The Judgement of History


12:26 am - December 12th 2007

by Gracchi    


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Political leaders and Journalists always make me laugh when they talk about history. (For a fine recent article which provoked this outburst see here.) Perpetually leaders talk about the judgements that history will deliver upon them, how for instance a Nixonian reputation for corruption will in the end turn into a Nixonian reputation for foresighted peace making (it is ironic that they don’t understand the two judgements can be true of the same person).

American historians unfortunately reinforce such hubris but compiling lists of great Presidents- evaluating Washington against Reagen (as though it were possible to compare a ruler of a small agrarion republic to the ruler of a vast multicultural complex state). One of the reasons that politicians make me laugh is that they claim that their reputations will be assessed by history- and that they will pass some grand examination in the future at which dons, sitting like schoolmasters, will award passes and fails.

Actually there never will be such an examination. People tend to presume that there will be because they tend to presume that historians will know in the future things that we don’t know now. We can now see that Harry Truman’s policy of containment was a successful strategy to combat Soviet Russia, we can now see that Neville Chamberlaine’s policy of appeasement was a failure in combatting Hitler’s Germany. Neither of those judgements were so obvious at the time. But equally there is much that historians are ignorant of, that those close to events or even those contemporary with events do know. Most importantly because historians do know what happened, they don’t know what it was like to be there- to take the decision.

Even I have a better idea of what Tony Blair thought in 2003, because I was there and had to think about what I would have done. A historian can’t do that, his art lies in imagining himself into that position but he can never be there. Furthermore so much of life happens casually. Think about it this way, imagine you died tommorrow and all memory of you was purged from the world- all we would have of you would be the documentary traces you left. We wouldn’t know what you were like- we would only know what others thought you were like, and even then only what they would commit to paper or film about what you were like. Uncertainty is the lot of the politician, it is also the lot of the historian.

And that uncertainty leads to another factor- its seldom that those stentorian dons are ever in accord. You can hold a poll and get a result- but that’s like an election and historical fashions change. Since the 1960s the English Levellers have gone in the history of the civil war from being close to Karl Marx to being close to Billy Graham. Since the 18th Century, empires have waxed and waned but so have their reputations- for Gibbon’s contemporaries empire caused corruption, for Kipling’s it represented a civilising mission, for ours it seems brutal and constraining and we all use Rome as an example.

Putting your trust in the judgement of history is like putting your faith in fashion remaining unchanging. Yes its difficult to imagine for instance that anyone sane will ever think Adolf Hitler was a good thing, and equally that anyone sane will think Winston Churchill in 1940 was behaving badly- but the majority of politicians don’t start genocides or fight brave lonely conflicts. The majority of politicians make mistakes and misjudgements, and have good intentions- and the balance between their error and their success is a fine one. Clement Attlee’s reputation in England depends on where you stand politically, as does FDR’s in the US. Its a very odd politician that is everyone’s hero or everyone’s villain.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t judge politicians- but we should remember that we judge them not against the standerds of some abstract historical tradition, but against our own moral sense. History will render no judgement on Blair, Bush or Nixon- the discipline of history allows us to evaluate different versions of what happened and why against the evidence, its then for us to come up with the moral judgements.

Historians are not Gods but human beings. As there is no view from nowhere- and politics is all about balancing competing moral needs- a historian judges, just like anyone else, by his moral compass the ethics of a politician’s behaviour. He might know more facts: but his moral judgement is just the same as any one else’s.

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About the author
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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Reader comments


In “The Idea of History” R.G. Collingwood maintained that you could only at least partly comprehend a historical figure by doing your best to put yourself in their shoes and imaginatively reliving their decisions. You had to think yourself into BEING Caesar when he was deciding whether or not to cross the Rubicon. Collingwood was advocating historical empathy, before that word was commonly used. It’s a challenging concept, and probably impossible of more than very partial achievement. But Collingwood’s insight is a valuable corrective to all the anachronistic rubbish that is spouted today by badly trained historians and journalists who all too often haven’t much of clue how any given period in history was perceived by those actually living in it, because they have not made the necessary effort to study it in depth and only view it from the perspective of the present. Witless anachronism is one of the worst sins of much historical writing.

2. douglas clark

Gracchi,

The judgements of the future are, more than likely, going to be based on the commentariat of the present. We will be the historical sources that the putative future historian looks to. I could envisage a future historian writing off two contemporary PM’s in a paragraph, viz:

“Whilst Harold Wilson was a committed Atlantacist, he, at least had the good sense to keep the UK out of Vietnam. Blair, on the other hand, felt obliged to cement the so called special relationship by committing British troops to what we now describe as The First Resources War.”

Who the hell remembers any of these guys:

Henry Addington
George Canning
Earl of Aberdeen
The Earl of Roseberry

Only history wonks, I’d suggest, yet they had the same status as Wilson and Blair.

“My name is Ozymandeous” comes to mind.

3. Margin4 Error

what a lot of rot.

Hitler – well loved, worshiped, or tacitly supported by a majority of Germans right through until the war turned sour late on. (How were Germans of the day to know he would lose the war and in his dying days declare them inferior to the Russians after all?)

Churchill – nearly kicked from office early in the war because of setback after setback – disliked by the working people for ordering they be shot for striking in the 1920s – and cast out from mainstream politics in the 30s because of his saber-rattling. (How could an Englishman in 1938 know his rhetoric and leadership would save the democratic world?)

So I would say History has done a better job of judging these men than the people of the time.

Oh – and lest anyone decide to revise history here and pretend Most Germans were members of some unrecorded resistance (they were not) – lets remember that around 5million were employed in the process of the genocide alone.

Granted most didn’t know the ultimate result of rounding up the jews and building shower rooms with gas pipes, but then maybe that’s why history has been a far far far better judge of Hitler than the German people of the time.

What was it that Churchill said?

Ah yes, ‘History will be kind to me because I intend to write it myself’.

M4E:

You are making the classic historian’s mistakes, here, of foreshortening your perspective by dealing with a limited series of events and concentrating too much on individual historical figures to the exclusion of understanding the wider sweep of historical events.

What Gracci is saying, in essence, is both that history can only be understood if one considers it in context. Yes, an estimated 5 million Germans were employed in the process of genocide but why? Was it because they all shared the same moral defect as Hitler? Did they just not know what was going on? Or were the reasons rather more complicated such that one can only understand them by putting hindsight to one side and making an effort to understand how they would have seen things from their contemporaneous perspective?

Collingwood argues for the latter – although he is also lifting that idea from Vico, but that’s another point entirely – and that’s a valid viewpoint. Its one that may not alter how we perceive Hitler but it one that will shape out perceptions of how the German people fit into things and how they came to be taken in by the Nazi regime.

I should add that one book that everyone should read is Mark Steel’s ‘Vive La Revolution’ which paints a very different (and much more sympathetic) picture of the French Revolution and the Jacobins than you’ll find in any standard historical text.

6. Margin4 Error

Unity

“You are making… the wider sweep of historical events.”

It is not my mistake – Gracchi’s article is about individual historical figures and it suggests the wider sweep of historical events is better known to those that have not yet seen them unfold than to those (future historians) who have. –

“What Gracci is saying, in essence, is both that history can only be understood if one considers it in context.”

Right – which those alive at the time often lack. Did the plumber fitting pipes to a gas chamber know they were going to kill millions? maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Does that much impact on our judgement of hitler either way? no!

“Yes, an estimated 5 million Germans were employed in the process of genocide… can only understand them by putting hindsight to one side and making an effort to understand how they would have seen things from their contemporaneous perspective?”

perfect – we can do that. We can in fact as historians (for we are all historians really) do that perfectly well. We can look at why Germans liked Hitler and conclude it probably wasn’t because he slaughtered Jews and lost a big war. We can do that by looking at what happened before it became clear to Germans that he slaughtered jews and lost a big war.

we can reasonably conclude from history that they liked him (to the extent that they did, and obviously that varied from person to person) because he gave them economic strength, nationalistic pride, and a scapegoat for their ills. He gave them victory after victory in a largely painless war (until the Russians turned up) and he generally let people live their lives unhindered so long as the didn’t complain about the hindrances.

and here is the killer bit for the article.

I suspect the aim of the writer is to stress that having reached a judgement, he or she doesn’t want that judgement to be shown wanting by history’s greater perspective.

well tough. if (for example) iraq becomes peaceful, rich and democratic, and a big bunker of nukes is found tomorrow – I’m probably going to have to accept that I misjudged Tony Blair about the Iraq war.

That wouldn’t make me evil – just misjudged.

the only evil people are those who should have shown better judgement and failed to do so. (arguably such as those many so called ‘good’ germans who never kicked up a fuss when Jews were rounded up.)

Conclusions depend on interpretations.

Somehow I think we are being hasty in superimposing our own judgements on history in the assumption that subsequent commentators will agree with us and our shaping of descriptions.

Looking at the social and governmental practice undertaken during the Hitler-period, it is clear that this period of German history continues to have far reaching influence as far as the innovations it developed were concerned – why, even this week I read about the proposal to introduce a secret police force into pubs to ensure alcohol isn’t served to undesirables (in this case the immorally tipsy)!

Contemporary negative judgement on Chamberlain’s ‘appeasement’ policy is unneccessaily harsh, in my view – for how else could the Never Againers be brought to taken ‘once more unto the breach’? The shock of the policy reversal is still felt, yet at the time it was the logical and popular choice. The stark demonstration of the failure of appeasement to appease the Third Reich is no condemnation of the policy (the British had been successful with it a century earlier), rather the condemnation of the people who chose to break human morality by dishonoring the universal contracts of legitimate statehood as mirrored by the breaking of the personal agreements over state relationships.

Similarly Churchill will not continue to be lionised in the current fashion as the study of contemporary archives pieces together the patchwork of propaganda and publicity to reassemble a more detailed picture which emphasises different areas and weaknesses.

Common perception of this phase of history has still to catch up somewhat with the reality of the events, partly as it is still being used as a precedent to justify current policies, so, inevitably, the facts and motives are distorted by interpretation of discernably political perspectives.

Which isn’t to say that distortion is avoidable, but that through the accumulation of dissonant voices an unremiting harmony is reached. Similarly, the political debate requires the same process – as this site develops its identity a choice will be made whether it is a rebalancing polemic voice to become surpassed, or a voice of reason entertaining the opinion of all.

The difference between judgement of Conrad Black and men of similar biography throughout history can be measured in the volume of material that can be collected. For, as the commentariat grows, so too does it’s diversity, and so too is our dependence on single or limited sources diminished.

Whether or not the occupation and democratisation of Iraq and Afghanistan is seen as successful will not justify the decision to go in with only a vague plan for how to go about doing it, though it will justify the troops and the nature of our diplomatic strategy having done so – something for which the figureheads of Blair and Bush cannot take credit for, since they are the products of their respective systems.

9. Margin4 Error

thomas

while almost everything you said is reasonable – does it not again discard the imperfect as valueless? (this seems a common theme with your posts).

For example – WW2 as a phenomenon may have ongoing implications and the full detail is not yet known. But that does not mean we can’t draw some conclusions and judgements.

We can surely conclude, can we not, that while Chamberlain and his appeasers might not have been evil in intent (democratic leaders rarely are), they were guilty of severe and avoidable misjudgement with immensely damaging consequences.

Likewise can we not conclude that Churchill, far from a marginalised agitator in the 1930s, was in fact a man of excellent good judgement and a sound grasp of what was happening and what needed to be done?

Likewise can we not conclude that far from a great national leader who gave Germany back its pride, Hitler was a vicious and devestating man who led Germany to the destruction of its own soul?

- – -

The only unreasonable thing you posted was your certain prediction of the future.

I for one see no good reason why Churchill might not be lionised in future. We already know a great many of his weaknesses and a great many of his blunders. None of which has removed from him his status as a global hero.

So how do you know with such certainty this will change? Or do you just mean that your opinion of him is not the same as most peoples, and so you expect them not you to see the light?

10. Margin4 Error

ps

I fear you misunderstand history if you believe that every man’s credit and blame is written of as an inevitable product of time.

blair and bush will be looked on by history as vilains or braves depending on their outcomes – or more likely (as is so often the case) some combination of the two.

The Iraq war (in your example) is unlikely to be discarded by history as an inevitable product of systems – and will be the mi-judgement, malevolence or foresight of those that took the decision.

and remember – history cares little for legality. (Hitler killed 6million jews perfectly legally under the constitution of the Weimar Republic, which he never broke).

@M4E – What else would you have the Chamberlain do while he was PM and representing a body of opinion that was elected on the platform he acted for?

Descriptions of the policy of ‘appeasement’ have necessarily been coloured by our reaction to the percieved failure of it (and the horrors made visible as we overcame that failure), whereas Gracchi’s description of Truman’s policy of ‘containment’ is substantially the same, this has also been coloured by the percieved success of it (evidence of the pogroms aren’t needed for retrospective justification, so we can blithely ignore those horrors to save granny’s nerves) and therefore maintains currency in the current political atmosphere.

In reality the difference between the two was the actual consequence of the presence of atomic weapons on diplomatic efforts: Chamberlain successfully created a theatre to test the public opinion which he represented, and it was the decline of pacifists to a minority of opinion in the face of Hitler’s response to that test that enabled the government to change direction – it amounted to a personal defeat for Chaberlain and a personal triumph for Churchill since they associated themselves as the personification of those ideals, but both performed their roles fully in matching their words and deeds to their positions at the time.

By this I mean you are confusing being a good judge with being morally correct.

Similarly, Hitler’s rise to power demonstrated sound judgement of the weakness of democracy and the lack of unity within the international order, while his responsibility for the devastation of Germany and the manner of the defeat obeys the laws of a higher order.

I prefer not to look upon the iconic figures of history as heroes and villains to follow or avoid, as this pretends we could be cast in the same mould to repeat their previous mistakes, rather than to originate worse depths of depravity or glories of genious.

To be tagged “the new Maradona” even for the Argentine No.10 is deceptive flattery which can be a cross too heavy to bear – to pretend to carry the hopes and dreams of a nation imbued in such a comparison is to set yourself up for failure, while the title ‘The Black Hitler’ simply doesn’t do justice to the Zimbabwean leader with the funny moustache.

There are no angels or demons, only individuals with something still to learn, myself included. But that’s personal morality, the public moral cannot be drawn without resort to simplification into easily digestible narrative forms according to the common denominator – ie you need heroes and villains and plenty of juicy action as a background to sell your story to the masses.

The extension of the Collingwood doctrine is to ask “What would I have done in their place?” I was a teenager in WW2, and can remember the 1930s appeasement era. There was great war-weariness after the pointless wholesale slaughter of the 1914-18 trenches, and the widespread reluctance to go to war again was understandable and not dishonourable, although mistaken. My family supported Churchill during the appeasement years, but they were in the minority – there was a great deal of opposition to re-armament, not only on the Left. And the paradigmatic Collingwood-type question I always ask myself is: “What would I, and my family, have done if we had been decent, liberal-minded Germans during and just after the Hitler takeover?” I very much doubt whether we’d have been out on the streets demonstrating. I expect we would probably have kept our heads down, got on with our daily tasks, and hoped that the storm would blow over. By the time we realised it wasn’t going to, it would have been too late.

If things go on as they are, it may soon be too late here. A George Orwell said, “Don’t let it happen.”

13. Margin4 Error

thomas

“By this I mean you are confusing being a good judge with being morally correct”

no – this is your mistake not mine.

As I said above of Chamberlain and his ilk “… may not have been evil in intent (democratic leaders rarely are)…”.

I don’t confuse gross misjudgement with imorality. But you seem to.

You seem to think my condemnation of his weak leadership or poor judgement is the same as calling him immoral.

As a reader of history I am comfortable condemning Chamberlain’s gross misjudgement. Rather than confront ignorant (though again not evil) public opinion – he settled on a course that resulted in a more vicious war and genocide.

This doesn’t make him evil (unlike Hitler who actively sought such things, allbeit with some strong and tacit support from his public). But it does make him condemnable as a leader.

I don’t understand why you argue otherwise. You say yourself that misjudgement doesn’t make some one imorral. So why is it then wrong to condemn the unimaginably poor judgement of Chamberlain?

@M4E – I get the impression that you are imposing your own judgements on history whereas it is impossible to escape the fact that history imposes its own.

It is fashionable nonsense to put forward the individuals you mention as good or bad, rather than understanding how their actions lead to undesirable consequences.

You say you are comfortable “condemning Chaberlain’s gross misjudgement”??? A bigger pile of empty self-flattery I have never heard. It’s akin to let’s find someone to blame for our problems, “please, sir, it wasn’t me, sir”. The point was that Chamberlain was elected, so it was us – it was our misjudgement if it was anybody’s.

It is only the propaganda of people like anticant who self-identify as oppositionists long after the decision was taken so they can demonise individuals acting in a representative capacity because they cannot accept their failure to influence the decision that was reached in a democratic manner. Right and wrong does come into it, so theres no point in getting sentimental.

As a man, Chamberlain followed his principles and was defeated by events: Chamberlain was democratically elected and reached democratic agreement with the man democratically elected to represent Germany. The democratic agreement of Munich tied the hands of Hitler’s basis for legitimisation of action so that when he broke it British public opinion was enabled to use this as evidence for future policy.

What you are suggesting is that the ends justifies the means, even if that subordinates the democratic principle on the supposition of a few individuals.

15. Margin4 Error

Thomas

history imposes it’s own judgement? So what is history? An alien overlord who invented the world by sneezing and who is writing down what happens on this snot of a planet?

I ask because I fear you misunderstand the point of knowledge. It does not exist simply for its own sake. It exists so that people can better inform their actions and judgements.

You however, seem to refuse to make a judgement. In which case why bother even knowing Chamberlain’s name?

anyway…

History is judged by people. I am people. As such I judge past events. And so should everyone. There are good lessons to learn from History.

For example – look at appeasement.

Political leaders served their own electoral gain by adhering to the public’s desire not to repeat the horror of the first world war. They left a dictator with known aggressive desires to grow his economy and military from a position of inferiority to significant superiority. They failed to confront that dictator from a position of strength. And they thus gave the electorate exactly what the people desperately didn’t want. A repeat of the horror of world war.

The lesson there is clear.

Sometimes the right thing for a strong and well judged leader is to do the unpopular thing so as to benefit his nation and his people, in the hope that the consequences of not doing it, and thus personal vindication, might never be fully realized.

Chamberlain was though, neither strong nor well judged. Which was a shame for dozens of millions of people who died as a result.

16. Margin4 Error

oh – and yes sometimes the wise thing to do is to conclude that the information available is inconclusive and thus not sufficient to arrive at a full conclusion.

But keep in mind that many (bad) people argue that since there is no ‘smoking gun’ (documented) evidence that Hitler knew of the final solution, it is unfair to assume he intended genocide.

They are wrong, they are bad, and they should be condemned.

But your unwillingness to arrive at a personal judgement seems less a sensible judgement on the basis of a lack of information about Chamberlain, and more a stick with which you attempt to beat others while claiming cerebral superiority.

@M4E – I’m wondering whether I should be surprised at what you’ve said.

History does impose it’s own judgements, as that is just another way of explaining political and practical realities. History is just a succession of events which are later interpreted by the children of it for the benefit of their own audience. Judgements are the basis of actions, but without authority and in their individual instances opinions do not form judgements in the slightest.

Anyway, it is a simplistic assumption to say that WW2 was a consequence of the policy of appeasement as that would be to underestimate the complexity or volume of influencing factors.

WW2 was a result of a succession of events. It was the cataclysmic combination of a series of failures stretching back far earlier than you are caring to point out. But it did not happen by accident. When it happened it was neccessary and correct, at every stage until that point every effort should have been made to prevent it and was made to prevent it, but it neither could it be prevented at any cost.

You suffer from grossly generalising a long span of time and a wide body of political perspectives into good and evil camps. You also suffer from imposing your wisdom from the comfort of the armchair of hindsight.

Even if had been possible to assume the tendencies of Hitler, he had legitimate support (and much popular and vocal support) to enact the policies you decry, but you appear to claim to want to prevent the events after they happened, based on knowledge derived from the occurrence of them.

Could the future opponents of the Axis have acted sooner to prevent the necessity for confrontation, or was it the confrontation itself that we sought to avoid, although the consequence of avoiding it made it worse when it did happen? When it was realised that confrontation was inevitable and necessary, were the opponents to the Axis not already surpassed in their position of strength?
And were the western powers correct (at least to begin with) in their view that the rise of Hitler to dominance in the German political landscape was preferable to the alternatives, especially given the recent history of Germany (failed revolutions, civil war, famine, disease, financial melt-down, break-down of law and order in the decade up to the Great Crash of 1929), the internal pressures of their own countries and the more tangible threat of the export of the Russian revolution with all that that entailed?

Could it more successfully be argued that once the appeasers had begun their policy of appeasement they should be credited for holding to it long enough for them to build up enough strength that they were ultimately able to resist (though it was a close run thing) until the incoherence of Axis policy built an alliance against them?
Isn’t it possible to argue that, despite the tragic and horrific wholesale slaughter that this circumstance wrought, it was a price well worth paying?

It is the easy choice to offer condemnation of evil, but it isn’t enough to stop it from happening in the first place.

18. Margin4 Error

Thomas

You confuse my aims, which are to learn the lessons of history, and Chamberlain’s aims, which was to keep Britain from facing a repeat of WW1.

In my aim I look back at history in all its complexity (though I don’t then post it all on a blog) and make judgements about the consequences of various actions and inactions.

In his aim, Chamberlain failed so completely and utterly that it is impossible to put into words the extent of his failue.

I think therefore, that in his aim to prevent a new world war, I can point to his gross misjudgement (and not a universal misjudgement, given documented comments from people like Churchill from the time).

His misjudgement was to believe peace could be achieved through appeasement. It could not.

You rightly argue he was also following his people – who perhaps could not see that confrontation was the only chance of peace. And in that case I can point to his weakness as a leader, following the people rather than leading them for the betterment of their nation. (that betterment would have been the avoidance of WW2)

Again – that weakness was not shared by all – and again we can refer to Churchill from this.

Note also that I don’t claim that in his position I’d have done differently.

I might have shown the same woeful misjudgement and weak leadership and thus been as worthy of condemnation as him.

But I seek to learn from his mistakes, so that were I in an equivelent position, or were I judging a man in an equivelent position today, I could recognise that weak leadership and gross misjudgement and do all within my power to take a better path.

none of this makes Chamberlain evil – just incompetent. – and yes this glosses over the many other causes of WW2 – such as the break up of the Roman Empire, the Reformation, industrialisation, etc.

but this is a short thread on a website in which you have challenged by condemnation of one man’s inadequacy. As such the focus is on that one man not on reparations.

M4E – It’s one thing to have an opinion, but it smacks of arrogance to claim a defining judgement.

While I can fully agree with the statement that Chamberlain was inadequate, I disagree that he was incompetent. I would say he was misguided – he guided the country into a war while trying to avoid it – but then he was a Conservative MP.

You also seem to have forgotten the maxim that all political careers end in failure, so I don’t see his downfall as anything unusually remarkable. Again and again you slam Chamberlains supposed ‘woeful’ judgement based not upon the evidence available to him placed and within context, but on the consequence of it – and simply because you have the luxury of hindsight to support your disagreement.

I see the flaw of Chamberlain in the way his policy was misaligned with his aim despite the inordinate personal investment he made in it, so that it was inevitably going to cause cleavage and leave him defeated: no policy of moderating opposition action is ever designed to prevent confrontation at all costs, it is designed to set the terms for the conflict so that when it comes it comes in the most favourable terms available.

So to offer the quote of ‘peace in our time’ hammered the final nail in his hopes of ever escaping the political trap he set for himself and doomed us to the prospect of unrestricted war.

BTW what relevance did the Reformation or reparations have on informing the political choices during the mid-late 1930′s, and why raise them now? Bismarck would have been a better choice to mention.

I get the distinct impression that you are asking all the wrong questions, as emoting over outcomes ignores the influence that can be had during processes. Are you happier counting corpses or are you prepared to go get your gun (or other weapon of choice – pen, sword etc) and use it to the best of your ability?


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