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Contemporary history ends with the present. Its starting point is contentious and depends upon the topic of study. It has been practiced since ancient times but has become most popular since the 1960s. It has been criticized by conventional historians for the difficulty of examining the recent past objectively and the absence of adequate documentation. These arguments are rejected since they apply equally to all periods. Like the study of other periods, it has been influenced by changes in the contemporary world and by the changing interests of historians such as the growing influence of social and cultural history since the 1960s.
- What and When Is Contemporary History?
- The Long History of Contemporary History
- Contemporary History since the 1960s
- Approaches, Sources, and Methods in Contemporary History
What and When Is Contemporary History?
Periodization in history is always problematic and contentious, no less for contemporary history than for any time period. Unavoidably, historians of all times and places find it hard to agree on precisely when the period they identify with begins and ends. This is partly because historians have diverse preoccupations, necessarily if we are to gain a reasonably comprehensive understanding of the past, and because nations and societies do not experience all-pervasive breaks, even following a serious crisis such as war, revolution, occupation, or plague. Some features of the society may continue, such as religious faith or family structure, which will preoccupy some historians, while others focus on the experience of rupture.
However, one essential element of periodization is agreed among contemporary historians: their period ends with the present. It includes the history of the very recent past, so the end point of contemporary history is agreed but is constantly shifting. Where it begins is more contentious. Some have argued, in the past, that contemporary history is the history of the generation now living, or events within the lifetime of the historian. This will not do because generations overlap and some lives are very long. This definition leaves us with “ever-changing boundaries and an ever-changing content, with a subject matter that is in constant flux” as Geoffrey Barraclough wrote in his Introduction to Contemporary History (1966: pp. 13– 14), the first modern work in English to tackle the subject. As he pointed out, at the time he was writing (the book was first published in 1964), it was still possible to meet people who had conversed with Bismarck, and others “for whom Hitler was as much an historical figure as Napoleon or Julius Caesar” (p. 13).
Barraclough proposed two complementary definitions of contemporary history. Firstly, it was the history of a time period: he argued that contemporary history should be dated from the late 1950s, when an array of major historical changes were clearly established, including the emergence of the United States and Russia as ‘superpowers’ and the weakening of Western Europe; the breakdown of empires; ‘the readjustment of relations between white and colored peoples’; and the thermonuclear revolution and other technological transformations. ‘Taken together’ he argued “they give contemporary history a distinctive quality which marks it off from the preceding period” (p. 17). But, Barraclough argued, to understand the nature and significance of these changes the study of contemporary history should begin around 1890, when ‘the forces took shape that have molded the contemporary world.’ At this time, among other things, economic exchange became truly global; empires reached a peak; labor movements grew and strengthened and socialism became a strong force; more nations moved toward modern democracy; and European nations adopted alignments that would lead to two world wars.
But still, warned Barraclough, “we shall do well to beware of precise dates. Contemporary History begins when the problems in the world today first take visible shape” (my italics: p. 20). He recognized that, in order to understand certain contemporary phenomena, a much longer timescale was needed than for others. We might today give the examples of wars in Afghanistan, or of financial crises, understanding both can benefit from historical analysis but the timescales are very different. The second definition of contemporary history, he believed, was its capacity “to clarify the basic structural changes which have shaped the modern world,” which “may take us far back into the past.” (pp. 16–17). Hence “we cannot say that contemporary history ‘begins’ comprehensively in 1945, or 1939 or 1917 or 1898 or any other specific date we may choose”(p. 20). The beginning depends upon the aspect of the contemporary world under scrutiny. However, for practical purposes, such as teaching courses in contemporary history, a time frame must be chosen. When the aim is to teach the history of the recent past, or to convey a sense of it to a wide audience, rather than to explain a particular event or set of events, the choice may be somewhat arbitrary, determined by what is manageable in the time available.
Dating key features of the contemporary world to the late 1950s made sense in 1964. Fifty years later we might think differently. Since 1989, Communism has almost vanished from Europe and socialist ideas are more fiercely challenged everywhere than before. The Cold War is over and the Russia is much less influential, and so, more gradually, the influence of the United States has begun to dwindle, while China (still officially Communist) has become increasingly powerful in the world economy and politics. Versions of Islam influence world affairs as they have not for centuries, as do the politics of countries in which it is powerful. The invention of the World Wide Web has revolutionized communications, pervasively influencing everyday life including in entertainment, shopping, and politics. Though these changes need to be seen in context. As David Edgerton has argued, old technology has never ceased to be important. The world consumed more coal and steam power was more widespread in 2000 than in 1950 or 1900 (Edgerton, 2006). The bicycle is still an important, and in Europe a growing, means of transport, much encouraged as a source of exercise and good health. Similarly, old ideas, sometimes very old such as religious faith, and practices, political, social, and cultural as well as technological, have not disappeared but profoundly influence day-to-day life.
The Long History of Contemporary History
Contemporary history became a notably active preoccupation of historians in the 1960s, hence Barraclough’s book, but it was by no means a new concept. As with many contemporary themes we need to probe far back into the past to understand its origins and development. Benedetto Croce claimed in 1917 that “every true history is contemporary history” (Croce, 1917). He meant something different from Barraclough and most contemporary practitioners in the field, that the work of the historian of any period is influenced by present preoccupations and by the historian’s personal experience. This is widely agreed. The term has come into common use and into university syllabuses relatively recently, since the 1960s, especially since the 1980s, but it is older than Croce. It made an early English-language appearance in the Edinburgh Review in 1808 (vol 12: p. 480) with the (now contentious) comment:
There is this general distinction between Contemporary History and all other history- that the former is a witness, the latter a judge.
Yet the practice of studying the immediate past, up to the present, is a great deal older still. Thucydides, recognized as one of the greatest ancient historians, writing about the Peloponnesian wars as they happened (431–404 BC) and in which he had fought, rested his narrative “partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me,” aiming to record the war accurately, in view of its intrinsic interest and importance, and to provide political lessons for the future. He hoped that his History would be useful to ‘those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past. The work is meant to be a possession forever, not the rhetorical triumph of an hour.’ His ruling principle was strict adherence to carefully verified facts:
As to the deeds done in the war, I have not thought myself at liberty to record them on hearsay from the first informant or on arbitrary conjecture. My account rests either on personal knowledge or on the closest possible scrutiny of each statement made by others. The process of research was laborious because conflicting accounts were given by those who had witnessed the several events, as partiality swayed or memory served them.
Problems that present day contemporary historians will recognize and which have been analyzed extensively by practitioners of oral history (Perks and Thomson, 1998).
Through the next 2000 years others wrote the history of their own times, designed to convey lessons as much as to expand knowledge. In England, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, adviser to Charles I, and Lord Chancellor to Charles II, late in life wrote The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (1702–1704), which he had experienced and with which he had no sympathy, a work designed to justify and praise the restoration of the monarchy. Thomas Babington Macaulay, politician and imperial administrator, part of a newly influential professional middle class, wrote his widely read four volume History of England (published 1848–1861, the final volume after his death), as uncritical celebration of the period since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He described it as a time of brilliant progress, unique to England at the time, culminating in the Great Reform Act of 1832, which brought the middle classes into political power, and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which established free trade and further economic expansion, making England the dominant world economy. Democracy, he argued, had then gone far enough and acceding to the growing demands of the lower orders for inclusion could only undermine England’s greatness.
Interest in studying the immediate past has often been sparked by a specific crisis – in Macaulay’s case, the stirrings of working class discontent in the early nineteenth century – and the desire to understand its origins and impact. For some European historians in the nineteenth century, the French Revolution of 1789 was such an event, though historians of different political persuasions appropriated it in different ways. For conservatives, the French defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870 demonstrated that the Revolution of 1789 had undermined national cohesion. Hippolyte Taine’s Origines de la France Contemporaine (1875–93) explained what he believed to be the debility of contemporary French society as a legacy of the Revolution. The Société d’ Histoire Contemporaine, established in 1890 by Catholic conservatives, espoused such views, while the Left developed its own version of recent history, celebrating the revolution. Emile Bourgeois (1886) rejected Taine’s interpretation while accepting that his work was no less valid than writing the history of earlier periods. The Republicans created a Chair in Modern and Contemporary History in Paris in 1884 and, once established in the University, historians of the Left founded the Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, also in 1890. The two factions fought for control of the official history texts taught in schools, which included, from the Left, Ernest Lavisse’s 10-volume Histoire de la France Contemporaine de la Révolution à 1919, one of several texts he produced for schools in the 1880s and 1890s (Noiriel, 1998).
As History became professionalized as a university discipline from the later nineteenth century it defined itself strictly as a study of the ‘past,’ of times beyond the memory of the living. It sought clearly to differentiate itself, its subject matter and its methods from the other emerging disciplines of the day, as universities themselves emerged in their modern forms and grew in number and diversity of areas of study. The past was the domain of the historian, the present and recent past that of the emerging disciplines of politics and economics, later also of the newer fields of anthropology and sociology. Professional history’s source materials were, above all, documentary archives, the remnants of the past. This was despite the fact that one of the dominant figures in the nineteenth-century professionalization of history, Leopold von Ranke, himself lectured on events in German history occurring during his lifetime, including the revolution of 1848 and the founding of the German Empire in 1871, as did a number of his contemporaries.
The highly committed, politicized nature of much that calls itself contemporary history, as in nineteenth-century France, probably hardened resistance to it among the majority of the earlier generations of professional historians. They believed that the practice of history required total emotional detachment from the subject in hand, that it was necessary to establish ‘the facts’ wholly objectively, regarding this as an essential dimension of their professional identity, which they were convinced was unattainable when studying the times the historian had personally experienced. Ranke urged the need to extinguish oneself (sein Selbst ausloeschen), all of one’s values, in order to engage in reliable historical research.
For even more historians in the twentieth century, it was the Nazi regime and the horrors that resulted in an apparently civilized continent that required understanding. In the early 1920s, Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew, was horrified by the rise of antisemitism, campaigned against it and collected documents about it. These were lost when he fled Germany in 1933, first for the Netherlands, then for London, but he carried on collecting. After the war, the collection became the Wiener Library in London, still a preeminent archive of Nazism and antisemitism, which assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials, amassed early survivor testimony and helped shape the academic study of the Holocaust which emerged after the war. It later also took the name Institute for Contemporary History (www.wienerlibrary.co.uk).
Also in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany, soon after its own establishment, set up the Deutsches Institut für Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Zeit in Munich for, as its name suggests, study of the Nazi period. In 1952, it was renamed Institut für Zeitgeschichte and gradually broadened its interests in recent German history (www.ifz-muenchen.de). Meanwhile in France, in 1944, shortly after the Liberation, de Gaulle’s provisional government established a commission on the history of the occupation, resistance, and liberation, which, in 1951, became the Committee on the History of World War II. In 1978, this became, and remains, L’Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, with a wider historical remit (www.ihtp.cnrs.fr). After the downfall of communism in Europe, institutes were established in postcommunist countries to examine their recent histories, including the Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovenia. The Slovenian Institute, in Ljubljana, was established in 1959 as the Institute for the History of the Workers’ Movement. It included an archive of the wartime occupation and resistance movement. By the 1970s, it was studying the history of Slovenia throughout the twentieth century. After the end of communism in 1989, it persuaded the authorities to rename it the Institute of Contemporary History and it gradually broadened its interests to cover economic and social history (www.inz.si/history.php). The histories of these institutions in themselves tell us something about contemporary history.
The origins of Nazism and the war, and later of Communism and its effects, had deep and long roots and the problem of where to begin to study such major themes remained, as Barraclough realized when writing his first book, The Origins of Modern Germany, published in 1946. This covered the period 800–1939, with a concluding chapter, “Germany yesterday, today and tomorrow.” He started to write it during the war, while serving in the UK Royal Air Force, following 15 years studying German history before the war. He brought it as close to the present as he could at that time.
As the practice of contemporary history grew, most strongly from the 1960s, 1945 became a favored starting point, probably because contemporary history, like most professional history, tended at this time overwhelmingly to focus on political history, national and international. And post-1945 politics – the world of the Cold War and decolonization – seemed very different from what had gone before and to require new explanations and forms of analysis. But many historians recognized that analysis of the post-1945 world could not begin in 1945 if it was truly to be understood. When what became the leading international journal in the field, the Journal of Contemporary History – its founding itself a sign of the substantial new interest – was established in 1966, shortly after Barraclough published his book, it set out to study mainly European history throughout the twentieth century. Its founding editors were George Mosse, a German-born, Jewish American who had published widely on Nazism, and Walter Laqueur, also American and Jewish, who published on the history of fascism and communism and was then director of the Wiener Library and Institute of Contemporary History in London and professor at Georgetown University in the United States. Their own professional preoccupations did much to shape the journal in its early days. They acknowledged in their opening editorial that their definition of the field ‘is bound to be to a certain extent arbitrary both in time and space.’ They were ‘aware that the first world war (not to mention more recent events) cannot really be discussed without reference to trends that go well back into the nineteenth century.’ They also recognized that Europe did not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. They pledged to ‘try to be sufficiently elastic in their editorial policy to accommodate contributions that at first sight seem to transcend the Journal’s frame of reference’ both in time and space. So the journal has done and its subject matter has reflected changing preoccupations in the broad field of contemporary history.
Contemporary History since the 1960s
The longer time span has become more commonplace in European university courses and journals since the 1960s, above all because of the evident difficulty of explaining important features of the world since 1945 without looking at least back to the later nineteenth century. Also the generation was emerging for whom ‘Hitler was as much an historical figure as Julius Caesar’ and they had wider interests, influenced by the changing world around them. It was impossible, for example, to understand the then rapid process of decolonization, for example, without a sense of how Empires had come about and their effects; or why West European countries felt a need to develop ‘welfare states’ after the war without understanding the extent of poverty and inequality past and present; or why, from the 1960s, women, excluded racial groups and homosexuals, among others, were demanding equality so fiercely in so many countries, without awareness of the long history of the inequalities they had experienced.
Also, from the 1960s, the range of professional history writing widened and subspecialisms grew, challenging the dominance of political history. This was less wholly new than some thought at the time. In reality, political history had not held exclusive sway for some time. Economic history had begun to develop in the interwar years, closely linked with what came to be called social history. In 1926, R.H. Tawney, in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, traced the origins of modern capitalism (of whose unequal outcomes he was a critic, actively supporting and advising the British Labor Party) back to early modern times and stressed the formative influence of protestant religion, combining cultural and economic history. Eileen Power, one of the first female professors of Economic History, at the London School of Economics, and a feminist, wrote and broadcast in the 1920s on the new medium of radio, about medieval women and other aspects of medieval social and economic history (Berg, 1996).
In France, the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, was founded in 1929 as a direct challenge to the dominance of political history in France. It aimed to integrate the study of society, economy, politics, intellectual life, geography, and demography, ideally over long time periods up to the present, in order to understand the complex interactions that constitute a society, regarding the present as history as well as the distant past and skeptical about the existence of radical breaks in history. The annalistes, a self-conscious ‘school,’ drew on the growing insights and methods of the social sciences to enrich historical research.
In Britain, G.M. Trevelyan’s British Social History: a survey of six centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria, written before the second world war in Britain, published in the United States in 1942 (perhaps with the original intention of informing a nation hesitating to enter the war on Britain’s side, before it was impelled to do so by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941). Trevelyan argued for the importance of social history not, as he is constantly misquoted, as ‘history with the politics left out,’ but as “the required link between economic and political history . without social history, economic history is barren and political history is unintelligible” (1942/ 1967: pp. 9–10). Trevelyan was concerned with a very contemporary question, the characteristics of the British culture that the nation was fighting to defend in the second world war, recognizing the need to trace its construction over many centuries, examining as many dimensions as possible: “the daily life of the inhabitants … the human as well as the economic relation of different classes to one another, the character of family and household life, the conditions of labor and of leisure, the attitude of man to nature, the culture of each age … took ever-changing forms in religion, literature and music, architecture, learning and thought” (1942/1967: pp. 9– 10). He aimed originally to bring the book up to the time of writing, but “the war has rendered it impossible” (p. 9) though he hoped it would still serve its contemporary purpose.
These historians, and others in Britain and elsewhere, challenged the dominance of political history before the 1960s (Floud and Thane, 2005), but social history became much more prominent from the late 1960s. It was partly impelled by very contemporary concerns, of a newly active Radical Left, often influenced by Marxism, challenging continuing social and economic inequalities, allied with emerging antiracist, feminist, and gay campaigning groups. These movements influenced and extended the work of professional historians, some of whom were activists themselves, into topics, such as the histories of slavery and colonialism and their legacies, of gender inequalities, and of repression of homosexuality, for which the conventional political boundaries, such as the dates of wars, were largely irrelevant. It was also influenced by the gradual entry of rather more women and members of other excluded groups into what had previously been an overwhelmingly white, male historical, indeed wider university, profession.
Such histories challenged and extended conventional narratives about the contemporary world. For example, for some time, influential Anglo-American sociologists had explained the characteristics of the family in the contemporary ‘developed’ world in terms of the increasing isolation of the ‘nuclear’ core of parents and children from wider kin, as industrialization and migration disrupted ‘traditional’ agrarian society, which was supposedly static and composed of co-residing, co-working family groups, whereas, they believed, fast-moving modern society divided the generations geographically and emotionally, creating, it was said, unprecedented problems of isolation for older people and less grandparental care for the young. This tidy scheme owed nothing to historical research. From 1964, the demographic, previously intellectual, historian, Peter Laslett, in Cambridge, drew on the methods of the Annales school and the novel, if still cumbersome, aid of computers to explore the history of the family in England using parish records of births, marriages, and deaths back to their origins at the Reformation and the formation of the Church of England in the sixteenth century. New technology assisted new approaches to the history of the recent and the more distant past. Laslett and his colleagues in the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, which he founded, examined the actual history of English family structures and asked whether change had indeed taken the form that the sociologists claimed. They discovered a preindustrial society in England that was far from static, in which migration over long distances in search of work was common, large co-residing kin groups uncommon and nuclear families as normal as in the twentieth century, while higher death rates and lower life expectancy at all ages often left children without grandparents and older people without surviving children. Family structures had changed much less than had been believed. Findings that were later replicated for other parts of Northwestern Europe (Laslett and Wall, 1972; Wrigley and Schofield, 1989). Study of a key social institution over several centuries deepened understanding of its contemporary characteristics, leading to recognition that intergenerational ties were at least as strong, and possibly stronger, than in the preindustrial past in the contemporary world where life expectancy was longer and modern technology assisted communication between kin over long distances in unprecedented ways. They demonstrated that studying the history of social as well as political institutions could extend knowledge and understanding of contemporary issues.
Flexibility over the appropriate time period to study continues to characterize contemporary history. The journal Contemporary British History, founded in 1986, focuses on the period since World War I, yet in a special issue on health inequalities in the later twentieth century the editors thought it helpful to publish an article on dimensions of inequality, 1700–2000 (Contemporary British History, Autumn 2002). Similarly, for reasons of manageability in the time available, contemporary history courses in European universities mainly focus on the period from the early twentieth century, examining still earlier periods when the topic requires it.
Approaches, Sources, and Methods in Contemporary History
Contemporary history may be pursued out of simple curiosity to explore and understand the recent past in all its dimensions, or in order to understand the origins and effects of a particular event or set of events or processes, sometimes for overtly political reasons such as to influence policy decisions, though often not. As the practice of contemporary history grew after 1945, it was much criticized on the grounds familiar since the nineteenth century, that the objectivity required of the professional historian was impossible toward events in the historian’s own lifetime, which might have touched her or his own existence. This implied that distance in time necessarily created an objectivity that was impossible in relation to recent events. This overlooked the passionate partisanship professional historians could display over many other themes, such as long past events like the English Civil War of the seventeenth century; the deep repugnance of many of them toward slavery and long past repressive acts by imperial powers; and partisan conflict over the impact of industrialization on working-class living standards such as that waged between Marxists, who took a doom-laded view, and their more optimistic opponents in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Hobsbawm, 1964; Hartwell, 1961).
The first editors of the Journal of Contemporary History countered with the argument that ‘Distance in time … involves remoteness, lack of immediacy, difficulty in understanding the quality of life of a period that is hard to describe and define, but which may become as important as all the documents in the archive.’ Indeed there were those who argued, in relation to World War II, that only those who had been closely involved, as victims of perpetrators of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps or Japanese prisoner of war camps, could truly understand all dimensions of these experiences. These were not new observations. Alexis de Tocqueville, reflecting on the French Revolution commented that what contemporary writers:
know better than does posterity are the movements of opinion, the popular inclinations of their times, the vibrations of which they can still sense in their minds and hearts. The true traits of the principal persons and of their relationships, of the movements of the masses are often better described by witnesses than recorded by posterity. These are necessary details. Those close to them are better placed to trace the general history, the general causes, the grand movements of events, the spiritual currents which men who are further removed may no longer find since these things cannot be perceived from the memoirs. (Quoted in Schlesinger, 1967)
Or as George Santayana later put it:
It is not true that contemporaries misjudge a man. Competent contemporaries judge him . much better than posterity, which is composed of critics no less egotistical, and obliged to rely exclusively on documents easily misinterpreted. (Quoted in Schlesinger, 1967)
Also, for historians to believe that objective study of the contemporary world was impossible was, somewhat arrogantly, to dismiss the work of social scientists, who engaged in just that, and to refuse to recognize that historians could learn from their methods and experience. Indeed, the growth of the social sciences after World War II encouraged the spread of contemporary history, by making more widely accessible techniques for analysis of the recent past, previously neglected or scorned by historians, such as interviews, the use of contemporary documents such as letters, sources such as newspapers and such new resources as film and sound recordings. Contemporary history was frequently criticized by university historians on account of the limited availability for the recent past of the historical documents conventionally used by political historians. Political history relied predominantly upon government archives, which in most countries were closed for at least 40 or 50 years (in the case of the most sensitive for much longer or forever), as were many personal archives of prominent people, including monarchs and presidents. Since such sources were not accessible for the period of closure, it followed that, for conventional historians, contemporary history was impossible.
Nonetheless, the first editors of the Journal of Contemporary History were optimistic that
there are few major secrets in modern democracies that can be kept for longer than a year or two; the time lag in dictatorships is unfortunately considerably longer, but it seems doubtful whether anything really important can be kept secret for very long even there. In any case, more often than not, the contemporary historian of Europe or America in the sixties is more likely to be confronted with a surfeit of source material rather than to suffer from a lack of documentary evidence. (JCH: p. iii.)
Indeed, extensive government archives were themselves a relatively recent phenomenon, following the growth of large and effective bureaucracies in more developed countries in the later nineteenth century. For previous periods, documentary sources were often patchy, selective, and biased toward an elite, male minority whose papers survived and therefore might dictate possibly selective readings of the past. This view also overlooked the selective nature of government archives even in the more recent past. There was, and is, no means of knowing which sensitive papers might have been destroyed or withheld. Only in 2011 was it discovered that the British government withheld from public access, and stored secretly in the British countryside, 8000 shelves of documents concerning the British army’s maltreatment of insurgents during the independence struggles in Kenya in the 1950s. Under the then-prevailing 30- year rule, they should have been released to the National Archives in the 1980s. They came to light only when some aging survivors of British brutality sued the British government, successfully, in 2011, and because UK Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, passed only in 2000, permits requests for access to hidden documents (though these are not always agreed readily or at all). The furore that resulted when the existence of the documents was reluctantly revealed, was supported by many historians. This led the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, equally reluctantly, to reveal, in 2013, that it had a further 1.2 million files hidden in another country store, some going back at least to the Treaty of Paris of 1856 which ended the Crimean War, but too sensitive to release for over 150 years. It later became known that substantial numbers of documents had been destroyed, on the instruction of government ministers, to prevent material that ‘might embarrass government . police, military forces, public servants or others’ being revealed to post-independence governments (The National Archives, November 2013; The Guardian, 29 November 2013).
Such suppression by governments of shameful episodes in history, leading to pressure from historians for greater openness has not occurred only in Britain. To give just one example, Japanese governments have been very reluctant to respond to historians’ demands to inform schoolchildren about Japanese atrocities during World War II, especially in China. Furthermore, the museum commemorating the atomic devastation of Nagasaki in 1945, providing what appears to be the official view, gives notably little indication of Japanese war guilt, in contrast to the museum in Nanjing, China, which commemorates the well-attested Japanese massacre of that city in 1937.
All such revelations justify the suspicions of skeptical historians that we cannot rely on official archives to reveal all the truth about history, that historians of all periods must be wide ranging and inventive in their search for sources and be well aware that all historical findings, about any period, up to the present, are provisional and can be overturned by discovery of new sources and new research at any moment. The belief that historical research, in any time period, seeks objective, factual truth rather than being part of a process of gradually, partially, piecing together an understanding of the past, can no longer be sustained and very few historians would try. This applies as much to historians of the contemporary world as to all others.
Despite closures, over time more official documents have been opened at earlier stages than before, facilitating contemporary history. Franklin D. Roosevelt set an example in the United States by decreeing that his personal papers should be donated to the national archive after his death and be made quickly accessible. His successors followed his example, establishing Presidential archives that are no longer closed for a generation. Since the death of John F. Kennedy, Presidential archives have included interviews with prominent figures and observers of the period of office of the President in question.
FOI, the right of historians and others (often journalists or campaigners) to request access to documents falling within the designated period of closure has spread over a similar period. It was introduced by law in the United States in 1966. But it is only a partial blessing to historians. Requests can be refused and government departments have various means of evasion: in Britain, a request can be refused if it is deemed too costly to make the required search, as it frequently is. In 2013, the Ministry of Justice, which administers FOI, further refused to publish statistics of successful appeals against refusal on the grounds that this also would be too costly (Hansard, House of Lords, 6 November 2013). Furthermore, there is the very real danger that, as historians in Sweden have put it, FOI leads to ‘the emptying of the archive,’ to politicians and civil servants committing fewer sensitive issues to paper for fear of exposure (Kandiah, 2008). Sweden was the first country in the world to guarantee public access to government documents in its constitution of 1766. But, even in Sweden, legislators can deny access to specific documents. There is a right of appeal, but appeals are not invariably successful. Of course historians have never had access to past face-to-face conversations about government business, which might be crucially important, or, since the invention of the telephone, to communication by that means. Newer technology is creating further obstacles. Students of history since the 1990s may find surviving official sources dwindling ever faster as communications by e-mail and other forms of new technology are preserved imperfectly, if at all.
Such problems have made contemporary historians inventive in their use of sources. They have been assisted by the availability of a wider range of sources and helped as well as hindered by new technology. Oral history came widely into use as a direct response to the growth of social history in the 1970s, with its growing interest in the history of the everyday lives of ‘ordinary people’ and awareness that their experiences and opinions rarely surfaced in official documents. A pioneer was the American Studs Terkel (a popular, not a university, historian, among his many other talents) who used oral history to explore social inequalities in the United States, published as Division Street America (1966), Hard Times. An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970) and Working (1974). The journal Oral History started in Britain in 1972. Oral history drew on the experience of sociologists and anthropologists for interviewing techniques, greatly assisted by new technology, as increasingly portable recording machines became available from the 1960s. Again, it faced the skepticism of conventional historians that individuals were less likely to tell ‘the truth’ in an interview than in a written document. This overstated the reliability of many documents as well as the gullibility of historians, who learned to interpret interviews as skeptically as any document and, as with documents, to seek corroborating sources for any assertion, while recognizing that the story presented by an interviewee represented one version of the events in question, which required careful interpretation. (Perks and Thomson, 1998).
The recent past has created ever newer media representing aspects of the contemporary world – film, television, sound recording – which demand new skills for their interpretation, as do the study of the press, memoirs, letters, diaries, and other personal documents, which it has become more common to use by political as well as social historians. New media will present new challenges to future contemporary historians, and others as they recede into a new past. Contemporary history must continue to be inventive, as it has always been while keeping up with an ever-changing present.
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- Barraclough, G., 1946. Origins of Modern Germany. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Berg, M., 1996. A Woman in History. Eileen Power 1889–1940. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Bourgeois, E., 1886. L’histoire contemporaine et la science de l’histoire. Armand Colin, Paris.
- Croce, B., 1917. Teoria e Storia della Storiografia. Laterza, Bari, Italy.
- Croce, B., 1808. Edinburgh Review 12.
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