The Stuff of History

A. N. Suranimala, in the Island, 8 June 2011

For me, as a young school boy, History, as we were taught, was an intolerably boring subject that was little more than a dry-as-dust, scissors-and-paste catalogue of people and events, and of where and when. In later years, under enlightened and imaginative teachers, and when I had greater freedom to pick what I wanted to read, and reflect on what I read, and when there was no threat of a history-examination, I became increasingly interested in what history had to tell us. The question then arose, “Did the events, especially the tragic ones that historians describe, really happen? as I asked a German visitor to our home just after World War II. “Did the Nazis really do the unimaginable things they are said to have done?”.

Not long ago, we had a group of non-Nazi people, who under the euphemism of geo-politics, claimed that the Nazi Holocaust that exterminated six million Jews, was a myth. But recently I saw a television documentary, that was fully authenticated as to source and substance, on the Nazi atrocities during World War II in Europe, which caused the brutal murder by beatings, shooting and gassing of millions of innocent men, women and even children who were forced at Nazi gun-point to dig the graves in which their slaughtered bodies were soon to be buried. I then unhesitatingly believed, or was forced into the conviction, that the Nazi Holocaust did really occur. Then another analytical question on the stuff of history arose. What compulsions drove those non-Nazi people to deny that the Holocaust ever took place? If these people were to write texts to be used by future students of history, where would such an education get them and would the distorted history they read have any meaning? The tragic history of Europe, the Nazi era, the

perverted paths that Adolf Hitler took after World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, – or as Hitler called it The Stab in the Back -, would be erased and the paths will be laid for future tyrants, the Hitlers and suicide bombers who now tear innocent Middle Eastern people to shreds, to sprout without the virtual but moral restraints that recorded history of man’s sordid past could provide. Organised, theistic religions have obviously failed to provide that moral guidance to counter the inherent evil in Man that promotes the emergence of murderous tyrants.

What then are the founts of historical material?

First, we have the citizens, the actors themselves, whose unwritten memories recall the events with some clarity and authenticity. Yet some distortions could occur, with subjective and biased interpretations of what really happened, though the basic facts may be unearthed by others through independent scrutiny. Documentation of oral history is sometimes bedeviled by distorted recollections. Louis Allen who wroteJapanin Asia (1981) recorded such an event with Colonel Fujiwara who set up the Fujiwara Kikan that was associated with Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army during World War II in South andSouth East Asia: “…. His recollections of Bose as retold, for instance to Dr. K. K. Ghosh in his recent book on the Indian National Army are very different from those he entertained closer to the events”. This possibility prompted the inclusion of a comment by the author in the book that documented the oral history of “Sinhalese Immigrants in Malaysia 1860 – 1990: History through recollections”: “The documentation of oral history is beset with many problems which might have affected my task, a vague memory of the subject, an unconscious bias in either what he thought was important enough to remember and report, or in his interpretation of it….”

Next we have the writers who comment on the histories of their multiracial societies, as in modernMalaysia. They, as well as their readers, face the problems of sifting the gathered facts in the light of their own subjective views, biased by the fates and fortunes of their kith and kin in their societies, and then evaluating their views with those of non-aligned commentators with no axes to grind.

Finally, come the amateur and professional historians, and their task is to document facts, with the more adventurous of them making interpretations and analyses of what happened. It is at this point in writing this essay on the sources of history and its documentation, that I read, serendipitously, in the South China Morning Post (April 26, 2011), a commentary on Sun Yat-Sen: “Sun Yat-Sen’s durable and malleable legacy. Sun Yat-Sen was the exiled leader of the revolutionary movement and the first president of the new republic. His memoirs on the downfall of the Qing Dynasty and the foundation of the first democratic republic in Asia are a major source ofChina’s history… Even 86 years after his death, scholars are still arguing over Sun’s philosophy. He wrote and spoke a great deal to different audiences that wanted to hear different things…. This has given politicians and historians a treasure-house from which to choose what they want from his ideas”, (my emphasis). The underlined words emphasise my quandary on the value of documented ideas, words, which are the founts of documented history, that would undoubtedly incorporate deliberate or unwitting distortions. The views of Japanese authors differ from those of western authors on the causes and events of World War II inAsia. I wonder how many historians, or for that matter politicians, abide by the wise words of Herodotus: “I am obliged to report what I have heard but I don’t have to believe it”. Adolf Hitler’s deliberate misreading of world history after World War I (the “Stab in the back”) further distorted by his own psychopathology, could well have been the cause of the devastation ofEuropein World War II and the holocaust that murdered six million Jews.

I count myself more fortunate as a student of science, rather than of history when I recall what Johannes Muller, the great German physiologist said; when paraphrased, in matters of science what one needs is rigid proof, but in matters of history and philosophy what we have are only accumulated probabilities. The tools and methods of science, I believe, placed me on firmer ground than if I were a historian wallowing on the shifting sands of varying interpretations of past events. Yet to straighten the record, I need to add that despite their admirable claim to objectivity, scientists are not immune to bias in their conclusions. Richard Jones (1989, in Teaching the History of Science) recalled the views of Paul Feyerabend, the philosopher of science: “This leads him to the controversial conclusion that competing theories are equally reasonable alternatives with one being eliminated in favout of another only as a result of subjective choice. ‘What remains are aesthetic judgements of taste, metaphysical prejudices, religious desires, in short, what remains are our subjective wishes’ “. Frederick Grinnel wrote (The Scientific Attitude, 1987), “The point to be emphasized is that, in large part, an observer’s previous knowledge and experience determine what aspects of a scene will be interesting to an observer”. The only antidote to such distortions is to avoid total belief in what others have said, to keep an open mind, and to find out for one’s self as the Buddha advised, and as the Royal Society of London, the oldest and most prestigious scientific society in the world, has as its motto – “Nullius in verba” which means much the same as what the Buddha said. With The Royal Society endorsing that view, it is apparent that circumspection should be a virtue not only of historians but also of scientists.

While one could speak of science as “the greatest intellectual enterprise of Man”, history in its widest scope, began to open to me its doors to exciting explorations – on the roots of our beliefs and of our cultural values, our archaeological past, as well as how animals and plants came to be of the astounding varieties we see today. In other words, when history is properly studied as an eclectic and syncretic endeavour, it should be a synthesis of diverse particularities. It could be a trite comment if I were to add that the circumscribed views that produced the great divide of C. P. Snow’s the Two Cultures, should evolve into an integration of the Sciences with the Humanities that are now on either side of this divide.

The stuff of history has one advantage over the stuff of science. Recorded history lends itself to arm-chair, but exciting explorations – What if?… as in the compilation of speculations edited by Robert Cowley (What if? Military historians imagine what might have been,” Pan MacMillan,London). “What if the Germans and Russians had made a second pact in 1944? Should we have tried to reachBerlin before the Russians in April 1945?” and so on, endlessly. As a student of science, I could whimsically ask: “What if the human brain evolved with greater control by the cerebral cortex, the seat of the intellect, over its primitive hypothalamus, the fount of primaeval emotions”. The history of the world would have been an entirely different story. Or more fundamentally, “What if a second Big Bang occurs?” Then, we would surely not be around to think of science or history.

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