When is History History?: It Never Ends

History is never ending. An event, frozen in time, never really is frozen. History is never history. It is always alive. It continues to grow and change despite some wanting to let it lay. This holiday weekend finds history alive and well in the United States. Steven Spielberg’s recent movie Lincolnis a tour de force for actor Daniel Day Lewis. But at its core, the movie is the ever evolving story of history. New scholarship, new documents, new points of view, a letter here, a new found diary there, and new interpretations lead to a vibrant investigation of the past to shed light on the present for the future. History is never stagnant. Ever.

Spielberg giving direction in the balcony of the House of Representatives for the movie Lincoln

In my own life, I have come to revile claims of “revisionist history.” All history is revisionist. This is what history does. History is not just a recording of past events and dates. There are points of view to be recorded; multiple ones taken from many different people. A look at the Civil War doesn’t include just the northern white man’s view. There are dozens of viewpoints about the events of that conflict from Copperheads to slaves to southern women to freedmen to Native American to slave owners to abolitionists to conservatives to radical republicans and many more. In the case of the movie Lincoln, the movie explores some of these including the staff in the White House and the telegraph office. But the main view of the movie is how President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of all these points of view, forged ahead to get the 13th Amendments through the House of Representatives before the end of the war.

New Stuff Has to Come To Light
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how John Chambers, Tony Mendez, and others helped get six Americans out of Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. This information was never released until 20 years after the fact. I found it surprising the CIA released the new of how the escape took place considering the current state of affairs with Iran. However, the incident is just one way in which new information changes how we look at the past. Originally, the Canadian government took credit for the rescue, but now things have changed. And that is history. It is not stagnant.

For the past few years, in addition to my teaching of history, I have had to teach a section of Language Arts in my small rural school. I integrated the literature section of the class to read stories having to do with what was being learned in the history class. For World War II, we started reading the play about the Diary of Anne Frank. In addition to reading the play, the students investigate online concentration camps and together as a class, we learn about Auschwitz. In recent years, there has been a focus on the everyday German’s role in the Holocaust. In doing some research the past few years, other roles in the Holocaust have emerged as photo albums of Germans in control of the camps emerged. It is a staggering portrayal of not only how events and their perceptions can change with new evidence. The scrapbooks portray the Germans in ways unimagined. The story of how the album came to be is here.

The US Government controls the biggest repository of information that has yet to see the light of day. Presidential documents are about 50 years behind. The Kennedy Assassination still has over 50,000 pages of material that has yet to be released. Sometimes National Security plays a role in their release. At other times, the living may not want to see it nor want it seen. Take President Harry Truman, for example. While alive, his presidency was not seen as a success by historians of the time period. But over the course of the past 60 years, hindsight has changed how Truman’s actions played out. Documents were released which showed Truman to be tough as nails. Historians, due to the release of such evidence now rate Truman higher for his time as President.

Truman’s response to a Joseph McCarthy telegram

History is always going to be filled with such tidbits. Sometimes, these tidbits are in the hands of archivists, the government, or locked away in someone’s basement or attic. History can be buried and unearthed even thousands of years after an event. For when these tidbits come to life, we see things in a new light and have a new appreciation for the past. You never know about history. And I hope that never changes.