In all these past months, since the summer holidays, the diaries of French literature professor Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) have been my evening reading matter. I have followed him observing life in Germany under nazi rule from 1933 on and am presently witnessing his witnessing, in 1957, his own growing confusion on political life in the DDR, communist eastern Germany. From all his notes one thought of his is central to me: that we can never understand history. As he says it: we cannot understand it when we are living it, because then the distance to interpret what is happening fails us; and we cannot understand it from a distance, because then the actual observations fail us. His one goal in life seems to have been, besides all his other ambitions in work and in his personal relations, to overcome this paradox, as he was always dreaming to rework his diaries in encompassing memoirs, which should combine the distance of looking back and be fed from the proximity of his notes. He only completed his memoirs untill 1918 – but from hindsight his diaries, thanks to his younger second wife, who made it possible to have them published more than 30 years after his death, seem even more important for us, who live with the heritage of those days.
His was a real paradox, as the impossibility to understand history is only that for one man or woman, but when we understand knowledge as a common possession of human beings, it is possible to make something from the (near) real-time observations of a good chroniqueur and the interpretive power of us, who come after and look back. Still this does not mean that history can be an objective science. The hermeneutic aspect can never be overcome, not only because it is impossible to reach the objective understanding that Klemperer was striving for, but also because history itself is always a force in the political life as it unfolds uncessingly. Here we should acknowledge the importance of the revolutionary view Nietzsche put forward in his 1874 study On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. According to him, history has three functions for life: a monumental one, an antiquarian, and a critical one, of which the last-mentioned is of course the most interesting. We need it, because, in order to be able to live, human beings need the to be able to drag history before the court, torture it, and judge it. This is not just a destructive process – Nietzsche keeps his eye on the possibility of the arrival of a ‘true civilization’ – which is not a eschatological necessity, but something humans need to believe in, I think. As a preparation for this arrival, again, we need (in Nietzsche’s words) an ‘increase in honesty’ – an honesty which will bring down hardened cultural constructions which do not serve life anymore.
The great deconstructive/destructive process in understanding history in our times seems to me to deal with the double helix of modern western belief in rational and technological progress and it’s accompanying oppression of every culture (and the people who live in a culture considered as such) which it deemed non-rational and technologically backward. An indispensable read in this respect forms the work of Sandra Harding – who has aimed to understand ‘modern science’ from the colonialist and masculinist frameworks which were at work in them: ‘It turned out that these two great processes marking “modernity” – the emergence of modern sciences in Europe and European expansion – provided crucial cognitive resources for each other as well as economic and political ones’.
In the end, however, criticism was not the final goal for Nietzsche, and history will have to move beyond the criticism of colonialism and imperialism – for the benefit of life. A thorough and creative attempt to do so can be found in an even more recent work, which inspired the title of this post, The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa, by Michael Onyebuchi Eze. The trail he leaves in this work, as he moves through such questions as postcolonialist politics, the problematic of the ‘Invention of Africa’ and of finding a perspective beyond that of the ‘other’ of eurocentric thought, proves his work to be a worthy recreation of this Nietzschean dream: to try to press for more honesty in search of a truer civilization, while searching to ‘[…] “relocate” African historiography in a manner that would open spaces for fresh air, fresh perspectives.’ This search is not only of interest for those who ‘have an interest in Africa’, but for all those who have an interest in history as such, not ignoring the political forces that are at work in it, but critically examining them and taking responsibility for the collective task to create more civilized political goals in dialogue with the past.
Nietzsche’s work On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, originally published in 1874, can be accessed online: https://archive.org/details/Nietzsche-AdvantageDisadvantageOfHistoryForLife
Michael Onyebuchi Eze’s Study The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010
Victor Klemperer’s Diaries and Memoirs I read in their original German version. They are also partly available in English
Sandra Harding wrote Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, feminisms, and epistemologies, Indiana University Press, 1998