Contemporary history

John Davies, a leading Welsh historian who was born in 1938, remembers being told at university that everything since 1911 was ‘mere journalism’.[1]  Such views were already then becoming outdated due to the momentous horrors of two world wars, events which plainly needed studying and understanding.

Yet studying the recent past remained less popular than events a safer distance away and even in 1997 Arthur Marwick could note a prejudice towards contemporary history.[2]  If there is a prejudice or hesitancy towards studying the recent past it is rooted in its difficulties rather than any sense that contemporary history is not an important or valid topic for study.  Contemporary history throws up significant challenges because of the volume of sources, the difficulty of negotiating the historian’s own position, outlook and memories  and the problem of not knowing what happened next.[3]

Even those who practice it can struggle with how contemporary history differs from studying other periods.  Mazower, a historian of twentieth-century Europe, wrote that he found it difficult to see the recent past ‘as a period of history rather than as a series of contemporary social, political and economic issues’.[4]  Elsewhere he noted that because it was social scientists who mostly wrote about post-1945 Europe, ‘the feel and approach of the scholarly literature … is quite different from that of earlier periods, and this poses special problems for the would-be synthesizer.  Lines of historical debate and terms of enquiry are ill-defined, non-existent or simply unrecognisable’.[5]

Any reluctance to study the recent past is masked somewhat by the changing boundaries of when that past is.[6]  No longer, for example, do most historians consider the Second World War as contemporary history.  Although 1945 remains a common boundary used to define the topic, even the 1950s and 60s are far beyond the living memory of many adults today and are thus often not regarded as contemporary history.

In the UK, it is probably the last three decades that really marks the contemporary past, not least because of the thirty-year rule in public records.  Thus the recent growth of work on the 1970s gives a more vibrant impression of contemporary history than would be garnered if work on the 1980s was looked for.

A search of the Bibliography of British and Irish History clearly illustrates how the volume of work on more recent decade tails off to such an extent that it cannot simply be because earlier decades have had more time to be written about.

Number of bibliographic entries on Bibliography of British and Irish History related to different decades[7]

 

It is not just the period that contemporary history refers to that is shifting.  Freedom of information legislation, new archival policies, the internet and the general shift to electronic communication and storage are all changing the nature of researching the recent past.[8]  Indeed, practitioners of contemporary history often express confusion about what research resources are now available online.[9]  The practice of the topic is changing and changing quickly.

Nonetheless, there has been a recent upsurge in writing about the recent past. The work of Dominic Sandbrook, in particular, has shown there is both a market for contemporary history and significant potential in its telling.[10] Others have begun explicit attempts to use history, especially recent history, to offer policy lessons for the present.[11] But it is still surprising that there is not more contemporary history written or even taught. After all, students’ view of what is contemporary is rather different to their older lecturers.

Neither students nor history have always been quite as well served by universities as they might have been. In looking at what professionalization and the growth of higher education had done to British history, David Cannadine argued that it became introspective, pedantic, narrow in focus and preoccupied with fine detail rather general interpretations.  Too much of it was ‘little more than an intellectual pastime for consenting academics in private’.[12]

Perhaps more than any other kind of history, contemporary history can meet this challenge.  When done well, it can be lively, entertaining, engaging, unsettling and provocative.  When it achieves that, not only is the public expenditure on its production justified but so too is the thinking, agonizing and slog that went into its writing.

Martin Johnes is the author of Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Pres, 2012).

 


[1] John Davies, ‘Whose memory do we keep?’, in John Osmond (ed), Myths, Memories and Futures: The National Library and National Museum in the Story of Wales (Cardiff, 2007), 58-67, quote from 59.

[2] Arthur Marwick, ‘A new look, a new departure: a personal comment on our changed appearance’, Journal of Contemporary History, 32, 1 (1997), 5-8.

[3] For a full discussion of these challenges and how they can be negotiated see Martin Johnes, ‘On writing contemporary history’, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, 6, 1 (2011).  Online at http://welshstudiesjournal.org/article/view/11/7

[4] Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (London, 1998), 478.

[5] Mark Mazower, Response to Review no. 67, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/67/response

[6] For discussion on when contemporary history is see Jane Caplan, ‘Contemporary history: reflections from Britain and Germany’, History Workshop Journal, 63 (2007), 230-38.

[7] Data assembled using the ‘close search’ facility. An item which covers long period is counted in each decade’s total.

[8] For discussions see E. Hampshire and V. Johnson, ‘The Digital World and the Future of Historical Research’, Twentieth Century British History, 20, 3 (2009), 396-414, and A. Flinn and H. Jones (eds), Freedom of Information: Open Access, Empty Archives? (London, 2009).

[9] Vanessa Ann Chambers, ‘`Informed by, but not guided by, the concerns of the present’: contemporary history in UK Higher Education – its teaching and assessment’, Journal of Contemporary History, 44, 1 (2009), 89-105, 99.

[10] Dominic Sanbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (London, 2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London, 2006), State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 (London, 2010).

[11] See the History and Policy project. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/

[12] David Cannadine, ‘British history: past, present – and future?’, Past and Present, 116 (1987), 169-191. Quote from 178.

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Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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