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Historians and existentialism

A historian in the archives

In a sense, writing history is an intrinsically moral activity—although different kinds of history embody different degrees of morality. Writing a ‘sympathetic’ history of oppressed and forgotten people is the most moral; writing such a history of states and power-structures is the least. But in both cases you’re asserting human dignity in the face of the absurd, the absurd and appalling denial of man’s dignity implicit in the facts of death and forgottenness. Whole civilizations forgotten, as if they never existed. A total absence of recognition, the cruelest denial of humanity. Historians are (from this perspective) like heroic Don Quixotes engaged in a desperate and losing battle against time’s inhumanity.


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