the contemporary historian has a roomful of sources for a single day.


most arbiters of our intellectual life feel that a certain minimum period of time needs to have passed, and certain canonical kinds of archival sources should be available, before anything written about this immediate past qualifies as History.

I write ‘history of the present’. The phrase is not mine. It was, so far as I know, coined by the veteran American diplomatist and historian George Kennan, in a review of my book about Central Europe in the 1980s, The Uses of Adversity,  published in Italian as Le rovine dell'Impero. It is, for me, the best possible description of what I have been trying to do for the last thirty years, combining the crafts of historian and journalist. Yet it immediately invites dissent. History of the present? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms. Surely history is by definition about the past. History is books on Caesar, the Thirty Years War or the Russian Revolution. It’s discoveries and new interpretations based on years of studying documents in the archives.Let’s put aside straightaway the objection that ‘the present’ is but a line, scarcely a millisecond wide, between past and future. We know what we mean here by ‘the present’, even if the chronological boundaries are always disputed. Call it ‘the very recent past’ or ‘current affairs’ if you would rather. The important point is this: Not just professional historians but most arbiters of our intellectual life feel that a certain minimum period of time needs to have passed, and certain canonical kinds of archival sources should be available, before anything written about this immediate  past qualifies as History.It was not ever thus. As the formidably learned German intellectual historian Reinhart Koselleck has observed, from the time of Thucydides until well into the eighteenth century, to have been an eye-witness to the events described, or even better, to have been a participant in them, was considered to be a major advantage in the writing of history. Contemporary history was thought to be the best history. It is only since the emergence of the idea of progress, the growth of critical philology and the work of Leopold von Ranke that historians have come to believe that you understand events better if you are further away from them. If you stop to think about it, this is actually a very odd idea: the person who wasn’t there knows better than the person who was. Even the most ascetic neo-Rankean depends upon the witnesses who make the first record of the past. If they do not make a record, there is no history. If they do it badly, or in pursuit of a quite different agenda (religious, say, or astrological, or scatological), the historian will not find answers to the questions he wants to ask. It’s therefore best to have a witness who is himself interested in finding answers to the historian’s questions about sources and causes, structure and process, the individual and the mass. Hence, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville’s  personal memoir of the 1848 revolution in France is worth twenty others.Now this need for the historically minded witness has become more acute in recent times, for a simple reason. In Ranke’s day, politics was put on paper. Diplomacy was conducted or immediately noted down in  correspondence. Politicians, generals and diplomats wrote extensive diaries, letters and memoranda. Even then, of course, much that was vital was not written down: murmured private understandings in the corridors of the Congress of Vienna, the pillow talk of queens.Then as now, most of human experience was never recorded at  all. But most of politics was. Today, however, high politics is more and more pursued in personal meetings (thanks to the jet  airplane), or by telephone (increasingly by mobile phone), or by email. Certainly, minutes of meetings are made afterwards and, at the highest levels, also transcripts of phone conversations. But the proportion of important business actually put on paper has diminished. And who writes narrative letters or detailed diaries any more? A dwindling minority.To be sure, researchers can watch television footage. Sometimes, they can listen to the telephone tapes - or taps - of those conversations, and read the emails. The point is not that there are less sources than there were. Quite the reverse. Where the ancient historian has to reconstruct a whole epoch from a single papyrus, the contemporary historian has a roomful of sources for a single day.  It is the ratio of quantity to quality that has changed for the worse.On the other hand, politicians, diplomats, soldiers and businessmen have never been so eager to give their own version of what has just happened. Crises like that over Iraq famously unfold in ‘real time’ on CNN. European ministers tumble out of EU meetings to brief journalists from their own countries. Naturally, each gives his own twist and spin. But if you put the different versions back together again, you have a pretty good instant picture of what occurred. In short, what you can know soon after the event has increased and what you can know long after the event has diminished. This is particularly true of less regular politics. During some of the feverish internal debates of the leaders of Czechoslovakia’s velvet revolution, in the Magic Lantern theatre in Prague in November 1989, I was the only person present taking notes. I remember thinking: ‘If I don’t write this down, nobody will. It will be gone forever, like bathwater down the drain.’ So much recent history has disappeared like that, never to be recovered, for want of the present recorder.Two objections remain strong. First, since what governments and individuals try to keep secret are often the most important things, the eventual release of new sources will change the picture substantially. This is not a conclusive argument for waiting. In the meantime, other equally important things, well understood at the moment, may be forgotten. But it is a major hazard of the genre. In the preface to my first book-length ‘history of the present’, an account of the Solidarity revolution in Poland, I wrote that I would not have attempted this if it seemed likely that the official papers of the Soviet and Polish communist regimes would become available in the foreseeable future. That, I blithely continued, seemed ‘as probable as the restoration of the monarchy in Warsaw  or Moscow’. Eight years later, the Soviet bloc had collapsed and many of those papers were available. Fortunately I also quoted Walter Raleigh’s warning, in the preface to his History of the World, ‘that who-so-euer in writing a modern Historie shall follow truth too neare the heeles, it may happily strike out his teeth.’The second strong objection is that we don’t know the consequences of current developments. So our understanding of their historical significance is much more speculative and liable to revision. Again, this is patently  true. Every sixth former studying ancient history knows that the Roman empire declined and fell. Writing about the Soviet empire in the 1980s, none of us knew the end of the story. In 1988 I published an essay entitled ‘The Empire in Decay’, but I still thought its fall was a long way off.Yet there is also an advantage here. You record what people did not know at the time - for instance, that the Wall was about to come down. You dwell on developments that seemed terribly important then but would otherwise be quite forgotten now, because they led nowhere. You thus avoid perhaps the most powerful of all the optical illusions of historical writing. One of the real pleasure of immersing yourself in the archives of a closed period is that you gradually, over months and years, see a pattern slowly emerging through the vast piles of paper, like a message written in invisible ink. But then you start wondering: Is this pattern really in the past itself? Or is it just in your own head? Or perhaps it is a pattern from the fabric of your own times? Each generation has its own Cromwell, its own French Revolution, its own Napoleon. Where contemporaries saw only a darkling plain, you discern a tidy park, a well-lit square, or most often a road leading to the next historical milestone. The French philosopher Henri Bergson talks of the ‘illusions of retrospective determinism’.American journalists writing books of recent history sometimes modestly refer to them as the ‘first draft of history’. This implies that the scholar’s second or third draft will always be an improvement.  Well, in some ways it may be, having  more sources and a longer perspective. But in others it may not be, because the scholar will not know, and therefore will find it more difficult to recreate, what it was really like at the time. How places looked and smelled, how people felt, what they didn’t know. Writers work in different ways, but I can sum up my own experience  in a doggerel line: there is nothing to compare with being there.