Like my colleagues I take the on-going debate about the relevance of historical research and the contribution professional historians can and should make to society very seriously. The prospect laid out in The History Manifesto is alarming. Guldi and Armitage’s vision of the historian as informer of policy may appeal to those individuals in the discipline who want to rub shoulders with the great and the powerful. But the hope implicit in the Manifesto that our knowledge of the past may influence policymaking and trump the obligations of electoral cycles is overly optimistic and arises from misconception of how the past is used in politics. The political class ceaselessly invoke concepts such as ‘history’, ‘heritage’ or ‘tradition’ but the appeal of these myths to the politician lies in their ability to evoke emotions, construct factions and thereby affect public opinion. Historical myths are powerful socio-political tools but (ideally!) historians challenge and deconstruct these myths and thereby rob the past of precisely the power that makes it attractive to the politician. One of the main services the historian can render to society is to confront these myths, make facile historical narratives complex and teach others to do the same. But this is the opposite of what Guldi and Armitage propose.
The appeal of the ‘grand narrative’ and the ‘big picture’ to which we are called to return lies in their satisfying but deceptive neatness. They are good stories but they are incompatible with historical ‘reality’. Marx’s materialist approach to history, Weber’s notion of the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’, Elias’s ‘Civilising Process’, were highly valuable, nevertheless. They stimulated vast amounts of research that showed just how wrong these grand narratives were. I am not at all nostalgic for a mythical time in which the past seemed neat. Whenever I uncover complexity, when I can’t give simple answers or when I have to concede contradiction, I get a sense that I’m doing my job properly. Humans are complex, contradictory and confusing, that’s the grandest narrative I’m willing to subscribe to.
Finally, the way in which the authors caricature not just those ‘micro-historians’ whose work, inspired by the social struggles of their time, allegedly fragmented the ‘useful’ grand historical narrative but also their professed inspiration Fernand Braudel is highly irritating. Guldi and Armitage’s longue durée really is not very long, a couple of centuries at most. Neither do they acknowledge that the sophistication, complexity and hard work of Braudel’s projects yielded output that is the antithesis of the bite-sized factoids and graphs that they apparently want to throw to policy makers: both The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Capitalism and Civilisation were published as three hefty tomes and took decades to produce – even as works of synthesis.
History seems to die every fifty years. In the preface to The Mediterranean, Braudel cited Edmond Faral’s despairing comment made in 1942 that “It is the fear of History, of history on the grand scale, which has killed History”. To the spectacularly confident Braudel, The Mediterranean represented nothing less than the rebirth of ‘History’. History died again in 1992 when Francis Fukuyama signed the death certificate and maybe Guldi and Armitage’s Manifesto contains the necessary cure that will save us from having to bury our discipline again in 2042. But just to be on the safe side, maybe we should explore alternative treatments as well.