Aldo Matteucci   30 Jun 2012   Looking Sideways

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Upon retirement I decided to deepen my knowledge of my country’s origins. The title of the most respected recent history book on the subject bore the less than promising title: Founding period without founders[1].

And indeed: all the familiar figures of my youthful studies had vanished without trace. I knew that Wilhelm Tell had been a mythical person. But it was a bit of a shock for me to learn that the founding document of the country, for which a museum had been built, has been carbon-dated to about 60 years after its stated date. It is either an unacknowledged copy, or a (pious) forgery. The historical scene had been emptied of all the staunch, freedom-loving Swiss Confederates; it is populated instead by noble families and generals I’d never heard of before. It was all quite bewildering.

I’ve visited sites of ancient history of other countries and periods. I was in for comparable surprises. The “barbarians” were not barbaric – they had exquisite cultures – just different. The “barbarian invasions” never took place.[2] The Dark Ages in Europe were never dark[3] – instead, there was slow and steady technological change. I could go on – not just about European history, but around the world[4].

Let’s look at two reasons for this evolution. The first is technological. Forensic and quantitative history has wiped conjectures, generalizations, and plausibilities off the table. From DNA analysis, to carbon-dating, and linguistics we have now many ways of cross-checking our knowledge. Techniques and interpretative advances were rapidly communicated within a now globalized profession. Nationalist interpretations lost sway as a result. We “know” less, but we are surer in our knowledge.

After WWII underground parking (in cities) and communication infrastructure has transformed archeology. As builders dug up cities and bulldozed the countryside, much new evidence came up about “material life”, and we began to learn how people actually lived – not just the tributary elites. Results are triangulated regionally and globally. New insights in one country spawn new sifting of the evidence elsewhere.

To sum my experience: history had been transformed, enriched. But from a stately (and staid) narrative relating “what had truly happened” (the ideal of the great German historian Ranke): it had become ever-changing “work in progress”. History has come alive, and is going to surprise me for a long while still.

History writing has never been innocent. Rulers have enlisted history for tales of self-legitimation. As nation states took over from autocrats, history was harnessed to the task of shaping national identity[5] – a process of invention, as it turns out upon closer inspection.

Under pressure of deeper analysis history has changed. History as “eternal truth” has yielded to a rich, but very plastic set of contingencies. This creates problems.

Vital national interests have often been anchored in national identity – the “sacred borders of the nation”, or the “community of destiny” of a people built on a common historical past. Diplomats have drawn negotiating lines in the sand based on such historical narratives of national identity. Now it turns out that these lines are more akin to lines in water. Principle positions are more difficult to sustain. Accommodation seems more feasible and plausible, and historically grounded exceptionalism increasingly seems self-serving ideology.

Traditionally the social justification of studying history has been tied to its use for legitimizing national identity – the rest is sheer curiosity and better understanding of the functioning of societies. Once the primary link to national identity is loosened, history and the historians have to survive in a world of contrasting demands for public funds and  provide more than ”mystic” justifications. The bemoaned “downgrading” of history in the curriculum reflects the implicit perception that history as “work in progress” has limited legitimizing function and is no longer immediately “useful”.

Much of the historical curriculum has been written toward the nationalistic end of the XIXth century. This framework is still in place, with limited adaptations. In part the reason may be an instance of “path-dependent” outcome. In WWI Italy sacrificed about one million of its youth in what was an unavowed colonial adventure[6]. The country can only hope to forget, not to accept, this error. It will be difficult for history to free itself of past ideological uses as much as it will be difficult for diplomats to go beyond history as rhetoric.


[1]           See: Roger SABLONIER (2008): Gründungszeit ohne Eidgenossen. Politik und Gesellschaft in der Innerschweiz um 1300. Hier + Jetzt. Baden.

[2]           See e.g. Peter HEATHER (2010): Empires and barbarians. The fall of Rome and the birth of Europe. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[3]           See e.g.: Jean-Paul DEMEULE (2012) : On a retrouvé l’histoire de France. Comment l’archéologie raconte notre passé. Laffont, Paris.

[4]           Part of this is a matter of outlook. Historians for a long time were fixated on power/religious elites. Archeologists only concerned themselves with palaces and cathedrals. As the outlook expanded to “material culture” history was transformed. My telling example: for lack of palaces and churches a good part of African history had been negated. After about 1975 archeologists began to investigate material culture with astounding results. See: John READER (1999): Africa – A biography of the continent. Vintage, New York; in particular Chapt. 29.

[5]           See e.g.: Eric HOBSBAWM – Terence RANGER (1992): The invention of tradition. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Benedict ANDERSON (1991): Imagined communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso, London.

[6]           See e.g.: Marina CATTARUZZA (2007): L’Italia e il confine orientale. Il Mulino, Bologna.

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