What Are a Historian’s Most Important Skills?

The purpose of history (at least according to Leopold von Ranke) is ‘to show how things actually were’. There is much debate about the exact meaning of this phrase – does it provide a warrant only for literalism and the stating of fact, or does it give license, for example, for historians to write about how the past was in essence? – but much of the central tenets of Ranke’s own empirical history have been broadly accepted. What is not so concrete, however, is the question of what skills and traits a historian ought to exhibit. After all, it takes a certain skill to write empirically, and it takes a certain knack to assemble facts into the form of historical writing, but true skill in the writing of history is something less easy to define; it contains something higher, something nobler – and something infinitely more subjective. But the best historians – in short, those who master both substance and style – can achieve something greater than the result of Ranke’s rather prosaic observation; their works can contain and aspire to the literary – and they can attract the permanence of true art in the process.

There is a lot of stake, then, in determining what it is that makes truly ‘good history’ and what, therefore, determines a ‘good historian’ by the same token.

A historian must first be able to marshal his or her evidence. In Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, the author notes that, as well as the sheer scale of scholarship relating to his question, there is also a great deal of bias in some of the documentation. Official war records, such as the German Die Grosse Politik – a 57-volume work containing ’15,889 documents organised in 300 subject areas’ – ‘w[ere] not prepared with purely scholarly objectives in mind’. With such volume and partiality in evidence, then, it is a difficult task to compile any work of history which does not follow well beaten tracks and pre-scripted perspectives. As the author himself said in a lecture I attended, ‘I was asked the question: with thousands of books on the origins of the First World War already out there, why do we need another?’

The answer to that, and a further skill required by a historian, is originality. This need not necessitate revisionism, but it does require a freshness of outlook, or a new direction in which to research and write. Without dynamism, new ideas, perspectives and outlooks, history as a field of study would ossify and stagnate. Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, which received a not unmixed reception in academic circles upon initial publication, is a prime example of this. One of Ferguson’s boldest contentions was the suggestion that Britain needed not have fought in the First World War and that the war in question would have had a radically different outcome had Britain not participated. The originality and uniqueness of this argument – which served to contradict directly much of received British wisdom about the war itself and its moral significance – was able to stoke further debate in an already contentious field of study. In addition to this, Clark’s own argument – which stresses both the primacy of the individual in the run up to war and the effect of larger, more impersonal forces – runs contrary to ideas which stress only the nature of alliance systems or the doings of European empires in this period as the proximate causes of war.

With the inclusion of different perspectives, history can become more about the formation of interpretation than the laying out of facts. This may seem to run contrary to Ranke’s famous description of the work of the historian, but it need not be – or at least necessarily. The way we comprehend the past is not simply a matter of historians putting events into the slots rightfully accorded to them; they must, in addition to selecting them for importance, also make sense of those events. E. H. Carr famously decried certain schools of history which relegated historians to mere compilers of information; Carr suggested also that this attitude exemplified what he termed to be a ‘nineteenth century fetishism of facts’. In any case it is not a truly modern stance to have; and even the ancients avoided such tedious and obscure work. Herodotus added sections to what later became his Histories to appeal to those in different cities who would come to his lectures. Without that dash of interpretation, argument and even populism, the end result would not have been rendered as idiosyncratically – and engagingly – as his work turned out to be.

Moreover, every book – whether of history or not – must contain a narrative. Without narrative, works cannot be completed, and ideas cannot be communicated in anything other than the most unsatisfactory fashion. Clark creates a grand, sweeping narrative. It takes in 19th century European irredentism, turn of the century continental antagonism, and zooms in, amid the chaos of the July Crisis of 1914, to document the final slide into what Lloyd George called ‘the abyss’ of war. Clark possesses both scope and subtlety, and he crafts his writing elegantly. Within this narrative, he has time to focus on the individual, to give the people at the heart of events agency – an aim he sets out in the Introduction.

There is also a matter of style. A historian must ensure that his or her works are to some degree accessible. Some literary sensibility in aid of communication – or even in pursuit of style for its own sake – is also therefore necessary. Edward Gibbon and later Lord Macaulay penned ringing, sonorous sentences, polished and crafted and shaped to perfection, in aid of achieving their historical objectives. Clark manages his himself in his summation, which contains a concluding sentence of uncommon beauty: ‘In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world’. As one hopes will be discerned from the above extract, such effort is never wasted.

History is an unusual academic discipline in that it attempts to explain everything. Other fields of study do too, of course, but they are less earthy, elemental – less humane. As a very great teacher once said to me: ‘History is the house in which all other subjects live’. It contains the very foundation stones of all human accomplishment, as well as the darker, more desperate and more degrading periods of our existence. It cannot, therefore, be treated flippantly; and it must not be attempted without serious consideration. Doing history right, therefore, is fundamental and essential to human progress. If we do it right, perhaps we will all be permitted to advance.