The seduction of history

Maps, or atlases, are seductive objects once printed on paper or presented on a three-dimensional globe, especially when combined with the study of history in what we call a historical atlas. Many readers will no doubt recall the excitement of leafing through such a book as a child. Different features are given different colours, and we soon start to see patterns and look for more. Just through looking at the page for some country, if we know about its history we think we understand what is going to happen in the future. This temptation has existed for as long as Mankind has had good maps at his disposal. The logic is expressed in deterministic statements like Napoleon's La politique d'un État est dans sa géographie, "The politics of a nation is in its geography", meaning: just by looking at a map we can tell what a country's policy must be. Mankind has gone to war on such deterministic assumptions for as long as there have been maps, even when these were just scratches in the earth. Leaders have wearied themselves with contemplation of how powerful their ancestors used to be, how much land they have lost, forgetting or refusing to see that there may have been good reasons for the alteration of borders.

A just distribution of land and natural resources cannot be based solely on how things used to be. There are often good reasons to justify reallocation of resources. To take an recent example, when Germany was reunited, many West Germans insisted on their right to reclaim property in East Germany based on prewar ownership, disregarding the fact that East Germans had created lives for themselves at the place in question in the mean time. In the end these issues were resolved by law, but specifically by West German law, since West Germany had bought back its former territories and not vice versa. Large investments were made in East Germany to compensate, but these did not benefit everyone, and particularly not those who had been active members of the Communist party. Many people with party affiliations lost their jobs, at the universities and in the public sector. A whole generation of workers were humiliated, and many became bitter as a result.

Historical facts are frequently used as arguments for going to war or for defending unjust actions. Every smooth-tongued orator knows which historical references to select to support his own arguments and which ones to ignore, just as he knows which statistics to include and which to omit, or how to display a graph, for instance by showing a short or a specially favourable time interval.

The study of history is one of the more exact sciences relating to human life. The normative nature of the methodological problem lies not in the discipline itself, but in an individual's choice of certain historical facts, or, more frequently, in the omission of others, and in the interpretation of consequences when an analyst assumes that the future will be like the past. In other words, a critique of the historical method should be directed not so much to the study itself as to its use or misuse.

To take another example, relating to the history of Anglo-German relations, if we want to defend the Allied policy of retaliation at the end of the Second World War we might point out that the great cultural cities of Germany (notably Dresden) were bombed because of the cruelties committed by Nazi Germany, such as their bombings of London and Coventry in England earlier in the war. But whether or not retaliation can be defended is another question.

With respect to Franco-German relations, if we want to defend the German aggression against France we might argue that Nazism was the result of the dire social situation in Germany in the 1920's and 1930's, created by the Treaty of Versailles which Clemenceau forced on Germany (the Americans were very much against it, believing that it would turn the Germans into slaves of debt for generations). If we want to defend the Treaty of Versailles we might say that it was a response to the treaty which Bismarck imposed at that same place after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; and so on. From one point of view we are dealing with chains of cause and effect; but from another point of view it is a matter of inclusion and exclusion (in other words, selection) of historical facts, and of our pre-selected perspective.

Chains of cause and effect in the social sciences are a tricky matter which in the end become a question of degrees of truth, which are always difficult to measure. They are seldom either-or issues. Instead we find ourselves having carefully to hedge our statements with words like "most", "some", "always", "seldom", etc. Use of numbers and quantifiable measures allows us to be more precise, but this is also riskier and potentially misleading. The more refined the measurement, the greater the chance of error. Thus we prefer e.g. a five-point Likert scale to percentages. Even then many will question how it is possible to say that a certain event is a four or a five, so that ultimately it is the reasoning behind the number that interests us, not the numbers in themselves.

Some problems are easier to solve than others. In the case of bombings of civilian targets in Germany by the British and other Allied forces at the end of the war, they can argue that Germany started the war, with the invasion of Poland, even though that does still not solve the moral question about retaliation.

In the Franco-German relationship we would have to go much further back in time to find the root cause, to the first major conflicts between these nations. In many cases we have to go so far back that any clear relationship of cause and effect will be meaningless. The example of Germany's borders is well-known. A map of Germany in 1919 will show that it then possessed the greater part of Poland and the city now called Kaliningrad, which used to be Königsberg, the home of Germany's greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant. After the First World War Germany had to concede parts of this territory to Poland and Alsace-Lorraine to France. These "losses" fuelled Germany's ambition to regain "its'" territory. A feeling of injustice quickly built up. There are still many in Germany today who hold that the country has a right to reclaim the territories conceded after Yalta in August 1945 and Potsdam in July-August 1945 (namely Silesia, part of Pomerania, and East Prussia). This may seem fair if maps of the foundation of the German Bund and the Prussian-German Empire (1866-71), or maps of 1919 or 1939, are accepted as a reference point. The problem of course is who should decide what maps and historical starting point are to be used. If we chose a map reflecting the situation in the ninth or tenth centuries, we would find the German border following a line close to the course of the Elbe river, from Hamburg to Magdeburg and Halle. Lübeck became German only in the fourteenth century. If that map is taken as a reference point, then the German people have come out of the territorial struggle with their eastern neighbours pretty well today. We could even further back in time, of course, but then any comparison to an existing group of people becomes virtually unusable for a cause-and-effect type of argument. Thus, at one time Celtic tribes inhabited what later became German territories, and they were forced westward, eventually to Britanny and the British Isles. Today the descendants of these people are mostly found in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Should they make a claim on Germany today? Most of us would treat that idea as absurd. Not that the Celts have any intention of reclaiming Continental Europe; but it illustrates a problem with the use of historical arguments where there is a long history to consider. We all come ultimately from somewhere else, and our borders and conditions are changing continuously, making appeal to historical references often very problematic.

The historical method in science - often referred to in France as the memoire longue - is often applied on the assumption that the future will be like the past. Most will agree that is true to some extent, history does sometimes repeat itself. But because it is true only to a certain extent, because there is always an important element of change in human behaviour, the historical method cannot be used as the only method. The question is instead how to identify, measure, and account for changes.

The consequences of assuming lack of change have been catastrophic for mankind throughout history. We only have to think of all the horrible surprises men have experienced in wars when the enemy adopted a novel weapon technology, for instance what the first knight must have thought when his armour was pierced by an arrow from an English longbow. He was supposed to be invulnerable. Not only did he discard his heavy armour in preparation for the next battle, but he had also to breed a whole new type of warhorse, making them faster and more agile. Or to take another example, relying solely on the historical method would imply that if we have fought wars with a neighbouring country a given number of times in the past, then we should expect to do so again in the future. This would mean for instance that Norway should be preparing for an attack by its friendly neighbour Sweden. From the perspective of the historical method - even based on statistical analysis - this makes perfect sense. The problem is that the method does not account for the changing relations between these countries over the past century, encouraged by new social and economic developments. If we suggested to the Norwegian military command today that they ought to prepare for an attack by Sweden, they would probably think us mad. Nevertheless the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, if only because these two countries share a common border and inhabit the same peninsula.

Taking another scenario from the same area of the world: the fact that the Vikings plundered, raped, and killed people living on the coasts of Western Europe a thousand years ago does not mean that the descendants of those people need to prepare for such attacks today.33 On the contrary, one would hope that many would agree that the ethnic group which used to be seen as the most violent in all Europe in roughly the period from AD 700 to 1200, namely the Scandinavians (i.e. Vikings), are today one of the more peace-loving sets of people.34 There are many reasons for this change. Broadly speaking we might say that it was the result of an abrupt change of values, with the shift from Nordic mythology to Christianity. For instance, the old Nordic belief was that a man should seek honour through the use of his sword, much as we see today in the more extreme, jihadist forms of Islam. If a Viking managed to die with his boots on, he was assured of a place at table with the gods in Valhalla. Among jihadists there is a similar promise which involves many virgins. Nordic mythology created a warrior culture that encountered no equals before the Seljuks moved into Turkey. But there are other, more important reasons why the British no longer fear the Scandinavians. For one thing, scandinavians have become more civilized through continuous improvements in fields such as law, education, infrastructure, and economic prosperity (all of which are inter-related). Cultural evolution thus seems to be the solution for many of our historical problems. It is important to bear this in mind when we pass judgment on cultures today.

Geopolitics has always been inclined towards the historical method, but it also takes the evolutionary perspective, which as we have seen is the foundation of its solution to the methodological problem. Historical method without the evolutionary perspective is a potentially dangerous tool, frequently leading us to the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately, coexistence between the evolutionary perspective and the social sciences ceased abruptly, and some would argue prematurely, after the Second World War. To some extent this shift away from evolutionary theory had begun much earlier, around the turn of the nineteenth century. During the ninetieth century the evolutionary perspective was a well established approach among scholars. One of the most important centers for this school of thought was the interdisciplinary group at the University of Leipzig, including the zoologist and geographer Friedrich Ratzel, the historian Karl Lamprecht, the economists Karl Bucherand Wilhelm Roscher, the philosopher and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, and the chemist and Nobel prize-winner Wilhelm Ostwald.35 These men were the first academic group to take the implications of Charles Darwin's discoveries seriously as applied to the study of Man. Then, following the Second World War, the direction of social science research was hastily altered, as the new academic establishment shifted to another and completely different scientific paradigm. The new social sciences sought to find a methodological home closer to the field of physics and the discipline of mathematics36. These latter disciplines were highly successful, so it was supposed that they would be good models for the study of Man as well. In any case, Darwin was never very popular among social thinkers in the USA (and still is not, outside the natural sciences). Apart from these considerations, the US required a distinctive scientific paradigm of its own, something that could reflect its new status as superpower.

The revolutions we are witnessing today within the biological sciences have brought Darwin and evolutionary thinking back to the heart of biology, medicine, and the study of living organisms in the natural sciences. In view of the shortage of meaningful results from the brave new social sciences, it has become increasingly difficult to continue in the present methodological direction without seriously questioning this lack of success. Why should the study of Man be any different from the study of any other living organisms, unless of course (as is always an option) we choose to study Man from the perspective of moral philosophy? To do that seems to present an obvious problem about deciding which (whose) morality to use. But if we look closer, we find that our existing social-science methodology is no different in that respect. At its core lies the same moral choice. The difference is that neoclassical economics tries to hide it, pretending to be value-neutral.

The evolutionary perspective and also the historical method seem to have been dropped too early at our universities and, more important, dropped for the wrong reasons. The multidisciplinary approach of cultural studies (Kulturwissenschaft) and the humanities or moral sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), as defined by David Hume and later by the German historian and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, still merit our attention. The demonizing of past German social-science research by an academic establishment dominated by English-speaking scholars (on which see e.g. Smith 1991) is likely to fade away as two postwar generations of scholars advance into senior positions at our universities.

The main reason for that has less to do with the arguments against such demonization than because it conflicts with Asian values. The situation is likely to change as Asian, and particularly Chinese, leaders discover how Western social sciences deny them the right to preserve and defend their own values based on collective thinking. For the West it will become increasingly difficult to explain how our social sciences can be said not to be political. As an exercise, it is instructive to check the number of political-science articles about China on the ISI Web of Knowledge Social Science Citation Index which are negative about the Chinese government, and on what grounds.

Despite these issues, evolutionary theory is not likely to be integrated with the social sciences until another generation or two has passed, at the earliest. The reasons are not primarily scientific, but political. That is the time needed for the passing of a ruling generation reflecting world views formed by the Cold War. It is also the time needed for China to surpass the US as the leading economy, and for an Asian scientific paradigm to take shape and impose itself on the world.

The seduction of current events

The seduction of current events can be as threatening as the seduction of history. Politicians and their foreign policies, particularly in the Western democracies, are frequently influenced by stories running in the mass media, which often ignore historical facts. One example is current Swedish military policies towards Russia. After the Cold War, the threat of a Russian invasion was perceived as less immediate, and there was a considerable down scaling of military presence on the eastern front. Then when Russia invaded South Ossetia this policy was seriously questioned, and politicians largely reverted to their former position. To a large extent that was the result of mass-media coverage of what happened in Georgia. Some would say that the risk of Russian aggression had been the same all along, that the Russian foreign-policy position had not changed that much - and more importantly that the Russian character and Russian values have been the same all along, so that no change of direction should have been expected. It was only the events in Georgia which seemed to show that their intentions had altered. Clear geopolitical analysis would have revealed this, and indeed it did; but politicians in democracies are continually forced to respond to moods on the part of the general public, even with respect to military defence.

The fact that we have identified a number of methodological pitfalls does not mean that we can always hope to avoid them. More important, the fact that our methodology can on occasion lead to false conclusions must not be allowed to lead to an intelligence culture that shuns speculation. An over-cautious approach to intelligence is potentially more dangerous than one that is too crude, simply because what can be known for certain is always only a fraction of what can be known. To draw a parallel from economics, very few economists come out with predictions of major changes or crises. Yet such things occur, indeed they occur repeatedly. But what is excused in the case of economics, because people forget or fail to keep economists responsible by defining their expectations, is less acceptable in the study of intelligence, because this often deals with life-or-death questions.

There is a fine balance to be drawn between drawing conclusions too readily from unreliable methods, and not reaching any conclusions at all because the methods are unreliable. Any methods will always be deficient in some respect when it comes to the study of Man, but they will improve - through discussion of methodological problems, and through application of more advanced technologies. What must be avoided at all cost is group-think. No social mechanism fosters group-think like the mass media. To make things worse, employees of an organization learn to think in the same way as one another, to the point where new ideas become a function of recruitment. Intellectual work of real value comes about when someone thinks differently. That means questioning conventional wisdom. There is no better way to steer away from conventional wisdom and current events than to become engaged with history and to read the writings of long-forgotten scholars.

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