On bias

I have recently succumbed, once again, to the curse of the history student – a fascination with the World Wars. This is an unsurprising affliction; the greatest conflicts (or conflict, if you follow Foch’s prescient comment) in human history captivate the mind in a way that no others can. I am not writing here on the wars themselves, however, rather the way they are recorded.

Having studied history to a higher level I have been repeatedly taught the value of objectivity, and need for it in professional work. This is a school of thought that I myself have had trouble coming to terms with; bias is natural, after all, and I am a personal fan of the classical histories of Greece and Rome in which the author aspires to teach lessons rather than dryly recite facts. Nonetheless, I have always tried to keep my pieces relatively neutral.

This school of thought (ironically developed largely in the post-war world) seems, however, not to apply to Nazi Germany. It has struck me profoundly in my recent readings how otherwise reputable and reserved historians will go out of their way to shower pieces on the Second World War with fervent moral condemnation in ways that one otherwise scarcely sees in academic work.

It would be expected at this point for me to say that this judgement is totally justified, and add in a few words such as ‘evil’, ‘horrific’, ‘immoral’ etc but to do so would be to undermine the point – modern academic historical work is intended to avoid such blatant bias and the use of such terms is inappropriate for anyone aspiring to academic publication.

The fact that this bias exists is understandable, and when reading for personal interest rather than research it does not disturb me, (in fact I prefer to see an opinionated author) but I find it odd that such virulent condemnation can be so supported in one field of academia but prohibited in all others. This trend will pass in time, presumably when the last generation of academics whose parents served in the wars pass on, and it will be interesting to see how much time will pass before some less prejudicial revisionist pieces arise.

As a historian I will be interested to see what pieces arise in the post-living memory world, but I can’t help but wonder whether we would be better to retain our emotional outlook on history; if only because it makes for more interesting reading.

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