Barbara Tuchman on the Ever-Changing Nature of History

22 10 2022

I finally got around to reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August, which traces the outbreak of the First World War and it’s first month, up to the Battle of the Marne. I’ve had it for years. Needless to say, it lived up to its reputation, and I recommend it.

But to the point of this rare non-resource post. In the notes on the sources at the end, Tuchman makes an observation. I’ll just leave it here, since it speaks for itself, and is equally applicable to the study and interpretation of the American Civil War.

Men who had taken part at the command level, political and military, felt driven to explain their decisions and actions. Men who had fallen from high command, whether for cause or as scapegoats – and these included most of the commanders of August – wrote their private justifications. As each account appeared, inevitably shifting responsibility or blame to someone else, another was provoked. Private feuds became public; public controversies expanded. Men who would otherwise have remained mute were stung to publish…Books proliferated. Whole schools of partisans…produced libraries of controversy.

Through this forest of special pleading the historian gropes his way, trying to recapture the truth of past events and find out “what really happened.” He discovers that truth is subjective and separate, made up of little bits seen, experienced, and recorded by different people. It is like a design seen through a kaleidoscope; when the cylinder is shaken the countless colored fragments form a new picture. Yet they are the same fragments that made a different picture a moment earlier. This is the problem inherent in the records left by the actors in past events. The famous goal, “wie es wirklich war,*” is never wholly within our grasp.

*How it really was; what really happened.