Still, Joll’s point is an important reminder to historians not to get too caught up in overt and material explanations, as well as to recognize the limits of written evidence when trying to assess the causes of human action. This stance is complementary to the point I made a few weeks ago (“All the Causes We Cannot See,” 120823) about how a focus on human agency blinds us to the physical environment within which people act. Similarly, trying to understand mentality (both individual or cultural) based on what is written, risks being superficial and doesn’t comport with what each of us knows about our own motivations and beliefs.
Historians are on much safer ground sticking to documents and data that are verifiable and can fit neatly into footnotes (although this is hardly insulated from critique and controversy). We’re not trained as psychologists and what commonly passes for psychological analysis and understanding is at least contestable, if not dubious. This is not, therefore, a call for any definitive long-distance diagnostics. It’s hard enough to understand someone with whom you’ve spent decades. Understanding “assumptions” and motivations in someone who grew up in another culture and another era is an order of magnitude more challenging. Many ears ago, I read “In Search of Nixon,” by the MIT History Prof. Bruce Mazlish. It was subtitled “A Psychohistory,” and struck me, even back then as more an experiment than a serious historical effort.
Pop psychology and Freudian knock-offs present further illusions. Did Hitler’s rejection by a Viennese art school spur his rejection of modern art once he was in a position to do something about it? How did the psychosexual insecurities of a certain recent former President affect his position on men with “little hands” or on women and their rights more broadly? How much did prior leaders and thinkers summarily dismiss the potential or ideas of a woman because of their sex?
But, at the same time, we can’t pretend that Joll’s unspoken assumptions don’t matter. There is a smattering of evidence that Kaiser Wilhelm II’s insecurities—both physical deformities and envy of this British cousins (he was Queen Victoria’s eldest Grandson, after all)—contributed to his brash diplomacy and Germany’s early 20C effort to compete with the British Royal Navy for maritime clout.
But, overall, a large amount of history is forever beyond the reach of archive/evidence-bound historians. In my own work on diplomatic history, I found correspondence from some far-flung representative back to the imperial capital to be a great repository of various actors’ intent. When, however, the ambassador went back to London and sat down with the Foreign Secretary, their oral conversation was rarely memorialized; so I had to infer/guess what was said. By the end of the 19C, the development of telephonic technology meant that even distant communication could happen orally and without a first-hand record. On the other hand, 20C bureaucratic practice has spawned a great volume of memoranda, documenting oral conversations and “water-cooler” chatter/decision-making. More recently, private instant messaging is designed to evaporate long before any historian could get their hands on it. “Private” correspondence and even personal diaries might be more candid, but even these are written with the expectation/fear of subsequent publication. And the more recent hyper-politicization of public discourse has increased the distance between what leaders say and what they mean, much less why they mean what they (don’t) say.
Regular readers of these commentaries have seen plenty of reasons to be wary of “History.” The “stories we choose to tell about the past” are selective, skewed, and incomplete. It’s both hard and fun to try to figure out “what actually happened.” We may fill in some gaps, come up with new analytical frameworks, and puncture old mythologies, but it’s good to recall how little we actually know.