Martin van Creveld sees the Rise and Fall of History, followed by Amnesia

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.

Minerva's Owl


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Starting around the time of Hegel’s death, these assumptions were widely shared. All three of the most important ideologies of the period 1830-1945, i.e. liberalism, socialism/communism and fascism subscribed to it. None more so than Winston Churchill, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. The last-named once said that a person who did not know history was like a person without a face. As religion declined in front of secularism history, with Hegel as its high priest, became the source of truth, no less.

To be sure, there were always those who cast doubt on the enterprise. Whether seriously and out of ignorance, as when Henry Ford famously said that history was bunk; or only half-so, as in Walter Sellar’s hilariously funny 1931 best-seller, 1066 & All That. The outcome was a vast outpouring of written works — later, movies as well — and an ever greater increase in the number of students both in- and outside academia.

Owl of MInerva

The Fall of History

At the time I took on my studies in 1960s, few people doubted that finding out the historical truth was an important objective in itself. Then, around 1970, things started changing. This time the herald of change was a Frenchman, Michel Foucault (1926-84). The way Foucault saw it, post Hegelian historians — and, looming behind them, his own countryman Rene Descartes — were wrong. Contrary to their delusions, such thing as an objective fact, event, process or text did not exist. Rather, each person interpreted — “read” was the term Foucault’s followers invented for this — each text, process, event and fact in his or own way. Assuming, that is, that these things had any kind of objective existence at all and were not imposed on history ex post facto.

The choice of interpretation was determined by each person’s experience and personality; in reality, therefore, the number of possible interpretations was infinite. If, as sometimes happened, this interpretation or that was widely accepted, then this fact only showed that it suited the psychological needs of many people, not that it was more “correct” than any others.

Since then this view has been eating up the study of history like a worm eating up an apple from within. Previously people had written learned tomes about, say, Greek antiquity; how it came into being, what its main characteristics were, how it unfolded, expanded, passed away, and so on. Now they did the same about the way historians had “discovered” or “invented” that antiquity. The same applies to “the middle ages,” “the renaissance,” “the enlightenment,” “the industrial revolution,” and so on and so on. This came dangerously close to saying that history was but a fairy tale and any attempt to write about it was not “science” but fiction — good or bad.

The implications of this view were tremendous. If all the study of history was capable of yielding was some kind of subjective tale, then of what use could it be in establishing “the truth”? And if it could not help in establishing “the truth,” then what could be the purpose of engaging in it? And how about the remaining social sciences such as political science, international relations, sociology, and so on? Weren’t they, too, based on the assumption that an “objective” past did exist and could be used to understand the present?

For a century and a half it had been assumed that a firm grasp of these subjects would qualify those who had it for many kinds of work not only in academia but in both the public and the private sphere. Now, increasingly degrees in these fields were seen as useless. The more useless they appeared to be, the less capable they were of providing their owners with a reasonable income as well as an acceptable position in society. The less capable they were of providing their owners with an acceptable position in society and a reasonable income, the smaller their perceived uselessness.

Amnesia: the dark descent


And so began the decline of the humanities and many of the social sciences that we see all around us. The lives of an entire generation of young academics have been blighted, given that nobody any more is interested in whatever they may have to say. Finding work outside the universities is even harder; instead of degrees, prospective employers demand “experience” above everything else.

Does that mean that books and movies that deal with the past will soon disappear? Of course not. Rather, it means that the purpose of reading those works has shifted. Instead of analyzing underlying factors and trying to extract “lessons,” people started looking for stories with heroes and villains in them. Instead of looking for the general picture they took an interest in the details; often, needless to say, the juicier the better. Instead of asking, “how we got to where we are now,” they wanted to know what life in the past had felt like. Nowhere was this more true than in my own field, military history. The reason, presumably, being that the vast majority of people in advanced countries no longer had any personal experience of warfare.

Where the demand exists supply will follow. Contrary to the situation as it existed a few decades ago, the most important historians writing today are not academics. They are popular writers, with his difference that the adjective “popular” is now as likely to be used in a complimentary way as in a derogatory one. By and large they do not reflect on underlying theoretical principles, create frameworks, or provide deep analysis. Yet from Antony Beevor in Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 through Max Hastings in Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War to Keith Lowe in Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, they have a vivid sense for detail and know how to spin a tale.

Those tales may be useless in the classroom — having tried to use them there, I know. Yet judging by sales they seem to be filling the psychological needs of many people. The king is dead; long live the king.


About the Author

Martin van Creveld

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war: Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present.

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?.

He’s written one of the most influential books of our generation about war, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments — because we value your participation. For more information see all posts about our amnesia about our history, and especially these…

The Culture of War
Available at Amazon.
Technology and War
Available at Amazon.

13 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld sees the Rise and Fall of History, followed by Amnesia

  1. Interesting article, thanks. Without wishing any disrespect, I’ll point out that a mistake in the opening sentence gives a (false) impression of poor writing in the article; I’ll point it out in a helpful spirit. “Phenomenon” is the singular of the noun, and the sentence requires the plural form, “phenomena”, to be proper English.

  2. I studied physics in school, and I can’t help but wonder what Foucault would say about our assumption of an objective reality that applies to everything, everywhere, and which is discoverable by observation and describable by mathematics. Did Foucault ever say anything about the scientific method?

  3. I don’t know enough about Foucault or Hegel, but I know the scientific method itself is not immune to critique and contradiction. That doesn’t make it the scientific method useless, nor does it make critiques of it useless. On the contrary, by expanding our language to express the limits we encounter in the process of inquiry, it can become stronger.

    Similarly for postmodern critiques of history, I think. If you can poke holes in the process of studying the past, that does not make continuing to study the past useless — not at all. Why throw out the baby with the bathwater? The lines of inquiry of the 60’s and 70’s can give us insight into the feedback subject and object, which really does exist. Did Hegel have something to say about that? I’m not the right person to ask that either.

    Returning to the article… Is Van Creveld lamenting the loss of faith that came as collateral damage in the late 20th century techniques used to cracking open the act of inquiry itself? Has the loss of faith gone too far and left the world a dumber place as a result? Is it even fair to attribute that loss of faith on postmodernist thinkers, rather than attribute it to something like the ebb and flow of political discourse driven by more mundane material/power relationships?

  4. re: “If you can poke holes in the process of studying the past, that does not make continuing to study the past useless — not at all. Why throw out the baby with the bathwater? The lines of inquiry of the 60’s and 70’s can give us insight into the feedback subject and object, which really does exist. Did Hegel have something to say about that? I’m not the right person to ask that either.”

    This has been a vigorous area of research, discussion and controversy in holistic-integral theory (consciousness studies) and related metatheories (Ray Bhaskar’s Critical Realism) for several decades.

    The academically oriented folk in such movements are acutely aware of the problem in postmodern culture of the disintegration of beliefs, meaning and purpose (meta-narratives) that van Creveld discusses as a feature of the decline of the nation state, and are trying to address it with proposals for new forms of spirituality and religion (mainly within the context of new age urban liberalism or the “green meme”).

    Excerpt: Biography of Roy-Bhaskar – (1944 – 2014) is a philosopher who is best known as the originator of the philosophy of critical realism and metaReality.

    In 2000 Bhaskar inaugurated a new, contentious, phase of critical realist philosophy in what has become known as the ‘spiritual turn’ with the publication of From East to West. This was quickly followed in 2002 by Reflections on metaReality, From Science to Emancipation and The Philosophy of metaReality, which together securely established a third phase of critical realist philosophy known as the philosophy of metaReality, a phase which incorporates a trenchant critique of modernity, and its philosophical discourses, and radically new and sublime accounts of the self, social structure and the cosmos, oriented like dialectical and basic critical realism to the survival of the planet and universal wellbeing and flourishing.


    Fear and Trembling Under the Open Sky- Sloterdijk on the Postmodern Condition
    Written by Trevor Malkinson

    quoting “scholar/philosopher” John David Ebert:

    What Sloterdijk is really doing here is going back and reinterpreting Heidegger’s idea of being-in-the-world. He says in this book that to be-in-the-world means simultaneously to be inside of a sphere. Human beings, according to Sloterdijk, are the animals that create spheres as systemic immune systems; spheres are cultural immune systems that immunize with metaphysical ideas. Ontology, as he says, is applied immunology. Metaphysical systems like any of the ancient ideas of the world religions, gods, the soul, freedom, Being itself, all of these ideas are ones that immunize and protect the human being from the Lacanian ‘Real’. Spheres are symbolic and imaginary immune systems that protect against the impact of the Lacanian Real, which comes along every so often and pops and ruptures them. Spheres typically implode and explode, and they’re constantly having to be remade and restructured.

    Sloterdijk says that the problem with modern man then is that modern man lives in a shell-less state. Ever since Copernicus, the sky no longer functions as an immune system. Prior to that it had functioned as an immune system, and indeed there are medieval paintings, if you look at the painting from Fouquet from 1452 called ‘The Holy Spirit Driving Away the Demons’, you see the sky as a blue dome with the hand of God punching down through it, chasing away all these demons. So you can clearly see that the sky in an enclosed sense, providing a sense of safety and warmth and reassurance to the human being during the middle ages, was indeed immunological…

    In an age when the immunological world of the spheres is gone, the human being exists in a shell-less state, no longer defended by the immunizing sense of the sky as an enclosed cosmology. In the 17th century in Dutch art we get this experience of being, open, unprotected, and we’re in vast expanses of the sky. The Dutch, as Gambridge pointed out, are the ones who discovered the sky. Three quarters of their canvases are taken up with these gigantic visions of the heavens because the Copernican world has come in, and the Ptolemaic spheres have collapsed and now we’re out in the open in space, unprotected, no longer immunized by these metaphysical ideas; so all the crises of anxiety and existentialism and ontological disorientation, come out of the West from this sphereological crisis, from this collapse, according to Sloterdijk.

    “Only after the victory of humanism and the Enlightenment as the religious foundation of the Western society did anxiety about spiritual nonbeing become dominant. The breakdown of absolutism, the development of liberalism and democracy, the rise of a technical civilization with its victory over all enemies and its own beginning disintegration- these are the presuppositions for the third main period of anxiety in history [the post/modern era]. In this period the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness is dominant. We are under the threat of spiritual non-being”.
    – Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

    1. I like the immune system metaphor on a lot of levels, but I wasn’t concerned with anxiety surrounding the loftiest and slipperiest problems of metaphysics or spirituality. From what I understand, this type of anxiety comes around every time a new wave of philosophy comes along. The reason it’s not a problem for us is that it doesn’t interfere with the operation of society in present day western culture, as we have absorbed these ideas pretty successfully. The one real-world exception I can think of is that there are all these religious fundamentalist movements, fueled by the reaction / rejection to late-20th-century developments in western culture, and we haven’t yet learned to make peace with these reactionary movements.

      Maybe I’m reading into it wrong, but I think Van Creveld was referring to more of a middle level problem in thought, halfway down between high philosophy and the day to day material theories that feed policy — the study of history, which gets trapped between the philosophical crossfire above and the blending of markets with academia down below. I.e., the model of truth-seeking that comes from the legal system, where each side of an issue is entitled to the best representation their money can buy, and the rules of advertising/PR/think-tank research slowly gain the upper hand, at least in the short run? But that is my own projection…

  6. The postmodern philosophers agree with Karl Rove: ‘We’re an Empire now and create our one reality and while you judiciously deconstruct that one we’ll create another reality.’
    At a time that a total Neoliberal world is being constructed no “totalizing discourses” are allowed by the ‘posties’.

  7. Unfortunately quantum mechanics says that wave functions don’t collapse into reality until observed. No help from that quarter. Schroedinger’s cat is both alive & dead until observed.

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