What really happened? I grew up thinking that reading history gave the answer to that question. In fact, it is a viewpoint that I still struggle against. You see, historians try to marshal as many facts as they can to support their reconstruction of events in the past. Somethings, clearly, “really happened.” What those things are, however, depends on your point of view. For example we know that the twentieth century was dominated by wars and economic crises. Apart from a few periods when things seemed largely okay, it was a century of leapfrogging crisis after crisis. Historians pick a set of circumstances in this mix—let’s say the Second World War—and try to explain what led to certain results. But what if we stop to think about such events from another point of view? What if we think about it from the perspective that “nations” are purely fictional inventions? Who wins such a conflict?
This is more than an idle thought-experiment. We, as people, base our self-perception on how we view our personal histories. It can be quite jarring to have someone contradict our own personal narrative of “what really happened.” I’ve run into that from time to time—my reconstruction of events is not the same as someone else’s reconstruction. Who’s right? There’s no objective history. There are only events viewed from multiple angles. Turn the clock back a few centuries—was Jesus of Nazareth a political criminal (the Roman point of view), or a great sage out to save the world (a Christian point of view)? And these are only two out of many possible views of a political execution.
As we enter an era of post-truth politics, we’re going to find more and more historical events questioned. Facts have lost the anchoring functions they used to have. Historians built narratives by stepping from fact to fact, like using a series of stones to cross a river. They can’t tell us what really happened, but they can make sense out of an otherwise confusing stream of chaotic events. The thing about history, however, is that you have to read it to understand. Certain things we’ve pretty much all come to agree upon are now being questioned by those who see everything through the lens of capitalism. Money changes history. It is a narrative of great power as long as everyone agrees it’s true. What really happened? I think we may have all been too quick to accept what economists have told us and we have fabricated a fictional story that we can all believe.