On Nationalist Historiography

Nationalist historiography is a way of looking at or studying history with the preconceived notion that a modern nation exists as a result of history, or, with the preconceived notion that history has being leading up to the existence of a modern nation. So if you are French, this means that you read and/or teach French history with the perspective that everything which occurred in the geographic area which is now France before the present happened because it was leading up to modern-day France.

I’m not picking on France here, because literally every nation/group that wants to be a nation does this. And often, they don’t even realize that they are doing it because it is a logical thing to do. People instinctively center their world view on themselves, so why shouldn’t they center their world view on their nation? The study of history is so challenging because, if you want to truly understand it, you have to have to be able to de-center yourself from your view of the world.

Image courtesy of Bill Watterson and gocomics.com

History is the study of past political, social, and economic interactions, and the effect of those interactions on subsequent events and interactions; it is like a gigantic never-ending web, and it is the job of the historian to try to understand and trace that web in really really tiny increments. If you are a proponent of nationalist historiography, then the web has an end, and all the threads were leading up to you. In erasing and discounting those other threads that didn’t lead directly up to you, you are erasing people, perspectives, lives, and interactions.

Thus, as a historian, I look at the present as a product of past interactions, and as the creator of subsequent interactions. I look at today as part of the whole; something which will grow and change and one day be as completely foreign to people as the Middle Ages are to us, and I try to base my personal actions and my political attitudes on this fact (I even succeed occasionally!). I am not naïve enough to think that everyone should, can, or will take up/aspire to this decentralized view of the world, but I do think the world would be a less violent place if they did. If that ever happens, you guys have to buy me a unicorn, okay?

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