Making History: Book Review
Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past (2022), Richard Cohen. Cohen was publishing director for two London publishers, including working with several of the current historians. This analysis is long and attempts to be all-inclusive, citing not only historians but novelists, William Shakespeare, journalists, biographers, TV historians, and documentarians. The net result is questioning what history should be. All the approaches potentially could be accurate—or maybe not. Most would make positive contributions to our understanding of the past. Cohen points out that “every author of a work of history is an interpreter, a filter, with his or her own personal input” (p. 3). Historiography is the study of historical writing, with many alternative views of what that means. Cohen includes: “the composers of the Bible, several novelists, one dramatist—William Shakespeare, judging him to have formed more people’s ideas of the past than any writer of history, and a diarist, Samuel Pepys” (p. 5).
Overture. Twentieth century monk David Knowles wrote about Medieval monasteries. The Monastic Order in England described monastic life after the Norman Conquest, with the built-in biases of the author: “Knowles shows how even great writers can ignore ‘objective’ history, selecting what suits the agenda they have chosen to pursue … it was his truth.” (p. 26).
Chapter 1: The Dawning of History: Herodotus or Thucydides? “The conversion of legend-writing into the science of history was not native to the Greek mind, it was a fifth-century invention, and Herodotus was the man who invented it” according to RG Collingwood. Homer was a group project creating The Iliad. Cohen says it was epic invented from memory and before history. Oral meant what the audience wanted to hear.
Herodotus (about 485-420s BC) wrote the oldest surviving book on any subject, still considered history, covering the recent past without a focus on myth, perhaps the first to discover multiculturalism. Herodotus described the Persian empire from Cyrus in 550 BC and Persian culture, Egyptian early history and customs, Athens from 560 BC on, then the Persian expeditions with the defeat by the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BC, and Xerxes ten years later. Cohen calls Herodotus a rambling wanderer.
Thucydides (460-395 BC), the son of a rich landowner, elected general and banished after being defeated. He wandered and wrote The History of the Peloponnesian Wars in the 5th century BC in an impersonal style, relying on his own research. He focused on accuracy, although he over-praised Pericles. He included speeches made, with unknown accuracy (they tend to sound alike). “It was once common to contrast Herodotus as a poetic tale-teller with Thucydides as scientific historian” (p. 50). Cohen compares them as restricted to certain disciplines in search of objective truth versus pursuing an open-ended investigation, without boundaries.
Chapter 2: The Glory That Was Rome: From Polybius to Suetonius. Relatively little writings of Roman historians survive. Livy and Tacitus were well-known based on a fraction of their writings. Rome became the largest city and arguably the most powerful with 1.4 million people during the reign of Trajan (98-117). Of course, a third were slaves and a tenth soldiers. The empire included much of North Africa, well into Germany and England, and much of Asia Minor, including Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia, a total 50-60 million people.
Polybius (208-116 BC) was a general. Sallust (86-35 BC) a senator and provincial governor. Julius Caesar (102-44 BC) was considered a historian. Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) was friendly with the Julio-Claudians. Jewish writer Josephus (37-100) became a friend of future emperor Titus. Tacitus (56-117) was a consul and mayor of his town. Suetonius (70-130) was director of imperial archives under Trajan and secretary of Hadrian. The power elite could expect to get favorable coverage from elite historians.
Polybius wrote about Rome’s ascent from 264 BC through the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, especially the Second Punic War (218-202 BC). Polybius’ theory was history goes in cycles: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, which decayed into tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule, themes later used by Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Gibbon. Polybius also pointed out the importance of cities, districts, rivers, harbors, and geography, plus political life, and be well-traveled, which he considered more important than documents. (He did spend time in libraries in many cities.)
Rome had a considerable literature; its first public library was created in 39 BC. Augustus built two more, while controlling their contents, including the works of Julius Caesar and Ovid. Caligula later banned Virgil and Livy.
Sallust wrote about the attempt of Cataline (108-62 BC) to overthrow the Roman Republic and the war against Numidia (Jugurtha) in Algeria (112-106 BC). Livy was a tutor and friend of Claudius. He wrote a history for eight centuries starting with the founding, of which about a quarter still exists plus synopses of the rest, ending in 167 BC. This was a focus on the distant past with a focus on politics and the military. “We get nearly all our human-interest stories of Rome’s early days from Livy. … Livy saw the past as morally and intellectually superior to his own time” (p. 66).
Palestinian Jews revolted against Rome in 66. Josephus was a Jewish Pharisee and scholar who commanded rebels in the north of Galilee. He was taken prisoner, becoming a translator for Vespasian’s son Titus. Josephus wrote a history of the Jewish War and later Jewish Antiquities.
Tacitus was a senator and consul, considered Rome’s greatest historian. His Histories went from the fall of Nero in 68 to the death of Domitian in 96, and the Annals from Augustus to Claudius in 66, less than half of which survives. He describes Tiberius as cruel and wicked, although other accounts consider Tiberius conscientious. Gibbon called Tacitus the model “philosophical historian.” Machiavelli saw the amorality of power.
Plutarch (46-120) was the major source for Shakespeare’s Roman plays. He focused on the deeds of great men in his Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, with 23 bio pairings plus four unpaired, from Aeneas to Augustus. These included recent Romans: Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Caesar, Brutus, Anthony, and Cicero. Suetonius, writing about the same time, included bios of 12 Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian, the main source for Caligula and Claudius.
Chapter 3: History and Myth: Creating the Bible. Many of the laws of Moses come from the Code of Hammurabi. The Noah food story codes from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Song of Deborah was a war chant, probably based on an actual battle. The Yahweh author J came from Judah, E (for calling God Elohim) from Israel (the Northern kingdom). Hilkiah, a priest, claimed he found Deuteronomy in 622 BC, to justify the reforms under King Josiah. The same author wrote Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The Babylonians captured Judah and banished the elite in 586 BC. The claim was the violation of the covenant with God. P was an Aaronid priest from Jerusalem, perhaps written during the reign of Hezekiah (715-687 BC), the largest parts of the Old Testament. The editor or redactor could have been Ezra on the return from the Babylonian Captivity.
The Old Testament covers the Palestinian highlands of during the Iron Age, about 1250-600 BC. The earliest evidence of an actual person was David; however, the name was “dwd,” meaning the “beloved” which could be generic. Jerusalem was not a religious and political center until the first century BC.
New Testament. The earliest writings were by Paul, about the year 50. Of the 14 letters attributed to him, 8 were definitely not. The estimate was there were about a thousand followers in 60, to 2.5 million in the year 300. About 50 accounts not in the Bible were found in Egypt near the village of Nag Hammadi. Josephus mentions Jesus (the problem being handwritten accounts could be modified). Mark was written in Greek for a gentile audience. Luke was a native of Antioch in Syria. There were multiple authors of John, in three phases over a couple of decades and perhaps finished about the year 100. More information has come in the last 100 years because of archaeological evidence (30,000+ digs in Israel).
Chapter 4. Closing Down the Past: The Muslim View of History. The claim was that the Koran and its commentaries are all that’s needed to comprehend the past. “Islam cancels all that was before it” (p. 101). There were four periods of power: Umayyad er (661-750), Abbasid era (750-1258), Mamluk (1250-1517), and Ottoman (1299-1922). This was history writing for theological ends, after considerable (and flexible) oral history. Mohammad (570-632) was a merchant in Mecca, having visions of visits of the archangel Gabriel. He fled to Medina in 622, gathering a loyal following. His continued revelations formed much of the Koran (the recitation). Writing was often discouraged: “Some viziers held the view that their rulers should not be left to read works of history precisely because they might learn something” (p. 111).
Baghdad was founded in 762 and reading became important. Relatively poor men found themselves ruling rich provinces of Persia and Byzantium and “Arabic became the tongue of historiography” (p. 112). The focus was urban elites. Record-keeping became important with Mohammed considered the lawgiver. Much of the history was the description of political events and dynasties. Cohen discusses several specific Islamic historians. He labels three categories: biography, the history of groups (prosopography), and annals which detail events as they occur (chronography). Calligraphy was important, meaning that printing presses were not, which would have been an incentive for the multitude to learn to read. The “Counter-Enlightenment” of religious fanaticism grew by the end of the 20th century.
Chapter 5. The Medieval Chroniclers: Creating a Nation’s Story. Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” in the 1330s, because of the poor literature since the fall of Rome. Gregory of Tours (538-94) wrote History of the Franks, which includes Clovis (died in 511) as founder of the Frankish empire. Bede (673-735) wrote the Ecclesiastical History of Britain, the main source on 8th century Britain, included the period form Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC, then Saxon, Angle, and Jute history, and Christianity in south England. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English created late in the 9th century, probably from Wessex at the time of Alfred the Great (king: 871-899), updated until 1154. Charlemagne ordered his monasteries to keep similar annals, mainly focusing on prominent people.
The Bayeux Tapestry (embroidered with woolen yarn on linen cloth) can be considered a work of history, 224 feet by 18 inches with a running text in Latin. It begins with Edward the Confessor with the Norman tale that Edward sent his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson to Normandy presumably to promise Duke William the kingdom. Harold takes the crown when Edward dies. William kills Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and William and his descendants have been kings and queens of England ever since.
William’s Domesday Book of 1086 documented the holdings of England. About half of England was held by 11 of his “advisors.” Another 200 aristocrats held another quarter, of which four were English. English was not the common language until the 15th century.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry of Huntingdon, and William of Malmesbury wrote in the 1120-30s. Geoffrey wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, discussing over 100 kings including Lear, Cymbeline, Old King Coel, and Arthur—the hero of the tale. There does not seem to be much evidence to back up Geoffrey’s stories, although partly from Bede’s books, and Arthur from Nennius from the 8th century. Glastonbury monks “discovered” the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191. William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) wrote Deeds of the English Kings from 449-1120, ditto for English bishops, and a history from 1128 to Stephen’s reign (1135-54).
Charlemagne ruled over much of western Europe. Einhard (775-840) wrote a bio of Charlemagne after the emperor’s death in 814, the best-known Medieval bio. The monks of Saint-Dennis were the official historians of the royal court and continued through the 15th century. This is a primary source for the first half of the Hundred Years’ War.
Chapter 6: The Accidental Historian: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). Various groups in Florence jockeyed for power, related to class, patronage, and rivalries. Cesare Borgia gained power, employing Machiavelli—who noted Cesare’s cruelties as a means of gaining power without scruples; the point was to win: it is better to be feared than loved. Machiavelli separated public from private morals, crimes should be in the service of the state. He looked at governance based on monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and the debased forms as tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. He believed human nature is the same everywhere: “Valor leads to tranquility, tranquility to ease, ease to disorder, and disorder to ruin. And similarly from ruin, order is born, from order, virtue; and from virtue, glory and good fortune” (p. 171).
Chapter 7. William Shakespeare: The Drama of History. There were about 70 history plays written around the time of Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote 10 plays about English kings and 11 tragedies about Rome, and others like Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello, at least partly legendary. He had historical sources like Plutarch and Holinshed but changed them for his dramatic purposes. The most extreme was Richard III, made evil and deformed. Of course, he was defeated by the future Tudor king Henry VII, a good diplomatic move to portray Edward as evil.
Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was a 1594 joint stock company with profits shared among the actors (probably 9-12 men and 2 boys). Shakespeare was helping created a historic voice for England (with a speech in each play about what England is). Henry VI to Richard III plays covered the War of The Roses (1499-85). In Richard II to Henry V is the Tudor line that rebellion against even a usurper was a disgrace. As Machiavelli stated, power can be secured by image-making.
Chapter 8. Zozo and the Marionette infidel: Mr. Voltaire and Mr. Gibbon. Both Voltaire and Gibbon did not use mythmaking or church doctrine. “In 1767 Voltaire had cynically claimed that history was ‘nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes’” (p. 195). Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote prodigiously, fueled by 50 cups of coffee a day, often from the Café Procope. “He denigrated everything from organized religion … to the justice system. … The Holy Roman Empire, he once said, was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire” (p. 200). He was okay with God, just that He would not interfere directly with the world.
“In the article on ‘History’ that he submitted for Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie, he wrote: ‘One demands of modern historians more details, better ascertained facts, precise dates, more attention to customs, laws, mores, commerce, finance, agriculture, population.’ In this he was enunciating a new doctrine, breaking away from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events” (p. 207).
In 1757 Voltaire met Edward Gibbon (1737-94). Gibbon’s grandfather had been a director of the South Sea Company, which crashed in 1720. Gibbon wrote “The historian, like the naturalist, must collect everything and put his system together as the meaning of the evidence becomes clear” (p. 215). He wrote about Rome’s strengths and weaknesses. Gibbon started with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 and ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, including the founding of Islam and the rule of Byzantium. He blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome. One of Gibbon’s best lines is: “Winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators” (p. 227).
Chapter 9: Announcing a Discipline: From Macaulay to von Ranke. “History” first appeared as a word in 1482. “Information about the past rarely produced “history,” in the sense of a systematic analysis of evidence” (p. 228). Thomas Macaulay (1800-59) became the “most famous historian in English.” Ditto for Leopold von Ranke in Germany. Samuel Johnson was critical of historians as “imagination” or “mere mechanical compilation.” “The ‘great man’ approach had always been in part the result of lack of sources—and resources. … Great works of the past rest on masses of printed documents, tiny monographs, the records of civil servants, and endless lesser historians” (p. 231).
Macaulay wrote The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, volume 1 in 1848. He was offered a MP position by the Whig Party in the 1830s—when he was elected by 20 people, the only ones who could vote (land holders and taxpayers) and could be bought. Macaulay was accused of “complacency, self-satisfaction, personal [modesty] and condescension” (p. 241). Interesting quote: “James I was ‘one of those kings whom God seems to send for the express purpose of hastening revolutions’” (p. 242). One emphasis in his style was that Britain was constantly improving.
Macaulay was called a “Whig historian” in part for this focus on improvement but identifying was a Whig is hard to pin down. [Whigs had different political beliefs in Britain and the US. Lincoln was a Whig, for example, before he became a Republican.] According to Herbert Butterfield writing in the 1930s was that 19th century British historians “had been mainly Protestant, progressive, and Whig and that they saw events from previous centuries as always related to the here and now, as if the past existed only for the sake of the present” (p. 244).
Chapter 10. Once Upon a Time: Novelists as Past Masters. “Jane Austen … gives us a profound sense of what it was like in her times” (p. 256). Walter Scott’s novels had historical bases. “Scott chose the settings first, then spun his story, letting it unfold within the confines of actual events” (p 261), mainly through the lives of ordinary people …and future historical novels, from A Tale of Two Cities to Gone With the Wind on the Roots and Wolf Hall, followed in his wake” (p. 262). Several writers wrote both, like Voltaire, and Defoe. EL Doctorow claimed: “The historian will tell you what happened, the novelist will tell you what it felt like” (p. 266). There is a level of conjecture whether writing novels or history (story and characters are key to novels), or “biographers are simply novelists without imagination” (p. 269).
Cohen states that War and Peace is the best historical novel, reasonable in part because Tolstoy battled in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Crimea and served as a war correspondent. The book included 160 real people (out of 580). “History particularly irritated him as leaving out anything truly important. … History would be an excellent thing, if only it were true” (p. 271). “The 19th century ‘great man’ theory claimed that pivotal episodes are the result of the actions of ‘heroes;’ Tolstoy argues that such behavior rarely results in great events, which are the result of smaller incidents driven by the thousands of individuals involved. ‘In historical events, the so-called great men are labels giving names to events’” (p. 272). In the Battle of Borodino in the War of 1812, “It was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders was executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on. … Tolstoy gives us unparalleled social history and a deep insight into the years he is recounting” (p. 272).
Toni Morrison talked about “What makes a book ‘Black,’ she came to believe, were unique elements of language, narrative, and religion. She said Black stories ‘are just told—meanderingly—as though they are going in several directions at the same time’” (p. 279). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote history as a nightmare, which he experienced. Jill Lepore points out that writing about history is a “long and endlessly interesting argument, where evidence is everything and storytelling is everything else” (p. 287). Hilary Mantel claimed: “history is not the past—it is the method we’ve evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. … My tendency is to approach the received vision with great skepticism. … Your real job, as a novelist, is not to be an inferior sort of historian, but to recreate the texture of lived experience” (p. 287).
Chapter 11. America Against Itself: versions of the Civil War. Lincoln’s First Inaugural: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute” (p. 293). Local politician James Petigru: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum” (p. 293). Petigru still served as Attorney General for South Carolina. Dysentery was the main killer. The cause was slavery, but most Southern whites still believe it was state rights. It was high tariffs setting off an economic war or blundering statesmen, industrial versus agrarian cultures, fanatics who couldn’t be contained, or a Marxist class struggle. Self-justification by Southern leaders was a key factor. According to Jefferson Davis: “’political demagogues’ in the North had trumped up the slavery issue to acquire power. ‘Will you consent to be robbed of your property’—the slaves” (p. 297). Southerners claimed slavery was benevolent and remained unrepentant. Ten of the first 16 presidents were slaveowners.
Textbook publishers issued different versions of American history for North and South. [My great-grandfather was an infantry sergeant from Minnesota in the Civil War and my great-grandmother the last Civil War widow in California. I don’t have much empathy for the South’s positions.] It was a tragic episode when “we want our history to be triumphal” (p. 305). Charles Beard claimed it was the “uneven distribution of wealth and the industrialization caused by the war … and the eradication of slavery was directly linked to the rise of capitalism and the growth of the labor movement” (p. 305). There were revisionist schools, nationalist schools, Marxist, political schools, and comparative (comparing US slavery to the rest of the world). Black historians took a different view, noting the continued racism and slapping down of Blacks and other minorities. Racism didn’t disappear.
Photography became important, using the primitive methods of daguerreotypes, tintypes, and so on. Mathew Brady made a name for himself (less so for his photographers in the field capturing some 10,000 pictures). They could document the dead from a battlefield but not live action. When Ken Burns did a documentary, Shelby Foote became a new star.
Chapter 12. Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax: The Annales School. The Annales was a French magazine that expanded the coverage of historians, including geography, demographics, and economic data. “Friedrich Nietzsche had distinguished three approaches to history: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. Such divisions made little sense to the staff at the Annales. The editors, ‘leftists with a social sensibility,’ set out a bold agenda that embraced … all the social sciences … small units of research, such as events, community, individual, or a settlement” (p. 330). The magazine was reasonably successful by the early 1930s. A 1935 issue defined: “three essential approaches to a history of technology (investigate it, understand its progress, then understand its relation to other human activities),” (p. 332) which included an article on the use of watermills in Medieval Europe.
The most significant of the writers was Fernand Braudel (1902-85), coming the Annales in 1938. He had a broader specific after teaching in Algiers for eight years. He was captured by the Germans during World War II and spent five years as a POW. Braudel wrote on the Mediterranean and a three-volume history of the preindustrial modern world, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. He had a focus on “the importance of slaves, serfs, peasants, and the urban poor: those on the margins of society” (p. 345).
Many of them were Marxists and could not seem to criticize the Soviet Union no matter the crimes of Lenin and particularly Stalin (at least until the Soviet attack on Hungary). The idea of Stalin’s planned economy and “scientific socialism” must work. Emmanuel Ladurie focused on French peasants over several centuries, based on written records like wage books, tax and tithe records, and receipts. Ladurie claimed “Historians could be divided into two types: paratroopers, who comb vast tracts of territory, and trufflers, who snuffle about looking for particular gems” (p. 349).
Chapter 13. The Red Historians: From Karl Marx to Eric Hobsbawn. Marx explored atheism and “historical materialism.” He believed the world would be better once capitalism was destroyed. Revolutions broke out around Europe in 1847-8 and Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, stating that capitalism would eliminate national and religious identities. Capitalism would succeed economically but the bourgeois and proletariat would be bitter enemies. An underlying coherence to the message was lacking. His solution was communism caused by class warfare and property would become publicly owned with “each person remunerated according to their abilities and needs” (p. 355). Public ownership was not a new idea; it originated in ancient Greece and in Thomas Moore’s Utopia.
Marx’s most famous work was Das Kapital. According to Gareth Jones: “What is extraordinary about Das Kapital is that it offers a still-unrivaled picture of the dynamism of capitalism and its transformation of societies on a global scale. … It highlights some of the vulnerabilities of capitalism, including its unsettling disruption of states and political systems. … It connects critical analysis of the economy of his time with its historical roots” (p. 357). [The most lasting thing for me was his concept of power-conflict. He wrote about owners versus workers, but it can be generalized in multiple settings. I wrote about the relative power of local government leaders versus the various departments like public safety and parks and recreation.]
Soviet leaders took over Russia during World War I and created a totalitarian state they claimed was communist, granting workers even fewer rights than capitalist systems. Somehow Marxists and socialists still claimed it was a great system—at least until 1991. Leon Trotsky was the first major communist historian, becoming foreign minister and minister of war, helping create the Red Army. Stalin consolidated power by 1928 (after the death of Lenin). Trotsky was exiled and later assassinated. By 1985 about a third of the world lived under communist rule of some kind. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Marxists and communists did not go away, just their failure to consider human nature. Putin as Russia’s president has reestablished a totalitarian state, but a kleptocracy rather than communist.
The US reaction against communism started in the late 1940s was called McCarthyism (for Joe McCarthy’s “red scare”), which destroyed many lives using what should have been illegal means, while failing to stop real problems with Soviet spies in the US. Less severe versions of anti-communism took place in England and continental Europe. Historian’s both pro- and anti-communist prevailed over the decades.
Chapter 14. History From the Inside: From Julius Caesar to Ulysses S. Grant. Memoirs are significant for the historical record but hardly unbiased. “The professional historian and the memoirist rarely overlap—they lean in on the past at different angles” (p. 390). Churchill’s histories shaped perspectives. Major American memoirs included US Grant and Frederick Douglass, with a multitude of other examples. Julius Caesar is the classic, having written on many of his exploits, including wars in Germany where he captured 80 cities, writing 10 books—including stating “veni, vidi, vici.” St. Augustine’s The Confessions was an autobiography. Napoleon’s writings sold himself and never lost according to his perspective. “John Keegan argues that Grant invented ‘unheroic leadership.’ … He was ruthless on the battlefield, with a steely ability to send men to die” (p. 409). His memoir had “clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness, and justice” (p. 417).
Chapter 15. The Spinning of History: Churchill and His Factory. Churchill supported himself through journalism. He became a celebrity after his bout in the Boar War (he was shot at on four continents) and became an MP. “He was born both at the top of the tree and out on a limb” (p. 422). He usually had a battery of staff to do the basic research: “Give me the facts, Ashley, and I will twist them the way I want to suit my argument” (p. 430). Essentially, he would make history and write about it. His history of World War II is particularly interesting since he was such a big player.
“Churchill’s works have a dated air. For him the past was about heroism and grandeur, determined by the men at the top; his loyalty was to the story of how the great and the good won through. … Churchill could be careless, unbalanced, partisan, and self-protectingly selective” (p. 436).
Chapter 16. Mighty Opposites: Wars Inside the Academy. This deals with British historians from about 1940-2000, especially Hugh Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor. Trevor-Roper apparently was convinced of the superiority of European civilization, that other parts of the world either didn’t matter or had to take a European slant. Toynbee wrote a 6,000 page history of 26 civilizations, stating that their histories followed certain laws. Toynbee was attacked by Trevor-Roper for his “theory of history.”
Trevor-Roper and Taylor were both “convinced of their own outstanding cleverness, both were quick to take offense, and above all both loved to be at the center of a good argument” (p. 452). Taylor was called the “chance-minded historian. … I have no system, no moral interpretation” (p. 457). Both went by the adage “If they paid, he would provide.” Sacrificing measured judgment and including exaggeration enhanced readership. Things happen: “Ideas don’t matter, culture matter much” (p. 457).
Hitler was a fight. Trevor-Roper considered Hitler and the Nazis as evil, gangsters intent on power. Taylor “selects, suppresses, and arranges evidence on no principle other than the needs of his thesis; and that thesis, that Hitler was a traditional statesman, of limited aims, merely responding to a given situation, rests on no evidence at all, ignores essential evidence, and is … demonstrably false” (p. 461). Taylor claimed he had “extreme views weakly held” (p. 469).
Chapter 17. The Wounded Historian: John Keegan and the Military Mind. (Cohen was Keegan’s editor for some of the books.) Keegan (1934-2012) was disabled and unable to serve in the military, but became a military expert. “Keegan’s originality was to focus on the practical mechanics of war and examine popular myths about men in combat. … He analyzed three battles, all involving British troops but taking place in different periods, 1415, 1815, and 1916” (p. 478). Unfortunately, he thought the Vietnam War was justified, ditto overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and was a friend of Donald Rumsfeld.
Chapter 18. Herstory: From Ban Zhao to Mary Beard. Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), a Venetian in France was the first professional woman writer in Europe. “The male historians meanwhile in their works systematically snuffed out hundreds of women, their accomplishments, their bravery, and even their notoriety” (p. 491). Women co-discoverers in science did not receive credit. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) was known mainly for her travel writing but published other significant works. Her daughter Mary would write Frankenstein. Madame De Stael witnessed the Enlightenment, French Revolution, and Napoleon. Other writers of note were described. The only one I read was Barbara Tuchman (1912-89). She wrote: “Any woman whose life was adequately documented would be atypical” (p. 508). Plus Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. She became a TV pundit, then joined by several other women.
Chapter 19. Who Tell Our Story? From George W. Williams to Ibram X. Kendi. “There was a desire by Black writers to wrest back control of their story and by so doing give a fuller account of America … stripped of antebellum myth. … What should be the balance between the drive of ideology and the narrative of history? Thousands of former slaves wrote about their lives, about 150 are in print” (p. 524). Early historians were George Washington Williams (a Civil War veteran) and later WEB Du Bois. Reconstruction ended in failure after RB Hayes essentially stole the 1876 presidential election. Booker T. Washington, an admirer of Frederick Douglas, founded Tuskegee Institute. Du Bois criticized Washington for being a compromiser, claiming Blacks should demand equal rights. Other leaders included Carter Woodson and Marcus Garvey and the Harlem Renaissance. The Great Migration took place from 1910-70, the movement of Blacks to seek a better life in the North, which was also racist.
Chapter 20. Bad History: Truth-Telling vs. “Patriotism.” Public sources often hide what really happened: the Pentagon version of Vietnam [add Afghanistan, Iraq, and others], the Holocaust, British history, French. “History has even been a harbor for dishonest writing” (p. 564). Direct witnesses can be unreliable. Marco Polo? Tacitus wrote: “The histories of Tiberius, Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime” (p. 565). In Japan, Japanese war criminals were considered victims of western imperialism. Stalin enforced famine and assassination, killed about 20 million Russians, with enforced ignorance by Russian historians. The founder of China, the Qin emperor, destroyed earlier histories and buried the scholars.
“Ever since Martin Luther showed what could be achieved through the printed word, governments have attempted to control what is published” (p. 581). “Putin appreciated the effectiveness of historical rhetoric for his nationalist agenda. … Putin promptly created his own version of history, combining Soviet myths with stories from the Russian Empire before 1917” (p. 588). “As long as the government promotes self-serving patriotic myths, bad history will continue to be written and propagated” (p. 594).
Chapter 21. The First Draft. Journalists and the Recent Past. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) kept a journal from 1660-1669. This included the great fire of London and the Great Plague. Diaries are one record of history, written almost immediately like newspapers. Newspapers had to wait for Gutenberg’s printing press and developing the necessary processes. They started as monthly newsletters in Venice in 1536. The Fuggers of Germany developed their own global news service. Various newssheets were produced, mainly with trade reports and politics. In Britain, Nathaniel Butter was given a license to publish and in 1621 started with “News From Italy.” Two newspapers were published during the English Civil War of the 1640s, both biased but with solid facts. Newspapers became important at the same time as the coffee house, and expanded by 1700 as censorship lapsed. Many London papers were published on Fleet Street.
The first US paper was Publick Occurrences in Boston in 1690, which was also the first newspaper to be shut down by authorities. The Boston Newsletter started in 1704, mainly using London journals, plus fires, sermons, ship arrivals and deaths. Newspapers generally were funded by political parties. Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times in 1890 as an objective press: “without fear or favor.” In the mid-1890s, a circulation war started with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, resulting in “yellow journalism” to describe sensational articles published with yellow ink.
Special correspondents started in the 19th century, like the British Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) starting as a foreign correspondent reporting on Napoleon’s campaigns, George Kendall covering the 1846 Mexican War, and Henry Morton Stanley the Civil War and later found Dr. David Livingstone for the New York Herald. William Howard Russell covered the Crimean War (1853-6) including the Charge of the Light Brigade which inspired Tennyson. He watched it happen, then rode down and interviewed the survivors. Tolstoy also was a correspondent of the Crimean War. He then covered the American Civil War. “There is a credibility about eyewitness reporting before it has been through the blender of received wisdom and academic interpretation” (p. 610)—the idea of journalism as the first draft of history.
The BBC was founded in 1922, but a news department was not established until the mid-1930s. Eric Blair (1903-50) investigated poor areas in London, dressing as a tramp, publishing Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. “Poverty was to become Blair’s consuming subject” (p. 612). He wrote The Road to Wigan Pier on the working class in industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire in 1937. Blair is most known for 1984 and Animal Farm as George Orwell. A fundamental idea was tyranny opposed “objective truth,” which he witnessed on the Soviet’s position in the Spanish Civil War. Blair broadcast for the BBC during World War II.
Radio was invented in 1912, important for journalism. The most famous radio broadcaster in America for European coverage of World War II was Edward R. Murrow. There is the problem of exaggerating whatever skirmish a reporter in covering. Bigger institutions get more bureaucratic. Graham Greene was a foreign correspondent recalling how he had to deal with French censors in Vietnam in the 1950s, then British government censors, and finally newspaper editors to “fix” the story for their position on the war. Martha Gellhorn (1908-98): “I have witnessed modern war in nine countries” (p. 617). [I was in the Army during the Vietnam War and propaganda dominated the coverage.] Foreign correspondents did go out in the field and straightened out some of the record.
Hunter Thompson claimed there was no objective journalism: “The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms” (p. 620). “One can get pretty close to the truth. What one needs is time to judge that truth in the cold cast of thought. Journalists question witnesses, onlookers, victims, perpetrators, survivors. … Many universities now boast oral history programs” (p. 620).
Chapter 22. On Television: From AJP Taylor to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. AJP Taylor was a BBC panelist, with the potential for TV to perpetrate myths, biased versions of events, or present fact-based reporting. Viewers seem to gravitate for exciting news like catastrophes and various cognitive biases. Capturing an event on film suggests certainty. “Television still relies on the expert narrator. … Most presenter-led classics … [like] Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation. … By far the most popular subject for history programs now is the Second World War—especially featuring the Nazis … ‘Hitler porn’” (p. 633). Simon Schama received a multi-million-dollar contract to write three books and two TV series. “History nowadays is not a matter of conviction, it’s a performance” (p. 646), like Linn-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Niall Ferguson presented “counterfactual history” “delivered with utter certainty. … Don’t be boring. Be controversial” (p. 647).
Major American contributors included David McCullough (with his great voice) and Ken Burns. Burns has done many American historical documentaries, including based on books by McCullough. His most watched were on the Civil War and World War II. Alex Haley wrote the story of his ancestors in a somewhat fictionalized version, Roots, which was turned into a popular TV series. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was a historian with a focus on African Americans, then turned to genealogy on TV.
Afterword. Cohen describes: “Disinformation on social media and the emergence of a new ‘postfactual’ world in which facts—those precious building blocks for historians are under constant attack” (p. 659).
In summary, trying to understand what really happened is a tough slog, requiring analysis from multiple perspectives. That might get a person close.