History and Morality

As historians, we are more often than not a personal conduit for conveying historical knowledge. We engage in conversations with students, colleagues, and friends about history far more often than our books and articles are read.  There is a curiosity about the historians' craft.  Even if someone doesn't know much about history and their interest is a simple one, they are usually curious about it.  History is knowing about experiences that are beyond your own experience – either you were not there or, more likely, you were not alive.  Most are eager to find out some kernel of knowledge about the past and we are happy to give it. Answering questions, after all, is the core of our profession.

Conversation is an unavoidably personal way to educate others about history.  That connection leads to serious questions about how we relay the facts about the past.  Outside of the lengthy space of articles and books, we are forced to condense our thoughts and sometimes deal with complicated issues in simple ways.  The most problematic are the historical events that reflect on the terrible nature of humankind – the wars, atrocities, the cruelty of one human being towards another. How do we discuss these issues in conversation?  Or, how do we as historians deal with morality, let alone convey it to others?  Is it our place to judge the past?

Marc Bloch, one France's most famous historians, was in a unique place to answer that question.  He was a French academic who worked with the resistance during the Second World War and was tragically shot by the Gestapo during the final weeks of Nazi occupation in his native France.  Just before Bloch was taken from his apartment and murdered, he had written a chapter that later appeared in his book, The Historian's Craft. The chapter was tentatively entitled "Judgement or Understanding." In it, he perceptively asked: is it the historian's job to judge or to understand on the basis of evidence collected from the period? He contrasted what we do as historians with what lawyers do with their evidence. He concluded that lawyers operated differently because they were supposed to pass judgement on people and their actions, whereas the historian needed to be dissociated from moral dilemma in order to make better sense of the issues that faced him/her. Part of the historian's job, therefore, was to avoid moral judgement.

Bloch lived through the worst years of 20th century Europe.  He was in the trenches from 1914 to 1918 and fought in those gruesome conditions. He watched as Nazism grew in popularity, as Hitler established the Third Reich, and as the regime occupied the streets of France. He was an intellectual who ought to have judged his contemporary situation. Instead, Bloch and his colleagues tried to understand how the Second World War could have happened, how Nazism grew among the people of Europe, and so on. It's not that he didn't judge at all, but his writing showed great prudence and lacked temperament. Although we know a lot more about what happened during the Second World War, it’s amazing that professional historians during the period—even when confronted with the horrors of Nazism—tried to dissociate themselves from outright moral discussion and judgement. This doesn’t mean that there was no condemnation at all, however. This might have been because, as intellectuals, they recognized that extremism was rife in every country in Europe at the time and today we tend to gloss over those similarities.

There is still much debate among historians over the question of expressing moral positions in our writing.  Bloch is but one opinion against historians as moral arbiters, while there are many who believe it is inescapable.  Isaiah Berlin wrote in Historical Inevitability that “our historical language – the words and thoughts with which we attempt to reflect about or describe past events and persons is rife with moral presumptions and judgments, as well it should be.” Historians are unavoidably tangled in moral dilemmas.  The construction of a historical narrative must be defined by some moral framework. How else can our work evoke emotion?  If we are charged with communicating some sliver of human history, it is near impossible to separate it from the emotion and the passion of lived experience. In fact, forging a connection between the individual and the past is good writing, so even as we strive to maintain objectivity in our arguments, it is necessarily tempered by the moral nature of emotive narratives.  Even if it is our responsibility to avoid moral judgements of the past, we cannot escape the moral nature of our work.

Here at Clio's Current our mandate outlines our task of judging contemporary events by understanding the past – a twist on Bloch's wise words.  We occupy a middle ground, one reflected in the words of historian George Cotkin. In his contribution to the debate about history and morality, he concluded that “historians can be moral agents. This occurs variously: by the way they frame questions, by the narratives they develop, by the questions they ask, and by their passion.  By their complicating of issues and setting those issues within a framework of philosophical erudition tied to historical analysis, they can help the moral conversation to inch forward.” Clio's Current is an ongoing experiment to engage with history and we work to achieve a balance between Bloch and Berlin.  Bloch's imperative that we are to understand rather than judge the past does not remove us from morality altogether.  Nor does Berlin's warning of the inherent morality of human experience mean that historians' must occupy a moral position.  Instead, as Cotkin notes, we can be moral agents. Historians can preserve the objectivity of their arguments even as they participate in “moral conversations.”  Understanding why terrible things have happened or why individuals have committed atrocious acts is an integral part of communicating our shared history. While it is hoped that we as a people can learn from these mistakes, it is not the historians' job to make sure that occurs.  If we can at least better understand them, then it is up to the individual to deal with the moral lessons of past on their own terms.