When does history end?
According to a 2015 survey in BBC History Magazine, the majority of people believe that after ten years have passed events have definitely crossed into history. But what about those who study the past for a living? We spoke to a group of historians about their views on the border between current affairs and history
"There is no automatic cut-off point for when history stops and current affairs begin. History is a set of methodologies and approaches that all, in various ways, underline the need for sources. As long as you have enough sources to critically interpret the past, then you can write history. A number of very talented young people are already writing the history of the post-1989 world, and they are doing it very well!"
Professor Arne Westad, London School of Economics
"History requires that there be a certain distance between event and analysis if the latter is to assess the former in terms of significance and consequence. That analysis also requires the assembly of all possible relevant information.
History ends and current affairs begin at the point at which consequence is unknowable, documents are unavailable and at which moment reaction rather than memory informs oral testimony. In Britain an obvious definition of that point would be the 30-year rule on the release of information."
Professor Paul Fouracre, University of Manchester
"My own cut-off point would be 1968. Before that there was history, after that we began to enter the modern world of current affairs. It was the year of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the year of student disturbances in Paris, the United States, and even Britain. People in all parts of the world were demanding that there should be greater transparency in politics and more equality in society.
It was also the year (4 April 1968) when Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a year of great hope, and great despair for democratic rights and the challenges to racism. We have gone a long way on from then, although the recent problems of the British parliamentary system suggest not far enough. However, after 1968 things began to change, although often slowly at first."
Professor Keith Laybourn, University of Huddersfield
"Contemporary history, even in its loosest definition, refers to events in the recent past, the effects of which have an immediate impact on and relevance for the present. In contrast, current affairs are ongoing cultural, political and social events of importance and interest at the present time.
There is no clear point in time at which a current event ‘becomes’ historical – the boundary is fluid and dependent on the nature of the event in question. A single, self-contained event in the very recent past may be classed as historical whereas an ongoing process starting earlier than that single event and carrying forward into the present may be regarded as a current affair."
Dr Sabine Lee, University of Birmingham
"Starting from the most recently lapsed nanosecond, history studies the totality of the past. Initial accounts and interpretations will be journalistic and under-considered but, gradually, the passage of time makes available additional sources enabling increasingly mature and comprehensive constructions.
However, just as recorded music takes colour from the instruments of reproduction, so history undergoes colouration from the intellects and contemporary perspectives of generations of historians. There is no boundary between current affairs and history, only progress along a continuous road."
More like this
Professor John Childs, University of Leeds
"There is no chronological cut-off point between history and current affairs. Whatever just happened, earlier today, yesterday, or in recent or distant decades is all similarly in the past. Whether this or that part of the past then becomes the object of historical study is the important question.
This will depend upon current as well as past issues and questions that historians are drawn to and whether the investigative tools of the historian throw light on events in ways not easily replicated by journalism, sociology, economics or other present-centred disciplines. The task of the historian is to point to similarities and differences between past and present phenomena in order to avoid the trap of thinking that all can be understood simply by observing the here and the now."
Professor Patricia Hudson, University of Cardiff
"Where does history end and current affairs begin? When I was a PhD student at Columbia in the 1980s, we were told very sternly that our discipline’s territory stopped in the 1950s – everything after that was ‘political science’. Since that time, the turn away from high political history has contributed – together with developments such as postmodernism – to the deconstruction of such rigid views.
I’d now venture that history (not current affairs, and certainly not political science) is what is happening as I type this reply. Your question is amenable to historical analysis and my response is saturated by the past. So I’m minded to turn the question on its head. When does ‘current affairs’ begin?"
Professor Margot Finn, University of Warwick
"Purists at Oxford used to insist that history should be studied entirely for its own sake. That implied stopping a good way from the present. From another point of view, history is not a period in time, but a quest for the truth. It investigates change over time, and concentrates on unrepeatable chains of events, which can nevertheless be studied using the approaches of both humanities and social sciences.
The present has come out of the past, and needs a knowledge of the past in order to be understood. If historical understanding is valid for the past it is valid for the present as well. My own practice as a scholar and teacher has no temporal boundaries. Indeed, the future is also constrained by the past; it will change over time, and is therefore suitable for investigation with the approaches of history."
Professor Avner Offer, University of Oxford
"For historians of modern Russia this question has an easy answer: history ended on 19 August 1991, with the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the beginning of the collapse of Russian communism. Everything changed after that: the political system, historical perspectives, and the availability of sources. Those of us who studied ‘Soviet’ history were now in a new world. I suppose this could be extended for others to the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.
All these events were nearly 20 years ago, and they reflect a personal perspective and a particular society, but in general it takes about a generation (20 years) after an event before the source-base and perspective make ‘history’ with any lasting value possible. On the other hand, I understand it can be hard to wait that long: just now I’m reading The Gamble by Thomas Ricks (Penguin, 2009), a ‘history’ of events that occurred a year or two ago in Iraq."
Professor Evan Mawdsley, University of Glasgow
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.