Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Is there such a thing as Modern History?

One of the debates I regularly have with my friends regards modern history. Specifically, is it possible to study the recent past in a historical manner? Recently I found myself under attack in the pub (with my friends and a professor against me!), being told that "history is an approach", the implication being that this approach could be taken to any specific time period and thus it could be studied as history.

The statement that "history is an approach" is something I would not hesitate to agree with. I believe, for example, that if a novel contained sufficient viewpoints, then it would be possible to study the events of a novel in a historical manner. However, I think a key part of the study of history is a degree of objectivity. Obviously, even in an academic sense, this is impossible to achieve. Perhaps most self-evidently, no historian is ever going to want to study something simply to agree with all the literature that has gone before him. But the bias stretches much deeper, and more unconsciously than you might think.

Why does any historian pick his areas for study? There is going to be something intrinsic within that period that appeals to his own interests - my interest in sporting culture, for example, ties in with my view that sport reflects politics in a way that is all too often underappreciated. And if we are drawn to study something because of our own interests, then we are automatically going to be pre-disposed towards certain conclusions, although I would argue that in a truly historical study we would not be precluded from reaching them.

And it is that last sentence which explains the essence of why I believe that a study of the very recent past cannot properly be called "historical". Simply put, we are too emotionally attached to the events of the recent past for us to be able to approach them with a veneer of objectivity. Let us take the politics of the 1980s as a case in point - the policies introduced then are still having a direct effect on us now, and anyone wishing to study them will almost certainly be approaching them considering them to be "good" or "bad" before they have even embarked on their research.

I would go so far as to say that it is difficult even to write an objective history of the Nazi regime nowadays. The emotional scars of the war still live with us - we need only look at the events in Dresden over the last weekend - and the painful memories of the Holocaust precondition us to conceive the Nazi regime as "bad" in terms that black-and-white.

Now, I am not being an apologist for the Nazis here. I think it is possible to write a historical (properly historical) study of the Nazis which does portray them in a bad light. But, I am not sure that any historian approaching the subject from the outset would be able to overcome his preconceptions about the regime and be able to present any aspect in a favourable light. Again, I am not saying that this should be done - but if it isn't a conceivable possibility before the research has been conducted then the objectivity of the historical approach is missing.

The question then, of course, is where do you draw the dividing line? What can be considered history and what can't be? Part of this, I think, lies in who is actually conducting the study. Certainly I think it would be difficult to write a genuine history of a period that an academic has actually lived through himself. There the emotional attachments to the subject matter are too great. The grey area lies in whether conditioning from parents or even grandparents who lived through the events could have an effect on preconceptions that are brought to the work. And that is something that I feel can only be dealt with on a case by case basis.

Yet even then that answer is too simplistic. I feel, for example, that it is probably easier to write a cultural history of the recent past than a political history, if we are taking the "history as an approach" line at least. Indeed, it could even be argued that it is necessary for good cultural history to be written nearer the time of its passing, due to the greater abundance of source material available.

This shows, of course, that any views that I have on the matter are highly questionable. Yet I feel if we are going to vaunt history as being an academic subject that is distinctive because of the approach of the study, then a degree of objectivity is fundamentally necessary for us to place it on such a pedestal. And if emotional attachments to the period under study are too great, then that objectivity cannot be reached. Which is why I think that in many cases "modern history" is an oxymoron.