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A View of The Essential Concepts of Historiography in E.h. Carr’s Book

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Through What is History?, E H Carr principally suggests what he views as being the essential ideas of historiography; primarily that complete objectivity regarding History is an ‘impossibility’[1]. In writing on this subject matter, Carr challenges the previously accepted school of History, headed by Acton and Ranke, which believed that History should be written ‘objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian’[2] where the ‘facts speak for themselves’[3]. Furthermore, the book discusses what leads to the formation of an interpretation, as well as the idea that everything happens due to a cause and that nothing is a result of chance, all related to the idea that nothing in History can be objective. Ultimately, What is History?, is efficacious in achieving Carr’s aim of presenting a new interpretation on the topic of historiography; convincing the reader that this is the correct viewpoint.

E H Carr believed that when it comes to historiography, it is a necessity to ‘study the historian before you begin to study the facts’[4]. In keeping with this, it is essential to review Carr as an historian in order to review his book in terms of its usefulness and reliability. He was a British diplomat who first took up a role in the government in 1916 before becoming an historian and expert on the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1929. As a diplomat and respected historian, Carr has a credibility which allows for this book to be useful and trusted as a sensible and thought-out new interpretation on historiography, and although this is his first publication in the field of historiographical theory, this does not in any way make Carr’s interpretation any less valid or well presented.

In his book, Carr very successfully dispels the idea that History should be objective through his argument that all History is, by its nature, subjective and influenced by the historian. His reasoning is that historians, in writing about an event, have thus decided that it is worthy of being written into history and is an ‘historical fact’[5]. Carr effectively uses an example which expertly helps to demonstrate his point; this being that millions of people have crossed the Rubicon, yet the only crossing that is ‘a fact of history’[6] is that of Caesar. In addition to this, Carr claims that ‘a historian…is the product of history’[7], suggesting that historians form their interpretations as a result of the situation that history has put them in, and so will inherently have biases. Concerning objectivity, the argument being made by Carr is very clear and concise throughout, with the use of examples making clear to the reader exactly what the point being made by Carr is.

Similarly, in that it enables greater reader comprehension, What is History? is not written in what would typically be considered an academic manner. This is not to say that the book is not sophisticated and intellectual in the theory that it is explaining, but because compared to many Historical publications, E H Carr selects to use a more everyday choice of vocabulary as to allow the book to be accessible to a wider audience; both intellectuals and non-academics. This aids Carr in his aims and is effective in convincing more people that his interpretation is logically sound as non-academics can understand the basics of the argument, yet simultaneously historians can analyse the argument in a scholastic method to appreciate the reasoning behind Carr’s viewpoint.

Additionally, the succinct nature of the publication means that it is not very time-consuming to read, thus making it appeal to those looking for a clear and concise study of historiography. This fact also makes the book extremely useful to students of History as it gives a well-detailed yet not over-explained outline of historiography and the relation between historians and History.

Despite What is History? being a tremendously successful book in presenting E H Carr’s interpretation, it does have some reason for criticism. Being an expert on the Soviet Union in the decade following the Bolshevik claim of power, Carr has a tendency to often write about key Bolshevik figures from Lenin to Trotsky to Stalin. Take the following passage from the book: ‘If he were required to consider the causes of the Bolshevik revolution, he might name Russia’s successive military defeats, the collapse of the Russian economy under pressure of war, the effective propaganda of the Bolsheviks, the failure of the Tsarist government to solve the agrarian problem, the concentration of an impoverished and exploited proletariat in the factories of Petrograd, the fact that Lenin knew his own mind and nobody on the other side did – in short, a random jumble of economic, political, ideological, and personal causes, of long-term and short-term causes’[8]. This is just one example where Carr talks about the Soviet Union in depth and while this may interest some readers, it is possible that this will not be of use or interest to others and hence cause them to either stop reading or dismiss the presented interpretation.

Ultimately, E H Carr’s What is History? is a well-written and concise presentation of Carr’s interpretation of historiography, with the essential ideas being that complete objectivity in History is not possible and also that an historian’s environment influences the view and interpretations that they form. Although at times the book focusses too heavily on aspects of Russian history, its use of examples and analogies, amalgamated with the easy-to-understand vocabulary used by Carr, leads to it being a publication read by many which successfully convinces a number of the readers that his ideas are correct and sound. The final chapter of the book, suggesting that history is ever changing, was also justified in that Carr later felt the need to publish a second edition of What is History?.

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