Summary: Martin van Creveld looks at one of the great phenomena of our time, one which has seriously damaged our world — the death of history (the study of history). He describes how it happens. See the posts at the end for examples of its ill effects.
The Fall and Rise of History
By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 16 July 2014
Posted with his permission
I well remember the time when I fell in love with history. This was 1956 and I was ten years old, living with my parents in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. While rummaging in a storage room, I came across a book with the title (in Dutch), World-History in a Nutshell. Greatly impressed by the story of the small, but brave, ancient Greek people fighting and defeating the far more numerous Persian army, I quickly read it from cover to cover. Much later I learnt that the volume was part of a series issued by the Dutch ministry of education and updated every few years. To the best of my memory the one in my hands did mention World War I but not Hitler; hence it must have dated to the 1920s when my parents went to school.
It was World-History in a Nutshell and the wonderful tales it contained that made me decide I wanted to study history. In 1964 this wish took me to the Hebrew University where I started thinking seriously about what I was trying to do. From beginning to end, my aim was always to understand what happened and why it happened. Though it took me a long time to realize the fact, in doing so I, like countless other modern historians, was following in the footsteps of the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).
The Rise of History
Hegel’s most important propositions, as I came to understand them, could be summed up as follows.
- The past had a real, objective existence. It was, so to speak, solidified present, more or less covered by the sands of time; which meant that, given sufficient effort was devoted to removing the sand, “the truth” about it could be discovered.
- In the main it consisted not of the more or less accidental, more or less cranky deeds of individuals but was pushed ever-onward by vast, mostly anonymous, spiritual, economic — this was Marx’s particular contribution — social and technological forces none could control. Men and women were carried along by it like corks floating on a stream; now using it to swim in the right direction, now vainly trying to resist it and being overwhelmed by it.
- The past mattered. It was only by studying the past that both individuals and groups of every kind could gain an understanding as to who they were, where they had come from, and where they wanted to go and might be going.