The Judgmental Weekly History Thread

Welcome to this week’s History Thread!

This week’s topic: Judging historical figures and events. One of the trickiest quandaries facing both professional historians and amateur buffs is viewing historical events and personages through a modern lens. This is unavoidable no matter how hard we try to be open-minded. How much do we judge America’s Founding Fathers for owning slaves, for instance? Do we view Genghis Khan as a mass-murdering monster or the leader of an empire that was merely more successful than most? How do we treat past generations who had appalling views on gender, race and sexual orientation? How do you, whether as a reader or researcher, approach the problem of hindsight bias and subjectivity?

Put another way: how much, or how little, are you willing to judge historical figures on their terms versus your own?

In fact, this leads nicely into today’s picture…

Today’s picture: On February 13th, 1945, Allied bombers began their attack on Dresden, Germany. In a series of raids over three days, over 1,000 British and American planes dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, resulting in a massive “firestorm” that left the city in ruins and some 25,000 Germans dead (inflated to 250,000 in postwar estimates by David Irving, notorious Holocaust denier). Aside from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s easily the most controversial Allied incident of the war, as historians continue to debate whether it was strategically justified or a mere “terror bombing” designed to kill Germans. This incident famously inspired Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, as Vonnegut was in Dresden as a POW and narrowly survived the bombing himself. So it goes.