History quotes

This page contains a collection of quotes about history, as uttered by prominent historians, leaders and other figures. Together they offer many broad perspectives about history, what it is, how it should be created and what it should be used for. These history quotes have been compiled by Alpha History authors.

Quotes about history

“One of the deepest impulses in man is the impulse to record, to scratch a drawing on a tusk or keep a diary… The enduring value of the past is, one might say, the very basis of civilisation.”
John Jay Chapman, American author (1862-1933)

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveller.”
Henry Glassie, US historian (1941- )

“History is the story of events, with praise or blame.”
Cotton Mather, American writer and politician (1663-1728)

“History is the study of all the world’s crime.”
Voltaire, French writer and philosopher (1694-1778)

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
David McCullough, American historian (1933- )

“No other discipline has its portals so wide open to the general public as history.”
Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian (1872-1945)

“History gives answers only to those who know how to ask questions.”
Hajo Holborn, German-American historian (1902-1969)

“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.”
Robert Heinlein, American author (1907-1988)

“If you want to understand today you have to search yesterday.”
Pearl S. Buck, American novelist (1892-1973)

“History is a jangle of accidents, blunders, surprises and absurdities, and so is our knowledge of it, but if we are to report it at all we must impose some order upon it.”
Henry Steele Commager, American historian (1902-1998)

“History is a vast early warning system.”
Norman Cousins, American journalist (1915-1990)

“The entire history of mankind is, in any case, nothing but a prolonged fight to the death for the conquest of universal prestige and absolute power.”
Albert Camus, French-Algerian author (1913-1960)

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
Alan Bennett, English playwright (1934- )

“What is the use trying to describe the flowing of a river at any one moment, and then at the next moment, and then at the next, and the next, and the next? You wear out. You say ‘There is a great river and it flows through this land, and we have named it History’.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, American writer (1929-2018)

Quotes about the significance of history

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana, American philosopher (1863-1952)

“If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. If you were born yesterday then any leader can tell you anything.”
Howard Zinn, American historian (1924-2010)

“Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”
Confucius, Chinese teacher and philosopher (551-479 BC)

“To study history means submitting yourself to chaos, but nevertheless retaining your faith in order and meaning.”
Herman Hesse, German writer and poet (1877-1962)

“I don’t know much about history and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
Henry Ford, American industrialist (1863-1947)

“What experience and history teach is that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
Georg Hegel, German philosopher (1770-1831)

“History is instructive. What it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper… Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.”
Howard Zinn, American historian (1922-2010)

“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. This is the more dramatic side of history; it captures the eye of the historian and the interest of the reader… History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”
Will Durant, American writer (1885-1981)

Quotes about historians

“Historians are themselves the products of history.”
Paul Conkin and Roland Stromberg, American historians

“Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.”
Edward Hallett Carr, British historian (1892-1982)

“The historian must serve two masters: the past and the present.”
Fritz Stern, German-American historian (1926- )

“Perhaps nobody has changed the course of history as much as the historians.”
Franklin P. Jones, American journalist (1908-1980)

“Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.”
Leo Tolstoy, Russian writer and philosopher (1828-1910)

“[The historian is] an unsuccessful novelist.”
H. L. Mencken, American journalist and satirist (1880-1956)

“The good historian… must be fearless, uncorrupted, free, the friend of truth and of liberty. One who calls a fig a fig, and a skiff a skiff, neither giving nor withholding from any, from favour or from enmity, not influenced by pity, by shame, or by remorse. A just judge… a stranger to all, of no country, bound only by his own laws, acknowledging no sovereign, never considering what this or that man may say of him, but relating faithfully everything as it happened.”
Lucian, ancient Greek writer and satirist (c.125-185)

“A historian ought to be exact, sincere and impartial, free from passion, unbiased by interest, fear, resentment or affection. And faithful to the truth, which is the mother of history, the preserver of great actions, the enemy of oblivion, the witness of the past, the director of the future.”
B. R. Ambedkar, Indian politician (1891-1956)

Quotes about historiographical perspective

“History is an aggregate of half-truths, semi-truths, fables, myths, rumours, prejudices, personal narratives, gossip and official prevarications. It is a canvas upon which thousands of artists throughout the ages have splashed their conceptions and interpretations of a day and an era.”
Philip D. Jordan, American historian (1903-1980)

“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
Winston Churchill, British writer and politician (1874-1965)

“History is a set of lies, agreed upon.”
Napoleon Bonaparte, French ruler (1769-1821)

“[History is] an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”
Ambrose Bierce, American satirist (1842-1914)

“History is an argument without end.”
Pieter Geyl, Dutch historian (1887-1966)

“History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe.”
Dan Brown, American novelist (1964- )

“The more I study history the more I realise how little mankind has changed. There are no new scripts, just different actors.”
Richard Paul Evans, American author (1962- )

“It might be a good idea if the various countries of the world occasionally swapped history books, just to see what the other people are doing with the same set of facts.”
Bill Vaughan, American writer (1915-1977)

“The truth that all historical writing, even the most honest, is unconsciously subjective, since every age is bound, in spite of itself, to make the dead perform whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.”
Carl Becker, American historian (1873-1945)