Battle in Print: The Battle for History: national narratives versus personal memories

Chris Bickerton, 27 September 2006

The National Trust and other heritage organisations recently launched a new campaign, entitled ‘History Matters - Pass it On’.[1] A survey conducted to coincide with the campaign launch found that 73 per cent of respondents described themselves as interested in history, compared with only 59 per cent interested in sport (History Today 2006). Stephen Fry, in his speech that launched the ‘History Matters’ campaign, noted that for all the difficulties history faces as an academic discipline, popular interest in all things historical has risen in the last few years (Fry 2006).

Is what ‘matters’ simply any kind of interest in the past? There are countless epithets that link the past, the present and the future, and it goes without saying that as human beings we interact with our surroundings temporally. Surely what really ‘matters’ is what we mean by history, and exactly how we relate to the past. For all the enthusiasm, the themes which currently structure our interest sit uneasily alongside older conceptions of history. The eminent historian, EH Carr, warned in 1961 that ‘it is possible that our society may be destroyed or may perish of slow decay, and that history may relapse into theology…or into literature’ (Carr 1987: 124-125, quoted in BBC History Magazine 2006a: 26-29). The themes explored below – morality, recognition for victims, humanising the past and community-building – suggest that history may be going through such a ‘relapse’.

Historical analysis expresses a belief in both the rationality of human action, and in the transient nature of contemporary society and its institutions. Human affairs are not the stuff of gods, myths and legends, but are the outcome of human decisions, and can be understood as such. As Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, says, ‘history provides us with a reminder for the future: it is a future of our choosing’ (quoted in BBC History Magazine 2006a: 28). Taking history seriously also reflects an awareness of change: history’s starting assumption is that the past is worth investigating because it is different in some way from the present. If nothing ever changed, there would be little point in studying the past. Are these features of history being lost in the current direction taken by history in the Western world?

Writing in 1969, the historian JH Plumb argued that the discipline of history had destroyed many of our traditional ways of relating to the past, in particular our reliance upon mythical, linear narratives (Plumb 2004 [1969]). Whilst this was a step forward in developing our understanding of ourselves and the world, it also threw up difficult questions about how to hold society together. Plumb writes: ‘for many centuries now history has burrowed like a death-watch beetle in this great fabric of the past…Now that it has fallen, can the historian reconstruct a more viable past for mankind?’ (Plumb 2004 [1969]: 103). Plumb was wrong to think that historians could single-handedly return to society its lost momentum. However, he might also have been premature in his proclamation of the ‘death of the past’. Rereading his short series of 1969 lectures, themes which he associated with a now-defunct ‘past’ are returning today.


One such theme is morality. Plumb notes of China’s greatest classical historian, Ssu-ma Chi’en, that his magnum opus, The Memoirs of a Historian, ‘conveys large quantities of information to demonstrate the interplay between the aspirations of moral life and the course of reality’ (Plumb 2004 [1969]: 21). The same could be said of other great historians of antiquity, such as Livy or Tacitus. According to them, ‘history was to teach, and its imaginative and moral truths are more important than factual accuracy and original documentation’ (Plumb 2004 [1969]: 22). Turning to the present day, history is bedevilled with morality. A recently published book on Napoleon by a French historian of Caribbean descent, Claude Ribbe, sparked a serious public debate. Ribbe accused Napoleon of being Hitler’s muse, and laid at the door of the Invalides military hospital (where Napoleon’s ashes lie) many of the twentieth century’s ills (Ribbe 2005). Ribbe’s critics argued that his claims rest upon a liberal use of moral equivalences. Also, in attributing to Napoleon a racism that only really emerged as an ideology in the latter nineteenth century, it is also bad history (Bickerton 2006; Nora 12.12.2005). Roger Osborne, in his recent book on civilisation, similarly feels unable to separate morality from history. In his prologue, he asks ‘do we include war and torture, slavery and genocide in our concept of civilization? And if we simply place them outside our definition of civilization, are we not in danger of misunderstanding the real meaning of our past?’ (Osborne 2006: 3). This sense of moral obligation, however, raises serious questions about the role of the historian as someone striving for objectivity. If he is required to make judgements based on present attitudes, how much does this shape the scope of his research, the analysis of people’s motives and the evaluation of people’s actions?


Another important theme today is recognition. History has become a resource to be plundered by disadvantaged minorities in order for them to make their claims for recognition directed at the state. The importance of recognition as the basis for people’s interest in the past is reflected very clearly in the laws of historical memory that are currently fashionable in continental Europe. Spanish historian, Santos Julia, has noted how current debates around the Spanish civil war are all cast in the language of ‘historical memory’, a concept that denotes an act of will (a willingness to recognize those previously forgotten) more than it does an act of knowledge (Julia 2.7.2006). A ‘right to be remembered’, for the Republican victims of the war, has even passed through the Spanish parliament (Repiso 26.7.2006; BBC News 28.7.2006). A similar story is going on in France.[2] The government has passed a law that stipulates clearly that French history teaching should emphasize the positive role played by local populations in French colonies during the Second World War. This was the result of pressure from a small group of Algerian Muslims who had fought on the French side in the war of independence and were forced to flee once the French army had left. And President Jacques Chirac recently inaugurated 10 May as national commemoration day for slavery, in response to critics of traditional Republican history (Chirac 10.5.2006).[3] Roger Osborne nicely expresses the view of history which this demand for recognition implies when he writes, ‘history…is still written by the winners. Anyone who has the educational, financial and social wherewithal to have a book or article or paper published or to front a TV series has done well out of western society, and his or her viewpoint must reflect that benefit’ (Osborne 2006: 17-18). History is therefore imbued with a responsibility to address the feelings of minority groups.

The past with a human face

Another powerful trend is the attempt to move away from what is derided as the arid abstraction of traditional historical methodology. Stephen Fry passionately argued that ‘history is all about imagination rather than facts’ and that ‘history is not the story of strangers…it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier…History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or Chartist’. He concluded by arguing that ‘history is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction’. This sentiment is also widely expressed in television and radio programmes on history. On Radio 4’s Making History, history is brought to life by recounting the lives of particular individuals. The aim here is to show that history is ‘more than pages in a history book’, an exercise in what we might call history with a ‘human face’.[4] The ‘History Matters’ campaign website also lays its emphasis on individual recollections. In its words, ‘each of our personal histories is part of Britain’s story’.

To return to Plumb, this unwillingness to think abstractly about the past was also a feature of earlier relationships with the past. Writing about the Vikings, Plumb observes that ‘for them the past had to be as real, as living, as the ghost-haunted wind; as certain as the power of the stars’ (Plumb 2004 [1969]: 24). Summer history festivals, such as the one organised by English Heritage in Northamptonshire, share the Vikings’ ambition: to bring the past alive through ritual and re-enactment.[5] Of course, historians have always relied on invoking a sense of the past through recounting the quotidian experiences of individuals. This allows a large degree of insight and even empathy. However, the role of the historian has also been to transcend the concrete details of the everyday to explain the determinants behind such individual experiences. Abstraction may appear as de-humanising, but without it, the historian struggles to explain why people once acted the way they did.

History as participation

A final trend today is to see history as a means of reversing a lost sense of community. The Heritage Lottery Fund has as one its main goals the involvement of people in taking responsibility for their own heritage. This includes encouraging communities ‘to identify, look after and celebrate their own heritage’, promoting heritage as a tool for social and urban regeneration and as a source of well-being.[6] In a similar vein, the ‘History Matters’ campaign places most of its emphasis on participation as a sign of a healthily ‘historical’ nation. It urges people to ‘pass it on’, that is, to spread their appreciation of history to others around them. There are various ways of expressing support via the website, and events around the country allow people to vote with their feet and turn up to campaign-related events. Following on from this, the BBC History Magazine has launched its own ‘History Matters Award’, to be given to individuals responsible for ‘the most successful and innovative project in promoting the value of history to a local community or area’ (BBC History Magazine 2006b: 9). Dubbed ‘local history ambassadors’, these individuals are feted as examples of good local citizens. History is therefore being seen as a way to revive community consciousness and a sense of local belonging. From this, it would seem that people are being encouraged to use history instrumentally, as a way of shaping their present relations with other people. This suggests a return to history as myth, but this time explicitly constructed as such.

Back to the Past?

There is nothing much wrong with morality, or community-building, in and of themselves. Yet when we combine them with history, we find ourselves back in JH Plumb’s pre-historical world of myth, legend and metaphysical fantasy. History developed in line with a secular view of the world: the past opened itself up to our understanding precisely because it was the work of human beings, not of god or ghosts. As a result, the above trends pose a number of important questions worth addressing:

  • Do history and morality mix well together? Is there a role for moral judgements in history?
  • What impact do special interest groups, hitherto excluding from mainstream interpretations of events, have on historical analysis? Should such exclusion be remedied through ‘memorial laws’, such as those passed recently in France and Spain?
  • What are the consequences of expunging abstraction from history? Do we want history to amount to personal memories and playacting, or do we expect more from history? Do we not need abstractions in order to penetrate the complexity of historical events?
  • Finally, can we re-build local communities through history? Should we even try?
  • Author

    Chris Bickerton is a PhD student, St John’s College, University of Oxford


    [1] For more information, see the History Matters website

    [2] For an extended critique of the French government’s ‘judicialisation’ of history through multiple ‘history laws’, see Rémond (2006).

    [3] The website on which the speech is reproduced also has details of the committee for the memory of slavery set up by the French government to identify locations for the commemoration of slavery, and to educate the French public in the role played by slavery in history.

    [4] To listen to past programmes of Making History, go to

    [5] For more information on English Heritage’s Festival of History, see

    [6] For the goals of the Heritage Lottery Fund, see its Annual Report 2005-2006 at


    BBC History Magazine (2006a). ‘Why History Matters’. BBC History Magazine. August.

    BBC History Magazine (2006b). ‘Are you a local history ambassador?’. BBC History Magazine. August.

    BBC News. (28.7.2006). Spain tackles civil war fallout. BBC News website.

    Bickerton, C. (2006). France’s History Wars. Monde Diplomatique. February (accessed 22 September 2006).

    Carr, E.H. (1987). What is History?. London, Penguin.

    Chirac, J. (10.5.2006). ‘Allocution de M. Jacques Chirac, Président de la République, à l’occasion de la première journée commémorative en métropole du souvenir de l’esclavage et de son abolition’. Reproduced at

    Fry, S. (2006). ‘The Future’s in the Past’, speech at the launch of the History Matters campaign. Reproduced at,,1815961,00.html

    History Today. (2006). Hisory Today. August.

    Julia, S. (2.7.2006). Memorias en lugar de memoria. El Pais.

    Nora, P. (12.12.2006). ‘Plaidoyer pour les “indigènes” d’Austerlitz’. Le Monde. Reproduced at

    Osborne, R. (2006). Civilization: A New History of the Western World. London, Jonathan Cape.

    Plumb, J.H. (2004 [1969]). The Death of the Past. Basingstoke, Palgrave.

    Rémond, R. (2006). Quand l’Etat se Mêle de l’Histoire (When the State Messes with History). Paris, Stock.

    Repiso, L. (26.7.2006). Zapatero deja entrever cierta edulcoración en la polémica ley para la memoria histórica. 20 Minutos.

    Ribbe, C. (2005). Le Crime de Napoléon. Paris, Privé

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