History, a reflection on its craft (part I)

To  the memory  of Mrs. Trudy Spira, with great admiration


by María Magdalena Ziegler D.

It is a commonplace, outside the Academia, to assume that historians have at our disposal all the elements to reach the absolute truth about the past. We could say that it is natural to do so and that this also shows a commendable confidence in the work of History as a discipline.

But, at the same time, it is tremendously dangerous, especially when not a few historians nurture this attitude of the general public. This situation has been in crescendo since the 19th century. The following century developed it extensively. And now, it seems a sort of giant with seven heads with which it is quite complicated to fight.

The unrestricted trust of the reading public in the product of the work of any given historian is not an entirely positive matter, especially when the dissemination of the results of historical research (of any level) is already a genre of reading with high sales. Along that we can’t deny the large volumes of visits on different sites on the Internet, and the numerous pretexts for spectacular television shows, movies etc.


Historians and the public

Let’s get everything straight. We are not against the diffusion of historical knowledge. But we must stop for a second and ask ourselves if we are all aware of the fallibility of the historian’s work. Are we really aware of what it means to describe a research as the end point on any event from the past?

To publish a historical research carries a great responsibility for the historian who goes far beyond the prestige, the making of money, etc. To spread historical knowledge is a necessary task, but also extremely delicate due to the consequences that could lead.

It is absurd to maintain insuperable gaps between academic history and popular history today. What historians write for academic circles must find a way to jump the fences and get to a broader audience.


History spectacular

Thus, academic circles can’t keep its little public anymore. Without loosing rigor of facts checking, interpretation and writing, historians must come closer to that public which could be easily scammed. If historians don’t proceed to do it, others will.

Historical Revisionism, for example, has become something similar to the popular TV show Mythbusters. And, hey, don’t get me wrong! I love Mythbusters, but History is not a matter of myth busting. As simple as that. It is a lot more complex and involves so many different skills beyond a simple “True / False” dichotomy.

And even though there are many myths in some histories, it is not entirely true that all that has been laid in the field of professional history is mythology.

Besides, if discrediting of myths would be the only legitimate work for a historian, then the danger is obvious: conspiracy theories are tremendously attractive. To contradict what a professional historian has said, knowing that he/she has had to save innumerable obstacles to gain credibility could not be turned into entertainment or an “alternative fact” (as it is fashionable to call it nowadays).

Some of these historical myth busting could constitute an open disrespect to human dignity. They could distort the past and show the present a fictional image of what we have been and what we are capable of doing.


History and its task

Let us put it openly: historians cannot allow offenses to the dignity of historical consciousness of any kind. And there is a reason for that:  it is what makes us truly human. It is praiseworthy to try to get rid of some of the academic rigidity of historical discourses. But we should be careful not to reach the extremes of laxity.

Historians have a duty towards the past. We constantly dig into its ashes, and often, only with difficulty we can extract clear evidence and determine aspects of a particular fact.

However, a solid and careful methodology can provide an approximation to the past. That could be partial, incomplete and provisional, but always full of certainty if done properly.

In the public sphere we all have the right to express our opinions, and that cannot be denied. Our rights have as limits the beginning of the rights of the other, and that cannot be rebutted. We all have the right to know the truth about the past, and that is inherent to the work of the historian. Therefore, history must be written in this framework.

History cannot escape from the issues of the truth about the past and the present. Whoever thinks that he/she could escape from those issues, surely has no idea what it means to live under a regime that systematically distorts and suppresses elements of the past to adapt the present for its own benefit.

When History acts with honesty to itself, the sense of liberation and justice that bathes thousands of victims in the history of humanity is also evident in the historians who will never stop stating that there are no “alternative facts”, but only facts.

One thought on “History, a reflection on its craft (part I)

  1. Pingback: Sevigny: “If you don’t read you will never be a photographer.” | ars.vox

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