History and Proximity

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By Alessandro Nassiri - Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci", CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47910919
By Alessandro Nassiri – Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci”, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47910919

My dad recently gave me a huge stack of magazines about the Second World War. They were published in the 1960s and cover most of the main events over thousands of pages. As Dad suggested, they’re a potentially valuable resource for me as a history writer. The fact that they were published so soon after the war helps, as much of the writing is based on recollections of people who were there.

But that proximity can also be a problem for history. The closer we are to an event, the harder it is to be objective. Feelings still run strong, biases are still relevant. And there’s the hidden information. The incredible work of Polish and British analysts in decrypting the German Enigma code was vital to the Second World War, but wasn’t made public for decades. These 1960s accounts were written without knowledge of this intelligence work.

Judging history, or even current events, is a balancing act. Proximity to events can provide vital insight. But sometimes distance is needed to see a bigger picture of the truth.

3 thoughts on “History and Proximity”

  1. I find historical books and reference works fascinating to get an idea of what people thought at the time. I’ve got a set of books written during the Second World War – each one was published just after the events it covered. It’s interesting, but of limited use as a historical reference.

    1. The main surprise to me (and this may have more to do with my lack of knowledge of the Pacific theatre) was that the Japanese attacks in 1941 didn’t seem wholly unexpected.

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