The Secret of History

History is not an exact art.  That’s the first myth of academia.  In school, you learn that anything you read in a history textbook is true.  Anything you read that was said by a respectable historian is true.  Anything you read that is said by the archaeologist is true.  This is all false.  That’s the secret that they never tell you until 300 level history courses at Universities.  When it really comes down to it, history is the exalted task of educated guesswork.  The reason for this is simple: we aren’t omniscient.  History would be a fully different story if every single fact were known, it would be an exact art, nearly a science if we could trace every action and every event to another and connect every dot in the tangled web.

To explain this more simply, think of a basic historical fact; my example is from “A brief history of Chinese Civilization”, and it reads, “Founded in the Sui and increasingly prestigious during the Tang, the civil service examination system came into its own in the Song and remained the most prestigious means of government recruitment until it was abolished in 1906.”  Simple enough; it just says that examinations to become government officials began during the Sui dynasty, and became more prestigious until they were stopped in 1906.  That single line, chosen at random from a book on a bookshelf, is the result of LIFETIMES of work.  It requires archaeologists to find the Sui information, linguists to translate them, Tang historians to see it becoming more used, historians and anthropologists through the ages who can trace the examinations as they were used until finally it comes to someone who finds a political order that stops it in 1906.  Dozens and dozens of people would be needed to fully explain this single sentence, which is why history is so inexact.  We like simplicity, it’s human nature.  We cut down and condense until we can easily absorb the information.  This single line takes a lot of guesswork and does so to avoid a torrent of information to prove the line, and because of the nature of history, discounting the information because it lacks support is foolish.

Such is the same with nearly all history, even the most well researched type.  The American Civil War is particularly well documented, but even using the documentation can lead to issues.  A journal left by a soldier from Manassas does not inherently prove what happened at Manassas.  People embellish, people imagine, people write things to puff themselves up or bring others down.  A soldier saying that a torrent of troops charging down a hill swept through them like they weren’t even there could have been an account of a front line survivor, or an account of a deserter who was rounded up and needed an alibi for his lone wolf status.  History is messy, it has few certainties.

The perfect example of the failures of historical certainty is from World War II.  When the Soviets charged through Poland in 1939, they took huge numbers of Polish officers captive.  In 1940, they put around 22,000 men on trains, took them out into a forest in the Katyn region and shot them at the base of the skull before throwing them in mass graves.  22,000 men disappeared in a short time in 1940, and when the Nazi’s pressed back to invade Russia in 1943, they stumbled across the mass graves of Katyn.  Nazi propagandists began to work and began a massive inquiry into the deaths of the officers, gathering scientists and forensics experts to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Soviets executed unarmed combatants.

Within a few months, the Soviets were able to expel the Nazis from Poland and when they reached Katyn, they gathered scientists and forensics experts (in some cases the exact same experts and scientists that the Nazis used) and began a second commission where they released documentation that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Nazis killed the officers when they took the forest area in 1943.  Two equally scientific proofs that claimed different dates of death and foul play.   We know now that the Soviets were responsible because Gorbachev released documentation in 1990 that explained the Soviet acts in 1940.  But until that time, it was simply the word of a great nation against the word of another.  America even backed the Soviet story because we required the aid of the Red Army to win the War.  Nazi officers were forced to enter into kangaroo trials to admit their guilt in the Katyn massacres.  Before 1990, if one was to look into Katyn, you would hear two separate stories being told with equal historical and scientific validity.  Polish filmmakers and the Polish government have never forgiven the Soviets for the massacre and it remains a blighted moment between the two nations.

What needs to be said is that History is not accurate.  It can be, it can be interesting, it can be fascinating, it can be gory, violent, extreme, depressing, exciting, or boring.  History is not, however, something to read and believe like one does a scientific report.  Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, and if it changes how you look at history, don’t let it ruin your views on it.  Just remember to do your own research and make your own opinions.

Citations, so you can do your own research!

I knew keeping that history book would be useful someday:
Conrad Schirokauer and Miranda Brown, A Brief History of Chinese Civilization, second edition (Wadsworth, 2006) pg.139.

The Katyn Forest Massacre:


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