The intelligent use of history — what is the past good for?

In times of global uncertainty and upheaval, many people look back to an imaginary golden age of simplicity and stability, or seek to blame a past individual or policy for current ills. Danger lies in both these coping strategies. We need to make intelligent use of history.

A member of staff removes a file from a depository at The National Archives, London. Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
A member of staff removes a file from a depository at The National Archives, London. Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Many aspects of the world appear paradoxical in 2021. One of these is the simultaneous discounting in public discourse of the educational importance of the humanities, including the study of history, and an apparently general endorsement of the view that a knowledge of history should be at the core of citizenship. This paradox suggests that ‘history’ means different things to different people, and that it is being used as a shorthand for assumptions and beliefs that may be diametrically opposed. Judging by mainstream and social media, many people feel anxious about this idea, perhaps because it suggests there is an objective historical ‘truth’ that is being highjacked. Political messaging that employs history may increase that anxiety.

Today, political instability, economic inequality, climate emergency and the effects of a pandemic combine to produce a state of global uncertainty fuelled by superfast technology. In disordered times, people tend to look back to a past when they imagine life was simpler, healthier, and more harmonious. They may also look to history to identify people or decisions that could be held responsible for the current state of affairs. These are coping strategies, and danger lies in both. There is nothing innately ‘wrong’ with using history as a tool, and no interpretation is definitive; emerging evidence and new scholarship offer welcome opportunities for a reconsidered view. But history is important to everyone: it broadens our minds; helps us understand not just the past, but the present, informing our decisions about the future; and it helps to provide a sound basis for a defence of principles and values under attack from disinformation and conspiracy theorists. It is not just for professional historians, or those with the knowledge and skills to assess its use critically.

History has always been used by those in authority to educate, inspire (or, at times, distract), to justify a particular policy or to encourage the general population to stick fast to a difficult course of action. Rulers and governments all over the world, in times of war, conjure the remembrance of past victories — or defeats — to stiffen national resolve. A particular historical event may acquire an almost spiritual significance in a country’s development, as the 1389 Battle of Kosovo has done in Serbia. Regimes born in revolution and based on ideology, like the People’s Republic of China or the former Soviet Union, may draw upon significant historical events or achievements — Mao’s Long March, the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War — to create an underpinning integral to its existence. A historical figure may serve as inspiration for a wide variety of revolutionary aspirations, as Simon Bolivar — El Libertador — has done in South America. Frequently, the historical details become subsumed in successive waves of reinterpretation that may bend but not sever the core narrative.

Some ways of using history may be misleading. One is the temptation, rarely resisted by politicians, of resorting to analogy. Former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd wrote that ignorance of history is foolishness, but the false analogy can be more disastrous than the blank mind. That does not diminish the popularity of historical analogies, however thin their evidential base. In Britain, ‘Munich’ and ‘Suez’ are prime examples of this, both more complex in context and less singular in detail than analogy allows. Broad brush comparisons, like attempts to argue that superpower rivalry between China and the US constitutes a ‘second Cold War’, are equally unhelpful. Apologies for historical misdeeds, though attractive politically, run the risk of distorting history altogether. Competing revisionist narratives may be divisive even when the history behind them is well-documented. A growing tendency towards the rather imprecise use of ‘trigger’ concepts such as imperialism, fascism, or nationalism assumes a general understanding of such concepts that may in fact be muddled, based on false narratives or even non-existent ones. The resulting confusion has the potential to fuel extremist opinions of all kinds. There is enough history to go round – almost anyone can find a useful precedent for their argument. In an open society, this may lead to healthy debate; in authoritarian states, alternatives may be suppressed ruthlessly.

What we need, therefore, is to make intelligent use of history. How can we do this? I have two suggestions. The first is to focus on a dictionary definition of intelligence, as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. No two issues or crises are ever exactly the same, and the past can be an unreliable guide to current decision-making. But acquiring knowledge about what happened in the past informs our thinking about the present, enabling us to apply what we have learned since, and our own skills, to the new situation. It does not mean we can use the past to predict the future, or as a way of shirking a decision. Nor does it supply excuses for past actions or policies, though it may provide explanations. It means learning with, rather than from history.

Here are a few examples of this, encountered in my own career as a historian within government. In 1938-39, in anticipation of a likely future war, British officials experienced in foreign policy, economics, trade, and the use of intelligence drew on the (fortunately well-documented) experience of the blockade mounted during the First World War to deny supplies to the enemy. They collaborated to adapt its principles and practice so that Trading with the Enemy legislation came into force, and a whole new Ministry of Economic Warfare came into being, immediately on the outbreak of war in September 1939. In this case, history proved an invaluable guide to planning for the future, enabling officials to exercise their different skill sets to the task in hand.

In the late 1990s, prompted by allegations based on research by campaigning organisations, governments all round the world launched an investigation into the fate of money and property looted from countries and individuals by the Nazis during the Second World War. A detailed understanding of the historical background was essential, covering everything from the legal status of neutral powers, to banking regulations, to the operation of the Tripartite Gold Commission in existence between 1948 and 1998. The principle that stolen property should be returned is straightforward: the history showed how complicated it was to implement. History was doubly useful in this case. In an exercise where many governments were forced to confront sometimes uncomfortable truths in order to develop agreed policies for the discovery, and if possible restitution, of any remaining unreturned assets, history kept a potentially fractious process on the rails. But history also made it possible to refute baseless allegations, and to uncover additional evidence that explained why certain things happened.

My third example comes from the realm of government enquiries, which frequently involve contested interpretation and opposing viewpoints as well as investigation of the facts. On publication of a report, the media focus is always on points of controversy, as was the case for Lord Butler’s report on espionage and the Iraq war, published in 2004. But the chapter in the report detailing the history of twenty-five years of Pakistan’s nuclear development directed by A.Q. Khan is a classic example of the intelligent use of history. It not only sets out what happened and when, providing the context for the events of 2002-3, but it gives unprecedented detail of the analytical process on which the acquired knowledge was based. The team that compiled the report acquired their knowledge through research, evidence-gathering and interviews, and applied their varied skills to its conclusions. That chapter may not be the most eye-catching of the report, but its use of history is exemplary. This example also leads neatly into my second suggestion for the intelligent use of history: that we should borrow some of the tools of the intelligence trade — tools used by analysts of open source or secret intelligence — to put history to the test, enabling us to cast a properly critical eye on the past.

In How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence (2020), intelligence expert and Whitehall veteran Sir David Omand sets out techniques to help resist the tide of ‘digital fakes,’ disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories that confront us on social media and elsewhere. His recommendations are based on the approach taken by professional intelligence analysts, but there is no need for familiarity with technical terms such as perseveration or strategic notice to see how relevant the techniques are to the intelligent use of history. We must start by accepting that our knowledge of the world is always incomplete and sometimes wrong; that all facts are capable of multiple interpretations; and that seeing is not always believing. In searching for an explanation of why something happened, we must recognise that we may be hampered by a lack of understanding of others, their culture and motives, as well as by our own preconceptions — as Omand says: ‘It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us.’ Most important of all, however, is the need to look at things from others’ point of view. It does not mean we have to accept or agree with others’ views or interpretations: but understanding, or at least acknowledging them is key to reaching a nuanced opinion. Even when there is ample evidence available, there is no such thing as a historical narrative with which everyone agrees.

While the recommendations set out in Omand’s Ten Lessons are valuable, I would expand them somewhat to make them even more relevant to the intelligent use of history. If we are hampered by inadequate understanding of other cultures, then improving language skills is clearly an important step to improving that understanding. Historians specialising in a particular country or region know they need to be familiar with its language(s), but everyone benefits from learning another language, and opportunities should be available at all educational stages. It is not just a question of being able to speak or read another language, but of gaining an insight into a different culture with its own history. Not everyone needs to be multilingual, of course, but wider availability of translated material from other countries — not only academic works — would help.

As for putting ourselves in others’ shoes to gain better understanding, one could argue this is valuable in all aspects of life. For the intelligence analyst, an exploration of the possible motives and attitudes on the part of a source of information is clearly crucial. For the intelligent use of history, however, this should extend further, to include some knowledge of the norms and prevailing opinions (and prejudices) of the society and period in question. It is anachronistic to project current attitudes, beliefs, and sensitivities into the past. That does not mean accepting or condoning institutions like slavery, or racial and religious discrimination within public bodies and government departments, or the subordination of women. Nor does it exclude criticism of, for example, a country’s decision to go to war, or an individual’s decision if it led to a destructive outcome. But as Omand says, all facts are capable of multiple interpretations, and no aspect of history is straightforward.

Learning about the context in which a decision was taken, including the outlook and preoccupations of those involved, is key to reaching an informed assessment of the outcome and impact. In a governmental context, decision-makers are always subject to multiple pressures, political, professional and private, and never think about only one thing at a time. The same applies to historical figures whose views and actions are subject to critical contemporary scrutiny. Knowledge of an individual’s background, and the breadth of their interests (as recent controversies have shown, many prominent philanthropists owed their wealth to exploitation or unethical business activities) can only improve understanding, if not acceptance of their record and achievements. To explain is not to excuse: as an official historian, I have always taken the line that it was not my job to defend past government policy, but to explain it. I believe this to be an important distinction in making use of history.

In turbulent times, historical revisionism always intensifies, making the intelligent use of history even more important. Take, for example, current competing narratives over the origins, intentions, and results of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, an agreement whereby the USSR agreed to remain neutral in a German-Polish conflict, and in return was given the freedom to establish a ‘sphere of influence’ in the Baltics and eastern Poland. The pact, including its secret protocol, is well documented, studied and analysed in multiple publications, so in that sense its history may seem an open book. Yet it remains controversial more than eighty years later, and a number of countries make use of the pact, in a historical sense, in support of their own national narratives. If we ask why this much-discussed agreement should still arouse so much feeling, the utility of a historical approach is immediately obvious. In 2021, all those countries disputing the historical details of the pact are involved in, and threatened by, regional and global tensions, disagreements over energy supplies, border disputes, military competition and political instability, with the added pressure of dealing with extreme climate events and a deadly pandemic. In that sense, the history of Russia, the former Soviet republics, the Baltic States, Poland, Britain and indeed Europe as a whole since 1945, with the United States exercising powerful economic and military influence, provides the backdrop to present-day controversies.

In an article in June 2020 on the real lessons of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Second World War, President Putin wrote that ‘Drawing on a shared historical memory, we can trust each other and must do so.’ The ninth of David Omand’s lessons in intelligence is ‘trustworthiness creates lasting partnerships’. Both statements may be more aspirational than real, and agreement on the principle masks a much more contested historical space. Clearly it is helpful if we all agree on the importance of trust. We do not all have to agree on our interpretation of history. Indeed, it is impossible that we should, and vital that we understand this to be so. To assume that there is one ‘correct’ interpretation of history is both wrong and damaging, and inhibits the proper scrutiny not just of the past but the present. But if we can agree on the importance of acquiring and applying knowledge; of using our skills to question our own prejudices; and of making a real effort to put ourselves in the shoes of others, then the way we use history will, surely, be better informed — more intelligent. The importance of history to inform our view of the present has never been greater.


Gill Bennett