Are we blinded by our love of history?

As our obsession with the past has grown, so has the tendency for us to mythologise it - or skew it for our own political purposes - argues Daniel Snowman…

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

Onlookers throw white roses at Richard III’s coffin as it makes its way to Leice

I’ve loved history since childhood. Brought up during the war, I remember my mother pointing out the overhead fighter squadrons as they flew out in the morning and then, in the evening, watching them return, often with a poignant gap or two in their formation. And the noise – and then the ominous silence followed by a distant explosion – of the ‘flying bombs’ that we listened to together in our makeshift shelter. My father, meanwhile, was on the Kent coast shooting down Nazi planes. All this, my mother told me, would one day be part of history. I listened to Churchill’s broadcasts by her side, celebrated the news of Hitler’s death and danced around the street bonfire on what I learned to call ‘VE Night’. From my grandparents and others, I gradually learned about the previous world war, also against “the Germans”, and how there must never be another one. And later, as a schoolboy, something about earlier times: from Disraeli and Gladstone back to the Tudors and Stuarts and beyond, and went on to do a history degree.

I still love history, and hold a senior research fellowship at London University’s Institute of Historical Research. One of the things I am currently doing at the IHR is chairing a series of public seminars in which some of our top historians are debating the ways in which people use – and abuse – what they understand to have happened in ‘history’. The series kicked off with what seems an extraordinary paradox. On the one hand there is clearly a huge market for what you might call ‘popular’ history. Yet, at the same time, many people also seem to lack any real sense of the continuity between past and present: how what happens today is the product of all that has preceded it. Should we be worried about this?

Dramas such as Downton Abbey have ridden the wave of the public’s love affair with the past. (Getty)

‘History’ in its various guises is more popular nowadays than ever: in schools and universities, on film, TV and the internet, in sales of historical biographies, visitor numbers to heritage sites, family history, re-enactment societies and the like. In Britain, millions watch costume dramas such as Downton Abbey or Wolf Hall, while books and TV programmes have abounded on historical anniversaries (Magna Carta, Agincourt, Waterloo, the First World War). Or consider the huge popular interest aroused by the rediscovery and reinterment of the bones of King Richard III.

There are parallels elsewhere too – in the USA, for example, where the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln were marked by a flurry of new books and TV programmes.

Yet we also live in a culture that can be markedly lacking in historical awareness. Press and politicians like to alarm us by reporting polls revealing that (for example) only one British teenager in six knows that the Duke of Wellington led the British Army in the battle of Waterloo and that only one in 10 can name a 19th-century British prime minister. Or that 80 per cent of respondents in a US poll did not know who was president during the First World War.

It’s not just a question of being ignorant of the ‘facts’. More profoundly, important current issues are frequently discussed with little regard for the backstory: migration policy, for example, or continued British membership of the EU, Russian involvement in Ukraine or continuing war and violence in the Middle East.

Dresden’s Frauenkirche, which was rebuilt following its destruction by Allied bombing in 1945 (note the fire-damaged darker  stones, which were part of the original church). Is it false to history to restore a bombed-out building to its ‘original’ state? (Getty)

When people do turn to a version of history or a pivotal personality or event in the past when addressing contemporary concerns, they often seek and cite highly selective history: an invocation of the past to help bolster present-day attitudes. Think of the way one foreign ‘hate’ figure after another has been lazily compared with Hitler, for example, or how advocates of overseas military intervention have routinely invoked questionable analogies with 1939.

For all this, as I’ve pointed out, popular interest in the past remains high. One example of this is the widespread appeal of ‘Heritage’. There have always been those, in Britain and elsewhere, committed to conserving or renovating valued remains from the past. This was the day job of Prosper Mérimée (author of Carmen) and of his protégé Viollet-le-Duc in Paris in the 1830s and 40s, while our own National Trust dates back to 1895.

But our reverence for Heritage (with a capital ‘H’) has become more widespread than ever in recent decades, perhaps alongside a growing sense that much of our historical fabric was in danger of being lost. The traditional corner store was being elbowed aside by the shopping mall and pedestrian precinct, while fading aristocrats were forced to vacate their country houses, often seeing their crumbling townhouses replaced by concrete tower blocks. Euston station lost its classical arch and nearby St Pancras was only reprieved from demolition at the last moment.

It has been said that history becomes especially important at times of danger. Here, it was the very physicality of the past that seemed under threat. Pressure groups and governmental authorities began to take action (English Heritage was set up in 1983). Who could quarrel with the idea that, while there was still time, the nation’s Heritage had to be saved?

Well, there were critics. Some, while sympathetic to the fundamental idea of preserving the legacy of the past, were disturbed by how they saw it being done. The historian Patrick Wright, for example, argued that our history was in danger of becoming enwrapped in quaintness and antiquarianism and that a sanitised narrative of national history was being harnessed for political purposes. David Cannadine, meanwhile, worried that the very idea of a national ‘heritage’ could encourage what he dubbed “a picture-postcard version of Britain”. And Robert Hewison wrote a powerful polemic about what he called the “Heritage Industry”, arguing that the past was becoming commercialised and commodified: the sort of thing that was wittily evoked by Alan Bennett in his play People, produced at the National Theatre in 2012.

A man pictured in Calais migrant camp, 3 November 2015. “Current issues are frequently discussed with little regard for the backstory: migration policy, for example, or continued membership of the EU…” says Daniel Snowman. (Corbis)

Everyone, I think, agrees on the importance of a nation retaining a sense of its own past and something of the physicality of that past. Yet questions remain. What exactly should be conserved, and what scrapped? Why this building but not that? Isn’t it, in some sense, false to history to restore a derelict building back to its ‘original’ state?

Think of Uppark, a magnificent 17th-century country house in Sussex, that was devastated by fire in 1989 but superbly restored and, in 1995, reopened to the public. And who can deny the magnificence of Dresden’s Frauenkirche, painstakingly rebuilt (partly with British help) exactly as it was when destroyed by Allied bombing in February 1945? Yet I wonder whether, had St Paul’s Cathedral been badly hit during the war (which it nearly was), we would subsequently have erected a replica of Wren’s masterpiece on the old site; more likely, I suspect, something ‘modern’ like Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral or Spence’s Coventry Cathedral.

And one can understand the argument that, in the interests of ‘authenticity’, the great tower in Pisa should be engineered back to its intended perpendicular position – or allowed to fall – rather than remain permanently, artificially, propped up at an angle akin to the one it assumed some time after its original construction.

So, why renovate Uppark, the Frauenkirche or the Pisa tower while continuing to clear away surviving industrial-era slums or factories? To its critics, ‘Heritage’ can be something of a sentimental, rearguard movement in danger of overvaluing the aristocratic and clerical past, a symptom of our anxious quest for a shared national identity, perhaps, that too often prioritises the ‘beautiful’ over the merely ‘historic’. Yet how can we hope to learn from the past without making the effort to preserve and conserve those valued products of it that have survived? All told, the idea of ‘Heritage’ remains a topic capable of arousing powerful passions.

The relationship between history and myth – another of the themes discussed in the IHR seminar series – can spark ferocious debates too. What do you know – and how, and from what sources – about ‘Boadicea’ and her knife-endowed chariot or Drake playing bowls before defeating the Spanish Armada? Or about the Trojan Wars, or of Joan of Arc trouncing the English (if you are French), George Washington and the cherry tree (if you are American) or the Emperor Barbarossa (if German)? Who were the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of history?

Historical art – such as Shakespeare’s Henry V – can shed light on how our ancestors regarded their own past. (Getty)

Many widely repeated historical myths concern the origins, creators and subsequent continuity of nation states. As a child growing up in London, I proudly repeated that “we won the war” and how we’d had a continuous monarchy and never been successfully invaded for something approaching a thousand years. True? At best true-ish. But the very repetition of certain mythologies, from those of Homer or Virgil, via the ‘cake’ anecdotes associated with Alfred the Great or Marie Antoinette to the preternaturally unsmiling Queen Victoria, remind us of the historical resonance such stories can acquire.

Any self-respecting historian would of course avoid repeating myths about the past as though they were ‘true’. Then why does no work of historical research ever seem to be definitive, the final word on the subject? Is there even such a thing as historical ‘reality’?

Perhaps we all, despite protestations to the contrary, see the past through the shifting perspectives of the present – with each generation seemingly constrained to re-interpret and even (dare I say it?) re-mythologise the past. Often, the myths and distortions of the past are essentially political. Thus, the Japanese in recent years have been rewriting their school history books (particularly the sections about the Second World War), and they’re doing something of the same in Ukraine and Poland as they attempt to distance themselves from Russia. Did the British empire help educate millions around the world into the benefits of democracy, or was it primarily a form of ruthless (and racist) commercial exploitation?

How do you regard – and label – the mass murder of Armenian Turks a century ago? Did Lincoln fight the Civil War in order to free the slaves or just to prevent his nation from falling apart? This coming Easter marks the centenary of the Dublin uprising, and next year that of the Soviet Revolution: plenty of scope here, I would surmise, for new bouts of historical rewriting!

How far can art provide us with genuine insights about the past? I first came to know something about Henry V and Richard III and other historical figures from Shakespeare. His narratives about the Plantagenets certainly misrepresented some of the facts, and we might say the same of the picture of a battle on a Greek vase, a statue of Louis XIV, Schiller’s (or Verdi’s) portrayal of Philip II of Spain or Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. But perhaps artworks, however much they may mythologise the past, can nonetheless help provide a pathway towards our understanding of it. As authentic products of their own time and place, they surely tell us something of how people in a previous era regarded those of a still earlier period, thus providing data like any other for the historian to use.

Last year, with all the extraordinary to-do about the reinterment of Richard III, I had another look at the 1955 Olivier film of the Shakespeare play. The fact that the Bard was no historian is acknowledged in the opening titles where an imitation late medieval manuscript informs viewers that, while the play may not be a work of historical scholarship, it is none the worse for that: “The history of the world, like letters without poetry, flowers without perfume, or thought without imagination, would be a dry matter indeed without its legends, and many of these, though scorned by proof a hundred times, seem worth preserving for their own familiar sakes.”

British troops man a makeshift barricade in Dublin, April 1916. Successive generations have re-interpreted – even  re-mythologised – events such as the Easter Rising through the prism of the present. (Getty)

So is academic history a ‘dry matter’ in danger of being like flowers without perfume, thought without imagination, if devoid of myth and legend? Let’s hope not. In any case, I sense that nowadays we have come to expect more exacting standards of historical accuracy from creative artists than anyone would have asked of Shakespeare. Works such as Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels (or the TV version of Wolf Hall) are liable to arouse academic criticism if found to be in any way historically misleading. Yet at the same time, while few would seriously claim to have learned authentic Scottish history from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, the film proved as inspirational to some emerging Scottish nationalists as an early Verdi opera might have done for those yearning for Italian statehood.

One way and another, what we loosely call ‘history’ is evidently massively popular. But what does it mean to all those who so avidly consume it, use it and abuse it? For some, especially among older history lovers, perhaps, the past can provide a heart-warming element of nostalgia or of consolation, while others might find themselves experiencing a sense of shared pride or vindication. Some doubtless seek affirmations of personal identity as they sift through the past (think of the popularity of family history, and of histories touching on gender, ethnicity or nationhood). And who among us has not relished learning more about a much-loved hero of earlier times, or a about much-reviled villain?

History means many things to many people. But its focus has moved on since I first learned all about kings and generals, to an emphasis on economic and social history, then to cultural history, a burst of post-modernism from some historians and, more recently, a much heralded ‘return to narrative’.

What new historiographical ‘turn’ should we be anticipating in the years to come? As the digital era takes increasing hold, how will people seek their historical ‘fix’? Already, many are probably more inclined to turn to the internet or BBC iPlayer than to lengthy books. Museums and heritage centres flourish as bookshops and publishers falter. Let’s hope that, in what is said to be an increasingly ‘present-oriented’ age, debate about the present and future will be properly buttressed by an informed awareness of all that has preceded it. For, as the great French historian Marc Bloch wisely put it many years ago: “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past.”

Daniel Snowman is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London and the author of numerous books on history.

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