History in the making: How the Past is Made

This article has been created deliberately in tandem with another entitled ‘The Soft Underbelly of Winston Churchill’. Please read that one before you read this one.

People often express the opinion that they are viewing, or are party to, ‘history in the making’. That they are bearing witness to some momentous occurrence which is inherently ‘history’. Surely though, isn’t everything history? When are we not party to ‘history in the making’? Just because something is significant to you does not make it more history than anything else.

This is certainly true, but somewhat of a contrarian statement to make, because I am blurring the line between history – as in the sequence of events that happened in the past – and history as in the study of the past and its significance in the present and future. This indistinction in terms is why it is easier to refer instead to the study as historiography and the timeline as history. Therefore, a more accurate statement would be: ‘historiography in the making’.

Even given this distinction, how do we determine what is worthy enough to be deemed suitable for historiography? What is it that makes something a historical event? Is everything that happened in the past ‘history’? The question here really is whether certain events have an inherent value which makes them ‘history’, or whether it is the witnessing of such an occurrence that makes it history. In other terms, is it the recording of the event which is the history, or the event itself?

If you say it is in the recording, then, is everything which is recorded history? Thousands of innocuous things are recorded every day; bus ticket sales, facebook feeds, lecture attendance… are these ‘history’? Have they the potential to become it? And if so, when?

If you say it is an inherent quality to the event itself then you must ask. What if nobody is there to record it? History is only important to humans, it is a humanity after all. If no humans are affected, aware of, or record something, then surely it cannot be history.

The point of this preamble is to highlight the malleable nature of history and why it can often be all too easy to twist the past into something it was not.

I wrote the article ‘The Soft Underbelly of Winston Churchill’ with no doubt in my mind that what I was saying was true, that the events I described really happened and that my conclusions were reasonable based on the evidence I provided. I would hope that many people would read that article and agree with me on many points. However, that article is not good historiography, in fact, it is bad historiography. I avoided discussing opposing views, mentioning only the ones I knew I could counter. I was selective in choosing my evidence, and did not provide the reader with any reference to where I took my figures from. Most importantly, though, I set a tone through my language (one that aimed to be sarcastic, derisive, and haughty) which was employed specifically to get the reader to side with me against Churchill. It starts right from the first line where I write ‘Winston Churchill is often cited as one of the ‘great persons’ of history’. Putting ‘great persons’ in quotes already seems dismissive of the concept. Now, this is not a lesson in English literature, but it is incredible to note how only small details implemented by a historian can drastically change a historiography, and thus, history itself.

‘History’ as people know it is a construct, and not in a metaphorical sense, in a very real sense. Historians construct history, they choose what to include and how to include it. This is a necessity as otherwise every historiography book would be an exact copy of all others, each including all of history and all drawing the same conclusions from it. The construction process is as essential to historiography as the discovery and recording of the events of the past. Without construction, we can derive no use from our past, we need it to focus on what we deem important and to convey the lessons we want to express.

An article about Churchill was especially suitable to my point because he is, perhaps, the ultimate constructor, having written the most influential text on the most influential event in history (to contemporary western audiences). There are some events in history that the historians don’t get to first. Events that are so self-evidently important that those involved feel the need to produce their own histories, oftentimes with the intention of attempting to cast themselves in the best light possible. Because after all, a villain in history is a villain for eternity. In the aftermath of the second world war the scramble for history began; leaders, generals, soldiers, everyone knew that if they were to be remembered unfavourably by history in relation to the blood-bath that was the second world war they would surely become such villains. Churchill was keenly aware of this.

The evident problem with these histories however, is that they are produced by persons who have vested interests in the material and, on top of this, they tend to be mixed in with ideas of nationalism, defensive self-legitimisation, and accusatory spite. What you end up with is a particularly polarizing result. Winston Churchill is clearly not someone who’s history of the second world war should be taken seriously for many of the reasons listed above, and yet, it still is. Published only 3 years after the end of the war, his book is one of the longest works of history ever written, spanning 6 volumes and over 2 million words. It has gone some way to solidifying him as a national hero, and to some extent, a global hero. He is after all the ‘Greatest Briton Ever’. 

Thus, against his self-aggrandisement I produced an opposite. I hope that this highlights the importance of an historian who understands how to produce an article which is constructed but is not misleading. It is a fine line to walk. Certainly, I myself am not qualified to venture out across it. But at the very least I can see the line and know the consequences of falling from it.

Author / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 09th of September 2017

Last Modified: 22nd of May 2018 (Grammar Corrections)

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