8th October 2005
In his classic work “What is History” E H Carr dismissed “wie es eigentlich gewesen” as a “not very profound aphorism….. designed, like most incantations, to save (historians) from the tiresome obligation to think for themselves.”
The full quotation is as follows:
“When Ranke in the 1830s, in legitimate protest against moralizing history, remarked that the task of the historian was “simply to show how it really was” (wie es eigentlich gewesen), this not very profound aphorism had an astonishing success. Three generations of German, British, and even French historians marched into battle intoning the magic words “Wie es eigentlich gewesen” like an incantation – designed, like most incantations, to save them from the tiresome obligation to think for themselves.” (E H Carr, What is History, Macmillan 1961).
E H Carr went on to argue that:
“The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.”
“It used to be said that the facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order of context.”
This may well be true, but “wie es eigentlich gewesen” is not as simple as it sounds.
The power of history lies in the shared belief between the writer and reader that the events described really happened.
The impossibility of ever knowing “what really was” does not mean that we should not try to get as close to this elusive goal as we can.
It seems to me that the role of the historian in cutting through the fog created by innumerable interpretations, should not be underestimated. If a modern historian can show their reader the past “how it really was,” this may well be more valuable, to the reader, than a critical appraisal of yet another secondary interpretation or contribution to a sterile historical debate.