What is history?

„History is the memory of states,“ wrote the former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in his book, “A World Restored” in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies. From his standpoint, the „peace“ that Europe had before the French Revolution was „restored“ by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation – a world not restored but disintegrated.
My viewpoint is different. Like Howard Zinn and others before him suggested: we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer, like Howard Zinn suggested, to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Native Americans, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of the First World War as seen by socialists and pacifists. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can „see“ history from the standpoint of others.


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