Handling History

In his seminal work, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, William L. Shirer writes of an encounter between Adolf Hitler and his High School History teacher, Dr Leopold Poetsch. Describing his experience as a student, Hitler had written, in his Mein Kampf, The teacher made history my favourite subject. And indeed, he had no such intention, it was then that I became a young revolutionary. Decades later, while touring Austria in triumph, in 1938, Hitler stopped to see his old teacher. He conversed with him alone for an hour, and later confided to members of his party,

You cannot imagine how much I owe to that old man.

Poignant in hindsight, it is worth noting how our understanding of the past can cultivate our actions in the present. We usually consider ourselves part of a continuum, a current in the larger river – how far we take that river, depends both on our ability and ideology. Present, as the English Historian, E.H.Carr says, can only be understood in the light of the past.Or, its mirror version, by the French Historian Marc Bloch, which states that Misunderstanding the present is an inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. As humans, we have a proclivity to associate with larger causes, with transcending ideas, and with the herds of our choice. As a direct result, we adhere to a version of official history that serves the larger purpose of the herd. When Eric Hobsbawm famously drew an analogy between Historians and poppy-growers, this is precisely what he meant; to further the cause of an ideology and its ideologues, we need History. If there exists none, we need to invent one. History, whose conclusions are foregone. History, which upholds regional and cultural biases. History, that pronounces judgement, before the trial. History, that most of all, serves the herd narrative.

As a subject, History is fascinating – like the Time Machine of H.G.Wells, it takes us to places in the past; like trekking through forests and mountains, we discover new lands, and with every new discovery, a hundred more doors open. As a propaganda tool, history is unbearably boring; even if we see a river, we have to call it a waterfall, if we have been ordered to do so. The former drives from curiosity, the latter from conformity. The former results in fascination, the latter in bigotry. The former aligns one to the larger cause of humanity, the latter confines us to the small niche of partisanship.

Partly due to intellectual laziness, mainly a consequence of ideological fealty; a lot of what goes around as History is as an exercise in intellectual Knighthood. Such a history cannot be read through and through. It must be made certain that it is neither read well, nor read wide. Rather, it is understood through snippets – ill devised screenshots of the past, that cherry-pick premises, for foregone conclusions. Were I a Sports Historian, writing biographies of great players, with extraordinary careers and many a record, but bent on to write only about the games they did not score – while factually true, my work would be contextually horrendous. This reading of history, as stale as it sounds, is a fairly common occurrence. With extreme ease, snipping our way through history, Gandhi can be proved a fascist and Hitler a pacifist, marauders as heroes and heroes as villains. For people in active political life for half a century, for intellectuals with thousands of publications, for civilizations with hundreds of years under their belt; snipping is as easy, as it is horrible. Put to use by the protagonists of a particular narrative, it is also often amplified as an official doctrine, with the twin whips of blasphemy and sedition, at constant disposal. With his usual brilliance, George Orwell, in 1984, epitomizes it thus:

Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.

A reading of history as it is, and not as we wish it to be. History, wherein providence does not take any particular interest in my herd – which is the common heritage of humankind; is a panacea to many an evil confronting the world. My people, right under the heavens, centre of creation, founders of every good that we have hitherto seen, sometimes faltering from envious enemy conspiracies, in an otherwise infallible civilization – is an obsolete fabrication that we must bid farewell. As humans, first and last, all history is our history, its successes are ours and its failures are on us. The common bond of humanity shall ever evade us if history is made to serve ulterior motives and perform the work of polemical cannons. History, read well and wide, on the other hand, shall surely make us acquire what Bertrand Russell terms as, Citizenship of the intellectual commonwealth.