For Germans, the Historikerstreit is the long running debate among historians over whether the crimes of Nazism are best understood in a comparative context or should be treated as a uniquely evil phenomenon. At stake was whether something was fundamentally wrong with German culture itself. Something similar seems to be at stake in arguments among American historians. In the U.S. there actually seems to be a three-way war, as implicitly mapped out by David Greenberg's review in the current New Republic of a biography of Howard Zinn. The conflict will seem familiar to those who've followed the recent career of Sean Wilentz, a historian of the center-left who spends more time firing polemics at antagonists to his left than at whoever may be an opponent to his right. His dispute with Oliver Stone over Stone's Untold History of the United States is echoed in Greenberg's account of Zinn, the author of the bestselling People's History of the United States. Zinn's actual biographer is Martin Duberman, apparently a more radical historian than Greenberg yet still a critic of Zinn. The popularity of Zinn's writing made him a target on two fronts, one ideological, one academic. Duberman, while reportedly sympathetic to much of Zinn's leftist political agenda, reportedly faults the late author for a lack of academic rigor. That is, after an early point in Zinn's professional career he rarely engaged in primary research. Worse, Zinn didn't appear to take seriously the distinction may leftist academics draw between political commitment and objectivity in historical research. Like Stone, who was quite likely inspired by him, Zinn boasted of his bias in favor of the poor and powerless and his hostility toward wealth in power. As a result, Duberman notes that Zinn's work "sometimes ... lacks nuance" in its division of humanity into "villains or heroes" and its portrayal of U.S. history as "mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit." Greenberg amplifies Duberman's criticisms, finding the biographer "too indulgent" of his subject and suggesting that Duberman remains too much a writer of the Left to judge his subject as Zinn deserves.
Professional academic historians can be dogmatic about objectivity and the importance of primary research, but it's impossible to rule out envy, regardless of whether the reviewer is left, center or other, of someone like Zinn who got wealthy writing "popular history," i.e. storytelling, without answering to academia's rigorous standards. Envy, however, shouldn't obscure the widespread perception that something was wrong with Zinn's historiography. Many political comrades, broadly speaking, found fault with his perceived tendency to turn history into a good-vs-evil struggle. Greenberg sums up their attitude, paraphrasing a leftist critic of Zinn to the effect that "historians are obliged to explore the viewpoints of elite actors, however unattractive, not to parcel out sympathy in proper proportions, but to show, in a faithful account of the past, the interconnectedness of the rulers and ruled, and of all strata of society, and how one group's experiences influence others." He describes my own habit of mind. I'm reading a recent book about the Great Leap Forward in China and the resulting mass famine under Chairman Mao, and I find myself struggling to figure out how decisions that seem insane and imbecilic could make sense to the man. I don't want to jump to the conclusion that Mao was just an inhuman megalomaniac -- even though that might be the best way to salvage Communism of a permanent taint by association with him -- but I also wonder what good is really does to insist that everyone must have had his reasons, even for the worst atrocities of history. This seems to be the point of departure for "popular historians" like Zinn and Oliver Stone's partner Peter Kuznick. Critics like Greenberg and even reportedly more sympathetic critics like Duberman avow loyalty to an objective ideal of history as the totality of people's lives and opinions. Their commitment to objective truth requires them at least to report that everyone has his reasons -- that no one (except the Nazis, maybe) were huddled together conspiratorially cackling with pleasure at the harm they meant to do people. By comparison, writers like Zinn are essentially moralists. What matters to them is that people have suffered while others were indifferent or else actually exacerbated human suffering. Whether they were actual sadists who did what they did specifically to cause suffering wasn't the point, I presume, for Zinn -- as an academically trained historian I've never bothered reading him. What most likely mattered was whether you did anything to alleviate the suffering of your contemporaries. If you didn't, you were a bad guy.
Greenberg is clearly more of a centrist than Zinn or Duberman, so he can't leave the subject without taking a swipe at leftism in general. Like Sean Wilentz, Greenberg resents the Left's perceived tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good (i.e. the Democratic party?). While complimenting American radicals for "bringing greater equality and justice to the political sphere," Greenberg complains that "there have been times, too, when some radicals -- political and intellectual -- have embraced zealotry and maximalism, or betrayed their own ideals, and allowed their impatience with the imperfections of those in power to lead them into deluded and destructive movements." But if impatience with imperfection is a sin to Greenberg, indifference to suffering (or injustice) was one for Zinn and remains one for Stone. Too often it seems as if American intellectuals and activists are asked to choose one or the other. It's true that in extreme cases (like Mao) impatience leads straight to indifference, but in most cases it should not be as oppressive as Democrats so often feel it is for people to demand a better world, however "simplistically" they describe it and however persistently they demand it. Intellectuals may be annoyed by the alleged Manicheanism of leftist "people's history," but they should be careful not to sound as if they don't want anyone saying that something is wrong with the world -- at least when Democrats are in charge.