methodology for 'scientific history', arguing that meticulous pursuit of sources would produce facts that themselves would be the building blocks of conclusions through which the historian could establish the truth about what really happened. Above all, Ranke contended, the historian should avoid imposing his own values, judgements and biases onto the past he studies. In the last thirty years, Ranke's views have continued to be taught in university courses in historical method, but he has functioned primarily as a straw man to show the folly of the attempt to 'reconstruct' the past. His critics have argued that he is wrong for three reasons.
First, there is no single truth about history to be uncovered. There are many perspectives on the past and we can never encompass them all. Different peoples and eras ask different questions about the past and, just when we think an issue has been settled, a new work can raise a fresh point of view. Second, even the scientific historian has to be selective, to choose some evidence to make his point and to reject others, since he can never attempt to write up everything he finds in his research, let alone everything that happened in the period he is covering. So there must be values or bias built into everything he writes. Third, those academics who have written in the Rankean mould are notorious for being boring and soporific. Their focus on getting their facts meticulously right has been at the expense of recreating the grand sweep of the movement of history that less fussy, more literary writers like Gibbon, Macaulay and Michelet managed to achieve.
It would not be difficult for most readers of academic history texts to concede, indeed, to strongly endorse, the last of these points, though with all due respect to Monsieur Braudel's lofty reputation, his own work, so devoid of personalities with whom the reader can identify or focus upon, surely ranks as among the most boring of them all. However, the other two critiques have become so familiar they deserve more consideration.
The Dutch historian, Peter Geyl, emerged in the postwar academic world as one of the most widely read commentators on the discipline. In particular, his books Napoleon: For and Against (1949) and Debates with Historians (1955) were influential in establishing in the postwar mind the notion that there could be no final truths in history. On Napoleon, he argued, history could 'reach no unchallengeable conclusions on so many sided a character.' Moreover, 'to expect from history those final conclusions which may perhaps be obtained in other disciplines is to misunderstand its nature.' Examining the way Napoleon had been represented by historians over the previous century, Geyl argued that different periods sought out and found their own facts and made their own judgements. He argued that this process would always occur and so each generation would always write its own history from the perspective of the political and intellectual environment of its own time and place. Geyl extended this relativist position even to the Germans who had interned him in Buchenwald during the war. He was critical of attempts by historians in the 1950s to trace the origins and pioneers of National Socialism. 'If we are tempted by our horror at the culmination of evil that we have just experienced or witnessed to pick out in the past of Germany all the evil potentialities, we may construct an impressively cogent concatenation of causes and effects leading straight up to that crisis. But the impressiveness and the straightness will be of our own constructing. What we are really doing is to interpret the past in the terms of our own fleeting moment.' Geyl is here discussing not Nazism itself but its possible causes. He remains certain that the Nazi phenomenon itself was 'evil'. Little did he suspect that his own relativist argument would one day be used to question that very assessment itself.
In 1961, Geyl's book on Napoleon was favourably acknowledged by the English historian E.H. Carr, author of What Is History?, one of the most influential commentaries on history writing ever published. It was a required text in virtually every course on historical method in the English-speaking academic world for the next twenty years. There would be very few of the current generation of practising historians who have not read it. Carr repeats Geyl's argument that history is 'an unending dialogue between the present and the past'. Different ages take different perspectives. The best we can hope for is a continuous debate. While he says that historians should base their writing on facts, the real stuff of history is not truth but interpretation. On any topic, he argues, there are an infinite number of facts from which the historian selects. 'By and large,' Carr says, 'the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.' He went on: 'If standing Sir George Clark on his head, I were to call history "a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts", my statement would, no doubt, be one-sided and misleading, but no more so, I venture to think, than the original dictum.'
Carr was the author of a massive ten-volume study of the foundation of the USSR between 1917 and 1929 but, until his death in 1982, had remained a closet Marxist. He was only outed in 1987 by the editor of a revised edition of his book on method. His Marxism, however, was of the Old Left variety and he saw some room for the individual to influence the course of history. In his oft-cited discussion of 'society and the individual' in What Is History? Carr says the ability to change history was confined to a highly select few, namely revolutionaries like Cromwell and Lenin who, he says, 'helped mould the forces which carried them to greatness'. Lesser mortals, even those as powerful as Napoleon and Bismarck, only 'rode to greatness on the back of already existing forces.' Despite this minor concession to the prospect that men might make their own history, Carr's legacy was to shore up both sides of the emerging consensus about the nature of the discipline. On the one hand, he gave barely qualified support to the structuralist notion that underlying forces were driving the historical process; on the other hand, he became the most eloquent spokesman for the relativist position that each generation, indeed any group of people with a unified perspective, could produce their own version of what they found in the past.
This legacy is alive and well today, not only in grand surveys like that of Fernández-Armesto, but in the common, day-to-day discussion and debate that goes on within the discipline, even among those with no connection to the politics that Carr spent his life supporting. One of the consequences of the relativist position is that it cedes some degree of credibility to anyone with an even vaguely coherent perspective, not matter how vile it might be. This is precisely what is happening today in debate about the Holocaust of the Second World War. A combination of neo-Nazi sympathisers and anti-Semitic sceptics are now claiming either that there was no deliberate plan to exterminate the Jews or else that the number of deaths and German responsibility have been greatly exaggerated. This has reached the stage where Professor Deborah Lipstadt has felt compelled to write Denying the Holocaust to rebut the claims.
The problem for historians who accept the epistemology of Geyl and Carr is that they lack any firm ground upon which to stand to undertake the same job. In the New York Review of Books of 19 September 1996, there is a review by Gordon A. Craig of a new book on Joseph Goebbels by the English Nazi sympathiser and Holocaust denier David Irving. Craig wrote:
It is always difficult for the non-historian to remember that there is nothing absolute about historical truth. What we consider as such is only an estimation, based upon what the best available evidence tells us. It must constantly be tested against new information and new interpretations, however implausible they may be, or else it will lose its vitality and degenerate into dogma or shibboleth. Such people as David Irving, then, have an indispensable part in the historical enterprise, and we dare not disregard their views.
Now, Gordon Craig is a well-respected historian of modern Germany, a former president of the American Historical Association and no supporter of the line on the Holocaust pushed by Irving and his ilk. After the above opening, Craig's NYRB article goes on to argue against much of the interpretation offered by Irving's book. However, someone operating with Craig's epistemology -- history produces no absolute truths -- is in a very weak position to do this. He cannot refute Irving. The best he can do is dispute him. The consequence of the position that there can be no absolute truths is that there can be no absolute falsehoods either, so refutation ('prove the falsehood of') is beyond reach. Craig may well be able to deploy many effective arguments against Irving but, while he retains his epistemological position, he leaves his opponent and all the other Holocaust deniers a window of credibility.
Yet there is no need to concede them this status at all. Far from being impossible, historical truth is not a difficult concept at all, especially with an issue as recent and as well-recorded as the Holocaust. The vast majority of independent evidence we have about this event, from perpetrators as well as victims, survivors and witnesses, corroborates each other. For every corroboration, there increases in geometric proportion the probability that this event actually occurred. Since we live in a finite world, there comes a point where it is literally impossible for any scenario to exist in which the Holocaust did not occur. This remains true no matter how many particular or less generalised aspects of the event -- the total numbers involved, whether Hitler personally ordered it etc -- remain uncertain. The proposition that the event known as the Holocaust took place is an absolute historical truth.
Let me give a different example to underline this point. Another contender for historical truth might be the proposition: 'The United States defeated Japan in the Second World War.' Now this is something that we know not simply from the historical record. It is no mere interpretation derived from an examination of the documents of surrender signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbour in 1945. It is not an interpretation that future generations might overturn after they have scoured the nuances of the texts for so far undiscerned ideological meaning. The fact that the United States defeated Japan has shaped the very world that all of us have inhabited since 1945. The relations between states, the world economy, the employment market of every industrial country are all consequences in various ways of this historical truth. The world itself confirms the proposition.
Of course, E.H. Carr might argue the defeat of Japan is a mere 'fact' and the really interesting discussions are the interpretations historians make and the conclusions they draw from facts of this kind. Well, one man's fact can be another man's conclusion. For someone writing a narrative history of the war in the Pacific, the defeat of Japan is a very big conclusion indeed. There is no event that is inherently confined to the status of a mere fact, that is, a building block of a much larger conclusion. Every fact can itself be a conclusion and every conclusion can itself be a fact in someone else's explanation.
All this is not to argue that history has to be confined forever, in a Rankean sense, only to facts that have been conclusively proven to be true. History is not only a science, it is an art and, moreover, it often deals in value judgements. Historians frequently offer interpretations that they know, because of the limitations of the available evidence, will forever remain interpretations and bones of contention. Moreover, there are some historical questions that will probably never be answered to everyone's satisfaction -- the causes of the industrial revolution in Britain, for instance, is a likely recent contender. Many of these latter questions, it should be openly admitted, are among the most interesting interrogations we can make of the past. But the existence of uncertainty and the necessity of value judgements, even on a wide scale, remains perfectly compatible with our ability to establish certainty in some, indeed a great many, cases. The argument from Peter Geyl -- some historical interpretations are transient, therefore all historical findings are questionable, therefore history is necessarily unreliable -- is nothing more than an invalid inference. Moreover, when one of its consequences is the irrefutability of a Nazi sympathiser's denial of the Holocaust, decency as well as logic demands that it now be abandoned.
In defending the ability of historians to get to the truth of the matter, or at least of some matters, I am referring to the traditional, empirically-grounded practice of historians rather than to those speculative works that claim to find some great underlying force -- be it geography, ideology or the imperative of the class struggle -- driving the historical process. History is an invention of Western culture, dating from ancient Greece in the fourth century B.C., and since then its practice has been confined almost entirely to the West. No other culture has produced, or been able to live with, the notion that it is possible to examine the passage of social affairs in a way that is independent of both the prevailing religion and the prevailing political system.
Yet for all this time, there have been two traditions of history contesting the field. One derives from the first genuine historian, Thucydides. Other ancient Greek works of his era have used the term 'history' but it was Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War, written some time between 424 and 400 B.C., who rejected reliance on sacred texts, myth, legend and rumour and adopted a strictly empirical research method. 'Of the events of war,' he wrote, 'I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own. I have described nothing but what I saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular enquiry.'
That other pillar of Western culture, the Judeo-Christian tradition, played an essential role in preserving and nourishing the historiographic impulse. In the Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (1990), John McManners has argued that in the implications of Christian belief there are encouragements to writing history in an austere, uncommitted fashion, with wide cultural concern. 'Firstly, there was the conviction that everything men do or think matters intensely and eternally, as coming under the judgement of God; secondly, there was the concept of a creator entirely distinct from his creation, ruling the universe by general laws, whose ways are inscrutable, and who gives men the gift of freedom. Hence the obligation to treat seriously and with reverence all men and the social orders they build, to study everything, to explain without partisanship, insisting on the logical coherence of all things.' From the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, the idea of history was kept alive in the industry of those many Christian monks whose chronicles of church and state were imbued with ideals of this kind.
However, Christianity also bore an additional dimension that in the last two centuries has produced a second tradition within history. Christianity has held that the achievements of man are not due to his own forces of will and intellect but to something other than himself, the realising of God's purposes for man. From this perspective, men are the vehicles through which history occurs but history has a direction and a purpose determined by a force beyond man. This Christian concept of history also contained the idea of fulfilment. The purpose of history would one day be realised in the salvation of mankind at the Last Judgement. History is thus a teleological process with a purpose and an end. It is this second aspect of the Christian tradition that has formed the basis of those theories of history that conjure up great impersonal forces and undercurrents which purportedly determine the destiny of mankind.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel secularised the theory, substituting 'reason' for God's will. The object of history for Hegel was the realisation of reason's purpose of creating a just and free society. Hegel thought this had occurred at the Battle of Jena in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the ancien régime of Germany and cleared the way for the establishment of the French Revolutionary principles of liberty and equality. Forty years later, Karl Marx modified Hegel to argue that the underlying force of history was the class struggle which was driving human society to ever higher stages of development, of which the final plane would be Communist society.
Given the track record of Hegel and Marx and the manifest failure of both to correctly identify anything remotely resembling the fulfilment of history, the teleological aspect of their approach is, not surprisingly, out of favour in the late twentieth century. Only the more loony postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard and the lone Hegelian voice of Francis Fukuyama talk about the 'end of history' today. But there are still plenty of theorists who support an otherwise very similar 'great impersonal forces' approach. Fernand Braudel and his imitators like Felipe Fernández-Armesto are merely the latest in this same tradition, only with one important difference. The Christian theologians like St Augustine who developed the original version knew that it depended on a powerful force to act as the engine of history, in their case God. Hegel and Marx recognised something similar. Though their concepts of reason and class struggle were secular, and generated from within mankind itself, they still functioned as theoretical engines, driving everything along and bringing new stages of history into being. But the Braudel brand of structuralism has no such driving force. Geography, climate and topography do not constitute great underlying currents for mankind. All they can possibly be are part of the external framework within which events occur. At most, they might place some limitations on human action. However, by no stretch of the metaphorical imagination can geography ever be said to be responsible for the 'destiny' and the 'fate' of mankind, as Braudel claims. His concept of destiny and fate requires some kind of powerful causative agent that can defy the best effort of mankind's will and intellect, and can bend human outcomes to its purpose. In the Annales school and the other varieties of French structuralism, such an agent is precisely what is missing.
All such theories about 'underlying forces' also fall prey to the old logical positivist critique of metaphysics. The forces are taken as given; people shaped by them are unaware of their presence; they can only be detected by the imagination of a great scholar taking a long view of things. Their existence is not dependent upon any evidence that can be verified or falsified; or rather, if there is evidence that appears to question them it is the evidence that needs to be explained away, not the forces. To believe in phenomena like the 'cunning of reason', the class struggle or la longue durée is to take a leap of faith. It is to treat works of history that endorse them not as the products of evidence and reason but as sacred texts, handed down by authority and to be learned but not questioned by the faithful.
One of the reasons for the esteem the Annales school enjoyed in France in the postwar period was that it not only relegated the fall of France to the status of a minor eddy in the grand stream of French history, but it did the same to the revolution of 1789. Ever since the fall of Napoleon, French society and politics had been racked by division over the revolution. One of the major polarisations in the Third Republic as late as the 1930s was between supporters of the 'revolutionaries' and those of the 'counter-revolutionaries'. After the war, this debilitating conflict was widely identified as one of the causes of France's defeat. It was not surprising, then, that a movement bent on relegating political history to a position of small importance would be welcomed as a means of fostering national harmony. By the 1980s, however, the consequences were causing alarm among French political leaders, especially after a 1983 survey found that only one-third of children entering secondary school could give the date of the French Revolution. While some English-speaking countries might regard this as a comparatively high rate of political awareness, French President François Mitterand declared the 'deficiency of teaching history' to be 'a national danger'.
In her 1987 collection of essays, The New History and the Old, the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb noted Mitterand's concern and observed that similar tendencies had been evident in the US education system ever since social history, 'total history' and 'history from below' had come to dominate the curriculum at the expense of political history. She argues that balance needs to be restored, especially since political history is an exercise in two kinds of human reason: that reflected in the rational ordering of society by means of laws, constitutions and political institutions, and that of the rational activity of the historian seeking to discover and to transmit the truth about society. Himmelfarb's essays constitute the most eloquent and persuasive recent defence of the first of the Western historical traditions described above, that deriving from Thucydides and the medieval monastic chroniclers. Rather than being impelled by great impersonal forces, political history reveals the world is made by men and, instead of being 'absolved of blame', men are responsible for the consequences of their actions. This was the very point that informed Thucydides' study of the Peloponnesian War: the fate of Athens had been determined not by prophets, oracles or the gods, but by human actions and social organisation.
Himmelfarb says good history demonstrates Aristotle's claim that 'man is by nature a political animal'. It is not in the 'household' or the 'village' but only in the 'polis', Aristotle said, that man is truly human and decisively different to other gregarious animals. What these animals lack is a polity, 'a government of laws and institutions by means of which -- and only by means of which, Aristotle believed -- man consciously, rationally tries to establish a just regime and pursue the good life.' Hence, the demise of political history in recent decades and the rise of the various impersonal theories that deny men are agents of their own fate leads not only to the kind of bizarre judgement that would make China rather than Western Europe and its offshoots the leading force of this past millennium. It also involves, Himmelfarb argues, a radical redefinition of human nature. We 'lose not only the unifying theme that has given coherence to history, not only the notable events, individuals and institutions that have constituted our historical memory and our heritage, not only the narrative that has made history readable and memorable -- not only, in short, a meaningful past -- but also a conception of man as a rational, political animal.'
Himmelfarb wisely observes that orthodoxies usually breed heretics. This is true, but the nonconformists who today see the need for a reformation to restore the traditional practice of history remain a minority in terms of both numbers and reputation. With this in mind, and with little optimism about any rapid reversal of the status quo, let me finish by advocating a course of action suggested by one of the theologians of the present orthodoxy, Peter Geyl. In the days when his own views appeared a tantalising heresy he got at least one thing right: 'Criticism is the first duty of historical scholarship,' he declared, 'criticism, again criticism, and criticism once more'.