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More, Not Less, History!

ISSUE:  Spring 1994

I became an historian because it never occurred to me to become anything else. Anxious parents, whose collegiate offspring is about to choose a career more noted for virtue than reward, are prone to ask: “What can you do with history?” My answer is: “What can you do without it?”

The history I loved as a child, was, however, not the same history I taught as an adult. I want to talk about that love affair, how it turned into a stable marriage, and give a few samples of the wisdom this mating of man and knowledge has produced.

My first history lessons were gleaned from a small collection of books left behind by a grandfather who, alas, died before I was born: translations of Plutarch and Herodotus, and 19th-century classics, such as Theodor Mommsen’s three-volume Roman History. My favorite was August Wilhelm Grube’s Character Portraits from History and Legend for Introductory Historical Instruction.

Who was August Grube, you may well ask. How did he get into a collection of established classics? I cannot answer the second question, but I have investigated the history of German education in the 19th-century sufficiently to be able to reply to the first.

Grube, my first teacher of history, was no historian at all. Born in the Harz mountains of north central Germany shortly after the Congress of Vienna, he became an elementary schoolteacher in nearby Merseburg. As he approached middle age, poor health forced him to seek lighter work as tutor of the sons of the well-to-do. He also developed a remunerative sideline, writing instructional handbooks and in 1866 was able to quit teaching altogether. For the remainder of his life he devoted his energies exclusively to preparing successive editions of these guides. His wide-ranging output included works on the teaching of arithmetic, multi-volume compendia on local and world geography, textbooks on German literature, and the history primers for elementary schools that awakened my love for the study of the human record. The geography texts continued to be reprinted for use until well after World War I.

Contemporary German pedagogs believed that Grube deserved a “place of honor among the educators of all ages,” and in his lifetime his reputation extended across the Atlantic. The Library of Congress contains three monographs discussing “Grube’s method of teaching arithmetic” published in New York and Chicago between 1881 and 1890.

I was nine years old and convalescing from a near-fatal encounter with diptheria when I became hooked on Grube’s Character Portraits that went through 35 editions between 1852 and 1913, and his Biographic Miniatures, issued eight times over a comparable span of time.

Grube did no research, and, as I said before, he laid no claim to being an historian. He did not even claim authorship of these Portraits, he merely “collected, edited, and arranged” them. His task, as he explained in the preface, was to rewrite the work of professional historians in a manner calculated to interest elementary students by emphasizing the contributions of individuals, “the living center from which all history emanates,” and by stripping their narratives of confusing detail. In harmony with his age, Grube worshipped the hero in history who, he believed, must be made to speak “to the student’s heart” and be depicted with “a few simple strokes of the brush, but in the brightest, most vivid colors.”

Grube accordingly counseled his colleagues to prepare their class presentations from texts chosen for their teachability. “Many a little history, viewed contemptuously by the professional historian, is a true classic to the pedagogue.” Unfortunately, he provided no examples to make this dubious argument plausible. More persuasive, however, was his espousal of what we today call “visual aids.” Do not lecture about architecture, he urged, but show students the monuments, churches, and public buildings it has produced. When you talk about Johannes Gutenberg, take them to a printer’s workshop.

The history curriculum that emerged from such precepts, began with legend, “the beginning of history.” “Legend,” this industrious preceptor explained, “reflects the people’s spirit in its child-like immediacy.” If history was to develop an awareness of national identity, as his century believed, then Hercules, Siegfried, and Roland were as important as Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. Children between nine and twelve, to whom Grube’s Character Portraits were addressed, “whose reason is still wrapped in phantasy” must approach history through the portal of the popular imagination.

The subject consisted of what Grube called “the great epochs,” His three-volume primer dealt in succession with antiquity, the Middle Ages, and “the new age.” The latter began with the invention of printing and the explorations sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator. Each epoch was represented by great warriors, lawgivers, reformers, and statesmen, as well as painters, composers, and poets.

This record of great achievers was illuminated by “three suns:” Greece, Rome, and “the German fatherland,” “for Greece and Rome teach young people to understand their own nation.” In the Greeks Grube saw a people perishing in a fragmented universe of many states, “while Rome conquered the world through the unity of its political structure.” Greeks excelled in the aesthetic and humanitarian sphere, Rome in the political. This view of history constituted an attractive composite of the German 19th-century: a nation evolving from a Greek to a Roman symbiosis, or, as some of his more chauvinistic compatriots preferred, a synthesis of the two orbs.

The author’s generation grew to maturity in the afterglow of Frederician and Napoleonic reform, notably the civic emphasis permeating compulsory education after the French Revolution.

Grube was also visibly affected by his century’s explosive tensions between the sacred and the temporal.”Biblical history” was explicitly excluded from his curriculum, although early in Volume II he designated—ex cathedra, and without warning or explanation—Jesus Christ, whose portrait he did not draw, as the force that had turned mankind from antiquity to modernity.

Once Grube got to the age of the Reformation, however, the secularization of history broke down once more. The third volume of the Character Portraits devotes 52 of its 402 pages to the breakup of western Christianity, half of them to Luther, “the man of God, who released us Germans from ceremonial and lip service, showing us how to honor God in spirit and in truth.” Another 78 pages describe the political changes resulting from religious conflict, ranging from the rebellion of the Netherlands against Philipp II of Spain to the Thirty Years’ War.

In this context, Grube rose above mere national or Protestant partisanship. The section on religious reformers includes sketches of Calvin and Zwingli, as well as Ignatius of Loyola, whose Society of Jesus he credited with many “splendid teachers” as well as “a multitude of outstanding lawgivers.”

A cosmopolitan stance also pervaded Grube’s secular chronicles. Here Frederick the Great was but one of a gallery of crowned heads, including Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Charles I of England, and Napoleon Bonaparte. One of nine chapters, entitled “men of liberty,” acquainted his pupils with the achievements of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Haiti’s Francois Dominique ToussaintL’Ouverture. One is tempted to wonder how many of the hundreds of thousands of German peasant sons and daughters, who crossed the Atlantic between 1815 and 1914 to seek better lives in this country, may first have been turned westward by Grube’s eulogy of “the unpretentious American” Benjamin Franklin, the republican ambassador without whig and frilly accoutrements, who exemplified “Rousseau’s dream of man’s unspoilt nature and the philosopher’s political ideas fixed on liberty and equality.”

We meet Franklin and Washington again in Grube’s two-volume Biographic Miniatures, there trailing in the wake of William Penn, whom the author credited with introducing “spiritual liberty” into a world that Columbus had merely discovered.

The range of these portraits likewise exceeds the German-speaking world. Less than half of the 47 subjects are Germans, Austrians, or Swiss. Nine are Englishmen, four French and three Americans, while eight were natives of a variety of regions, extending from Spain to Scandinavia. Their diversity of occupations also serves to correct our misconceptions about the limitations of old-fashioned textbook history.

The first volume celebrates cultural leaders, including Rafael, Sir Walter Scott, Isaac Newton, Isaac Watt, and Blaise Pascal. The sequel, titled “Men of Liberty,” like Chapter 7 of the Character Sketches, paid special homage to the European struggle against Napoleonic tyranny. This time the lesson ranges beyond the apostles of American freedom to encompass Pitt the Younger, Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, the heroic defender of Saragossa, Jose de Palafox, even the wily survivor Talleyrand. Among the German-speaking members of that company we find humbly born leaders and martyrs of local German and Austrian rebellions against French authority, such as the free corps leader Ferdinand von Schill and the Tyrolean innkeeper Andreas Hofer.

At the same time Grube remained faithful to certain conventions. His view of history was confined to the “civilized world”: Europe and its American outposts settled by Europeans. His actors were almost always men. Women appear occasionally, as rulers or incidental strays into the limelight of events: the faithful Penelope eluding arrogant suitors, Joan of Arc—not yet canonized—followed by victors and victims of the tumults of Tudor England. In connection with the latter, the Protestant Grube waxes lyrical about the “beauty and goodness” of Elizabeth I’s rival Mary Stuart. Peter the Great’s peasant wife Catherine gains glory largely because her bribery of the Turkish commander saves her husband’s life at Poltava. Augustina of Saragossa fights alongside men during the French siege of her home town, but reassuringly remains “completely feminine,” wearing the insignia of the Spanish artillery “modestly on her female attire.”

This was my history before I reached the age often, when I was scheduled to enter the local gymnasium. Its contents reveal that schoolmaster Grube, though seeking to arouse “love for the German fatherland,” was not bent on raising generations of chauvinists. He pursued loftier aims. Whether addressing primary pupils or “more mature youths”—the audience for which the Biographic Miniatures were intended —he saw himself serving the “great and noble purpose” of awakening in the young love of the good and beautiful, and revulsion against lies and malevolence. History, to him, was the foundation of moral education. It was designed to raise a generation of decent human beings, engaged in the pursuit of liberty.

It would soon dawn on me that reading Grube was not just entertaining and inspiring. It also provided me an escape from harsher realities that each day added to this select record of the past. My childhood was lived in post-World War I and pre-Hitler Germany. As my generation struggled toward a troubled maturity, Grube’s precepts were cast aside by new leaders. The conclusion was inescapable: his historic universe, peopled by heroes, saints, and reformers, revealed what ought to be, not what was.

In my secondary school classroom, moreover, August Grube was succeeded by well-meaning schoolmasters, preparing my peers and me to pass examinations rather than meet the requirements of a categorical imperative. The significance of history changed as lies swayed the nation, and social Darwinist vulgarities replaced love of the good and beautiful in the heart of its children. The future pressed rifles into our hands and turned us into warriors in the service often of primitive and brutal causes, their barbarity barely concealed under a veneer of lofty declarations of high purpose. Such a progress from vision to fact led me to search for more accurate accounts of the past. I wanted to find out “what had really happened,” and how we had arrived at the same impasse of continuous conflict that had spelled the end of the Ancien Regime.


By the time I was an undergraduate, my teachers of history were American professors. They prepared me to be sceptical of chauvinist propaganda—these were the 1930’s, an educational golden age of sorts in this country—no matter on what nation’s behalf. They taught me, in fact, that free men used their right to choose, in part at least, by deciding what to believe about the past and what to reject as bogus. These teachers also warned me that the formulation of ideals was first of all a verbal exercise, not necessarily a commitment to specific values.

By the time I began my training as a professional historian, in the memorable’summer of 1940, the Germans were marching into Paris. The history of the “civilized world” had turned into a chronicle of German expansion. None of this diminished my fascination with history. It had become both more ugly and more revealing. Yet it still inspired, by demonstrating our failures and pressing harder the demand that we must rise above ourselves to survive. At this point, an immense physical and spiritual distance had come to separate me from the captive audience of August Grube’s classroom. There were fewer heroes, but more failures. The past had become a merciless teacher of unpalatable lessons. To expose these in all their grim detail now seemed to me to be the historian’s task. In a word I began to write the very monographs that my first teacher had held in such low esteem.

I was about to face the dilemma no historian can escape: we seek to find out “what really happened” from case to case. But of what value are our partial and fragmentary answers to the rest of humanity? Can they be depended upon to sharpen our understanding of the present? Do they protect us from repeating mistakes or making new ones? When Grube “collected, edited, and arranged” the past as homiletic entertainment, praising the good and damning the evil, had he not put history to its only defensible, “practical” use?

If there are answers to these questions that will put to rest once and for all the uncertainties underlying them, I do not know what they are. I can, however, provide some instances that would justify an affirmative response to all but the last. Most of my examples will stick close to our own time, simply because the history of this century has been at the heart of my teaching.

When two Germanics were moving toward reunion in 1989, a number of smug undergraduates at the University of Virginia reminded me that I had told them less than a year earlier that the Berlin Wall would not come down in my lifetime. This miscalculation, shared by countless colleagues, here and abroad, raises the question, to what extent does a degree in history make one a licensed prophet? Soothsayers have been with us since the dawn of history. In Greece the Delphic oracle was noted for opaque answers that could be made to fit diverse eventualities. The prophets of the Old Testament gained their knowledge of the future from divine inspiration, not from the study of history.

Historians in post-Biblical times have not been able to draw on such supernatural resources, and of all the men and women in Christendom who have claimed that God spoke to them, none, to my knowledge, was an historian. As one of a confraternity that depends for its insights on man-made evidence, I would only claim that prophecy based on history is a laborious effort to penetrate the meaning of various sets of circumstances. Of some we know more than of others. It is very much like facing a set of experiments designed to answer a given question, but performed at different stages of scientific development, in different laboratories, varying in their resources and therefore providing divergent answers.

Moreover, historians face problems that differ from those that scientists seek to solve. Whether or not the universe started with a big bang does not affect human nature or humanity’s short-term fortunes. Conclusions drawn from historic evidence have also far more immediate effects. History’s common, everyday language makes them accessible to a larger public and provides clearer implications of how we should respond. At the same time my diffident generation of historians is only too aware that even the most painstaking reconstruction of an event represents no exercise of complete memory. There also remains the additional task of reconciling controversies occasioned by conflicting memories. A student of mine is trying to reconstruct the events of July 18, 1936, in Spain. On that day an attempt was made to organize a government, joining partisans of the Second Republic and the army. The effort failed, and we remember July 18th as the day on which the Spanish Civil War began. The young scholar in question has been distressed to discover that no two eyewitnesses agree exactly on that day’s course of events in Madrid. This does, however, not confirm that history is “bunk,” as Henry Ford assured us. Even this particular Gordian knot of controversy leaves inviolate certain facts: failure of the attempt at reconciliation and the beginning of conflict. The contradictory evidence also cannot challenge that, in this instance, men were willing to try to stop a war until the very moment of its eruption. Further analysis of the evidence may well yield additional certainty on additional details. Some versions, rationally examined, may emerge as more convincing than others. More evidence may come to light confirming some versions at the expense of others. But for the time being the message is both clear and delphic. Clear in that no one doubts, least of all subsequent generations of Spaniards, that the war that followed turned into a disaster no one wishes to repeat. Delphic in the sense that no one can at this point tell what should or could have been done to avoid this catastrophe. We come away instructed as well as frustrated.

With that in mind, let us return to the German surprise of 1989, that prompted such justified aspersions on professorial prescience. Why would any historian consign the collapse of the German Democratic Republic to a distant future? Clearly, because German history provided indicators pointing in opposite directions. It had featured “men of liberty”: Swiss peasants preserving democratic liberty against better armed, professionally led contingents of knights; Dutch rebels breaking the religious and economic stranglehold of Spanish kings and viceroys; Tyrolean mountaineers holding Napoleon and his satellites at bay, as well as 19th-century libertarians, drafting and enacting constitutions proclaiming individual liberties. But Germans had also been captivated by brutal precepts of “Iron and Blood,” had preferred unity to liberty in 1871, and chosen an expansionist dictatorship over the hazards of democratic choice and tolerant negotiations. Could this record at any point justify confident expectations that one day Germans would take to the streets to demand restoration of personal freedom?

Even now the events of 1989 have not cleared our vision of the future. Reason and emotion continue to compete for predominance, both in the German East and the German West. One prays for consensus, but such prayer does not of itself lift the minds to levels of prophecy.

The larger European stage feeds these perplexities. The disintegration of the Communist bloc tells us little about the viability of any system of government. Tyrants have dominated Russian history. At the same time, opposition to oppression has also written many of its chapters. Like Germans, some Russians have submitted and flourished in the service of autocracy, while others have risked their lives and died fighting it.

One of the pioneers of the study of Russian history in North America, the Canadian Stuart Ramsey Tompkins, insisted to me decades before 1989, that Bolshevism was bound to fail because it did not recognize the profit motive. That remains a plausible explanation of recent events. It may well point to a tenable assumption that no political or social order can survive while denying us the individual material rewards to which we believe ourselves to be entitled. But this conclusion also raises disturbing questions. If this same charge had not earlier been levelled at capitalism, there never would have been a Communist revolution to contend with. Moreover, what Tompkins claimed in the context of recent Russian history would equally apply to Christianity. Acts 4 and 5 tell us that members of the Apostolic community “as were possessors of lands or houses, sold them” and the proceeds were distributed “to each as any had need.” When one of them “kept back some of the proceeds,” he was charged with lying “not to men but to God” at which point “he fell down and died.” Subsequent Christian communities, on the other hand, have learned to live with the profit motive, and Americans as well as European Christians have had no difficulty reconciling Christian beliefs with the inviolability of property rights. By the standards of the Apostolic community Christianity has been abandoned. Reformers, seeking to revive its Communist spirit, have themselves suffered persecution by other Christians. Still, nominally at least, Christianity lives. It is, therefore, more than likely that socialism will survive, at least in name, adjusting to human nature, as my friend Tompkins insisted any social system must, coexisting with private enterprise as indeed it already has on many political stages throughout the world.

Modern Russian history, to get back to the last point of departure, also shares in a less controversial lesson, one that applies throughout the world. Ever since Russian explorers reached and settled the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean, overextension has been the disease undermining the Russian state. That affliction continues even as fringe areas make periodic attempts to break away. As far as we can see, 1917 inaugurated one such brief interlude of limited fragmentation, at the end of which the territorial surfeit of the Czars had been substantially restored. How many geographic divisions will follow 1989, and how lasting will they be?

Russia is not the only tottering giant. The disintegration of the British Empire, disastrously overextended after the Turkish surrender of 1918, offers interesting parallels, as do the ceaseless tribulations of polities such as China, Brazil, Canada, and, do I dare say it, the United States of America with its crowded prisons and its record incidence of violence visited by citizen upon citizen. To be sure, size is not the only affliction of these societies, but the vastness of their territories certainly adds to their travail.


It should become clear at this point that history teaches different lessons to different observers, depending on the conditions attending observation and the tools the observer brings to his task.

During the French Revolution, one of August Grube’s heroes, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, predicted that nation states, unlike their dynastic precursors, would lead Europe from permanent war to eternal peace. Nations, he adverted, would only claim territory inhabited by their free citizens; they would see no reason to encroach upon the possessions of other nations. One can see why Kant would have reached that conclusion. From the War of the Spanish succession, beginning in 1700, to the third Partition of Poland in 1795, old regime Europe had stumbled from conflict to conflict, each spawned by monarchs seeking to validate their rule by extending their patrimony. No wonder that thoughtful humans looked for alternatives to this epidemic of violence. France’s revolutionary order, purportedly grounded in the will of the people, appeared to offer a promising new approach.

A century and a half later it had become clear that national boundaries could be as controversial as dynastic ones, and that powerful members of the community of nations, just as monarchs in the 18th century, sought confirmation of their genius or mythic historic missions by extending their sway over weaker peoples. A disillusioned Europe now sought peace by yet another route: a community of peoples. Its spokesmen were not moral philosophers. The European Community’s founding father, Jean Monnet, shaped his program after talking to “men who cannot afford to make mistakes: bankers, industrialists, lawyers, and newspapermen.” As head of France’s post-World War II planning office, he realized “the limits of what any nation can do. The French,” he went on, “could not become modern or great by themselves.” They must join others in the search for economic recovery, especially countries with an ample supply of what France lacked—coal. Monnet, like Kant, projected a program for the future from an experience of past failures. Both men were guided by history. Kant was led down the garden path; Monnet’s case appears stronger, but the accomplishments and setbacks of generations yet to come will deliver a more persuasive verdict. What we can already affirm is that territorial and administrative unwieldiness will dog Europe as it has frustrated Russia.

Here history becomes a record of experience to which we respond by blazing new trails around obstacles that we cannot surmount. Such learning can and does improve the human condition. After World War II Germany was not contained by an unenforceable peace treaty, but occupied. At the same time Monnet’s initiative produced the European Coal and Steel Community, pooling resources of friend and foe, rather than having French armies once again march into the Ruhr. Germans and Japanese have, under parallel policies, found out that national resurrection can come without resort to violence, and that true power is economic, not military. One might add here that communism was not laid low on any field of battle either. After Napoleon and Hitler, no one volunteered to lead another futile march on Moscow.

Historians remain, however, only too aware that crude and misinformed lay readings of history also add to human jeopardy. The common and persistent contempt for “appeasement” provides a good case in point. The event that produced near unanimity on that subject was, of course, the Munich conference in October 1938, at which Neville Chamberlain permitted Germany to annex the German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia. This concession allowed Hitler to wipe out the entire state.

This tragic result teaches us that there was no appeasing Hitler, yet it provides no prescription for diplomatic intercourse with dictators as a group. The consequences of Munich reveal, furthermore, that the German dictator would have been well advised to stop his expansionist course at this point, and respond cooperatively to the statesmen who proved so sympathetic to the grievances of a German minority. Munich, after all, preceded a war that ended far more disastrously for Germany than for Britain. Hitler was the biggest loser among all European statesmen of his time. Munich and its consequences reveal that the appeasement of the diplomat remains a more constructive approach to the settlement of international rivalries than Blitzkrieg. Chamberlain was on the right track; Hitler was too nasty, brutish, and stupid to see that.

Former President Nixon has been quoted as urging massive U.S.aid to post-Soviet Russia in order to avoid a repetition of the debacle of German democracy between the two world wars. One wonders where the former president picked up that bit of counterfeit wisdom. In 1989 Russia, unlike Germany, had not lost a World War, no coalition of enemies threatened to occupy the country, and no foreign power demanded a change in government. In 1918 Germany’s revolution was caused by foreign pressure; in Russia change was the result of domestic discontent.

Russia is beset by problems that will not yield to one single cure. It occupies a continent rich in resources that have never been effectively exploited. No “Marshall Plan” based on false historical premises will redeem centuries of administrative incompetence on many levels. Foreign intervention, of whatever kind, will merely revive traditional hatred of foreigners, always close to the surface in this hermit state, and more than likely bankrupt the donors.

Where does this leave my childhood mentor Grube? He was right to point to legend as one source of our understanding of human behavior, and no one can quarrel with his desire to use history as a fountain of moral uplift. What he forgot was that his pupils would some day be children no longer. They would know an adult world in which moral compromise might be the least of many evils. This means that all moral lessons, regardless of their source, must be grounded in sufficient truth to survive the student’s passage from childhood to maturity. What is the point of teaching children that George Washington never told a lie, only to have them find out in high school that the story of the cherry tree is a fable? Washington was unique among national liberators because he withstood the temptations of power. Such a lesson remains valid at all levels of the curriculum. Legend has its place, but it must never fly into the face of human experience.

In short: history, no matter where and how its soundings are applied, faces problems of extraordinary complexity. Anyone who comes away from the study of the past with unequivocal, simple answers knows less than he should. This means that we must unravel history’s web more deliberately and more carefully than we have. Just as blindness is no cure for poor eyesight, so ignorance of history is no cure for the opaqueness of its message. Learning from the past is difficult, and hazardous, but essential for human survival.


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