Time travellers

I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Revisit Key Moments in HistoryEdited by Theodore K. Rabb and Byron HollinsheadMacmillan o20, 456 pagesFT bookshop price: o16

Leopold von Ranke's famous definition of what historians should strive for can be variously translated. "As it actually was" is the most common rendering of "Wie es eigentlich gewesen"; "as it essentially was" is probably more exact. The great Oxford philosopher of history, R.G. Collingwood, was more precise: "Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought."

Collingwood illustrated his point with Nelson's refusal to remove his conspicuous decorations at Trafalgar. Nelson said: "In honour I won them, in honour I will die with them." To understand this, Collingwood argued, he had to "rethink" Nelson's thought to consider "a life in which I not merely think about Nelson but am Nelson". Systematically rethinking past experiences, Collingwood argued, provided the basis for a new historical "science of human affairs". The historical profession has done little to realise Collingwood's ambitious vision. So it's refreshing to encounter the assertion in this entertaining volume, that "putting themselves into the past . is what historians have to do if their work is to be effective." They must "become so attuned to the way that historical actors thought and behaved that it is almost as if they were there".

Theodore K. Rabb and Byron Hollinshead have assembled a formidable array of scholars to engage in imaginary time travel. This exercise is subtly different from Collingwood's, however. These contributors imagine themselves there, as invisible observers, rather than as historical actors. They are flies perched on rigging, not Nelson himself. The distinction is significant. To Collingwood, the historian was limited to reconstructing recorded thoughts. In I Wish I'd Been There, it's often the unrecorded that is reconstructed.

The canniest contributors concentrate on evoking past ambience. Tom Holland vividly imagines Hannibal's elephants suffering as they struggled across the Alps. John Julius Norwich conjures up Venice in 1077, the setting for the reconciliation of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III. First prize goes to Sir John Elliott for his wonderful account of the future Charles I's ill-starred trip to Madrid in 1623, which draws on his unrivalled knowledge of the Spanish court in the age of Olivares. Runner-up is Sir John Keegan, who captures the pantomime quality of Montgomery's performance before the German surrender on Luneburg Heath in May 1945.

Others go further. "What I really want to know," writes Josiah Ober, at the death of Alexander the Great, "is what it felt like to be at the centre of the world, at a moment when human history had reached one of its great turning points." Alas, this very aspiration is anachronistic. Nor does Ober make it entirely clear why Alexander's death was truly a turning point - he was bound to die at some point, after all.

Here, as in a number of essays (including Rabb's own on Charlemagne's coronation) there is a failure to distinguish between points on a well-defined trend line and real structural breaks. The coronation of Charlemagne did not cause the separation of the Roman and Orthodox churches. That would have happened even if Charlemagne had never come to Rome. Likewise, feudalism would have waned after the Black Death, with or without the Peasants' Revolt. And so on.

To claim that an individual act altered the course of history necessitates a thought experiment more challenging than just imagining "what it felt like to be there". We need to imagine what would've happened if the act in question had not happened.

Only a few contributors make this leap. The fearless Geoffrey Parker does it, arguing (persuasively) that if the Spaniards had surrendered what was left of their fleet in August 1588 "it is hard to see how Spain could have defended itself against the [English] Counter-Armada that was launched the following year". William H. McNeill, the sole voice from economic history, argues that without Frederick the Great's sponsorship, the potato wouldn't have been adopted so fast in central and eastern Europe - though he surely exaggerates the significance of this. Margaret Macmillan proposes, more plausibly, that Clemenceau and Lloyd George could have come up with better arrangements for both the Rhineland and the Middle East after the first world war.

The net effect is of being a slightly seasick passenger aboard the ultimate Swan Hellenic cruise. The vignettes are delightful, no doubt. But do they really give us history "as it actually was"? Paradoxically, the most successful of these exercises in historical imagination are the ones that also explain how it actually wasn't.

Niall Ferguson is a professor at Harvard University and Harvard Business School, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford.Time travellersReview by Niall FergusonFriday Mar 21 2008 19:55I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Revisit Key Moments in HistoryEdited by Theodore K. Rabb and Byron HollinsheadMacmillan o20, 456 pagesFT bookshop price: o16

Leopold von Ranke's famous definition of what historians should strive for can be variously translated. "As it actually was" is the most common rendering of "Wie es eigentlich gewesen"; "as it essentially was" is probably more exact. The great Oxford philosopher of history, R.G. Collingwood, was more precise: "Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought."

Collingwood illustrated his point with Nelson's refusal to remove his conspicuous decorations at Trafalgar. Nelson said: "In honour I won them, in honour I will die with them." To understand this, Collingwood argued, he had to "rethink" Nelson's thought to consider "a life in which I not merely think about Nelson but am Nelson". Systematically rethinking past experiences, Collingwood argued, provided the basis for a new historical "science of human affairs". The historical profession has done little to realise Collingwood's ambitious vision. So it's refreshing to encounter the assertion in this entertaining volume, that "putting themselves into the past . is what historians have to do if their work is to be effective." They must "become so attuned to the way that historical actors thought and behaved that it is almost as if they were there".

Theodore K. Rabb and Byron Hollinshead have assembled a formidable array of scholars to engage in imaginary time travel. This exercise is subtly different from Collingwood's, however. These contributors imagine themselves there, as invisible observers, rather than as historical actors. They are flies perched on rigging, not Nelson himself. The distinction is significant. To Collingwood, the historian was limited to reconstructing recorded thoughts. In I Wish I'd Been There, it's often the unrecorded that is reconstructed.

The canniest contributors concentrate on evoking past ambience. Tom Holland vividly imagines Hannibal's elephants suffering as they struggled across the Alps. John Julius Norwich conjures up Venice in 1077, the setting for the reconciliation of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III. First prize goes to Sir John Elliott for his wonderful account of the future Charles I's ill-starred trip to Madrid in 1623, which draws on his unrivalled knowledge of the Spanish court in the age of Olivares. Runner-up is Sir John Keegan, who captures the pantomime quality of Montgomery's performance before the German surrender on Luneburg Heath in May 1945.

Others go further. "What I really want to know," writes Josiah Ober, at the death of Alexander the Great, "is what it felt like to be at the centre of the world, at a moment when human history had reached one of its great turning points." Alas, this very aspiration is anachronistic. Nor does Ober make it entirely clear why Alexander's death was truly a turning point - he was bound to die at some point, after all.

Here, as in a number of essays (including Rabb's own on Charlemagne's coronation) there is a failure to distinguish between points on a well-defined trend line and real structural breaks. The coronation of Charlemagne did not cause the separation of the Roman and Orthodox churches. That would have happened even if Charlemagne had never come to Rome. Likewise, feudalism would have waned after the Black Death, with or without the Peasants' Revolt. And so on.

To claim that an individual act altered the course of history necessitates a thought experiment more challenging than just imagining "what it felt like to be there". We need to imagine what would've happened if the act in question had not happened.

Only a few contributors make this leap. The fearless Geoffrey Parker does it, arguing (persuasively) that if the Spaniards had surrendered what was left of their fleet in August 1588 "it is hard to see how Spain could have defended itself against the [English] Counter-Armada that was launched the following year". William H. McNeill, the sole voice from economic history, argues that without Frederick the Great's sponsorship, the potato wouldn't have been adopted so fast in central and eastern Europe - though he surely exaggerates the significance of this. Margaret Macmillan proposes, more plausibly, that Clemenceau and Lloyd George could have come up with better arrangements for both the Rhineland and the Middle East after the first world war.

The net effect is of being a slightly seasick passenger aboard the ultimate Swan Hellenic cruise. The vignettes are delightful, no doubt. But do they really give us history "as it actually was"? Paradoxically, the most successful of these exercises in historical imagination are the ones that also explain how it actually wasn't.
 

finance economics
Financial Times
  • Show All
  • New York Times
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Daily Telegraph
  • Financial Times
  • Newsweek/Daily Beast
  • The Washington Post
  • The Australian
  • Daily Mail
  • Huffington Post
  • Vanity Fair
  • FORA.tv
  • The Telegraph
  • Time Magazine
  • Foreign Affairs
  • The Sunday Times
  • London Evening Standard
  • The Spectator
  • The Atlantic
90 Article Results

Why E.U. collapse is more likely than the fall of the euro

1321907889

End of the Euro

1276560010

Slow but sure

1201219248

Time travellers

1174435256