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    Handling History: How our understanding of the past can cultivate our actions in the present

     Handling History

    How our understanding of the past can cultivate our actions in the present

    In his seminal work, The Rise And Fall 

    Of The Third Reich, William L. Shirer 

    writes of an encounter between Adolf 

    Hitler and his High School History 

    teacher, Dr Leopold Poetsch. Describing 

    his experience as a student, Hitler had writ-

    ten, in his Mein Kampf, The teacher made 

    history my favourite subject. And indeed, 

    he had no such intention, it was then that 

    I became a young revolutionary. Decades 

    later, while touring Austria in triumph, in 

    1938, Hitler stopped to see his old teacher. 

    He conversed with him alone for an hour, 

    and later confi ded to members of his party,

    You cannot imagine how much I owe to 

    that old man.

    Poignant in hindsight, it is worth noting 

    how our understanding of the past can cul-

    tivate our actions in the present. We usual-

    ly consider ourselves part of a continuum, 

    a current in the larger river – how far we 

    take that river, depends both on our ability 

    and ideology. Present, as the English His-

    torian, E.H.Carr says, can only be under-

    stood in the light of the past.Or, its mirror 

    version, by the French Historian Marc 

    Bloch, which states that Misunderstanding 

    the present is an inevitable consequence of 

    ignorance of the past. As humans, we have 

    a proclivity to associate with larger causes, 

    with transcending ideas, and with the 

    herds of our choice. As a direct result, we 

    adhere to a version of offi cial history that 

    serves the larger purpose of the herd. When 

    Eric Hobsbawm famously drew an analogy 

    between Historians and poppy-growers, 

    this is precisely what he meant; to further 

    the cause of an ideology and its ideologues, 

    we need History. If there exists none, we 

    need to invent one. History, whose conclu-

    sions are foregone. History, which upholds 

    regional and cultural biases. History, that 

    pronounces judgement, before the trial. 

    History, that most of all, serves the herd 


    As a subject, History is fascinating – like 

    the Time Machine of H.G.Wells, it takes us to 

    places in the past; like trekking through for-

    ests and mountains, we discover new lands, 

    and with every new discovery, a hundred 

    more doors open. As a propaganda tool, his-

    tory is unbearably boring; even if we see a 

    river, we have to call it a waterfall, if we have 

    been ordered to do so. The former drives 

    from curiosity, the latter from conformity. 

    The former results in fascination, the latter 

    in bigotry. The former aligns one to the 

    larger cause of humanity, the latter confi nes 

    us to the small niche of partisanship.

    Partly due to intellectual laziness, 

    mainly a consequence of ideological fealty; 

    a lot of what goes around as History is as 

    an exercise in intellectual Knighthood. 

    Such a history cannot be read through 

    and through. It must be made certain 

    that it is neither read well, nor read wide. 

    Rather, it is understood through snip-

    pets – ill devised screenshots of the past, 

    that cherry-pick premises, for foregone 

    conclusions. Were I a Sports Historian, 

    writing biographies of great players, with 

    extraordinary careers and many a record, 

    but bent on to write only about the games 

    they did not score - while factually true, 

    my work would be contextually horren-

    dous. This reading of history, as stale as 

    it sounds, is a fairly common occurrence. 

    With extreme ease, snipping our way 

    through history, Gandhi can be proved a 

    fascist and Hitler a pacifist, marauders as 

    heroes and heroes as villains. For people 

    in active political life for half a century, 

    for intellectuals with thousands of publi-

    cations, for civilizations with hundreds 

    of years under their belt; snipping is as 

    easy, as it is horrible. Put to use by the 

    protagonists of a particular narrative, it 

    is also often amplified as an official doc-

    trine, with the twin whips of blasphemy 

    and sedition, at constant disposal. With 

    his usual brilliance, George Orwell, 

    in 1984, epitomizes it thus: 

    Who controls the past, controls the 

    future, who controls the present controls 

    the past.

    A reading of history as it is, and not as 

    we wish it to be. History, wherein provi-

    dence does not take any particular inter-

    est in my herd – which is the common 

    heritage of humankind; is a panacea to 

    many an evil confronting the world. My 

    people, right under the heavens, centre 

    of creation, founders of every good that 

    we have hitherto seen, sometimes falter-

    ing from envious enemy conspiracies, in 

    an otherwise infallible civilization - is an 

    obsolete fabrication that we must bid fare-

    well. As humans, fi rst and last, all history 

    is our history, its successes are ours and 

    its failures are on us. The common bond of 

    humanity shall ever evade us if history is 

    made to serve ulterior motives and perform 

    the work of polemical cannons. History, 

    read well and wide, on the other hand, shall 

    surely make us acquire what Bertrand Rus-

    sell terms as, Citizenship of the intellectual 


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