History and Historical Revisionism – Is What We Read Of The Past Ever A True Reflection Of How It Really Happened

This week I was alerted to a wonderful quote about books and reading – ‘the miracle of literature is that it can get you to understand, even a tiny bit, what it is like to be another human being’. My all-time favourite quote on reading before finding this one, goes ‘I read to realize I am not alone’. I have always been a ‘bookworm’ throughout just about all of my life. My mother often used to laugh in my pre-teen years, as whenever she called me, I would never hear her, as my head was always ensconced in a new book, and my mind always enthralled by tales created by great writers of the past to a level that the fiction of what I was reading often claimed more of my attention than that of the reality around me. As I grew older and became an academic, my taste for reading changed completely away from fiction to non-fiction, and I am sure whatever intelligence, viewpoints, perceptions and way of reasoning I have developed is mostly down to what I have read and absorbed from reading (obviously social interactions, particularly with significant role models, either negative or positive, played their part in my development too). A significant discussion with a highly respected old family friend, Simon Pearce, in my early thirties, when he said to me I should read history to best understand life, had a profound impact on me, and while always being interested in history, perhaps because of this advice from someone whose intellect I greatly admire, the last decade I have read a lot of history, and have indeed benefitted I think from doing so in many ways. But history, and the description of it, can be a ‘treacherous’ teacher, given that it is by nature reflective, dependent on the world-view and background of the historian who writes it, and a product of the contemporary zeitgeist of the current period of time in which it was or is written, and one therefore has to be very careful of how much one ‘believes’ of what one reads of history as being truly representative of the events as they happened in the times they describe.

History is defined as the study of past events, especially of human affairs. The word history is thought to have come from the Ancient Greek word ‘historia’, meaning ‘inquiry’ or ‘judge’. Historians are folk who write about history, and it is still controversial if a historian should be merely a chronicler or compiler of past events, or a critical analyst of them. Generally it is perceived that written documentation or transcripts of past events are necessary for historical accounts to be both assimilated and described, and events occurring prior to the presence of written records are described as ‘pre-historic’, and fall in to the realm of archaeological based academic work. We therefore have a relatively short period of historical ‘knowledge’, given that the first texts written have only survived from a few thousand years in the past, and the great period of human life and ‘history’ prior to these is virtually unknown, save what can be gleaned from archaeological digs and speculation from what is found in them. History is divided up into a number of fields of study, from a generic perspective which includes comparative history (historical assessment of social and culture entities that are not confined to national boundaries) and counterfactual history (the study of history as it might have happened had different circumstances arisen), and from a specific perspective includes the history of particular epochs of time or the history of specific human activities (such as military or economic history).

Academic researchers studying the field of history occupy themselves with identifying and solving the philosophical conundrums related to studying history such as what the correct ‘unit’ of study of the past is (for example is it the individual human condition, or the prevalent culture of the time, or the activities of the nation or state and how it impacted on the individual and other nations or states around them), and whether from history patterns or cycles of behaviour at either the individual or nation level can be determined. As described above, a ‘problem’ of history is that it is always written at a certain contemporary time, which will have a dominant social thinking and view of the past, and it is surely difficult for a historian not to be affected by this when writing their own account of whatever component of history they are involved with writing about. An even more post-modern view which has been suggested is that history as a concept is irrelevant from a generic perspective, as the study of history is always reliant on a personal interpretation of sources, and thus ‘history’ as a general concept is a redundant one. History writing itself often moves in ‘patterns’ of its own, with some epochs focussing more on ‘glorifying’ the successes of nations or ‘great’ individuals in history (and clearly many nations create ‘official’ historical publications as a way of glorifying their past, or justifying / ‘cleansing’ the more sordid components of their past) with subsequent epochs of history writing challenging these ‘glorious’ interpretations of history in a more dispassionate and reasoned way.

A good example of all of the interest of history as a subject, how it can be revised and manipulated for national or individual ‘gain’, and how with reflection a more balanced interpretation of the true nature of history is derived became evident to me after ‘studying’ from a reading of history perspective the role of Winston Churchill in World War Two. Churchill was, and perhaps still is, surely one of the most well-known figures in history in the Western world, and if you polled folk for their knowledge and opinion of him, they would say he was the person who saved Britain during the war, and / or led the country to ultimate triumph during the war in a heroic and masterful way (though even the knowledge of Churchill is becoming ‘dimmed’ with the passing of time as it does with all people). My own interest in him, and the World War Two period, stemmed from growing up in the 60’s and 70’s with a father who had an interest in military history and was for a short period of time in the civilian force military, and with the knowledge that a grandfather had fought in World War Two and was interned for a long period of it. On our bookshelf in the home of my youth were all Churchill’s volumes he himself wrote on the history of World War Two in the decade after it ended, and I remember with fondness many discussions with my Dad, or between him and his friends that I listened to way back then, describing or arguing about Churchill’s leadership during the war, and the merits of his place in the pantheon of successful military and political war leaders in general historical terms.

I had a mostly positive viewpoint regarding Winston Churchill and his part in ‘winning the war’ because of these early experiences of ‘history according to Dad’ for most of my life, until I started reading more carefully other accounts of the events during the war and Churchill’s part of them. The most startling of these accounts which very much changed my perspective on Churchill were the war diaries of General (later Field Marshal) Alan Brooke, who was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and military leader of all Britain’s ground forces, and worked in tandem with Churchill who was the political leader. Diaries are fascinating, given that as long as they are not altered at a later point in time, they tell things ‘how they are’ on a daily basis, albeit with the particular viewpoint of the person writing them, and I have read and re-read Brooke’s diaries between 10 and 20 times to date (and they are about 1000 pages in length, so each doing so was surely a ‘labour of love’) given how astonishing the information described in them is. For what became clear to me when reading them, is that Churchill, in writing his own version of the ‘history of World War Two’ after it was complete, essentially wrote an autobiography giving his own interpretation of his own role during the war, and as such (like so many autobiographies) glorified his own role, attenuated or ignored his own responsibilities for the more sordid or disastrous events Britain suffered or was part of during the war, and perhaps most shamefully, was not generous in acknowledging the role of people around him in ‘winning the war’ (and I am talking person wise, rather than country wise – surely Russia can take almost 90 percent of the credit for ‘winning’ that war). Some of the most disastrous campaigns of the war – Norway and Greece for example – were shaped and driven by Churchill himself, yet from reading his books one would assume that the British and Allied Force Generals were almost solely to blame for these disasters, and that he was almost completely uninvolved in the strategic or tactical decisions that led to them. Throughout the war he constantly tried to push forward strategically appalling choices for campaigns – one example being his constant ‘push’ for an expedition against the ‘northern tip’ of Sumatra – which his military staff had to work daily to resist him initiating, and which would have dispersed the forces available in a disastrous ‘minor campaign’, similar to the Gallipoli and Antwerp campaigns in World War One, of which Churchill was similarly the architect. It is astonishing to read Brooke’s diary (and the diaries or personal war accounts of a number of other military and political staff of that time, most of which validate Brooke’s diary account of the war) to see how many times his advisors and folk like Brooke had to spend most of their day ‘heading off’ or convincing Churchill not to continue with his wild schemes, rather than what appeared to be the case when reading Churchill’s own written accounts of World War Two, when it appeared as if Churchill was the architect of all successes, and his military staff merely carried out his great ideas. And this is to say nothing about Churchill’s role in the area bombing of Germany, or his astonishing ‘imperial’ (a nice word for racially biased) views on India, or his personal habits, or injudicious views on most subjects freely imparted to all and sundry on an almost continuous basis. If he was a politician in modern times, with the current daily media scrutiny they face, he would surely not have lasted more than a few days before having to resign in disgrace and shame as a result of his utterances and behaviour as a Prime Minister as he did in those times back then.

All of the fascinating and enjoyable time I have spent reading about this topic, apart from being a relaxation ‘tool’ in itself, did indeed, as our great old family friend Simon Pearce said it would, teach me a whole lot of lessons about not just history, but life itself. Firstly, it taught me that the character of any ‘great’ person, or indeed any person, is surely complex, and while someone like Winston Churchill surely had a number of attractive and positive traits, he also had a lot of negative and extremely selfish traits that unless carefully ‘looked for’ would not ‘reach the light of day’ when reading most historical accounts either of his life or that of World War Two. Secondly, it taught me that one needs to be cautious in believing only one account of anything, least of all the person who is the one telling the story / giving the account of how things happen. Thirdly, it taught me that history if often created by those involved in it who write about it afterwards in a way that will benefit that person themselves in an unduly positive way (as they say, history is mostly written by the ‘winners’ of any event being written about). Fourthly, it taught me not to put anyone on a pedestal from reading about past events that they were involved in – as my great current work mentor, Professor Nicky Morgan, often reminds me, even the greatest leaders have ‘feet of clay’. Fifthly, it taught me never to have a fixed paradigm about anything from the past – my own interpretation of and ‘feeling for’ this period of history was very different in the time of hearing about the events then as told by my father, or reading Winston Churchill’s own books about World War two as a teenager, compared to the more complex, less positive perspective I have of Winston Churchill and the events occurring during World War Two today, thanks to a reasonably extensive reading of different sources of information of events occurring at that time in the last few years. Finally, it made me think about the importance of diaries – a long lost ‘art’ that perhaps needs to be revived – there is much to be gained from keeping a daily diary about events. If Alan Brooke had not spent a few minutes before bed each night writing up a description of his daily life working in close proximity to Winston Churchill in his diary, we would be the poorer for not having it, and our understanding of events way back then would remain simplistic and perhaps unbalanced.

There are surely, therefore, a lot of lessons one can learn not just about history and historical revisionism (as Churchill’s own post-war writings of events surely were), but also in understanding contemporary life and how in describing it some folk who want to personally gain from the telling of it, may be able to do so by how they subjectively describe events of which they were part. There is surely a positive gain from keeping a daily or weekly diary, so that one can be to a greater degree sure of one’s own history, or at least of the events happening during a particular period of time from one’s past if one wishes to review it, than if one did not have a recorded history of it. Equally, one surely needs to be aware when reading the ‘official’ history of any person, organization, community or nation state, that it may be written with potentially (some would say surely) an either subconscious or conscious / overt or covert bias (as much as it should also be remembered that each time one personally reflects on or writes about an experience one has been part of, it will surely also have one’s own particular bias and perspective), and should therefore always be read with caution. Reading, and for me particularly reading about history, is both one of the most enjoyable activities that I can ever do, and the activity that I learn most from, but I know that a lot of what I read, particularly biographies, and certainly autobiographies, need to be read with a large ‘pinch of salt’. So when I am done with writing this, I will surely look forward to later today taking up again the current historical tome I am enjoying reading. But, surely, I will read it with our salt-shaker very close to me!

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About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

2 responses to “History and Historical Revisionism – Is What We Read Of The Past Ever A True Reflection Of How It Really Happened

  • andrewrenfree

    Really interesting Zig. I guess you have read Talebs ‘Black Swan’ which details the limitations of the study of history in explaining events? Think of the world as being a complex system, and, given enough time and computing capacity, you may be able to predict that the flap of a butterfly wings in India may lead to a hurricane in the US a couple of years later. However, you could never work backwards from a hurricane and determine the chain of events that led to its formation

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