Posted by: aboutalbion | October 26, 2012

History master class

To pursue my own journey into history, I have joined the local branch of the Historical Association.  And earlier this week there was a branch meeting at which I felt I had a master class of how a historian does history … by examining the evidence and suggesting explanations for the causes of events.

The speaker asked the question: ‘Why did Joseph Stalin [JS] rule the Soviet Union [from 1922 to 1952] in an autocratic, brutal, and violent way?’  It seems to be accepted by virtually everybody that at least 20 million Soviet citizens died an untimely death during these thirty years.

Explanation 1  JS saw himself in the role of a traditional Tsar of Russia, and this was the way that Tsars had ruled Russia for centuries.  JS’s special task during his ‘reign’ was to modernize the Soviet Union by developing heavy industries (as in western Europe), and any untimely deaths were a result of this modernization programme.

Explanation 2  JS was a serious socialist who was on a mission to eliminate all markets and all private property.  Ordinary citizens resisted this socialist programme, and the untimely deaths can be explained by JS having to crush this resistance.

Explanation 3  JS was a paranoid socialist who thought that the socialism of the Soviet Union was under threat of invasion from Great Britain (capitalist) and Germany (fascist).  So JS organized the whole Soviet Union as a military camp ready to resist invasions.  JS wanted to make the Soviet Union more secure.  So wherever (paranoid) JS thought he ‘saw’ disloyalty and disobedience, he arranged for the people concerned to ‘disappear’, and this explains the untimely deaths.  On this account, JS was the saviour of socialism.

To my mind, the speaker demonstrated that a historian writes as many evidence-based explanations as s/he can.  And a good historian then finds reasons to put the possible explanations into an order of priority.

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