Few phrases were invoked as often as “history will judge” during Donald Trump’s presidency. The frequency of the invocation surely quickened after Trump, voted out of office, sought to remain at any cost. Professional pundits and pollsters, politicians and historians have riffed on this phrase with abandon over the past four years, making it a commonplace of our uncommon times.
Yet the idea of history serving as judge, while comforting, is also confusing. If “history” is meant as a nation’s collective memory, this is no longer possible, if it ever was. Collective memory lies shattered in an age of balkanized media and a polarized public.
If it is meant instead as the judgment of historians, the phrase risks making nonsense of the ethical duties of those who write history for a living.
In the age of Trump, basic questions of professional deontology seem to confront historians with the same dilemma faced by journalists. Since 2016, reporters have wrestled with the distinction between advocacy and objectivity. Should they lean toward the former when they believe our democratic institutions are threatened? What if they lean too far and compound the problem by cracking the foundational ethics of the craft? Moreover, why should professionals have to deal with these questions, while propagandists effortlessly churn out drivel, unchallenged by any ethic other than the pure pursuit of power?
However, the predicament of historians differs slightly from that of journalists. While the latter have a harder time maintaining the distinction between reporting the facts and ringing the tocsin, this is because they work and write as events unfold in real time. One perk to working as a historian, on the other hand, is that we have more time to narrate these same events. But this places a particular burden on us. While there might seem an ethical urgency to judge those we study, there is an even greater ethical urgency to refrain.
Now, we rarely associate the practice of ethics with the practice of history. As a graduate student, the closest I ever got to ethical questions was in my class on historical methodology, where I was taught the proper attribution of sources. Vaguely ethical, as well, was our profession’s ideal of objectivity. I was smart enough to know that Leopold von Ranke’s famous dictum wie es eigentlich gewesen — usually translated as uncovering “the past as it actually was” — was an improbable, if not impossible ideal. But I was not strong enough to surrender it.
It does not take much of a leap to go from reconstructing the past to judging the past in a legal, even moral sense. The reason lies in the two principal meanings of the word “judgment.” For most of us, the word conjures images of courtrooms filled with jurors and judges and ringing with the claims and counterclaims of lawyers. That we have these images is understandable: The etymological origin of “judgment” is rooted in medieval French, denoting a verdict rendered by a court. Since then, the word has acquired a second and related meaning — namely, our capacity to make a reasoned and reasonable decision.
The phrase “history will judge” hews to the earlier usage of the word. This is especially true in the wake of recent war and Holocaust-related trials, where historians have been called upon to give expert testimony. Henry Rousso, a noted historian of Vichy France, has refused, insisting that “historians are no longer in their proper element once they don courtroom robes.” Other historians, however, have appeared as witnesses in law courts, with the unintended consequence that the difference between delivering a verdict and delivering an interpretation is no longer understood.
In fact, there is both terminological and ethical incoherence to the phrase “history will judge.” To tweak W.H. Auden, history makes nothing happen. It is historians who make history, and it is historians who fail their craft when they confuse it with judgment. The French historian Marc Bloch hammered home this very point in his book The Historian’s Craft. “Are we so sure of ourselves and of our age,” he asked, “as to divide the company of our forefathers into the just and the damned?”
If the judgment followed the explanation, Bloch continued, the reader could simply skip it. Unfortunately, he concludes, “the habit of passing judgments leads to a loss of taste for explanations.” When a nation is still reeling from a violent insurrection inspired by a corrupt regime, explanations rather than judgments become especially tasteless. (It is worth recalling that Bloch, a Frenchman who happened to be Jewish, began his book upon joining the Resistance after the Nazi occupation of France and the advent of a collaborationist and anti-Semitic regime. Murdered by the SS, he did not live to finish it.)
Many years ago, the historian Moses Finley observed that the purpose of history writing, invented by the ancient Greeks, “has never been answered satisfactorily.” That purpose is no clearer now than it was then. But the current rage to outsource the task of judging Donald Trump to “history” is not the purpose Herodotus or Thucydides had in mind for their invention.
A true ethics of history writing makes clear why this is so. Historical truth is approached not just by connecting past events, but also by connecting with past lives. This calls not for compassion, but instead for empathy. While they are connected, empathy and compassion are not the same. The former entails the imaginative reconstruction of, say, the suffering or insufferableness of other lives. But that does not necessarily entail compassion for either one or the other. Historians practice empathy not in order to feel the pain of past lives. They do so in order to grasp how and why others felt pain — or why others have felt it necessary to create pain, and still others felt it necessary to turn a blind eye to it.
The shocking events of recent weeks have revealed the costs of a government incapable of either empathy or compassion. Over the next few decades, it is for historians to practice empathy. As for compassion, leave it to the courts to exercise it, if they wish, once they have rendered judgment.
Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. His new book, “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas,” will be published in February by University of Chicago Press. The views expressed are the author's own.