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Updated Wednesday, 19th December 2007

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As part of the series of The Things We Forgot To Remember, we've recorded a series of discussions relating to various historical issues. The subjects under discussion include: history and nationalism; the battle for the First World War; elephants in the room; and memory and history.

We've added these discussions to our existing podcast (what's a podcast?).

In the new material OU academic Chris Williams chats with Stefan Berger, a historian at Manchester University, David Edgerton, an historian at Imperial College, London and Paul Lawence, Annika Mombauer and Donna Loftus, all historians with the Open University. A new episode will be released each week, until all four are available.

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The nation and the state

How has the writing of history, especially the scholarly aspect of it, been associated with the nation and the state? Find out what's fact or fiction from the historical point of view in our podcast.


Copyright The Open University



Chris Williams: Hi, I’m Chris Williams from the Open University. In this podcast, I’m going to be taking a more in-depth look at some of the issues that are raised in the BBC Radio 4 series, The Things We Forgot to Remember. I’ll be discussing how the writing of history, especially the academic scholarly end of it, has been associated with the nation and the state. With me, to discuss this, I have Stefan Berger, a historian at Manchester University, who’s leading a project funded by the European Science Foundation researching how nations write their histories, and Paul Lawrence, a historian at the Open University, who’s the author of Nationalism, History and Theory.

Paul, can I begin this discussion by asking you, how do national identities start?

Paul Lawrence: It’s always good to begin a discussion with a very easy question, Chris. I think what we need to talk about here, without going too far back, is the way in which, arguably, prior to the modern period, identity – people’s sense of belonging – was generally supplied in ways other than via the national. Local, professional and religious identities were all important. But, equally, there was, some would argue, a horizontal split across geography so that the rulers of countries, which were very often empires, didn’t necessarily share a cultural affiliation with those that they ruled.

Therefore, this isn’t to say that national cultural identity was not insignificant at all – after all Bede’s History of English People is written in the medieval period – but just to say that it was less significant than it is now. But this starts to change, and we can date that change fairly specifically, I think, to the late 18th, early 19th Century. You have a complex of very wide and significant social changes. You have urbanisation, rapid industrialisation. And Hobsbawm and other historians argue that this rapid social change breaks down existing forms of identity and creates a need for new forms of belonging. And, for Hobsbawm, this type of belonging is supplied by the nation-state.

Chris Williams: All right, and so we have the contemporary view then at the time of an identity affiliating itself with the nation-state. How much does this relate itself to history, to understanding of the history of these people of their identity?

Paul Lawrence: Groups of individuals have always looked to the past to inform their identity. This happens. You have the history of your town, the history of your bowls club. But, during this period in which we’re discussing – the late 18th, early 19th Century – what you have is a need for a wholly new form of identity in many ways. History is linked to this in two ways. From the top-down, you could argue that Elites, to consolidate their power base, consciously construct histories which bind their citizens, or those that they rule, to the polity, to the area that they rule. But, equally, you can argue that this wouldn’t have happened in a vacuum. And to do this they play on earlier folk memories and myths. There’s a large pool of memories and myths which very selectively historians and others writing elite histories of the nation use to justify the status quo.

Chris Williams: Okay, so we have this pool of memories and myths which is being drawn upon to create national identities. Stefan, when does the process get to be more professionalised? When do historians, who call themselves professionals operating historical methodology, begin to take part in this process of constructing the national identity?

Stefan Berger: Well, in some respects, you could say that professional historians arrive very early on the theme. And, certainly, we can think of Thucydides or Herodotus as professional historians, in the sense that they already emphasise the perspectivity of history writing, the importance of sources, the importance of trying to look at particular historical phenomenon from different perspectives. But, in some respects, of course, we generally now date the rise of professional history writing which is institutionalised at academies or universities to the late 18th Century. In particular to the University of Göttingen, where the first historical seminar was founded in the late 18th Century, and where historians such as Gatterer or Schlözer, in some respects, for the first time, systematised our methodological knowledge about what history writing involved.

In some respects I would say that the writing of national history always had the problem that in some respects it has only a middle and it has a difficulty with beginnings and with endings. And this is coming back to something that Paul was saying about the relevance of myth. Because in some respects all national histories dissolve into myth at a certain moment in time; if you go back further and further into history you arrive at a point where there’s hardly any sources. And the way that different national histories in Europe have framed these beginnings already tells you an awful lot about the constructions of those national histories.

Chris Williams: You mentioned the constructions then. The people doing the constructing, the first generation of professional historians, do they always claim to have a definite knowledge? Do they track back past the sources and sign up to the myth as well?

Stefan Berger: No, I think, in some respects, the notion of perspectivity, as I mentioned earlier, is a very old one and can be traced back to the ancient historians. Again, some of the medieval national historians, Paul mentioned Bede, one could think of others which were particularly strong in early nation-states such as England. William of Malmesbury is one that I always particularly like with his Deeds of the Kings of the English. The notion then continues right through humanist writings on national history, reformation writings on national histories.

In some respects, I suppose, the sort of rigid division between a kind of modern, professionalised, institutionalised history writing, which was established in the 18th and 19th Centuries. And what went before is one that I would perhaps question a little and say, well, there’s a lot more continuity between the older types of national history writing and the newer ones. If we look at the Tropes, if we look at the kind of things that they talk about, if we look at the images of the enemy and so on and so forth, a lot of that is actually established well before the 18th Century.

Chris Williams: But it strikes me that there’s an interesting continuity there, isn’t there, between both these medieval historians, like Bede or William of Malmesbury, and the 18th, 19th Century historians, the ones who were using sources in a professional fashion, in that they seem to think that the number one subject for historical study is the state and nation. Is this the case? Does the state remain the centre, the centrepiece of historical study?

Stefan Berger: Roughly, we can say that the nation-state is at the centre, the clear centre of historical writing for about a century, I would say, from about the 1850s to about the 1950s. In this century, a lot of the professional historians focused on national history writing. And, of course, where we do not have professionalised, institutionalised history writing, or where we do not have it to a great extent, such as in parts of Eastern Europe, for example, still the persons who do write national history – intellectuals, the writers, the politicians – they again very much focus on the nation. This has a lot to do with the fact that, in this century, much of Central, East Central and Eastern Europe is trying to establish nation-states.

If we look at Western Europe, it’s a slightly different story because, in some respects, the importance of stable borders comes in here. In Western Europe, after 1815, you basically have stable borders. Borders do not change to any significant extent after 1815. This is a completely different story in Eastern Europe. And, if you have stable borders, if you have stable states, then your national history becomes far more unproblematic - you hang it on to a state.

Chris Williams: Stefan, you mentioned institutionalised. What are the institutions you’re talking about? Always a good question to ask about people is who’s putting food on their table? Who are paying these historians who are writing these national histories?

Stefan Berger: This is very different, again, in different parts of Europe. In some respects we do have a state history. We do have states funding universities, funding academies, and there are historians who are working in these institutions. So, in these cases, it is the state who’s funding the historians, and I suppose the most famous case in the 19th Century is Leopold Von Ranke, who becomes the official historiographer of the State of Prussia. In many parts of Europe, though, we do not necessarily have the state showing an interest in national history.

This is particularly the case in Eastern Europe where we have the dominance of empires, and empires in the 19th Century do not have a strong interest in promoting national history writing. Therefore, there is the promotion of empire history but that is often perceived and again constructed very much in opposition to the national history writing. In those cases it would be the courts, the Emperor, who will pay the historians in order to write particular stories which cement empires and therefore undermine the national stories told elsewhere.

We also have some private benefactors in the 19th Century. We do have particular societies which are set up – patriotic societies – in the 19th Century which are funded by subscription, which are sometimes funded by wealthy individuals, and these, again, usually do not so much employ historians as, in some cases, they would ask intellectuals to write histories, and they will fund that particular history. They will publish it. They will promote it. They will make sure that it is widely distributed. So that is a case of, if you like, civil society operating in a way which makes it possible for historians to promote their particular views on the nation.

We also have, in some countries, in particular Poland, the aristocracy, which is very keen on writing national history. In some countries, such as Germany, for example, where in the early 19th Century, of course, we do not have a unified nation-state, the historians working at the universities are funded by the individual states. So you have the curious phenomena that these historians, often national historians, promoting a non-existing nation-state, in the pay of monarchs of states, which do not necessarily have an interest in the foundation of such a nation-state.

Chris Williams: So, he who pays the piper doesn’t always call the tune then, which is an interesting way of considering institutionalisation. Thanks. All of us around this table and other professional historians would subscribe to an idea of objectivity and neutrality, wouldn’t we? Few of us would say, when we get up in the morning and think I want to promote my country, that’s my job. We’ve got this professional idea that we’re above that sort of thing. As Jeremy Black has put it in his book Using History, ‘Scholars in the West generally subscribe to a desire to avoid nationalistic partisanship’. Has it changed as much as maybe we would claim, and if so, how?

Stefan Berger: I would say that, in some respects, 19th Century historians are much more willing to talk in terms of objectivity and neutrality than historians are today. I think most professional historians today, under the influence of post-structuralism and post-modernism, have come to assume that there is no such thing as objectivity. That perspectivity, that all knowledge is perspectival, and that therefore it always matters what questions you ask. In the 19th Century, it was precisely the scientificity of historical writing which allowed historians to make themselves into spokespersons for the nation because it gave them this privileged access to the past. By being professional historians, they knew what the past was like and no-one else knew, which is why they could become the keepers of the Holy Grail of national history.

Now that, of course, is quite rare today. But of course national historians still exist and national histories are being published at a rate that is probably bigger than at any time before. Especially, from the 1980s, we see throughout of Europe a renaissance of national history writing, which interestingly coincides with a move of professional historians away from national history. So we see on the one hand a move towards comparative history, towards a history of cultural transfer, towards transnational history, the histories of empire. On the other hand we see an enormous amount of histories being published and these national histories being used specifically for the purpose of creating national identities.

Chris Williams: So, as academic history’s moved in one direction, popular history has filled the gap, if you like.

Stefan Berger: In some respects, yes. Because, if we look for example at TV history as a form of popular history writing, we can notice right throughout Europe the importance of national history in TV history. In other respects, though, professional historians are still national historians. If we think of the 1980s and France, Fernand Braudel writes a two volume history of France - the same historian who in the 1950s explicitly denounced national history writing is now coming back to national history writing. We see in Germany, after 1990, after reunification, an attempt to move away from the discourse of post-nationalism which was very strong in the 1980s and to find what some historians in Germany call a normal national discourse, and an enormous amount of national history is being published, including by professional historians. And, of course, across Eastern Europe the renaissance of national history writing after 1990 is enormous. And in some places, such as Yugoslavia, of course, debates about the national past directly contribute to the bloody civil war that we see in the 1990s.

Chris Williams: So, writing the history of the nation-state is not something which has gone away. Has it not been joined by new internationalist identities? Paul, do you think that the end of the 20th Century saw a high point in historians at least subscribing to an internationalist view and do you think that that changed the sorts of histories that they wrote?

Paul Lawrence: Certainly, if you look at theoretical works considering nation-states and nationalism, those written from 1980 through to about 2000, at the end of Century, say, for the sake of argument, they do have their concluding chapter with kind of well, now we’ve seen the break-up of the former Soviet Union or now we’ve seen what’s happened in The Balkans, are we now heading for the end of, is it going to be either a resurge in Nationalism or is it going to be the end of Nationalism as we know, the development of a pan-European identity. It seems to me that a European identity, certainly at this stage, it isn’t commanding anything like the same sense of importance in people’s lives as their national identities still do. And I think you have to consider what national identity gives to people in a sense. People have local identities, I live in a town. I have a national identity and I also live in Europe. But I wouldn’t go to war or die for Brighton and Hove. Or for Europe, for that matter.

And it’s an interesting question as to why that should actually be the case. Why is that the single kind of unit which commands the most significant loyalty? I mean part of that is still because the nation – a cultural entity – is bound up with the state. In the sense that external threat, for example, often helps to coalesce a sense of identity and Europe’s unlikely to be attacked. So, in a sense, whereas a national context, it’s much more easy to imagine that. So, from my point of view, I have to say that I don’t think the idea of a nation-state is really becoming that much less powerful. It’s being overlaid, perhaps, but not fading away.

Chris Williams: How much of an impact is this having on how you write history? Stefan, you mentioned that there is across Europe a going back to the nation. Is there any move towards an internationalist idea of history or are historians also moving onto themes which do not really concern the nation?

Stefan Berger: I think I was trying to indicate that there is both. There is a movement away from national history writing and a resurgence of national history writing at the same time. And I think that, in some respects, you do still have an awful lot of what, for lack of a better word, I would call liberal nationalists around. You do have a lot of historians who still claim that the community needs a certain amount of solidarity in order to function and that nationalism – or they usually call it patriotism – is an important element in creating such solidarities, and therefore national history writing has its place in creating the sense of community.

On the other hand, I think there are also many historians who argue that this is a very dangerous thing, for many reasons. It’s been well established that nationalism is working on exclusionary principles and that, therefore, any kind of attempt to build solidarities around forms of identities – not necessarily only national identities also regional or for that matter transnational identities – has a danger of being exclusive and of deteriorating into forms of violence, forms of ethnic cleansing, forms of genocide even. And, therefore, the idea to move away from national history is also an attempt to move away from creating national history as the sediment for national identities.

Chris Williams: Okay, thanks very much. So I think what we’ve heard today has, if anything, given us one of the answers to the big question historians are always asking about the past, continuity versus change. It seems to me that the message that’s coming through is about the degree of continuity in the way that we place the nation at the centre of the stories we tell each other about the past, and that continuity runs on through the creation of professional history as a way of doing things, and it runs through a move towards an ostensibly more internationalist outlook.

My thanks then to Stefan Berger and Paul Lawrence for helping me in this discussion. Join us next time when we’ll be discussing the way the writing of the history and the states are related in practice when you look at the way historians and politicians argued over the issue of who was to blame for the First World War. If you want to find out more about The Things We Forgot to Remember and history in general, you can visit our website on, where you’ll be able to hear some more podcasts. I’m Chris Williams and the Producer was Mercia Goodway and this is a BBC Worldwide Production for the Open University.

The battle for World War One

How are history and the state related? Listen to our podcast of the struggle between states and historians over who was to blame for the First World War.


Copyright The Open University



Chris Williams: Hello, I’m Chris Williams of the Open University. In this podcast, I’m going to be talking more in depth about some of the issues that are raised in the BBC Radio 4 series, The Things We Forgot to Remember. I’ll be discussing the way the writing of history and the state are related, and look at a concrete example of the struggle between states and between historians over who was to blame for the First World War. With me, today, to discuss this, I have Annika Mombauer, a historian at the Open University, who’s the author of The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus, and Stefan Berger, a historian at Manchester University, who’s leading a European project researching how nations write their histories.

Stefan, can I begin by asking you to set the scene. In 1919, at the end of the First World War, what’s the relationship between historians and the state?

Stefan Berger: Well, for a start, almost every historian in both countries is a nationalist in 1919. They feel a deep commitment to their particular nation-state, and that’s not just the case in the UK and Germany but that’s also the case for other belligerent countries. So, in some respects, in 1919 the German historians are faced with defeat, with a looming Peace Treaty, which all of them see as extremely oppressive, and their task is to write history so as to justify the German war effort, so as to justify also their own personal histories. Because in 1914 a lot of these historians have what is usually called ‘an august experience’ in the sense that they have this surge of patriotic sentiment. And, of course, in Britain, we have pretty much the same enthusiasm about the War, support for the War effort. But, in 1919, of course, it’s a different story because they are on the winning side so they can write a history which is much more triumphalist and which is much more in line with the positive national self deception that many of them would have had in the first place.

Chris Williams: So both sets of historians are identifying very closely with their respective states. What are they arguing about? Annika, what’s the process of escalation that led to the First World War? What are all these historians, both in 1919 and since, arguing over?

Annika Mombauer: Well, what they argue about, essentially, is how the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian Archduke on the 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo could lead within just a few weeks to the outbreak of a European war which ultimately would turn into a World one. And if you look more at the details of what they argue about. They argue over whether the Germans pushed the Austro-Hungarians into escalating this crisis. They argue over whether Russian mobilisation was ultimately to blame for the escalation of the so-called July Crisis. And they argue over whether Britain should perhaps have indicated earlier or more clearly that she would support France if war were to break out. So those are some of the details that historians start arguing about really as early as August 1914.

Chris Williams: Right, so that’s the argument that started with the War, as each side wants to bolster its own credibility and to blame the outbreak of the War on the other side. Each saying the other one acted first, that they were merely pushed into reacting. So it’s about dates isn’t it?

Annika Mombauer: It’s about dates. Certainly, when you look at the Russian mobilisation order, it’s very much about dates. Who actually declares total mobilisation first and is therefore ultimately to blame. So, yes, in a sense it’s about dates.

Chris Williams: So, in 1919, historians start arguing over whose fault it was. And, of course, even before that the governments began to publish diplomatic correspondence in the so-called ‘coloured books’. What form does the argument take?

Annika Mombauer: Well, it’s a very public argument, and one in which the historians have the support of their respective governments. Because it’s important at the time for governments to prove their innocence, to show that they had not started the War. So official documents and official correspondence becomes available for historians to work with very early on in the War. The so-called ‘coloured books’ are published by all the European governments in an effort to show that their policymaking had been intent on peace, whereas that essentially of Germany and for everyone else had been intent on provoking war. Germany, of course, publishes her own book, the White Book, which was edited by Kurt Riezler, who was the German Chancellor’s Private Secretary. And the subtitle of that book is very interesting because it was How Russia and her rulers betrayed Germany’s confidence and thereby made the War. So you can see that this was not perhaps a document collection that intended in any way to be impartial.

Chris Williams: It’s not a subtle message is it?

Annika Mombauer: It’s not a subtle message. France had her Yellow Book, and recent research has shown how much of the editing there was actually doctored into making France appear less guilty than perhaps she was. Although I’m not in any way suggesting that France caused the First World War. But historians essentially have the support of governments and have, unusually, a huge array of documents available to them that they can use in order to make their nation’s case for why their nation had not caused the War.

Chris Williams: So all of the belligerence, each have their own set of volumes coming out, but the key point here is that they’re edited volumes.

Annika Mombauer: They are.

Chris Williams: The official information that doesn’t show the government in a good light is left in the archives.

Annika Mombauer: Absolutely. These are very much edited editions and anything incriminating is left outside of public scrutiny.

Chris Williams: But, although biased and edited, they’re also very authoritative, aren’t they? We’ve all seen them, haven’t we? We’ve seen these big thick documents with their authoritative introductions and the fact they’re all numbered in sequence. They look like good solid sources, don’t they?

Annika Mombauer: Well, they do, and also they’re so unusual and here everybody can see how politics were made before 1914. How diplomats liaised with each other, how government liaised with each other, so it appeared to the uninitiated to be the truth. It couldn’t be anything other than the truth. The diaries of the Secretary of the Germany Chancellor, Kurt Riezler, who clearly edited his diaries after the War, and we simply don’t know when he did this, what he left out, whether it was even he who edited them or a well meaning brother. So those documents, which initially excited historians because they seemed to give us an insight into decision making at the very centre of Germany, actually are quite difficult to use. But even documents that appear to be uncontentious actually need careful scrutiny by historians.

An example of that is the famous conversation that the German Chancellor had with the British Ambassador, Sir Edward Goschen, in Berlin on the 4th August, where allegedly he referred to the Belgium Treaty of 1839, which guaranteed Belgium neutrality, as ‘a scrap of paper’, rather disparagingly. But, actually, when historians look at this in detail they find that we don’t know even if this conversation was held in German or English. We don’t know whether Bethmann-Hollweg ever used that disparaging term ‘scrap of paper’. And yet, in the aftermath of the War, so much was made of this that he and countless others, Bethmann-Hollweg that is and countless others felt they had to justify themselves. But yet, we don’t know whether this conversation ever took place in the way that Goschen recorded it at the time.

Chris Williams: Thanks very much. So we have this in the 1920s, well, starting in the War itself but certainly continuing through the 1920s, these publishing enterprises, as each state sets out its case. Stefan, how does the atmosphere and the wider context of the 1920s influence these historical arguments?

Stefan Berger: The atmosphere in the 1920s is very important because, in some respects, we do have states asking historians to write histories which back up their arguments about the First World War. We do have some exceptions. So, for example, immediately after the First World War, Kalkowski, the Social Democrat in Germany, tries to edit a collection of documents which show that the Imperial German Elites are responsible for the outbreak of the First World War. But that very quickly gets suppressed in Germany.

What is also very important is the question of loss of territory for Germany but also for Hungary, in the sense that there are many ethnic Germans, many ethnic Hungarians, who find themselves outside of the states of Germany and Hungary after 1919. And, as a response, a whole new history, a whole new writing of history appears – which in German is called ‘fox geschichte’ – which is, in some respects, also trying to argue that these ethnic minorities outside of the borders of Germany have to be integrated back into Germany or in Hungary.

So the treaties which end the First World War, in some respects, have a very deep influence on the writing of history. In Germany, historians move away from the state history, move towards the history of ethnicity, of ethnic communities, which is a very important beginning for historical writing, and it’s not just a German affair, it can be found elsewhere in Europe as well.

Chris Williams: Annika, what about the international relations of the time. What affect do they have on the way people are arguing about history?

Annika Mombauer: Well, actually, very quickly, of course, it seems as if there is another potential aggressor on the horizon with the rise of the Soviet Union. So, as that happens, Germany becomes less of a foe, less of the bad guy because Germany is important as a potential future ally. So, in the light of those international developments, the question of war guild becomes de-emphasised and the nations of Europe arrive at a sort of amicable consensus, I guess, where it was concluded that nobody had really deliberately started the War but rather the nations had slithered into war accidentally.

Chris Williams: Right, so the whole thing is put down to an accident.

Annika Mombauer: Yes.

Chris Williams: Right. Okay, that’s on the basis of the diplomatic correspondence, the competing diplomatic correspondence that everyone has been publishing. But gradually over the years, since then, more and more other unofficial sources have come to light which have a great deal of bearing on what happened in that summer of 1914. What sorts of other sources are there which have led historians to draw new conclusions about these processes?

Annika Mombauer: Well, there are a huge range of documents which historians have been able to use. Perhaps autobiographical documents and memoirs should be mentioned here. Memoirs, in particular, are difficult obviously for historians to use. Particularly, in the case of German statesmen who sit down after the War and German military leaders who sit down after the War and, of course, they have a story to tell that makes them look, well, as good as possible really. So memoirs are always to be taken with a pinch of salt. We have autobiographical documents. We have diaries, for example, which on the whole are extremely useful. Although here too the problem is that of editing, sometimes the person who wrote the diaries in good faith at the time will then, in the light of the war guild question, revise those documents to make them appear in a better light for themselves and for Germany. But there are a number of unofficial documents of that nature which have become available for historians to use.

Chris Williams: So we have this situation then where not only do we have these big editions of diplomatic correspondence but we also have a wealth of other sources of the key actors as well. Obviously, we’ve been discussing Germany but it isn’t just Germany is it, it’s all belligerent powers have their statesmen being followed, almost tracked from day to day, by historians working out who has spoken to whom and why and when. The debate takes off again, doesn’t it? The debate that was almost put into deep freeze in the 1920s takes off in a big way after the Second World War. And the idea of no one is to blame becomes increasingly challenged by arguments that break out among the historical profession in the 1960s.

What I’d like us to discuss, to focus in on, as one example of the way historians disagree, this argument which is called ‘The Fischer Controversy’. Just to the scene, Stefan, could you tell me about the German historical profession say in the early Sixties. What is its relation to the state now?

Stefan Berger: In the early 1960s very many German historians still feel a responsibility, as national historians, to keep the reputation of the German national state. And that means, for them, in the early 1960s, to say that National Socialism was an aberration in German national history. It was something where the German nation had gone wrong but it didn’t have deep roots in German national history. Therefore, when Fischer came on the scene and basically constructed a continuity between the First and the Second World War, describing both wars as German attempts to gain a Germany in Europe and ultimately in the World, this really rocked the historical profession and it basically met with very strong responses. Of course, in the early 1960s, many of the leading German historians had direct personal recollections of the First World War. Some had served as officers in the First World War. So there was a strong personal element involved in the debate.

Chris Williams: Right, so Fischer then is the man who has decided to open the question of German war guild. Annika, could you talk us through the detail of Fischer’s accusations?

Annika Mombauer: Well, essentially, what Fischer argued in two important and influential books was that there was a link in Germany history from Bismarck to Hitler. That what you can identify are similar foreign policy aims over a long period of time so that essentially Hitler had not been an aberration. What he essentially said was that Versailles was right. That the Allies at Versailles had actually pointed the finger at the right guilty party and that Germany had worked towards the War that broke out in 1914 and had intentionally started it.

Chris Williams: What are his key sources? What are the documents he rested his argument on?

Annika Mombauer: Well, one of the important sources that he discovered is the so-called ‘September programme’. Which is a document penned by the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, or rather by his Secretary, Kurt Riezler, showing the kinds of war aims that the German Chancellor envisaged in early September 1914. And Fischer argued that these were the kinds of aims that German policymakers had had in mind when they set about unleashing the War. The problem with that document is that, of course, in early September 1914 the War was going incredibly well for Germany, and I’m sure every government in Europe would at that point have thought, well, if we’re actually winning, what do we want out of it? So he pens these war aims at a particularly good time for Germany. We don’t actually know what his war aims were in 1914.

The other important document or set of documents that he uncovers relate to the so-called ‘War Council Meeting’ of December 1912 where the Kaiser met with a number of influential military naval leaders, no politicians were invited, and where they seemingly decided to have a war within the foreseeable future within eighteen months. And, of course, once we go from December 1912, eighteen months hence, you’re in July 1914. Fischer argued this couldn’t really be a coincidence because these people are saying we want a war in July 1914 and there is the War in July 1914.

Chris Williams: Right, okay, so that seems to be quite a specific set of accusations Fischer came out with. What’s the reaction to Fischer’s work? Stefan, maybe you could tell us what happens outside Germany when Fischer launches these accusations?

Stefan Berger: Well, I think, outside of Germany, his books are greeted with an enormous amount of interest. He is of course invited to go to lecture tours, to North America. He’s invited to Britain, to France. Various European countries want to hear about his theories. This is of course a time when many historians in many Western countries are quite happy to accept a more harmonious story about European nation states slithering into war in August 1914.

In fact, if we look at the British historical establishment, it was very influential in helping the German historians in the interwar period in establishing this kind of revisionist argument. If we look at important historians such as WH Dawson in the interwar period, he is constantly writing against Versailles and siding with his German colleagues in that respect.

Now we have a position where a German historian is actually coming back to a position which was much more identified than a previous historical position but there is a great amount of interest in his arguments, and I think the interest rises the more historians from outside see how the Germans themselves are conducting this debate.

Chris Williams: And what’s going on inside Germany then, Annika?

Annika Mombauer: Well, the immediate reaction to Fischer is essentially one of outrage. Certainly, amongst most of his colleagues, this is something that is perceived as the work of a traitor really. Fischer is accused of soiling his own nest. The feeling was that there was enough uncomfortable history to come to terms with without having to dredge this old debate which after all had been so comfortably put aside in the interwar years. But there’s also an interesting reaction that this is a very public debate, something that pretty much all Germans can discuss, because it is very much present in the media. But the reaction shows, I think, that even in the 1960s the First World War was not yet history to most Germans in the way that arguably it really is today.

Chris Williams: That was in the 1960s. Obviously, since then, there’s been a lot of extra research going on looking at the causes of the First World War and the events of 1914. Where do Fischer’s theses stand today? Does his argument stand up against the subsequent historical research? Annika?

Annika Mombauer: I think most historians today would say that he over stated his case. That he focused too much on Germany to the exclusion of the other actors in Europe. And most historians today will want to focus more widely on decision making across Europe. In particular, historians have been focusing on the actions in Vienna on the politics of Austro-Hungary and on the decision making there. There is of course this debate of whether the statesmen in Vienna wanted the War or whether they were pushed by their German colleagues, and that is something that’s still up for debate. But Fischer’s view of Germany as the only guilty party I think is something that most historians today won’t share. But neither will they share the idea that everybody somehow just accidentally stumbled into war. There are clearly some people, some decision makers in Europe, particularly in Berlin and Vienna, in 1914, who want this war to break out more than others.

Chris Williams: And of course, from their point of view, particularly from the point of view of Berlin, their launching or risking a war to gain global hegemony. I mean the equivalent wars have been fought by Britain in the 18th Century when Britain had attained global hegemony and thus became the kind of power that wanted peace and the status quo. And of course Britain is quite willing to fight a war to retain global pre-eminence. So, I suppose, a lot of this depends on the frame with which we ask the question what is guilt for 1914? As a final parting point, what has this argument taught historians about how we can use sources and how we should use sources during the 20th Century? A big nasty question to end on, starting with Stefan.

Stefan Berger: Well, I think that in some respects it again shows the notion that all historical knowledge is perspectival. It shows very clearly that, if you examine particular national archives, you will get a very national view on the outbreak of the First World War. And as most historians, certainly up to the 1960s, 1970s, were primarily national historians, the perspective we got were national perspectives. With the new move towards transnational history and the new move to actually look at different national archives to come to a more comprehensive view of the event, we also have got the attempt to look at this event from different perspectives. Whether this will leave us with a perspective which is ultimately more objective then raises the question what kind of documents do we actually take into account? And, as Annika already mentioned, there are an awful lot of documents that we can consider.

Annika Mombauer: I guess the only other point that is important, or one other point that’s important in this context, is to think that perhaps we can only actually write the history of an event when we are removed from that event by well quite a large margin in this case. Certainly, as I said, even in the 1960s, this is not something that’s history I think today, with pretty much no survivors and with other history having happened and having taken over in the national consciousness, we can look with much less emotion. Although, never without emotion when it comes to the First or the Second World War, we can look at these events in a completely different way to the contemporaries and than those who were children of the participants ever could.

Stefan Berger: And yet, it is so much more fun to write the recent history.

Chris Williams: So, on the one hand, we’ve got time healing the wounds and moving us towards our ideal of objectivity. On the other hand, of course, we have the big problem that we’re always going to be influenced by what we’re going to decide to look at, what archive we start at. These archives are so big, no human being could ever read them all, and so our research agenda is always going to close off some answers, isn’t it, if we’re researching this question on our own. But I hope that what we’ve been able to do with this discussion is to give one example of the way that a continuing debate has rumbled along, the way it’s been based on certain sources, the way that, if you like, the documents often have a veto but what we then do with that veto is up to us.

My thanks to Stefan Berger and Annika Mombauer. Join us next time when we will be discussing what factors can influence the very setting of the historical agenda. If you want to find out more about the Radio 4 series The Things We Forgot to Remember and about history in general, visit our website at where you’ll also find more podcasts you can hear. I’m Chris Williams, the Producer was Mercia Goodway, and this is a BBC Worldwide Production for the Open University.

Elephants in the room

What factors that can influence the very setting of the historical agenda? This podcast looks closely at one example of this, the framing and definition of the history of the British warfare state in the 20th century.


Copyright The Open University



Chris Williams: Hello, I’m Chris Williams of the Open University. In this podcast, I’m going to be talking in some more depth about some of the issues that are raised in the BBC Radio 4 series, The Things We Forgot to Remember. Today, I’ll be discussing the factors that can influence the very setting of the historical agenda. To do that, we’re going to look closely at one example of this, the framing and definition of the history of the British warfare state in the 20th century. With me, to discuss this subject, I have David Edgerton who is a historian from Imperial College in London and the author of Warfare State, Britain 1914 to 1970, and also Annika Mombauer, a historian with the Open University who’s author of The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus.

So, to start off, Annika, do you think it’s true that historians, when they write history, are influenced by the events of the world around them in the histories that they write?

Annika Mombauer: Well, I think inevitably that’s true. We’re always influenced by what’s going on around us. If you look, for example, at the recent upsurge in the interest in the history of the Islamic world and the history of religion, that is surely no coincidence that historians are focusing on this. Another example, I guess, might be the relatively recent interest in gender history. I guess it’s fair to say that before the 1950s or ‘60s historians did not really consider that people had any kind of gender, whereas today that’s something that’s not really possible to ignore.

Chris Williams: Thanks. So historians then are always enthralled on a certain level to the basic assumptions of the society in which they’re living. One of the basic assumptions that David, you’ve written about, is the issue of British decline in the World, and you’ve talked about the ideology of declinism. Could you describe what declinism is?

David Edgerton: Well, yes, between I suppose the late ‘50s and the mid to late 1980s, 20th Century British history and late 19th Century British history was I think dominated by a notion that Britain had declined. And historians, from all sorts of different political positions, sought to explain what they took to be this decline that everyone accepted had taken place. Declinism – a term that ayatollahs have been using since the late 1990s – points to the fact that this is a very particular kind of writing of history. It’s concerned to revitalise the British economy in very, very particular ways.

Now, what these historians interested in decline have done, to make them declinists, is to take say the falling share of British production in the World, or the falling share of British trade in World exports, and seek to explain it by reference to British failure. So what they’ve looked for is the causes of failure. The causes that prevented Britain from achieving its proper place in the World, which was taken to be dominance of the sort that Britain enjoyed in the mid 19th Century.

So, in a way, they’re on a hiding to nothing because the fact that Britain had declined relatively was not due to British failure but to the success of other nations since that decline was inevitable. Britain could never have kept up its proportion of world shipbuilding, for example. You’d have to turn the coast entirely into a gigantic shipyard.

But the point is that the idea that decline was the central problem to be dealt with by historians came from a very particular moment in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the problem of the British decline, in particular, in relation to Europe, was the centre of the political agenda. Lots of books were written at that time that defined that as a central issue and has continued to be the central issue, at least, into the early 1990s.

Chris Williams: So you were saying relative decline and, on the face of it, do you think that the declinist view in terms of what it actually said about what Britain was like is a correct or a useful one?

David Edgerton: Well, the problem was misspecified in the first place, as I’ve just been saying, and the explanations were explanations not of what actually happened but of something that didn’t actually happen. Historians were really setting out to explain absolute decline; the collapse of British industry, the collapse of British technically and the collapse of the British entrepreneurial spirit. Now the most obvious thing to say about Britain, as indeed about the World, since the late 19th Century is that it’s grown. Industry has grown, technology has grown, the industrial spirit has grown, and yet, in the British case, historians were finding the seeds of decay, particularly actually in the late 19th Century.

So we had an image of Britain. This is the Britain of Darwin, of Lyell, of Jewel, as an anti-scientific nation and a Britain of the great enterprises that girdled the world with ships and cables, as a nation that was retreating to the countryside to ride horses and hunt foxes. So we had I think a really extraordinary picture of Britain and its elite being developed. Particularly by an American historian called Martin Wiener who wrote a book called the English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit in 1981 which was a terribly influential recasting of what was by then a very conventional picture.

Chris Williams: Okay, so we’ve got then this image of Britain as rural which obviously doesn’t make sense. What about for the 20th Century? Does Britain decline from its pre-eminent position in the World in the 20th Century or what sort of state does it have instead if not of the ecolic one where everyone’s hunting foxes all the time?

David Edgerton: Well, Britain is the least agricultural of all the European powers, less agricultural even than the United States, which is seen as the great industrial power of the 20th Century. So the basic economic and political and social arguments are very dubious. Britain does, of course, grow in the 20th Century along with all these other countries and historians need to explain that growth. As they need to explain the growth of the United States or the growth of Germany, and very often the explanations should be on roughly the same sort of lines.

Chris Williams: One of the things that Britain does with this economic growth, of course, is create a welfare state, and this is something which has been very minutely studied and it remains one of the touchstones of how British history is defined in the 20th Century. But your critique of this is of something that’s been left out of a warfare state. How would you define the warfare state?

David Edgerton: Well, Britain clearly has developed a welfare state. The term can to be used in this particular sense in the late 1940s and 1950s. The government expenditure has gone mainly in most periods on social services of one kind or another, at least after the First World War. But that’s not the whole story of the British state. There’s been a powerful, historical tradition of writing that has celebrated the growth of the welfare state. Particularly, in the middle of the century, and particularly as a result of the actions of ‘45 to ‘51 Labour Government, but also the Liberal Government before the First World War. It’s been largely a social democratic literature; people that were supporters of the Labour Party, or a certain version of the Labour Party’s ideology.

And it’s been terribly powerful, and it’s been supported actually by people who wanted to criticise the British government for being too weak kneed - spending too much on helping the poor and not enough on bashing foreigners, if you like. So, we’ve had a hollowing out of a central part of the British state, which has been its military capacity. And that capacity is not just soldiers and sailors and airmen but also a huge industrial, scientific and technological capacity. It’s simply not there because British historians have wanted to insist on either the benevolence or the weakness of the British state, and they’ve consistently written out the history of the warfare state, even from periods of war.

So, if you look, for example, at AJP Taylor, his English History. You could hardly find soldiers, sailors and airmen involved in what he calls ‘war socialism’. Which is supposedly what won the war. We don’t have a militarisation of the state. We have a kind of civilisation of warfare. I want to suggest that we’ve had a very powerful state machine, supporting the armed services, going right back to before the First World War but increasing in strength in the period of the 1940s precisely when the welfare state was supposedly being created.

Chris Williams: So, what’s going on then? Is it that both sides of the political argument have an interest in building up the welfare state – one side in order to celebrate it; the other side in order to criticise it – and yet neither side wants to talk about the warfare state?

David Edgerton: Exactly.

Chris Williams: Right, so how else then does this warfare state show itself? You mentioned science and technology. You mentioned the backup for military power. Can you give me any more examples of this?

David Edgerton: Well, the stories of the welfare state go along with stories about the weakness of the British state in relation to intervention in industry, for example. If you put the warfare state into the picture, it becomes very clear that British governments have for a very long time, in the 20th Century, intervened very powerfully in industry to create new industries. For example, from clocks and watches to aircraft to computers to electronics and radar, all these things happened by direct state action. If one looks at the universities, one sees grants for students really being pushed in the Second World War by the needs of scientists and engineers.

The scientisation and technologisation of university, which happens in the 1940s to 1950s, is driven by the demands of the warfare state, certainly not by demands made by the welfare state for doctors and teachers. If one looked at the growth of the state machine, itself, what’s really driving it – the growth of number of civil servants, let alone the military servants – is that the need is not of hospitals or house building or anything like that but the needs of the service and supply, ministries that are supplying the armed services.

Chris Williams: So we’ve got these two pictures then; the picture of welfare that we know about and the picture of warfare that we don’t. Can you offer any explanation as to how literally thousands, possibly even tens of thousands of historians, who are now employed by the public purse mainly to write about history of Britain, so concentrate their attention on one of these and have completely ignored the other?

David Edgerton: Well, it’s a matter of expectations. We know what British history of the 20th Century looks like. It is the story of the rise of welfare state. There are lots of interesting and important things to say about that. There was a welfare state. There is a welfare state which has developed over time. The problem is that people haven’t felt unnecessarily to look outside that area of research, and it’s partly because warfare in a liberal social democratic culture is seen as something that intrudes on the development of the modern world. The real story of certainly 20th Century history is a story of human development, not the story of warfare. So war is written out in a much more general way than just in the British 20th Century case.

Chris Williams: So, we have an idea of what the World ought to be like, and we’re always judging what we find against our idea, and things that don’t fit are played down?

David Edgerton: Yes, absolutely, and the reasons that war doesn’t fit in are very deep seated indeed.

Chris Williams: Right. But, nevertheless, there are lot of sources from say the mid 20th Century which would talk about, for example, that Britain is deficient in engineers and scientists. So, of course, in 1959, CP Snow, the scientist/novelist, gave a very famous lecture called the Two Cultures. In which he bemoaned the fact that the literature on one side and the science on the other never talked to one another and we need more science and literature must understand science. How does your account of the 20th Century explain this highly publicised view of the lack of science and engineering?

David Edgerton: Yes, the view that Britain lack scientists and engineers has been expressed particularly powerfully in the Edwardian years, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s – CP Snow being the prime case – and again in the 1980s. My explanation is that Britain has a culture in which scientists and engineers are very powerful but the main argument they have about that culture is that science and engineering is very weak. So the fact that we all tended to believe that science and engineering is very weak is paradoxically an indication of the power of scientists and engineers within our culture. They developed that argument actually at particular times when there was a stunning growth in the number of scientists and engineers.

In the Edwardian period and the late 1950s and early 1960s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1980s, so there’s an incredible disconnect between what is actually going on, on the ground, and what’s being said. Now, what’s behind this is particular politics, politics of the expansion of higher education, in particular, and focusing it on scientists and engineers. But historians have taken Snow to be an accurate describer of the condition of science and engineering, indeed of the British elite more generally. I mean he coined the phrase ‘the corridors of power’ and some people think he actually did describe those corridors of power even reasonably well but he’s a propagandist of a particularly insidious sort.

Chris Williams: So, when we’re trying to overcome this propaganda, and when we’re trying to arrive at a more objective view of what Britain in the 20th Century is really about, what we’re really engaging in is a practice of revisionism, isn’t it? Annika, as a historian who’s also been involved in trying to change the way we feel about past events and put new evidence to the front, could you give us a definition of revisionism often seen as a bit of a loaded word?

Annika Mombauer: Well, I guess revisionism is what students hate and historians very much enjoy. Students hate it because they really would like to know what actually happened in the past and revisionists – which I guess in a way we all are – revise constantly what is considered to be the orthodox view or was once upon a time considered the orthodox view of history. So the examples that David has been giving us are just a perfect example really of revisionist history where we look at a widely held belief, a widely held view of what the past was like and actually revise it completely.

On the whole, I think it’s a very positive thing, although of course there are some areas where revisionists really struggle to make a positive impact. One example would be, I guess, the Holocaust, where you really can’t construct a revisionist history without getting into a lot of trouble and justifiably so. And then of course you get, after the First World War, revisionists who tried to revise the Treaty of Versailles, and in that sense revisionists are, if you like, the baddies and the anti-revisionists then are the goodies.

But, on the whole, I think revisionism as we understand it is very much a positive thing and is how our understanding of history evolves.

Chris Williams: Right, okay. But it seems to me that just as CP Snow was engaged in a hammer and tongs argument that we’ve mistaken for a rational analysis. Similarly, historians, often when we’re writing things, we’re launching research projects where we’re giving lectures. One of the things we’re doing is we’re saying I want to correct the current statement. I want to put the other side of the argument. And we can understand that a lot of this is a dialectical process – it’s got two halves to it – and so we’re engaging in argument with people who don’t agree with us.

Does this end up though when someone writes an articles for a newspaper, when someone manages to get their press release taken up, these are things that break through to the public consciousness and, generally, what I will find when I see a historical discovery trumpeted, I will think to myself well yes but that’s the end of an argument. It’s left right, left right. We’ve got one end of it suddenly has been presented as what actually happened. Must history always be a kind of adversarial process? David?

David Edgerton: No, but we need to recognise that Britain has a great tradition of adversarial politics and adversarial justice, and it’s a way we will understand at getting at what we all want to get at. But I think the best history goes much further than stating one side of the argument. It seeks to explain why the various arguments that are in play have arisen, and I think that’s very, very important and very useful. We want to get at why we do have the particular kind of pictures that we have of particular historical events. And it’s not just the result of contemporary political development. It’s often the political developments of the past and often, it has to be said, the writing of previous historians.

Winston Churchill would be a fantastic example. He defined what the history of the Second World War would be in relation as has been shown to developments in the early Cold War, and yet he’s shaped the history that we now have to read and live with.

Annika Mombauer: Yes, I agree completely with that, and I think what’s interesting as well is that, as you say, we learn about the past also by studying these older texts, and that’s why the study of historiography is so interesting to historians. Because, otherwise, if we couldn’t learn from this, then in a way you could just pulp everything that was written up to a certain deadline, you just say we don’t need to look at it. But we do need to look at it precisely for the reasons that you mention.

And I guess there’s also the point to make that historians now would like to make their mark. In fact feel that they need to make their mark. So, from that point of view, it is always going to be a little bit adversarial. People will always try and find a niche and make an argument and defend it, sometimes quite ferociously, because they think they are telling the truth or perhaps sometimes because they know they’re not. But this is also part of what writing history and researching history is all about.

Chris Williams: And, of course, it’s not just a free floating argument, is it? We’re referring back all the time to evidence. So, yes, when you’re saying this or that is more important than say with warfare and welfare, you can refer to tens of thousands of people doing one thing or millions of pounds being spent. When you’re referring to who’s responsible for the First World War, you can refer to correspondence about who said what to whom, when and where. So we’re not merely taking positions at random out of thin air, are we? We’re arguing over evidence, and we can make truth claims about this evidence as well.

David Edgerton: Yes, and we argue about it because it matters. When we stop arguing, it’s the moment to realise we’re not saying anything important.

Chris Williams: That’s probably a good point to end on, actually. Just to summarise, I suppose. What we’ve thought about are the questions that are there before the questions are asked, so what the frames are, what reasonable questions we think we can ask about history. And, hopefully, what I’ve illustrated through this little discussion here is that we can arrive at a truth and maybe eventually we will stumble across the elephant in the living room but it’s quite surprising how long we can go and how often we can look at the past before we notice some very big aspects of it. Obviously, from a narrow professional point of view, this is marvellous because it implies that there will be continued employment for historians for a very long time yet. But, hopefully, it’s also given us some insight into the way in which big processes of historical argument allow us to understand the past a little bit better.

My thanks to David Edgerton and Annika Mombauer. Join us next time and we’ll be discussing how remembering on a historical scale has to be a conscious act, commemoration must be willed, and this often brings us back to nationalism. If you want to find out more about the Radio 4 series, The Things We Forgot to Remember, and about history in general, you can visit our website at where you can listen to more podcasts. I’m Chris Williams, the Producer was Mercia Goodway and this is a BBC Worldwide Production for the Open University.


Memory and History

Remembering on a historical scale is a conscious act. Inthis podcast we look at how commemoration doesn’t just happen, it has to be willed. This often brings us back to stories told that refer to things we have in common, such as the nation and religion.


Copyright The Open University



Chris Williams: Hello, I'm Chris Williams from the Open University. In this podcast, I'm going to be talking in more depth about some of the issues that are raised in the BBC Radio 4 series, The Things We Forgot to Remember. Today, I'm discussing some of the ways that our knowledge of the past got transmitted to us in the present. Remembering on a historical scale is a conscious act. Commemoration doesn’t just happen, it has to be willed. This often brings us back to stories told that refer to things we have in common, such as the nation and religion.

With me to discuss this issue, I have one of my colleagues, Donna Loftus, a fellow historian at the Open University and another of our colleagues, Paul Laurence, also an Open University historian. Like all honest academic historians, we admit that only a few thousand people ever read the books we write. So how do people, the public at large, get their knowledge of history?

Can I begin by asking you Paul, can you tell us about some of the ways that popular knowledge about the past has been produced and reproduced?

Paul Laurence: This is an interesting question, Chris, because very often the memory of the past, of past events, is treated as something extremely unproblematic. It's not questioned or problematised. In actual fact, the more you look to the 19th Century and certainly the first half of the 20th Century, the more you become aware of the conscious construction, the production of memory. So, from say 1850 certainly to the Second World War, you have the conscious construction of a number of events of national remembrance, pageants, festivals.

It's probably best to illustrate this with a couple of examples. If we look in France, for example, from the 1870s onwards, the Third Republic is looking to consolidate its popularity, looking to consolidate national consciousness. What happens then is that Bastille Day, the traditional 14th July celebration, which hasn’t been celebrated at all up until that point, suddenly in 1880 gets picked as an exciting event of national memory which can unify the nation, and starts being promoted as something which the nation should celebrate. Similarly in England, Empire Day starts to be celebrated in the early part of the 20th Century. This is consciously produced. It's not a popular upwelling of sentiment. This is something which Lord Meath of Brabazon and a number of government officials decide would be a great idea to bind the Empire together. Let’s have a big celebration.

So what you find is there’s the conscious decision to produce certain versions of the past and celebrate them. But that’s not the entire story, this isn't just propaganda; this taps into existing sentiment which is then reproduced by education. So you have, if you like, both the top-down encouragement to celebrate a particular version of the past and the bottom-up acceptance of that past. Of course, what’s quite hard to assess here is the reception of this type of commemoration. It's very easy to say this is what the celebration was like, that is what it aimed at. It's much harder to assess the extent to which the general public took onboard this version of history.

Chris Williams: Right. So although we can measure, if you like, the inputs, the outputs are difficult. We know what people were being told. It's hard to find out what they felt about these messages. Donna, if I could bring you in. Is it possible to find out, for example, what people thought about these big events? What are the limits of studying popular memory?

Donna Loftus: Well, Chris, the personal account of the individual story is a great way for historians to access information about how people experience these events in history. Not only in terms of the difference they make to their every day life but also in terms of what they meant to people in the past. Historians have used oral history and life-writing sources to access these kinds of personal accounts.

Chris Williams: Okay, so, life-writing, you mean autobiographies, diaries?

Donna Loftus: Yes, precisely that sort of thing.

Chris Williams: Right. I mean does this way of looking at history end up producing a different version to the sort of top-down picture that Paul’s presented of a member of the cabinet decides Empire Day will be a good idea - we celebrate Empire Day. Is the picture from the personal side a different picture?

Donna Loftus: Well, in many respects, it is because, in a sense, it enriches the archive. It opens up many different stories for historians to use. And, in many respects, they bring different experiences to bear; different accounts, different versions, different perspectives. And it's not just limited to individual stories, there’s also now an increasing awareness of artefacts and things and the way these trigger memories, and how these can help us bring together the stories of people and places and objects through time. So, yes, Chris, in many respects, they do. However, on the other hand, it's surprising how many of these personal accounts, how many of these personal histories, do repeat or reproduce the kinds of collective histories that Paul was referring to earlier.

Chris Williams: So you’d mean, rather than thinking about what actually happened, someone just reaches for the programme, reaches for the script that says well this obviously happened because it's down here?

Donna Loftus: Well, yes, because I suppose the minute we start to process our memories, the minute we try to recall them, we draw on kind of narrative structures, be they verbal narrative structures or written narrative structures, to communicate what we want to tell, and often we end up reproducing stories from the past. Peter Burke, the cultural historian, has said, in many respects, people’s memories get contaminated by these kind of broader traditional histories and perspectives.

Chris Williams: So there are certain stories then which are pervasive in our culture, and whenever we try and remember what happened to us, as well as remembering or instead of remembering our past, we think of the big stories?

Donna Loftus: Well, I think it's as well as remembering. In a sense, we write ourselves in to some of the larger stories. A very good example of this is the story of rags to riches which was popularised in the 19th Century through Samuel Smiles’ book Self Help. And towards the late 19th Century, there are many examples of life-writing that unconsciously or consciously employ this kind of narrative muddle to explain a struggle against adversity to succeed.

Chris Williams: Another good example, I suppose, is the Calvinist story of ‘seeing the light’. That’s a classic conversion narrative which you often find echoes of throughout European society from the 16th Century when it comes in as a way in which reformation Christians, who followed John Calvin, had to undergo a process of being born again. And they would then need to stand up in front of the congregation and tell their story before they were baptised into the congregation.

And this story often drew from themes present in the writing of St Augustine centuries before about how you would have to say about the sins and errors of your youth, how you went very much to the bottom, you were tempted by Satan, you were then saved and then you decided to turn towards Christ and goodness and would then become saved and could then join the congregation, join the elect. The conversion narrative is one that’s very popular and a lot of secular writing – so, for example, people talking about their discovery of socialism – are very much couched in the terms of the Calvinist conversion narrative.

So it seems to me that there certain sort of ways of describing change over time which become set genres and these are genres that people go back to again and again. Paul, have you got any examples you want to draw?

Paul Laurence: One example springs to mind. I conducted a study once of detective memoirs. These were the autobiographies of reminiscences written by detectives and senior police officers in the 19th and 20th Centuries. One of the interesting things that you find is early on in the 19th Century, they’re extremely varied. The presentation of them, the stories they tell, the way they describe their lives is very individualised. But, from about the 1880s onwards, when detective fiction becomes quite popular – and remember that detective fiction has a set of fairly standard tropes, the kind of early mystery, leaving the dénouement, the kind of revelation of the criminal to the end – once that becomes popular, detectives start writing their memoirs in that fashion.

So by the repetition of the awareness of certain stories, this is the way that detective stories presented, they then begin to present their supposedly factual lives in the same fashion.

Chris Williams: So you end up with a standardised detective memoir by the 1930s?

Paul Laurence: Yes, which is interesting in of itself but tells you slightly less about their individual lives, possibly.

Chris Williams: So, Paul, what you see is a number of divergent life stories are shoe-horned into a standard pattern. Donna, when you’re looking at life-writing more generally, do you find that there are similar narratives and similar narrative tricks that people are also trying shoe-horn their own lives into?

Donna Loftus: Well, yes, Chris, and as Paul says, many of these come from broader stories that have been around for many, many years. One that some historians have recently picked up on is the use of the fairy tale narrative. The Cinderella story or the story that features a kind of wicked stepmother, as a way of talking about a struggle to get beyond childhood adversity to become a kind of successful individual in one’s own right. But, in some senses, these are ways of getting over a kind of change of gear from one’s childhood to one’s adult life. A way of explaining a new path or a new direction, the point at which self and individualism becomes the main story. In that sense, they serve a very important narrative function.

Chris Williams: Right, okay. So that’s a way of remembering extra things, if you like, of embellishing the story. But obviously we can also collectively forget, can’t we? Paul, have you got any examples of collective forgetting on that?

Paul Laurence: Yes, and I think this is key. I mean, Earnest Renan, the 19th century French theologian, made this very point that in national histories in particular forgetting is just as important as remembering. I guess we might think here of France after the Second World War. It's had a very traumatic occupation. There’s has been a lot of collaboration. But if you read accounts and certainly if you talk to people in France in the up to 50s, there was no collaboration and everyone was in the Resistance. It's a kind of collective forgetting which enables a nation to heal itself, and it's only when pesky minded academic historians start poking around in that ‘70s and ‘80s, that the fact that there was collaboration, there was less resistance starts to become apparent.

I mean there’s this interesting tension between collective memory and personal memory. I was at a conference once discussing resistance in France and collaboration, and there were two now quite elderly French women in the audience. And the speaker was speaking about the region where they had been living, and they both stood up and they said, “We were there, there was no collaboration in the village where we lived”, and despite the fact that the speaker had some evidence indicating there were. So, again, you just see this tension between what people want to remember and what people want to forget and the kind of broader collective picture.

Chris Williams: So there are a number of reasons then, both narrative convention and broader historical context, why those of us who are looking back trying to tell our own personal stories might decide to tell them in a certain fashion?

Paul Laurence: Yes, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a conscious decision – I think that’s a point to make there – I'm going to decide to remember it in this way or tell it in this way. You might yourself remember it in that way because your memory itself is formed by the conditions which are surrounding you.

Chris Williams: Donna, how much of it do you think can be actually tested against reality and how much of it do you have to take at face value?

Donna Loftus: That’s a very difficult question because, in a sense, you have to decide what you’re using the source for. If you’re using the source to get to what’s happened, then these sources aren't particularly useful. But if you’re interested in the way myths are constructed and the way people use them to order their lives and to communicate their lives to other people, a sort of, if you’re looking at them to study a collective identity, then they are very, very useful. Because the recall of memory is a social act, and in doing so you can see how people communicate between their public and private lives and between themselves and other people.

Chris Williams: So, essentially, our lives are so complicated that whenever we’re called upon to communicate them in any way, by an oral historian, by the empty pages of diary, by the desire to write an autobiographical novel, we always have to fit into some kind of structure, don’t we? And what we do is we pull down existing stories and ideas of how stories can be told and we fit what’s different about our lives into these big narratives?

Donna Loftus: Yes, I think that’s true because, ultimately, we’re trying to communicate with other people and we know that the stories that other people will understand. But, on the other hand, I think it's important to know that there are slips and contradictions that emerge in these narratives often, and I think they’re the moments that you can see the tension between people’s lived experience and the story that they’re trying to fit it into. And I know in my work that those kinds of slips are the things I think are most interesting. There’s a lot of work being done on oral history where people contradict themselves often, and some historians have argued these contradictions make the evidence worthless, but in fact those contradictions often expose the relationship between the inner and outer history, if you see what I mean.

Chris Williams: Mm. I mean one of my colleagues, Lucy Fair, has worked on the role of autobiography, and one theme is people’s memory of crime. Did they experience crime in the early mid 20th Century, a classic golden age, and you will find people’s autobiographies will have on page five saying there was no crime and on page, seven someone stole my bike.

Donna Loftus: Absolutely.

Chris Williams: There can be complete contradictions in autobiographical work. But I suppose the point you that made earlier is we can be looking at these things to try and work out what actually happened, or we can also be saying let us put these together and let us look at the history of memory and what people subjective experience, at how people constructed their own identities, and that’s equally worthwhile, isn't it?

Donna Loftus: I think so, absolutely. I think perhaps the historians haven’t quite developed the skills to do this yet as effectively as they can do but, because in some ways we have to employ the skills of the psychoanalysis. But we can certainly get beyond the histories of representation of simple descriptions of experiences if we’re careful about how we use these sources.

Chris Williams: Right, so almost the last thing we should do with these autobiographies is to read them from cover to cover and treat them at face value. But, if we’re careful to see how they fit into these big stories, we can end up learning quite a lot about the past through them. Paul, if I could bring you back in, what’s the relationship then between these individual stories, the way that narratives are constructed, and the sort of bigger, wider events you were talking about, events like Empire Day or Bastille Day?

Paul Laurence: As I alluded to earlier, for these larger commemorations and acts of memory to have purchase in the public psyche, they need to reflect something that seems true and real to the individual. In many ways, it's useful here to think of an analogy with religion, or religious practice I should say. Durkheim made some quite interesting comments which he didn’t really develop in the early part.

Chris Williams: Durkheim, the French sociologist?

Paul Laurence: Yes, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. He didn’t really develop it but, in talking about organised religion, he discussed the way in which uttering the same words and using the same gestures and telling the same stories produce solidarity. They make you feel comfortable and part of a group. And, in many ways, he was talking about organised religion. But, in many ways, a lot of these public commemorations do the same. So they have to serve two ends, if you like. They have to on the one hand serve a public end but also they have to serve a private end in providing solace and identity to the individual.

Chris Williams: So the public event is a bit like the form of narrative, like the Golden Age. It becomes something which fits into people’s definitions, their identities and the way they conceive the stories of their lives?

Paul Laurence: Mm.

Chris Williams: So what we've been talking about, I suppose, is a very long way away from the way that academic historians write history, isn't it? It's a very long way away from my visit to the Public Record Office to read Home Office papers from the 1960s and try and find out what policy on police was, for example. Is there an unbridgeable gulf between finding out the subjective past through the narrative and finding out what we always think of as an objective past or as objective as we can get through the official source? Can we bridge the gap between academic understandings of history, traditionally portrayed, and a kind of popular demotic understanding of what the past was like? Donna?

Donna Loftus: Well, I think we can but I think there are lot of challenges ahead for all of us who are engaged in writing history, whether you are an academic or a popular or amateur historian. I think the first thing that you can do if you’re writing your own family history or you’re interested in your own personal history is to try and separate the self from the history, I think, and it's not that easy to do. I think, in many respects, we have to question what we’re looking for and why we’re looking for it before we can fully understand and explore our memories and our own personal histories.

A really good example of this is the work by Hilda Kean, who is a historian herself and who was trying to find the roots of her own left wing politics by looking into her own East End family history. And she was expecting to find or wanting to find the history of the struggle against adversity as a way of explaining, as it were, her present self. And what she did find was an alternative story of her family adapting to competitive market conditions and moving forward quite quietly and comfortably. And I think her struggle between what she wants to see and what she does see provides an interesting lesson in that kind of putting away of the self to get to the history.

Chris Williams: And allowing her preconceptions to be overruled by the stuff that she finds?

Donna Loftus: Absolutely, it's crucial.

Paul Laurence: It's very important from the public side of things and from the professional historian side of things. I do think that what it seems to me has happened over the last 30 odd years or so is that academic historians have increasingly shied away from writing accessible popular history. Partly I think this is to with the post modern turn and a kind of crisis of self confidence in the profession which says to itself it's impossible to make any definitive statements about the past. So the best thing to do is just hedge your bets and say it's all representation, it's stories we tell about ourselves and that doesn’t fulfil the need for a sense of belonging and narrative and identity which the public very often want. So I think academic historians could go some way to providing an accessible public history which is also within the bounds of academic rigor.

Chris Williams: So you think that the problem is we adopted some philosophies which told us there are huge limits to what we could say. We let this hamstring us in the big claims that we made thus leaving the field open to anyone?

Paul Laurence: Yes, essentially.

Chris Williams: So it's like we've got to get our act together. Sorry, Donna?

Donna Loftus: But yes if we go back to the problem of narrative, in a sense, what we are doing as historians is producing narratives and I think the trickiest thing to do is to accommodate the multiplicity of stories that have resulted from the post modern turn into a narrative history, one that can be easily told and easily communicated to students and the wider public. It's very hard to do.

Chris Williams: I mean, if we take the post modern turn or the turn to identity to its fullest extent, if we take the turn to identity to its fullest extent, we end up with six billion histories in the world, don’t we but then surely the job of the academic historians should be to try and look at the ways in which some of those six billion histories are pretty similar to one another and ways in which we could start saying falsifiable and evidence based things about the ways in which people’s lives are quite a lot like other people’s lives. We can’t just reduce the complexity, can we? We've got to build up a bit as well.

Donna Loftus: No, absolutely, and I think a lot of interesting work is being done at the moment on these kinds of histories of encounters and boundaries which try and draw together the similar as well as pointing out the difference that makes that similar significant.

Chris Williams: Could you give us an example of one of those similarities then Donna, one of those encounters and how they could be used to produce the sort of history that we might want to write in the future?

Donna Loftus: Well, the thing that comes to my mind is the histories that have been written about South Africa at the moment. And particularly the years of Apartheid and the use of many people’s personal narratives based on the recall of their experiences to write that kind of history of that period, and where historians are drawing together the accounts and analysing them for their similarities and pulling together the kind of commonalities.

Chris Williams: Right, so we reduce to the individual but then we try and understand the narratives we’re left with and then we see the picture that we could create, the picture that best fits this multiplicity of narratives?

Donna Loftus: Yes, precisely.

Chris Williams: It's nice to hear sometimes that progress is possible. That we’re not merely making things more complicated but we’re also trying to make things accessible as well. My thanks for this discussion go to Donna Loftus and to Paul Laurence. If you want to find out more about the Radio 4 series, The Things We Forget to Remember, and history in general, you can visit our website at where you’ll also be able to hear some more podcasts. I'm Chris Williams, the Producer was Mercia Goodway and this is a BBC Worldwide Production for the Open University.




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