In my statements of purpose for graduate school, I once wrote that, for me, the appeal of history is the appeal of the grandest story in existence, made all the more poignant by our roles as active participants. If this is so, I have come to realize, we are perpetually doomed to experience history as if hearing a familiar tale for the second time. The curtain has fallen on the premier; the conclusion of all ends has occurred, as far as the living are concerned, and it has led to us. This foreknowledge, this perfect hindsight, can manifest among those who study history as a certain fatalism that infects how we approach our craft. If we already know the effects of past events, it can be difficult to conceive of any other result stemming from them. In my own approach to history, I strive to challenge these notions wherever I can.
Nothing in history has ever been inevitable. This is my eternal rallying cry, the sands in which I plant my standard. Even the smallest action taken differently than those recorded could have wildly altered the course of events that has ultimately resulted in the present world. The fates of history have turned on so small a thing as a bundle of dropped cigars, erratic weather patterns, and the fickle whims of countless individuals that, in any other moment, could have swayed another way. Similarly, you can never know all ends of a story as it is read; while general trends or predictions can be observed, you can seldom be certain of what the next page bears. If we keep this uncertainty in mind, we can draw close to viewing that grand historical narrative in all its complexity as if for the first time, unsure of what will occur even as we know what has happened. In so doing, the events of the past can be interpreted with more nuance: paths not taken are filled with possibility, and what ultimately did not happen can be seen to bear just as much influence on the course of history as what actually occurred.
When you forget this abundant variability of history, when you begin calling certain events and trends and results inevitable, you close yourself off to the stunning kaleidoscope of threads and possibilities our sources offer us. When information departs from the decided-upon outcome, it is seen as problematic, irrelevant, or, worse, ignored or modified to fit that outcome. Only by rejecting such historical certainty can we appreciate the full spectrum of history’s brilliance, and from variability stems a resolute certainty: just as every chapter, sentence, and even word in a masterful story is necessary for the crafting of its conclusion, and once revealed that conclusion requires that the rest of the story could not have happened any other way, so too is every facet of history vitally significant. Every moment in history is thus worth studying not for any grand demonstrable importance, but simply for the inherent value it derives from having happened in the precise manner and at the precise moment it occurred, emerging from the realms of chance and possibility to help weave the grand tapestry with which I remain endlessly fascinated.