History is a convenient toy of historians

The history teacher at my school introduced himself on our first history lecture by saying, “Everything I am going to tell you is wrong. I know that because everything I was told at university was wrong.”

It seemed strange to us students who were used to holding instructors in awe, yet here was one seemingly telling us the whole course was pointless.

Some years later, a retired professor from a local university was giving a chat about local events to local people. He started by telling little story; a professor from an Oxbridge university, fearing for the renewal of his contract, as they all do, was after some revelation about the period he specialised in. He’d heard that the science faculty was working on a time machine so raided their premises one night, sent the device back to his period, and brought back a famous politician of the time. The retired professor said to him, “I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen the resulting book.”

The other chap said, “I wasn’t able to write it. I questioned him as to what went on, but all his answers were wrong.”

That’s the problem with history; everything that historians say is little more than what they want it to be.

It’s taken me some years to accept that I can believe nothing from the mouths, pages or TV programmes of historians. I tend to favour one theory, putting myself in one camp, or possibly two, and will build evidence to support my point of view despite knowing that in a few years, my point of view would have changed considerably.

In late 2013, the Times Literary Supplement reviewed about six books on causes of the First World War. All differed from others in at least one fundamental aspect. Five books were authored by renowned historians and the sixth was by the famous TV presenter of historical documentaries.

I bought one, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. 

The author, Clark, a history professor at Cambridge, had to backtrack on a report he’d submitted on a member of the Hohenzollem family of Germany about their support for National Socialism. He was, in effect, like all historians. Fascinating book though.

The book was well received and  reviewed on Amazon, with just 2% of 1620 comments being just one star. The criticism included a damaged cover, the print being too small, and the cost being £4000, this last despite the hardcover version being just £17.62. I wouldn’t go as far to say as I enjoyed the book, as it was a little hard going, with interminable detailed sources, but it was interesting and persuasive. It’s my favourite version of all the arguments centering on the start of the conflict, that is all bar one.

Our history teacher specialised in the Hundred Years’ War, the one that bewilderingly ran from 1337 to 1453; perhaps they added up differently in those days. He said that if we brought someone back from just after that period, and mentioned the Hundred Years’ War, they wouldn’t have a clue what we were talking about. To them, the period from 1337 was a start the series of wars.

He reckoned that the events we know as the First World War and the Second World War would probably be called the 50 years’ war in a few years’ time. It would be a construct of one historian initially, and then others would agree, probably reluctantly, and then it would become established as the nomenclature.

All history is merely that which is convenient to influential historians at that time. Whoever said, ‘History is bunk’, hopefully it wasn’t the appalling Henry Ford, was spot on.

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