What is History?

How does one explain history to non-historians? To lawyers, physicians, artists, software developers? It's tricky, because it only seems simple.

Let's exemplify this with something as well-known as World War II. We are all familiar with the term. What does it mean? There's the meta-level of "II" - meaning, the framing includes, to begin with, a "World War I", which could not have taken place as such (as that would necessitate knowing the future). At first hindsight, so to speak, it wasn't yet even spoken of as "the World War", regardless of the counting, but rather as the "the Great War" or simply "The War", just like for us "The War" normally refers to World War II. In other words: The very term "World War" results from the counting itself and not from the term, which, if taken seriously, would actually have to include the Seven Years' War as the first World War (some people go as far as differentiating between the "First World War" and "World War I"). We hope you can now perceive how our perception of the past is predetermined by language and how it frames "what is important" vs. the rest, "what is not important". The former is "history", the latter is not.

Now let's lower this from the abstract to the very concrete: Which period are we talking about, when we talk about World War II? The 20th century, for sure. Then it gets complicated. What years? When does it begin, when does it end? As for the latter, May or September 1945? As you can see, it's not as simple as it seems to be. And now, if you want a proper taste, let's focus on the former question: When did World War II begin?

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So, when did World War II begin?

The usual answer you are most likely familiar with is: World War II began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1st 1939. It even says so on Wikipedia. There's consensus about it, but if we are to understand "history", then we should ask ourselves: To what extent is this a "historical fact"?

At that point, on September 1st 1939, it was definitely not a global war yet, but rather a war between two countries, which is probably the minimum for a war to take place at all. So starting World War II on September 1st is projecting, in hindsight, the knowledge we have of later developments:

Two days later, on September 3rd 1939, the UK and France declared war on Germany (and not much else). That happened in 1914 as well and did turn the war into a global conflict that we now know (again, in hindsight) as "World War I". But after that war, Germany lost all its colonies, so it had no oversea territories in 1939. It means that on September 3rd 1939, we have at best a continental conflict, and not yet a world war.

Later that month, on September 17th 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland as well. The Soviets came from the East, based on their pact with Germany from August 23rd that year. The Soviets also attacked Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Rumania, but we're still talking just about Europe (not to mention that in Soviet history, this was not an act of war to begin with, but an act of liberation for the working class in all of these countries).

In 1940, Germany defeats France and gains control over the French colonies in North Africa. Now we've gone out of Europe for the first time. Does that qualify for a world war? Probably not, because there seems to be no history of WW2 that begins in 1940. Even books about the occupation of France, Belgium or the Netherlands, that were not yet occupied in 1939, still begin the story in 1939, since it doesn't "add up" otherwise

On June 22nd 1941 Germany broke the pact and invaded the USSR, which stretched all the way to the pacific, and for the people in the USSR that was (and to a certain extent still is) the beginning of "The War", the Great Patriotic War, which is why all Soviet war memorials talk about 1941-1945 and not 1939-1945.

Obviously, 1941 might be preferred over 1939 for another reason: On December 7th, Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor. Two days later, Germany declared war on the US (not the other way around!) - and so it seems we can finally agree that the war has now, finally, become a true World War.

Except... There had actually been a major war already taking place on that side of the world. Yes, before Pearl Harbor. Much before. Even before 1939. In that other, seemingly not-as-important part of the world, the war began in 1937, when Japan attacked China. How come that's not commonly seen as the beginning of World War II? Indeed, Japan and China were not "the world" in 1937, but neither were Germany and Poland in 1939.

As you can see, a rather "simple" fact such as WW2 beginning on September 1st 1939 is, at closer look, not that simple at all, but the outcome of what we - the historians, the storytellers - see as important and relevant to us. When we say, therefore, that World War II began on September 1st 1939, we have already applied - consciously or not - a strong focus on Europe as opposed to the Pacific (which could also be addressed as the "Far East" if we want to be really European about it). We might not be aware of it, but starting WW2 not in 1937 or 1941, but in 1939, is a very Eurocentric perspective on the past. And this is precisely the moment where "history" begins - when there is a perspective, a look back.

We look back, deal with the past, write about it, make movies and memorials about it - but not arbitrarily, not randomly. Most of us know more about World War II than World War I - not to mention the First World War, which usually isn't even known as such, but as the Seven Years' War. We obviously dedicate more attention to what is more important. To us. And we do so either knowingly, when we choose a book on WW2 or book a Jewish tour, or unknowingly, with the very language we use to talk about the past and tell its story. This is "history".

Is that "wrong"? No. Because there's no "objective importance" or relevance, without a beholder, without perspective. And an irrelevant story is like a tree that falls in a forest with no one around to hear it.

The bottom line: History is a narrative, a collective story. The story we agree on.

Yes, as far as we are concerned, everyone gets to choose their own We, the narrative they find relevant, the people they identify with. Tragically though, both the Holocaust and Ten Seven have shown us very clearly that our personal preferences only go so far.

So with all due respect to the visions of Karl Marx and Saul Paulus, the We is never everyone. It can't be. Have you ever noticed how intersectionality never intersects with us?

The closest thing to such hypothetical Towers of Babel is probably "Europe" - whatever that means is very debateable, but it's exceptional in pursuing some kind of "European history" that could synthesize all the national perspectives and generate a common narrative; an identity that all "Europeans" (again, whatever that means) can agree on. With understandable German motivation, transnational schoolbooks were developed, published and officially permitted for history classes in Germany, France and Poland. But it hasn't been successful. The gaps in narrative and identity are too wide.

Where does that leave us? Jewish history is, at the end of the day, our story. The story of our families, our people. We are sitting in one and same boat - or ark - taking us through the floods of history. Some call it fate, others call it destiny. Maybe these are ultimately the two sides of one medal called chosenness. But whatever we call it, this is our story. The story we were told, the story we add to, the story we pass on - from generation to generation.

PS. We don't always agree. You know the lonely Jew on a small Island with two synagogues?

So we need to tolerate and acknowledge our own exceptions. After all, there are disagreements even within family. Even in Jewish families. We all have that aunt, cousin or brother that insists on whatever the opposite is. To use a well-known example of a well-known family: The British story goes the way we know it also thanks to King George VI, whose brother Edward might have told the story (that is to say: written history) in a very different way - and thankfully didn't, by allowing his younger brother George to step in his stead, to be granted his birthright - majesty.

Edward's birthright became George's, because the majesty was never really his own to begin with - it was His Majesty, temporarily bestowed "upon Flesh and Blood" (as the Jewish blessing for foreign kings goes). An exceptional brother indeed, and yet a brother. Like Jacob and Esau. Family, regardless how dysfunctional, is still family - the one thing we don't get to choose. The Torah and the prophet Amos refer to nations as "families of the earth". Metaphorically? Sometimes, what sounds like an interpretation could be the proper reading, the intended intonation.

So just like in the Pesach Haggadah, let us remember that even the evil son, who excludes himself from the People of Israel (in contemporary English: "doesn't identify") - even this evil son is still our brother and has a place at our Seder table - there is no Haggadah without him, no story-telling.