This is a guest post by Emilia. Enjoy!
James has visited one of America’s founding myths – the just war – already so why not take down another while we are at it? There is one that is rarely questioned because it gives us a convenient and simple narrative for… basically everything that has ever happened. There is one thing that (we think) explains who and what we are today: the actions of great men.
It is the notion that “great men make history” and it is a notion we encounter on a regular basis when we learn about American presidents, read about great generals, charismatic leaders, and influential thinkers. This line of thinking is very common in popular history books that tend to present history by focusing on those great leaders. It is hard to imagine a book on the Revolutionary War without a focus on George Washington or a History Channel special on the Civil War that is not heavily featuring Abraham Lincoln.
The myth probably ties in with another common myth: that of the lone hero of American (hyper-)individualism. Americans like to think that one man alone… can make it.
It is not just America, though. To give you the prime European example: sometimes it feels like there are more books about Hitler himself than there are on National Socialism as a movement. And it seems so natural because he was the movement’s charismatic leader. He invented it… or did he?
Does focusing on one person really explain why the Nazi dictatorship happened? Is Hitler the explanation for the Shoah?
Spoiler: It is more complex.
Fascist ideologies existed before Hitler and indeed even before Mussolini. You can trace the roots of fascism and find elements in Italian futurism but also in the “fin-de-siecle”-mood of the 1880s that was based on a revolt against rationality, materialism and positivism. The movement was against urban rationality and the rise of individualism. Its condemnation of rationalistic individualism eventually ended up being the basis for the Nazi construct of a “Volksgemeinschaft” (an ethnic social and political collectivity) in which the individual human being takes a subordinate role to the ethnic collective.
Now this is not going to be a piece on National Socialism but there is an important lesson to take away from this: political movements do not generally come into existence because “important men” invent them. They are usually products of schools of thought or earlier movements, and are part of existing structures and long-duration processes.
Mussolini was not the first fascist just like Lincoln was not the first man condemn slavery. They were both part of a society in which the foundations for these concepts were already laid.
What is it that shapes history if not the actions of famous (or infamous) men?
In short: Many things. But let us have a look at a small selection of important factors.
1. Long-term structures – the longue durée.
Just as much as people focus on great men, they like to focus on big events in history. That is ultimately why people think that learning the dates of important events by heart is something a historian should be doing.
Ever since the French Annales School of historiography came up with the concept of “longue durée” historians have been looking not at events but at structures that exist and evolve over long periods of time. It is these structures and their development that can explain history, not some single event that is merely a result of structural changes.
The concept was developed when historians lost interest in political history (which at the time was often mostly written as the actions and biographies of great men) and instead started focusing on social and economic history. Both social and economic history are shaped by long-term structures and trends. To cite an obvious example: “Industrialization” is one of those long-term processes that shaped the history of more than a century. It is central to the understanding of the development of politics (many Western party systems are a direct result of industrialization), political thought (Marx anybody?), in labour organization, wealth, income equality, public health, the development of urban and rural areas, education… and so much more.
In order to understand history we need to understand these long-term structures and processes. Industrialization was just one longue durée phenomenon. The concept of feudalism is another that shaped European society and history for hundreds of years. It is vital to understand feudalism and its development to understand the social, economic but also political history of the Middle Ages.
Yet… you will find people reading books about Barbarossa or Henry VIII. And it is obviously much sexier for cable TV to name a show The Tudors and focus on Henry’s unlucky women instead of producing Feudalism Explained – the Social History Show.
2. Historical contingency or as non-historians call it: “Shit happens.”
Simple coincidence is one of the most important drivers of historical change even though we do not like to admit it. We like to believe that we can change history or at least exert some control over what happens. But sometimes things just happen by pure chance.
The easiest example for bad luck making history are natural disasters. They can destroy armies, make empires starve or just randomly kill one of the “great men” people are so fond of talking about. What if Alexander the Great had not contracted that fever? What if the Spanish Armada had not run into some really nasty case of bad weather?
Social sciences often use the term “path dependence” to illustrate how your set of options when faced with a decision is always constrained by the decisions you made in the past.
Remember that girl who gave you her phone number two weeks ago? You decided not to call her and that most likely cancels the option of calling her now should you have changed your mind. The train has passed, I am sorry. Path Dependence just ruined your sex life.
Having your own past decisions determine your current options can be pretty annoying. What is even more annoying is that it is not just your own decisions but also completely random events that can influence your options. You have no control over the weather. You have no control over your pet’s health. So even if the only reason you did not call that lovely young woman was that you were too busy caring for your sick dog… pure chance still made sure that the girl met the love of her life 2 days after she decided not to wait for your call anymore.
The same happens in history. All the time.
If only Rasputin had called back…
3. Resilient constructs
Now where have you read that term before? It is true, resilient constructs shape history. One resilient construct that can shape history is “culture,” another is “mentality.” Resilient constructs are constructs because they are not tangible. They are products of people’s minds but they are very real.
Constructivism has taught us that there is no one objective reality. Reality is subjective, a construct shaped by individual perception and experience. It is how we see and interpret the world based on the way we think and what we have seen before. Constructs are powerful even if they are fundamentally flawed. If enough people believe that the Earth is flat, it will have a tangible influence on society and its way of doing things.
Culture, mentality, regional or national identity… all these are powerful constructs that determine how a society develops, how it deals with shocks, disruptive events and changes. Another thing they have in common is the fact that they are usually way more important to the understanding of history than the actions of great men are.
It’s a complex world
So what explains the Shoah? Long-term structures and concepts like antisemitism, the development and the rejection of modern rationality, a culture and mentality that was open to right-wing poison… and so much more.
But why oh why do we still talk about “great men” so much?
I could as well have written “great white men” because that is who much of both popular and scientific historiography has focused on for a long time. Incidentally it is also who wrote most of those books.
White men are obsessed with white men. Maybe it is reassuring to think that “one person can make a difference.” Maybe it makes us believe that we, too, can make a difference and be relevant.
The “one person makes history” myth is probably never going to die but maybe that person’s skin color or gender might matter less in the future. Whitey had a good run.
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