Historical Facts

Norman Schultz

June 2003

Uncovering the Past

"History is written by the victor." -- Unknown

A historical fact is a fact about the past. It answers the very basic question, "What happened?" Yet beyond merely listing the events in chronological order, historians try to discover why events happened, what circumstances contributed to their cause, what subsequent effects they had, and how they were interpreted.[1] In an effort to get at what really happened, historians compare stories from a wide variety of sources, searching for common elements that corroborate a plausible account. Accounts are compared with archeological findings. Neither history nor archeology is an exact science, but technique and technology improvements over the years have enabled them both to make stronger and stronger cases for their accounts of the past.

"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge -
That myth is more potent than history,
I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts -
That hope always triumphs over experience -
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death."
 -- Robert Fulghum taken from http://www.robertfulghum.com/

Yet historical accounts are subject to frequent disagreement. Much disagreement is due to the fact that accurate history is difficult to obtain, for a variety of reasons. Much information regarding the past has been lost. Many cultures have a rich oral history, but lack written documents. Oral accounts, or "story telling," suffer from an inherent loss of information. Each person in the chain will tend to "interpret" the story, presenting the opportunity to accidentally alter it, or worse, to slant the story to one's own tastes before passing it on. Written history before the age of copiers and computers had to be hand-copied, providing similarly easy opportunities for errors or exaggeration. Some material is simply propaganda, intentionally containing little or no truth. Even if authentic, the meaning of documents regarding the past can be highly unclear to any modern investigator, or can conflict with other sources. These factors and others result in quite a bit of uncertainty about historical accounts. This leaves room for parties to interpret history in ways that favor them, resulting in strong resistance from those on opposing sides.

Conflicts Involving Historical Facts

Any conflict that goes on for a long time, as intractable conflicts do, will involve historical facts. For example, the ongoing environmental conflict regarding nuclear energy draws on the history of nuclear power accidents, including those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Environmental activists interpret these incidents in ways that differ from those who promote nuclear power, reflecting the general fact that conflicting parties are likely to interpret the events of the past in different ways. Yet in this case, these facts are not crucial to the current arguments over safety. More important are concerns about current potential for accidents, waste disposal, and opportunities for misuse of nuclear material.

Historical facts do play a central role in other kinds of conflicts, for example, long-running international conflicts over territory. A clear example of this is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Each side holds its own version of the region's history, and the respective versions are reflected in each side's rhetoric. The historical rhetoric becomes a cyclical part of the escalating conflict -- each side holds its own biases; those biases affect the way each side interprets the past; these biased interpretations are repeated and circulated as if they were a fact, thus further feeding and strengthening partisan bias on both sides. In such a conflict it becomes increasingly difficult to uncover the authentic history due to the continual cycle of interpretation and propaganda. In this way, historical "facts" can add significantly to a conflict's intractability.

Additional insights into historical facts are offered by Beyond Intractability participants.

Constructively Addressing History

When a conflict involves a debate over a historical fact, whether the debate be over an actual event or an interpretation of the event, it may be important to decide whether the debate is resolvable and whether resolving it will improve the situation. A fact-finding endeavor may indeed uncover important historical information, and that information may play a role in building consensus. On the other hand, the information may not have any real effect, either because those facts are rejected or because someone shifts tactics to avoid utilizing those facts. Even worse, fresh information may inflame the conflict even more.

Since historical research is not an exact science, historical fact-finding suffers from the problem of uncertain information. It may not be possible to uncover what actually happened, and giving parties the hope that it is possible can lead to disappointment and a hardened position. At some point, the best option may be for each side to simply set aside arguments about the past and work toward resolving the current situation. Conflicts have costs -- intractable conflicts usually significant ones -- in resources and human lives. Resources and human lives lost may not be reclaimed. On the other hand, future losses are avoidable, so shifting focus from the past to the future -- at least temporarily -- can sometimes be a good strategy for both parties.

Once settlement is reached, however, it is then often useful to go back and re-address past abuses, either through war crimes tribunals (which prosecute war criminals) or truth commissions, which attempt to document what happened, while granting amnesty rather than prosecuting the guilty. Both of these approaches enable parties to address the past, reconcile with it and with each other, and move forward into a more constructive relationship.

Also useful are joint efforts at history writing and/or storytelling, both as a conflict resolution and a peace building strategy after a settlement has been reached. The ICKB essay on narratives and storytelling describes several such efforts, which have had positive peacemaking and peace building effects.

[1] Perhaps this is why an event that happened in the very recent past (like yesterday, or last week) isn't generally going to be considered "historical" -- not enough time has elapsed for it to be analyzed for context, cause, and effect.

Use the following to cite this article:
Schultz, Norman. "Historical Facts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/historical-facts>.

Additional Resources