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.