Loving “My” Nazi… And Other Problems With Studying Individuals

A week ago I went to an excellent one-day conference: ‘A Life as a Lens: Using Individuals in Wider Historical Research’ (see: http://alifeasalens.wordpress.com/). A range of speakers talked about their research into individuals such as doctors, politicians, antiquaries, and civil servants. We also heard details from the lives of a fifteenth-century preacher, a Ming dynasty interpreter, Abraham Lincoln, and a worker-poet from the West Riding.

I walked away from the day with perhaps more questions than answers, so what follows is more interrogative than declarative.

The call for papers for the conference asked speakers to think about “The ‘ordinary life’ vs. the ‘great man’ – do histories of individuals always privilege the elite?” (see: http://bit.ly/1sBxnEu). Yet almost all of the papers were about men, almost all of them concerned individuals with significant personal independence and power, and many of them were, in fact, men who have already been the subject of biographies.

There was, however, a lot of talk on the day about how different our various interests are from ‘Great Men’ history. A few justifications stand out to me, personally. First, few of us made ‘our’ individuals the hero(in)es of our accounts. I don’t think many of the historians there chose their subjects because they led empires, nations, or even parties. Rather than their role shaping history, it seems to me many of us were interested in their subjectivities. Particularly reflexive individuals, like Laura Sangha’s (@_drsang) subject, the spiritual diarist Ralph Thoresby (http://bit.ly/1BQtbrb) give us insights into how people in the past made their own individuality.

Second, I think there was a lot of honesty about our emotional entanglements with our subjects. Charlotte Riley (@lottelydia), for instance, feels strangely attached to the ‘uncharismatic’ but important politician Arthur Creech Jones.

This attachment was ‘betrayed’ by her attempt to use Arthur’s first-name throughout her paper. This led to a fairly lively discussion, drawing on Matt Houlbrook’s (@tricksterprince) post on the same topic: ‘Are We On First Name Terms Yet?’ (http://wp.me/p1MkWU-bTYgj). The jury’s out.

This emotional attachment is not always of the positive kind. Laura Sangha made some interesting comments about just how boring reading Thoresby’s diary could be. And Darren O’Byrne (@DarrenOByrne1), had an even less sympathetic take on his individual, understandable when you realize he was a Nazi civil servant named Dr. Johannes Krohn.

I would say I fall somewhere between these two extremes. As I have written here before, there is much about Félix Arnaudin that irritates or even disturbs me (http://bit.ly/1r5MZDt although Arnaudin wasn’t the individual I was specifically talking about).

I think some of the dangers here are recognizable. This emotional entanglement can quickly devolve into a blame game. Indeed, with a subject like the Holocaust it is hard to see how this trap can really be avoided. This concerns me, because I do not aim as a historian to be a moral judge of people’s character. I aim to write about how and why things happened in the past, and – forgive me for being postmodern about it – I am sometimes unconvinced that individual agencies are all-important. What use blaming and shaming?

I do, however, think a lot of these emotional dilemmas highlight a more foundational methodological one. How do we choose which individual to study? I heard a lot of different explanations on the day, and tried to keep a (surely not exhaustive!) running list.

1. People often talk, understandably, of finding their individual by accident. That’s the nature of research.

2. And this bleeds quickly into an argument that the sources are richer for certain individuals. Which also makes sense.

3. And fundamentally, many of us seemed drawn to something as vague as the fact that our individuals really interest us. Articulating why can be hard. (Have you ever felt your justifications on funding applications are a bit post hoc? What? Nope, me NEITHER!)

4. But the last explanation is the one that interests ME the most: we choose an individual because they are socially-representative, what Emily Manktelow (@EManktelow) called ‘social history creeping back in through the guise of the individual’ (if I remember her words!). This is certainly the kind of approach that has heavily influenced me, especially in the work of the microhistorians (such as Ginzburg’s Friulian miller, Menocchio: http://amzn.to/1r6P5lj) or the amazing book about a ‘nobody’ by Alain Corbin (http://amzn.to/1ploInG). Yet none of the people present at the conference claimed to be doing microhistory… And few of us were studying lowly individuals. I think this is a shame, but then I would, seeing as I was talking about a local postman and a village seamstress!

The final thing I was left wondering is how little explicit problematisation of the ‘individual’ there was on the day. There is a large literature on the idea that the individual is a ‘modern’ invention. Now, as it happens, I think that is pretty much bunkum, but I do think the problems have to be addressed.

After all, people in the past often openly denied their own agency for a variety of reasons, pretending to be powerless, ignorant, and mute. They might be baffled that an academic historian thinks their life worth writing about. Of course, this does not mean that they really lacked any agency or voice, but it does raise problems for treating their individuality as if it were self-evident.

And there are other challenges to the ‘individual’ as a category of historical analysis.

What of family? Almost all of the papers touched on the formative role of families, leading me at one point to type down that we had heard more family histories than biographies!

What of the post-human? Are animals individuals? Can a thing be one? There are all sorts of weird and wonderful questions here. I wish I’d asked Laura Sangha if a historian could write a biography of an angel (http://amzn.to/1r6QOqN). How do you write the biography of a man who survived by lying about his identity? (http://tricksterprince.wordpress.com/)

In short, how does the category of ‘individual’ which a historian might deploy map onto the historical development of the idea of the individual and how does it relate to historically-specific ways of thinking personhood and subjectivity?

Lots of questions, not many answers, just like I promised!

3 thoughts on “Loving “My” Nazi… And Other Problems With Studying Individuals

  1. The most successful example of a family history instead of an individual history I can think of offhand was Juliet Barker’s “The Brontes” (pardon the lack of the diacritic). The history of the three famous writers is bound up with their family environment, and there is so little information on Emily, and only so much more on Anne, that individual biographies of them in practice have been about Charlotte’s life and how the given sister fit into it. So the family approach was illuminating.


  2. It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading this properly – many thanks for some interesting afterthoughts on the day. I really enjoyed what was a thought provoking and lively conference, excellently imagined and then organised by Charlotte Riley and Stefan Visnjevac.

    We did miss a trick by failing to grapple with the concept of the ‘individual’, but then there really was so much to cover all in one day… I will take a stab at answering your brilliant question though – could a historian write a biography of an angel? My instinctive reaction was yes, sort of. There are many angels with names and distinctive characteristics, two are named in scripture (Michael and Gabriel) and a third (Raphael) appears in the book of Tobias (part of the Catholic but not the Protestant canon in the early modern period). There is in fact a monograph by Richard Johnson which might be an example of this: ‘Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend’ – it’s focused around an individual angel and the cult associated with him. Thus some angels are individuals and they do have a history.

    But then, isn’t this just examining the history of a theological concept rather than a study of an individual? If you focused exclusively on the appearances/ activities of Michael, would that fit the ‘studying an individual’ criteria better? Could this in fact sidestep the issue of the development of the individual because angels (theologically speaking) do not reflect on their own personhood? What about the fact that Calvinists were keen to discourage people from thinking of angels as individual entities, because of the potential for idolatry that this entailed?

    In terms of Ralph Thoresby, that’s given me some important things to consider. Thoresby is very self-reflective about his ‘individual spirituality’ but I need to think more about the other aspects of his life. Given that I am now just adding to the list of questions, I think it’s best if I end there!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Laura, thanks for the reply! I am quite interested in this issue of how seriously we take the conception of individuality people in the past had, and how far we apply our own ‘common-sense’ ideas of individuality instead, so your comments on angels are thought-provoking. Best of luck with Thoresby!


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