History Defined

By Leslie Anne Lee

One could argue that the subject of history is one of the most indefinable subjects that is studied. There are too many variables in how a historian can interpret, analyze, and critique. History is arguably determined by the perception of who is studying it. Josh Tosh writes in the first chapter of his book The Pursuit of History that, “As individuals, we draw on our experience in all sorts of different ways – as a means of affirming our identity, as a clue to our potential, as the basis for our impression of others, and as some indication of the possibilities that lie ahead” (Tosh 1). The need to know about the past to understand the present and future is inherent in us as humans. This need along with all the historical variables makes the issues that arise from studying history as numerous as the ways one looks at it.                                                                                            

Along with understanding it, comes the issues that historians try to understand and inevitably argue over. One of these issues is causation. Sometimes it is easier to ask, “what happened” rather than “why did an event occur?”  Historians often use two separate causes in explaining causation: necessary and sufficient. The necessary causes are the direct reason for an event to occur, while sufficient causes are caused due to the necessary ones. In chapter eleven of The Historian’s Toolbox by Robert C. Williams, uses the example of the American Civil War to explain causation. The issues revolving around slavery, states’ rights, sectionalism, and cultural differences and perceptions were the necessary causes that lead to the outbreak of war. The uproar over these resulted in sufficient causes such as Abraham Lincoln becoming president and the secession of the southern states from the Union. There is no denying that the American Civil War happened and that it happened due to the difference of opinion over several issues. However, the cause and effect of each of those issues still can be debated and argued.

Historians are required to be well-practiced in the art of arguing to defend their standpoint on the issue up for debate. Williams states that, “An argument is an attempt to support a conclusion with reasons and evidence” (102). Just like with causation, the historical argument is based on the specific historian’s perception of the event in question. It is necessary therefore for their argument to be sound in logic and persuasion. They must make an impact in their argument for it to be accepted.                                                                      

The facts surrounding any event in the past can be argued and debated. Speculation is another method in the attempt to understand history. Williams defines speculation as “coming to a conclusion without sufficient evidence” (127). While these conclusions may not be factually based, they can help in comprehending what led to an event. Many historians refuse to speculate as it can lead to misconceptions about the past. Historians often speculate while giving an actual historical account. For example, the example is given in The Historian’s Toolbox of the account of Martin Guerre and who he showed that while the writer, Natalie Zemon Davis, used historical accounts, she added her speculations about what happened. Davis was criticized because in writing her account she used more informed opinion rather than historical documentation. Regardless of how balanced the account was, it still “painted a rich portrait of village life in sixteenth-century France” (128) and it was well intended to be a historical account.                     

One of the primary reasons that history is so intriguing is that it is ever-changing. Revision is constantly changing what we know about a particular event or era. It may not only be revisionism in light of new evidence but a matter of context. We have seen this in recent months as the Black Lives Matter has changed our thoughts and perception of the past and our way of treating ethnic minorities. We have seen shifts in our approach to how we view the Civil War, the Antebellum South, and a range of terms, movies and historical figures. What was once accepted, or at least tolerated, has become seemingly outdated in the midst of protests and riots. The shift in thought has been rapid and rampant with aggressive approaches to not only racism, but the very foundation of America as a country and a government.

Williams uses the example in his book of the atom bomb and its reasons for being dropped on Japan. When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki one of the United States’ greatest allies was the Soviet Union, the latter having declared war on Japan only a few days after the bomb was dropped. However, after the war ended the feelings between the two nations became hostile in the race to create nuclear and missile weapons. The revised theory, therefore, became that Truman had dropped the bomb to impress Stalin and prove that the United States could destroy the Soviet Union as well. The historical opinion then became “divided between those that still believed that the bomb was dropped to end the war and save American lives and those that believed that the dropping the bomb was part of the Cold War, as well as the end of World War II” (121). The line became drawn between those who believed in the original cause for the bomb being dropped, and the newer, revised theory that it was a display of power. We have seen this during recent events in that while certain things have remained acceptable and tolerated on the basis that they were part of a distant time in our history (i.e. Gone With the Wind, statues of Confederate soldiers in public places) they have suddenly become completely unacceptable.                                     

Another subject for argument in the arena of history is the debate as to whether history is a form of science or art. There are two realms of thought in this dispute – idealism, and positivism. Idealists see history as a form of art. Three of the most notable idealists were Wilhelm Diltjey, Benedetto Croce, and Robin G. Collingwood. Their studies “focused on what people thought, felt and imagined as much as on what they did” (16). They believed that the ideas people had were the cause of their actions. Followers of the idealist way of thinking sought to understand the minds of those who lived in the past. Collingwood wrote in his book, The Idea of History about the difference between the inside and outside of events and how each related to the formation of events. The outside of events was the action that occurred during an event, while the inside of events reflected the “thoughts, values, and ideas of the human actors who made history” (16).                                                                                                      Positivism is the view that “history provides a scientific explanation of past actions and events” (page 16). This way of thinking happened after the Enlightenment and was the result of scientists wishing to examine history through scientific analysis.  They were “positive” about what they could and could not know about history. Leopold von Ranke claimed that history “sought to explain, to understand, as well as narrate, the past ‘as it really was’”  (16). History can be explained as an equation – “x and y equal z.” Every cause resulted in an effect.                           

Most historians find a balance between viewing history as either science or art. They believe that there is no finite way to explain the past, only methods for trying to understand and explain it. Williams explains that “the point is simply to try to explain and understand past events by testing a general hypothesis against particular and specific evidence, to try and be as objective and accurate as possible” (17).  While most historians strive to acknowledge and give an accurate account of what has happened, some deny it. While they believe that is not acceptable to change history, they can surmise that an event never happened to begin with. Williams gives the example of three authors, Adolf Eichmann, Michael Shermer, and Alex Grobman, who wrote accounts of the Jews during World War II. Eichmann was the author of the Wannsee Protocol which suggested a solution to the “Jewish question.” While vague in how it was written, the point was clear: Utilize the Jews as a workforce and “suitably treat” those that were unable to work, meaning murder. Shermer and Grobman wrote a book entitled Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? In this work, they question how anyone could doubt the existence of the Holocaust and refer to the Wansee Protocol. They point out that “suitable treatment” clearly means murder and that the Nazis intended to weed out the weak Jews to keep the strong ones for labor. While the evidence is there, the denial still exists. In light of recent events one could argue that these approaches to the treatment of a set group of individuals has been evident in the treatment of not only black individuals, but the subjugation of migrant workers and the racial stereotyping of every minority from Native American to Indian.                                  

Many times, it falls to historians not only to convey their interpretation of the truth but also to impress upon humanity the facts. Society often tends to remember their history the way they want to, most often the version that puts the individual and their ancestors in a good light. Therefore it is the responsibility of historians to “tell it like it is” and sway society away from misrepresentations of history. Tosh writes that “there is probably no official nationalist history in the world that is proof against the deflating effect of academic enquiry” (Tosh 21). For historians who attempt to share a true perspective, they must be willing to meet with societal opposition. This often is because while their findings may be factual, they may go against the grain and cause social unrest.                                                      Perhaps one of the most volatile issues in history is that of women’s role in it. History has been primarily dominated by men and the effects events have had on the male rather than female. For the most part, historical issues have involved war, politics, and industry – things that were male-dominated. It was not until the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s that women began to change the perception of how history was viewed. They began to look at historical issues that affected women and acknowledge the role women played in history. The arrival of women into the field “helped cast the old issue in a new light and revised traditional approaches to the study of the past” (Williams 122).                                                                                                                          

A good example of this the case of Leo Frank. Mr. Frank, a Jew living in the South, was accused in 1913 of murdering and raping Mary Phagan, a factory girl. Even though another man, a black custodian by the name of Jim Conley had a prior record, the southern justice system was eager to convict a Jew from the North rather than a black man. His trial lasted four months and he was at last convicted. The judge overruled a hanging and sentenced Frank to life. This did not sit well with the community and an angry mob broke into the prison and lynched Frank. He was later absolved of his crimes in 1985.  In 1991 historian Nancy MacLean took a new approach to the case and looked at the role gender and race played in the trial. She focused more on the figure of Mary Phagan and how she was a pawn of the changing times of her era and society still very much imbued by racism. Williams comments that, “MacLean did not deny the conventional wisdom of the Leo Frank case, but by examining it through the lens of women’s history, she gave it a new perspective, and new meaning,  emphasizing how different groups in southern society viewed the roles of women in a rapidly a changing world” (124).

In studying and conveying history there are several ways that historians approach their subject matter and specific things they emphasize. The first of these is the narrative, which consists of taking actual chronological events and putting them into story form. This approach to giving a historical account dramatizes the event and aids in creating a visual for the learner to be able to better understand what happened. In another approaches to history, historians strip away all opinions and flowery additions and simply stick to the facts.                                       

One of the most dramatic ways that history can be portrayed in modern times is through film. The art of filmmaking can give visual stimuli to help convey a historical event. They can help us understand as in the movies done by Ken Burns. Not are images projected on the screen, but Burns uses the sounds of the past to help give the viewer and inclusive experience. “He makes history live for us in the present with loving attention to detail and historical accuracy” (142).  However, films can also take liberties with history and can “distort, falsify and or simply ignore the historical truth” (141). They can be based on history that has been corrupted, anachronistic, or inaccurate. For example, the film Saving Private Ryan is based during World War II and gives a gruesome depiction of the events of June 1944. However if one looks closely they will notice inaccuracies in the weaponry used and the geographical location of the Das Reich. While film can paint a poignant picture of a historical event, it can also often be misleading and needs to be taken with an open mind. Even more currently relevant is the discussion over whether or not the southern epic Gone with the Wind should disappear from the annals of cinematography. On one side people would argue that the movie grossly stereotypes black individuals and romanticizes a world in which they were treated as little better than animals. The opposing view would state that the film is dated and does indeed have racial and cultural stereotypes, however it is to be regarded as an example of what film was in its era and treated as such.    Another way that historians have looked at the past is with a biographical lens. Some have believed that history revolves around a significant figure of the time and that their life made history what it was. They became the symbol of their country and helped to create a feeling of nationalism. “Nations were like individuals. They were born, developed, and they perished like other living organisms” (21). The biography of an individual became the biography of the nation and created a national identity.                                                               

Oral history has been around almost as long as history itself. Long before accounts of cultural and societal events were written down, they were shared orally. This was a culture’s way of relaying the past down through the centuries; a way of remembering to appreciate the present and future. Williams states that “Our most important stories, especially stories about ourselves, may also be true or at least grounded in the truth” (9). Passing down history orally gives the storyteller a sense of self-importance in the story they are sharing. It gives them a feeling of identity and a deeper connection to the past. Even though the oral interpretation of a historical event is more than likely riddled with opinions, the truth is it comes from the interpreter identifies with the event.

Historicism is also is another way to study the past in a historical context. In “The Language of History” historicism is defined as “the idea that society must understand in their context, concerning their culture and period of time.” This approach suggests that history has its purpose and its own rules to follow. It then falls to historians to discover what those purposes and rules are and why they existed. Tosh states that “History, in short, held the key to understanding the world” (Tosh 7).  Historicists believed that to understand the meaning of the historical past, the past must be recreated and experienced. This is evident in both the good, and sadly, not so good ways history repeats itself. In our current state of chaotic existence it seems as though history is repeating itself for the worse.                                                                                                                                                                                             

When looking at documents from the past it is important to confirm the validity of the document. While many people have written a historical account of some sort, not all are considered to be relevant or even true. It comes then to the discernment of the historian to decipher between what is relevant and what is not. And while a valid document could prove invaluable to the study of an event, a false document could prove harmful and destroy the historian’s theory or argument.   The validity of a document could also change over time in light of current events. For example, the U.S. Constitution has been revised thirty-three times as our nation has evolved. Even now as we consider various aspects of controversy, from gun control to Civil Rights, there is a continuous discussion as to whether it should be amended once more because it is believed in some circles that certain aspects are no longer of value.                                                                                                                                                          History is ever-changing because it is ever moving. Not only are historians discovering new things about the past, but those discoveries are helping to change the present and the future. History can only be defined by how those who read and study it define it. To some, it is a scientific process, and to others, it is a form of art. History not only is a record of the past, but it is also what shapes the future and helps individuals understand where they fit in the present.  It will continue to be defined by how people study it and what their own opinion of the past is. And. therein is the cautionary tale. For if we choose to misread our past, we condemn our future. If we select the memories etched in history we choose to remember, we stand the chance of forgetting what was meant to be remembered, and learned from. We hold the power to define our own history as we make it in the present. We must therefore hold that as our most treasured responsibility.

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