Judging History

Wednesday 19 November, 16.10 until 18.00, Buttrick 102, Vanderbilt University, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, TN 37235, USA International Satellite Events 2014

Free and unticketed.

This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and the question of how the Great War impacted our world - both then and now - is a poignant one.

Typically, such anniversaries raise all sorts of questions about how we interpret the past, even who decides what is historically significant. This has never been truer than in relation to the Great War. Was it, as many insist, one of the greatest mistakes of the twentieth century, in which lions were led by donkeys, or is that as simplistic a myth as any jingoistic account? While many today are familiar with the great anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, fewer people are aware that at the start of the First World War, the majority of artists and writers from all nationalities were enthusiastic champions of the war. These squabbles about differing interpretations of the war illustrate that history is rarely an uncontested truth.

Disputes over history seem even more confused when it comes to a cool assessment of war. After all, as the Greek playwright Aeschylus noted thousands of years ago, a point repeated by US senator Hiriam Johnson as America prepared to enter the First World War, ‘truth is the first casualty of war’, especially because, as the cliché has it, ‘history is written by the victors’. Nonetheless, the very acknowledgement that there are winners and losers is a nod to the reality of objective historical facts. Yet EH Carr’s argument in his famous collection of lectures, What is History?, that historiography is factually objective seems strangely old-fashioned today in light of postmodernism’s rejection of ‘metanarratives’ and universal truths. Are those who argue for a more objective view simply clinging to an Enlightenment myth of rationality and a scientific understanding of the past? Maybe all history – from conservative tracts such as Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to the radical Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England – is partial, partisan and up for grabs?

To what extent can and should we judge history from our own contemporary moral standpoint? In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the all-powerful Party declares ominously that ‘who controls the past controls the future’, acknowledging implicitly that history is never a straightforward record of the past, but one that, at least in part, reflects the politics of the present. Is history always politicised by contemporary prejudices or can we take the long view and view it as a study of change and human progress? Should we look on history as a foreign country, an academic endeavour - even curiosity - with little relevance to the world in 2014? Or can we learn from the past and, if so, who decides what the key lessons to be learned from World War One, the American Civil War or Vietnam should be? How should we judge historical events when they are so contested and muddled up with today’s concerns?

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Helmut Smith
Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

Geoffrey Wawro
professor of history and director, Military History Center, University of North Texas

Alan Miller
chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)

Produced by
Alan Miller chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)
Recommended readings
Should we judge people of past eras for moral failings?

Everybody thinks they know what's right and wrong. But will things that seem moral today be deemed completely immoral later, asks David Edmonds.

BBC, 20 August 2014

Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past?

As a history professor I often find myself in conversations with students and fellow faculty members about whether or not it is appropriate for historians to cast judgment on people and events from another era.

John Fea, The Anxious Bench, 8 August 2012

Moral Luck

A case of moral luck occurs whenever luck makes a moral difference.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

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