The Truth and How to Deal With it When Studying History

November 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

In two of the books I’ve read recently I found myself incredibly frustrated by the authors’ insistence on “The Truth” and the “True Story.”  It is worth noting that neither book was written by a professional historian, despite the fact that both dealt with historical subjects.  So I began to think about how we historians are trained to think about “truth” in graduate school, how we deal with various truths in the documents, and by obvious attempts at obfuscation by historical actors.  And how we deal with gaps in the sources.

Each author deal with these problems differently.  In Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I was troubled by Weatherford’s inability to deal with at least one of his sources critically.  Weatherford makes great use of a source called “The Secret History”, which covers the early history of the Mongols in Temujin’s (Chinggis Khan) rise.  I found myself continuously wondering if The Secret History was actually verifiably true, or if it was something to be taken with a grain of salt, which is what my sense was in reading Weatherford’s book.

But the bigger problem came in C.J. Chivers’ The Gun.  Chivers was understandably frustrated throughout his research and writing process by the varying story of the development and proliferation of the AK-47 in the Soviet Union.  Mikhail Kalashnikov himself has published multiple autobiographies, both during the Soviet era and after, and has given countless interviews to the media, both before and after the fall of the USSR.  And in almost everyone of them, he gave different versions of his own biography, of his development of the AK-47 and so on.  I would’ve been frustrated in Chivers’ shoes.

For example, Kalasknikov’s brother, Nikolai, was sent to a Stalin-era prison camp when they were young.  Chivers is frustrated in figuring out what Nikolai’s sentence was.  At the end of the day, I found myself wondering “who cares”?  I am less interested in what sentence Nikolai Kalashnikov received than the fact that he was sentenced to a labour camp in the first place.  And I felt that Chivers spent too much time and space in the book expressing his frustration and inability to get to the fact of the matter there to the detriment of a discussion of the Kalashnikov family’s status as kulaks during Collectivisation during the Stalin era.

Chivers also spends the most time and effort complaining about Kalashnikov’s biography.  He also is downright naïve in expressing his frustration with Soviet-era sources and the multiple truths of the era, as if nothing like that ever happened in the US or any other Western nation.  At any rate, Chivers goes on a long rant about Kalashnikov co-operating with Soviet authorities in the re-crafting of his biography (Chivers prefers the term “white-washing”, which, while being accurate is ahistorical).  Kalashnikov’s family were kulaks, enemies of the state.  They were exiled to Siberia.  No kidding Kalashnikov needed a new biography when he became the inventor of the AK-47, which Chivers makes a strong and compelling argument as the greatest invention of the USSR.  His background as the son of kulaks had to be deleted from the story and a new version be created for public consumption.  To criticise Kalashnikov for participating in this process is almost laughable.  Obviously he had to participate.  He didn’t have a choice in a totalitarian dictatorship.  At least not if he wanted to keep living.

At any rate, it just so happens that, as a public historian, this is the kind of thing I study.  Public historians spend a lot of time looking at how stories get created, whether they are wider cultural stories or individual ones.  If Chivers thinks that what Kalashnikov participated in only happened in totalitarian communist states, he’s deeply, deeply mistaken.  Manufactured histories are part and parcel of almost daily life in Canada and the USA.

But the question of truth is what I’m interested in here.  Fact.  Statistics don’t speak for themselves.  Numbers don’t speak for themselves.  A picture is not worth a thousand words.  Facts are simple things.  Fact: Canadian Confederation happened on 1 July 1867.  But why? And what did it mean?  The why can be answered in many ways, both narrowly and widely.  It can be answered looking at what was happening in the United States, it can be answered looking at British colonial politics.  Or by what was happening in Canada.  Or a combination thereof.  The standard interpretation of what it means is that it was the birth of Canada.  But Canada in 1867 was four provinces, comprised of three colonies.  That’s about it.  It didn’t mean that Canada now had control of its own internal affairs.  That happened in 1848.  It didn’t mean that Canada gained control of foreign affairs.  That happened in 1931.  There was no such thing as Canadian citizenship until 1948.  Nor was the Supreme Court of Canada the highest court of appeal until then.  Canada did not control its own constitution until 1982.  So, in short, facts only cover a very simple corner of the story.  Interpretation is necessary.

To use an example from The Gun: The Ak-47 was developed in 1947.  Or was it?  Chivers does a wonderful job teasing out the details of the weapon’s creation in the late 1940s, to say nothing of the massive re-tooling of the gun that continued into the 1950s.  Even nailing down 1947 as the date of the gun’s creation isn’t as straight-forward as one would think, at least according to Chivers.

So, the truth.  Or the true story.  In my experience, rarely is something billed as the “true story” actually that.  Truth is a messy concept.  And this is what we historians are trained in.  We recognise that the honest truth isn’t necessarily a possibility (or even desirable) in telling a story.  Other things are more important, such as in the case of Nikolai Kalashnikov’s trip to the gulag.  Again, the actual sentence doesn’t interest me as much as why he was sent to the gulag.  In other words, there are varying shades of grey in sorting out the historical story.  And sometimes the actual straight truth isn’t that important to the story.  In the end, Chivers’ story is made all the more interesting for all the work he does in developing and elucidating the various stories of the development of the AK-47 and the various biographies and stories to be told about its inventor (or maybe he wasn’t the inventor, another version of the story could just as easily been that the gun was the result of a collective team), Mikhail Kalashnikov.

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§ 6 Responses to The Truth and How to Deal With it When Studying History

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I’ve just been reading something about Americans constructing their own truths. Jessica M. Lepler’s “The Many Panics of 1837” argues that the “Panic of 1837” was in fact a political construction of selected economic events, that among other things actually left out when businessmen were panicking prior to the canonical start date of the “Panic.” She offers the political construction of the 2008 economic crisis as a comparison.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Yeah, that’s it, isn’t it? The 2008 crisis was a largely manufactured one, I remember watching it happen. Or, another example, I caught a lot of JFK coverage on CBS Sunday morning. There was a very clear agenda to present and push the lone gunman theory, no doubt because Walter Cronkite so declared that to be fact and truth in 1967. All other views were discounted and marginalised.

  • nif dü says:

    Whenever I hear the idea of “truth” as related to history, I always give it pause for the exact reason you cite. Whose truth? Maybe the answer is to rely more on the term “perspective”. That, at least, makes it knowingly “only one of many” rather than pretending to be the “one and only”.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Yes, but that, unfortunately, doesn’t sell books and when history is written by journalists who still believe there is such a thing as an objective truth…

  • […] Ten Thousand Saints (and here) Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History; C.J. Shivers’ The Gun; Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (also here); Terry Eagleton’s On Evil; […]

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