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Clio's Battles: Historiography in Practice

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To write history is to consider how to explicate the past, to weigh the myriad possible approaches to the past, and to come to terms with how the past can be and has been used. In this book, prize-winning historian Jeremy Black considers both popular and academic approaches to the past. His focus is on the interaction between the presentation of the past and current circumstances, on how history is used to validate one view of the present or to discredit another, and on readings of the past that unite and those that divide. Black opens with an account that underscores the differences and developments in traditions of writing history from the ancient world to the present. Subsequent chapters take up more recent decades, notably the post-Cold War period, discussing how different perspectives can fuel discussions of the past by individuals interested in shaping public opinion or public perceptions of the past. Black then turns to the possible future uses of the then past as a way to gain perspective on how we use the past today. Clio’s Battles is an ambitious account of the engagement with the past across world history and of the clash over the content and interpretation of history and its implications for the present and future.

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1 Academic, State, and Public Histories

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“In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed. If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.” Writing in the Daily Telegraph on 1 January 2014, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador in London, attacked Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, for visiting and paying homage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, in December 2013. This shrine memorializes Japanese military personnel who died in war, including fourteen “Class A” World War II criminals who were added in 1978. Liu accused Abe of posing a “serious threat to global peace” by “rekindling” Japan’s militaristic spirit and argued that “visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders cannot simply be an internal affair,” as they raised “serious questions about attitudes in Japan and its record of militarism, aggression and colonial rule.” World War II played a key role not only in Liu’s expression of grievance, but also in the proposal for remedy. Liu argued that, as China and Britain were “wartime allies,” they “should join together both to uphold the UN Charter and to safeguard regional stability and world peace.” Indeed, both China and Britain had fought Japan.1 This was one of over thirty articles by Chinese ambassadors in newspapers across the world.

 

2 A Selective Narrative to 1650

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Historiography began as foundation myths, the myths of peoples, dynasties, and religions, and this theme is still powerfully present today. Indeed, there is a parallel between the origin-myths of the nations and states of two and three millennia ago, and those propounded for the new or revived states established from 1945 to the present. One major difference, however, is the role of religion, which played a key part in early origin-myths, but has been conspicuously absent – or negligible – in most recent ones (although with important Muslim exceptions, as well as Israel), or has been presented in secular guises. Indeed, to a degree, nationalism is a modern form of religion, one in which the state worships itself and its community, with the nation encouraged to think in terms of a continuous mission. The weakness of some states, for example Iraq and Syria, is linked not only to very bad government, but also to a failure of nationalism to overcome other allegiances, allegiances that in part reflect, and are reflected in, the nature of this government. Religions themselves have origin-myths,2 and some religions are aspects of the development of nations, notably in the case of Jews and the Japanese.

 

3 The Long Eighteenth Century

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AS A REMINDER OF THE NON-CONTINUOUS NATURE OF THE historical imagination and historical writings, the ideological theme, while still present, both changed in character and became less significant in Christian Europe from the mid-seventeenth century, and this remained the case until the French Revolution led to a reconceptualization of the role of history. In the intervening period, conventionally from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to 1789, there was still, however, a major commitment to both religion and the Church’s role in framing history and identity,1 as well as a strong interest in the past. Such an interest served a range of interests and drives, notably, as before and as also outside the West, dynastic prestige and the protection of local interests. Ruling houses sought status and legitimation from the past. Thus, in 1701 a medal was struck at the request of Electress Sophia of Hanover to mark her being named heiress to the Crown of England. The reverse depicted “Matilda [c. 1156–1189], daughter of Henry II, King of England, wife of Henry the Lion . . . mother of Emperor Otto IV . . . progenitor of the House of Brunswick.” The medal grounded the claim on the succession in primogeniture and the history of the House of Guelph, and not on the Act of Settlement passed by the English Parliament in 1701. History thereby served to establish and strengthen an alternative claim.2

 

4 The Nineteenth Century

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The major overlap and close interaction of academic history and political engagement was amply seen in the nineteenth century. This was unsurprising, as commentators sought to mold and make sense of a period of growing change, of economic, social, political, intellectual, and cultural change, and at the global, national, regional, and local levels. This engagement was displayed both in favor of and against change. It was seen in countries at the forefront of new developments, notably Britain, Germany, the United States, and later Japan, and also in those not matching this process.

From the outset of the century, continuing the theme in the previous chapter, commitment was readily apparent in Europe as historians responded to the challenge of the French Revolution, which, to a degree, prefigured the different need for non-Western commentators later in the century to respond to the threat posed by Western expansion. The situation in Britain is of considerable interest, as this country was at the forefront of economic growth, imperial growth, and intellectual debate. Moreover, the freedom and size of its publishing industry provided plentiful and profitable opportunities for historians. There is a tendency to focus on liberal and Whig commentators, both at the time of the Revolution and subsequently, for example, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859). However, there was also an important conservative tradition. For example, Edward Nares exemplified the attitudes to history seen with Edmund Burke, and carried them forward. Like many British and Continental writers, Nares combined a nationalistic perspective with an interest in history. In his case, his perspective was born of Protestant zeal and hostility toward foreign political developments, notably French radicalism. Having defended religion in the Bampton lectures of 1805, Nares held the Regius Chair of Modern History at Oxford from 1813 until his death in 1841. This was a post gained through his connections with the leading conservative politician, Robert, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, the Tory Prime Minister from 1812 to 1827.1

 

5 The Twentieth Century

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This chapter serves as an historical introduction to the themes covered in chapters 6 to 9, where the focus is on recent decades and the organization by types of states. The varied, often clashing, concerns of the state and the market, of officials and entrepreneurs, come to the fore in this account. However, these concerns differ quite conspicuously from the views of many cutting-edge thinkers on the purposes of history and on historical method, and notably so in the twentieth century and the twenty-first. Officials and entrepreneurs offered an assessment of history that was, understandably, far less affected by advances in theoretical developments or in other intellectual disciplines. Instead, the needs of state identity and the very different exigencies of the market took a greater role. It would be difficult to imagine many popular writers joining Jacques Le Goff, the influential director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, who wrote, in 1992, that “banal, reactionary modes of history – narrative, the history of events, biography, and political history – continue or stage comebacks.”1

 

6 New States and the Possibilities of Lineage

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THE MUSEUM OF DESIGN IN LISBON OCCUPIES THE CENTRAL site of the former bank that handled the currencies of Portugal’s colonies, its extensive African Empire. In the former bank’s lobby, there is a colorful and large wall mosaic from 1962 depicting Portugal’s colonization of Africa from the fifteenth century. This colonialization is presented in benign terms, with friars teaching natives, other natives farming, and the Portuguese soldiers not shown engaged in any violent acts. Ethnic harmony, progress, and Christian proselytization under Portuguese leadership are the key themes. Attractive, misleading, but convenient for Portugal which, in fact, in 1962, was confronting the outbreak the previous year in its major colony, Angola, of a revolutionary war for independence from colonial rule. One-time imperial powers have to respond to a loss of empire, as Portugal did from 1975. The mosaic is now a curious decoration, one that possibly would have been swept aside were it not fixed in position.

 

7 The Historical Dimension of Manifest Destiny

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The United States had gone through its own process of creating history in the wake of independence. The presentation of history, indeed, notably the history of winning independence, was an important aspect of American state-building and nation-forming. More recently, this presentation has played a central role in what the Americans see as culture wars. History wars proved an important component of these, although the term is a misnomer as fatalities scarcely match levels seen elsewhere in the world when such contests over identity are waged.

From the outset of American independence in 1776, the past was not only celebrated, but also contested as an aspect of debates and disputes over the nature and role of political authority. Particular controversy focused on the rights of federal and state authorities. These concerns affected interest in the history of other countries. This history, notably of countries when under republican governments, such as the Netherlands in the early-modern period, Classical Athens, and republican Rome, was scrutinized in order to provide constitutional guidance and political ammunition. The strong interest in history shown by the Founding Fathers focused on how to save republics from succumbing to foreign attack, domestic discord, or the rise of tyranny. James Madison, later fourth president, wrote a study of previous attempts at confederation. Thomas Jefferson, the second president as well as the founder of the University of Virginia, wanted modern history taught in order to show what he saw as the folly of the opposing Federalists.

 

8 Post-Communism and the New History

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THE FALL OF THE COMMUNIST REGIMES IN EASTERN EUROPE in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought together a number of post-war trends that provoked new histories, particularly the collapse of imperial rule, the creation of new, as well as newly independent, states, for example Croatia and Ukraine, and sweeping political changes. The fall of the Communist regimes had reflected the difficulty of grounding authoritarian regimes in the absence of popular support – however much the people were told that there was a dialectical necessity for the success of these regions and one located in a clear historical continuum. A lack of popularity, particularly in Eastern Europe, made it difficult for the Communist governments to view change and reform with much confidence. Rather than vindicating the Communist prospectus, the passage of time made more apparent the sham character of Communist progress.

Far from having being made redundant by the advance of Communism, nationalism reemerged publicly as a powerful force, in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as in China, which ostensibly continued to be Communist. Nationalism, which became a more central political issue in the former Communist bloc from 1989, apparently offered identity, freedom, and a route to reform freed from a sclerotic imperial structure. Nationalism also entailed the rejection of Soviet and Communist history and, instead, an emphasis on the histories subordinated by both. This process led at once to a searching reevaluation of recent history and to an often-strident consideration of earlier episodes. For example, in the Baltic Republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, there were complaints about the Soviet annexation in 1940, complaints that led to a focus on the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 under which the annexation had taken place. This was a pact that the Soviets had done their best to ignore. Moreover, nationalism could be readily combined with the revival of public religiosity that was also prominent in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Indeed, this revival helped give a particular character to nationalism in specific contexts, most obviously with Polish Catholicism.

 

9 Western Europe

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LE NATIONALISME, CEST LA GUERRE” [“NATIONALISM IS WAR”], declared François Mitterrand, president of France from 1981 to 1995, in a speech to the European Parliament in 1995. On the one hand, this statement captured the variety of tensions between national and supranational identities in Europe, and notably the disruptive legacy of nationalism. On the other hand, supra-nationalism, especially in the shape of the European Union, contested the search for renewed patriotism and the sense of national identity in many European countries. Moreover, this supra-nationalism was not readily compatible with an emphasis on cultural diversity and political pluralism.

From a related, but different, perspective, there is a ready tension in contemporary Europe between two uses of history, a tension amply demonstrated in 2014 as Scotland debated independence from Britain and, thereby, separation from England. The first use is the attempt to fashion new myths intended to serve as the basis for a new prospectus of power. The second is the assertion of more longstanding national accounts that, in part, act as a critique of such a new prospectus. The key new myth is that of Europe as an integrationist project resting on a common history and culture – although that is not the sole level of such new history. At the national and regional levels, there have also been attempts to fashion new myths. However, in many senses, these attempts relate to longstanding tensions and debates at these levels, for example over the status of Catalonia within Spain, and are not comparable to the European myth.

 

10 Contesting the Past, Claiming the Future

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IT IS TIME TO PULL TOGETHER SOME OF THE THEMES OFFERED in the last four chapters while stressing anew the variety of ways in which history is presented in public, and the range of resulting contentions. As a reminder of the extent to which this is not simply a debating exercise, it is appropriate to begin with controversies related to two appalling losses of life.

In 1939, Hitler added an accompanying remark in his exhortation to his generals to be murderous: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” The answer now is far more people than in 1939, and not solely Armenians and scholars. In the event, Hitler’s own genocidal policies toward Jews and Roma understandably guaranteed a new audience determined to remember, through public and popular history, all cases of historical mass brutality.1

The treatment of the Armenians by the Ottoman authorities during World War I was murderous and, in many eyes, genocidal. In a process that had begun prior to the war, Turkish nationalism became more important in the Ottoman Empire. The Christian Armenians were seen as a pro-Russian fifth column and were brutalized.2 Aside from the large-scale killing of men, women, and children, including the burning alive of children,3 many Armenians were driven into an arid region where they died. About 1.5 million were killed or died. Their property was seized.

 

11 Historiographies of the Present

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MANY HISTORIANS OFFER, ALONGSIDE THE SENSE OF HISTORY as a continuing process, a defense of its value that at least implies that it will provide clarity, answers, and solutions. If both past and present can be seen as part of a process of continual change, then an understanding of the past has obvious value for the present. For example, in The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2004), Robert Conquest noted the contingent nature of historical judgments, but also presented the subject as a means for education, with a particular emphasis on the recent past: “History is that part of the Humanities which enables us to look back with a real perspective and so, also, to look forward as well-briefed as we can be. We need the whole accessible past to give us a deep perspective. We need the history of the twentieth century because it contains, if sometimes in vestigial form, the elements of the present – and the future.”1

 

12 Historiographies of the Future

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HISTORY AS A SUBJECT MAY DEAL WITH THE PAST, BUT IT IS A living discipline and thus has a future. Historiography necessarily should consider this future, not least because it will help to establish the significance of the current situation and of earlier developments that already are the subject of historiographical discussion. This is the case not only for the content of history but also for its forms in the changing shape of historical method and of intellectual discussion of the nature of history. Moreover, official, public, and popular history considered in terms of “history wars” has a future that will help establish the significance of present developments. This passionate history sits in an uneasy relationship to the search for cold objective truth praised, for example, by the journalist Anne Applebaum in 2010: “If we remember the twentieth century for what it actually was, and not for what we imagine it to have been, the misuse of history for national political purposes also becomes more difficult.”1 In practice, as we have seen in earlier chapters, history has always been, and will continue to be, a battleground for politics, identity, and understanding.

 

13 A Personal Note

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IT IS NORMAL FOR ACADEMIC HISTORIANS TO SINK THEMSELVES into their subject and to avoid personal comments, at least in print. There are writers who prefer to offer such comments, but they are not the majority. Even in autobiographies, historians omit much and tend to repeat and represent the profession’s norms and collectivity.1 Moreover, by maintaining an impersonal style in their scholarship, authors are assumed to demonstrate impartiality, and also to gain added credence for their arguments. Possibly historiography requires this treatment even more than most subjects as it represents an attempt to move beyond the perspective of the individual in order to chart the development of a subject and to offer judgments on others. Yet, there is also much to be said for providing the personal account, not because it has any special authority, or even interest, but thanks to the particular insight the individual can provide. It is also slightly strange for an historian to write about historiography advancing general reflections, but failing to offer an explicit engagement with the issues and closeness arising from his or her own experience.

 

14 Conclusions

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NECESSARY OR A BURDEN; GOOD, BAD, OR INDIFFERENT; THE weight of history can be seen very differently. It is, of course, in part each, and every one, of these descriptions. The awareness of historically grounded wrongs, of empowerment through grievance, of atavistic hatreds, and identities through opposition, that are all mentioned in this book, could readily be extended in terms of examples and, indeed, categories. This awareness encourages a feeling that history is a weight that should be shed, as well as a means of identity. The two, weight and means of identity, combine to emphasize difference, different views and responses. The very terms used illustrate this. Thus, the term “The American War,” which is employed in Vietnam, readily deploys blame for a destructive struggle that in reality owed at least as much to the North Vietnamese determination from 1959 to overthrow any non-Communist government in South Vietnam.2 Emphasizing this role by North Vietnam, however, is totally unacceptable to Vietnam, a state created by this very overthrow in 1975, and one still ruled by the Communist victors.

 

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