There’s a moment early in Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending when a precocious student – he’s in his final year of high school – defines history (as per an invented French historian). “History,” he says, “is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfection of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” It has the look of a tantalizing fault line, one a historian with a sophisticated understanding of political and cultural forces (one like, oh, say, Adam Hochschild) might spin out into a complex, revealing narrative.
Adam Hochschild – Photo via https://journalism.berkeley.edu/person/adam_hochschild/
Hochschild approaches history from the left – it’s unlikely he’d argue this point too strenuously; he was a founder of Mother Jones – but it doesn’t warp his view in the way that, say, Niall Ferguson’s rightward bent can do (so says another man from the left, anyway). His writing ranges widely, covering everything from Russians under Stalin, to the damage done by colonialism in Africa, to the role of Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps most significantly, there is always, embedded within each narrative, a drive to make sense of the motives behind the choices historical figures made, and to do so on those figures’ own terms. He has a talent, as well, for characterizing the ways in which past events and entanglements reverberate through the years and remain with us today, as in this passage from To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918:
The bodies of soldiers of the British Empire lie in 400 cemeteries in the Somme battlefield region alone, a rough crescent of territory less than 20 miles long, but graves are not the only mark the war has made on the land. Here and there, a patch of ground gouged by thousands of shell craters has been left alone; decades of erosion have softened the scarring, but what was once a flat field now looks like rugged, grassed-over sand dunes. On the fields that have been smoothed out again, like those surrounding the Devonshires’ cemetery, some of the tractors have armor plating beneath the driver’s seat, because harvesting machinery cannot distinguish between potatoes, sugar beets, and live shells. More than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds were fired on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, of which an estimated 15 percent failed to explode. Every year these leftover shells kill people — 36 in 1991 alone, for instance, when France excavated the track bed for a new high-speed rail line. Dotted throughout the region are patches of uncleared forest or scrub surrounded by yellow danger signs in French and English warning hikers away. The French government employs teams of démineurs, roving bomb-disposal specialists, who respond to calls when villagers discover shells; they collect and destroy 900 tons of unexploded munitions each year. More than 630 French démineurs have died in the line of duty since 1946. Like those shells, the First World War itself has remained in our lives, below the surface, because we live in a world that was so much formed by it and by the industrialized total warfare it inaugurated.
I’ve not alone in thinking of Hochschild as one of our essential historians. This is a stronger qualitative judgement than usual, during this, the “Alternative Facts” era, when an ahistorical perspective is all but required to hold certain positions, and knowing what brought us to our particular historical moment is almost an act of resistance in itself. Across the span of eight books, Hochschild has provided a remarkable range of historical insights, particularly on world history across the twentieth century. Work like his is a model for thinking about large scale events, both on a human scale and in reference to the larger, systemic forces that prefigure and emerge in the aftermath of great conflicts. It’s natural, I think, to wonder what such a writer is reading, and Hochschild was kind enough to share:
I’m readingYoung J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare and the Assault on Civil Liberties, by Kenneth D. Ackerman. Why? Because this is the best book I’ve found about the period 1917-1920, when the United States really went off the rails and the federal government and its corporate allies perpetrated the greatest assault on civil liberties and free speech we’ve ever seen. Mass arrests, election results not honored, vigilante justice encouraged by the Justice Department, even preventive detention. With a president now thundering against enemies of the people I’ve started wondering what it was like when another president, Woodrow Wilson, actually succeeded in locking up many of his enemies.
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