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The Proper Telling of History

November 10, 2021


The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have someone write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
—George Orwell, 1984

Does history matter? 

It would seem so. Just consider . . . 

The beaming, boyish face of the diminutive NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov was unforgettable. Photographed standing pleasantly by the Moscow canal and next to his master Joseph Stalin, you couldn’t tell that they were living in the darkest days of the Soviet Union’s Great Purge. Entrusted with the arrest, imprisonment, and murder of hundreds of thousands of suspecting (or unsuspecting) Russian citizens, the photograph epitomized Stalin’s confidence in Yezhov. “Surely,” you can almost read in Yezhov’s cocky smirk, “I am more than safe.” Shortly thereafter, Yezhov would be arrested and executed on Stalin’s order. The official picture would be famously “touched up” to erase not only Yezhov’s proximity to Stalin, but Yezhov’s existence completely. Yezhov would be known forever after as “The Vanishing Commissar.” 

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith’s service to the Ministry of Truth involved “reworking” old news stories to comport with new realities. Inconvenient facts or embarrassing entanglements that might upset people’s confidence in Big Brother’s unshakeable authority could be properly airbrushed and re-released, and readers would be none-the-wiser. All evidence of the original article, after all, would be dropped down the incinerating “memory hole.”

On May 10, 1933, the white-hot fires in Germany illuminated the blackest night. University students from dozens of German college towns burned thousands of books at the feverish instigation of the German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Timeless books of history and philosophy, literature and culture were consumed in the inferno of rage. Many recalled the prophetic words of German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine uttered over a century before: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”

In his work On the Ideal Orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero insisted, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” President Harry Truman, a largely self-educated, insatiable student of history, recognized that “the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” And the irrepressible Winston Churchill puckishly assured, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Does history matter? 

Yes. And that’s why the proper telling of history matters. 

History matters because it tells the human story. Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor explained, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way. . . . You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” History tells the tale of each man and woman in their glory and brokenness as “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” It affords us living context in which to witness the unfolding of our theology, philosophy, and life’s meaning in flesh and blood. History counsels us in cause and effect, success and failure, inspiration and warning. As George Santayana once observed, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. . . . Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And if nothing more, history is a delightful yarn—an exhilarating ride through human experience that is touched by the stirring, if not maddening, human condition. 

The trouble is that the modern (or, rather, postmodern) world is doing a miserable job telling history and, as such, is undermining history as we know it. Postmodernism, as championed by philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault, has bled history not only of its sense of truth but of its acceptance of reality. In the bleary, vertiginous mists of “deconstruction,” “fictive” natures, and nefarious “power structures,” we are instructed to question everything to the point of absurdity and forever consider great figures as dark, malevolent creatures drowning in their own incorrigibility. This unforgiving skepticism, mixed with a heaping dose of vanity, compromises truth no less than fawning hagiographies do. Madame de Sévigné’s observation that “No man is a hero to his valet” is taken to the extreme where the historian or biographer (as Virginia Woolf would note) “has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist.”

The natural outgrowth of the radical skepticism of historical figures and self-aggrandizement of the historian is cancel culture. If every known fact is called into question, every deed is considered dark, and the historian sees himself as the supreme arbiter of these considerations, then there must be no tolerance for championing a historical figure’s story, much less even telling it. How do modern historians solve this problem? There are two primary strategies. First, destroy the historical figure with an overemphasis on stories of his or her brokenness. Scoff at redeeming values and air out dirty laundry. German historian Geoffrey Elton had no patience with this “pathography,” which is just as skewed a perspective as hagiography. Considering the need for historians to possess a fundamental fairness in practicing their craft, he said,

When I meet a historian who cannot think that there have been great men, great men moreover in politics, I feel myself in the presence of a bad historian; and there are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill—whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.

Second, if the modern historian cannot tarnish the subject to their satisfaction, their last refuge is to kill the story—simply change the subject and deprive it of daylight. Let the figure be consumed in the obliterating mists of untold history. To borrow from the wicked insight of Joseph Stalin, “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.” 

The late Charles Hill, a seasoned diplomat and Yale professor of Grand Strategy warned that while historians are becoming derelict, students are left fundamentally unformed: “We have changed our education in the last thirty or forty years so that students are really not being taught history—they are not being taught what it was that got us here. History gave way to being taught ‘issues’ and ‘issues’ are something abstract. They are just out there. They somehow just show up. That is the fundamental reason why we have this seeming obliviousness or ignorance about the way the world has got to be managed in order to make everything else work well. If we don’t know that, then it’s all going to fall apart.” 

In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh pokes fun (but with stern underlying seriousness) at Hooper, an incurious, unimaginative half-man serving under Charles Ryder’s military command. 

Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry—that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man—Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper. He seldom complained.

History done right lives up to what Tacitus describes as its highest function: “To let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.” History done wrong risks creating ‘The Age of Hooper.’

History matters and so does its proper telling. So let it be told with disciplined attention to truth, but also unalloyed wonder—fair and hopeful. Let us celebrate great men and great women—understanding that greatness doesn’t mean perfection—and learn from their victories as well as their mistakes. Let us be inspired by the agency of historical figures and humbled by the vicissitudes of chance. Let us appreciate the indispensability of character and context in comprehending where we have been and so navigate where we are to go. Let us glory in the reeling adventure of the human story as it rises and falls, violently lists and gently steadies. Let us love the story—it is, after all, our story too. For perhaps someday, your children and mine will tell the story of how we lived in the hope that our lights might guide them in a promising, though oft-darkening world.