History or propaganda?

The O.E.D. defines propaganda as  “The systematic dissemination of information, esp. in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view,” and history as “That branch of knowledge which deals with past events, as recorded in writings or otherwise ascertained; the formal record of the past, esp. of human affairs or actions; the study of the formation and growth of communities and nations.” Inevitably, the two overlap.

A reference session with a student researching WWII propaganda reminded me of the challenge of evaluating historical materials. I happened to be reading a terrific historical novel, Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum.  Blum’s compelling book thoughtfully examines how complicated it is to create an orderly human narrative out of the millions of individual stories that make up our history.

Over the weekend, I visited Boston with my family, including my husband’s British aunt and uncle. Seeing familiar sights in the birthplace of the American Revolution with relatives who learned a different version of America’s foundational story was interesting. The thin line between history and propaganda was much clearer to me when considering things from such a different point of view.

A book that really turns the accepted truths of American history upside down is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is hosted online here.  I looked at Zinn’s writing on the Boston Massacre after visiting the site on the Freedom Trail.  Visit those links as well as a third view on the British Library’s website, and you’ll see that while all three say a Colonist mob confronted British soldiers, each story has a slightly different spin.