history book

A history of History needs to understand the political origins of institutions of historical learning, not just the present malaise, argues Dominic Alexander


Marshall T. Poe, How to Read A History Book: The Hidden History of History (Zero Books 2018), 134pp.

In February this year, it became illegal in Polish Law to refer to Polish participation in the Holocaust, ostensibly on the grounds that it was the occupying Nazis who ran the extermination camps. This is true, of course, yet it was also the case that Polish civilians carried out mass killings of Polish Jews on their own account during the earlier stages of the genocide (see Anna Bikont, The Crime and the Silence, 2015, originally published in Poland). Despite some backtracking on the law, this seems to be a fact that the current right-wing Polish government would rather was forgotten.

The denial of the facts of history is not new, even if the impression is that it is becoming more common or at least more brazen. Whether or not that is the case, it is a phenomenon that provides a powerful justification for the existence of institutions supporting scholarly history. When a neo-Nazi can parade himself as a serious historian, as in the case of David Irving, it was the practices of scholarship, carried out by meticulous historians like Richard Evans, that were his undoing. Preventing the misuse or suppression of the verifiable historical record is a social function worth preserving.

As Marshall Poe puts it, ‘lunatics’ can deny the Holocaust, but ‘only a few folks will believe them because historians have worked long and hard to find out not only if it happened, but also how it happened and why’ (p.114). He goes on to point out what is essential about a work of genuine scholarship; such a book will ‘have footnotes, those footnotes cite sources, those sources can often be found in archives, and those archives are usually open for anyone to walk into’ (p.114). There is a verifiable trail of documentation that cannot be denied, and a formal and rational presentation of evidence which will convince the great majority of people of the factual truth of events in the past.

Yet, beyond the outstanding atrocities of twentieth-century conflict, there are not that many events in history which need to be defended in such a way, still fewer whose meanings and nature are beyond dispute. In fact, the point of history as a discipline is surely not bounded by that which can be settled purely by the formal presentation of empirical fact. It is through the interpretation of historical events and developments that the vitality of the practice of history arises. It is with regard to these kinds of question that an examination of the institutions of professional academic history would be very valuable. Is academic history the objective guardian of legitimate historical analysis, or can it be criticised for privileging certain kinds of approach to the past, and excluding or marginalising others?

A book subtitled The Hidden History of History might have been expected to give some systematic attention to these questions, but Poe provides only a schematic account of the origins of academic institutions, without any real attempt at critique. The vantage point of his narrative also appears to believe that certain kinds of history, of women, or black Americans, for example, are perfectly well served by the academy. I am no expert on the state of US academic history, but it would surprise me if feminist academics or historians of race issues agreed with Poe’s assumptions here.

The narrative

The book is structured as a fictional biography of an academic historian from her postgraduate studies to her old age, placed sometime in the future, as she is clearly located as the generation born of those who were themselves at university in the late 1960s. Everything is given a light ‘fictionalisation’, to the point that the Students for a Democratic Society are lamely rendered as ‘Radical Action for Democracy’ (p.104). Everything in the twentieth century receives this superficial re-designation. There are no prizes for guessing who Poe’s equally reviled Workers’ Liberation Party and National Racists’ Party stand for, or the what latter’s Great Murderous Rampage designates (pp.114-15). This fictionalisation of unmistakable events of the twentieth century serves to allow Poe to rush past complex problems in a flippant and casual style, disallowing objections to his narrative.

This style may be intended to appeal to an imagined undergraduate audience that is disengaged and disdainful, but it does little to help elucidate the real problems of the discipline of scholarly history. Poe does give a brief outline of the origins of modern academic structures in the German seminar tradition, particularly with the work of Leopold von Ranke, who provides the surname for his fictional historian, Elizabeth Ranke (‘no relation’, p.10, he says; why?). He proceeds to give an account of how the structures of professional history work in the broad sense, from choosing the PhD topic, through completion and writing up of research, and onwards through the attempt to secure a career in academia and to publish research.

No doubt, his fictionalised biography of Elizabeth Ranke is meant to de-mystify the whole process, and point out its inherent shortcomings. There is plenty to complain about in the imperatives of academia, but Poe’s account of it does not rise much above a certain world-weary cynicism that seems to collude with an anti-intellectualism that is dismissive of systematic research. Who but other academics could possibly be interested in a tome such as A Foot in the Door: The History of Bulgarian Shoe Manufacturing from 1900 to 1905?(p.18).

Again, the fictionalised format affords Poe an easy target to set up and knock down, but the conceit is intellectually lazy, and rather stereotypical. How dull poor Balkan countries are! How uninteresting consumer-goods industries are! And yet, in reality, the sharply focused study of an apparently small-scale topic, can be very revealing of larger patterns, and can disturb complacent generalisations. In-depth research, which is difficult for anyone but a paid professional to carry out in a systematic fashion, is exactly the purpose for which we should value academic professionalism. Poe, a historian of early-modern Russia, ought to know this very well, but chooses not to explore the problem with any real seriousness.

The problem with this little book is that it shies away from a confrontation with the politics and purposes of academic history. If we go back to the foundation of history with Ranke and the German seminar, there is much more going on than Poe lets on to his readership. The nineteenth century was a time of gathering and archiving of large quantities of the surviving documentation of all existing history. It is no accident that history as a profession therefore became bound by national units of research, because this was the era of the modernisation of national states; history as a discipline was a full part of that.

The politics of ‘History’

The great German project of publishing edited versions of historical sources was, and is, called the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, and includes documents not just from modern day Germany, but from Italy and the Low Countries also; anywhere that had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, the medieval realm of which the German lands were the central part. A certain nationalist vision was therefore built into this enterprise from the beginning. The same can be said of the British version of national history, which, in an institutional sense, evolved independently of the German academic system (the latter was imported into the American academy, which accounts for some of the differences between British and American universities).

Particularly in regard to English history, the focus was on the history of law and royal administration. This served to emphasise the continuity of national history, with an unbroken line of authority back to Henry I, unlike those unreliable Europeans with all their revolutions and upheavals. Medieval history as an institution was very much a conservative project, and that has left a serious legacy. The history of history is a very political thing, and the origins of professional academic disciplines structure their development to the present.

A book on the history of history from an American perspective would, then, be very interesting if it explored the ideological motivations of the foundation of US history itself. Surely there would be much to say about how that has affected present practice and debates. However, Poe has nothing to say in this respect, even though his protagonist’s PhD research is on the ‘Women’s Liberation Army’ of the late 1960s (many of his representations of this fictionalised history appear to me to be snide, but perhaps that’s only my subjective view). The civil-rights struggle, and the ensuing second wave of feminism, were very real movements, which have indeed had considerable impact on American society, but clearly did not overturn the racist and sexist hierarchies they challenged. The degree to which black history and women’s history now figure in American universities, and the significance of their impact, is surely something worthy of considerable debate.

You would not guess this from Poe’s discussion of the university, where he claims, simply, when discussing the postgraduate funding regime, that it is an advantage for Elizabeth Ranke that she is a woman, and a disadvantage that she is white (p.27). This is a jarring passage, to put it mildly, and it is not balanced by any acknowledgment that it is not an advantage in general to be female or non-white in contemporary society. Poe presumably means to be progressive in choosing to narrate his story through a woman’s career, but there are many moments in the book where the political perspective is certainly ambiguous.

The problem of subjectivism

The publisher’s blurb on the book claims that Poe shows how ‘history books are actually socially-constructed artefacts reflecting all the contradictions of modern meritocratic capitalism’. It does not come close to achieving this, and is curiously lacking in any systematic analysis of the real politics of history. The concluding discussions rest on a basic subjectivist contrast between Dr Ranke’s feminist history, and a putative alternative by a conservative fundamentalist, as if there would be no means of resolving the clash of opinions and values of the two narratives by appeal to historical evidence (pp.100-2).

Indeed, he says that a historian ‘can pour pretty much any content into one or the other story-mold, no matter what that content may be’ (p.103). On the one hand, this contradicts Poe’s own statements against pure subjectivism, and on the other, it is not really an adequate representation of how historical disagreements and debates take place. Poe seems to imply that one narrative is as good as another, which would concede away the purpose of scholarly history. What is missing here is a grasp of history as a political activity, in which important truths really are at stake.

Since Poe has constructed his own fictional universe for the argument, it is impossible to challenge his presentation of the problem, but his discussion of narratives appears as no more than a sophomoric conceit. Poe would no doubt argue that he is making the issues accessible to his audience, but the simplification of complex problems is dangerous. At one point, Poe descends into a diatribe against ‘theory’, that is ‘arcane, scientific-sounding jargon: “discourses,” “intertexts,” “epistemes,” “alterities,” “simulacra,” “hegemonies,” “interstices,” and such’ (p.110). He then has his protagonist admit to herself that ‘she never really understood what they meant’ (p.110), which does not seem to be a satisfactory way of settling a serious issue. While it is fair to say that there is some bad theoretical writing out there, which can be more obscurantist than profound, Poe’s objections come over as simply anti-intellectual, in a rather huffing, old conservative fashion.

There are various books on the nature and history of history, including Richard Evans’ still very good A Defence of History (1997), which took on the issue of postmodernism and the alleged subjectivism of narratives in history. That book is liberal rather than radical, but it remains very accessibly written, and a model of clarity, that is of great use to anyone who wishes to think about the nature of history as a discipline. A thorough critical and radical analysis of the institutions of professional history remains, however, to be written.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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