When History Happens to you

I do not have any personal reason to study what I study. People ask me all the time, and really, I just find early modern German history interesting. That is it. Some might think this makes me more objective in my research; others probably think it makes me weird. Rodolphe Reuss, however, was Alsatian.

Rodolphe Reuss, one of the most important historians of early-modern Alsace, died in 1924. I ordered one of his books from the local library today, and instead of getting the one I wanted I got his basic Histoire d’Alsace. This may still be the standard work on Alsace. The first edition was published before World War One (the sixth edition was in 1912); later printings have continued at least through 1977, probably later. I happened to get one from 1934.

Reuss was very unhappy with the Franco-Prussian war. He cut off contact with German historians for at least some time. After the war he was the major figure in reorganizing and rebuilding the devastated library holdings, destroyed by German artillery. He was also extremely active in local Protestant circles.

Alsatian history today seems anachronistic. Germany and France are no longer going to war every generation or so hoping to get it back. The EU Parliament is in Strasbourg. It is doubly old-fashioned because many of Alsace’s first historians, many of them quite good, never got over the legalistic arguments over whether or not France really acquired it in the Treaty of Westphalia. Language borders, patois studies, and so forth contributed to arguments of who Alsace should belong to. With the decline of nationalism as a teleological endpoint to history, these sorts of studies vanish, in the sense that they are no longer used to prove one man’s point.

I became interested in a blog entry on him when, idling, I opened the book and saw the dedication. It obviously came with a new, postwar edition, because it was to his three sons. All three of them died in 1914-1915 fighting for France.

So what happens when history, the history we study, is important to us in our daily lives? I am not referring to what it would mean if my family came from Alsace. This is a case where a historian has made his whole life where he studies, including taking sides (France, although not to a propagandist level until after World War One) in a conflict over your homeland. He watches his scholarship and future scholarship burn in the flames of war, spends decades salvaging what can be salvaged, and then watching it happen again. The second time it happens, though, he’s more preoccupied with the deaths of his only sons to worry too much about the library.

I could be wrong, but I wonder if that historical knowledge makes such a situation harder to take intellectually. The historian knows the background, he knows where all the propaganda is lying, and that when the propaganda is not lying it probably does not matter; he knows the propaganda from his side is lying too. He knows that this land has already changed hands many times, with new institutions and new foreign rulers, and yet he also knows that this time, too, probably will not be the last. I do not know what Reuss himself thought, though I might be able to figure it out since I have access to some of his papers.

I think, in these circumstances, we can forgive him beginning his chapter on World War One – the War of Deliverance – with the lines “two races, two civilizations, the one resolved to dominate the world at all costs, the other determined to sacrifice everything in order to save its own independence and the liberty of nations.” (Histoire d’Alsace, 29)

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2 Responses to When History Happens to you

  1. curmudgeonlyanarchist says:

    What does it mean for history to be “important to our daily lives”? I think your example here is adequate for demonstrating importance, but it doesn’t really dissect the nature of importance. In your example, the historian has loaded the event and region he studies with meaning from multiple directions, such as the emotional bonds of family, and the ideological allegiances and prejudices of nationalism. Given that there is little break in the continuity of society from an historical event, all such events can be important to us for our daily lives. Only with the addition of information and the various value judgements we have about it will the event bear a definite importance to our daily lives.

    Using some of my historical work, if we take the development of contractual relations to the point of the bill of exchange, sometime in the middle ages, we can say that that development is enormously important to our daily lives. With this development, fiat currency, mortgages, stock offerings, and many of the financial instruments we now take for granted would be unavoidable. However, few people really care about this development, because they dont have the information to care. Typically, these sorts of instruments have had little emotional weight, yet with the current mortgage mess here in the states, one might, when looking back, be drawn to disparage this development if your house was forclosed upon.

    Returning to the Alsasian historian, his sense of nationalism, evidenced in the last quote is implicit in the events that transpired to kill his sons, who fought for “its own independence and the liberty of nations.” In much the same way, the person forclosed upon would not have had a house were it not for the same financial instrument he now disparages.

    For the historian, the emotional stains of current events must be ignored for a detatchment of himself from the subject. This does not allow the historian to avoid making judgements, however, rather he should make judgements about the efficacy of his subjects so that we may better understand them.

  2. While I was not intending to suggest that the historical development of bills of exchange is unimportant to people unless they kill your children, you do make some good points. I was just struck by the emotional overload he must have felt while writing about Alsace. Both you and I are quite detached from our historical projects, but historians (perhaps a majority) often have personal reasons to study what they study. It does not preclude “objectivity,” but I do not think Reuss is particularly anti-Germany except for the wars that happened in his lifetime, either. I was drawn to the story because he was already a historian of Alsace, and then the events happened in his life.

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