The Value of History

9 November 1989

Yesterday, Europe celebrated that twenty years ago, Germany was reunited. Like so many people, I have fond memories of it. I had been in Berlin a couple of months before the Wall fell, and somehow I had sensed that change was in the air. The VoPos had been friendlier than during my earlier visits, at least. On that ninth of November, my girlfriend and I continued to watch TV until after midnight. I have visited Berlin only twice ever since, but on both occasions, I found it a nice city, quite relaxed. In Berlin, the cops aren’t marching, but walking leisurely.

To congratulate my German friends, I decided to post a message on Roman Army Talk, one of the best discussion boards I know. I also wrote that I was happy for the rest of the world, because Berlin had been made/remained the capital of Germany, and its museums had been renovated. I hope to visit them next year.

My friend Christian, who lives in Bavaria, replied to this, saying that modest Bonn would have been a better capital. Germany ought to break with everything Prussian, including its capital. We exchanged several messages, discussing the nature of German history. We touched on familiar questions – is there continuity or discontinuity in German history, and so on. If you’re interested, it’s here, but on this blog, I want to make a different observation.

After several hours, people noticed that what “was gonna be a nice tribute on a joyous occasion quickly became very ugly”. It may indeed have seemed so; Christian and I know each other, and writing to each other, we can leave aside common expressions of politeness like “at least in my opinion”. To outsiders, it may have seemed a bit ugly indeed, and we may have made a mistake by putting it online on a public forum. So, I can understand the criticism.

Yet, I also feel that Christian and I did the proper thing. Too many joyous occasions have been hijacked by people who gave a fixed interpretation of the past. In 1989, the French celebrated the bicentenary of their revolution, presenting it as the breakthrough of the bourgeoisie, the culmination of the French Enlightenment, and the birth of modernity. I remember how this generated many questions; the direct consequence of the Revolution was, after all, a relocation of capital that was beneficial to the aristocracy, not the bourgeoisie, and it was not in France but in Britain that industrialization and modernity started. I am not claiming that this interpretation of the French Revolution is better, or that the French ought not to have celebrated the occasion; but they ought to have presented it as something that was open to debate.

Debate is the proper way to celebrate, because the past has no fixed meaning. I fondly remember the old exposition in the Berlin Bundestag, “Frage an die deutsche Geschichte” (“questions to the history of Germany”; the catalog is still available). That is the way we should handle our past, and the Germans generally do that very well. I already blogged on the remarkable expositions to commemorate the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, in which at least two contradictory signals are given: on the hand, “yes there is something to celebrate, so we organize these exhibitions”, and on the other hand, “no there is nothing to celebrate, just read the catalog”.

There is a deeper point, however: what is the value of the study of the past? What can we learn from it? It has no direct relevance; we are free people, constructing our pasts as a response to the present, and accepting what we want to accept. There is something sad about states offering fixed heritage canons to teach the citizens civil virtues: although, on the one hand, the fluidity of the past allows states to construct these canons, the people are, on the other hand, free to ignore it. Even if, for example, the Shah’s claims about Cyrus the Great, the Greek claims about the uniqueness of their civilization, or the Zionists’ claims about their right to own Palestine, could be substantiated, people can just say no their past and make a clean break. It does not follow from the undisputed fact that women have been repressed since time immemorial, that we ought to continue to deny them their rights; nor does the Arabian influence on European civilization mean that westerners ought to be nice towards the Arabs in particular; and so on.

The past itself can be studied, and I disagree with postmodernists who claim that even the facts are always subjective; but these facts have no fixed meaning, unless we give it to them. The value of history is not the reconstruction of what really happened; nor is it education; the value is the debate itself.

In this debate, we find new methods. To take an example from ancient history: over the past thirty years, we have come to realize the extreme importance of the orality of ancient traditions. As a result, our image of the Median Empire has changed, but that is less relevant than the methodological advance, which is also applicable on other fields of study. If only our intelligence services would have realized what happens when people render information orally, they might have avoided an error or two. Or, to take another example, our political debate would benefit greatly if more people realized the consequences of the Everest Fallacy.

In other words: we can study the past because we enjoy the puzzle of getting the facts straight. The accounts of the battle of Aigospotamoi are contradictory, and it is fun to find a solution. We can try to see a deeper meaning in the past, but this is subjective. We need a story about our past, certainly, but it is as unreliable as our personal memories. The relevance of history lies in the debate itself. We find new ways of thinking. In this sense, but in this sense only, history is still the magistra vitae.

(Of course, Imre Lakatos already said this, back in the seventies. The fact that I still need to write what ought to be evident, is again proof that our universities are failing.)

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