Spartacus Blog

Interpretations in History

Tuesday, 8th July, 2014

John Simkin

It is sometimes thought that dealing with the issue of “interpretations” in the classroom is a comparatively new problem. Some date it back to the arrival of SHP history or the introduction of GCSE or the National Curriculum. I know when I started teaching in 1977 few history teachers thought “interpretation” was a problem. Most teachers claimed they were “objective” professionals who did not allow their own political opinions to influence their teaching.

The SHP was concerned about the possible exposure of the teacher’s political ideology while teaching the course and at first only sanctioned what they considered to be “safe” topics. Even a course unit on Nazi Germany was rejected because it was considered too “political”.

I became aware that “interpretation” was a problem once I began producing my own teaching materials. Given my own unhappiness with the quality of the commercial materials available in the 1970s, this happened straight away.

W.H.B. Court has pointed out: “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.” That has always been the case with my writing. Unless I have strong views on the subject, I don't bother to write about it.

The first materials I ever produced concerned the First World War. It was a subject I had felt passionately about for many years. In fact, I can date it to 1956, the year that I inherited from my father (John Simkin) the brass medal type object that provided details of my grandfather’s death (John E. Simkin) at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. My research into why he died did not give me a value-free view of the war.

These materials were about interpretations of the war. It of course included quotations from historians who were sympathetic to Sir Douglas Haig and other generals who followed the policy of “attrition”. It also included quotes from historians who were critical of this approach. For example, Llewellyn Woodward argued in his book Great Britain and the War of 1914-1918 (1967): “Haig failed to comprehend that the policy of ‘attrition’ or in plain English, ‘killing Germans’ until the German army was worn down and exhausted, was not only wasteful and, intellectually, a confession of impotence; it was also extremely dangerous. The Germans might counter Haig's plan by allowing him to wear down his own army in a series of unsuccessful attacks against a skilful defence. Fortunately the enemy generals were of much the same 'textbook' type of mind as Haig.”

I quoted people like Duff Cooper who made a good job of defending people like Haig (the book was actually commissioned by the Haig family): "There are still those who argue that the Battle of the Somme should never have been fought and that the gains were not commensurate with the sacrifice. There exists no yardstick for the measurement of such events, there are no returns to prove whether life has been sold at its market value. There are some who from their manner of reasoning would appear to believe that no battle is worth fighting unless it produces an immediately decisive result which is as foolish as it would be to argue that in a prize fight no blow is worth delivering save the one that knocks the opponent out."

I also used extracts from Haig’s own defence of his tactics. But more importantly, I used extracts from those who had to endure Haig's orders. For example, William Brooks, who survived his time on the Western Front: “Haig's nickname was the butcher. He'd think nothing of sending thousands of men to certain death. The utter waste and disregard for human life and human suffering by the so-called educated classes who ran the country. What a wicked waste of life. I'd hate to be in their shoes when they face their Maker.”

Sir Douglas Haig
Sir Douglas Haig

Although on the surface my teaching materials appeared to be objective because they attempted to tell all sides of the story (this included David Lloyd George’s attempts in his memoirs to distance himself from the military tactics used on the Western Front) it was far from being objective history. In fact, it was my “interpretation” of the past. The selection of the primary sources by the author plays an important role in delivering your interpretation of past events. I am fully aware of the different ways that the student will react to different sources. For example, which one is the most convincing, a dry defence of Haig by Duff Cooper or a passionate attack on him by William Brooks?

I was guilty of using quotations against the people who made them. For example, here is what Sir Douglas Haig had to say about military tactics in a 1926 book review: “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse - the well-bred horse - as you have ever done in the past.” It seems that Haig had learnt very little from his experience on the Western Front.

Hegel once said that: “Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” Maybe so, but I prefer to believe the comments of H. G. Wells: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.


Previous Posts

Interpretations in History (8th July, 2014)

Alger Hiss was not framed by the FBI (17th June, 2014)

Google, Bing and Operation Mockingbird: Part 2 (14th June, 2014)

Google, Bing and Operation Mockingbird: The CIA and Search-Engine Results (10th June, 2014)

The Student as Teacher (7th June, 2014)

Is Wikipedia under the control of political extremists? (23rd May, 2014)

Why MI5 did not want you to know about Ernest Holloway Oldham (6th May, 2014)

The Strange Death of Lev Sedov (16th April, 2014)

Why we will never discover who killed John F. Kennedy (27th March, 2014)

The KGB planned to groom Michael Straight to become President of the United States (20th March, 2014)

The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)

Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)

Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)

Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)

Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)

Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)

Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)

The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)

The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)

Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)

New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)

Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)

Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)

Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler (30th October 2013)

Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)

The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)

Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)

British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)

Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)

Wallis Simpson and Nazi Germany (11th October 2013)

The Activities of MI5 (9th October 2013)

The Right Club and the Second World War (6th October 2013)

What did Paul Dacre's father do in the war? (4th October 2013)

Ralph Miliband and Lord Rothermere (2nd October 2013)