“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
— L.P. Hartley
I don’t remember when I first heard this quote. I think it may have been during an undergrad History class. It is the opening line of a work of fiction, but it is an excellent source of perspective for the historian. It is important to remember that the past was a different place and, as difficult as it may be, we should resist the urge to impose our present day sensibilities and understandings on the people who lived then.
It is impossible not to view the past through a particular lenses of experience. Each historian has their own individual lens shaped and defined by the time and area in which they live and their personal history. The important thing is recognizing that we have a lens and understanding the influence it has on our understanding of the past.
My understanding of the First World War, for example, will be slightly different from yours. Variations will arise based on country – Canadian, French, German, British, Australian, American, etc. Generations will see the history of the war differently. I must write a different history than the first historians on the topic, and a historian writing in 15 or 20 years must write a different history than me. For that matter, I will write a different history than any of my peers.
Where am I going with this? If we forget that events happen within a specific time and place, we risk allowing our own bias to have too much influence and we risk getting things very wrong. The same thing happens if I go to a different country and expect everything to be the same as my home country. I will always look at the rest of the world through a Canadian lens, and that is fine. I gain nothing by insisting that the rest of the world look and behave exactly like my understanding of Canada. Notice I say my understanding of Canada? I gain nothing by insisting the past follow the same rules as the present.
This does not mean that we must condone past events or explain them all away as “just the way things were done.” But perhaps we can agree that a book that claimed to be a history of the First World War that focused only on explaining that the war was “wrong” or “barbaric” or “stupid” or “glorious” or “just” would give us a very skewed understanding of the events.