Wednesday, June 28, 2017


"Sand can only reach this strange conclusion by ignoring the vast amount of historical work that reads state-generated sources “against the grain”, bending them to purposes other than those intended by their authors. In my own work on Hamburg before the First World War, for example, I relied heavily on police surveillance reports of the city’s socialist pubs and bars, but I did not assume these were simply true reflections of reality. Rather, I used them critically to give a voice to the ordinary workers whose views they directly recorded. Vast quantities of similar reports exist for the Nazi years in Germany and have been the basis for a great deal of careful reconstruction of popular opinion under the Third Reich by Ian Kershaw, Martin Broszat and a host of others. The approach of Raphael Samuel and his History Workshop movement similarly involved reading official sources in a contrarian way, to recover the world of ordinary workers and their families. It’s simply naive of Sand to assume that because the state generates source material, the historian can do nothing but echo the spirit in which it was written and parrot the assumptions behind its creation."
Richard J. Evans, "Unending history". The Times Literary Supplement (TLS). 23 June 2017, p. 3.
"This book has been just over ten years in the making. Throughout this long endeavor, I believe I have been true to my resolve to write the life of Henry Kissinger 'as it actually was'- wie es eigentlich, in Ranke's famous phrase (which is perhaps better translated 'as it essentially was'). Ranke believed that the historian's vocation was to infer historical truth from documents -- not a dozen documents (the total number cited in one widely read book about Kissinger) but many thousands. I certainly cannot count how many documents I and my research assistant Jason Rockett have looked at in the course of our work. I can count only those that we thought worthy of inclusion in our digital database. The current total of documents is 8,380 - a total of 37,645 pages....My motivation in casting the widest and deepest possible net in my trawl for material was straightforward. I was determined to see Kissinger's life not just from his vantage point but from multiple vantage points, and not just from the American perspective but from the perspectives of friends, foes, and the nonaligned."
Niall Ferguson. Kissinger, Volume I, 1923-1968: The idealist. (2015), pp. xii-xiii.
To compare the statements from respectively the ex-Regis Professor of History at Cambridge, Sir Richard J. Evans, well known scholarly expert on 19th and 20th century Germany and the famous expatriate British economic and political historian Niall Ferguson (now at Harvard University) and anointed authorized biographer of former American Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, makes for interesting reading. Although Sir Richard and Professor Ferguson are both products of that elite foundry of erste-klasse historians, Oxbridge, their views on history could hardly be more different. Evan's coming out of the gauchiste, soixante-huitard, social history nexus, is almost not on the same planet as a historian with the traditionalist Ferguson, with his quotation of Ranke's famous dictum of 'wie es eigentlich'. The difference between the two raises the question (in my mind at least, hence this commentary), whose view on history and the writing and interpretation of it, is more accurate? After giving the matter some thought, it is self-evident to me that Ferguson, notwithstanding my minor caveats about his opus on Kissinger (subsequently to be reviewed in this pages), has a better handle on how to approach the question of the writing of history. To my mind, wie es eigentlich, is notwithstanding any Hegelian, idealist tendencies is by far a better method of approaching the historian's task than Evan's (quite evident) ideologically charged, re-creation of history. For what else can on take to mean his statement that he reads: "state-generated sources “against the grain”, bending them to purposes other than those intended by their authors". Id. est., Evan's is engaged in a purposeful re-creation, nay a re-invention of history to suit some political purpose or programme. Which of course was the intention, deliberate in fact of the E.P. Thompson, et. al., 'working-class history', 'history from below', et cetera. We now know of course, that Thompson's history was embedded in an idiosyncratic type of romantic Marxism. That there was no 'English working-class' which was created in the time frame that he discusses in his work. In short the point and purpose of history and the historian's craft is not to engage sub rosa in a political exercise for some contemporary purpose or other. Properly speaking history is about things which occurred in the past and the 'past' as such, in its strangeness and obscurity, can only have the most difficult and distant relationship to the present. As the great British, neo-Hegelian philosopher Michael Oakeshott, once beautifully expressed it:
"The world has neither love nor respect for what is dead, wishing only to recall it to life again. It deals with the past as with a man, expecting it to talk sense and have something to say apposite to its plebian 'causes' and engagements. But for the 'historian', for whom the past is dead and irreproachable, the past is feminine. He loves it as a mistress of whom he ever tires and never expects to talk sense. 1"
1. Michael Oakeshott. Rationality in politics and other essays. (1962), pp. 181-182. The title of the essay was: "The activity of being a historian".


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