Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Historical Events and the Passage of Time

Yep. This is what I want to be.

Dear Readers,

I recently received the question:
"As an historian, do you believe that the passage of time provides greater clarity on historical events? I've always been under the impression that there's a "sweet spot" of clarity that occurs anywhere from immediately after a major historical event, to perhaps a generation or two later, after which it gets over-analyzed, dissected, and distorted. What's your take on that?"

This is a really great question, and I thought that you readers here on Kabinettskriege might be interested. How does the passage of time effect our perception of what really happened in the past? 

For the moment, let us take look at a non-Kabinettskriege era event which occurred within relatively recent historical memory: World War One. How did World War One start? 

If you asked someone in 1915 (a year after the start of the war,) the answer probably would be, "the enemy started it." Thus, a close temporal position to the event does not necessarily give a better look at the event, rather, it makes the people looking at the event more biased. 

If you asked someone in 1943, who started World War One, the answer, in non-German parts of the world, would be, "the Germans." This is because the Germans started the Second World War, and most of the world blamed them for the start of the First World War as well. 

Oddly enough, as the 20th century wore on, American scholars began to blame the Russians for World War One, as, after all, they had undergone a full mobilization before any of the other powers. The reason for this is clear-Russia and America were now enemies. 

Thus, historical interpretations continue to change, even after the people who are involved in the events are long dead. Every generation looks at the past with their own historical lens. Thus, when I look at World War One, what I see is different from someone who will live fifty years in the future. 

 In popular perception, there may be a sweet spot in understanding, and I would argue that it takes about a hundred years to arrive at this point. We are fast approaching the hundredth anniversary of World War One, and I think that we may never understand the First World War better than we do now. The reason is, we no longer have living members who experienced the event around to cloud the picture with their biases, so in this example, we realize that most of the European nations actively contributed to the World War One crisis.  

However, the professionalization of history allows us to understand many parts of the past better than we have in previous generations. While the popular perception of history may become more mythic as time passes, (for example, the almost God-like qualities which most Americans see in the founding fathers) scholarly professional opinion allows for a, "sweet spot," of understanding to continue. In the example of the founding fathers, the current historiography of the American Revolution allows us to better understand groups which have been previously ignored, such as women, slaves, and Native Americans. 

Now, moving on to the claims of over-analysis. This is indeed a problem of American history. That is one of the reasons why many professional American historians are calling for a "synthesis," of history. Books such as Alan Taylor's American Colonies, and Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, are moving us back towards a, "sweet spot," in understanding the past, by incorporating the various arguments into a narrative, and updating previous historical knowledge with new arguments. This allows us to retain past understanding, while bringing to light new documentation, which may slightly alter our way of looking at the past. 

Thus, returning to our World War One example, we have reached a measured consensus where we realize that all parties were at fault, although some might be more at fault than others. However, this consensus can still be updated by professional historians who seek to examine smaller facets of the war, such as the role of women, or the role of the minor Balkan states. Those ideas can then be re-incorporated into the body of knowledge via a large, "synthesis," style history.

In essence, popular understanding of a past event reaches a sweet spot a few generations after the event, while academic historians seek to preserve and improve upon that sweet spot with new research, and then add their new research into the collective understanding. In addition, this research allows us to see how each generation perceives historical events, as a result of their circumstances.

Thanks for Reading,


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