There’s a tendency when you read about history to see it as the capital-T Truth. History books we read in school tend to portray themselves as an objective account of past events. They are anything but.
The history of any subject has a history (meta, right?), typically called its historiography. American historians writing in the 1960’s tended to have views colored by the Cold War and Civil Rights movements whereas historians in the 1990’s didn’t.
Maybe ten years ago, I got really interested in the American Civil War and read maybe a dozen books on it and after a while, I started to see how books about the same period, but written at different times tended to show very different perspectives and reach very different conclusions.
There was a rash of history books written about the Civil War in the decades immediately following the end of the war. Not surprisingly, these books tended to be highly partisan. Authors sympathetic to the Union praised it as a tragic, but ultimately redemptive and transformative for unifying a nation. Authors sympathetic to the Confederacy tended to see it as an unfair tragedy.
There was another series of books that came out in the 1960’s around the 100 year anniversary of the war. These books tended to view the Civil War and its effects through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement that was happening at that time.
Some historians in some eras have produced works about Genghis Khan as a horrible killer and murderer that blazed a path of death across Eurasia. Other historians in other eras have produced works about the impact and extent to which the Mongols spread culture.
Some historians have produced works that see Churchill as a hero that saved Western Civilization from the Nazi invaders, others as a buffoon and opportunistic politician.
Ultimately, historians are products of their own times like the rest of us. And given the staggering complexity of reality, you can ultimately weave just about any narrative of any period if you really put your mind to it.
I think it is important and useful to have at least one historical event which you have read about from a few different authors at different times.
For one, there is the obvious benefit that it helps one to gain a better understanding of that period that is perhaps somewhat closer to an unbiased perspective.
But, more importantly, it causes you to think “if there are so many ways of interpreting this one period, could that be true for all other periods?” (Spoiler: Yes.)
The main benefit of reading a handful of books on the American Civil War for me was that it showed me how nuanced and subject to interpretation history is. Just as our own time is characterized by many cultures, people, movements, economics and politics, so too was every period of history in every part of the world.
It is not so easy to draw simple conclusions from the past and I would be cautious of any interpretation which claims it is. We tend to resist the inherent complexity of human society and humans themselves.
However, once we accept the inherent nebulosity of reality, we open ourselves to the opportunity to see clearly and to be open to dialogue about how our own preconceived notions are, perhaps, yet another oversimplification of the complex reality around us.
Last Updated on October 26, 2020 by Taylor Pearson