23rd September 2009
As I tried to explain in a post back in January 2008, the approach I am using for my research into the British in occupied Germany after the Second World War is to follow the people.
I hadn’t realised then that the relationship between history and biography is quite controversial. For many years historians have been reacting against the idea that history is the lives of great men (and the occasional great woman). They have been looking at economic trends, social structures and institutional frameworks as a way of explaining what happened in the past, rather than seeing the course of events determined by the actions and desires of individual men and women.
One of the first people to adopt this approach, of course, was Karl Marx, who believed that the future course of history was determined by the dialectical struggle between the capitalist and working classes, with the inevitable result the victory of communism. But you do not have to share a Marxist view of economics, or be a socialist historian, to focus on long term trends, or try to describe and analyse the economic, social and cultural factors which influence and determine the way people behave.
I would never claim (as the historian Herbert Butterfield did in 1955) that “It is men [and women] who make history” but I do think it is impossible to understand, describe and explain what happened in the past, without referring to how this affected individual men and woman and how people responded to the circumstances in which they found themselves.
All too often I have read works by other historians who, so it seems to me, have generalised to the point of being misleading. For example, in my own field of research, Germany under Allied occupation after the Second World War, it is all too easy to say the “British” did this, the “Americans” did that, and the “French” and “Russians” and “Germans” did something else. I know from my own research that British people in Germany formed a very mixed and diverse group, with widely different backgrounds, attitudes and beliefs, and I expect the same was true of people of other nationalities. I also suspect that, although British people generally behaved differently from, for example, German people, in some ways, due to different social and cultural backgrounds, in other ways some groups of British people had more in common with people of other nationalities, than with their own compatriots.
For example, it seems to me that senior British army officers such as Montgomery, Robertson and Bishop, with a deeply conservative and traditionalist outlook on life and strong personal religious beliefs, had more in common with German Christian Democrat politicians such as Konrad Adenauer and Karl Arnold, than any of them had with Kurt Schumacher, the leader of the German Social Democrats, or with John Hynd, self-taught railwayman, trade unionist and British minister with responsibility for Germany, let alone a US GI, a 21 year old British tank commander with no adult experience other than war, or a half-Jewish, German-speaking exile returning to the country in which he had been born.
I have recently read an excellent book, in which a number of historians and biographers discuss the relationship between history and biography: Biography between Structure and Agency: Central European Lives in International Historiography. The following comments are based on my reading and understanding of the introduction by Simone Lässig:
In the 1970s, many social historians attempted to create a theory-driven historical (social) science and biography was seen as “an antiquated and unreflective approach to history.” This trend was especially noticeable in Germany among the so-called “Bielefeld school” of historians, although in Britain and the US, biography remained an established academic and popular form.
Both forms of writing about the past have their weaknesses. If history is only concerned with structures, long term processes, and mass phenomena “a science of human societies will entirely lose sight of the human beings themselves.” On the other hand, the weaknesses of biography include a lack of theory or methodology and an artificial coherence in the description of a life story, which often in reality develops as much from luck and chance as deliberate intention. Every individual person’s life is to some extent fragmented and inconsistent. People take on different roles during their lives with contradictions, upheavals and turning points.
Recently, distinguished historians have returned to writing biographies and in the book, some described their approach. For example, Ian Kershaw explained why he decided to write his biography of Hitler. Although, as a social historian, he was initially sceptical, he came to biography as a way of looking at the nature of Hitler’s power, not through giving direct orders, but through establishing a framework of broad policy objectives within which others could act.
In addition to discussing how historians can bring new approaches to biography, Simone Lässig outlined five trends by which a biographical approach is opening up new possibilities for modern historical scholarship:
1) As a way of moving from the abstract towards the concrete, from system and structure to the unique and individual, and of describing “how people master life’s unforeseen challenges.”
2) At the same time it offers a method of describing how individuals “bear the characteristics of a larger [social] group”. It can also help explain change: “It is rarely possible to explain change in history if the individual is marginalized or even ignored” (For example Luther and the Reformation or Hitler and Nazi Germany)
3) Biographies provide exactitude and detail “not only to discover what is typical, but also to grasp these ways of life in all their breadth and variability.”
4) Because biography deals with people, rather than attempting to discover objective universal facts or rules, a biographical approach “sensitizes the reader” to the fundamental openness of history, its subjective character and to the relativity and limited nature of historical knowledge.
5) An individual example can stimulate more general insights and so reveal or highlight social, economic, cultural or political interconnections and networks.
In summary, this shows that a biographical approach to writing history can reveal aspects which may remain hidden or misunderstood in other approaches which rely too heavily on generalisation, or on an analysis of social, political, cultural or economic structures and institutions, and neglect the individual people.
Volker R. Berghahn and Simone Lässig (eds), Biography between Structure and Agency: Central European Lives in International Historiography (New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2008)