Understanding historical empathy and motives

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As you study History, you will encounter a vast array of people who thought, spoke and acted in ways that are foreign to you.


The world and culture which you're used to is unique and simply judging another's thoughts, words and actions based upon your own cultural norms shows a lack of empathy for their way of life.


Developing historical empathy is perhaps the most difficult, but one of the most important, skills you will learn as a student of History.


To begin to empathise with the people of past, you must first work out what motivated them. 


A motive is a reason a person had for thinking or acting in a certain way. Certain beliefs have motivated people to change the world for better or worse.


The study of History will require you to be able to articulate the reasons people, groups or cultures acted the way they did.  

1. What did they want? e.g. freedom, safety, food, equality, money, etc.
2. What did they hate? e.g. other ideologies, a certain people group, inequality, bullying, etc.
3. What did they think was important? e.g. their country, protecting people, religion, etc.
4. What did they want changed? e.g. law, attitudes, movement of people, declaration of war, etc.

For example:

The severe economic hardships from which Germany suffered as a result of the Treaty of Versailles motivated the German people to place their trust in Hitler's proposed solutions.

Historical empathy

When we learn about people's motivations, we naturally make decisions about whether we personally like what occurred in the past. As human beings, we have our own personal opinions about things.


However, since we naturally think like people from our own day and age, we can too quickly judge and condemn people who are not like us. If we do this, we will make the mistake of being unable to really understand people and cultures that are different from our own.


In order to understand people and cultures that are different from our own, we need to ignore our own personal opinions and try to understand that they were motivated by different things. Overcoming our own judgement and appreciating their motives is called 'Historical Empathy'.

Empathy is the ability to see and understand events from the point of view of those experienced the events firsthand. It allows us to appreciate the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another person.


Keep in mind that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is appreciating why things occurred, whilst sympathy is placing yourself in another’s shoes and 'agreeing' with them. In History, we want to appreciate their motives, but not necessarily endorse them.


For example:

We might be able to appreciate that Adolf Hitler’s extreme and heartless actions were perhaps due to his own cruel upbringing under an alcoholic father, but that does not necessarily make us condone what he did.

Watch a video explanation on the History Skills YouTube channel: