A commonly used phrase in political debate is “History will judge.” For example, in 2011, in a comment on ending the Iraq war, President Barack Obama stated that “History will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, also used the phrase, for example in July of 2013 when he, according to The Washington Times, stated that “history will be the judge of his record in office.” Several others, ranging from journalists and pundits to politicians and writers, use the phrase on a recurring basis.
As an historian, the phrase intrigues me. It seems as if history somehow is seen as a person with a law degree.
What does the phrase “History will judge” actually mean? And why would an historian worth his or her salt never use it?
First we need to take a closer look at what history actually is.
I define history as an academic discipline that researches the human condition through the study of written documents. History is the study of events connected to one another within the framework of human society, interpreted from the viewpoint of the individuals participating in those events as they happen.
Consequently, based on this definition of history we can determine what history is not.
History is not the same thing as time.
In other words, history does not begin when time begins. Neither does history end if or when (depending on your belief system) time ends. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there were voices who declared “the end of history,” as if historical research, indeed human society as we then knew it, had lost its reason for existing.
History is not the same thing as all human activity.
History is only interested in those human activities that contribute to the creation of human society, expressed in writing in a literate society. Study of the human condition and the creation of human society within a non-literary context belong to research disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology.
History is not the same thing as retrospect.
When looking at past events it is easy to take the outcome or result of those events and extrapolate them to a time before the events took place, as if the people involved would have known what we know. However, this is not possible when researching history. Neither is it possible to predict what events will become historical. At the same time as President Obama stated that history will judge the reasons for the Iraq war, he also said that ending the war after nine years is “a historic moment.” Unfortunately, this is something that not even the President of the United States of America can decide.
The phrase “History will judge” indicates that history is all-encompassing and omnipresent in human society. It also indicates that eventually it will be decided if actions taken and decisions made were right or wrong.
However, it is only possible to judge actions or decisions to be right or wrong if you base that judgment on a set of moral and ethical values. Such values, as we all know, change. For example, less than one hundred years ago it was normal that all women, as well as men below a certain level of income, were not allowed to vote in political elections. Less than fifty years ago it was normal for school children to be hit by their teachers. Today neither of these practices are acceptable. In certain parts of the world, I might add.
The phrase “History will judge” also indicates that sometime in the future there will be someone who makes the judgment as to what actions and decisions were right or wrong. When people say that history will judge, who do they envision making that judgment?
Based on the above definition of what history is or is not, I would argue that if history judges, those presiding will be the historians doing research at that time. The reason for this argument is that what we know about our past is based on information found, interpreted and analyzed by historians.
The only problem with this statement is that if the true judges of history are the historians, the bench will be empty when the court is in session. Any historian who takes his or her work seriously would never pass judgment on past events, processes, or individuals. In other words, an historian would never state whether something is right or wrong, but rather present the context in which an event took place and draw conclusions from there. However, this is not to say that historians accept or condone atrocities, such as, for example, The Holocaust or the Genocide of Rwanda.
Therefore, in public debate, whenever a biased statement on past events is made, that person is either not an historian, or an historian with an ulterior motive.
Next time you hear someone use the phrase “History will judge” or declare a moment to be historic, ask yourself: Who is saying it and why?
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Politico Obama: “History will judge Iraq” war
The Washington Times George W. Bush: History will be the judge; as for opinion polls, “I could care less”
Wikipedia End of history
Image of gavel and stryker downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
Previous posts on related topics:
The Historian as Time Traveler
Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity
Historical Science in Science Fiction
Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History
Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History