History while it’s still smoking

There are clear pitfalls in writing the first draft of history but that doesn’t mean that historians should shy away from the challenges of doing so.

'History? It's just one thing after another'. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo.
'History? It's just one thing after another'. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo.

‘How will history judge the United States’ experience in Afghanistan?’ the journalist George Stephanopoulos asked President Joe Biden amid the chaotic retreat of US forces from Afghanistan this summer. For professional historians frantically rewriting their lectures for autumn courses on the war on terror this was more than an academic question. One historian in this position, Alan Allport of Syrcause University, took to Twitter to lament ‘the thing about history is that it is SUPPOSED TO STAY STILL.’

Allport’s ironic tweet captured the challenges contemporary historians face in attempting to chronicle the recent past. It is to Allport’s credit he was attempting to do so regardless. The recent past is a period the vast majority of historians shy away from, both in their research and teaching. As the esteemed military historian and astute analyst of contemporary international politics Michael Howard lamented in 1981, there has long been an ‘academic snobbery that disdains the history of the recent past precisely because it relates so obviously to the present.’ This was also the experience of R.W. Seton Watson, the Balkan specialist and one of the most perceptive contemporary historians of the early twentieth century, who noted that his own study of recent events was regarded by colleagues as an ‘[un]worthy subject for the true historian’s pen’ because of its ‘incompatibility with the detachment and calm of academic life.’

This was not always the case. For the first modern historian, Thucydides, contemporary history was the only true form of history. His The Peloponnesian War was based ‘partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me.’ For Thucydides, history had a social purpose. In writing what was the first known systematic analysis of the causes and conduct of a war, he intended to record ‘events which happened in the past and human beings being what they are, will at some other time and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.’

A similar sense that the purpose of history was to inform and invigorate an understanding of the present was reflected in the late Victorian, British historian Edward Augustus Freeman’s declaration that ‘history is past politics and politics is present history.’ Freeman maintained that the ancient and modern should not be artificially divided, as there was an essential ‘unity of history.’ Consequently, Freeman said, ‘the past and present are alike realities,’ imbuing those historians who immerse themselves in a period with a historical consciousness that enables them to perceive patterns across historical epochs.

Yet around the same time, in continental Europe, historians were questioning the legitimacy of this close connection between history and contemporary affairs. In Germany, professional historians were determined to differentiate their scientific methods from those of amateur chroniclers and journalists. Drawing on the scholarship of Leopold von Ranke, widely regarded as the father of ‘scientific’ history, they sought to reconstruct the past, free from subjective biases, by presenting documentary evidence and allowing it to speak for itself. Inspired by Ranke’s statement in his History of the Latin and German Peoples that he intended to write ‘what actually happened,’ rather than ‘judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages,’ they strived to separate historical writing completely from contemporary affairs and political passions.

Yet while Ranke urged scholars to approach their archival sources without having their perspective clouded by personal prejudices, he did not necessarily regard it as possible for a scholar to write about the past without being influenced by their present-day surroundings. In his inaugural address as a Professor at the University of Berlin in 1836, which explored the relationship between history and politics, he declared: ‘A knowledge of the past is imperfect without an acquaintance with the present; there is no understanding of the present without a knowledge of earlier times. The one gives to the other its hand; neither can exist or be perfect without the other.’

Yet Ranke’s more limited statement that he was writing history as ‘what actually happened,’ once lifted from its specific context, took on a broader meaning and became a dictum for many in Germany and beyond, particularly in the United States where many of the first generation of academic historians had received their doctoral training in German institutions. The prevailing sentiment within academic history departments across much of the world on both sides of the Atlantic was that the writing of history should not be coloured by contemporary politics. Consequently, it was felt that a number of decades needed to pass before an event could be reviewed in its appropriate context, and with access to as many necessary documents as possible. This was reflected in the pages of leading nineteenth-century historical journals. The Historical Review, for example, announced that it would reject ‘contributions arguing still burning questions with reference to present controversy.’

Despite, or perhaps because of, the experience of the two World Wars, where historians were pressed into service as propagandists by combatant nations, this view of contemporary history continued to hold sway in the academy after 1945. It was reinforced by the relative dearth of archival sources for historians to consult for the first half of the twentieth century. Across most of western Europe, there were no formal requirements for government departments to make their records publicly accessible. Only in 1958 did the Public Records Act in the United Kingdom mandate that material needed to be made accessible to the public when it was fifty years old, unless there were special provisions that prevented it. Even this legislation did not necessarily mean that Cabinet papers would be released into the public domain. In the early 1960s, most official First World War archives remained closed, while it remained unclear when material relating to the origins, and conduct, of the Second World War would be made available.

In this context, contemporary history remained a subject of controversy. In 1964, one of the most prominent and popular historians of the era, Barbara Tuchman, pondered the question, ‘Should – or perhaps can – history be written while it is still smoking?’ in The New York Times and declared herself sceptical. Tuchman suggested the ‘contemporary has no perspective; everything is in the foreground and appears the same size,’ meaning ‘little matters loom big, and great matters are sometimes missed because their outlines cannot be seen.’ A contemporary account only constituted history ‘in the sense that we are in possession of wine when the first pressing of the grapes is in hand.’ It ‘has not fermented, and it has not aged.’ Only (temporal) ‘distance [could] confer a kind of removal that cools the judgement and permits a juster appraisal than is possible to a contemporary.’

Yet this position, the dominant one in the academy over the past century, was soon under sustained assault. That same year, the British historian and director of the think tank the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Geoffrey Barraclough, published his Introduction to Contemporary History. His aim was to establish ‘recent’ history as not only a legitimate but an essential subject for scholarship. Rather than adopting the traditional historical approach of starting in the past and moving forwards, emphasising causality, Barraclough argued contemporary historians should begin in the present and work backwards. His succinct but elastic definition – ‘contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape’  –  encouraged others to adopt this approach too. Within a couple of years, two émigrés from Nazi Germany, Walter Laqueur and George L. Mosse, established the Journal of Contemporary History. The new publication intended to demonstrate that contemporary history was not, ‘as so many historians believe, a newfangled notion, a subject of doubtful provenance and uncertain academic standing’ but something which ‘almost all great historians from Thucydides to Ranke’ engaged in ‘without any doubts or qualms of conscience.’

This revival of contemporary history was given a major boost by the UK Parliament. In 1967, legislation cut the period of closure on government proceedings to thirty years, sparking a spate of publications on appeasement, and five years later the records of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath were thrown open for research, precipitating a flood of publications on these periods too. In time, many other democratic nations would adopt similar policies based around this ‘thirty-year rule.’ This unprecedented access to sources from Western European and North American archives led the American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr to declare that ‘contemporary history in the late twentieth century is thus no longer, I submit, a personal whim or passing fashion’ but had a vital role that was fully recognised by the historical profession at large.

Schlesinger spoke too soon. It was not so easy to shake the ostensibly Rankean notion that historians must strive for objectivity and that this was incompatible with studying the recent past. By 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dean of Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis, was telling a meeting of the US National Council for History Education that the idea had again become established in American schools and colleges that ‘the writing and teaching of history should stop well short of the present’ and the principal reason for this was ‘the fear of controversy.’ The ‘failure to teach the history of our own times’ was the ‘single greatest impediment to the effective teaching of history,’ according to Gaddis. It ‘not only leaves our students ill-equipped to deal with the present and the future; it also ensures that they will have little interest in, and therefore little knowledge of, the history of other times either.’

In Britain, too, the educator and contemporary historian Anthony Seldon observed there was ‘something inherently, indeed insanely, wrong in a nation’s education system that turns out young men and women lacking even a rudimentary knowledge of the nation’s recent past.’ This absence in school curricula and university courses was matched by a relative absence in coverage of these contemporary topics in academic journals. As the historian of the post-Cold War world, Kristina Spohr, demonstrated in a 2011 article for the Journal of Contemporary History, the leading history journals have continued to largely ignore ‘the most recent past,’ devoting less than one percent of their content to the period since 1971.

It has proven difficult to dispel many of the traditional concerns about writing history ‘while it is still smoking.’ There, of course, remain valid critiques of contemporary history, particularly when they simply follow the latest news story. As the British philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood suggested, ‘contemporary history embarrasses a writer not only because he knows too much, but also because what he knows is too undigested, too unconnected, too atomic.’ There are clear pitfalls in writing the first draft of history. But while the potential for embarrassment should imbue a contemporary historian with humility, it does not invalidate their craft.

Indeed, as Schlesinger maintained, ‘the contemporary historian acquires an indispensable function, if only to improve the record for the historian of the future.’ There was ‘a technical necessity to rescue and preserve evidence for future historians.’ Yet the role of the contemporary historian was not confined to preserving artefacts for the purpose of those who came after. The writing of contemporary history, at its best, could, Schlesinger maintained, ‘be more exacting in its standards – of evidence, of precision, of judgement, of responsibility – than the history of the past; for contemporary history involves the writing of history in face of the only people who can contradict it, that is, the actual participants.’

Historians retain a social responsibility, particularly if they are receiving public money and providing publicly funded education, to help their contemporaries understand the trends and developments that have shaped the modern world. This is even more the case when the public perceives that the pace of historical change has quickened precipitously, and that the world around them is growing more complex and crisis ridden. If historians do not study the recent past then others will interpret it for a broader public, who thirst after this knowledge. Contemporary history could become a branch of journalism or political science. Both have their place, but historians offer a way of taking a broad, long-range perspective on contemporary events.

In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett has Irwin, a history teacher in a 1980s English grammar school who ultimately becomes a public historian and political advisor, muse that, ‘looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground: we don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past.’ Consequently, ‘one of the historian’s jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be.’ Most political or diplomatic historians, even those who identify as contemporary historians, are more comfortable providing that perspective when studying ‘closed’ periods of history – those with clear origins, points of rupture and ends, such as the Cold War and Gulf Wars or the tenure of a particular president or prime minister  – than those where the outcome remains open.

Yet our sense of when historical epochs start and stop is constantly in flux. Soon after the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, Gaddis proclaimed the end of ‘the post-Cold War era,’ a period for which ‘we have never had a good name’ but which ‘began with the collapse of one structure, the Berlin Wall on November 9 1989, and ended with the collapse of another, the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers.’ As the war that attack precipitated ends, it could be that we are living through another watershed in global history.

Analysts are already debating whether the retreat from Afghanistan constitutes the end of an era. New international issues have emerged– from COVID-19, to the rise of China, to the climate crisis – that threaten to fundamentally transform international politics. To fully understand what are essentially evolutionary trends and what are truly revolutionary forces will, of course, require time. Yet if historians are to be most useful in helping their contemporaries to resolve ‘the problems which are actual in the world today,’ and in enhancing the record for future historians, then they must be prepared to evaluate them even before all the sources are available and at the risk of personal embarrassment. In short, they must be willing to write about history while it is still smoking.


Charlie Laderman