Playing With The Past

A Word with Two Meanings We invent words, then let ourselves be subjugated by them. There would be no knowledge without words, but it is words again that grow into independent entities, obstacles that come between us and "the real world". They move us closer to and at the same time farther from the essence of things. An independent spirit implies a state of semantic vigilance, and the rejection of the tyranny imposed by these inevitable mediators.History is one of those misleading words. Few people think about its meanings. History is history, we all know that. Neither do historians – with very few exceptions – go farther. They make history rather than think it.One should be warned from the very beginning, because history as a science presents the curious particularity of bearing the same name as the object of its study. In other words, history's purpose is to reconstruct history. We give the same name to two different concepts, no matter how much we wished to bring them together: history in its actual unfolding and history as representation. The image strives to fuse with reality, which is a heresy, and not an innocent one. The identification of the two terms feeds on the deeply-felt need of anchoring in the past. History is the only reality that we can invoke (everything comes down to history in the end), and it would be unacceptable to let it slip through our fingers. The past means legitimization and justification. Without a past, we can no longer be sure of anything.We are facing an illusion, it almost need not be demonstrated. How can be history revived, be brought to the present? It is too large to be squeezed between the covers of a book, too large even to be squeezed among the walls of a library.As a result, attracting history to us implies, first of all, a process of selection: a very drastic selection, in the wake of which whatever is left, quantitatively speaking, is microscopic compared to the real "weight" of the past. However, in this case too, an argument likely to appease us may be advanced. We select, of course, but not just anything and in any way. We choose the important, representative, significant elements. The history we produce is smaller than real history, but so closely akin that they become one. It is the larger history scaled down, its synthetic replica. Here we are, seemingly reassured – provided we place enormous trust in words. Aren't words playing a hoax on us again? What is the meaning of: important, representative, significant? We must avow that they mean no more than what we want them to mean. Did the Roman Empire Fall or Not? In 476 A.D., Odoacer, king of the Herules, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor of the West. This fact has been known under a famous phrase: the fall of the Roman Empire. For a long time it was perceived as the major event in the whole of human history; then collapsed the amplest, steadiest political structure of mankind, the brilliant ancient civilization ended its career, and the great step from Antiquity to the Middle Ages was taken. Curiously enough, men living at the time apparently did not notice it. Anyway, how could they imagine that they had gone to bed in Antiquity and woken up the next day in the Middle Ages? The more prosaic fact – the disappearance of their Empire – also went unnoticed. At this point, an old dilemma confronts us. Are the contemporaries privileged witnesses of their own history, or do they wander aimlessly among its mysteries, like Fabricio del Dongo on the Waterloo battlefield? In other words, can history be observed and grasped better from the inside or from the outside, from near or from afar? It is hard to say what the optimal observation post would be, but there is no doubt that, from each location, history is seen in a different way.The people living in 476 had their reasons not to see anything uncommon. Odoacer's Herules were no strangers to them. For several generations, the frontiers had ceased to be impenetrable, and waves of "barbarians" kept streaming into the Roman world. The provinces were already lost. The Empire had been divided in 395. Now, Odoacer was sending the imperial emblems to Constantinople, recognizing the authority of a single emperor. What was later considered a fall might have appeared as a reunification at that time. The Empire had become one again. As a matter of fact, the chief Roman institutions survived the fateful year. Untroubled for three quarters of a century, the consuls continued to succeed to one another in Rome, just like during the Empire or earlier, at the time of the Republic; the Senate also remained in place. Towards the middle of the next century, the emperor of Constantinople, Justinian, extended his effective authority over a large chunk of the Western Empire, even if not for long. In fact, what scholars later named the Byzantine Empire was known, de facto and de jure, as the Roman Empire, and this lasted until the end, when Constantinople fell to the Turks. In the West, Charlemagne (in 800 A.D.) and Otto the Great (in 962 A.D.) reconstructed the same empire. Officially, the Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806, when Napoleon, who was about to append Europe to his own imperial project, put an end to fiction, determining the "Roman" emperor to call himself, more modestly, emperor of Austria – which he actually was. Up till recent times, when imperial structures began to multiply (today anyone can become an emperor if he wants so and circumstances allow it, as in the case of the little dictator Bokassa of Central Africa), the empire, whether real or imaginary, used to be one, universal, and – of course – Roman. Even Moscow embarked on its imperial quest transfigured into a symbolic third Rome (following the real one and Constantinople). For a long time, the common belief was that the Roman formula constituted the ultimate imperial system, to be followed only by the end of the world and Doomsday (or, according to an alternative version, the Messianic kingdom). As the world, of course, continued to exist, the empire continued its existence too, in accordance with a flawlessly logical argumentation.That is the reason why "the fall of the Roman Empire" was discovered much later. The event took its revenge, though, and for centuries on end the famous date was inscribed in history books with letters more prominent than any. Yet, for some time now, things have taken a new turn. Insofar as structures are becoming more important to us than events, there is nothing much left to do with the year 476. Odoacer, Romulus Augustulus – who cares now about these personages? Present-day interpretations are nearer (even though for different reasons) to the perspective of those who lived then, and different from the catastrophic theory of modern scholars, who over-concentrated and over-dramatized the transition process from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. We are dealing not with one moment, but a long evolution, spanning a few centuries before the fall of the Roman Empire and a few centuries after, during which a whole system of civilization was re-elaborated. The thesis of the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, synthesized in the formula "Mohammed and Charlemagne", is relevant to the transition from one system of interpretation to another. The symbolic characters are no longer Odoacer and Romulus Augustulus, but Mohammed and Charles the Great, and the decisive phase shifts from the 5th century to the 7th and 8th centuries. Furthermore, economic developments become more significant than political ones. According to Pirenne, the Arab conquest (Mohammed) split the Mediterranean region into two, ruining ancient trade and driving Western Europe to natural economy and the social-institutional system of feudalism (Charlemagne). The thesis itself did not win over. However, it illustrated the departure of the debate from the obsessive year 476, and the opening to a structural approach, with multiple variants and interpretations resulting thereby.The current question regards the avatars of a fact that began by not existing, became an indisputable historical touchstone, and finally seems to dissolve in a sea of infinitely complex problems. Is the year 476 significant or not? Is it a crucial event or a non-event? We must admit that a little bit of professional expertise is enough to argue in favor of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century or, conversely, in favor of its survival (or even various compromises between the two). Knights and Microbes It is hard to depict Black Death as an insignificant presence in the history of Europe. Nor can one say that the great epidemic that broke out in the Mediterranean and West European regions around 1348 went unnoticed by the people who experienced it or by later historians. Boccaccio's Decameron was created around this terrible event. For a few centuries, bubonic plague was one of the obsessions of the Western world and, effectively, a major factor of mortality. All this was known to historians, but met their views only occasionally. Rather than the health of people, they were concerned with the health of states (which explains the solicitude they displayed at the head of the moribund Roman Empire). The way in which people killed one another seemed more interesting than the way in which they were killed by an invisible microbe. Nevertheless, let us verify the allegation. I have a very representative history close at hand: Histoire générale du IV-e siècle à nos jours (General History from the 4th Century to Our Days), edited by Ernest Lavisse and Alfred Rambaud, one of the most famed syntheses issued towards the end of the 19th century. The third volume, published in 1894, deals with the interval 1270-1492, over no less than 984 pages. Out of these, almost one hundred are dedicated to the Hundred Years' War between France and England, evoked in all its episodes (on the average, one page for each year!). Bubonic plague, that was waging war against the people at exactly the same time, is harder to come across. In France, it is totally absent, engulfed by politico-military events. Two lines, though, in the chapter dedicated to Italy: "The next year, a great plague ravaged Italy (it was wonderfully described by Boccaccio)", which leads us to the conclusion that the main consequence of the plague was the Decameron. The English epidemic is entitled to about ten lines, however. The author does not ignore the demographic disaster, but quickly moves past it, to tarry on the rise in wages, an effect of manpower scarcity. To us, a bizarre point of view: half the inhabitants of a country may perish without the historians' losing their cool, for this is not their problem after all. Wages are more important than people, and political and military conflicts are more important than anything. Only towards the middle of this century (with the exception of a few pioneering works, whose impact on large-scale interpretations was limited) did the researchers of the past discover demography and, together with it, medicine, human anatomy, good health and illness, birth, the ages of man, death… They discovered them because these are major problems of society today. Thus the plague epidemic rose from its condition as an anecdotal or marginal event and was integrated in the great mechanism of history. The fall by one quarter, one third, or even more, of the Western population (in the case of France, 42% was the figure advanced!) in the century that followed the first microbial wave is imputed to it to the greatest extent, if not exclusively. No war has ever provoked such a catastrophe. The only comparison that comes to mind – suggested by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie – is a bacteriological or nuclear war. The Middle Ages had their own "nuclear" war, which was ignored by historians blinded by the petty exploits of the Hundred Years' War, with its armored knights! But the microbial saga does not end there. The conquest and colonization of America were also doubled by an invisible, yet terrible bacteriological war, even more devastating than the plague had been in Europe. It is not the brutality of the conquistadors, as was believed, but the microbes they brought along, that dealt the death blow to Amerindian civilizations. The mechanism of this process was named, also by Le Roy Ladurie, "the microbial unification of the world". Before the modern era, different civilizations evolved separately, each with its own cultural profile, and its own microbial stock. The first contacts had devastating effects because non-immunized populations were suddenly exposed to diseases which, in their original environment, were relatively benign or had little effect. Gradually, an equilibrium was attained – a "microbial common market", but the tribute paid for the unification of the world was immense, and lasted for centuries. The supreme catastrophe occurred in America where, between 1500 and 1600, the demographic ceiling collapsed from tens of millions to a few million: a disaster unparalleled in the whole history of mankind.[1] These histories are very unlike. I have no intention of arbitrating between the warlike medieval knights and the no less aggressive microorganisms. Each interpretation has its own justification, just as every one of them exaggerates, to be sure, by highlighting some or other actor of history too much. In fact, there is no such statement that does not contain an exaggeration, for it cannot be but fundamentally "partial". The complete, perfectly balanced truth cannot be captured in any formula. We can only take note of the relativity of any choice, of the impossibility to "weigh" implications on a universal, unvarying balance. The limited game I referred to suggests a general competition among numberless actual or potential factors. Their numbers increase at the pace of our own curiosity. When history was still concerned with political events, the situation could be kept under a certain control. The present-day penchant for a global history, in other words, a non-discriminatory history, open to any issue, shatters all hierarchies. The infusion of anthropology, the interest for mentalities and behaviors, the descent to the level of the individual and of daily life make everything significant, equally significant, depending on the profile of the survey and the perspective. Alimentation, sex or fashion, even the most hackneyed gestures may become as telling or even more telling than world-economy indicators or great political decisions (the reciprocal being as valid). History is dead, there are only histories. As a matter of fact, history never meant anything but "histories", only nowadays diversity expanded its scope, it became more visible. Besides, we are more prone ourselves to perceive what has always been an innate diversity. The Inevitable Ideology History cannot be without ideology. The message of the historian may be explicit or implicit, the historian himself may be aware, less aware, or not at all aware (in that case, he is lying to himself) of the ideological implications of his enterprise. All these do not make any difference, being attitudes of a formal and subjective sort. Objectively as well as essentially, history is laden with ideology. And by ideology, I mean ideology in the full sense of the concept: not just a hodgepodge of opinions about world, life, and society, but a clearly-defined system of ideas inserted in a no less clearly-defined social-political framework.Paradoxically, but quite understandably at length, the higher history rises, and the more it draws closer to essences, distancing itself from the fleeting tribulations of the day, the larger and clearer its share of ideology. The great philosophies of history are strictly dependent on the here and now. Any discourse on the ultimate goals is a discourse on the present time in disguise. Sooner or later, we shall know where the world is bound and how its destiny shall be fulfilled; but there is no doubt that, going through such a global theoretical system, we shall find out the political beliefs of the historian or philosopher, an issue less interesting in itself than the destiny of the world, but quite interesting as far as the historical discourse is concerned, beyond the appearances.Let us examine a classic: Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History (dating from 1822-1831). "Universal history," the great philosopher says, "is nothing but the development of the concept of freedom." This is a principle with an indisputable significance, likely to provide a sense to human evolution in its whole. However, it is also a principle that, from the very beginning, brings up Hegel's days. Alongside Hegel, many more of his contemporaries see in history a path that must lead to freedom. Their obsession is called the French Revolution, with all it entailed, as a consequence, as an opposition to it, or in various attempts at synthesis between the organic pre-revolutionary society and the modern ideas of progress, liberty and democracy. A philosophy of history with freedom as its unique key could not be conceived in 1700, nor can it be conceived today, shortly before the year 2000. The absolute emphasis on freedom – its "deification" – bears the mark of the 1800's.The debate does not cease here, though. Freedom is a magic word, but what does it really mean? Certainly, it is not the theoretical development of the issue that matters now. Suffice it to notice that freedom (like history, like so many other words) means a lot of things, all of them under one cover. Right now, it is only important to know what freedom means to Hegel. An interesting problem, under more than one aspect: first of all, setting the philosopher in his milieu; then defining the real senses of the philosophy of history; and, finally, grasping once more the polyvalence and equivocalness of words and concepts that seem simple because we employ more than think them. To Hegel, freedom is something that resembles pretty well the opposite of freedom. It implies more constraints than rights. It is an organized, institutionalized, and supervised freedom, the antipode of the negative, anarchic, atomizing freedom kindled by the revolutionary wave. Hegel's "freedom" was apt to be considered (by Karl Popper, for instance) a bridge to totalitarianism. It would be unfair, though, to judge Hegel from our own perspective, while ignoring his own judgment. Hegel truly believed in freedom, he believed, in his particular way, in democracy (the equality of chances), but he also believed, maybe too much, in Reason, and in a necessary social equilibrium, and all this was leading him to a sociopolitical synthesis in which freedom was "self-restricted" by the consciousness of its own limits. It was the freedom assumed by responsible individuals, responsible institutions, a responsible state. Transposed to a political plane, this philosophic construction found its implementation neither in France, where the excess of freedom had ultimately brought about the very failure of the principle, nor in England, but in the German space, particularly in Prussia. Conservative, authoritarian Prussia became the model – perhaps not a consummate one, but well-nigh – of a world unified in the spirit of responsible freedom. Apparently, tomorrow's world would be a perfected Prussia! I shall not comment upon Hegel's political option, which had its arguments and justifications, nor do I maintain that the Jacobin principles of the French Revolution, or any of the successive models offered by an unstable, politically shaky France would have proven better. I only take note that, with Hegel, history's ultimate goals concur with his political beliefs (or declarations, at least). And I do not criticize him for such a curious concordance either; this is the way of the world, and it cannot be changed.At about the same time, the Frenchmen Guizot and Thierry, each "more of a historian" than Hegel, but also predisposed to general ideas and quasi-philosophical schemes, were predicting, in their own fashion, the triumphant march of the idea of freedom. The process initiated during the Middle Ages by the "third estate", the bourgeoisie, found its completion in France with the "July Monarchy". A liberal history, in the strictest political sense of the word (Guizot was one of the central political characters of the 1830-1848 period, both a historian and a practitioner of liberalism). The whole history had occurred only to beget modern liberalism!As far as Auguste Comte (another influential originator of a philosophical system) is concerned, the tomorrow he was contemplating had to reconcile order (characteristic of the organic society of the Middle Ages) and progress (characteristic of the modern era). Comte relies upon science and industry, advocates private property, but makes a bid to humanize the capitalists, and looks condescendingly upon workers and women; briefly, he wishes for a deeply solidary society which, in the end, also means authoritatively controlled. No wonder the philosopher approved of Louis Napoleon's (later Napoleon III) coup of December 2, 1851. It is, in fact, a conservative version of Saint-Simonism (Comte's acquaintance as a youth), the projection of an idealized 19th century – accomplished and having come to terms with itself: capitalist and socialist, progressive and authoritarian, scientific and religious. This would be humanity's stage of perfection: quite similar, indeed, to the global project of the French Second Empire!Hegel and Comte are men of the present. Marx, apparently, is not. Not only does he dislike the present, but he also intends to annihilate it. However, his theory takes root from the present too, because there can be no other starting point, no matter what theory it serves. This dependence is highly concealed by the ambitions and scientific apparatus of a system more complex, more elaborate, more seductive than any. Marx's historical theory does not leave any unanswered questions: inclusive developments, structures, facts and personalities, everything is blended in a perfectly functional machinery, offering both a sweeping interpretation of history and a methodology of evading history, towards a greater future. It is undoubtedly, along with Saint Augustine's theological construction (perhaps more succinct, but no less exquisite and efficient), one of the two unsurpassable theories of history and human evolution. The attempts to confute Marx by concurrent philosophies of history stood no chances whatsoever: faced with the impressive Marxist mechanism, the various projects proved very little convincing. The departure from Marxism is to be made in a simple, elegant and reasonable way – not by recourse to a better philosophy of history, but by understanding that the philosophies of history, either good or bad, are imaginary constructions and nothing more. It would be ironic to take the ultimate goals of History (assuming they exist) for the "ultimate goals" of the historians or philosophers!Besides, Marx's theory, so scholarly elaborated, is a 19th-century theory, because it couldn't have been otherwise; moreover, the starting point of this 19th-century theory is very well defined, both geographically and socially: Marx processes the consequences of the first stage of the Industrial Revolution, and these serve his system. The framework of his meditation is the Occident, England in particular, where the Industrial Revolution had begun, and gone farther than in any other country. One thing noticed by the founder of the communist theory is the strong social polarization: a handful of wealthy owners, becoming wealthier, and a large army, ever larger, of oppressed, destitute workers, becoming more oppressed and destitute. A true-to-life picture in many of its elements, but no less simplified by Marx, in the spirit of an ideal typology. Never has a social organism existed that limit itself to the confrontation of two classes. Any social texture is much more diversified and minute. But if something resembling to a certain extent such a bipolar system has ever existed, it must have been English society towards 1850. Real society, overly simplified, became with Marx an ideal model, and this model was projected into the past, as well as the future, and put to use in the historical, and especially political sense, of the Marxist theory. The class struggle (as it appeared – moreover, as it should have appeared, between capitalists and proletarians) became the driving force of history, beginning with the conflict opposing Antiquity's slaves and slave owners. In this case, history suffered not only a simplification, but plain distortion, even falsification: there were slaves in Antiquity, but no slave-based societies, that is, societies whose main productive activity be carried on by slaves, as it was carried on by proletarians in 19th-century England; on the contrary, they were societies that juxtaposed very different social categories. As for the slaves' battles against their masters, with the famous exception of Spartacus' revolt and a few other lesser rebellions, they are conspicuous by their absence!Re-elaborated with respect to the origins to comply with the British 19th-century model, history would suffer the consequences of the same model in the future as well. The result turned out to be radically different, compared to the successive prior stages: not because History had wanted it (today, a century and a half later, we know it did not), but because Marx's political beliefs required so. Social polarization was bound to worsen. The rich would become even richer, and the poor even poorer (one of the social laws discovered by Marx regarded the "absolute pauperization of the proletariat", and a law is a law, it can't be evaded). In the long run, the whole society would have turned into a huge workshop. The high concentration of technology and the massive socialization of the production process anticipated communism. Without exploiters, the "social workshop" was "communist" already. One single move remained to be made, a simple, inevitable move: the expulsion of the capitalists from the system. The proletarian revolution was on a straight road to communist society, a post-historical era delivered from exploitation and antagonisms.The fact that such a philosophy of history (which, of course, I presented here in a very schematic way, without doing injustice to its spirit, though) enjoyed a prestige superior to any other similar theory, and could be judged, for such a long time and by so many people, as essentially scientific (moreover, it was transposed – with the obvious distortions, of course – to an effective system of political, social and economic organization), offers an extraordinary example of projection onto the absolute of well-determined interests and strategies. When History says you're right, who can contradict you? In the right hands, the philosophy of history can become a perfect weapon of manipulation.The general theories of history, clearly, do not pose great problems of ideological decryption. They are transparent enough (which does not mean one cannot easily be caught in their net). Decryption becomes a bit more complicated with professional historians who, by nature of their education and performance, have a penchant for punctual reconstruction, oftentimes ignoring the global process programmatically. Their problem is not where history comes from and where it is going, but the isolation and clarification of various segments of the past. Most of the times they do not declare their ideological options in the open. Most of them neither declare their options, nor even believe they have such options; and if they admit having them, they are confident these would never influence their rapport with history.We are living an illusion; professing no ideology is an attitude that automatically paves the way to the most tyrannical of ideologies: that of ready-made ideas, dominant ideas accepted without criticism and reservations. The historians who do not realize the ideological implications of their incursions into the past are, unwillingly and unwittingly, the most dependent on ideology after all: an ideology they do not notice, because they bathe in it, considering it altogether natural, and thus being incapable of thinking up alternative solutions.To illustrate the lurking presence of ideology, I shall refer to two models of "scientific history" (or rather "scientific ambition" in the investigation of history), unmatched as yet.The first model is that of late-19th-century historiography, usually – but not very properly – named "positivist" (which may create a confusion with Comte' s positivism, though there is no connection between them). This history is solely interested in a "positive" verification of facts, by means of a thorough research of documents, whence the appellation "critical school". Its promoters were professional historians, a category increasingly well-represented as a consequence of the history departments boom in Western universities. These university people truly believed they did science, and believed even more that whatever they were doing had no bearing on the politics of the day. They went as far as excluding contemporary history from history, as a supreme argument of political non-involvement. At first sight – what safer guarantee of objectivity than the deliberate omission of the present and recent past! Thus, confident in their science and in their detachment from the present time, the historians wound up by talking politics without knowing it – or sort of not knowing it; after all, they knew what they were doing, but imagined that another "scientific" history could not exist anyway, and since there was only one, it was inevitably objective, any connection with the present time being purely accidental. As university people, they were state functionaries; they knew they were, but could not imagine another condition. Of course, nobody gave them orders; they were members of the elite themselves, important parts of the system. They were living in a bourgeois, elitist atmosphere, and there is no wonder they undertook historical reviews of the sort. Their formula favored the political, the events, and the personalities. It was – not entirely, but to a large extent – a history of the state and state institutions, leading to the 19th-century structures. A history seen from the top, generally in a liberal, yet not as democratic spirit, respectful of the authority. A history that also started from the national and politico-territorial configurations of the epoch, projected into the past. A nationalist history that strove to pick its arguments even at the dawn of history. A French archeologist had no qualms about mentioning, without any fear of anachronism, the "Stone Age French"! In brief, this is the bourgeois, national stage of history: hard to tell how scientific, but assuredly not objective at all, and deeply ideologized, despite its program.The Franco-German historiographic duel sometimes surprises, in a striking manner, the avatars of "objectivity". Theodor Mommsen and Fustel de Coulanges, symbolic names of the two historiographies, confront each other, in the name of their respective nations, with historical arguments. "Objective" science was, in turn, either German or French. A steadfast promoter of a rigorous method, Fustel de Coulanges moves, without any pangs of conscience, from one formula to another. Before the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, he recognized the important role played in the French medieval synthesis by the Franks – the Germanic conquerors of Gaul. After the conflict, he turns his opinion upside down, demonstrating, with the same faith in his method, the insignificance of the Germanic element.The second model appears as the opposite of the one cited above. It is represented by the Annales School, or the New History, as French historians have more recently named it, in a scientistic surge of monopolistic French-speaking historiography. It is a trend that expresses, in its lacunar and prejudiced way, yet in many fertile ideas, the great historiographic restructuring of the last century – the offspring of a world so different from the 19th-century world. It offers, alongside the Marxist direction, but with improved professional acumen, the most complete and elaborate theoretical and methodological system in the historiography of the last three quarters of a century. The "New Science" of history began by overthrowing the science of history existing in 1900. It evacuated from history, or drastically limited, the old themes and values: politics, war, events, personalities, and even the state, its institutions, and the national background. History went from the elite down to the masses. Its preferred areas became the economy, demography, social relations, mentalities, daily life… Like historians of 1900, their adversaries, promoters of the "New History", tried – and almost succeeded – to persuade that they are right. It is ridiculous, they maintain, to give the personalities credit for all things, or uphold the decisive impact of events, while more profound and influent forces compel events to take a certain course and personalities to obey. It is the structures that dictate, and history's long time, not the ephemeral bubbles of deeds, nor men's individual volition. One of the representative works of the "New History" is titled Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV et vingt millions de Français, 1966). The scientific history of 1900 would have laid stress on the king and the ruling elite; the new scientific history shifts the accent onto the twenty million French people.If a historiographical referendum were ordered, the "New History" might be the winner (although it is facing plenty of reservation too). It seems more scientific to place at the heart of a system of interpretation structures rather than feats or personalities. But it looks more scientific today because we have been accustomed to the thought. It did not look so in 1900, nor do we know what it will look like tomorrow – therefore, it is unsafe to argue that one history is more scientific than the other: we only see that it is different. On the contrary, it is not unsafe at all – even if historians dislike such "disclosures" – to assess the political orientation of the historians of the Annales. Is it indeed necessary to tell in what direction – not to the past, but at present – a historian looks who is an adversary of political elitism and nationalism, and a promoter of the masses in history? Hervé Coutau-Bégarie proved it, in an iconoclastic book about the "New History phenomenon": iconoclastic, because – just like the opposing historiographic phenomenon of 1900 – neither does the "New History" accept it is doing anything but objective science, and if whatever it does intersects an ideology, it is pure chance or, better still, the proof of pure truth regarding both the history practiced and its appropriate ideology. We shall conclude, then, that the "New History" appears as an expression of the French left: a non-Marxist left all told, yet not anti-Marxist (even evincing a certain openness to Marxism), basically expressing the tradition, mentality and ideology of French socialism.[2]Nothing unusual, in fact. The most "scientific" approaches, in spite of the appearances, are the most ideologized too. The truth they proclaim cannot be an absolute truth. It is the truth of an epoch, the truth of a creed: the "scientific" expression of an ideology. from Playing with the Past. History between Truth and Fiction, Humanitas, 1998  [1] The "microbial" information and interpretations are taken from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's article, Un concept: l'unification microbienne du monde (A Concept: the Microbial Unification of the World [14th-17th centuries]), in Le Territoire de l'historien (The Territory of the Historian), II, Gallimard, Paris, 1978, pp. 37-97.[2] Hervé Coutau-Bégarie, Le Phénomène "Nouvelle Histoire". Stratégie et idéologie des nouveaux historiens, Economica, Paris, 1983; second edition, with the subtitle Grandeur et décadence de l'école des Annales, 1989.

by Lucian Boia (b. 1944)