November 1, 2013
Siding With Stalin: The Historians’ Curse
I thought the recent blog When Satire Missed As Satire by Peter Suciu was really interesting, making the point that we shouldn’t believe everything we read, or should at least consider the source and think carefully before accepting things as fact. This particularly applied to reading things on the Internet, but was part of a broader point that questions should always be asked of anything we read. It applies, for example, to any history book, because as Peter pointed out, “history is often written by the victors.”
My university degree is in history, and funny enough; my final dissertation was on the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which Peter talks about as his example. While studying history, I came to realize that I should think about the motives of the historians whose books I was reading as much as the primary sources within them (which will, indeed, have been largely provided by the victors). When I wondered why somebody should try to go against the grain and challenge accepted theories about history, I originally assumed it must be because they had some fascinating new evidence or just wanted to make sure that the historical study of any subject was as open and thorough as possible. These are perfectly understandable and no doubt prevalent motives for a historian, but I came to realize there was another one: they haven’t got anything else to do.
History is their job. It’s what they take pride in, it’s what they get paid for. To admit that we know Stalin was a big shit (you’ll excuse the esoteric, technical history language there) and that there is nothing else to study about him is pretty depressing for an historian. Much more exciting and attention grabbing to write a book about how he is misunderstood, and to present arguments related to why history should view him differently. Okay, the historian doing that might get a few weeks in to the project and start to hate themself for getting into bed with one of the worst men in history, but at least he or she might sell a few books.
The problem with history is that by definition it has already happened. We can’t make any more of it, in terms of concluded events. What we can say and discover about any event is finite, but we can extend it by coming up with slightly questionable opinions and then trying to find evidence to back them up.
I wouldn’t want to leave anybody with the impression that historians are all fame hungry charlatans; I’m sure most have the first priority of covering history as comprehensively as possible. But I agree with Peter that we should consider diligently the background to everything we read. This applies to professors of noble subjects as well as chancers on the Internet. It applies to everything except for my blog here, of course. You can take this as the purest and most virtuous piece of work it is possible to absorb.
Image Credit: Thinkstock