The 19th Century idea of history is that we are presented with the truth, a complete and objective picture of what happened in the past. We are given the impression that we have a complete understanding of the past, with everything recorded. There can be only one version of events. We are however, not given the opportunity to consider the journey the facts have been on before reaching us. 1 Historical Objectivity is an illusion that leads us to believe we have a complete knowledge that takes into account all viewpoints and opinions.
This idea is challenged by Carr who looks at how history has been recorded, by whom and why certain areas are deemed more important than others. Our complete History has been recorded by a small group of historians, recording what they felt would be valuable to future generations. Therefore we have only been shown a minute part of history, with millions of facts never recorded because they were thought to be unimportant. Children are taught a partial history at school, one that highlights the successes of their nation.
This seems to be the case throughout the western world, for example, Palestinian school children are not taught anything about the extermination of the Jews. A massive part of their country’s history, but obviously not something they are proud of. All nations choose the history that best serves the national interest and shows their country in the most positive light. 2 British History rarely informs us of the failures or defeats our nation has experienced, with history focusing on great events that show progress and a continual moving forwards.
This is not reality, but it instils a widespread sense of national identity and pride in the flag, essential for our capitalist state to succeed. 3 The Nietzschean view is that; ‘history is merely a set of stories that we tell ourselves to satisfy our egos’. 4 Therefore in order to get a better understanding of our history, we must always be aware of why certain facts have been selected and recorded and the purpose their selection serves.
We don’t all share the same cultural experiences, Britain is a country made up of a myriad of races, religions, social classes and genders. British history would have us believe that ‘one size fits all’, that we all have the same beliefs and opinions. This is not the case; our history has been selected for us to represent a specific white, middle class group of individuals and does not give us the full picture. Groups not fitting the mould have been discarded by history or shown negatively. Historical facts are often interpreted to suit individuals.
For example following the death of Gustav Stresemann, the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic in 1929, his Secretary Bernhard put together a record of his works that highlighted many successes with Western Policy and completely omitted what was the majority of his workload with the Soviet Union; the latter being not so successful or high profile. The result of Bernhard’s work was an extremely complimentary, but completely inaccurate account of Stresemann’s work which has been consequently used as an historical document. 5 ‘The interpretation of facts relies solely on the process of selection.
We must never believe that we have the truth’. The ‘truth’ that we are presented with, is in fact only a partial view as it is the thoughts of one person or cultural group. How we view history has been manufactured so that it reinforces the values and ideals that are considered good within our society. One value that is considered important to our culture and ‘history’ is class. History in the 19th Century was recorded by the middle classes for the middle classes, and they recorded what best reflected their lifestyle and beliefs.
History has always been recorded from above, with emphasis on class structure, politics and government 6. There is little recorded about Working class families and how they were affected during wars or throughout imperialism for example. New history offers an opportunity to see things from below. Much can be learned from studying working class families, their daily lives and cultural experiences. 7 This idea of viewing history ‘from below’ gives a whole new perspective on how Britain has evolved over the years.
In the past, History has been naturalised as middle class, in an attempt to make us believe that this is the only truth. 9th Century British History also serves to enforce a sense of national identity in Britain and promotes the belief that Britain is a strong, fair nation. For example Imperial narrative portrays the civilised, white nations offering support and guidance to the weak, black natives. In actual fact the natives were abused, shot and murdered by white Europeans. 8 Journalist Mihir Bose states: ‘If we are to understand the true story of the Empire the entire story has to be told’. 9 History tells a very one sided story and we have little knowledge of the real picture.
There are a few examples of ‘writing back’ where natives reported on their daily ordeal under Imperial rule. These accounts are extremely valuable as they give us a view from the other side, however they are few and far between and not part of mainstream history. British national identity is essential in a capitalist system, as it enforces the image that British people are one team working towards a common goal. British History also creates the impression that Britain has been improving and getting stronger over time. We are expected to accept and agree with this, and as the country is represented so positively, we are encouraged to conform.
Capitalist society is based on power relations, with individuals fitting into place dependent on their class, race, gender etc. The ultimate position of power lies with the middle class, white, males. History represents this group and the assumption is that we all share this history. The truth is that this is a history for the minority of British people. The majority do not fit this mould and have completely different class/gender/social values. Children are the Capitalist future and the National Curriculum teaches a traditional, constructed history that reinforces this.
Teaching of history in schools highlights a successful, white, middle class Britain. Due to their age and experience of the world, children will be less likely to question this, and will see it as the truth. In early years they will be moulded to accept certain ideals. For this reason politicians want history to be compulsory until 16. Tim Collins, Shadow Education Secretary (Jan 2005) said: ‘Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms.
Mr Collins admits that the survival of the British nation is dependent on children learning about a strong, successful British History. The term ‘shared heritage’ gives the impression that we all have the same interpretation of history. We are putting children into a box, and giving them a one sided view from an early age. ‘History’ that highlights the success of capitalism and national identity serves Governments well, and so it is natural that it would be supported so rigorously by MPs.
Throughout history, complete social groups and genders etc have been disregarded; the most obvious of these being women. Historians are on the whole male and women rarely figure throughout British history. The role of a woman is often seen as ‘domestic’ conjuring up an image of a boring, dull existence, not worthy of recording. It is essential that we are aware that, women’s position in society now has been moulded by history. Deidre Beddoe stated: ‘We need to know our past to understand our present…
To explain the subordinate position of women in society, the narrowly defined female role, the attitudes of men towards women, the low esteem in which women hold themselves, etc, we need to look backwards to the origins and development of these ills. ‘ 12 Power Relations place less importance on women. Their ‘place’ within the capitalist ideology is at home, with a strong emphasis on motherhood. Access to a more comprehensive women’s history would allow us to evaluate how this situation came about. By ignoring women in history, it is naturalised that they have little importance.
History also records very little about ethnic groups, homosexuals, or those with disabilities. Minority groups don’t fit into the ideologies of a capitalist state and consequently when details have been recorded about minority groups they are often negative. During the Empire, the colonials referred to natives as ‘savages’, for example, showing a complete lack of understanding. Once again, the importance of ‘writing back’ by challenging the majority view is important here. We need to look at what is being swept away and not considered important in our history by reading accounts that offer resistance.
By challenging what we are told, we are able to unearth different perspectives and viewpoints that challenge the History we know. 13 From the points I have made, I am confident that there can never be an historical ‘truth’ as history is based on a process of selection encompassing personal opinions and cultural backgrounds. The meaning of history is not fixed and is always changing and our interpretation of history will be dependent on our class, gender and cultural background. We are forced to rely on history being relayed to us, but must be aware of the process the facts go through to reach us.
We get a less partial view of history by having a plurality of views on any one event. This offers us a variety of interpretations and we are not herded into one specific pen of thought. Whilst we must be aware of the above, we should not undermine the importance of history. It is essential in understanding not how events happened, but how these events were understood by those recording them. By understanding that the facts have been selected, chosen, and interpreted, history can be an important tool in understanding the past.