Clio's Battles: Historiography in Practice

Clio's Battles: Historiography in Practice

by Jeremy Black


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To write history is to consider how to explicate the past, to weigh the myriad possible approaches to the past, and to come to terms with how the past can be and has been used. In this book, prize-winning historian Jeremy Black considers both popular and academic approaches to the past. His focus is on the interaction between the presentation of the past and current circumstances, on how history is used to validate one view of the present or to discredit another, and on readings of the past that unite and those that divide. Black opens with an account that underscores the differences and developments in traditions of writing history from the ancient world to the present. Subsequent chapters take up more recent decades, notably the post-Cold War period, discussing how different perspectives can fuel discussions of the past by individuals interested in shaping public opinion or public perceptions of the past. Black then turns to the possible future uses of the then past as a way to gain perspective on how we use the past today. Clio’s Battles is an ambitious account of the engagement with the past across world history and of the clash over the content and interpretation of history and its implications for the present and future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016751
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/01/2015
Pages: 342
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is author of many books including War and Technology (IUP, 2013), Fighting for America: The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519–1871 (IUP, 2011), and War and the Cultural Turn. Black received the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize from the Society for Military History in 2008.

Read an Excerpt

Clio's Battles

Historiography in Practice

By Jeremy Black

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Jeremy Black
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01687-4


Academic, State, and Public Histories


"In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed. If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation's soul." Writing in the Daily Telegraph on 1 January 2014, Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador in London, attacked Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister, for visiting and paying homage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, in December 2013. This shrine memorializes Japanese military personnel who died in war, including fourteen "Class A" World War II criminals who were added in 1978. Liu accused Abe of posing a "serious threat to global peace" by "rekindling" Japan's militaristic spirit and argued that "visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders cannot simply be an internal affair," as they raised "serious questions about attitudes in Japan and its record of militarism, aggression and colonial rule." World War II played a key role not only in Liu's expression of grievance, but also in the proposal for remedy. Liu argued that, as China and Britain were "wartime allies," they "should join together both to uphold the UN Charter and to safeguard regional stability and world peace." Indeed, both China and Britain had fought Japan. This was one of over thirty articles by Chinese ambassadors in newspapers across the world.

When debating the politics of the present, the reference to history is more common than that to imaginative fiction (let alone fantasy literature), although the latter may come to have greater resonance for societies in which visual imagery proves more potent than written arguments. Indeed, the Japanese ambassador in London accused China of playing Voldemort. Nevertheless, the use of both history and imaginative fiction capture the extent to which a wide frame of reference can be employed when addressing present-day issues. Moreover, the references offered are eclectic, reflecting what is judged most helpful at the moment.

The weight of the past in framing senses of identity and in fueling the politics of grievance are themes of this book as part of the broader account of the usage of the past that it offers. This account focuses not on academic approaches to historiography, but on state and popular uses of the past. In these pages, these state and popular uses are seen as more significant than their academic counterparts for the treatment of history – both in form and in content. To discuss this thesis, it is appropriate to consider the development of historiography and also to offer a wide-ranging and up-to-date account of more recent trends. The emphasis will be on the shaping and characteristics of identity and grievance, and on the salience of politics in the usage of history. There will be an attempt to link the analysis to current issues and disputes, in short to show how the past is grasped for the present. Considering this dimension makes the book relevant, which is also a key characteristic of the type of history under discussion, history that may be termed public in the broadest sense, notably as contrasted with academic.

The public use of history has become far more widespread and urgent in recent decades. Since 1945, over 120 new states have been created across the world, each of which has had to define a new public history, even if partly under the guise of reviving older ones. Moreover, earlier independent states have been transformed, in large part due to the pressures of political history, in the shape of developments that made previous arrangements redundant. This shift can be seen with new constitutional and political systems, as, for example, in Germany, Japan, Italy, France, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and South Africa between 1945 and 1994.

At the same time, public histories in both old and new states have been, and are, contested. Far from there being any "Death of the Past" (J. H. Plumb, 1969) or "End of History" (Francis Fukuyama, 1989), this process continues to be active and important, albeit at very different levels. In 1779, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya painted Truth, Time, and History – a benign and harmonious, as well as allusive, account of their relationship – which hangs in the National Museum in Sweden. The reality of this relationship has been very different; and this is not simply a matter of key episodes or major countries. Instead, the corollary of the use of the past to offer identity in continuity, and continuity in identity, is that both also provide a basis for contestation.

Overlapping with that contestation can come academic work, but the pattern of change can differ. Moreover, in many countries, the state approach takes precedence. For example, in China, growing academic stress on the iniquities and harshness of the rule and regime of Mao Zedong, the Communist dictator from 1949 to 1976, clashes with the state orthodoxy, which has been willing to admit to his mistakes but not to there having been a very bloody, cruel, and inefficient tyranny under Mao. As a result, the "Great Leap Forward" of 1958–1962, a murderous and unsuccessful attempt to force-modernize Chinese agriculture, is not discussed in public with the freedom with which it is treated by scholars, notably outside China.

Changes in the public use of history, both by government and by the public as a whole, are crucial to the general understanding of the past, and these developments stem largely from current political shifts and pressures. Thus, for example, the collapse of Communism across much of Eurasia in 1989–1991 was followed by a recovery of non- and anti-Communist themes, topics, and approaches – the theme of chapter 8. For example, in newly independent Estonia, it became possible, indeed appropriate, to emphasize the destructiveness of Soviet conquest in 1940 and, again, 1944 and occupation, and to discuss both the many victims of this occupation, and those who resisted. It will be instructive to see how far the same process occurs in Cuba once the Castro system ends, as is likely to be the case.

At the same time, the collapse of European Communism threw up bitter political contentions that also had strong historical resonances. This was readily apparent in 2013 when the government of Ukraine rejected an agreement for its association with the EU (European Union). Russian pressure was, in part, responsible for this decision by Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, and this pressure owed much to history as well as geopolitics. Linkage with Ukraine provided Russians a sense of historical identity, in that Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the center of the first Russian state (founded in the late ninth century) and the site that supplied Russia's connection to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and Orthodox Christianity. The collapse of the Soviet Union and of Communism made this linkage more important in Russia, not least as Slavic identity and Orthodox Christianity became more significant there, while also requiring definition and inviting expansion. Opposing EU expansion is pertinent to this process of identification as historical foes of Russia, namely Poland, Lithuania, and Germany, are particularly associated with this current expansion as far as Ukraine is concerned. Thus, the seventeenth-century struggle between Russia and Poland-Lithuania over control of Ukraine appears relevant in Russia.

In turn, Ukrainian popular anger with the president's action helped to provoke his overthrow in February 2014. This is discussed at greater length in chapter 8. This overthrow threw to the fore in Russia a different historical reference: the willingness of some Ukrainians to cooperate with the German invasion in 1941. Russian commentators repeatedly, and misleadingly, asserted continuity between this case and that of Ukrainian nationalists in 2014.

The role of history in politics is significant, and it is scarcely surprising that politics accordingly has affected the character of the history that is offered. Issues of national identity and political legitimation are central. The context is often a long-term one. When, for example, members of the Polish Parliament from two populist parties occupied the chamber in 2002, they were criticized for reviving what were presented as the anarchic traditions of the old Polish Commonwealth. This was a very charged comparison. Although other factors, such as a lack of defensible frontiers, were significant, anarchic impulses were seen as a significant factor in the weakness of this Commonwealth that led to the partitions of Poland by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1772–1795. These partitions removed Poland from the political map of Europe until these empires collapsed at the close of World War I. Thus, critics discerned a self-destructive politics that was quasi-treasonable in 2002.

More commonly, the frame of historical reference is less distant. The World Wars (1914–1918, 1939–1945) dominate attention, especially the second. World War I attracted attention in 2014 with discussion in terms of what commemoration of the centenary was appropriate. However, it proved easier to deploy memories about World War II and to derive "lessons" from the war, and its background, and thus to make them apparently relevant. For example, the unwillingness of Britain to help the Spanish Republic against the German-backed nationalist uprising during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) bolstered the cause of the Communist Soviet Union, which did provide assistance for the Republic. This example was cited as a reason the Western powers were wrong to opt for inaction over Syria in 2010–2014, as, more generally, were the apparent lessons of the "Appeasement" of Hitler's Germany in 1938. On the other hand, the complexities of choice and action were indicated by these examples. Had Franco, the Nationalist leader, not won in Spain, the Cold War with the Communist bloc from 1945 to 1989 would have been more difficult for the West as it would have faced a Communist Spain. The choice in Syria, moreover, looked less attractive if presented in terms of Assad or jihadists as opposed to Assad and liberals; and this contrast is instructive as far as the future historical treatment of the civil war in Syria is concerned.


There are broader contexts for political controversies in which history is deployed. History as understood by the public is, in large part, a product of patterns of social experience, such as shifts in collective memory, and of social change, for example the rise of literacy. These patterns of social experience create powerful narratives and analyses. Religious explanations are a prime instance. Different societies have interpreted time in varied ways, not least as a consequence of the diverse nature of creation and revival myths, as well as of ecclesiological accounts of time and of divine intervention in causation.

The varied interpretations of the meaning of time are not simply linked to history, as in an account of causation, but also to history, as in the dating of events. The latter was particularly significant in order to understand the nature and purpose of time and, more particularly, to know when religious ceremonies should be observed – as doing so correctly was a means to propitiate the deities and secure their support, so it helped to ensure that history was a process of benign causation. This knowledge was linked to astrology, a means in many societies to understand the present in the light of supra-human forces in order to help shape the future. Astrology, in many cultures, was a matter not only of personal horoscopes, but also of interpretations related to kings or countries as a whole. These beliefs explained the need to note divine purpose through measuring time, which proved an important drive in the presentation of mathematical knowledge. Time was presented as the sphere in which human agents acted and were acted upon by supra-human forces. Providentialism and storytelling were ways to understand this interaction, helping to ensure that myth was not a separate category to other accounts of causation and change. This situation has lasted to the present.

A crucial element was provided by religion. Indeed, direct divine intervention in the life of humans offered a narrative and analysis that was common both to the ancient world and more recently. Religious agents and themes played a major role in both providentialism and storytelling. Moreover, in retelling history in this fashion, the potency of religious agencies, such as oracles, holy men, relics and saints, and the threat from their opponents, notably demons, became readily apparent. Prophecy played a significant role, but it could draw not only on good agencies but also on those that were more ambiguous, or, at least, secretive, such as astrology and alchemy. The extent to which, for most of the past, histories were written by those with clerical education, interests, and careers greatly affected their approach, content, and tone.

Yet, although religious themes were very important, time was not necessarily understood in a simple fashion, or only in terms of the issues of liturgical time or an apocalyptic future. The influential English monastic scholar Bede (c. 673–735 CE), one of the leading clerical historians, as well as many of his Irish monastic contemporaries, divided time into three kinds: natural, human/customary, and divine. The first of these was rigid and linear, and the third was mysterious; but the second was open-ended, defined only by artificial means, and otherwise amendable to the influence of human actions. As a more general indication that religious interpretations did not entail the absence of choice – a choice that, in turn, had to be explained – eighth- and ninth-century Western European historians were generally attached to the creativity of the human present and to an undefined future. Believing in Judgment Day at the time of Christ's Second Coming was not the same as believing that everything was already mapped out. Generally, the rhetoric surrounding the Last Judgment and the Apocalypse was that, because their timing was unknown and they could come at any moment, it was necessary to think carefully about how choices in the present would play out in the future. This perception contributed to a situation in which the present was distinguished from the past, creating new opportunities, as well as closing off what became anachronistic because it was less relevant.

Religious accounts of causation remain of great cultural weight. In societies that look to the past for example and validation, societies that are reverential of and referential to history, this weight is of major significance. History as a record of providential action is a theme and approach that is widely seen. It provides a meaning that apparently links past, present, and future, and that seems to give purpose to events, change, and time. Providential interpretations ensure that episodes such as the Holocaust can be apparently explained, both at the time and subsequently, not only with reference to secular interpretations, but also, or instead, with regard to theological counterparts. The latter include arguments that God left Humanity with a degree of free will that made the Holocaust possible, and also that God was present in the Holocaust, both suffering and as Jews testified to their faith. Some Christian theologians have argued that the Holocaust can be understood alongside the suffering of Christ.

Academic works of history and on historiography, however, are generally written in a secular tone, with religious themes treated as an aspect of the past, and historical scholarship, conversely, as a secularizing project. This approach is particularly adopted for the post-medieval age, the last half-millennium, to employ a Western method of organizing time. This account, however, is too limited for this post-medieval age, and may also be inappropriate for the future. Indeed, demographic trends, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and what has been presented as a crisis in secular approaches and an exhaustion of their dreams, have led to the suggestion that the future will be more religious, not least due to the tendency of the devout to have more children and to engage in politics. Such a future would probably have consequences for the nature of popular history and for the discussion of historiographical trends considered in chapter 12. For example, in India, Hindu activists press hard against accounts of Hinduism they dislike, while there are comparable demands from the Hindu diaspora.

At the same time, religious fundamentalism in part arises today, as in the past, from an urgency in facing challenges from secularism and globalization; in part, moreover, evidence of resurgent fundamentalism has as much to do with the impact of more social, political, and cultural populism. In addition, fundamentalisms are fractured tendencies, rather than coherent movements. There are also the consequences of serious rivalry between religions and sects, both in encouraging fundamentalism and in weakening its impact. This rivalry is an aspect of globalization. Indeed, across time, the diffusion of religions has been one of the most significant, and often lasting, aspects of globalization. The rivalry between religions makes it difficult to offer a unified and clear account of the past based on religious considerations, notably providentialism, whether or not the account is fundamentalist in character.


Excerpted from Clio's Battles by Jeremy Black. Copyright © 2015 Jeremy Black. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Academic, State, and Public Histories
2. A Selective Narrative to 1650
3. The Long Eighteenth Century
4. The Nineteenth Century
5. The Twentieth Century
6. New States and the Possibilities of Lineage
7. The Historical Dimension of Manifest Destiny
8. Post-Communism and the New History
9. Western Europe
10. Contesting the Past, Claiming the Future
11. Historiographies of the Present
12. Historiographies of the Future
13. A Personal Note
14. Conclusions
Selected Further Reading

What People are Saying About This

VMI - Spencer C. Tucker

Refreshing . . . Black eschews 'Eurocentricism' and includes considerable material on other areas of the world that one does not usually find in such a work. Typical of Black’s writing, there is much to learn in the numerous small asides throughout the text. Taken together these form an impressive whole.

Oxford Brookes University - William Gibson

Remarkable both for its geographical scope and historical scale, and for its command of scholarship on a breathtaking range of subjects. I can't imagine another historian who could attempt such an ambitious work or pull it off with such aplomb.

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