Americans and History


„How do Americans understand history? Are they aware that there is a difference between what actually happened and what is written in the history books?“


This is a question of seriousness and gravity. It goes to the heart of how a people understands itself and others. Although a historian by training, and as one who approaches intercultural subjects always from an historical perspective, I have not yet addressed this question in a structured way. The following thoughts, therefore, are by necessity immediate and unreflected.

Pupils (grammar and high school) tend to take at face value (believe) what they are required to read by their teachers. As they mature, and depending on how critical an approach their teachers take, American high school students, certainly those attending a college or university, learn to question what and how an author writes about a previous time period, events, people and their choices and interactions.

It is legitimate to inquire what history, or what version thereof, is taught in a given society. Does it tell the entire story? Does it offer the various perspectives? Is it self-critical enough to reveal its own biases? These are question we can all pose to ourselves as individuals. To what degree do we understand the history of another culture from its own perspective? How critical are we about our own version of history, especially about our role in it?

Understanding another culture cannot occur in a vacuum, however. To understand another culture requires reflection and questioning of one‘s own. We all view, and judge, others based on our own standards, on how we believe things ought to be. We see the world through our eyes.

Although I have not asked the author of the question if there is a question behind it, and there need not be one, I sense that the statement, sentiment, belief is that what Americans write and read about Germany and the Germans is not the full, the entire story, in fact may not even be accurate. But also what is written about Geramns is exclusively from the American perspective, and perhaps not even open to another point of view, namely to the German point of view.

If this is true, as it must be to a certain degree due to human limitations, biases, to the complexity of writing history, then the questioner is suggesting that Americans become more critical of what they read and hear about others and themselves.

Geschichte wird von den Siegern geschrieben, history is written by the victors, is a statement I heard early on in my graduate studies in History in West Berlin at the end of the 1980s. Although it seemed self-evident to me, it was the first time I had ever heard it. It wasn‘t until I lived in Germany – mastered their language, studied its history, began to see the world from their perspective, including how Germans view us Americans – that I understood what they mean by that statement.

Categories USA