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Can History Be Restarted?

The Daniel Johnson article on “The Decline and Fall of the History Men” linked here in our picks section yesterday deserves additional reflection.  Johnson laments the fact that no one writes “big history” in the style of Gibbon, Macaulay, or (more recently) Trevor-Roper.  I’m not sure big—or at least grand—history is entirely dead, but one thing is certain: it is not being produced by professional and academic historians.  There are lots of engaging histories and especially biographies being written these days, but chiefly by journalists (Jon Meacham), capable amateurs (John Steele Gordon), and in one or two cases (Joseph Ellis comes to mind), by academics who have more of less chucked the standard academic path.  To this I’ll add that some of the best academic historical work produced these days comes not from historians but from political scientists.  This ought to be highly embarrassing to history departments everywhere, but they don’t seem to have noticed.

The usual culprit of trendy leftism in academia is not a wholly satisfactory explanation.  I recall vividly in graduate school 30 years ago how students and faculty in the history department (which I visited frequently when I felt the urge to slum it) uniformly turned up their noses at Barbara Tuchman, who was a liberal.  Partly this was the usual jealously at Tuchman’s popular success, but, when pressed, the complaint was that Tuchman wasn’t sufficiently “rigorous”; that is, she didn’t confine herself to the cautious and narrow horizons of academic practice that is thick with caveats and endless data, and eschewing all generalization or firm conclusions, that render most academic history fit only to be read by insomniacs.

Such critiques have some merit, of course, and I’m sure serious critics can blow some large holes in Tuchman’s account of the origins and nature of the crisis that became World War I.  On the other hand, I enjoyed pointing out that Tuchman’s Guns of August was highly influential on John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, specifically in his perception of the risks of accidental war by miscalculation.  There are many grounds for criticizing Kennedy’s performance in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it doesn’t override the point that a “popular” history had more effect on a world leader in a real crisis than a shelf full of academic histories, or, for that matter, every single “conflict resolution” program at every university in the country.  In fact, I think we could lose just about every “conflict resolution” program in the country and no one in the State Department would notice or care.

Marc Bloch

Maybe what we need is to revive the draft and send some of our academic historians off to war somewhere, which might supply a larger perspective one could see in the generation of post World War II historians.  What prompts this outrageous thought is contemplating the case of the French historian Marc Bloch, whose work I dusted off yesterday as a result of pondering the Johnson article.

Bloch was one of the pre-war founders of the Annales school of historical analysis, which was neither exactly Marxist nor purely “social” history as we know it today, but was an early version of bottom-up meta-history.  (Think of it an the anti-Carlyle/great man school, or history without any dominant figures.  Fernand Braudel is the best-known figure of this school of thought.)

And yet when France succumbed easily to the Nazi invasion in 1940 despite superior forces on paper, a dumbfounded Bloch found he could only explain it by returning to the old fashioned style of thinking about and writing history.  The result was his classic, Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940.  His main conclusion is one that no academic historian today would dare to put to paper: France suffered an ignominious moral collapse.  The entire book—it is only 176 pages—is a thrilling read, but I’ll confine myself to just a few selections from the final chapter, “A Frenchman Examines His Conscience,” which, with due adjustments, can serve as a warning for our own intellectual flabbiness in the Age of Terror, as well as a reproach to the dessicated academic history of today:

This timidity of the nation at large was, no doubt, in many cases but the sum of the timidity of individuals. . .  Whatever the reasons, there can be no doubt that our governors, both individually and as a class, did lack something of that ruthless heroism which becomes so necessary when the country is in danger. . .

Bloch is especially hard on the pacifists (and the news media) of the interwar period:

Since the gospel they preached was one of seeming convenience, their sermons found an easy echo in those lazy, selfish instincts which exist in all men’s hearts side by side with nobler potentialities.  These enthusiasts, many of whom were not, as individuals, lacking in courage, worked unconsciously to produce a race of cowards.

And in words that ought perhaps to be emblazoned above the door to every history department in every American university (especially the third sentence), Bloch says:

I do not say that the past entirely governs the present, but I do maintain that we shall never satisfactorily understand the present unless we take the past into account.  But there is still worse to come.  Because our system of historical teaching deliberately cuts itself off from a wide field of vision and comparison, it can no longer impart to those whose minds it claims to form anything like a true sense of difference and change.

Finally (for now), Bloch warns that the consequences of an essentially nihilist culture and education will be the destruction of democracy:

A democracy becomes hopelessly weak, and the general good suffers accordingly, if its higher officials, bred up to despise it, and drawn from those very classes the dominance of which it is pledged to destroy, serve it only half-heartedly.

This is historical reflection when it really counted.  Can it be made to count again?  Not as currently “constructed” (to use the trendy terms against them) in academia today.

Bloch joined the French Resistance in 1942.  The Germans executed him in 1944.

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