History and Judgement

Discussing history is a surprisingly contentious activity because to a great extent we define who we are (and what our institutions are) by our past actions.  Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that when Chris Blosser posted the fascinating (to me at any rate) story of Mitsuo Fuchida, who went from living the samuri-derived Bushido code of behavior to becoming a Christian missionary as the result of seeing the lived-out Christianity of Westerners after World War II, one of the first comments was:

And yet how many of you would still defend the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Not to mention the bombs he have dropped repeatedly on Iraq?

This is, I think, indicative of a certain approach to discussing history, one in which discussing historical events must always involve ritual denunciations of specific wrongs, or perceived wrongs. Thus, for instance, a discussion of America’s founding documents must, according to this school of thought, always include a statement that, “Of course, this was written in the context of minorities and women having no rights at all.” Any discussion of WW2 where the Allies are treated as having been better than the Axis must result in a denunciation of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden. Any discussion of the medieval Church must be accompanied with denunciations of the crusades, clerical corruption and anti-semitism. And on, and on.

While it is certainly important to bring our sense of moral judgement to our understanding of the past

— and to use that reflection on the past to help us understand the present more objectively — I think an over emphasis on this kind of morality-play history does both history and our moral sense a real disservice. Too often the reflexive expression of disapproval results in the assignment of a related motive: “Because they were racist.” “Because they were colonialists.” “Because they wanted economic dominance.” At which point, any ability to understand the real people involved and their motivations vanishes in a puff of ideology.

To my mind, the most rewarding approach to history is to understand as sympathetically as possible the motivations of all those on both sides of major historical conflicts. Picking a “good guy” and “bad guy” and engaging in constant denunciations of specific acts is generally not condusive to this. Certainly, that does not mean that one may not judge the morality of historical events. But it does mean taking a less judgemental approach to history as a whole.

Simplistic narratives are generally the enemy of historical understanding.

21 Responses to History and Judgement

  • Well said. Additionally in order to judge an historical event it is usually a good idea to have a good command of the relevant facts. For instance the Salem witch trials of 1692. They seem horrific and grotesque to us, and, from our standpoint they certainly were largely because most of us do not believe in witches. However at the time most people, educated and uneducated alike, believed firmly in witches. The trials came under assault after their completion from people who believed in witches, but who pointed to problems with the evidence presented, especially the so-called spectral evidence presented by the hysterical girls who were the chief witnesses. It was also noted that those accused often had family quarrels with members of families to which the accusers belonged. Strong evidence was brought forward that the girls had simply been lying.

    If we write off the Salem witch trials as a product of the rank superstition of a bygone era, we learn little from it. If we appreciate the concerns for justice raised by those who attacked the trials after their completion then we learn lessons applicable to our own time.

    History has much to teach us but only if we can truly understand a period and that calls for a firm understanding of the factual basis of past events, and a willingness to look at the world, as best as we are able, through the eyes of people long dead. It also requires the humility to perhaps conclude that past generations were not always wrong and the generations currently living are not always right.

  • Zach says:

    I think this tendency, to judge harshly the actions of previous people, is part of a greater modern project: avoiding an honest look at ourselves. Condemning people in the past is a way of misplacing guilt, it’s a way of saying, “I’m morally superior to you,” which is a way of making ourselves feel better for not owning up to our own sins.

  • Bill Hoogsteden says:

    You KNOW that if the Japanese military had the capability to drop nuclear weapons on American cities, they would have done so with out so much as batting an eye.

  • Good example, Donald.

    Along the same lines, one of the things which always really marred Paul Johnson’s Modern Times for me was his refusal to look any deeper at the Soviet Union than to say that it was run by a bunch of gangsters who cared only about power. Not, of course, that I think better of the Soviet leaders than that, but dismissing them so simplistically leaves you blind to a lot of where their actions (and their evils) came from.

    Zach,

    Nowhere does one see a worse case of that, I think, than with many modern assessments of mid-century Germany — one of the main points of which often seems to be to assure the reader that the Germans where so totally other that we can’t possibly have anything to learn from them other than, “Don’t be a mid-century German.”

  • Bret Ramsey says:

    Darwin,

    To be honest, I’m not as articulate as you are, but I’m going to disagree with you on this one… I believe in history there are good guys and bad guys and heroic people and cowards. There are right actions and wrong actions and cowardly actions… and they should be judged accordingly.

    “To my mind, the most rewarding approach to history is to understand as sympathetically as possible the motivations of all those on both sides of major historical conflicts.”

    I agree with trying to understand the otherside of the issue… you must listen to other people’s arguments…including those in history, but sometimes one side is right and the other side is wrong… or both sides are wrong.

    And if we can disguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys”, then we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our offspring.

    “Certainly, that does not mean that one may not judge the morality of historical events. But it does mean taking a less judgemental approach to history as a whole.”

    I guess I agree with you on the first sentence, but not the second. I also agree that the Cause can be good and just, but not the implementation. Ex: The Crusades – Just and noble cause; the destruction of Jerusalem during the First Crusade – horrific; the destruction of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade – again horrific… but that does not change the fact that the cause was just.

    I also do think it is important to know the facts of the case… the historical setting, but I still think it is our job to discern what is good and evil… but also understanding the historical setting that you are working with.

    For example – Slavery was an evil in our country the last hundred years; the evil of today for our country is abortion.

    Both are evil… I hope the next generations will judge us harsly as well.

  • Eric Brown says:

    I was reading a piece recently asserting that the tendency of modern history is to emphasize the details and facts of historical matters and look at everything to determine if they are relavant to us (according to the historian) now, whereas the previous emphasis was not on this, but on historical trends and patterns. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, I’m no expert, but I think the point should be well taken.

    I’d like to raise as a question for you Darwin, would you agree that we over-insert our worldview into our historical interpretations? To give an example, I was talking to someone who is very much a social traditionalist and we were talking about the sexual revolution, in which we have no substantial disagreement. Though, she was prone toward viewing the 1960s entirely in a negative light and believed that the whole of America was moving toward moral chaos and that the 1960s was a shift entirely toward a moral “Dark Age” as she described it, to the hyperbolic point of saying “she would undo the 1960s.” To which I replied, “even the civil rights movement?” And, not so surprisingly, she forgot entirely that movement was in the 1960s as well — people were still working for social justice too!

    How much do you think the modern West tries to construct history into neat little “models”? In many ways “liberalism” and “conservativism” are models by which people largely view of the world and operate; it in many ways presupposes that these views are mutually exclusive (one or the other) and not reconciable.

    To validate my point, I feel all one must do is look at the way people who identify themselves with one of these models view the world. Given the modern notion of “liberalism” and let’s, for the sake of argument, associate this view with atheism, then a common view of history is that the world was oppressed by religiousness and superstition and that in the wake of Enlightenment the world was liberated by the horror of religious oppression and opposition to science and rationalism. To a person of this thinking to say “medieval” is nearly the same as saying “false.” Nevermind any historical evidence to the contrary.

    A person who adopts the conservative model will take a counter view and interpret history in a way that upholds the framework of their view. One example, that’s often disputed, is the notion that America is a “Christian nation” despite the fact that though there are sure vestiges of Judeo-Christian thought in the American political experiment, it is just as evident that the West had already entered into the Age of the Enlightenment and many notions such as freedom, liberty, justice, etc had already began to shift in connotation from their earlier meaning toward the more modern sense and are not fully reflective of Christian thinking, particularly when the majority of the founders were deists who spoke ill at some points in regard to religion.

    Even if one is not reading history from a political model, one is using a model. It seems that in modernity, we’re always looking for neat systems of laws and casual sequences from which history can be automatically deduced. Despite the fact history reveals itself as impatient of all such artificial constructions. These models are tattered and destroyed when the whole world situation is suddenly transformed by the action of a single individual or group that contradict the framework of the model. Jesus is clear example; historians are fascinated by the way this first century Jew has shaped human history in no way that any other person in human history ever has. It’s almost inexplicable (or a manifest sign of God’s providence.)

    But to the issue here — what is a Catholic interpretation of history, if there is such a thing? Is it away from these models? Can we actually read history without projecting ourselves and our views into the matter to get a clear view of all the forces at work? I think you were spot on Darwin in saying that we cannot simply say “…because everyone in the South was racist.” That’s too reductionistic. Certainly, Catholics offer the grace of not separating all events from their context in salvation history. Yet, I’m interested in as to how one might articulate looking at history without it being “just another simplistic model”; or are we confined to that?

  • Rick Lugari says:

    Dr. Warren Carroll’s histories have a decidedly Catholic worldview, which actually helps him present things as objectively as possible. As Catholics we’re primarily concerned with the truth, reality, and persons. We understand fallen man and accept that we all are. He’s also quite fair when it comes to contested points history; he’ll note those points, briefly state what the opposing view and reasoning is, then present his view and why. I would consider his History of Christendom a must read (it’s one of the most enjoyable too). His works on the Spanish Civil War, and the French and Russian revolutions are really good too.

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    Condemning people in the past is a way of misplacing guilt, it’s a way of saying, “I’m morally superior to you,” which is a way of making ourselves feel better for not owning up to our own sins.

    Exactly. Well said.

  • Bret,

    I’m not sure that we necessarily have very different viewpoints. I do very much think that we need (both at a human and a moral level) to draw real lessons from history. We need to recognize both heroism and cowardice for what it is, and goods and evils for what they are.

    I think that I’m trying to emphasize, however, is that we need to recognize these things at a detailed level, rather than laying them on with a trowel and then refusing to look any deeper. So for instance, I would agree with you that slavery was a great evil, in its various forms throughout history. However, I think it’s a mistake to take the story of any given slave owner and simpy say, “He was obviously a racist oppressor.” One of the insiduous elements of sin is that we often don’t see how it enters our lives. And so without ignoring the fact that slavery was an injustice, one will often find that a slave owner thought he was treating his slaves very well and justly.

    I think it’s the failure to address things in these contextual terms that causes people to, for instance, blame Paul for sending Onesimus back to his master.

    By the same token, even when we essentially admire a person or movement, we need to recognize the bad elements in it, rather than simply following a narrative of “X was a totally good and heroic thing.” I think your point about the crusades is a great example of that. There was a good and just impulse behind the desire to protect Constantanople and keep the Holy Land free — and many people did good and heroic things during the course of the crusades. But one can’t simply say, “The crusades were just,” and ignore the evils that were done in their name, just as one cant’ say “The crusades were the evil results of religious hatred,” and ignore the goods that were achieved.

    Eric,

    That’s a good set of questions. I guess if I were to try to address things briefly, I’d say that the Catholic view of history should be influenced by the theological insight that we are saved or damned as individuals, not as members of an ideological or political group — and we are done so as a result of the sum and total of our actions, thoughts, desires and attachments, not as the result of pledging ourselves to some particular thing, or a single event like “being saved”. As such, history tends to be messy, with the good and bad mixed together.

    And as such I’d tend to see all periods (whether Dante’s middle ages, for which I have great affection, or the Englightenment, for which I don’t necessarily though there are elements of genuine moral insight in its understanding of liberty, I think) as mixed bags.

    Rick,

    I’ve had Dr. Carroll’s histories in my Amazon cart for ages, but keep not getting around to starting on them. Put off in part, perhaps unfairly, by an early and very unfavorable encounter with his wife’s Christ The King, Lord of History. One cannot visit the sins of the wife on the husband, though. I should really give it a shot.

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    Actually, I would and do defend dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They brought to an immediate end the war which the Japanese had been waging for 60 years, with horrible cruelties.

    A corresponding question: if we had had them, should atom bombs have been dropped on Germany?

  • Rick Lugari says:

    Brendan,

    I’ve never read his wife’s book, but haven’t heard many negative things about it. Fortunately the negative reviews are usually accompanied with the disclaimer that it shouldn’t be compared to her husband’s books which are very good.

  • So for instance, I would agree with you that slavery was a great evil, in its various forms throughout history. However, I think it’s a mistake to take the story of any given slave owner and simpy say, “He was obviously a racist oppressor.” One of the insiduous elements of sin is that we often don’t see how it enters our lives. And so without ignoring the fact that slavery was an injustice, one will often find that a slave owner thought he was treating his slaves very well and justly.

    Well said, Darwin. I can easily see certain critics taking this approach to our nation’s founding fathers — but we would be at a loss were we to dismiss Thomas Jefferson or George Washington in such a fashion.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “A corresponding question: if we had had them, should atom bombs have been dropped on Germany?

    Given that the Manhattan Project was so heavily Jewish, I’d always assumed that was one of the main motives. And how could one blame them.”

    In the miniseries Oppenheimer, with the title role brilliantly played by Sam Waterston, Oppenheimer, who is a non-observant Jew, notes with chagrin in his voice when some of his colleagues express their opposition to using the bomb against Japan that he didn’t recall hearing any qualms when the target was going to be Germany. The first bomb, and rightly so, might as well have had Berlin written all over it, and but for the success of D-Day and of the Soviet offensives in 1944, I have no doubt it would have been dropped on Berlin as soon as it would have been available.

  • Rick Lugari says:

    Indeed the initial state of mind for developing the bomb was Germany. Germany began working on the bomb first and that was one of the motivations for the MP. The Soviets had their own program but it wasn’t going very far until they captured German research and had the benefit of the MP’s success and the information. Anyone who serious considers the effects of the Dresden bombing would have no problem accepting the notion that the Bomb would have been dropped on Germany had the Normandy invasion failed or faltered and the bomb became ready.

  • Anna says:

    What a great and thought-provoking discussion! If I may, I think that the best way to sum up the contribution that the Catholic life makes to our reading of history is to keep in mind two central concepts of our faith: Mercy and Redemption (which, as a matter of fact, relies heavily on Repentance, a turning away from sin). I agree with Brett Ramsey; we are clearly called to discern good actions from evil ones, for our sake, and for the sake of the whole world. In this way, we can learn from the evils of the past, in the hopes that we will, as a race, not repeat them again. This has particular meaning for the Body of Christ, where the sins of individuals are seen to harm the Whole. This is in sharp contrast to “Judgment” of the actions of some in the past. As we are all men, and have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God, we should do well to approach an analysis of historic events with suitable humility.

    I must further disagree with Brendan’s assertion that “we are [saved] as a result of the sum and total of our actions, thoughts, desires and attachments, not as the result of pledging ourselves to some particular thing, or a single event like “being saved,” because the Catechism clearly teaches that a single action is sufficient for our damnation, were it not repented of before death. How many of the agents of history have later come to repent of their actions? Can we even know? But, it is with this in mind that we must look back over the sins of the past: the ever-merciful love of God. So, Eric, Brendan, it is relevant to examine history, even to analyze in detail specific events which might have provided a tipping point for the rise and fall of an individual or an entire nation, so that we may discern where he or she or they went wrong and learn something from it. Calling actions evil, and not persons or races, will provide us with the necessary balance when “judging” the events of the past.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Tito his book on the Spanish Civil War is The Last Crusade and I enjoyed it immensely. The Spanish Civil War has always been a period of history I have been interested in. Most of the histories written of the war tend to lean Left, so Mr. Carroll’s perspective is refreshing.

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