Why I... think history needs a moral purpose

March 2, 2001

History is at war again. Having once more defended his subject against the sustained assault of postmodernist aggressors, Richard Evans's book on the David Irving libel trial is out this month. It will no doubt serve to reventilate the question of what history is all about and why we need it. And not a moment too soon. For it would be hardly surprising if the decline in the number of history students did not have something to do with public bemusement about history's nature and purpose.

Television docudramas highlight the problem of distinguishing between documentary fact and dramatic fiction. Referring to the recent BBC production Rebel Heart , David Trimble wrote of "artistic licence taken with the factual history", the suggestion being that the past had been rewritten for blatantly ideological purposes.

Films, too, have proved contentious, muddling "fact" with "fiction". The Patriot , for example, has been accused of showing the American war of independence as a Manichaean conflict between heroic freedom-fighters on the one side and bloodthirsty war criminals on the other.

Black and white makes more compulsive drama than the varying shades of grey that characterise "real" history. And we like our heroes local. As Hollywood rewrites the second world war as a uniquely American success story, Steven Spielberg has no need of any Brits on Omaha Beach, as he advances towards his honorary knighthood.

Even archaeological evidence, it seems, cannot be trusted. Sir Arthur Evans's reconstruction of the temple at Knossos is well known. But the recent headline that "Stonehenge dates back to 1964" expresses some surprise, and even disillusionment. Who can we trust to present us with the truth of our past if not English Heritage?

Denial of the Holocaust is, then, another indication of history's more general malaise -an extreme example of historical revisionism and the past's refashioning. It raises in an extreme form the problematic questions by which history is confronted.

Can we trust documents -or other people's presentation of them? Can we believe the oral testimony of those who claim to be survivors? What can we learn from archaeological remains? How is ahistorical "event" such as the Holocaust constructed and narrativised when it did not exist as an actual entity, only as an enormous number of particular potential constituents later subsumed within a single concept? And what is the function of whatever narrative we choose to construct about it? What is its purpose, and ours? And does it really matter?

Recent reports of the "widespread confusion" among school children concerning the number of Henry VIII's wives may seem to many to matter little, but to deny that the Holocaust happened seems to most of us to matter a lot. The distinction between these two examples has to do with what the purpose of history might be. This is indicated by Friedrich Nietzsche's proposal "to employ history for the purpose of life". This is no simple solution, since it implies a need to define what sort of life we want. And that means getting off the fence and making those value judgements that have been so long proscribed by responsible historians.

By reasserting the moral function of their subject, and deliberately repositioning themselves in relation to the past, committed historians (even postmodernists) might provide the narrative trajectory that culminates in a future they choose. That way, at least they would demonstrate that history has a point -and that we need it. And they just might then attract more students to join in the history wars.

Beverley Southgate
Reader emeritus
University of Hertfordshire

Beverley Southgate is author of Why Bother with History , published by Longman, £14.99.

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