Introduction: Understanding the Modern World

In his book, The Philosophy of History (1832), Friedrich Hegel argued that: “Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” (1) According to Aldous Huxley, this did not change in the 20th century: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” (2)

I do not accept this view of history and much more prefer the view expressed by Edmund Burke in 1790: "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors." (3) The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard added that "life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards". Or as George Santayana put it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (4) It is significant that these words are inscribed on a plaque at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. There could not be anything more important than to use our study of history to prevent events such as the Holocaust ever happening again.

Politicians often refer to historical events to justify the actions they have taken. For example, when George Bush and Tony Blair decided to remove Saddam Hussein from power they compared him to Adolf Hitler and themselves to Winston Churchill. They criticised those urging caution as being like Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax during the late 1930s. Therefore, the government policy of appeasement was similar to those advocating negotiations with Hussein.

Those who disagreed with Bush and Blair were keen to refer to another recent international conflict. They argued that an invasion of Iraq might result in another Vietnam War. It was pointed out that no major power had been able to successfully suppress a small nation since Hitler took over countries in Europe in 1940. However, once people began adopting guerrilla warfare in response to Nazi occupations, such as in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, it became impossible for Hitler to win and has changed warfare for ever. (5)

In the recent EU referendum debate David Cameron has suggested that if we leave the organization we might be responsible for a new world war: "Isolationism has never served this country well. Whenever we turn our back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it. We have always had to go back in, and always at a much higher cost. The serried rows of white headstones in lovingly-tended Commonwealth war cemeteries stand as silent testament to the price that this country has paid to help restore peace and order in Europe. Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?" (6)

His opponents could point out that our involvement in First World War and the Second World War were not caused by isolationism but engagement in European politics. It was military alliances with other European countries that caused us to become involved in these two international conflicts. That might have been a good thing but it definitely was not isolationism.

Simon Jenkins went further back in history to attack Cameron's theory: "The best thing that happened to medieval England was its defeat in the hundred years war and the end of English ambitions on the continent of Europe. The best thing to happen in the 16th century was Henry VIII’s rejection of the pan-European papacy. The wisest policy of his daughter, Elizabeth I, was an isolationism so rigid that she rejected one continental suitor after another. Britain fought off all attempts by France and Spain to restore European Catholicism, and accepted a Dutch and a German monarch strictly on the basis of British parliamentary sovereignty." He goes on to say that in 1734, Robert Walpole, the British prime minister, could proudly tell Queen Caroline: "Madam there are 50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one an Englishman." (7)

Boris Johnson has also been using examples from history in an effort to persuade the British public to vote "No" in the EU referendum. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Johnson said European history had seen repeated attempts to rediscover the "golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans". Johnson told the newspaper, "Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods." (8)

Johnson could have added that it was only when Merkel, Napoleon and Hitler headed east in Europe that they got into trouble. He might have been factually correct but like Ken Livingstone, when he referred to Hitler's negotiations with Zionist leaders in 1936, when discussing the anti-Semitism controversy, this did not go down very well. As one political commentator pointed out, “invoking the ghosts of Hitler and the Nazis in any political argument is a profoundly dangerous strategy.” (9)

It is not only politicians who select evidence from history to support a political argument. The same is true of historians, who like politicians, have an ideology. Herbert R. Finberg has convincingly argued: “History free of all values cannot be written. Indeed, it is a concept almost impossible to understand, for men will scarcely take the trouble to inquire laboriously into something which they set no value upon”. (10)

The historian, E. H. Carr, illustrates this in his book, What is History (1961): "The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation." (11)


Even the facts available to the historian is a problem. For example, it has been said the people living in the 13th century were devoutly religious. All the facts we have available suggest that this was the case. Geoffrey Barraclough, the medieval historian, has pointed out that the facts available to us have been pre-selected for us by people who believed it, and wanted others to believe it. Therefore, the historian is dependent on the historians, scribes and chroniclers of the time. Barraclough argues that "the history we read though based on facts, is, strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgments." (12)

History is more of an art than a science. A historian can never be completely objective. As the German historian and theologian Ernst Troeltsch explained many years ago: "We get our ethics from our history and judge our history by our ethics." Historians are important people and play a vital role in our survival. As H. G. Wells, who as a novelist, was driven by ideology, pointed out: "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." (13)

As a young student I remember having a poster on my wall about being a historian. It included the African Proverb:  "Until the lion has a historian of his own, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." It was at this time that I became involved in the History Workshop movement that advocated “history from below” and produced what became known as "people's history". In the early years this meant primarily working-class history but over time, it expanded to include the new women’s history. Its founder, Raphael Samuel, called on historians "to actively recover the history of ordinary people and their movements". (14)

When I entered teaching I was determined to encourage my students to study the lives of ordinary people as well as the well-known names of those who have ruled us. The first teaching materials I produced dealt with the lives of the soldiers serving in the trenches on the Western Front. Of course, today, there is nothing unusual about this, but in the 1970s history textbooks took a very different approach to the subject.

We also looked at the lives of women during the war. People such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Enid Bagnold, Mary Borden, Mary Allen, Chrystal Macmillan, Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, Dorothy Lawrence, Flora Sandes, Katharine Furse, Vera Brittain, Margaret McMillan, Elsie Inglis, Margaret Dawson, Florence Farmborough, Margery Corbett-Ashby, Eveline Haverfield, Selina Cooper, Helena Swanwick, Christabel Pankhurst, Margaret Storm Jameson and Hannah Mitchell (a full-list can be found here).

All historians agree about important events that need to be studied. However, they disagree about the way it is studied. For example, take the subject of the English Civil War. Historians have written books about the subject without looking in any detail about groups that emerged during the conflict such as the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters. Very few historians writing about this war mention the names of Katherine Chidley, Mary Overton and Elizabeth Lilburne, yet they played an important role in the early struggle for democracy. It is not as if we do not have material on these people. Hundreds of pamphlets have survived that were written by these radicals. We know what they thought about the situation they found themselves in, but the historians have ignored their voices for ideological reasons.

A historian, like a journalist, knows that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. In the words of E. H. Carr: "The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historians is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate." (15)

This approach to history is far from objective. To the historian the subject is far too important to be that sort of study. If I did not have strong opinions on history I would never be able to summon up the energy needed to write a book on the subject. My old history professor, Arthur Marwick, used to quote Keith Thomas on being an historian: "The justification of all historical study must ultimately be that it enhances our self-consciousness, enables us to see ourselves in perspective, and helps us towards that greater freedom which comes from self-knowledge.” (16)

In the 19th century historians thought it was possible to write objective history. John Dalberg-Acton argued that it was possible to write objective history (he called it "ultimate history") once we had studied all the sources available. "It is a unique opportunity of recording, in the way most useful to the greatest number, the fullness of the knowledge which the nineteenth century is about to bequeath... By the judicious division of labour we should be able to do it, and to bring home to every man the last document, and the ripest conclusions of international research. Ultimate history we cannot have in this generation; but... now that all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution." (17)

In the following century historians began to question the concept of objective history. Professor Sir George Clark, explained in his introduction to The New Cambridge Modern History (1957) that Lord Acton had been wrong in his belief in the possibility of producing "ultimate" history: "Historians of a later generation do not look forward to any such prospect. They expect their work to be superseded again and again. They consider that knowledge of the past has come down through one or more human minds, has been processed by them, and therefore cannot consist of elemental and impersonal atoms which nothing can alter... since all historical judgements involve persons and points of view, one is as good as another and there is no objective historical truth." (18)

As historians we need to constantly reconsider our past. Christopher Hill, another important figure in my development as an historian, once commented: "History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors." (19)

The historian still faces the problem of being controlled by the facts available. Carl L. Becker, controversially argued that "the facts of history do not exist for any historian till he creates them". (20) The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. "The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless". The real function of the historian is "to master the past and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present". (21)