This I regard as history's highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.--Tacitus
For the structuralist the decisive facts about Nazism, for example, are not the ideas, policies or even actions of Hitler and the Nazis, but the structure of the German state, the nature of its bureaucracy and pressure groups, the exigencies of economics and geography. The effect of this structuralist analysis is as Tocqueville predicted. To depreciate the importance of individuals, ideals, and will is to belittle the role of Hitler and the Nazi leaders, to minimize or even deny their avowed intentions of conquest and mass murder, and to evade the issue of evil.--Gertrude Himmelfarb (1991) "Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets" in On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994), 43-4.
l bumped into Himmelfarb's collection of essays in a second-hand bookstore in Noosa Heads, a resort on Australia's sunshine coast, around the time of the Republican convention. I did not buy it on impulse, but returned to the store to purchase it as a memento to the demise of the Neocon movement. I tend to like reading Conservative thinkers--not just because they tend of a sense of style and flair, but especially because they are contrarians who not only tend to see through the pieties that I hold dear, but also, because of their dismay or disgust, can dissect Liberalism and cultured Liberals better than we do ourselves.
While I intend to return to Himmelfarb's excellent reflections on nineteenth century nationalism, liberalism, and religion Himmelfarb disappoints. Often her engagement with the ideas of those she opposes -- post-modernists, feminists, etc. -- tends to be superficial and lazy. (For example, she primarily relies on Searle's not disinterested not entirely informed, testimonial report when she tries to discuss the disagreement between Derrida and Foucault, ignoring, entirely, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's (recall) more subtle treatment of the significance of that disagreement.) In particular, it's hard for her to exhibit the attractiveness of positions she opposes and in these essays one does not find much generosity toward alternative perspectives to her own.
By contrast, she can be superb in grasping the unwelcome (to her) consequences of some intellectual movements. I have quoted above part of her critique of structuralism (as a method in professional history). Earlier, in an another essay ("On Looking into the Abyss") she gives a chilling account of how social history from below, "Alltagsgeschichte becomes an "apologia" for Nazism." (19)* Throughout her essays one finds her being alert to ways in which Nazi-genocide is normalized and displaced. One does not have to share her fondness for heroes and villains, her confidence in the category and utility of the category of 'evil,' and even her sense that historians to recognize that many attempts at a-moral, scientific history turn into immoral enterprises (while remaining useful for professional advancement and interested parties that prefer a world in which our complicity in injustice is shared widely): the long view, she quotes Trilling's "Tacitus Now," or "seen from a sufficient distance, it says, the corpse and hacked limbs are not so very terrible, and eventually they even begin to compose themselves into a meaningful pattern."" (48) Some Himmelfarb's best lines involve pointing out that often the schemes of scientific history end up being so anachronistic that they fail to do justice to the actors' categories (of even the bad guys).
History-writing need not be a morality tale or sermonizing, one may say on Himmelfarb's behalf, but it cannot forego adopting (one might say) a moral stance in which agents figure. The point of this, it turns out, is not so much to judge others; it's something less moralistic and more political: it's to prevent other, future misdeeds and inspire heroic deeds. One can put Himmelfarb's point in an economic register she does not adopt: by creating a potentially permanent and factual record of base and noble human action, the historian changes the incentive structure of future agents on the fairly modest assumption that people care about what others think of them even if they are dead. Of course, it also follows from this (and, alas, Himmelfarb does not pause to note the point) that such a record may also inspire the (copycat) villains. Seen from this light, one may, then, understand the choice for a more scientific history -- one that rejects the moral stance --, as a kind of risk aversion by historians who wish to remove themselves from impacting posteriority.
*She uses the word 'banal' regularly in deriding a-moralized understanding of Nazi-genocide without ever mentioning or explicitly engaging with Arendt.