A History Student's Reflections on History
Writer’s comment: Asked why I chose to major in history, I often respond, jokingly, that it is the only thing I am good at. Eric Schroeder approached the subject from a different angle; he didn’t ask why, he asked what—what is history? This essay attempts to answer his question.
History students write numerous papers on people and events in history, but how many of us stop to think about the discipline of history—separate from the events? Do we ever think about what the historian does? I don’t think I had before this assignment—at least not very seriously. In taking a composition class paired with a history class, I expected to polish my writing skills while learning more about writing history papers—and I did. But in looking at history in this new light, in considering history as a verb, something one does that requires tremendous effort and skill, I developed a greater appreciation for historians and their work, and realized not only that I had chosen the right major, but also how much I loved it.
Instructor’s comment: Doreen wrote this essay for an English 102 paired with Clarence Walker’s course on the Jacksonian era. Students were asked to read a collection of articles addressing the question “What is history?” and then write an essay that addressed the question. The assignment was designed as an exercise in synthesis—students would examine several authors’ claims and then form a judgment based on the persuasiveness of those claims. Doreen hijacked the assignment.
As her title indicates, Doreen was more interested in her own response to the question than in debating the relative merits of the arguments of Edward Hallett Carr and Barbara Tuchman. But Doreen wasn’t ducking the task at hand; rather, she was personalizing it. Her essay reveals a comfortable familiarity with the assigned authors, and while she draws on them as sources, she goes beyond them in her synthesis, incorporating her own experience of the Berlin Crisis. The result is an essay that’s characterized by both intelligence and readability.
—Eric Schroeder, Campus Writing Center
In June 1961, I left Berlin, Germany, with my parents, my sister, and my Swedish cousin enroute to Sweden for what was to be two weeks of Scandinavian fun. The Russian soldiers who processed us through the checkpoints were impeccably dressed in jodhpurs and the shiniest black riding boots I had ever seen. It was obvious they had been carefully selected for this job, which entailed a goodly measure of public relations; the Communists displayed only their best. The soldiers were not only good looking and efficient, processing our papers quickly; on that day they were noticeably relaxed, with genuine smiles on their faces. A week earlier than planned, my family returned to Berlin, driving through the same checkpoints. This time the atmosphere was tense. There were no smiles. Passports and other papers were scrutinized slowly, creating long delays, much to our discomfort.
What had caused the change? An event that will be taught in history classes for hundreds of years. An event that even a thousand years from now will be at least a footnote in the history books. The East Germans had erected a wall, dividing one of the world’s most famous cities in two. Barbara Tuchman would argue—correctly, I think—that it is too soon to write the history of the Berlin Crisis. This contemporary generation, born and raised in the tensions of the Cold War, will record the facts and write the narrative, but we are too close to have a good perspective on it (Tuchman 27-28). For the interpretation of those facts, we will have to wait for the generation now being born, a generation which will have few, if any, emotional attachments to the event and therefore be better able to analyze it with some objectivity—or ignorance, as Edward H. Carr would call it (9). This is how history is written. It is a process—a recording of facts and later an interpreting of those facts to relate them to the future generations.
The question, of course, is what history our descendants will write. Human beings are by nature egocentric. In the West we assume future historians will see the crisis as we do. The wall was not constructed for noble reasons; it was a manifestation of the evil empire, was it not? It is often said that history is written by the victors, and at the moment it appears the West won the Cold War. We, the victors, are now compiling the facts as we see them. The atrocities of the Communist regimes will be stressed, the tales of false imprisonment told, the stories of desperate people who died trying to escape recounted and weighed against the freedom democracy offers. All this will be carefully noted, referenced, given contemporary comment, and then passed on to future generations for interpretation (Tuchman 27-28). Given our technology and its ability to produce the written word, the historian in two hundred years, studying the Berlin Crisis of 1961, will be overwhelmed with evidence.
But what if the predominant society in the world two hundred years from now is neo-Spartan? What will they do with the facts we leave them? Somewhere in eastern Europe today some historians still loyal to the fallen Communist governments are writing their version of the events (modern technology now making it possible for even the defeated to tell their story). They are describing the poverty that is prevalent in capitalist societies, the moral and physical laxity and the greed the capitalist system produces, and are comparing all this to the achievements of East Germany and Communism—achievements derived from the collective sacrifice and hard work of the people. How will historians in the neo-Spartan world interpret what happened in Berlin? Will they give more credence to the East German explanations? What will they do to the facts we in the West have passed down? Will they be ethical enough to preserve these facts, even if they disagree with their implications?
I use Berlin as an example to illustrate the problems historians face in trying to piece together the past and relate it to the present. Although we would like to think of history as composed of never-changing facts, history contains many rumors, opinions, and deliberate falsehoods that were passed on as truths. The historian’s job, often daunting, is to sift through all the available data, selecting what can be corroborated as legitimate, and then make determinations about causes and effects. The story that emerges is usually described in terms of economic pressures and political maneuverings. The names mentioned are the major players—presidents, prime ministers, generals. Technology is often added to the list of factors affecting the outcome: the side with the most advanced weapons usually wins a war; those with the best propaganda machines win the people's souls. Exceptions to the rule always make for exciting stories; defiance has caused the path of history to change many times.
The stories of kings and queens, generals and popes are important, especially to provide the framework of thought and events of the times. But their stories are only the skeleton, the bare bones of events (Carr 4). What is often left out, often not even recorded for us, is the flesh and blood of history, the stories of individuals who were just as caught up in the times as were the major players. What the compilers in the past too frequently failed to realize is that the major events are an aggregate of individual experiences.
The Berlin wall means nothing without the thousands of nameless families it separated and the acts of desperation it caused. One of my father’s employees brought his girlfriend through Checkpoint Charlie on a bogus passport. She was half his age, and he would never marry her, yet he risked his life, her life, and an international incident to help her escape. Before the temporary wall of barbed wire was replaced with concrete, another man, a journalist for an East Berlin newspaper, made his escape by using his own ingenuity and the vanity of a border guard. Eager to show his fellow East Berlin citizens that despite the rifle slung on his back he really was a friendly sort, the Volkspolitzei agreed to pose for a picture that showed him accepting a bouquet of flowers from a child. Using the German custom of shaking hands to his advantage, the journalist had the guard shake hands with the child while accepting the flowers. With both of the guard’s hands thus occupied, the journalist simply took a giant step backward across the border to freedom, taking with him a first story, with the accompanying photo, to submit to his new employer in the West. His story made the West Berlin paper the next day, giving the West Berliners a badly needed laugh at the expense of the Communists. But it is doubtful his story will ever be cited by historians. There were nearly three million people living in Berlin in 1961, each of them with a tale to tell, and each tale, funny or poignant, is part of history. Few of these tales will make it into history books, however; there is not enough room.
These are the stories of today’s generation, already being forgotten as the participants age and die. What about the stories of the past? Why should we care? Because no generation lives in isolation. Children benefit from or are the victims of their parents’ experiences and principles. Germans who were caught behind the wall are now suffering economic and psychological distress that experts believe will take much more than a generation to overcome. The stress among former East Berliners is so high that the birthrate has fallen to levels lower than normally seen during wartime. Though the wall has been torn down, it will continue to affect lives for at least another fifty years, probably more. This example should cause us to reflect on how much of our present has been affected by the past. It is more than most of us realize.
History, then, is the concatenation of human experiences. We are today the result of (and often a reaction to) our parents’ knowledge and ignorance, their victories and pain, their enlightenment and prejudices. And they reflect all that their parents did and thought. And so on, back through war after war, changes in philosophy, and the rise and fall of empires. And that is reason enough to search out the past, to study history, and to record it for the future. It is, perhaps, the only way to know who we are.
Carr, E. H. “The Historian and His Facts.” What is History? Ed. R. W. Davies. London: MacMillan, 1986. 1-24.
Tuchman, Barbara. “When Does History Happen?” Practicing History. New York: Knopf, 1981. 25-34.