History is a discussion, not a final truth

My recent biography of Bernard Freyberg – Freyberg: A Life’s Journey – was explicitly not a military story. His career was, of course, primarily defined by his army life, from First World War action-hero to Second World War commander. But I had already written a biography of his wars and what his field actions meant for him, specifically. For the new biography I wanted to explore his life and character – the man behind the military leader.

This still meant having enough military content to give context to what was going on. Of course this had to be done from the perspective of what it meant for Freyberg. Why, in terms of his character, did he make some of the field decisions that he did? This purpose differs from that of the ‘armchair-general’ analysis of military historians, and the conceit that events somehow contain an absolute ‘final’ truth. That approach reflects, I suppose, the war college notion that battlefields can be intellectually analysed and individual decisions judged against an apparent absolute.

This is Freyberg Beach in Wellington’s Oriental Bay, named after Bernard Freyberg, who used to swim in these waters.

The funny thing is that any historical explanation – particularly to do with people – must be relative. Documentary records are often subjective: self-serving explanations written post-fact. But these, of themselves, become valuable once that purpose is understood. Why did the writer of them want to spin events in that direction? Understanding events from the viewpoint of character adds a dimension: it becomes a context in which the often fragmentary clues about any decision in the moment can be placed. And it is this – not some abstract analysis of military action – that interests me, and which was a focus in both my biographies of Freyberg.

Here, after all, was a man of curious nature: someone dismissed as ‘dim’ by some of his peers, who had the uncanny knack of being able to present himself as somehow child-like – but not childish – on first meeting. But those who got to know him soon learned that there was a razor-sharp intellect behind this persona. Aspects of Freyberg’s nature and behaviour present as being somewhere on the aspberger spectrum, although it’s hard to be definitive. At any rate, to me the issue was clear: how did this man see things, in the moment of battle? And there were questions: why was the near-defeat on Crete in 1941 so important to him that he went over the battle, time and again, with his former officers after the war? What was his intention when ordering an air attack on the monastery at Cassino in 1944?

History, as always, is a discussion. Want to know more? Check out Freyberg: a life’s journey – click to buy from the publisher, or go to any good New Zealand bookshop.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

6 thoughts on “History is a discussion, not a final truth

  1. What you say about history being a discussion makes an awful lot of sense to me. I tend to think of science in similar terms. Science is not a bunch of declarations of scientifically proven facts. It’s an ongoing conversation about how the universe works. With history, events in the past is never going to change, but our understanding of those events is going to keep shifting and changing.

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    1. That’s exactly it. Society always changes, and as time goes on we also ask new questions of the past. Into that mix is the fact that empirical data usually isn’t; this, too, has to be interrogated with proper questions to ascertain its value and worth. Even apparently literal truths such as statistics can mislead. Years back I wrote a paper for an economic journal on the impact of the Great Depression on New Zealand. I needed GDP figures for the period. Guess what – there weren’t any. It had never been collected at the time. Work since has reverse-engineered what it probably was – but there has been no single consensus, making even the numbers for New Zealand’s depression-era GDP a discussion.

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      1. That’s interesting, that they didn’t have GDP numbers for that time. On a similar vein, I remember reading something about the GDP of the Roman Empire and thinking “Where the heck did these numbers come from?”


        1. It appears this data wasn’t considered important as a measure of the economy. It was first collected for NZ in the 1970-71 FY. Similarly, CPI inflation wasn’t a measure until 1914. When I was working for NZ’s central bank I got involved in extending an inflation calculator to take account of the 1860-1914 period, for which a colleague did the heavy lifting; he collated available information and interpolated estimates for quarterly figures. I am not an expert on ancient Rome but doubt that GDP was important to them, either, as a measure; although productivity, profit and cash-flows certainly were. And in many ways GDP is not a great measure of an economy because it reduces a complex sociological phenomenon, an economy, to a single number.


  2. I very much agree. Reading through many history books, I have found that historians add a certain flavor of their own to the history as they explain it. Martin Caidin’s “Samurai” almost reads like a scifi-thriller about supermen. And, that’s interesting to know since Caidin also wrote “Cyborg” the inspiration for the TV series “The Bionic Man.” Caidin apparently went overboard with his characterization. Who is to say other historians haven’t added their own slant, their own interpretation to historical events? Imagining history as a discussion, as much as a report, makes a lot of sense.

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    1. All historians add their personal flavour, one way or another. It’s an inevitable part of the process. Some do it more than others, of course – sometimes intentionally. (My favourite example here is Winston Churchill, whose ‘The History of the Second World War’ was pretty much a self-justification). But even those who imagine that the study of history is a quest for final objective answers usually infuse those with their frameworks of thinking which – being human – must by definition be subjective. One of my favourite examples is the period in England that followed Charles II’s rift with Parliament in the early 1640s. For a while in the twentieth century historians couldn’t even agree what to call it. Was it a ‘civil war’? Was it a ‘revolution’ in the Marxist sense – and if so, how did Marxist class principles apply to early-modern pre-capitalist society, which was clearly very different from that of the nineteenth century? The debate was profoundly heated – not so much a discussion as academic fisticuffs…

      My favourite example of this sort of thing, just now, is the argument over Admiral Sir John Fisher and his intentions when developing the dreadnought and battlecruiser. That has gone through several distinct phases of interpretation: Arthur Marder set the field up, essentially, in the 1940s. But his conclusions have been questioned since – in part on new information – by so-called ‘revisionists’ such as Jon Sumida. Those ideas have, of late, also come into question. Part of the problem is that Fisher never clearly stated what he was doing, part of it that a lot of Admiralty files were dumped and burned to save space. But a large part of it is that new questions have arisen, new analytical techniques been developed – and historians are exploring them. Again, based on what I’ve read in the journals, that debate isn’t so much a polite discussion as a succession of ruthless broadsides by historians at each other’s personal competence. But hey, academia…

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