“How it actually was:” Leopold von Ranke’s call to historians to stick with nothing but the facts, while using all sources available. Von Ranke urged his students and peers to write history as it happened according to the documents, to eschew the speculation and slant found in works such as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or the nationalist histories then coming into vogue. It is a challenge that historians still struggle with – how do you write objective history?One of the required grad school courses that I took was a historiography course: the history of writing history. The professor explained that there is art and craft in writing history, as well as the necessity of sticking to pure facts. One grad student (who was eventually voted ‘most likely to have hit contract put on him by archivists’) announced that high school students could writer better history than “professional” historians because the high school student didn’t know enough to have opinions. To which the prof replied that an almanac is not pure, unbiased history, either, in a tone that suggested the grad student should hush up and listen. If one is looking for “pure facts” alone, then the enormous “Timetable of History” is probably of great use – but it does not include everything that happened. The very act of selecting which events were the most important is an exercise in discernment and opinion.
Can one write pure, objective, Dragnet-style history? Not really. Writers are influenced by so many things in their lives and environments (and in the materials available) that pure, absolutely opinion and bias free history cannot be written. What a historian can do is 1) be as fair as possible, 2) use all available material from both (or all) sides of the matter and 3) be honest about his/her/its opinions on the topic.
For example: Geoffrey Wawro writes about the Habsburg Empire and society and the military in central Europe, focusing on the period between 1800 and 1919. He writes very well. He also has an intense dislike of the Habsburg monarchy. It shows in his writing, most strongly in his recent book about the first year of WWI. I’d like his stuff more if he toned down his animosity, but the reader can tell quickly what Wawro’s take is and he is very careful to present the archival sources and to have material to support his arguments. However, I’d recommend Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August to a general reader before I’d suggest Wawro. Tuchman has less about the Eastern Front but is also far less biased (or rather, her bias shows far less strongly and doesn’t tip into ridicule). Ring of Steel by Watson does a better job of presenting the forces that pushed (pulled, tipped) Austria into War and the results. And Norman Stone’s book about the Eastern Front describes in depressing detail (because of the subject, not because of the writing) how the Austrian Army fared in the opening of WWI (and beyond). In none of the latter books do the Austrians come across as saints (there were none, aside perhaps from the Belgians and the civilians caught between the armies). Wawro’s book is useful, but not one I’d recommend to a general reader without mentioning a few caveats.
A lack of objectivity can also stem from the source material used. Donald Worster’s classic (and rightly a classic) Dust Bowl is about how certain economic patterns, when combined with drought, led to the dust bowl in the 1930s. He drew heavily on US government documents and other sources that were available at the time he wrote (1973). What he did not take into account, one suspects in part because the writers’ philosophy dovetailed with his hypothesis, was that the US government report writers and observers included many who wanted to depopulate the Great Plains and had discussed their reasons why in the USDA Yearbook of Agriculture in 1926. They focused on the “poor farming practices” and “bad habits” and “inefficient land use” of the time and recommended returning the High Plains to grass. Goeff Cunfer, 30 years after Worster, used a much larger variety of sources, and the GIS (Geographic Information System) tools now available, and reached a very different conclusion: drought caused the Dust Bowl. Certain farming techniques did increase erosion in specific areas, but the over-expansion of wheat during the “Great Plow-Up” of the 1920s did not cause the soil to move. Worster’s book is much easier to read. Cunfer’s is better history in terms of sources and testing the hypothesis. Both are still worth studying and add to our body of knowledge and understanding of the Dust Bowl drought and how it affected humans.
There is no such thing as being able to tell history “as it truly was.” We can get as close as possible, and do as much as we can to minimize our personal opinions about events and characters, but there is much we will never know, can never know, and can’t shed ourselves of. That doesn’t make us bad historians, but it should make us careful ones.