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Friday, December 23, 2011

On Historical Distance

In an essay published by Tablet Magazine earlier this week, University of Houston history professor Robert Zaretsky presents a reflection on his professional work as a "Holocaust expert." The depth of his introspection—really, his willingness to reveal his innermost doubts about his role as a professional historian of the Holocaust—makes the essay a worthwhile read. The essay also raises some interesting questions about the authority of professional historians vis-à-vis eyewitnesses. Zaretsky writes:
Normally, being "there" is not an issue for a historian. Only a lunatic would repudiate an account of, say, the fall of the Bastille or Battle of Marathon because the historian had been born one or one hundred generations too late to savor the sulfur or participate in a phalanx. In fact, historians have long assumed that not being there is a professional advantage. In an odd phenomenological twist, we have always claimed that the distance provided by time and space, along with the accumulation of documents and data, permits us to know the past even better than did an event’s contemporaries, who were stuck in the chaos as they happened. Anyone can make history, but it takes a historian to understand it.
He then goes on to discuss why some contend that the benefits of historical distance may not apply to the Holocaust—and how he's wrestled with this issue as an American Jew and historian.

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