Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Martin van Creveld on the Fall and Rise of History

I discovered this article on the blog of provocative Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. Yes, the same Dr. van Creveld who is the last cranky hold-out on earth who still believes it might not be the best idea ever conceived by the mind of man to include females in frontline combat units. Nevertheless, I am lowering our usual high standards of political correctness to present this interesting commentary from him. It's not a World War One article as such, but it explains a lot of what I'm observing about the recent centennial commemorations and spate of books on the war.  MH

The Fall and Rise of History

16 JULY 2014

Dr. van Creveld at the Podium
I well remember the time when I fell in love with history. This was 1956 and I was ten years old, living with my parents in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. While rummaging in a storage room, I came across a book with the title (in Dutch), World-History in a Nutshell. Greatly impressed by the story of the small, but brave, ancient Greek people fighting and defeating the far more numerous Persian army, I quickly read it from cover to cover. Much later I learnt that the volume was part of a series issued by the Dutch ministry of education and updated every few years. To the best of my memory the one in my hands did mention World War I but not Hitler; hence it must have dated to the 1920s when my parents went to school.

It was World-History in a Nutshell and the wonderful tales it contained that made me decide I wanted to study history. [It was Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels that had the same effect on me. MH]

In 1964 this wish took me to the Hebrew University, where I started thinking seriously about what I was trying to do. From beginning to end, my aim was always to understand what happened and why it happened. Though it took me a long time to realize the fact, in doing so I, like countless other modern historians, was following in the footsteps of the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831).

Hegel—Old School
Hegel’s most important propositions, as I came to understand them, could be summed up as follows. First, the past had a real, objective existence. It was, so to speak, solidified present, more or less covered by the sands of time; which meant that, given sufficient effort was devoted to removing the sand, “the truth” about it could be discovered. Second, in the main it consisted not of the more or less accidental, more or less cranky deeds of individuals but was pushed ever onward by vast, mostly anonymous, spiritual, economic—this was Marx’s particular contribution—social and technological forces none could control. Men and women were carried along by it like corks floating on a stream; now using it to swim in the right direction, now vainly trying to resist it and being overwhelmed by it. Third, the past mattered. It was only by studying the past that both individuals and groups of every kind could gain an understanding as to who they were, where they had come from, and where they wanted to go and might be going.

Starting around the time of Hegel’s death, these assumptions were widely shared. All three of the most important ideologies of the period 1830–1945, i.e. liberalism, socialism/communism, and fascism subscribed to it. None more so than Winston Churchill, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. The last-named once said that a person who did not know history was like a person without a face. As religion declined in front of secularism, history, with Hegel as its high priest, became the source of truth, no less.

To be sure, there were always those who cast doubt on the enterprise. Whether seriously and out of ignorance, as when Henry Ford famously said that history was bunk, or only half-so, as in Walter Sellar’s hilariously funny 1931 best-seller, 1066 and All That. The outcome was a vast outpouring of written works—later, movies as well—and an ever greater increase in the number of students both in and outside academia.

Foucault—New Wave Leader
At the time I took on my studies in 1960s, few people doubted that finding out the historical truth was an important objective in itself. Then, around 1970, things started changing. This time the herald of change was a Frenchman, Michel Foucault (1926–84). The way Foucault saw it, post Hegelian historians—and, looming behind them, his own countryman Rene Descartes—were wrong. Contrary to their delusions, such thing as an objective fact, event, process, or text did not exist. Rather, each person interpreted—“read” was the term Foucault’s followers invented for this—each text, process, event, and fact in his or own way. Assuming, that is, that these things had any kind of objective existence at all and were not imposed on history ex post facto. The choice of interpretation was determined by each person’s experience and personality; in reality, therefore, the number of possible interpretations was infinite. If, as sometimes happened, this interpretation or that was widely accepted, then this fact only showed that it suited the psychological needs of many people, not that it was more “correct” than any others.

Since then this view has been eating up the study of history like a worm eating up an apple from within. Previously people had written learned tomes about, say, Greek antiquity, how it came into being, what its main characteristics were, how it unfolded, expanded, passed away, and so on. Now they did the same about the way historians had “discovered” or “invented” that antiquity. The same applies to “the Middle Ages,” “the Renaissance,” “the Enlightenment,” “the Industrial Revolution,” and so on and so on. This came dangerously close to saying that history was but a fairy tale and any attempt to write about it was not “science” but fiction—good or bad.

The implications of this view were tremendous. If all the study of history was capable of yielding was some kind of subjective tale, then of what use could it be in establishing “the truth”? And if it could not help in establishing “the truth”, then what could be the purpose of engaging in it? And how about the remaining social sciences such as political science, international relations, sociology, and so on? Weren’t they, too, based on the assumption that an “objective” past did exist and could be used to understand the present?

For a century and a half it had been assumed that a firm grasp of these subjects would qualify those who had it for many kinds of work not only in academia but also in both the public and the private sphere. Now, increasingly degrees in these fields were seen as useless. The more useless they appeared to be, the less capable they were of providing their owners with a reasonable income as well as an acceptable position in society. The less capable they were of providing their owners with an acceptable position in society and a reasonable income, the smaller their perceived usefulness.

And so began the decline of the humanities and many of the social sciences that we see all around us. The lives of an entire generation of young academics have been blighted, given that nobody any more is interested in whatever they may have to say. Finding work outside the universities is even harder; instead of degrees, prospective employers demand “experience” above everything else.

Does that mean that books and movies that deal with the past will soon disappear? Of course not. Rather, it means that the purpose of reading those works has shifted. Instead of analyzing underlying factors and trying to extract “lessons,” people started looking for stories with heroes and villains in them. Instead of looking for the general picture they took an interest in the details; often, needless to say, the juicier the better. Instead of asking, “how we got to where we are now,” they wanted to know what life in the past had felt like. Nowhere was this more true than in my own field, military history, the reason, presumably, being that the vast majority of people in advanced countries no longer had any personal experience of warfare.

Where the demand exists supply will follow. Contrary to the situation as it existed a few decades ago, the most important historians writing today are not academics. They are popular writers, with his difference that the adjective “popular” is now as likely to be used in a complimentary way as in a derogatory one. By and large they do not reflect on underlying theoretical principles, create frameworks, or provide deep analysis. Yet from Antony Beevor in Stalingrad through Max Hastings in Catastrophe to Keith Lowe in Savage Continent, they have a vivid sense for detail and know how to spin a tale. Those tales may be useless in the classroom—having tried to use them there, I know. Yet judging by sales they seem to be filling the psychological needs of many people.

The king is dead; long live the king.

Dr van Creveld's blog can be found at  It's well worth a visit.


  1. I think there's some truth in both ways of looking at history. I feel for what he sense as the loss of a shared way to look at history (seeing what lessons to draw from it and such), and yet even historians disagree on its "truth" -- as different ones will look at the same primary documents and argue someone like Thomas Jefferson was either a genius or a decent writer who was otherwise a scumbag.

  2. I don't agree with the New Wave ideas that there is no objective truth to be found, but it is important to know how participants in history felt, as well as knowing why history happened. Thus, reading Haig's diaries is not the best way of founding out what it was like to be under fire in the trenches. The various "living history" projects that give the direct words of an ex-infantryman are much more useful in terms of human experience. But although the infantryman will probably have an opinion about Haig, he will not have first hand knowledge of why Haig made the decisions that he did.

  3. When I taught World History in high school I modeled my course's direction around Hegel's concepts. I picked a catacylsmic event in history and explained it to the students in some detail then I asked well how did we get to this or that. Then I showed them how the event came about. I like to say that the students could see where the lessons were going from the onset. It worked for some but others were still worried about what was on the yearly test. Cheers