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History is all about argument. There is no absolute historical truth about... watch

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    "History is all about argument. There is no absolute historical truth about anything big in history" - professor of Russian History at Oxford University

    (Holocaust is not big enough, apparently!)

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8166020.stm



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    (Original post by UGeNe)
    "History is all about argument. There is no absolute historical truth about anything big in history" - professor of Russian History at Oxford University

    (Holocaust is not big enough, apparently!)

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8166020.stm

    And this is a thread why....
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    Woo, a historiography debate :woo:

    Also, Robert Service, I'm a fan of some of his work.

    On a more serious note, I think he means that there is no such think in history as an absolute truth that can never be disproven, in terms of a single explanation for a massive historical event.

    So, in context, the holocaust happened, but the idea of a totally accurate holistic explanation which accounts for every aspect of it is something which is impossible to obtain, due to limits on sources, the difficulty of knowing motivations, and the fact that establishing a chain of causation for any major event is pretty damn difficult anyway.
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    True to an extent, you can see the cloud but it's the blurry outlines and details which confuse. We all know World War 1 happened, and all the major events in it... but who bombed who when or who was an absolute jackass is so subjective we can never tell the finite details.

    Point of this thread?
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    Well the thread starter appears to have his own agenda and wants to turn this into a holocaust debate, but the real issue at stake is one of philosophy and whether history is worth studying at all.

    The question is 'are we sure that anything really ever happened?' Well, we can certainly agree that something happened, from documentary evidence, consensus and whatnot, but we can never be absolutely sure about the details of everything. Things are too complicated for us to make any definitive conclusions about, there are no patterns in history other than ones which we've fabricated to make our profession seem worthwhile etc. That is the postmodernist school of thought concerning history, and the one which the quoted professor appears to be supporting.

    Personally I think it's rubbish, but I'm a history student so I would say that.
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    (Original post by Sweyn Forkbeard)
    Well the thread starter appears to have his own agenda and wants to turn this into a holocaust debate, but the real issue at stake is one of philosophy and whether history is worth studying at all.

    The question is 'are we sure that anything really ever happened?' Well, we can certainly agree that something happened, from documentary evidence, consensus and whatnot, but we can never be absolutely sure about the details of everything. Things are too complicated for us to make any definitive conclusions about, there are no patterns in history other than ones which we've fabricated to make our profession seem worthwhile etc. That is the postmodernist school of thought concerning history, and the one which the quoted professor appears to be supporting.

    Personally I think it's rubbish, but I'm a history student so I would say that.
    I don't think Service was supporting that line of thought, but then that's just from my reading of his stuff on Russian history. I think he was just expressing scepticism at the notion of absolute truth in history, rather than having the view that any knowledge of history is impossible, which is the postmodernist line a la Keith Jenkins and Hayden White.
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    (Original post by Sweyn Forkbeard)
    Well the thread starter appears to have his own agenda and wants to turn this into a holocaust debate, but the real issue at stake is one of philosophy and whether history is worth studying at all.

    The question is 'are we sure that anything really ever happened?' Well, we can certainly agree that something happened, from documentary evidence, consensus and whatnot, but we can never be absolutely sure about the details of everything. Things are too complicated for us to make any definitive conclusions about, there are no patterns in history other than ones which we've fabricated to make our profession seem worthwhile etc. That is the postmodernist school of thought concerning history, and the one which the quoted professor appears to be supporting.

    Personally I think it's rubbish, but I'm a history student so I would say that.
    Welcome to poststructuralism. Definitive conclusions and absolute truths are ruled out (but patterns are not empirical observations but aides to comprehension, and have nothing to do with poststructuralism). There is no absolute and current truth - only interpretation by different actors. How do we know this? We don't. But because nobody can ever fully comprehend the truth (e.g. know all factors that shape the present) - if there even is such a thing (determinism) it is of absolutely no relevance to anyone, because nobody can have knowledge of it. This applies to present as well as past.

    Studying 'historical truth' is a futile exercise and to believe in uncovering it is foolish. However, the enormous variety of interpretations, some more likely than others, benefit understanding of past events - even if not empirically provable.

    It does not mean that the interpretations that history yields are of no use; they redefine the way we look at humanity. I don't think that a poststructuralist and being a historian are in any way mutually exclusive. Or at least, I'd be a failed experiment. :o:
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    History is not all argument, we know some things happened and some didn't. Talking about Rome three thousand years ago one can say that we can't be sure what happened, as victors of war write the History books. But for things that we lived through or are recent we can be sure of.
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    That is true. if you look at the holocaust only 3 million people are confirmed killed and the idea of 6 million is complete guess work based on population statistic before and after the war. Yet so many people just accept the number 6 million. Very odd
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    (Original post by TheJudge)
    That is true. if you look at the holocaust only 3 million people are confirmed killed and the idea of 6 million is complete guess work based on population statistic before and after the war. Yet so many people just accept the number 6 million. Very odd
    Actually, I believe the official figure points to it being between 2-3 million who perished in the gas chambers. The others died of starvation, shootings and other inhumane forms of torture. The number who died in the ghettoes hasn't really been emphasised enough, and people don't actually consider the numbers the SS Einsatzgruppen killed, essentially destroying entire villages, whether Jew, Pole, Gentile, partizan etc. The mass graves are enough of a pointer. And the numbers of Jews killed by anti-Semitic Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationalists (Nazi collaborators) in particular are shocking. I think this does put it up around to 5-6 million (the first speculations were in fact around '5 million'). Nevertheless, we are forced to say '6'. Tbh, as sensitive as the subject is, I find it foolish that revisionism is totally banned on this issue. If I went to Austria and spouted that only 4.5 million Jews were killed (even if I had sound evidence), I'd probably be arrested. If I said that Hitler didn't have much knowledge of the scale of the killing, the same fate will await me. Hopefully this will actually change. Although 'revisionism' of this topic is usually carried out by uneducated, anti-Semitic, ZOG-paranoid Stormfront idiots, who fuel it to their own agenda, I think people will start to address it with a more open-mind. Maybe, when the memory ceases two generations down the line, this will be so. Today we're all too happy to reassess the numbers who died under Henry VIII's 'tyranny' without any hesitation, and fear of arrest.

    As for Service's comment, it depends. Regardless of how much traditional historians intend their works to be clear windows into the past, there is a past-history distinction (or history-History distinction, history-historiography distinction....whatever you want to call it). But it is simply untrue that absolutely no historical truth is recorded in narrative. To call all narrative fiction is childish on the part of postmodernists. Language does reflect action - that's its sole purpose (above imaginative constructions). Of course, it could be said that a reliance on secondary sources succeeds in "diluting" somewhat the degree of "truth" in a particular discourse; but then I'd question what exactly this truth is. Elton in particular maintained that historical opinion works around facts, and that this opinion (and contested opinion hereafter) is what lends history its profound nature. In a way I agree, sometimes I like to think that its the historian's job to "put the past on trial". As though he presents the evidence to the court, with supplementary interpretative data (the prosecutor is an opposing historian), and the reader is the judge. This causes certain problems however. One idea that Marc Bloch put forward is that we should allow ourselves to empathise with the past. To literally transport ourselves to the past. There are two problems with this really. The first is, at least according to Evans, and I'm inclined to concur, that the historian should never be a source for morality. The historian should never say 'such and such event was good, such and such person was evil'. He should relay facts, and allow the reader to make a moral judgement. The second, is that of retrospective error. It is impossible to place yourself in the past and not harbour consequent effects, which allow for some pre-ordained, implicit, even unintentional, deterministic approach when studying an event. Even if we had a time-machine, if we had abundant knowledge of that which follows, our interpretation will be tainted. In a way, I think the phraseology of Service's comment means that I disagree with the argument that history is 'all' about argument (because facts are relayed and there is something of a window), but I do agree with there is no 'absolute' historical truth. Of course there isn't. Not enough information has been uncovered about any event for 'absolute historical truth' to exist. The Annales school tried it with their 'total history' and diversification of social sciences (and especially geography and ecology), but these still were not 'total'. They were only 'total' with regards to their range, within the confines of the available facts.

    The Holocaust point the OP makes is an interesting one. It has made many reassess their postmodern-esque views on the matter. I'd say that there are those facts that are indisputable ('heartland' facts'), and authorial speculation. I think it was Trevelyan who said that history consists of being scientific (Rankean source interrogation), speculative (historian's interpretation and 'filling the gaps' of knowledge), and literary (with conveyance on paper). The scientific parts of this usually should not be disputed because of their consistency across the historical discourse. Postmodernists like Jenkins simply create an argument for argument's sake. To say that the Holocaust is just a literary relaying of historian's work is foolish. It confuses the two, quite seperate, ideas of science and speculation. Plus, in 'the past' the Holocaust did happen. History lends us a window into the past, but just because it may not be a clean window, it does not make that which is on the other side dirty. By all means, question historical interpretation, but the facts are usually too far embedded in reality to be disputed.

    Edit: Considering that much of Service's work has been biographical I can understand why he'd take this view. I think he understands that speculation does in fact make up the majority of an historical study. Flaubert made the interesting comment that "writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing out a cupful". With biographers, this analogy is usually reversed with regards to some parts of an agent's life. An historical figure's obscure childhood, their personal and family life, their withdrawal into obscurity before their deaths. These are all issues that require an abundance of guesswork. But they are indeed some of the most important issues. Sir Lewis Namier believed that ideological tendencies barely ever guided an historical figure's actions; instead, individual expediency and personal influences ensure greater impetus behind them. I agree really, this is what led Stalin off course. He was a keen Marxist theorist in his youth, yet when power was in his reach, his preference shifted from irrational idealism to individual betterment. And that natural human instinct, my friends, is a Marxist society is an impossible end.
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    I've had similar thoughts in my head for a while about History, I was studying joint History and Politics at university and then dropped History. I'm reluctant to go to say too much about the presumptive nature of historiography, the role of ideology in history and the the role of the historian as a narrator, as I am aware that the discipline toes a very hard line ethically speaking, as to how much influence the historian is supposed to have over the way the information he provides is interpreted.
    However I think that it is very hard not to fall into this role when you try to make sense of all of the evidence you have been provided, it seems impossible that they would not intentionally or unintentionally take upon themselves the role of a narrator, subsequently shaping a coherent picture of the past.
    This is where I agree with the statement of the thread, history is told ultimately by one person whom takes it upon themself to interpret the information they are provided in a way that is sensible to themselves, in this way it is very similar to philosophy.
 
 
 
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