Jan 2, 2013

The political act of good history

History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addition. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented. Indeed, in the nature of things there is usually no entirely suitable past, because the phenomenon these ideologies claim to justify is not ancient or eternal but historically novel .... 
In this situation historians find themselves in the unexpected role of political actors. I used to think that the profession of history, unlike that of say, nuclear physics, could at least do no harm. Now I know it can. Our studies can turn into bomb factories like the workshops in which the IRA has learned to transform chemical fertilizer into an explosive. This state of affairs affects us in two ways. We have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticizing the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular. 

-- Eric Hobsbawm