International School History - TOK -
The value of history: its uses and abuses.

·     The value of history: its uses and abuses.

Good history is not fiction

‘We historians are firmly bound by the authority of our sources (and by no other authority, human or divine), nor must we use fiction to fill in the gaps...’  Sir Geoffrey Elton

Above all else, good history is concerned with facts about real events that actually happened. Events cannot be invented that did not happen, nor can the chronology of these events be reversed. There are real limitations to the narratives that can be told about the past and those limitations are fixed by the facts. There was a revolution in Cuba before the Cuban Missile Crisis and a year after the crisis President Kennedy was assassinated. As the historian G.M Trevelyan once argued ‘...the poetry of history does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it.’

For any claim historian’s make about the past they must provide evidential support from the historical record. And the historian must be open and accurate about this. The historian must provide clear referencing to allow the authenticity of the original source to be verified and to allow their interpretative reading of these sources to be analysed.

Student activity – The integrity of the archive: the strange case of historian Martin Allen

Martin Allen is a British historian who wrote a series of controversial books beginning in 2002 with Hidden Agenda, a work that claimed that the Duke of Windsor, former King Edward VIII, secretly aided the Nazis during WWII. In 2005 he wrote Himmler’s Secret War which amongst other things accused Churchill’s government of assassinating Himmler to stop him revealing that the British had secretly discussed peace terms with the Nazis without informing the USA or USSR.

Then in 2005, following an investigation by journalists it was found that Allen’s books were based on 29 forged documents that had been recently ‘placed’ in the National Archives. The 1945 documents had been created on a high-resolution laser printer (invented in the 1970s). Signatures were found to be written over pencil tracings. Handwriting of different officials was suspiciously similar. Diplomatic titles and key dates were wrong. The police were called in and a criminal case was prepared with Allen as the key suspect, but then the case was dropped on the grounds that a trial would not be in the public interest. Allan himself is reportedly ‘devastated’ by the discovery of the forgeries and claims he was ‘set up’. The Internet is awash with conspiracy theories about the possible reasons why the criminal case was dropped.

• In response to the decision to drop the prosecution a group of leading historians sent a letter to the Financial Times demanding an official public report of the case. Why do you think historians were so upset that forgeries had been found in the archive? What arguments do you think they used to try to persuade the government to hold an inquiry?
• Before looking the case up on the Internet, what sorts of conspiracy theories do you think might exist about the ‘real’ reasons for dropping the case against Martin Allen?

One of the negative consequences of the Internet revolution has been decline in importance of the academic authority that was once more or less guaranteed by the published book. Now anyone can publish their views about the past on a website, blog or discussion board, irrespective of whether they have respected the traditional requirements of academic historical scholarship or not. Conspiracy theory websites of variable quality, rank highly in search results alongside reputable institutional history sites. Politically motivated sites can promote selective nationalist history and revisionist sites can deny that the Holocaust ever happened. In the face of such narratives it is clearly not enough that there are simply alternative narratives. There must also be accounts that are founded on the factual record. For these accounts we depend on history.

As Richard J Evans forcefully argues:

‘There is a massive, carefully empirical literature on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Clearly, to regard it as fictional, unreal, or no nearer to historical reality than, say, the work of the “revisionists” who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all, is simply wrong. Here is an issue where evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was inherently a tragedy and cannot be seen either as a comedy or a farce.’



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