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Is history fiction?

The necessity for and difficulty of finding the truth in history
Ann Curthoys & John Docker

The temptation to declare that the historian can objectively establish the truth about the past is to be resisted.The context for Is History Fiction?

What is History? asked E H Carr in his influential text of that name, first published in 1961, and reprinted endlessly since. The question we address in our book is more limited: is history fiction? Yet in asking if history is fiction, we are also seeking to explore Carr's question, what is history? Like him, we ask about problems of historical truth, the relationship between the historian and the past, and questions of fact, value, and interpretation. Yet we differ from Carr in our interest in history's literary aspects - constituted through language, narrative, metaphor, rhetoric, and allegory - and the connections we see between questions of literary form and the desire for historical truth.

The questions we address include the following.

• Can historians tell the truth about the past?

• Should history be written for the present or for its own sake?

• Is it possible to see the past in its own terms?

• Should we make moral judgements about people and actions in the past?

• Are histories shaped by narrative conventions, so that their meaning derives from their form rather than the past itself?

These are hardly new questions; indeed in our book we show how historians have always pondered the problem of historical truth, and have always markedly differed over how to achieve it. Yet the ways in which these debates are conducted varies very considerably over time, as new contexts shape the argument.

Our own book has been shaped by many present contexts. History has become a source of public debate and anxiety in many societies; differences between historians about the past have become the site for major political contestation and debate. Sometimes these are debates over alleged wartime atrocities, as in Japan (over the Nanjing massacre in China) and the United States (the Enola Gay and the bombing of Hiroshima). In other cases, it is the very foundation of the nation that is in question, as in Australia's 'history wars' over the degree of violence in the course of British settlement.

In these debates, nationalist historians seek to justify and praise the nation through a particular version of its past, while revisionist historians aim to question national historical myths through what they see as an honest coming to terms with its darker aspects. These revisionists are then themselves challenged, or revised, with conservative historians fiercely critiquing historical narratives that suggest, for example, that European settler societies were founded in violence, dispossession, cruelty and trauma for the indigenous inhabitants. Public debates in post-colonial societies have been extremely varied, ranging from the examination of the experience of the Apartheid years in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to the question of the relationship between Asian immigrants and past and ongoing Indigenous dispossession in Hawaii.

Yet another context that shaped the way our book emerged was the rise of anti-postmodernism, and its argument that the existence of the Holocaust was proof that poststructuralists and postmodernists were wrong. The argument was that postmodernists thought that anything goes, any history is as good as any other, and therefore historians who denied the Holocaust were no more incorrect than those who wrote about it. Part of the book is devoted to this question, and in particular to tracing very closely what it is that postmodernists and poststructuralists actually do say in relation to questions of truth.

We note that some cultural theorists' discussions of history and fiction do indeed come perilously close to denying the value of the discipline of history altogether. We find, for example, the work of the postmodern historical thinker Keith Jenkins to be very problematic in this respect. In Re-Thinking History (1991), Jenkins appears to give absolute primacy to the present, as if a trifle contemptuous of the past. He says the 'past can be described as an utterly 'promiscuous past', a past which will, as it were, go with anybody; a sort of loose past which we can all have; the sort of past that is, arguably, not much use having in the first place'.

The argument of Is History Fiction?

Our general argument is that the very doubleness of history - in the space between history as rigorous scrutiny of sources and history as part of the world of literary forms - gives it ample room for uncertainty, disagreement, and creativity. And perhaps this doubleness is the secret of history's cunning as a continuing practice, an always porous, shifting, inventive, self-transforming discipline. Herein lies our enjoyment of, our fascination with, our affection for, our love of, history.

This double character can be traced back to the founding moments of Western history. Herodotus was accused of being the Father of Lies as well as history, because of his apparent gullibility in relation to the sometimes fantastical stories he heard or heard of and recorded. He was also accused by Plutarch of being philobarbarous, of being malicious because he narrated so many stories that are highly critical of the Greek city-states and the Greeks in general, not even sparing democratic Athens from stories of prejudice, ignorance, cruelty, treachery and betrayal. Thucydides, in his great history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, was admired for his austere disciplined mode and for focusing on the proper subject of history, war and politics and diplomacy. But Thucydides, too, an Athenian general who had been exiled by Athens for apparently failing in a battle, was accused by Dionysius of Halicarnassus of, because of his exile, bearing a grudge against Athens and so being too severe and harsh on his home city in his narration of the war.

We argue of Thucydides' History that it exhibits a double character, that it certainly presents a highly focussed view of events, yet it is also a remarkable literary work. The narrative is cast - here we agree with Francis Cornford's 1907 book Thucydides Mythistoricus - in the form of a tragedy, of the tragic relationship between democracy and empire. The book evokes how much Athens' self-interested imperial morality in relation to management of its empire continuously descended into toleration of massacre, as in the Mytilinean debate - though Mytilene the chief city on the island of Lesbos is fortunately spared at the very last moment; and genocide, as in the appalling story of the destruction of Melos, whose people had wished to stay neutral in the war. The Athenians say to the Melians that they will destroy them if the island does not surrender and join the empire. The Melians reply that they are not prepared to give up the liberty which their city has enjoyed from its foundation 700 years before, and that if the Athenians do destroy them, they, the Athenians, will be disgraced in the eyes of history. The statesman Pericles early in the war, which he more than anyone helped initiate, had told his fellow Athenians that in the 'memory of man' hatred, the hatred of the empire's subject peoples, does not last for long: what will last for ever, Pericles assured them, is Athens' brilliance which will become the glory of the future. But in the view of Thucydides' History, what will also last for ever is the memory of the terrible consequences of Athens' desire for war and its imperial morality, or amorality.

To return to doubleness: it is an argument of our Is History Fiction? that in broad terms Herodotus and Thucydides establish for the future of historical writing two different kinds of history, modes that weave in and out of each other like an arabesque, or double helix. The Herodotean is a mode of history which is expansive and inclusive, history as sexual, erotic, religious, social, cultural, as well as political and military. The Thucydidean is a mode that is highly focused on war and the state and the interaction of states, ignoring gender and social and cultural history, and is presented in an authoritative and magisterial tone and manner. We see both modes as important in the history of historical writing, with perhaps the Thucydidean usually the more dominant, but with the Herodotean often resurging - as Mary Spongberg has so well argued in her book Writing Women's History since the Renaissance.

That's one kind of doubleness in a contrast between Herodotus and Thucydides. Another, as we argue, involves a quality that Herodotus and Thucydides share. They wrote in ways that are cosmopolitan and internationalist. They did not take fifth century classical Greece as the source of the wisdom of the ages. They did not see history as a story of progress. And their works suggest that the features of history they discern - whether it be the hubris of rulers for conquest that creates so much war and destruction, or the weaknesses of democracy as in the war-hungry demagogues like Cleon who dominated Athenian politics after the death of Pericles in the plague - are sadly recurring features of world history. In their cosmopolitanism and internationalism, Herodotus and Thucydides indicate a certain kind of historical stance that perhaps continues in the contemporary world in the critical historians who question national myths, who wish to draw attention to the atrocities committed in Nanjing or to the possibility of avoidable horror in regard to Hiroshima or to the terror and suffering wrought by colonialism. And those who were angry against Herodotus and Thucydides in antiquity for being too critical of their societies, perhaps have their equivalent in those present-day historians, so conspicuous in the History Wars, who see themselves as defending the honour of their nations and national traditions.

The postmodernism question

As we see it, a watershed moment in twentieth century and later debates about the question of truth and fiction in history occurred in the 1960s and 70s, known as the Linguistic Turn or postmodernism and poststructuralism.

We directly challenge the way many people usually understand these ideas in relation to history. It is commonly alleged of poststructuralists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida that there is no truth, that anything goes, that any interpretation is as good as any other. Foucault is accused of seeing truth as merely an effect of power. Derrida is held to argue that there is nothing outside the text, the world in effect is only a text. In arguments about the Holocaust, it has been charged by critics that Foucault and Derrida's supposed view that anything goes has led to a situation whereby Holocaust denialists like David Irving can thrive, sure in the knowledge that postmodernism has removed the intellectual grounds for opposing them, however much postmodernists themselves would personally abhor Holocaust denialism.

We strongly disagree with this characterisation of Foucault and Derrida and postmodernism. We point out that Foucault advocated what he referred to as a 'true historical sense', a form of historical writing that stresses discontinuity and disruption in the past. We also point out that Derrida explicitly opposes the view that anything goes. He calls for a rigorous reading of texts, working by strict protocols, including establishing the precise provenance of a text as a historical event. For example, in discussing Plato's Phaedrus, Derrida searches for the historical truth of Platonic thought in this particular text, and insists on the rightness of his own interpretation. Furthermore, it is clear that what he means by the phrase 'there is nothing outside the text' is not that the world outside of texts does not and did not exist - indeed, he says that past actual lives are in his own words of 'prime interest' - but that we can only investigate history through the textual traces left by the past.

Derrida certainly does call attention to how much scholarly language, including the texts of historians, are suffused with metaphors which create ambivalence and keep deferring knowledge of any final truths of history. But in the 1960s and 70s, in the moment of the Linguistic Turn, such a recognition was part of a more general shift away from previous approaches - especially away from Marxists and structuralists who downplayed the fluencies of historical relationships; and also away from a simple positivism that the past can speak for itself unaided by historians' interpretations or unaffected by the influence of urgent questions of the present. The Linguistic Turn also crossed ideological divides. We point out, for example, that Derrida's stress on the metaphoric character of scholarly language was similar to the view of the conservative American historian J.H. Hexter, well-known for his studies of Tudor England, who protested in a 1968 essay entitled 'The Rhetoric of History' that the logical positivists of his generation were trying to reduce historical writing to rigid scientific laws and to merely denotative language. Hexter suggested that historical writing has its own distinctive rhetoric which features similarity to fictive arts and language with a rich aura of connotation. Historians' narratives are not mere embroidery but are explanations, are ways of understanding and exploring the truth of the past, how and why things happened. In general in our book we argue, then, that postmodernism does not provide grounds for Holocaust denialism: on the very contrary, postmodernism in its self-awareness about how historical writing works, offers grounds for writing narratives of the Holocaust that are at once imaginative and profound.

We say in the book that 'we do indeed believe in truth and in the search for truth'. We point out that no-one - including us - would do history, would pursue historical research, unless she and he thought they could arrive, however provisionally, at some kind of truth about the past. We think, however, that the temptation to declare that the historian can objectively establish the truth about the past is to be resisted. There always has to be a question mark hovering over any claim to having attained an objective, let alone scientific, status for one's findings. It is this paradox - the necessity for and difficulty of finding truth in history - that we explore in the book.


Ann Curthoys is Manning Clark Professor of History at the Australian National University. She writes about many aspects of Australian history, including Aboriginal-European relations, Chinese in colonial Australia, media history, transnational history, feminism, and genocide, as well as about the theory and practice of historical writing. She is the author of Freedom Ride: A freedomrider remembers (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2002), and, with John Docker, of the newly released Is History Fiction? which has been published simultaneously in Australia by UNSW Press, and in the United States by the University of Michigan Press. John Docker is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. He writes on a wide range of topics in cultural theory and history, including most recently genocide in relation to both the Enlightenment and colonialism; his books include Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History (1994); 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (2001); and now, with Ann Curthoys, Is History Fiction? You can buy Is History Fiction? online at UNSWPress (published October 2005, 304pp, paperback, price:$39.95).


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