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Truth and History: Historical Truth and Historical Narrative

Historians/History
tags: international relations, narrative, Objectivity



Yoav Tenembaum is a lecturer in the Diplomacy Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. He obtained his doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University and his master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University. He did his BA in History at Tel Aviv University. His work has been published in journals, magazines and newspapers in the United States, Britain, Israel, Argentina and other countries.

Is there such a thing as objective truth in history? Is history a compilation of narratives advanced by different groups and nations? The influence wielded by historical narratives on international relations is such as to make it imperative to define conceptually the terms concerned and dwell, albeit briefly, on a few cases. 

Historical truth is objective by its very nature. It is there, so to speak, to be discovered and unearthed. Certainly, there may be occasions in which the truth cannot be discovered. However, the inability to discover the truth does not negate its objective existence. In this context, a distinction ought to be drawn between Historical truth and interpretation. The first is objective and the latter is subjective. The first refers to a fact, which can be determined as true, at least in principle, by empirical study, whereas the latter entails an explanation of the fact in question. To be sure, the lack of historical truth may lead to an act of inference, accompanied by interpretation, designed to assess what the truth might have been. 

Thus, “narratives”, a commonly-used catch-phrase, to afford legitimacy to historical interpretations are, at best, an attempt at explaining historical events from a subjective perspective. Their importance resides in the influence they wield in shaping the perception of reality by groups or nations. Narratives may determine historical truth insofar as they describe the perception of groups or nations as they exist objectively, but the historical veracity of the facts which those narratives depict do not derive necessarily from them.   They may be objectively true or false. 

This is not to belittle the importance of historical narratives. Their emotional impact may determine the manner by which decision-makers interpret the external environment in which they operate, and make decisions affecting the group or nation they represent. 

Still, historical narratives are not a synonym for historical truth. However powerful historical narratives may be in shaping the actions of a certain group or nation, they do not, per se, reflect historical truth. A historical narrative may be based on historical truth, but to believe that historical truth may not be objectively determined and thus one is left only with historical narratives is to confuse the objective existence of truth with its subjective interpretation. 

The assumption that the subjective interpretation of history is automatically rendered into a historical truth on account of its historical impact is clearly wrong.  

We can witness the effects of historical narratives on the nature of contemporary international relations. 

Suffice us to glance at the differing narratives by the Turks and the Armenians of the Armenian Genocide and their effects on international relations. Indeed, the term “Armenian Genocide” is part and parcel of the fierce dispute between the two sides about the events surrounding the murder of around one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, starting in 1915. While the Armenians contend that the Ottoman Turks perpetrated a well-prepared and thought-out act of genocide, the Turks argue that the Armenians were a hostile element within the Ottoman Empire and that the events concerned reflected a violent conflict between two contending sides, and not an organized effort at genocide. Any attempt by a third party to recognize the Armenian Genocide is immediately followed by strong protests by the Turkish Government.  Governments and parliaments assess the pros and cons of recognizing the Armenian Genocide on the basis not only of moral but also of pragmatic considerations as to its effect on bilateral relations with Turkey. 

The differing accounts by the Palestinian Arabs and the Israelis about the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a further example of historical narratives that still wield a strong influence on the character of an international conflict.  Thus, for instance, the Palestinian Arabs refer to the events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel as a Nakba, or Catastrophe in Arabic,  leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their homes, whereas the Israelis stress the refusal of the leadership of the Palestinian Arabs to accept the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which could have led to the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state alongside Israel, and their subsequent decision to launch an all-out attack against the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, followed by an attack by the Arab countries against the newly-established State of Israel.  For the Palestinian Arabs the establishment of Israel led to the Nakba; for the Israelis, the Nakba was the result of the refusal of the Palestinian Arabs to accept a compromise solution and the decision to launch an all-out attack, without which there would have been no war and no refugee problem. 

A further example relates to the tensions prevailing between Russia and Poland about the events surrounding the start of the Second World War and the role played by the Soviet Union in it. Russia stresses the role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany and liberating Poland from the yoke of German occupation, while Poland puts as much emphasis on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 1939, which stipulated that Poland would be divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For Poland, the Soviet Union was as much a liberator as an oppressor. 

Historical narratives may reflect historical truth or not. Their aim is not necessarily to ascertain what actually happened in the past, but to justify what happens in the present. Narratives are important to understand the attitudes that form part of the decision-making process of the sides involved in an international dispute. A clear distinction ought to be drawn between historical narratives as a tool to comprehend the mind-setting behind the positions adopted by the sides concerned, and historical truth as such. The historical narrative of one side may reflect historical truth more than the historical narrative of the other. Indeed, in general, one may be subjective and right. Still, conceptually, the two are not necessarily related. Historical truth stands alone, in its own right. Historical narratives may reflect historical truth, but, however influential they may be in historical and contemporary parlance, they occupy a separate place.  


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