Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holscher's Laws of History

Everyone is used to the concept that science and nature is governed by certain natural laws. For instance, Sir Isaac Newton discerned Newton's Laws of Motion.  Darwin gave discerned Natural Selection, and so on.

Well, it seems to me that history is governed by certain laws as well.  After long study of the topic, it seems that there are certain constants that repeat themselves again and again, and not just in the "history repeats itself" sense.  No, certain constants reoccur that are well worth noting. As the author, I'm claiming credit for their discovery, and setting them out here.  In future posts, I'll elaborate further on them.

Holscher's First Law of History.  Everything first happened longer ago than you suspect.

It doesn't matter what the topic is, but the first occurrence of anything is always further back in time than originally thought.  This is why certain distant dates are continually pushed back, and will continue to be. So, take whatever you like, say the first use of the horse, or the first appearance of humans in North America, and you'll find the "first" date gets more and more distant in time.  Things that were thought to happen, say, 5,000 years ago, turn out to have happened 50,000 years ago, or 500,000 years ago, as we gain better data.

Holscher's Second Law of History.  Everything last occurred more recently than you suppose.

Here too, it doesn't matter what the topic is, it happened much more recently than you think it did.  Almost everything and every behavior is really durable, if it had any purpose in the first place.

For example, last bayonet charge?  Are you thinking World War One?  Nope, the British did one in Iraq.  Small unit, but none the less they did it.  And in the Second Gulf War.  Last cavalry charge?  Civil War?  No again, they've happened as recently as the current war in Afghanistan.  Last use of horse mounted troops?  Well. . . we aren't there.  It's still going on.  We're never as far from what we think is the distant past as we imagine.

Holscher's Third Law of History.  Culture is plastic, but sticky.

Eh?  What could that mean. Well, just this.  Cultures mold themselves over time, to fit certain circumstances and developments, but they really persevere in ways that we can hardly appreciate.

We like to believe, in the West, that all cultures are the same, but that is very far from true. And we also like to believe that they "modernize," by which we mean that they "westernize."  They can, but their basic roots do not go away, and they don't even really change without the application of pressure and heat.  Cultures, in that sense, are like metamorphic rocks.  It takes a lot of time, heat, and intense pressure to change them, and even then, you can tell what they started off as.

Examples?  Well, when I was a student in school it was often claimed by our teachers that citizens of the USSR liked their government, having known nothing else, and that everything of the old Russian culture was dead.  Man, that couldn't have been further from the truth. When the lid came off the USSR in 1990, all sorts of old cultural attributes of the various old peoples of the Russian Empire came roaring back. Cossacks remembered that they were Cossacks.  Lithuanians remembered they were Lithuanian. The Russian Orthodox Church experienced a spectacular revival.  Even protests in Russia remain uniquely, and strangely, old Russian.  Nothing had actually gone away.

This is true of all cultures. Even here in the US.  The old Puritans may be gone, but much of their views towards our natures and work very much remain.  Even when cultures take big vacations from themselves, they tend to find their way back over time, at that, and will surprisingly reemerge when thought long gone.

Holscher's Fourth Law of History.  War changes everything

This is something that somehow is repeatedly forgotten by those who advocate wars.  I'm not a pacifist by any means, but it should be remembered that wars change absolutely everything, about everything.  No nation goes into a war and comes back out the same nation.  People's views about various things change radically due to war, entire economies are dramatically changed, and of course the people who fight the war are permanently changed.

We've discussed this here from time to time in regards to specific topics, but this law is so overarching that the impact of it can hardly be exaggerated.  Every time a nation enters a war, it proposes, in essence, to permanently alter everything about itself.

Holscher's Fifth Law of History.  When a war ends is when the defending party decides that it is over.

When nations start a war, they have a "war aim."  But that aim rarely determines when a war ends.  Wars are over when the party that is attacked decides that the war is over.

The Germans, during World War Two, thought that the war in the West was over when they knocked France out of the war, but the British did not believe that, so it did not end. In the East, the Germans thought advancing to the Volga meant victory over the USSR.  The Soviets, however, had no such concept so the war went on.  Conversely, the Imperial Russians in World War One gave up long before they were really defeated.  They just gave up.  Wars end when the party that was attacked decides that they are over.

Holscher's Sixth Law of History.  There was no age of innocence.

A persistent idea about any one violent era in history is that the era that preceded it was "an age of innocence", or that the violent historical event ended a country's "innocence."  Even really first rate historians will claim, in various works, that an era immediately before what they're writing about "ended the country's innocence.".

Well, while these events, particularly if they are wars, and that's usually what is being addressed in this context, may change everything (see Holscher's Fourth Law of History), the era before them is never an "age of innocence," as there never was such an age.  That's a nostalgic concept that does not fit reality.

For example, over time, I've read of World War Two, World War One, and the Civil War ending "America's innocence.".  Bunk.  None of those horrific events, and they were horrific, ended an age of innocence. They may have been titanic disasters, and horrors of the first rate, but they did not end ages of innocence.  By the time of the American Civil War the country had been through the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and any number of horrific Indian Wars that made those that came after the Civil War look comparatively blood free.  And this doesn't even address the violence of slavery and sectarian strife that came before the Civil War.  And even if a person imagines that the country slipped into an age of innocence after the Civil War they'd be sadly mistaken. Prior to World War one came the economic panic of the 1890s, the Indians Wars (including such events as Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee), the Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection.  Prior to World War Two, of course, we World War One and the Great Depression.

And the same is true for any other country a person could pick out.  The British, for example, had the Anglo Irish War before World War Two, the Boer War before World War One, and so on.

None of this is meant to be commentary on the big events mentioned. Rather, the frequent claims that a person reads some event unique exposed a country, for the first time, the the horrors the world has to offer, is simply wrong.

Posted December 28, 2012.

Holscher's Seventh Law of History.  No accurate history can be written until 60 years have passed since the event.

A really thorough history of  an event cannot be written close in time to the event.  Indeed, several decades must pass from the event's occurrence before an accurate history can be written.

That may sound shocking (although at least historian Ladislas Farago noted this in the introduction to his early biography of George S. Patton; Patton:  Ordeal and  Triumph) but its true.  Close in time to an event, authors tend to be too much men of their own times with their views colored by the context of those times. Such influences tend to remain at least as long as twenty years after an event occurs.  Direct participants in an event have a stake in what occurred, which also tend to inform and color their views.

Beyond that, however, and very significantly, authors who write close in time to an event, including those who participated in it, tend to simply accept certain conditions as the norm, and therefore diminish their importance int their writings or omit them entirely.  Conversely, they tend to emphasize things that were new or novel, for the same reasons.  Given that, early written records tend to overplay the new and omit the routine, so that later readers assume the new was the normal and they don't even consider the routine.

Take for example the often written about story of the German army during World War Two.  Only more informed historians realize that most of the German army was no more mechanized during World War Two than it was during World War One.  Fewer yet realize that a fair number of German soldiers remained horse mounted during World War Two for one reason or another.  Period writers had little reason to emphasize this, however, as it really wasn't novel at all at the time, and not very dramatic either, and reflected similar conditions in many armies.

This doesn't mean that early works and first hand recollections aren't valuable.  Rather, it means that a person cannot base his final view on those early works, however.  It also provides the answer as to why later historical works on a frequently addressed topic are not only valuable, but necessary.  Rick Atkinson's and Max Hasting's recent works on World War Two, for example, really place the conflict in context in all sorts of ways for the very first time.  The plethora of new books on the First World War that were at first regarded as revisionist are in fact corrective, and likewise the war is coming into accurate focus for the first time.

Date added:  June 11, 2014.

Holscher's Eighth Law of History:  Myths, unless purely fanciful, almost always have a basis in reality.

In cultures that write things down, the concept that myths, which were primarily related by word of mouth, have any basis in reality seems to come as a shock. But they normally do.

It is the spoken word that is the default means of transmitting information, including history, in human beings.  The written word is a learned behavior, indeed one that must not only be learned but nurtured in order to take root.   Even now, a lot of people will take and retain information better orally than in a written form.

But oral transmission is always subject to decay with the teller, and the tricks the mind uses to retain the story warp it a bit by default. But that doesn't mean that the stories were never true in any fashion.

All the time we find that historians and archeologist are surprised to learn that something thought to be a myth has some basis in reality.  Probably most do. Troy turns out to have been a real city (and the war was probably over the teenage wife of a teenage king, I'll bet), the Navajo and Apache turn out to be from the far north originally and so their memories of their being great white bears and great white birds are spot on.  Myths, even very old ones, if carefully discerned usually have some basis in fact.

Date added:  April 1, 2015


LeAnn28 said...

How, in my bachelor's degree in history and master's in historical studies, did I never come across this author or these laws of history?!?! This is one of the things I try to tell my own students and I will definitely be using Holscher's Laws in my classes in the future. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. :-)

Pat and Marcus said...

Thanks LeAnn, you are too kind!

Pat and Marcus said...

Here's a SMH thread on the fourth law: