Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards

"A historian is often only a journalist facing backwards." -- Karl Kraus

Mark S. Byrnes is Chair and Professor of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

  • "He Wasn't A Regular Guy"

    by Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards

    The eagerness on the part of some people to embrace a narrative that suggests that Michael Brown "deserved it," before the facts are established, has a long and ugly history--and that fact may be far more significant and troubling than what happened that day in Ferguson.

  • The Lesson Tolstoy Teaches About Writing History that We Should Remember on the Anniversary of World War I

    by Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards

    An age-old debate in history is whether individuals make history, or whether individuals are swept along by great forces that they can only hope to ride skillfully, not control completely.

    Tolstoy gave expression to the latter idea in War and Peace:

    The further back we transport ourselves in examining events, the less arbitrary they appear to us…. The further back in history we transport the object of our observation, the more questionable becomes the freedom of the men producing events, and the more obvious the law of necessity. 

    While the wide, long-term perspective employed by Tolstoy in this passage is familiar to historians, two articles in the popular press prompted by the anniversary of the beginning of World War I show the great appeal of focusing on the individual. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan details the toll taken by the war on the leaders of major states: Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, England’s King George V, Russia’s Czar Nicholas II. In the Washington Post, Graham Allison examines how two of those three leaders (“Nicky and Willy”) tried to prevent the war. 

  • Historical Humility

    by Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards

    The great advantage historians have is that we know how the story ends. 

    The great temptation that follows from that fact is historical arrogance—an unspoken certainty that because we know it now, we would have known it then. 

    The great challenge, therefore, is to impose upon ourselves historical humility, to remind ourselves that the historical actors we study did not have the advantage we do of knowing the story’s end. 

    I was reminded of that recently while doing some research at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. I’m working on the role of radio in the Great Debate over American intervention in World War II, and came across some of the countless personal letters people wrote to FDR on the subject.