The Historian as Time Traveler

History is considered the science of the past. By using different methods and theories, the historian interprets past events and presents them to his/her contemporaries with an attempt to explain why they occurred, based in the written texts left behind by the protagonists of the story. To be able to do this, the historian strives to take on the role of the eyewitness, even when an event happened centuries ago in a different part of the world. To be an eyewitness means to be there at the scene as events unfold. For the historian, it means to travel through time in one’s mind.

For an historian, time travel is an important aspect of the research process. To be able to understand and interpret the actions of people in the past, the historian needs to place him/herself in the situation of those people. The historian needs to write history forwards and try not to judge the actions taken, no matter how despicable or amicable, stupid or clever. This is not to say that committed atrocities should be forgiven or dismissed. Neither is it to say that people in the past could not estimate the consequences of their actions. Rather, it is a matter of trying to understand human activity.

In not traveling through time lies the risk of writing history backwards. Perched chronologically in, for example, 2013, one looks back in time and, consciously or not, applies on the historical process the knowledge of how an event played out . A famous example of writing history backwards is how Neville Chamberlain (British Prime Minister 1937–1940) and Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister 1940–1945, 1951–1955) have been viewed respectively since the end of World War II. Neville Chamberlain has been considered naive in his dealings with Germany, which he probably was. However, this naivete of Chamberlain’s is often based on the assumption that somehow Chamberlain should have known what would play out in the coming years. Meanwhile, Churchill has been considered as the one who saw things for what they were and consequently was able to anticipate what was to come.

Instead of passing judgment and stating who was wrong and who was right, the historian places him/herself in the situation of the people of the past and tries to assess why certain conclusions were drawn. In other words, the historian tries to assess why Chamberlain spoke of “Peace in our time” while Churchill saw war looming on the horizon.

After all, our past was once someone’s future. And there is one thing neither past actors nor historians can do and that is to travel into the future.

Further reading: Marc Bloch The Historian’s Craft (Manchester University Press, 1954)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.

Advertisements