History is always just a story

History is nothing but a story, a current story giving current judgments about past events shrouded by diminishing knowledge about the events themselves and of the motivations and causes of past behaviour.

The past is immutable but history is an ever-changing narrative about the past and is always subject to  a current agenda. Even current reporting of past histories has an agenda. The narrative is political – current politics and not the actual politics of the past. The only constraints that the stories of history have is that they not violate evidence that still remains. As we go back into time the hard evidence available diminishes rapidly and the scope for the historian to make up a narrative to suit his agenda increases.

How and why does history get rewritten?

If you read a history book written in the United States from the 1950s, on the origins of the Cold War, you’d get a definitive answer on which country was to blame, backed up with extensive evidence to justify its points. The book would say it was the fault of Soviet Russia, under the leadership of Stalin, …. If you picked up a US history book from the late 1960s, the chances are, you’d get a very different view. You’d read of America’s desire to take over economic control of Europe and tie the countries there to the dollar. …. By the 1980s and 1990s, the story would be retold again. Historians would point out that the Cold War was inevitable, given the ideological differences that existed between East and West, and it is futile to try to blame one person or even one country in particular. 

The point is, that our retelling of what happened in the past changes constantly, and this is true with just about every major event in history. The causes of the Second World War used to be straightforward. Hitler was to blame. But then along came the British historian AJP Taylor, and iconoclastically revised our view by suggesting that Hitler was only doing what he was allowed to do, …… 

Some historians claim to be objective. But they are fooling themselves. Any person who even recites his own history ascribes behaviour and motives to himself and to others to suit the needs of the present. The only constraint is that events for which evidence survives cannot be contradicted. Motivations are always malleable. There are events from my childhood for which there is evidence that the events occurred, but there is infinite scope available in the ascribing of motives which led to the behaviour of that time.

History is not bunk, but it is not about truth. It is always a story about the past to suit the politics of the present.


 

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