Why History Matters


History develops a sense of respectful empathy

One of the key issues which historians face is the fact that, unless they are investigating very recent history, the people they are studying are usually long gone and we cannot speak to them. In different times and different places in the past, just as now, different people thought, felt, believed and acted in ways which made sense to them. Sometimes these thoughts, beliefs and actions will seem understandable and obvious to our present day values and ideas. However, sometimes these thoughts and actions will seem strange, or even unpleasant.

It is not the role of the historian to judge from a moral perspective. The historian as an individual may have particular views about the events being studied, but his or her primary role is to investigate and create accounts of the past as faithfully and objectively as they possibly can, based on evidence.

A key part of this process is developing a sense of empathy. When we are studying people from past societies and we cannot talk to them we have to interpret what they have left behind. This means looking at the artefacts they used, the books, plays and other texts they wrote, the songs they sang and the music they played, as well as countless other sources of information. Historians use these sources to try to empathise with people from the past, understand what made them tick and in so doing better understand the choices they made and the actions they took.

There is a great danger when studying the past that we might make assumptions about people, perhaps that they were ignorant, unreasonable or prejudiced. We must be very careful not to do this, especially if we are effectively criticising past people and societies on the basis of the hindsight which gives historians such an advantage in understanding events.

An image of Gandhi with a police guard while touring London's East End.

Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi with a police guard while touring London's East End, 19 September 1931. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

A useful parallel might be anthropologists or scholars of religious studies examining other faiths and cultures from their own. They should be studying those other faiths and cultures with respect and base any perceptions of them on evidence such as religious texts or ceremonies.

Empathy is an extremely valuable attribute for everyone, not just historians. Churchill could be capable of empathising with friends and opponents, but he could also be capable of showing very little empathy. Although Churchill is generally held in high regard around the world, it is noticeable that there are some groups which have little love for him as a result of past events in which he has shown little or no empathy. This is particularly in connection with his views on the British Empire and the peoples who were ruled by the Empire. As historian Richard Toye summarises:

"Churchill’s involvement with the British Empire was longstanding, from his involvement in small imperial wars as a young man at the end of the nineteenth century to his engagement with issues such as the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during his final premiership in the 1950s. Growing up during the highest phase of Victorian imperial expansion, his political maturity coincided with the Empire’s decline, which accelerated during and after the Second World War. How one views Churchill’s imperialism depends on how one views the Empire itself. If British colonial power was, notwithstanding some abuses, essentially benign, then Churchill’s faith in the Empire may seem at worst a little quaint, even if some of his racially-tinged comments are to be deplored. If, however, the Empire was a brutal system that enforced racial inequality at the point of a gun then his racist opinions were nothing less than a prop to institutionalised cruelty. Churchill’s sympathisers see his belief in the superiority of white races as less significant than his broader role as a defender of humanity against Nazi tyranny; his critics point to the human cost of his imperial attitudes, such as his failure to act swiftly in response to the appalling Bengal famine of 1943.

Churchill undoubtedly did hold racist views but it must be appreciated that racism was very widespread in the Victorian society in which he grew up. At the same time, it is also important to remember that not all Victorians held the same opinions and that some people of a similar age to Churchill opposed his attitudes to the Empire later in life. These complexities make interpretation difficult. Historians have largely divided between those such as Clive Ponting who emphasize Churchill’s racism and hostility to imperial reform and decolonisation, and those such as Roland Quinault who, while acknowledging that Churchill held unpalatable views, suggest that he was relatively enlightened for a man of his time and background."

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Letter from Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill.






Transcript

2. Imperialism abroad.
East of Suez Democratic reins are impossible.
India must be governed on old principles.
The colonies must be federated & a system
of Imperial Defence arranged. Also we must
combine for Tariff & Commerce.

 

Churchill was notorious in showing little sympathy for some British citizens as well. During the General Strike of 1926 it was widely believed that Churchill deliberately attempted to provoke confrontation with the overwhelmingly peaceful and democratic protesters who were on strike, as evidenced by this news article: