Must the writing of history always be undertaken in a spirit of cold detachment, or is there a legitimate place for the use of passion as a guiding force in the pursuit of historical inquiry? Traditional wisdom would suggest that objectivity is paramount in the interpretation of historical events and that conclusions become clouded and biased when objectivity is compromised through the influence of subjectivity. While I agree that the need to remain impartial in the study and interpretation of historical materials is fundamental, I wonder If it might not be possible to write genuinely passionate history while remaining faithful to the ideals of academic vigour.
I raise these questions because my thinking on this topic has been challenged recently through my study of Jules Isaac’s The Teaching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Isaac had already distinguished himself as a writer of essential textbooks on French history, yet the anti-Semitic climate of Vichy France would present confront Isaac with an existential tragedy that would forever alter the course of his academic pursuits. Attempting to seek refuge from Nazi persecution in the French town of Riom, Isaac’s wife and children were arrested by the Gestapo as he was out for a walk. Despite his pleading with the Nazi Government for their release, they all died in Auschwitz.
The trauma of this event utterly disoriented Isaac, who was stricken with profound and lasting grief. Yet the devastation of losing his family was to prompt a drastic reconsideration of the trajectory of his intellectual interests. Even though Isaac was already in his senior years at the time of the war, the real impact of his legacy was to be felt in the years to come. Having already been interested in the Christian roots of anti-Semitism for many years, Isaac used the tragic death of his family as an underlying motivational force, which fuelled a new passion for examining how the history of Christian theology has codified anti-Semitism. Isaac’s wife perhaps had a sense of his future significance before her death. Before her deportation to the Auschwitz death camp, Isaac’s wife left him a note which said to “save yourself for your work; the world is waiting for it.” (1)
Isaac’s study on the theology of Anti-Semitism is the outcome of his struggle to come to terms with the nihilistic, murderous rampage of Nazism, which symbolized for him the natural endpoint for systematic anti-Semitism. The study utilises a series of theses and correlating responses to illustrate the various strands of anti-Semitic theory. For example, Isaac chooses to place under the historical microscope the widespread theological view that the Jewish diaspora commenced in A.D. 70 after their military defeat in Judea. Instead, Isaac suggests that the dispersion of Jews had commenced far earlier, thus calling into question the established view that the dispersion of the Jews was a result of ‘Divine retribution.’ Isaac continues his study with an examination of the alleged decadence of the Jews during the early Christian period and the age-old notion of the Jews as murderers of Christ. (2)
The intellectual coherency and clarity of Isaac’s study are undeniable, but what immediately struck me about the text the passionate zeal which emanates every page. Isaac makes no secret of his overarching mission to challenge the various theological justifications for anti-Semitism, and the depth of this conviction fuels his intellectual pursuits to the extent that might make a more clinical historian uncomfortable. Does the display of such passion then corrupt the final text? The beauty of Isaac’s work is its deep engagement with representative Catholic and Protestant scholars, each of whom is profiled not just for their contributions to anti-Semitic theological trends but for their status as bearers of historical traditions- many of which may be subconsciously reflected in unquestioned attitudes and doctrinal assumptions.
Despite Isaac’s intellectual rigor, there remains the danger that a passion that arises from an a priori commitment to a religious or political cause can distort both methodology and conclusions. Does this danger- which Isaac manages to avoid- warrant a complete disavowal of passionate history? I maintain that it does not. Yet if we allow for the possibility of the experience of deep passion as motivating historical research, under what circumstances should this be endorsed? I contend that writing history in a passionate way is justifiable when the subject relates to matters of significant moral and ethical import. In the case of the Holocaust, for example, historians have an obligation to incorporate a moral perspective when dealing with subjects of such magnitude. To remain silent on the ethical lessons of the Holocaust would be to detract from its tragedy and would reduce research to the cold reiteration of facts without any requirement of moral education. (3) Of course, all of this is to say nothing of the impossibility of entirely objective historical writing, which is always motivated by the researcher’s often unexamined personal biases. At the very least, Isaac’s work demonstrates a successful attempt at fusing unbridled passion with scholarly integrity and goes part of the way in de-stigmatizing the rightful place of emotion, moral commitment, and passion in the art of historical research.
(1) See Claire Hutchet Bishop’s introduction to Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism(New York: McGraw Hill, 1965), 9.
(2) Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, translated by Martin H. Bertram, in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 47:267.
(3) Robert P. Ericksen acknowledges this in the preface to his work treating the role of German Churches and Universities in the Third Reich. Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), xiv.