Do historians have responsibility in how they decide to depict something?

Isn't it possible that historical interpretations could be utilized for rationalizing e.g. war?

Presumably there's also "propaganda history"?

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    Was just listening to 'Detoxifying the Classics' bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000x72t : "Professor Katherine Harloe asks why racist hate groups are so fond of the ancient world and explores the history of how Classics and white supremacy became entangled"
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 28, 2021 at 23:50

1 Answer 1


Of course. Don't you know your history? ^^

In Rome a hated emperor who had held power could have a 'damnatio memorae' after they die, removing all statues, inscriptions, etc, and attempting a literal removal from the historic record. Which is the converse of the Greek 'kleos', which can be translated as 'everlasting renown' & was of great concern in ancient Greek culture - basically, making it into the stories. Valkyries can personify being chosen for stories in the mead hall of the honoured dead fallen in battle, as can be seen in Darradar's song from the Njal's saga. History has always been political. And it has always been used to bolster narratives and interpretations. Soviet history wiped the records of Stalin's friends that became enemies, even down to very early photographic manipulation. Nazis built elaborate pseudo-histories about 'Aryans', and mythic objects like the 'Spear of Destiny'.

There's a dynamic of better quality history resulting from pursuit of soft power through investing in scholars, or as was saga-tellers, found in many places and times - unlike Nazi pseudo-history this had to convince out-groups as well as the in-group to work. Theological innovation and new churches, orders, cults, pantheons, sects etc very often first of all had to reframe history. And legitimising rulers was a major preoccupation, found in extensive lineages given in old texts like the Bible. Or legitimising systems of governance, political settlements, treaties, boundaries.

History is powerful. Controlling the narrative, can have substantial impacts. Good quality history, really emerged as a set of tools to bolster the authority of a given narrative - with the convenient side effect of preserving as much first hand evidence as possible, allowing later historians to find new narrations that speak to their own times. History draws it's power from speaking to now.

You can compare & contrast different attitudes to history of the colonial powers, and draw some insights. David Hume was more successful in hus lifetime as a historian, than philosopher - at least financially. Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature for his work on history. People who knew the power of framing the issues. The beginnings of archeology, not to mention natural history and anthropology, are found in a blur between a grand-tour and serious scholarship. Drawing a link between Greece and Rome, and the British Empire, allowed a totally spurious sense of cultural continuity. So you end up with the Uffizi being basically heaps of unlabelled cultural history, while the Victoria & Albert Museum is a carefully labelled palace of history.

Good history, uses the contention over narrative, to foster Socratic dialogue - mutual open-ended curiosity about finding better answers. We never have definitive final accounts of history, each generations instead decides what to keep alive, what to ignore, what lessons or insights there are, to guide us into the future. History is a living text, and we cannot hope to escape our own time and it's circumstances in our history, for all the processes we apply to establish facts well, consilience of evidence etc. But nor should we, history shouldn't, can't be, a dead record. It has to be about what speaks to us.

Do historians have special responsibilities? I'd say above all they should have in mind, how history will remember them. Propagandists and distorters won't be remembered well - except the ones who were so good they never got caught, and now we see things the way they wanted.. There are ever more records, so it's ever harder to pull that off. So doing a good job is a better way to be remembered. The historian that loves war might treasure leaving a history that started one. A peacemaker, the converse. Above all, they should be pursuasive, and try to speak beyond their constraints of group, and time - knowing they will fail, and keeping future historians in a job.

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    Outstanding, sir.
    – J D
    Oct 29, 2021 at 6:41

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