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Was verstehst Du unterm Begriff ‘Geschichte?’ March 13, 2006

Posted by The Truth in WARNING: Heavy Reading Ahead.
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WARNING: HEAVY READING AHEAD. May cause indigestion, migrane, heart palpitations, unhealthy philosophical reflection, mental instability, drowsiness (DO NOT DRIVE OR OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY) or tired dry eyes. But you’re a champion if you try to understand it.

What is history? Classically defined, history is the study of happenings in the past, an attempt to glean all one can know from the past while staying factually correct. To many, History is a ‘dead’ subject – one doesn’t have to make his own inferences nor his own interpretations, all one needs to know is what books are good for History, and what texts are there to refer to.

That’s perhaps one of the reasons why I detested History in secondary school. For me, I need to study something living…I don’t want to study facts and facts and facts. For me, History was something which was dry, something which I couldn’t apply, and we learnt neither theories nor practicality, but instead focused on memory work. I remember just regurgitating facts, instead of writing long, rambling essays about any particular topic (which I’d rather do, actually.) The thing is, we’ve been taught…erm…indoctrinated that whatever in the book is probably gospel truth, because history is about facts after all, isn’t it? (And you’d better memorise them if you want to fucking pass your exams…) What I’ve read in the 1st chapter of Re-thinking History (aptly entitled What History Is) has come to further reinforce my feelings about the classical treatment of the subject.

In dieser kleinen Lehre wird den Begriff ‘Geschichte’ auseinandergesetzt: What it means in a more classical context, and what it means to our dear author. And I’m coming to agree with our author. History, according to him, should be made up of two parts: the past, which is what really happened (and of course we have no means of knowing with absolute certainty what went on) and historiography, which is basically, what historians do. They gather evidence, re-process it according to methodologies they probably learnt at the university, and then try to piece together a coherent story of what the past looked like. Therein, however, lies the problem.

Because historiography is done by 1 million historians worldwide, there are bound to be conflicts, even if very minor ones, between each of the individual histories. And doesn’t this mean that there are about 1 million different accounts of the past, even if they only vary in very minor aspects? Let’s even take apart the word History. It says ‘his story.’ And that’s precisely what history is. To me, history was just a story of times long forgotten and ages long past, of battles fought and lost. And of course, it’s told by different people, in a different way. The only truth is the past, but since neither us nor any historian has ever been able to step into a time machine and go back, the past remains shrouded in mystery.

History is also influenced by the mentalities of the historians today. History, as the layman sees it, is an attempt to bring over the past into today’s context, so that we may look back, reflect, and learn the lessons of our forefathers. But let’s see. We’re analysing the happenings of the past from today’s perspective. This is something which leads to gross misinterpretations, especially in the study of the ancient days. How’re we to know what that particular happening meant to the people then? We’re inserting modern-day interpretations to things which happened millennia ago, interpretations only applicable to our context, things which may be totally irrevelant tomorrow.

Which leads to my next point. Because these interpretations are in a constant state of flux (depending on the prevalent mental model/whoever’s in power at the time) history changes as time passes. Although it will be, of course, difficult to rewrite history overnight, the current version of history will only last this long. It won’t be a thousand years before someone else disputes that the second Gulf War ever happened, for example, because it was never clear if it was an outright war in the first place. Imagine what would happen if by some freak of nature, the Middle East managed to conquer the Western world. They would re-write history all over again. The cessation of Israel to the Zionists would be hailed as a blasphemy, the Gulf Wars a crime, and maybe President Ahmadinejad would be a hero in history. So what does this tell all of you?

History is a game of power.

History, or, more precisely, historiography, is just the bending of past events, along with their relevance to today, to whoever is paying the historian to write that particular story. Case in point: The Nanking Massacre, a source of much bad blood between China and Japan, is still a huge point of contention in Eastern Asian politics, because one side insists it existed (which stands in many history textbooks today) while the other plays it down, saying that it is ‘questionable’ if it actually occurred. Ideologies vary from place to place, and with it history as well. In his essay, Jenkins mentioned that ‘those who control the present control the past and those who control the past control the future.What does mean?

It has all to do with what’s been mentioned above. ‘Those who control the present’ refer to whoever is in control of a particular social group; ‘Control the past’ refer to the ability to mangle past facts into a history which matches the ideals and wishes of that particular group’s leadership. The phrase ‘control the future’ refers to, however, the need for people to explain current occurances and future trends, using antecedents in the past.

My last point about what constitutes historiography (there’s really nothing much to say about the past; what happened happened. We can’t tell, however, what it meant) is that although there are several methods by which historians gather their information and make inferences, these several methods stem from several famous historians, which means that historians who swear by these methods (they most probably do, considering how they were introduced, and then taught in the university) will come up with slightly differing versions of history. And these methods change with time as well.

History, as taught in schools, seems to be composed of certain parts which change in sync with changes in general education theory. An example brought up would be the change of the ‘heartland concepts’ of history in the ‘60s of time, space, sequence, moral judgement, and social realism to the ‘key concepts’ of the 70s, which comprised of time, evidence, cause and effect, continuity and change, as well as similarity and difference. Obviously ‘heartland’ and ‘key’ here mean, generally, the same thing: they make up the core of the concepts taught in history at that particular time. A shift in general education policy will thus, cause different kinds of histories to be written. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the content may be essentially the same, but the implications and focuses are different. And that constitutes, in a sense, a different form of history.

It is, thus, recommended to see the various Histories as prisoners of time; they are locked away in the time at which they were written; because something written in the ‘80er may not be applicable anymore today. If you’ve noticed, the only concept which did not change was the concept of time, id est, only the times at which certain happenings occurred remained core to the History syllabus. Significances shift and flux, and that is exactly why history as taught does not equate to knowing the facts.

And because there isn’t one universally accepted History (with a capital font-size 200 H) nor a universally accepted histeriographical method, how are we to compare and contrast the multitude of histories we get against History? How are going to verify their truth? History is, thus, also a powerful weapon in controlling the masses via education. History is a tool which the intelligent will use to control their flock, by an educated amount of (ab)use. History comes in many embodiments, and it’s really only up to the responsible, capable education agency to choose the one which has the best impact on its students.

The past is dead – but history lives on. It’s re-born every day. Think about it. What is History?

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