I have been recently reading a great many books about the
history of the past century, and I have come to what I think
is an astonishing conclusion, one that I hope does not
disappoint or deter my readers from reading about “history”
on their own.
That conclusion is that history is more entertainment than
we are taught it is supposed to be. Historians (that is, the best
of them) are intelligent and hardworking persons who feel
they are attempting to portray events of the past as accurately
as they can. Many historians, of course, have ideological and
political axes to grind, and the value of their work, although
sometimes filled with interesting and colorful anecdotes, is
of little value except to those who are seeking ideological and
political confirmation of their biases and predilections.
But many historians consider themselves to be relatively free
from biases, and sincerely seek to chronicle and interpret the
event of the past. Years of reading, however, have led me to the
realization that, however often the claim by historians of
disinterest and no distortion, it is incredibly rare.
We speak of history as the narrative of events which have
passed, either recently or long ago, but there is also the
in-the-moment experience of living in and through what
becomes history, that is, the experience of events around us
and including us. This inherently contemporary experience
is always limited by the lack of full information about what
is taking place, the motives behind events, the deliberate
invisible and secret nature of daily life itself.
Most persons do intuitively accept the limited information
we have about the present, but there is an understandable
conclusion also shared by most that over time, that the facts
and secrets behind events will be revealed, and that historians
will be the ones to tell us what they are.
The "entertainment" of history should not connote mere
amusement. The great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y
Gasset said in The Dehumanization of Art (1925) that
"When history is what it should be, it is an elaboration of cinema."
Let me be specific for a moment. I am reading a remarkable
book entitled “Armageddon: The Reality Behind The Distortions;
Myths, Lies, And Illusions of World War II” by Clive Ponting.
Mr. Ponting was the Edward Snowden of his day in the U.K.
when he, as a senior civil servant, disclosed to a member of the
British parliament the true (and covered-up) facts behind the
sinking of the Argentine ship General Belgrano during the
Falklands War. He was prosecuted for disclosing state secrets,
but was acquitted by an English jury. As a result, the British
Secrets Act was tightened, and he would probably be convicted
today for the same act for which he was found innocent. Mr.
Ponting then left the U.K civil service, and wrote several books.
(Mr. Ponting is often labeled a "revisionist" historian by some.)
The sinking of the General Belgrano was similar to the sinking of
the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Viet Nam War
in that the public disclosures did not reveal the true facts. The
reader should not conclude from all of this that I am excusing or
praising Mr. Snowden whom I consider as someone who has
probably committed treason (his purpose was not primarily to
expose false facts, but to jeopardize national intelligence
I mention Mr. Ponting’s role in the Falklands War to emphasize
the themes in the many books he has written about British and
European history as a corrective to conventional wisdom, myths
and conclusions about recent events. I found his book on World
War II to be refreshing, reasonably fair, unusually factual, and
informative. I am sure he has made some mistakes and
distortions of his own, but I found it not only expanded my
sense of what happened in the period immediately before I was
born, but it also reinforced my basic theme of this essay, which
is that virtually all of the discussions of history are subjective
and ultimately speculative.
There are “facts” in history, and over time we can have a
reasonable sense of what they were. Some of the individual and
more sensational events such as assassinations will probably
always have ambiguities about their perpetrators, but we do
know who “won” battles, who survived and who did not, who
triumphed and who surrendered in wars.
That there is a more or less permanent ambiguity in the truest
meaning and consequences of events an history, furthermore,
should not deter us from reading it, nor discussing it. History
remains, like great literature and other great art, a fascinating
pastime of human endeavor, and an entertainment. Reading
history is one way we pass through the time of our lives, and
one more way we find some meaning, each in our own way, in
what we think and what we do.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.