Problems of thinking about history

problems of history

Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian who died in a Nazi internment camp in 1945.

All of us are surrounded by history. History is encapsulated and reflected in our social traditions, our holidays and ceremonies, our education, our religious beliefs and practices, our political and legal systems, even in our popular culture (movies and music frequently draw on historical events and people). One does not need to be a qualified historian to think, talk or write about the past. Anyone can have an interest in history; anyone can read, study or discuss it. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once wrote of history that “no other discipline has its portals so wide open to the general public”. Huizinga, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his historical writing, was quite correct. Discussion and theorising about the past has never been confined to classrooms, lecture theatres or archive rooms. More than any other academic discipline, history is open to all who choose to take an interest in it.

All this has one great advantage: because history is so accessible, historical discussion and interpretation is fundamentally democratic. People are entirely free to consider the past and form their own conclusions. But this also has one significant disadvantage: ‘popular history’ and ‘good history’ are rarely the same thing.There is a considerable gulf between historical understanding in the public and the history constructed by historians. While the general public can be knowledgeable and interested in the past, they seldom apply the same standards of research and evidence as historians. Popular history is often simplified, coloured and manipulated to the point of corruption. There are several reasons for this. People tend to value the story over analysis. When considering the past they like clear and simple explanations. They like to assign responsibility, liability or ‘blame’. They like interesting narratives with moral heroes, immoral culprits and satisfying endings. They also like to think of their own nations and societies as more advanced, civilised or culturally superior than others. But as good history students will know, this type of thinking is not conducive to ‘good history’. History is rarely simple or clear cut, nor is it filled with obvious villains or fulfilling resolutions.

This page summarises some of the problems that can cloud our thinking about the past. These problems are more common in popular history – but historians and history students are by no means immune from them.

historyOne significant problem when thinking about history is our habit of thinking in general terms. For all its brilliance, the human mind has a tendency to make assumptions about the whole based on just a few of its parts. In philosophy this is known as ‘inductive reasoning’ or generalisation. An example of generalisation is the faulty statement “canaries are birds; canaries are yellow; therefore all birds are yellow”; just because some birds are yellow does not mean we should assume all birds to be the same. Those who study the past sometimes form general conclusions from just a few facts or pieces of evidence. This most frequently occurs when studying large groups of people, such as a nation, society or community. Most human populations contain enormous economic, ethnic and cultural diversity, so any conclusion about an entire group based on a small amount of evidence is likely to be flawed. History students should be particularly wary about forming generalised assumptions and making generalised claims. Not all the peasants in 18th century France and 20th century Russia were poor and starving; not all Germans in the 1930s were Nazis or supporters of Hitler; not all people in the Middle East are Muslim; not all socialists are fans or followers of Karl Marx.

Conspiracy theories

The ‘Stonecutters’, a Simpsons parody of conspiracy theories about the Freemasons

Everyone who has read about or discussed the past will know of at least one or two conspiracy theories. These fanciful stories are the gossip of history, whispered and repeated ad nauseam but never supported with concrete evidence. Countless major events in history – from the crucifixion of Christ through to the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landing and 9/11 – have fallen victim to conspiracy theories. Most of these theories focus on one or more powerful groups or organisations, such as Catholics, Jews, Freemasons, Communists, the Illuminati, the G20, the Bilderberg Group, various national governments, the CIA, KGB, MI5 and Mossad. According to conspiracy theorists, these groups conjure and implement subversive plots to exert their control over the world, its people and resources. Many of the world’s problems and misfortunes are laid at the feet of these groups, who are said to operate in the shadows. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are, by their very definition, baseless theories. Most are based on rumour, unsubstantiated stories, coincidence and circumstantial evidence. Many are so wacky they have only novelty value. But as the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust have shown us, in the right circumstances conspiracy theories can be accepted into the mainstream – and become extremely dangerous.


An artist’s impression of Paul Revere’s much mythologised ride

Popular histories are riddled with myths: stories that are unsupported by evidence, grossly exaggerated or entirely untrue. Most historians are aware of these myths and either ignore them or declare them as either apocryphal or untrue. Non-historians, however, are often more interested in the value and meaning of a story than its historical accuracy. Over time many myths and stories have become accepted as historical fact, simply because they sound appealing or fit into a particular narrative. Many myths have come to be repeated in print, which lends them undeserved credibility. An example of one enduring myth is the story of Paul Revere’s ‘midnight ride’ to warn of British troop movements in Massachusetts in April 1775. Public understanding of this event has been shaped by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, which is riddled with historical inaccuracies about Revere’s actions and the events of that evening. As a result of this Longfellow-inspired myth, Revere’s actions and importance to the American Revolution have been exaggerated over time. While these distortions are not usually the work of historians, they tend to create a popular but misleading narrative of historical events like the American Revolution. Historians and history students must be wary of these myths. Just because a story is widely accepted as fact does not make it so.



Nationalist art depicting the French Revolution of 1830

Nationalism is a sentimental attachment and unquestioning loyalty to one’s own country. Sometimes this attachment becomes so strong that the actions of one’s nation are accepted, justified and supported, whether or not they are right. Nationalists also place the needs and interest of their nation above those of other countries (an attitude encapsulated in a quote attributed to 19th century US politician Carl Schurz: “My country, right or wrong”). History students should be familiar with nationalism, which has fuelled unrest, international tension and war for centuries. But nationalism has also infected and distorted both academic history and popular conceptions of the past. Many individuals – and sadly some historians – find it difficult to accept or engage with criticism of their own country. Needless to say this can lead to an imbalanced view of the past. Sometimes nationalism can distort a nation’s understanding of its own history by colouring or dominating historical narratives. Nationalist histories often exalt or glorify the achievements and progress of a nation – but can also overlook, dilute or explain away its violence or mistreatment of others. An example of this can be found in Japan, where many histories and student textbooks simply ignore the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in World War II.


The ‘good old days’ is often recalled as a time of simpler family values

Nostalgia is when we view the past with fondness and affection. As individuals grow older many yearn for their past, recalling it as a time of happiness and harmony. This nostalgia, summarised in the phrase ‘the good old days’, suggests the past to be a much better place than the present. For instance, it is often said of the past that life was simpler and more fulfilling; people were kinder and more respectful; family values were stronger; women looked after the family and the home; children behaved better and ‘knew their place’. Conservative politicians are one group fond of nostalgia and nostalgic statements. In 1982 British prime minister Margaret Thatcher harked back to the 19th century, when she declared that “Victorian values were the values when our country became great”. The problem with nostalgic claims like this is that they are based on emotion and sentiment, not on evidence or objective study. Victorian Britain was indeed a period of national strength, economic progress and conservative family values – but it was also a time of gross poverty, crime, prostitution, harsh penal laws, servitude, inequality of wealth, low wages, intolerable working conditions, child labour, homophobic laws, religious intolerance and colonial oppression. In most cases the ‘good old days’ were not really that good, except for those of wealth and privileged. Historians and history students must always be wary of nostalgic claims and value judgements that weigh the past against the present.

The noble savage
The 'noble savage' lives free of the corruption and affection of modern society

The ‘noble savage’ lives free of the corruption and affection of modern society

The ‘noble savage’ is an idea that frequently clouds our thinking about non-Western societies. According to the concept of the ‘noble savage’, tribal people who live outside the materialism and corruption of Western civilisation enjoy lives that are simpler, community-oriented, harmonious and fulfilling. The ‘noble savage’ is not interested in gaining territory or wealth, acquiring material goods, exploiting his neighbours or waging war for its own sake. Instead, the ‘noble savage’ is chiefly concerned with the fundamental needs of his community: survival and subsistence, the welfare and development of family groups, the protection of the community, spiritual and cultural fulfilment and interaction with nature. This romantic notion has been applied to many non-Western people, including the natives of North America, African tribal groups and indigenous Australians. But the perception of tribal people as ‘noble savages’ is idealistic and, in most cases, historically flawed. Very few primitive societies functioned as smoothly or harmoniously as this idea suggests. Many tribal groups were inherently militaristic and decision making, rather than being made communally or by wise elders, was dominated by the strong men of the tribe. Many tribal groups endured similar problems to Western societies, including inequalities of power and wealth, control through violence, exploitation, religious and ethnic divisions, misogyny, internecine conflict and inter-tribal wars. Some tribal societies also practised ritual circumcision of both males and females, arranged marriages, polygamy and polygyny, systemic rape, incest, banishment – even human sacrifice, cannibalism and genocide. Historians and students should thoroughly research the history of any tribal society before presuming that its people lived a peaceful and harmonious existence.

eurocentrismAs the name suggests, ‘Eurocentrism’ is when we look at the past from a purely European point of view. This perspective originates from the 17th and 18th centuries, when European nations dominated the world politically and militarily, in manufacturing, trade, science and culture. Unsurprisingly, Europeans came to see themselves and their societies as exceptional. They considered European civilisation (sometimes more broadly referred to as Western civilisation) to be the perfect example of human progress and development. In contrast, the native peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas were considered to have lived in barbarism and unlearned ignorance until they were ‘discovered’, ‘civilised’ and ‘educated’ by Europeans. This perspective gave rise to ideas like the ‘White Man’s Burden’ (Britain) and the ‘Civilising Mission’ (France), which served to justify even more conquest and colonisation. This arrogant Eurocentrism also came to dominate historiography and historical understanding. The stories, contributions and achievements of non-European peoples were either ignored or downplayed. Chinese scientific discoveries, inventions and philosophy were largely disregarded. Islamic mathematics, medicine and literature were also trivialised. The histories of conquered peoples were largely defined by how they responded to Europeans, either with resistance or passive acceptance.  Eurocentric histories have denied many non-European peoples their own voice, while presenting us with a narrow and skewed account of the past.

'Top down' and 'bottom up'
henryviiiThese phrases describe different ways of looking at the past. Both are based on assumptions about who and what historians should focus on. ‘Top down histories’ tend to examine the actions of the wealthy and powerful: kings, aristocrats, politicians, business moguls, innovators and influential thinkers. The ‘top down’ approach suggests that most historical change and causation is driven by significant leaders. In contrast, ‘bottom up’ histories look at the lives, conditions and actions of ordinary people. The ‘bottom up’ approach suggests that ordinary people also shape and define the past. Ordinary people are neither passive nor completely powerless; history is not something that simply ‘happens to them’. The ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ views of history are not necessarily problematic in themselves. Problems only arise when our attitude to the past becomes locked into one way of thinking. Some ‘top down’ histories tend to cast ordinary people as the extras in a grand play; they are painted as either passive recipients, a brainless mass or a potentially violent mob. Conversely, some ‘bottom up’ histories are given to demonising those with wealth and power, attacking their motives and condemning their errors. This single mindedness can only taint our view of the past. History is the study of people from all classes, both the powerful and the powerless. We should approach the past with an open mind about different groups and classes, and let the evidence convince us.

The militarisation of history
The militarisation of history is a recent phenomenon observed in some Western countries. It refers to an increasing focus on war, wartime exploits, military leaders and soldiers when studying, teaching and writing about the past. Australia is one nation where this process has been observed. Many academics there claim that Australian history has been slowly militarised since the 1980s. This process is advanced through government policies and funding, by school curricula that focus disproportionately on war, and by nationalist literature and media coverage that links Australia’s development, identity and nationhood to war. One focal point is the April 1915 ANZAC landing at Gallipoli, Australia’s first significant military campaign as an independent nation. This growing emphasis on Australia’s military past has boosted interest in history and given rise to ‘battlefield tourism’ and large attendances at wartime commemorative services. Critics, however, claim that the militarisation of history fuels nationalist mythology, glorifies war and shapes historical understanding by intertwining it with sentiment and reverence for the dead. It can also distort public understanding of national history, tying it too closely to war and obscuring the importance of non-military leaders, conditions and events. Wars are tumultuous and cataclysmic events that are certainly worthy of close historical study – however we should strive to keep history and remembrance as separate as possible. Military and wartime history should be studied in their own context and with no more reverence than any other branch of history.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Problems of thinking about history” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].