Are there real examples of "historians will X"?
November 5, 2017 3:05 PM   Subscribe

The idea that future historians will have some special reaction to the current era of madness is common. Have previous historical figures ever expressed similar sentiments and were they right about how historians looked back?
posted by Skorgu to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Clemenceau's prediction has held up so far:

At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Georges Clemenceau held out for the harshest terms against Germany. Someone pointed out that historians would be arguing for generations over who was responsible for starting the Great War.

"Yes," Clemenceau said, "but one thing is certain: They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."

posted by thelonius at 3:33 PM on November 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

Perhaps the most famous case of this is the Gettysburg Address. "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
posted by lharmon at 4:21 PM on November 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

The St. Crispan's Day speech from Henry V doesn't explicitly say "historians", but the central thrust is that future people will remember the events of the day.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:39 PM on November 5, 2017

Perhaps the most famous case of this is the Gettysburg Address

It's worthwhile to note that Lincoln's prediction was wrong. People remember the words he spoke on that day much more than they remember the details of the battle.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 5:45 PM on November 5, 2017 [15 favorites]

The St. Crispan's Day speech from Henry V doesn't explicitly say "historians", but the central thrust is that future people will remember the events of the day.

Shakespeare wrote Henry V, from which this speech comes, nearly 200 years after Agincourt. It is unlikely to be a contemporary transcription of whatever Henry V might actually have said.
posted by tavegyl at 5:52 PM on November 5, 2017 [13 favorites]

And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or perhaps color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.

Edward Murrow
posted by mikek at 5:57 PM on November 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

Franklin Roosevelt's "date which will live in infamy" speech seems to fit. The thrust of this short speech was that the Japanese made an unprovoked attack on the U.S., and that this attack, and the date of it, would be remembered. The Wikipedia entry is actually pretty decent.
posted by gudrun at 7:50 PM on November 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not an historian, but E.B. White wrote this in Harper's Magazine in 1938:

"I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television -- of that I am certain.

Television will enormously enlarge the eye's range, and like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images -- distant and concocted."

(which seems to be seconded by Edward Murrow, above)
posted by kestralwing at 9:53 PM on November 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

On review, E.B. White isn't exactly predicting what historians will say, but still -- he certainly seems to be predicting his future/our present.
posted by kestralwing at 9:57 PM on November 5, 2017

I think Carl Sagan’s prediction of the trajectory of the US is fairly depressingly accurate:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...
posted by Happy Dave at 2:21 AM on November 6, 2017 [25 favorites]

"Future historians, looking back at 1962, may well mark this year as the time when the tide of international politics began at last to flow strongly towards the world of diversity and freedom." (President John F Kennedy, 1963)

That one didn't turn out too well.
posted by verstegan at 3:25 AM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

The term "First World War" was used before there was a Second World War, though I'm not sure that's quite the sort of thing you're looking for.

William McGonagle was correct in that the Tay Bridge Disaster is still strongly recalled:
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

posted by Vortisaur at 11:25 AM on November 6, 2017

The classic example of prescience on the verdict of history is the "Peace and Future Cannon Fodder" cartoon of 1919, which not only predicted that the treaty would cause a future war (yes, I know, this is not a prevailing view at the moment, but it certainly has been at times) but pretty much got the year right as well. But again, that cartoonist is pretty much only a historical figure because of the cartoon rather than anything else.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:43 AM on November 6, 2017

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