Blog Post

Truth. History. Hitler. (With apologies for the clickbait title.)

The Article

In his NYT article, “No, He’s Not Hitler. And Yet…,” philosophy professor Justin E.H. Smith explores the nature of history and the consequences of our conceptions of the past in light of the upcoming U.S. election. Smith’s writing is inspired by the equation of certain political leaders with Hitler in the current election cycle. At the heart of his argument, though, is a discussion of the nature of history and the ways we talk about history in the public sphere.

Smith begins by rejecting two simplistic conceptions of history. First, that history is simply “one damn thing after another” and second, that “history repeats itself.” Smith argues that both positions present difficulties for how we understand the impact of historical events and persons on our present circumstances:

If it is just one singular thing after another, then we can derive no general laws or regularities from it, and so we would seem to have no hope of learning from it; but when we do try to draw lessons from it, we lapse all too easily into such a simplified version of the past, with a handful of stock types and paradigm events, that we may as well just have made it up.

Smith offers a compelling articulation for why historical events, persons, and ideas should not be viewed as entirely bound to specific times and places (one damn thing…) or as completely generalizable, trope-ish, and repetitive.

The more provocative portion of his article, though, appears in Smith’s definition and criticism of history as “narrative.” “Until very recently,” he laments, “it was common to hear from skeptics (in academia and elsewhere) that history is a ‘narrative,’ and that we must not expect the facts to dictate to us what version of history we ought to adopt. The facts are inaccessible, it was said, so let us tell stories, and create our reality.” Smith sees this definition of history  as relativistic and prone to misuse. This conception of history, Smith argues, has given us creationism, birthers, and, ultimately, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign promise to make America “great again.”

The problem with these movements, writes Smith, is that they are founded on “a conception of truth that does not require any basis in fact.” His proposed solution is “a bit of von Ranke’s hardheadedness.” Leopold von Ranke viewed the study of history as an effort to establish “how it actually was,” a phrase Smith takes as a call to pursue truth, not stories.1 To do so, he thinks, we should avoid our quest for the lessons of history and turn our attention instead to the facts of history. History, he concludes, “may be rooted in storytelling, but we can summon it to be something more – the arbiter of truth against lies told in pursuit of power.”

Storytelling and truth in history

There’s a lot to agree with in this article. Smith challenges readers to think more deeply about popular platitudes surrounding history. (History professors everywhere can rejoice, having found a new ally in the fight against two eye-roll inducing platitudes about history.) He also invites historians to consider the consequences of our insistence that history is, at its core, interpretation, not truth (or “the way it actually was).2  Has the equation of history with narrative opened the door for politicized storytelling, more bound to ideology than to evidence? These are worthwhile considerations and Smith’s insistence that public claims be backed by specific evidence rings true to the values of the historical discipline.

I worry, though, about Smith’s portrayal of historical narratives. He seems to equate narratives (“storytelling”) with things that are made up, mythological, ahistorical, and potentially dangerous. By contrast, Ranke’s “how it actually was,” coupled with an insistence that the past can be known, forms the foundation of Smith’s definition of truth. While these definitions might work for dispelling the notion that Obama was born anywhere other than Hawaii, this divorce of “storytelling” and “truth” is potentially detrimental for a broader evaluation of history as it is used in the public sphere. The division is problematic, I think, because it carries the promise that historical truth and untruth are easily distinguished from one another. I do not always, or even often, find that to be the case.

Searching for truth in history

Okay, so a quick primer on the nature of historical evidence. Historians write or speak history based written records, oral histories, and/or artifacts (objects, photos, trash heaps) created during a person’s life or specific event. This evidence is sometimes abundant and sometimes scarce, and both abundance and scarcity make it difficult to determine causes and effects, worldviews and values, or even the chronology of an event or person’s life. Abundance results in contradiction; there’s no way to say simply “how people felt” about Prince’s death, for instance, because lots of people felt lots of different things and expressed that in tweets, blogs, and editorials. Scarcity results in uncertainty; there’s solid evidence that Hatshepsut’s rule in Egypt ended in 1458 BCE, but it’s unclear whether she died or was killed. Historians also remain uncertain whether her inscriptions were removed out of bitterness by Thutmose III, her nephew/stepson/heir, removed by builders reusing cut stones for a different building at a later date, or some other event entirely.3

The complexity, contradiction, and missing pieces of the past make it difficult to know, or to fully know, how things actually were. True, we might glean estimates of the size of armies or information about where a person was born (assuming the authors of a particular text are trustworthy, but that’s another issue). Those factoids, however, are very little help in the face of more complex questions like cause and effect: Why did the terrorist attacks on September 11 occur? How did politicians justify their support for the Iraq War?

When it comes to big questions for which we only have partial or contradictory evidence, historians work instead from a position of what Calder and Steffes call “limited relativism.” This is a position that is neither “simple certitude (proof and inevitability” nor “easy relativism (every view is equal),” but rather a consideration of what is “plausible-implausible, acceptable-unacceptable.” Yes, those ideas are uncomfortably flexible, but plausibility, in its most basic form, requires evidence. For instance, plausible explanations for the end of the western Roman Empire include political divisions, financial difficulties, and invasions by Germanic tribes. An invasion by an army from China is implausible. Given the distance between the empires, the difficulty of the terrain of central Asia, and political division in the Chinese empire at the time – and, of course, the absence of written records and artifacts suggesting such an invasion.

As a final note on limited relativism, it’s worth acknowledging that historians, consciously or not, sometimes (often?) divide “acceptable” and “unacceptable” explanations based on their own convictions, values, education, political leanings, and (yes) emotions. I will speak only for myself here – I am not an unbiased readers of records and I select evidence based on what I think is important, influential, or neglected in historical writings. In short, I’m bound by my own perspectives. No surprise there, but worth highlighting in a discussion of limitations and relativism.

Spotting truth in history

Just for kicks, though, let’s assume that the past can be (fully) known and we should prefer history “how it actually was” to complex, partial, perspective-bound narratives. Could you distinguish a true historical narrative from a false one?

Try this webpage: Hitler Historical Museum.4 The “Ideological Statement” on the front page states:

The teaching of history should convey only facts and be free from political motives, personal opinions, biases, propaganda, and other common tactics of distortion. Every claim that is made about history should also be accompanied by documentation proving its basis. Only responsible scholarship and teaching should be permitted. Those who intend to support particular political interests and agendas should have their biased historical interpretations criticized for lacking proof.

That’s pretty much in line with Smith’s criteria – emphasis on evidence, free of political distortion, and critical of the biases of historical narratives. Solid historical work on the surface, but when T. Mills Kelly dug back through the Internet Archive to get a better sense of who runs the site, his digging (detailed here) turned up a “Happy Birthday Hitler” post and connections to neo-Nazi organizations.

Kelly and his students in turn perpetuated historical hoaxes in 2008 and 2012 as part of a course titled, Lying About the Past. The second hoax (the Reddit serial killer) was short-lived and quickly uncovered, but the first (on ostensible pirate Edward Owens) was initially reported as true on media outlets and by some historians.

The takeaways from the Hitler Historical Museum and the hoaxes are a) knowing the past and telling the truth of history is complicated and b) discernment is necessary and, encouragingly, possible – as evidenced by a Redditor’s rapid debunking of the second hoax.

In the end…

In the end, I’m not sure insisting that the past can be known or that we should focus on “how it actually was” is the most helpful way to deal with blatantly factless stories. Instead, I would call for the more difficult path of cultivating greater discernment when it comes to speaking or hearing history in the public sphere. Unsurprisingly, I think part of the solution lies in history education – in emphasizing the importance of evidence (over opinion), plausibility (over truth), and complexity (over simplicity) in the interpretation of history. History, as Smith notes, has an increasing role to play in how we shape our political conversations and national identity. The question is whether simple conceptions of historical truth will remain acceptable and what the consequences of those conceptions will be.



Other scholars differ on the meaning of the German phrase wie es eigentlich gewesen, as the savvy authors of the Wikipedia article suggest. (I don’t read/speak German, but I can confirm that the Wikipedia authors are citing good sources.)

See Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes’s concepts and competencies for the Measuring College Learning project, which I highlighted in a recent post, for a clear preference among historians for the interpretive definition of history.

3 See Susan Wise Bauer, History of the Ancient World (2007), p. 209.

4 I am not exhibiting Godwin’s Law; I am indebted to Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013) for analysis of this website.

Blog Post

A Missing Piece?: Historical Thinking Isn’t Just for History Majors

*See update on upcoming discussions of history in general education.

The very timely white paper, “Measuring College Learning in History,” authored by Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council’s Measuring College Learning Project, is a welcome consolidation of the historiography and key principles of historical thinking.*

Calder and Steffes, with the input of other scholars and faculty in the field of history teaching and learning, distill historical consciousness into five essential concepts and four essential competencies:

A summary of the essential concepts and competencies outlined in the full white paper.

The author’s selections of concepts and competencies reflect the rich debate (which I’ve previously written about here) between scholars surrounding the definition of historical thinking, but handily narrow the focus to the most common and most teachable values and skills of historians. While careful not to suggest too specific a program for teaching these concepts and competencies, Calder and Steffes offer a helpful outline for structuring learning outcomes and assessing historical thinking in undergraduate history majors.

Here-in lies my only critique of the otherwise immensely useful summary and white paper: Calder and Steffes implicitly view the core history concepts and competencies  as the reserve of history majors. They appear to have little concern for how the suggested foci might function within general education history courses.

To be fair, Calder and Steffes point to the reality that not everyone is a history major and that the history major itself is a shifting (and shrinking) institution. They acknowledge the need to consider history’s role in “a moment of declining history enrollments, popular attacks on the humanities, and growing demands that a college education have practical utility and demonstrable economic benefits” (Measuring College Learning in History, p. 41). Beyond that, the authors are also keen to defend the continued benefits of introductory history courses and encourage history professors to work toward including the competencies and concepts in their intro courses (p. 66). In general, though, the white paper is explicitly about facilitating and assessing the learning of history majors.

The omission of concern for history courses conducted for a broader population of students is, obviously, a personal concern for me. I teach a general education survey course in a program that does not have a history major. My students’ exposure to these concepts and skills occurs in three general survey courses (World Civ I, World Civ II, and American Pluralism – essentially the U.S. since 1945). This means I and my fellow instructors have a very limited amount of time (9 credit hours) in which to communicate concepts significant not only to our discipline, but also I would argue to students’ development as critical thinkers more generally. (Calder and Steffes would seem to agree – see p. 63).

The consequence of teaching a general education class and trying to incorporate historical thinking concepts and skills is that it becomes difficult to incorporate all of the core concepts and competencies within a given course in a given semester. At the moment, my course is explicitly focused on two concepts (history as interpretation, the “pastness of the past,” and historical significance) and two competencies (interpret primary sources and construct a historical argument – usually based on secondary, not primary sources). Ideally my counterparts and I would take up carrying aspects to complement one another, we aren’t that coordinated (yet).

My point, in short, is that I think deeper conversations about the role of historical concepts and skills in the context of a liberal arts education – and not just a BA history program – are in order. These conversations are necessary given the greater number of students who take history courses as requirements and electives, as opposed to selecting history as a major, and in light of the continued debate over whether or not history deserves to maintain a place in undergraduate education. To have those discussions, the literature of historical thinking should, I believe, broaden its focus to include a wider variety of courses in which students encounter history.


* The Measuring College Learning (MCL) project also produced frameworks for thinking about core concepts and competencies in Biology, Business, Communication, Economics, and Sociology.

Blog Post

A Moment of Empathy

There is a moment every semester in which a student steps up to the desk after class to ask, “Prof, I heard a lot of different answers to the discussion questions today. Which one was the right answer?” At which point I smile in my most professorial manner (which may or may not include a touch of condescension) and remind the student that interpretation is the heart of history. I tell them to revel in the multitude of answers! Look for different perspectives from which to understand the source! Don’t worry so much about being wrong – think boldly!

I’m starting to think that’s an obnoxious answer.

While I stand by my insistence that interpretation is the essence of history, I’d rather there weren’t quite so many possible interpretations when it comes to my own research. My dissertation, for instance, will have something to do with the topic “historical thinking.” What’s historical thinking, you say? Well. Depends on who you ask:

The ever-helpful Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts) strikes at the heart of the issue,

“To researchers, historical understanding can mean anything from memorizing a list of dates to mastering a set of logical relations, from being able to recite an agreed-upon story to contending with ill-defined problems resistant to single interpretations.” (p.29)

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke’s alliterative answer in “What does it mean to think historically?” is perhaps most useful for it’s brevity:

“the five C’s of historical thinking: change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.”

However, their definition does not take into account more recent concerns with students’ abilities to recognize historical significance (was that event important? why?) or historical empathy (can students think their way into a worldview distant from them in time or space?).

So. Multiple interpretations of a foundational concept of my dissertation. This doesn’t bother me so much; for me, trying to reconcile definitions is half the fun of deep historical work. (No really! I love it.)

The greater difficulty is the question of how to teach students to think historically – and here I am in sympathy with my student’s discontent with my insistence that there are many right answers. Some writers recommend more time with primary sources; others proffer the usefulness of historical fiction. (Some suggest the benefit of both sources and historical fiction in the same short article…) Some insist analyzing textbooks with students is beneficial; others insist the textbooks are useless. Historian-educators ask students to write their own autobiographies, role-play legal battles, backchannel on Twitter, and “think aloud” as they read through the primary sources. Also, researchers have been trying for over a century to determine how students develop the “historic sense.” Results are still…inconclusive.

So, to adapt a question we’ve been discussing in class: How then shall we teach? I don’t know yet – and that is as aggravating a feeling as my students occasionally tell me it is. Ideally, I’ll have my own perspective among the multitudes by the time this dissertation thing is complete. For the moment, I will simply appreciate the opportunity to empathize with my students.