Historical image

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An image of history is generally understood to be the sum of the historical ideas of a person or a group. The less knowledge, the more imagination determines the respective historical image. It is part of the wider worldview of a person or group. The image of history is understood to mean , on the one hand, a general perspective on historical events in the manner of a paradigm (see section History images ), but on the other hand, the interpretation of certain events and people (time-related and therefore also subject to change), primarily with the purpose of political instrumentalization in the sense of History politics (see section Effects of the historical image ).

But there is also the literal sense of image from history about history. This is what the section historical image (specifically) is about . A distinction must be made between images of history and historical research. The former are meanwhile themselves the subject of historical research .

History images

Teleological image of history

A teleological image of history is understood to mean the idea that history strives towards a specific end. Often it is a question of religious ideas, such as the fact that the story ends with a »Last Judgment«. The "classless society" as the ultimate purpose of social developments also defines a teleological view of history.

Cyclical image of history

This notion, particularly widespread in Asia, believes that everything repeats itself. There is a clear direction of movement - presented as movement on a circle - but the movement that never ends comes back to where it came from after a while. Often certain striking events are seen as marking the beginning of a new cycle, such as the enlightenment of a new Buddha.

In Europe, too, there were cyclical ideas about history, for example with Oswald Spengler . The spiritual father of this cyclical understanding of history is the Greek historian Polybius , who attested ancient Rome a special position within his model, since it combined the best of aristocracy , monarchy and democracy . However, in Polybius' view, this balance was also highly fragile, since decadence - the lack of virtue on the part of the citizens - threatened to upset the balance and turn Rome into a tyranny . Exit from tyranny, the supposedly worst form of rule, can only be found through the death or killing of the ruler. The supposedly best model, the aristocracy, will then develop through intermediate stages, whereupon the cycle will lead to the formation of a tyranny again. One of the main reasons for today's linear understanding of history is probably the emergence of Christianity, which places the creation of the world at the beginning of history and redemption at the end. A cyclical conception of history thus became obsolete.

"Nothing new under the sun"

Another idea of ​​history was that " sub specie aeternitatis " did not change anything and that only the accidents could be distinguished. It was particularly evident in Niccolò Machiavelli . This point of view of the constancy of the essential elements of politics is followed by the possibility of learning from history. Machiavelli abstracted from the individual events and established laws that should be timeless.

Cultural optimism

Under cultural optimism refers to the notion that the world always turn for the better. It is sometimes, but not always, associated with a teleological idea. The past appears as the bad that has been overcome. Often it was so-called “progressive” political theories that represented the idea of ​​a steady improvement in the world. Learning from history would be very difficult here; at most an extrapolation of the current direction of movement would be conceivable as a learning and forecasting option.

Cultural pessimism

The cultural pessimism is the opposite idea that the world was developing constantly out for the worse. The notion is supported by the Christian notion of expulsion from paradise. With a culturally pessimistic view of history, the past is literally transfigured. A well-known German-speaking representative of cultural pessimism was Ludwig Klages (see also cultural criticism ).


It is often assumed that the course of the story is predetermined and cannot be significantly influenced by the individual. Many, but not all, culture-optimistic theories assume this. In this imagination, one can go along with the direction of development (“progressive”) or, as a brakeman (“conservative” or “reactionary”), be condemned to let history slip away. Historical materialism , too , which speaks of "iron laws", allows a glimpse into the future through knowledge of these very laws. Followers of pre-determinedness - of whatever kind - therefore know individual personalities or institutions that, through intensive study, are able to more or less clearly recognize the course of history.

Providence and God

The predestination is often reinforced or modified by bringing God into play: salvation history . This can be both the idea of ​​an acting (almighty) God who intervenes in the event, or the idea of ​​the one who knows the direction of development and therefore "foresees" it. In ancient times , it was believed that certain people ( augurs , cassandra (mythology) ) could foresee the future. The oracle of Delphi was the most famous institution of its kind in the Hellenistic world, in which the Pythia prophesied. Today the advice of diviners in general does not have a good reputation. But there are still people who like to be told their future.

Free will

In contrast, there are ideas that assume that people have a free will and would therefore generally view history as man-made. Here individual personalities are picked out, who “shape” the story. The »strong man« and the numerous historical personalities with the nickname »the great« are examples of the assumption that a strong will can direct people towards a goal and thus shape the world (or at least a country). There is no possibility of forecasting with a strict assumption of free will. Learning from history is also hardly possible.

Structural history

The structure of history (... See u a Annales school ) studied large historical processes within which individuals and individual events is little room belongs (antonym: Event History ). Rather, events would always be the result of such processes. For example, the invention of the steam engine would be the result of a complex process that ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution, not its trigger. Technological change, as a result of which the steam engine was developed, would be only one element of this process.

Historical image of the science of history

History cannot do without an image of history either, but here there is a tendency towards increasingly differentiated images. In general, structural history and the meaning of decisions made by persons and committees will play a major role in it.

Effects of the historical image - examples of historical images

Depending on which historical image is used, history is presented very differently. Those who start out from free will will present history primarily as the consequences of actions of strong individual personalities. Those who, on the other hand, assume more regularities and thus, in extreme cases, regard the acting persons as recorders of the historical “development”, will attach less importance to the persons.

A few examples should show this:

Napoleon Bonaparte was seen as a person who, through his charisma, forced people into his power. Reference is made, for example, to his return from exile when he won over the troops who were supposed to stop him through his speech (“It's me, your emperor! ”). A variant of this idea has been handed down by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel , who, when he saw Napoleon, exclaimed: " The world spirit on horseback ". Hegel believed that Napoleon was only the executive organ of the "world spirit" that was realized in Napoleon.

Another example is Adolf Hitler , who is often seen as a personality who unleashed World War II by his own will. In relation to the person of Hitler, this view of history is still popular. Because of its simplicity, the presentation of history according to the motto "Great men make history" is widespread in the public eye to this day. In historical research, however, such a person-oriented historiography has been considered obsolete for decades. After the Second World War, it was initially replaced by a strong dominance of structural-historical analyzes. According to this, the Second World War would have been a series of complex developments and triggered by structural elements such as the post-war order of the Versailles Treaty and the global economic crisis .

Like the humanities and social sciences in general, today's historiography is also shaped by a multitude of approaches which, after long methodological debates, are often used today in combination. Current research on the outbreak of the Second World War, for example, would include the person of Hitler as well as structural framework conditions, e.g. B. the Versailles order and the behavior of other actors, such as the major European powers.

In the Western world today, a liberalist view prevails . The result is an image of history that is basically optimistic about progress. At the time of the Cold War it competed with the Marxist view of history, which was based on social structures and therefore attributed the Second World War not to the work of an individual, but to a phase that was necessary in history, fascism as the climax of capitalism . With the end of the East-West conflict, the progress-optimized view of history experienced a - somewhat premature - triumph in the initially assumed " end of history " ( Fukuyama ). After the end of the systemic competition, it was expected that western liberal values ​​such as democracy , market economy and human rights would now prevail in the course of globalization . More recent developments and a more nuanced assessment of globalization have dampened optimism. Nevertheless, today's view of history basically continues to assume history in the sense of a "further development".

The Islamism , however, expects a much stronger destiny bound story than the libertarian embossed West.

The first third of the 20th century in Germany, on the other hand, was shaped by the idea that cultures develop like organisms and therefore arise and perish. One of the most important works of this historical picture was " The Downfall of the West " by Oswald Spengler. Again, the historical picture of National Socialism was different , a mixture of such Spengler-organic-Prussian and social Darwinist-racist ideas, according to which the right of the stronger, that of the so-called "master race", applied.

The science of history represents a consistently more complex and multi-layered view of history than public perception. Individual images of history such as the idea of ​​large individual figures, of history in the sense of a progressive and upward movement or Machiavelli's “learning from history” persist to this day, even if current research mostly rejects such historical images in their simplicity and one-sidedness.

Causes of historical images

Non-idealistic scientific approaches try to understand the different images of history as the results of social development in the sense of a history of mentality , cultural sociology or knowledge sociology . For example, culturally pessimistic images of history are interpreted as part of the mentality of population groups that gradually descend from relatively privileged positions in the course of social change. Conversely, a common interpretation of culturally optimistic historical images is to see them as part of the mentality of a gradually rising population group.

Historical image (concrete)

Illustration from the Chronicle of the Council of Constance

In contrast to history painting, which retrospectively creates pictures of the story that correspond to one's own historical picture (in a figurative sense), there are also pictures that depict the historical states and processes of their time . Perhaps the most famous historical image in this sense is the Bayeux Tapestry , which depicts the Battle of Hastings . The representations on Roman triumphal arches and columns are even more realistic . But the Egyptians and Assyrians already depicted the battles of their time.

From the Middle Ages, the Bern Chronicle by Diebold Schilling the Elder and the illustrations for the Council of Constance by Ulrich von Richental should be mentioned.

Even with "up-to-date" images, the intention of the presentation always plays an important role. This can be, for example, the representation of the development of power - for example in the Assyrian or Babylonian depictions of their victorious kings. Another example that is often quoted is the imperial proclamation of Versailles. There are several versions of this and, interestingly, the version that puts Bismarck in the spotlight is the most famous. Kaiser Wilhelm I himself commissioned this version to give it to Bismarck for his birthday. Photos are also subject to changes in their presentation. A good example from the 20th century is the falsification of photos by retouching for damnatio memoriae by opponents of Stalin .

See also

Portal: History  - Overview of Wikipedia content on history