Exploring the complex links between History and Identity

The trouble with history is, of course, that we can’t study everything. To study everything would be to relive every moment from every perspective that ever occurred. The study of history must focus in on a minute percentage of past events and organise them for us to understand and apply these lessons. For leaders and nation-builders, the task is therefore to look at all previous events and build a coherent story, enabling a shared common identity to form and creating the links and trust between individuals which are so essential in civil society.

Though as Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished professor and historian writes in ‘The Uses and Abuses of History,’ this can be very problematic. History is not black and white, and to look at History in this way is to ignore the events that occurred in all their richness and draw lessons from them, enabling us to learn. ‘Bad history,’ MacMillan notes, ‘makes sweeping generalisations for which there is not adequate evidence and ignores awkward facts which do not fit.’ This sort of history very blurs the line between facts, based on available evidence, and myths.

Another interesting phenomenon which MacMillan points out is the manner in which the way in which we study history greatly impacts our common identity and how fraught this can be. Since history is one of the key bases for our identities and future aims as groups and sub-groups within society, the implications can be immense. To omit certain parts of history can make some feel as if they are not valued, as if they do not matter. MacMillan uses the example of the controversy surrounding a prominent museum covering the Dresden bombings to illustrate her points:

Firstly, some claim that those who did not witness or participate in events cannot have an opinion on a subject or must give way to others who were. This could not be more wrong. Our primary senses: vision, smell, touch, sound, and taste, are only one of the ways in which we gather evidence. MacMillan points out that both these and our memories of them can be unreliable. It therefore makes far more sense to use other sources in addition to these: testimonies from other witnesses, books, journals, newspapers. It does not follow that just because one did not have first-hand experience of an event, they cannot have an opinion of it.

The thing that was surprising is that the very mention of the fact that Allied forces also did bad things during World War Two was taken as a personal insult to some. It seems to me that this is strongly linked to psychology and behaviourism: people would prefer to create narratives for themselves and ignore problematic elements than to face up to them and the possibility that their time may have been misused or wasted. We do not like to accept sunk costs.

The solution is not to ignore the magnificent complexity of history and our species. It is instead to embrace this complexity, to understand it and the lessons to be learnt, and to use this to build better nation states. If the only thing holding a nation together is a mix of ‘Bad History’ and myths, perhaps we should consider why it remains a nation, and if the two regions would be better of apart. This may of course cause many other issues — a reluctance to trade with people seen as ‘others,’ and an increased tendency to use violence against them. History will also no-doubt continue to shape identities — the things that people go through together inevitably does. Though there is something quite beautiful about being able to comprehend our past in all its richness and to build a common future despite or as a result of that.



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Adam Louis Sebastian Lehodey

I write about economics, literature, philosophy, sociology, urbanism, and anything that interests me at the time.