Many people are interested in history. Some people have a casual interest, some people obsess over it. Some people will walk through a historic building or take a battlefield tour, and it generates enough interest in them that they will occasionally read a book or watch a documentary. Some of us are afflicted with what I like to refer to as the ‘Herodotus Syndrome’ (my own play on the ‘Jerusalem, Syndrome’) and are obsessed with history, or at least a few aspects of it, for the rest of our lives; I am one of those people. I recognize it, I happily accept it, and I knowingly go out and try to infect others with it.
There are a few things I want to tell you, dear reader, about history before we proceed. First, history is subject to change because what we know about it is subject to change. Discovery drives all professional/obsessional historians with the simplest and yet most complicated of questions: “Why?” I encourage you to ask why about everything, but be warned. When Clio decides to make you her own, your why questions will start to consume you. My advice is let them do so. You will be doing something useful. Allow me to warn you simultaneously that you may never discover the answer. It does not matter. You might be laying the ground work for the person who will.
When I was an undergrad the term ‘Revisionist Historian’ was about as vitriolic a moniker as one could be labeled with. I had a problem with this term vis-à-vis its definition, as did many others for one important reason: it is the duty of all historians to revise history as new information is discovered. What ‘Revisionist’ really referred to was people like David Irving who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, even in the form of massive quantities of living testimony, extant records, and physical evidence, denied the existence of the event we refer to as The Holocaust. Herein is the first cardinal rule of all historians: remain objective.
Objectivity is the cornerstone of history. Whether you like the facts or not they are the facts. Truth and belief are subjective; they work for some and not for others. Fact is not. Being a Baptist, or a Muslim, or an Asatruist works for some but not for others. However, as humans we all have to be adequately hydrated or we will die, plain and simple. The fact that a certain type of sandwich is referred to as a hamburger is objective. Subjectivity liking or not liking hamburgers. Regardless of what you believe facts are facts. Your argument must fit the facts, not the other way round. If you try to make the facts fit your argument, you might get away with it for a while, but you will eventually get caught, then very bad things will happen.
History is not a whore, and she will punish your severely if you try to make her into one. This goes back to my warning about objectivity. If you do not understand what I mean by this, you must have your head in the sand and be completely ignorant of modern politics. Politicians of all ilks are generally the worst offenders. If you hijack the history plane, sooner or later the historical version of the SAS is going to show up and put two in your chest and one in your head. History is what it is, and you can’t hammer it into the shape you want and get away with it forever. While you’re at it, remember to attack the argument, not the debater. There are people with whom I vehemently disagree, but we always keep it respectful and find it possible to have a beer or a coffee afterwards and remain friends. Think of how much better off our world would be if we could maintain this simple rule at all times. It’s too bad our politicians (I rarely use the term leader when it comes to a political figure) aren’t this mature.
History does not prognosticate. History cannot tell you what is going to happen in the future. There is a simple reason for this: no two sets of conditions are ever identical. The people, places, times, and facts are always different. History does however offer us trends. It can give us warnings or helpful hints by explaining how certain sets of parameters can lead to certain conclusions. On this note, everybody you do not like is not automatically Hitler, Stalin, or Marx. There are infinite multitudes of historical villains who were far more imaginative in their depredations than these three clowns. If you are going to draw a parallel, please do us all a favor and find us a better villain.
I write a good deal which never gets out of academia. However, I am looking forward to this column far more than most of the academic projects to which I will ever commit myself. Many professional historians have yet to come down from their ivory towers and that is my biggest peeve about my profession. History needs more Carl Sagans and Neil Degrasse Tysons who want to take all this wonderful information and disseminate it in a digestible form, and get more people interested in history for the future. The plain fact is that reenactors and HBO do more to get the public interested in history than 99% of all professional historians, and in my mind that is inexcusable.
My strengths are 1900 through the Cold War with an emphasis on French, German, and British military development in the interwar period. I have specific interests in French air power, special operations during World War II into the Cold War, and development of German Sturmpioniere 1900-1945. I am also very interested in Vauban, gunpowder fortification, and some obscure ancient material which might never come up in this column. However, I can normally find and answer for you or chances are I know somebody who can. I can’t take every request, but if it relates to something relevant which we’re discussing, and I have time, I will try to find the answer for you, or alternatively point you in the right direction.
I look forward to engaging with all of you and a regular basis. Thanks for reading.
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