My last article was on the 100 year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914. In it, I questioned the tendency of historians to focus on German decision-making in the lead up to World War I. My focus was on Austria-Hungary, and more precisely the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph.
I received an interesting comment on the article that has stayed with me ever since. Is there a certain amount of time between facts and history writing that allows subjectivity and historical bias to be removed? Can history be objective?
The truth is I do not know the answer. I cannot speak for all historians. I can offer my personal opinion based on my experience studying history. From this, I believe historical objectivity is impossible.
History is not a hard science. It is not blessed with equations that state absolute truths, or laws that once proven are rarely broken, as in physics. The sooner students of history acknowledge this fact, the better. History is a social science, and as a social science it tries to eliminate bias as much as possible. Yet, we are unable to eliminate bias completely. We are shaped by what we study, and what we study shapes us.
To better understand history, I think historians should begin to admit their limitations. For example, I have chosen to study Emperor Franz Joseph’s role in the lead up to the First World War. I examine an angle of the declaration of World War I that is little studied. Yet, it also raises some concerns as to the subjectivity of my work. Because I am focusing on the person of the Emperor, I am bound to attribute more agency to him than someone who studies the Great War from a purely national or international perspective. This leaves me predisposed to seeing Franz Joseph as a key actor.
Each study has its own predispositions built in to it. This is not wrong, indeed, this is how history is written.
What is distasteful is to present historical facts as historical truths. Each historian interprets historical facts, mostly primary sources, and constructs a narrative and analysis around them. However, we often forget to explicitly state that the facts we present are facts as we see them. We omit some and highlight others. Hidden behind the wall of academic writing, the author rarely explicitly states his or her opinion, but rather writes “this essay argues”, “this article demonstrates”, and “this book proves”. In fact, these are the author’s beliefs and interpretations.
History is not meant to prove convincingly, or to give absolute truths. Rather, like law, its focus is to try to prove beyond reasonable doubt, to assert with reasonable confidence. Historians present facts and interpret them. This should be made clearer. Each historical study should outline its limitations and innate bias. This should not be a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.
By constructing subjective interpretations as fact we create dangerous preconceptions and myths. Time does relieve some of the bias. But it remains. In the popular mind Germany is still seen as the primary force of aggression on the road to World War I. The West’s efforts to end the Cold War tend to be seen as the driving force behind the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict each side tends to see history in the light that favours them most.
History strives to be objective, and it should continue to try to do so. Nevertheless, we must accept its limitations. There will always be bias in history. We need to be more open about it.