Narrating The Nation: Historical Representation, Identity & Allegiance

There is a tension in the ‘National Histories in Europe’ project that became clear at the first session of the Glamorgan conference from which this volume is derived. The tension – and it is a legitimate tension – is between, on the one hand, history as offering a disinterested, ‘scientific’ account of historical reality that makes a claim, however attenuated, to objectivity and, on the other, particular human solidarities as objects not just of study but of commitment.1

Historical Representation, Identity & Allegiance
Historical Representation, Identity & Allegiance

The disinterested, scientific side of the project is manifested throughout the detailed research proposal that the ‘National Histories in Europe’ research network submitted to the European Science Foundation in January 2002 in its successful bid to obtain funding. However, more generally accessible is an eight-page brochure describing the project that was put on the Web in February 2004. Consider the following account of the proposed activities of ‘Team Two’ (deeply involved in the Glamorgan conference), which was charged with the task of investigating the topic, ‘Narrating National Histories’. ‘National “master” narratives’, we are told,

always stand in close relationship with narratives, such as those based on gender, ethnicity, class and/or religion. In what ways have such social cleavages mattered to national history writing? This team will investigate the links and interdependencies between histories written from a national perspective and those written from a perspective of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and religion.2

The brochure goes on to identify five areas on which research will focus: origins and foundational myths of national histories; main actors and heroes in national narratives; the claims to uniqueness or to special missions in national histories; conceptions of decline, renewal and rupture in national histories; and the inclusion or exclusion of ‘non-spatial Others’ in national master narratives. Everything that the brochure says here suggests that the researchers are engaged in an objective process of scholarly investigation. Of course, the histories on which they propose to focus were written ‘from a national perspective’, as the brochure notes. However, there is no suggestion that the Team Two researchers will be writing from any such partial perspective. On the contrary, everything in the above statement suggests that they plan to be rigorously disinterested in their work. They want to show, as clearly and accurately as possible, how national histories relate to histories written from other perspectives. The researchers’ perspective is a would-be universal perspective: the perspective of those who desire to know how things really were and are. On the other hand, the ‘National Histories in Europe’ project also proposes to contribute to European solidarity and mutual understanding. The following statement in the brochure exemplifies this aspect of the enterprise:

National history is central to national identity. A sustained and systematic study of the construction, erosion and reconstruction of national histories across a wide variety of European states is a highly topical and extremely relevant exercise for two reasons: firstly, because of the long and successful history of the national paradigm in history-writing; and, secondly, because of its re-emergence as a powerful political tool in the 1990s in the context of the accelerating processes of Europeanisation and globalisation. National histories form an important part of the collective memory of the peoples of Europe. National bonds have been, and continue to be, among the strongest bonds of loyalty. A genuinely trans-national and comparative investigation into the structures and workings of national histories will play an important part […] in preparing the way for further dialogue and understanding among European nation-states.3

I cannot object to the aspirations embedded in this statement. Further, the weighty research proposal of 2002 reveals the high degree of co-ordinated intelligence that has gone into the project, which is based, as the brochure says, on ‘the collaboration of more than 60 leading scholars from more than 20 countries’.4 There is much to be learned from the programme of research that the project organisers have laid out. Nor do I object to the presence of the project’s ‘committed’ side as such. For example, I do not claim that it is some sort of logical contradiction that a project should involve a commitment to both truth and social solidarity. On the contrary, a ‘double orientation’ or ‘unresolving dialectic’ is essential to the project of (scientific) historical research and writing.5 My comments have to do rather with refining certain aspects of the analysis and with pointing out some of its under-justified assumptions.

How much of a role can historical research and writing play in the attempt to move forward to a free, united, peace-loving and benevolent Europe? My general sense of the matter is that history has a relatively limited and specialised role to play in such developments. In fact, I think it rather dangerous when history gets committed to ‘the good cause’, whatever that cause may be. Rather, history’s basic commitment ought to be to speaking both interestingly and truthfully about matters of the past. History should seek to offer, in Paul Veyne’s words, a récit véridique – a ‘truthful narrative’.6 Admittedly, a ‘truthful narrative’ may turn out not to be a true narrative, as we learn when we see the errors and blind spots of one generation of historians being corrected by later generations. Historical knowledge always has a provisional aspect to it. Yet the historian’s distinctive duty is to speak truthfully about the past. The historian ought to criticise forthrightly erroneous or unjustified claims about the past, no matter how worthy and good-hearted are the commitments of those who make these claims. In this sense, historians have the task of maintaining a certain detachment between the past on the one hand and the present and the presumed future on the other.7 I am more favourably impressed by certain observations of Ranke, Marx and Nietzsche concerning the relation between history and current aspirations and desires than I am by the very positive view of this relation adopted by some recent historians. Famously, in 1824 the young Leopold Ranke remarked that ‘history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages’. Ranke took issue with this view. His work, he tells his readers, ‘wants only to show what actually happened’.8 Ranke was reacting here against a long tradition of thinking that gave to history the task of being a preceptor of life, offering general rules by which we might guide our actions. He was surely justified in rejecting the morally and pragmatically oriented approaches to history that he found in earlier writers. First, such histories could only produce distorted representations of the past. Second, the claim to offer lessons in ethics and prudence was fraudulent, for such-and-such actions in the past were judged exemplary on the basis of pre-existing views held by the authors in question, which they then found ‘confirmation’ for in the past. The resulting history was thus an exercise in false confirmation, giving back to the present the present’s own prejudices dressed up in the garb of antiquity. Ranke was mainly interested in how a pragmatic conception of history was likely to distort our apprehension of the past. With Marx it is different. I am thinking, of course, of the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), where Marx regrets the harmful impact that representations of past events can have on action in the present. His words are famous but still worth quoting: Hegel, Marx mistakenly claims,

remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce:

rèCaussidi (PE) in place of Danton, Louis Blanc in place of Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848–51 in place of the Montagne of 1793–95, the Nephew in place of the Uncle.9

In short, Marx sees representations of the past as impairing historical actors’ grasp of the present. Although in other respects their positions are dramatically different, Ranke and Marx are here making complementary points: the one holding that presentist concerns distort our representations of the past, the other holding that representations of the past impair our understanding of the present. As for Nietzsche, his best-known discussion of historical matters is his Untimely Meditation of 1874, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’. Although his conceptualisation in this essay is unclear, Nietzsche’s argument appears to be that the right orientation to the past involves some sort of fluid shifting among a ‘monumental’ attitude, which deifies figures in the past; an ‘antiquarian’ attitude, which engages in a kind of local reverence towards the past; and a ‘critical’ attitude, which subjects the past to condemnation. Nietzsche also suggests that there are competing ‘historical’, ‘unhistorical’ and ‘supra-historical’ approaches to the past, but what he had in mind here is even less clear.10 However, in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), Nietzsche articulated a position very different from that offered in the 1874 essay.11 In On the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche writes that we ought to cultivate an attitude of ‘active forgetfulness’ with regard to the past.12 In this later work Nietzsche seems to be saying that we need to get over the past – not forgetting it, exactly, but certainly rejecting the notion that it has any sort of a priori claim over us. What is common to these bits of Ranke, Marx and Nietzsche is a wish to distance the past from the present and future. In Ranke, the distancing is aimed at ‘saving’ the past, whereas in Marx and Nietzsche it is aimed at saving the present and especially the future. Something like such an attitude of distancing, I contend, ought to be normative for historians now. In fact, I think that it is normative among those historians who have thought seriously about the matter. Consider Lucien Febvre, the great cofounder of the Annales school. In a 1949 essay entitled ‘Vers une autre histoire’ that memorialises his murdered colleague Marc Bloch, Febvre envisages a ‘problem-oriented’ history, by which he meant a history that approaches the past with the aim of solving problems relevant to the present. As part of this project, Febvre wished to get away from what he saw as the burdening and distorting weight of the past. He criticised ‘traditional’ societies for ‘produc[ing] an image of their present life, of its collective aims and of the virtues required to achieve those aims’, and then projecting a ‘sort of prefiguration of the same reality’ on the past.13 In contrast to the traditional view, Febvre judged that history is a liberation from the past: ‘history is a way of organizing the past so that it does not weigh too heavily on the shoulders of men’.14 This liberation, Febvre explicitly states, involves a kind of forgetting.

In Febvre’s view;

it is essential for human groups and societies to forget if they wish to survive. We have to live. We cannot allow ourselves to be crushed under the tremendous, cruel, accumulated weight of all that we inherit.15

Febvre’s view as expressed here seems to me to be quite different from the emphasis in the ‘National Histories in Europe’ brochure on national history as ‘central to national identity’, on national histories as forming ‘an important part of the collective memory of the peoples of Europe’, and on the ‘national bonds’ that ‘have been, and continue to be, among the strongest bonds of loyalty’ among Europeans.16 I do not mean to suggest that there is radical opposition here, for it seems clear that the ‘National Histories in Europe’ project potentially leaves room for other ways of conceptualising bonds of unity among people. However, those other ways are not stated, and the limits of an approach focussed on ‘memory’ are decidedly not made clear. In the research proposal of January 2002, the authors, referring to the national historiographies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, allude to ‘the pretences of national history as an objective science working within the boundaries of a rational discourse’. They find in this tradition of history writing ‘a plethora of mythopoetic concepts’ that ‘structured very diverse historical interpretations’.17 The authors and animators of the ‘National Histories in Europe’ project are surely correct to suggest a connection between national histories and ‘mythopoetics’, and one looks forward to the further research that will help us understand in a more exact way how it was so. (One example of such a study is Linas Eriksonas’s National Heroes and National Identities: Scotland, Norway and Lithuania18). What I find inadequate in the proposal – in the midst of many other things that I admire – is an apparently too quick setting aside of any claim that ‘objectivity’ in some sense might make upon us, and the absence of a discussion of alternatives to mythopoetics (or to the recently fashionable notion of ‘mythistory’19) as a unifying device for the nation or other large human groupings. The project rightly envisages going beyond a merely national grounding of the social order, but it does not envisage a different kind of grounding than the kind that it attributes to an earlier, and ‘pretentious’, national history. It is obvious that notions of memory play an important role in the project. As the ‘National Histories in Europe’ brochure puts it, ‘National histories form an important part of the collective memory of the peoples of Europe’.20 The 2002 research proposal also seems to suggest – in a prise de position closely connected with the widespread tendency these days to run together history and memory – that it is a mistake to think that ‘historical science’ is able to go beyond ‘personal opinion’. To cite the proposal at greater length:

The claim that historical science could go beyond personal opinion frames the problem in such a way as to allow only for inadequate answers. It [namely, framing the problem as being a matter of going beyond personal opinion] distracts from asking how the personal is inscribed on all levels [my emphasis] of the historical work, e.g., on the questions that historians ask, their choice of topic, their methodologies, units of investigation, measure of comparison, and use of master narratives. In that sense, Pierre Nora’s famous distinction between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ seems to fall prey to the myth of ‘scientific’ history and its alleged adherence to detached and objective analysis.21

To be sure, it will not do to attempt to apply to history old notions of ‘absolute’ objectivity that purport to underpin a single, coherent, unified and authoritative account of human history.22 There are compelling reasons for denying that there can be a pure, absolutely objective description of anything in history. On the contrary, all historical objects are inevitably viewed partially, from the perspective of the particular historian-observer: indeed, to some extent historical objects are actually the creation of the historian. For example, when Petrarch (allegedly) climbed Mount Ventoux, he did not know, and could not have known, that he was ‘opening the Renaissance’ because the concept ‘Renaissance’ did not yet exist. But it is in principle entirely legitimate for the historian to see Petrarch as ‘opening the Renaissance’ in climbing Mount Ventoux, even in the absence of any intention on Petrach’s part to do so, if the historian can show that Petrarch’s (alleged) climbing of Mount Ventoux was a paradigmatic event that somehow exemplified or put into motion the larger set of events to which ‘the Renaissance’ applies.23 Similarly, people in August 1914 did not know that they were beginning what would become the First World War, nor did people in 1618 know that they were fighting the Thirty Years’ War – but these, too, are in principle legitimate descriptions of events that were already underway in 1618 and 1914. However, acknowledging the irreducibly perspectival aspect of history does not entail holding that history cannot go beyond mere ‘personal opinion’.

Even less does such an acknowledgement entail identifying ‘history’ with ‘memory’. I use the word memory here in a broad sense, as I think the authors also do. In the present context, I understand ‘memory’ as designating not only people’s memories of their own experiences but also such related realities as tradition and commemoration. Of course, over roughly the last twenty-five years the nexus ‘memory–tradition–commemoration’ has acquired much greater weight within the historical profession than it had in earlier dispensations. (For example, there was no room for ‘memory’ in Ranke’s conception of historiography: he mistrusted memoirs, and looked instead for state documents and for accounts written contemporaneously with the events being described.) One can connect historians’ growing acceptance, lately, of what one might think of as ‘memory extended’ to the decline in persuasiveness of previously widely accepted notions of ‘grand’ and ‘master’ narratives in history. The discipline of history as it emerged in the nineteenth century was closely connected with the extension of the power of the European nationstate. In Germany, France, England and the United States, the newly professionalised discipline of history tended to serve as an ideological support for the state. Historians laboured in support of the Prussian state and its extension; in support of the secularly-based French republic, with its mission civilisatrice, that emerged after France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871; in support of England and its Empire; and for the national and then imperial pretensions of the United States. In each case a ‘master narrative’ was seen as running through the nation’s history – a master narrative of the nation’s movement from its early beginnings, through the rise of national self-consciousness, to its current struggle for recognition and success. Behind such master narratives there lay a larger ‘grand narrative’ that had emerged in the eighteenth century out of a secularisation of the Christian redemption story. In its essential core, the ‘grand narrative’ told a story of growing freedom and advancing culture within the framework of a system of nation-states.24 Although further research needs to be done on the subject, it seems clear that the relative solidity of these master and grand narratives gave to historical writing a particular shape and feel. In general, commitment to such narratives tended to generate a history that was authoritative in tone and that was focussed on the actions and institutions of the state. The substructure of such histories was provided by the idea of an increasing actualisation of freedom. Although the differences were usually only a matter of degree, sometimes the story was told in a liberal register, with emphasis placed on the increasing freedom of the individual to pursue his private interests and to have a voice in the running of the state, and sometimes it was told in a conservative or authoritarian register, with emphasis placed on cultural cultivation (Bildung) and on the freedom and power of the state itself. Today these variant master narratives, and the grand narrative that underpins them, are lacking in essential authority. They have been lacking in essential authority since roughly the time that people began to see the war that began in 1914 as a slaughterhouse. Admittedly, it cannot be said that nobody believes in the old grand and master narratives any more. For example, I am often struck by the extent to which many US undergraduates – and not only undergraduates – still believe in the American master narrative of the ‘city on the hill’ standing as the ‘last best hope of mankind’– the ‘hope of the world’, as President Nixon once put it.25 Nevertheless, for most people who think about such matters – and even for many people who do not – neither the old national master narratives nor the grand narrative of freedom and Bildung is persuasive any more. Instead, there prevails, in the apt phrase of Jean-François Lyotard, an ‘incredulity’ towards such overarching narratives.26

If history is not the purveyor of some sort of authoritative narrative of human advance, what then does it offer? Today, in popular culture and to some extent even among professional historians, ‘history’ frequently offers something that is more akin to ‘memory’ in its various senses. When history no longer looks forward to constructing either an objective ‘grand narrative’ of history as a whole or a more limited but still objective ‘master narrative’ of some segment of the past, one response is to focus on what is personal and immediately striking. The decline of grand and master narrative also seems likely to heighten the sense that the historian should be the spokesperson for some particular group in the present – whether one variety or another of the downtrodden, or a supposedly elite group whose elite character has not been adequately recognised. Such commitments to the particular are not necessarily benign. In fact, the opposite has often been the case, with ‘histories’ giving a kind of fake legitimacy to present-day arrangements or aspirations of a deeply oppressive or conflict-directed sort. It stands to reason that a historiography that sees its task as speaking for some particular group in the present will necessarily be under a constant temptation to subordinate the past to the supposed needs of that group in the present. I think that it would be quite a mistake for historians to allow themselves to become cheerleaders for the good European cause. The distinctive task of historians is not to promote morality, solidarity and good policy in the present, although it is possible that, as a by-product of their work, they might sometimes succeed in doing so. However, I do not believe that achieving such good effects should at all be the focus of their attention. I believe that professional historiography has an important public role to play, but I find that its public role is largely a matter of countering fantasies about the past that arise in people’s minds as pseudo-justifications for agendas and ways of life that they wish to promote in the present. The first thing that we need to attend to – it is an obvious point, and it is certainly recognised in the ‘National Histories in Europe’ project – is that people relate to their pasts in other ways than through the work of professional historians. This becomes particularly clear when one looks at the way people have responded to genocide and other large-scale crimes, at least when they have had some reason to identify with the victims of these crimes. Such crimes are of concern not only to historians but also to (other) social scientists, as well as to jurists, philosophers, theologians, novelists, poets and artists, and to people generally, beyond the above-noted professions and ways of seeing. People have responded to such events in at least four different ways: by investigating and reconstructing what actually happened; by the cultivation of memory, commemoration and tradition; by the creation of aesthetic forms; and by ethical, philosophical and religious or theological reflection.27 And of course people also ‘respond’ by denying what happened, or by completely ignoring the events in question.

The Shoah, which occurred in the relatively recent past on European territory, involved the murder of millions of people, and has had an impact on millions of other persons, is a good test case for thinking about the various non- or extra-historiographical ways by which people orient themselves towards the past. (One could pick other examples. My choice of this example reflects my own participation in European culture in an extended sense of the term.) Much of people’s orientation towards the Shoah has to do with memory, commemoration and tradition. When the sole survivor of a killing pit at Pinsk, Rivka Yoselewska, testified at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, her testimony had an impact and power of a kind that a historian cannot normally expect to achieve.28 Something of the same impact can be discovered in certain works of art – in painting, literature and film, as well as in museums and in other buildings commemorating the Shoah and the culture that was destroyed in it. One thinks, for example, of Claude Lanzmann’s monumental 9½-hour film Shoah (1985). Finally, there are works whose main emphasis is on investigation and reconstruction – the ‘works’ of jurists, as well as those of journalists (characteristically writing about the very recent past) and, of course, of historians.

In sum, historians are not the only group of persons who seek to come to grips with the past. When we think about national (and other) kinds of histories, we need to bear in mind the existence of different ways of coming to grips with the past. This is especially necessary, of course, because some of these other historical or history-related representations and presentations are likely to have a far wider impact than written history, especially written history of an academic sort.

We need to understand the functions that other forms of addressing the past serve. We also need to understand their limitations. Consider, for example, Ken and Ric Burns’s nine-episode television series, The Civil War, which may well be the best film documentary on the history of the United States ever made. Generally known as ‘Ken Burns’s Civil War’, the series faced the considerable challenge of dealing with a conflict that long preceded the invention of moving pictures. Nonetheless, by an innovative use of thousands of still photographs of civil war soldiers, politicians, agitators, cities, landscapes, battles and ruins, as well as by an attentiveness to the character of the voices reading the hundreds of texts that we hear over the course of the series, the film-makers gave to their creation an immediacy and directness that one would not have expected in advance. It is also necessary to note that the series is historically and pedagogically ‘responsible’. The filmmakers do not make claims that contradict the historical evidence. In working on the series, they consulted many historians who had expertise in the US civil war and related matters, and it is evident that they benefited from some of this advice. In addition, a number of historians appear on screen as ‘talking heads’: they have the function of explicating events, situating them in a wider context and offering interpretations as to their historical significance. If one’s wish is to inform young Americans about certain facts concerning the bloodiest conflict in American history, Ken Burns’s The Civil War is a good place at which to begin. It can also be recommended to non-Americans who wish to gain, with a relatively short investment of time, some insight into the history and character of the United States. The question that arises in the present context is: what can a work like The Civil War tell us about the relation between history and national-identity – or supra-national-identity – building? It is a relevant question, for if historically oriented identity building is going to occur in the present age, it is surely much more likely to take place by means of popular presentations that have something of the character of Ken Burns’s Civil War than through the writings of professional historians. Further, Burns’s work is ‘good to think with’ in the context of this question precisely because it is such a good example of the attempt to convey a certain ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ of history in a popular medium. What The Civil War most clearly reveals, I believe, are the dangers inherent in the attempt to link history to an identity that one then wishes to serve as the foundation of a present political order. There is no doubt that The Civil War offers, to use a cliché that seems apt in the present context, a ‘compelling emotional experience’ to those who sit down and watch it. The photographs of battlefields, of bodies and (especially) of soon-to-die young men tug at the heartstrings. So does the larger picture that The Civil War offers – its picture of a country torn apart and then forcibly brought back together again, at the cost of over 600,000 dead (and many more wounded) in what had been a country of 30,000,000 people. There is no doubt that all of this is connected to issues of American identity. Three million men fought in the war, often hundreds of miles from home, at a time when many people travelled no further than ten or twenty miles from their place of birth. The entire country followed, and was affected by, the war’s course and outcome. One of the ‘talking heads’ in the series, the popular historian Shelby Foote, asserts that ‘Before the war it was said “The United States are” – and after the war it was always “The United States is”. That sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an is.’29 There could be no better summation of the identity-creating force that the civil war exerted, and continues to exert, on the people of the United States. How useful and good is it to ground a state on such historical foundations as this? (After all, that is what one is doing, if identity is central to politics.) Without in any way calling into question the considerable achievement of the Burns brothers in constructing their account of the civil war, one can nonetheless discern some highly questionable implications for politics and for the state system in their work. A crucial point, of course, is that the American identity (as distinguished from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, etc., identities) was forged in a war, and not in some other set of events. This is a historical fact: it cannot be gotten round. Very often, other national identities were forged in war also: for example, it is a cliché, but apparently, a true cliché, that Australian identity was created on the battlefield at Gallipoli in 1915.30 The problem here is that rooting a political identity in a particular set of historical events brings with it biases that may not be noticed in the absence of a serious critical effort. The presence of such biases is such a pervasive and unavoidable part of historical narrative that one needs to question whether polities ought to be grounded in historical narratives at all. To be sure, one can engage in the critique of the historical narratives in question. This is clearly a large part of what the participants in the ‘National Histories in Europe’ project propose to do. However, any such critical approach is unlikely to find the same popular favour that appeals to identity will have. Narrative, after all, has an inherent persuasive force of its own. We are encouraged to go with the flow, and not question what is being said. Consider the following statement by the historian Barbara Fields, spoken on screen in the Burns civil war documentary (and possibly chosen by the film-makers out of many other things that Professor Fields also said, but that sounded less dramatic):

[The Founders] adopted a constitution that required a war to be sorted out, and therefore required a war to make real a nation out of what was a theoretical nation as it was defined at the Constitutional Convention [my emphases].31

Fields’s reference, here, is to the contradiction, in the United States Constitution, between its commitment to the principles of freedom and its recognition of the institution of slavery. The question that needs to be asked is: how does Fields know that the abolition of slavery required a war for its ending? The short answer is that she has no grounds for knowing this. Yet she says it. She converts the fact that the civil war did happen into a claim that it had to happen (for the desired end to be achieved). Slavery was ended in many other polities without recourse to war; nor do there seem to be any really persuasive grounds for holding that, as a result of the civil war, the United States was speedier in according equal rights to African-Americans than would otherwise have been the case. After all, the American civil rights movement only began to enjoy some significant success roughly a century after the civil war ended. Consider, further, the words of another talking head from the final episode of The Civil War, the historian Stephen B. Oates, who tells us all that:

The civil war is not only the central event of American history but it’s a central event in large ways for the world itself. If we believe today, and surely we must, that popular government is the way to go, it is the way to the emancipation of the human spirit, then the civil war established the fact that a popular government can survive … So the war becomes, in essence, […] a testament for the liberation of the human spirit for all time.32

It is a quite stunning series of propositions that Professor Oates advances in the course of a twenty-second sound bite. (Perhaps he would be more nuanced in written discourse, or perhaps not.) What is being presented to millions of viewers – without supporting argument – is, first, the claim that ‘popular government’ is the good form of government, the form of government to which all peoples should direct their aspirations. (Since no other popular form of government is presented in The Civil War than the American form, one assumes that it is the American form of popular government that is here intended.) Second, the implicit claim of Fields’s and Oates’s observations taken together is that freedom, equality and popular government are legitimately attained, and may legitimately be spread, by military means. Can one much wonder at the direction of American policy with regard to Iraq in 2002–2004 when American identity is supplied with this kind of mythhistorical foundation? As I write these words, in December 2004, the justifying argument for that military adventure has become America’s mission to spread democracy. I open the local newspaper and see, starting on the front page, an account of the funeral of a local twenty-year-old Marine corporal, who died in Fallujah, Iraq, on 19 November. According to the article, his friends and family said that his purpose ‘was to fight for democracy and freedom, and to live according to God’s will’.33 Moreover, when I observe the mythic apprehension of American history in American popular media and consciousness more generally, I am led to wonder whether polities ought to be based on history at all. Since identity is in significant measure the product of historical experience, this is as much as to wonder whether polities ought to be based on identity at all. This is the subject of another paper, but I can say a few words about the matter here. Of course, Frenchmen are Frenchmen, Dutchmen are Dutchmen, Germans are Germans, and so on, in rather the way that, two hundred years ago, Virginians were Virginians and New Englanders were New Englanders. Particular identities are one of the delights of life, but this does not mean that they ought to be taken as the foundation for states or for international confederations. It seems to me that it is profitable here to make a distinction between identities and allegiances. It is a mistake, I wish to suggest, to think about the general problem of the relationship between history writing and human beings’ relations to each other in and between large groups without keeping in mind these two forms of human solidarity – which are related, but also clearly different. I take an identity to be a form of human solidarity that, once it is put into place, functions in a quasi-natural way. That is to say, an identity is something that, once it is in place, is seen as no longer a matter of choice. Note that I am not saying that identities are natural tout court, but only that they appear natural once they have emerged or have been adopted. The ideal typical form of identity is the type that arises over time without any conscious attempt to create it. This is the kind of sense of self that individual human beings normally acquire over the course of their childhoods, without knowing that they are doing so. Collective identity-formation is often much the same: people take it in in a largely non-reflective, unintentional way, as the byproduct of living of their lives. But of course, as we well know, collective identities are also formed, as a result of deliberate effort, most obviously as a result of teaching carried out in schools. For example, religious identity is deliberately inculcated in Sunday schools, and ‘national’ identity is often inculcated with something like the same deliberateness in elementary and secondary schools. The formation of both individual and collective identity surely exists on a continuum between the unintentional and the intentional. In the most recent generation, from the late 1970s onward, there has been much talk of the ‘inventing’ or ‘imagining’ of collective identities as a more or less intentional process – one thinks of Hobsbawm and Ranger, of Benedict Anderson, and of the French lieux de mémoire project directed by Pierre Nora, among other examples.34 However, although the recent focus has been on how collective identities can be intentionally made, it seems obvious that they also emerge more or less ‘naturally’ from things that happen. Identity seems to be one of those things that is both invented and found. The relative balance between the two cannot be discussed at a theoretical level, but can only be dealt with in relation to specific historical instances. What seems evident is that, once it has been invented, identity gives the impression of being there, existing as a reality and not as a choice to be made. I dwell on this point because of the distinction I want to make between solidarities of identity and solidarities of allegiance. Identities are conceptions as to who we are. Allegiances, on the other hand, are conceptions as to what we wish to be loyal to. An allegiance can indeed be a matter of choosing to be loyal to a particular collective identity. This was certainly the basic underlying idea of the nation-state, to which much national history seems to have been intended to contribute. However, we need to uncouple identity and allegiance. Not all allegiance is tied to identity, let alone national identity. It seems clear that if a polity is to function well, it must indeed rely on solidarities that go beyond the closer solidarities of family and neighbourhood, of congregation and village. In this sense, the basic idea behind the notion of the national state is correct. However, it is possible, and in a multicultural world probably desirable, to attempt more and more to foster solidarities that are not identities. One thinks, for example, of the solidarity that Churchill tapped into, and perhaps also in part created, from May 1940 until the end of the Second World War – a solidarity that somehow managed to override, obviously without eliminating, the sharp class divisions, rooted in all sorts of injustices, petty and grand, that permeated British society at the time. More negatively, one thinks of the failure of the French in the period up to May 1940 to arrive at a comparable solidarity and sense of unified action. One also cannot help but wonder whether the fate of European Jewry in that period would have been less terrible had European Jews not been so fragmented by cross-cutting allegiances, of greater or less intensity, to French, Czech, Italian or other forms of national solidarity, by the fragmentation within Jewry as between different types of religious commitment, and between religious commitment and a rejection of that commitment. All of this should be considered within the context of national states that for the most part were insufficiently committed to solidarities of allegiance that might have better hindered the Nazi policy of isolation and deportation than did solidarities (or lack thereof) arising from identity. Identities are rooted in past historical experience and in the continuation of that experience in collective memory. Allegiances can just as well be rooted in a present-day willed commitment to a constitutional polity and to behaviour that is congruent with that polity. One thinks, for example, of India, a multiethnic, indeed multi-national, country if there ever was one. It would be fatal to attempt to root such a polity in national identity. Nevertheless, the rooting of such a polity in allegiance to norms of public and political behaviour that we can think of as constitutional norms is more than conceivable. Identity continues (or seeks to continue) the past. Constitution, on the other hand, seeks to constitute anew, and then to follow what has been constituted. Such constituting norms, which in a Nietzschean sense might be considered ‘unhistorical’ or even ‘supra-historical’, have a deeply ambiguous relation to historically created identities. Accordingly, perhaps we should think of history writing, not as something that engages in the building of national identities, but rather as something that critiques all historical identity-claims, and in doing so, as a by-product, opens a space for constitutional allegiances and behavioural norms that stand at a remove from what is simply given to us by the past.


  1. S. Berger, C. Conrad and G.P. Marchal, ‘“Representations of the Past: National Histories
    in Europe”: Proposal for a New Scientific Programme in the Humanities’, unpublished ESF
    project proposal, dated January 2002; in author’s possession.
  2. European Science Foundation (ESF), Representations of the Past: National Histories
    in Europe (NHIST): An ESF Scientific Programme, Strasbourg, 2004: 5.
  3. Ibid., 1.
  4. Ibid., 4.
  5. A. Megill, ‘Some Aspects of the Ethics of History-Writing: Reflections on Edith
    Wyschogrod’s An Ethics of Remembering’, in D. Carr, T.R. Flynn and R.A. Makkreel, eds,
    The Ethics of History, Evanston, IL, 2004: 47, 71 n. 5.
  6. P. Veyne, Comment on écrit l’histoire, suivi de Foucault révolutionne l’histoire, Paris,
    1978: 13.
  7. As I was revising this paper, I found that Jonathan Gorman makes a similar point as to the relation between historical representation and present political hope, and does so in
    response to precisely the paragraph of the ESF brochure that I quoted just above.
  8. Completely independently of this paper or of the talk out of which it grew, he also quotes
    it in toto. See J. Gorman, ‘Historians and Their Duties’, History and Theory 43, 4, 2004:
    113; also personal communication from Gorman.
  9. L. Ranke, Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494–1514 (1824), ‘Preface’,
    in F. Stern, ed., The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, 2nd ed., New York,
    1972: 53.
  10. K. Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852), trans. B. Fowkes, in K.
    Marx, Surveys from Exile, Political Writings, vol. 2, ed. D. Fernbach, New York, 1973:
  11. F. Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, in F. Nietzsche,
    Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, 1874, Cambridge, 1983: 60–77.
  12. As Thomas H. Brobjer demonstrates, after 1875/76 Nietzsche ‘almost completely ignored’
    his Untimely Meditation on history, and ‘a few times he outright rejected its argument and
    content’; T.H. Brobjer, ‘Nietzsche’s View of the Value of Historical Studies and Methods’,
    Journal of the History of Ideas 65, 2, 2004: 301. Although a lot of attention has been
    lavished on Nietzsche’s 1874 essay, it is not at all representative of his thinking about
  13. F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, trans., with notes, M. Clark and
    A.J. Swensen, 1887, Indianapolis, Ind., 1998: 35–36.
  14. L. Febvre, ‘A New Kind of History’, in his A New Kind of History and Other Essays, trans.
    K Folca, ed. P. Burke, New York, 1973: 27–43.
  15. Ibid., 41.
  16. Ibid., 40.
  17. ESF, Representations of the Past, 1.
  18. Berger et al., ‘Proposal’, 8.
  19. L. Eriksonas, National Heroes and National Identities: Scotland, Norway and Lithuania,
    Brussels, 2004.
  20. J. Mali, Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography, Chicago, 2003.
  21. ESF, Representations of the Past, 4.
  22. Ibid.
  23. For a discussion of four types of objectivity – absolute, disciplinary, procedural and
    dialectical – see A. Megill, ‘Introduction: Four Senses of Objectivity’, in his edited
    Rethinking Objectivity, Durham, NC, 1994: 1–20; expanded version in A. Megill,
    Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice, Chicago,
    2007, 107–24.
  24. A.C. Danto, Narration and Knowledge, New York, 1985: 143–81; see esp. p. 169. The
    book includes the integral text of Analytical Philosophy of History, 1965.
  25. On the grounding of the nineteenth-century historical profession in an ultimately Christian grand narrative, see A. Megill, ‘“Grand Narrative” and the Discipline of History’, in F.R.
    Ankersmit and H. Kellner, eds, A New Philosophy of History, Chicago, 1995: 151–73,
    263–71; repr. in A. Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error, 165–87.
  26. R.M. Nixon, ‘Address to the Nation about the Watergate Investigations’, 30 Apr. 1973,
  27. J-F. Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington
    and B. Massumi, Minneapolis, Minn., 1984: xxiii.
  28. A. Megill, ‘Historiography as a Written Form’, in D.L. Shelton, ed., Encyclopedia of
    Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, vol. 1, New York, 2004: 448–51.
  29. L. Douglas, The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the
    Holocaust, New Haven, Conn., 2001: 170–71.
  30. K. Burns and R. Burns, producers, The Civil War [television series], 1990: episode 9.
  31. On 30 November, 2004, a Google search of ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Australian identity’ yielded
    657 hits.
    Burns and Burns, Civil War, episode 9.
  32. Ibid.
  33. K. Andrews, ‘Hundreds Attend Marine’s Memorial’, The Daily Progress, Charlottesville,
    Va., Nov. 28, 2004: A1, A12.
  34. E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, 1983; B. Anderson,
    Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1983,
    London, 1991; P. Nora, Les Lieux de mémoire, 7 vols, Paris, 1984–92.

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