Archive for the ‘history’ category

War – and when memories become history

November 13, 2018

As absolutely everyone knows, we have just marked the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. We saw or heard about the various commemorations and ceremonies, and once more the Great War became alive. Peter Jackson’s extraordinary film, They Shall Not Grow Old, has added a new dimension of immediacy, a sense that we can see and hear and almost smell the trenches and the men who served in them.

I belong to the generation of people who remember talking with those who lived through the First World War. When I was a schoolboy in Ireland I occasionally got a lift by car from a local gentleman, appropriately called Mr Pickup, who fought in the war and was fascinated to meet a German. He had, as he told me, shot many Germans (and was nearly shot on some occasions by Germans), but had never spoken to one. I devoured his fascinating and compelling accounts of the fighting in France.

Both my grandfathers fought in the Great War, but I never knew either of them because they had died before I was born. One of my grandmothers told me stories of life in Berlin during the war. And there was Mr Pickup. But time moves on. Generations who could tell of their lives in the war passed away, leaving those like me who weren’t there but heard about it from those who were. And eventually there will not be anyone alive who was there our who heard directly from people who were. And at that point the war passes from memory to history.

Memories are precious, and provide rich materials for historians. But they are also personal, and carry with them the anguish and terror, as well as the pride and glory, of the experience. They keep all this alive, but also keep alive the impressions of contemporary politics, in which objectivity was not a huge concern. I grew up with the view, stated as fact, that the Great War was started by Germany in unprovoked aggression. More recent historical analyses (for example The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark) offer a more complex view. Whatever the judgement might be, it is better offered from evidence than from experience.

It is right, indeed it is crucial, that we remember and honour those who sacrificed themselves or were sacrificed in war. But these are experiences we must hope will not be repeated. To achieve that, history needs to take over where memories once dominated.

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History, understanding and context

October 15, 2018

Some years ago a Professor of History at an English university suggested to me in a conversation that it had become increasingly difficult to teach history to today’s generation of students because they had, mostly, no understanding of two central experiences: of religion, and of rural life. Anything from before the Industrial Revolution occurred at a time when people’s lives were shaped by completely different influences and imperatives from those that would resonate today. So how can this be properly understood by people now whose formative influences have been secular, industrial and urban?

As L.P. Hartley suggested, the past is a foreign country. But then again, it isn’t. The 20th century began and ended in the Balkans, and right now we still find ourselves grappling with the implications of events as far back as the Crusades. We cannot, in short, be xenophobic regarding the past, because that foreign country has a huge effect on us now.

History drives crucial problems and dilemmas today: the Irish border, antisemitism, Palestine, Zimbabwe, the relationships between various countries in the Persian Gulf, Rwanda and Burundi, Taiwan. History is not just a story, but a narrative of influences and insights that continue to shape actions today – which we will not understand if we don’t understand or wilfully ignore history. It is equally dangerous to imagine, as some do, a history that never actually occurred, or didn’t occur in the way it is now presented – something that has helped to make Brexit so dangerously combustible.

As a society, we need to reconnect with history, understood not as an account of the glorious things done by people we identify with and the dastardly things committed by everyone else: but as the totality of our global heritage, so that we can live with the right level of consciousness and do things that reflect a better understanding of this world of ours.

You say you want a revolution…

May 7, 2018

Anyone following contemporary debates about the future of work and civilisation will, sooner or later (and very probably sooner), be listening to comments about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. It’s everywhere, and while its exact meaning may not always be clear, what is constantly repeated is that it is happening now and is changing absolutely everything. Everything is being digitised, brought online, automated, and subjugated to robotics. Your job and mine will go, we will be replaced by machines that will not only do the job better, but will also understand better than we can how the job needs to evolve. The jobs we may apply for 10 years from now don’t on the whole exist yet, so we can’t properly prepare for them, and the best we can do is acquire every possible transferable skill and find out what will still need real human interaction; unless robots get better than us at that too. And watch that toaster, it’s online, smart, and may be planning to do away with you so it can watch daytime TV rather than bother with your nutrition.

That sort of thing.

As with everything else, the best thing to do when you encounter breathless hype is to take a step back and think about what you are being told. There is no doubt that the digital world is moving at a fast pace and is changing how we do things: how we communicate, how we analyse, how we adapt our technology to improve safety and efficiency, how we access news. The ‘internet of things’ is creating smart gadgets and appliances. Big data is yielding insights and solutions that eluded us in the past.

But the use of science and technology to effect social and industrial change is not new, nor are we now witnessing profound and speedy change for the first time in history. The development of the printing press and the use of paper to allow high-volume dissemination of its outputs probably produced a bigger social upheaval than anything we are seeing today: suddenly information and knowledge were no longer the private property of the elite, and absolutely everything changed. The (first) Industrial Revolution totally changed the way we live and work, in particular by opening up mass transport and urbanisation, putting an end to agrarian societies with feudal structures, and ushering in the age of capitalism with its attendant consequences, good and bad. The two world wars of the 20th century changed global politics beyond recognition. Contraception changed social interaction and opened up the workforce.

It may be interesting to observe that while a typical person, not from any social elite, would have had a fundamentally different life in the 19th century from what a similar person might have had 100 years earlier, the life we live now is not so fundamentally different from that experienced in the post-war 20th century. The technology has changed and allows us to do things that we couldn’t have done before or which would have been much more laborious, but socially and culturally our experiences are still recognisably similar. What is it that makes us think that the next few years will be so totally different?

We have always been bad at predicting the future, particularly where technology is involved. This is in part because we sometimes predict the future with the same kind of sensibility we apply to science fiction, including the desire to get a thrill from something really horrible. So when Elon Musk makes our flesh creep at the prospect of the spread of malignant artificial intelligence, he is tapping into the same fascination that gave us the Terminator movie franchise a couple of decades earlier. And to be honest, I’ve got sick of the statement (by now a real cliché) that 40% (or whatever your preferred percentage is) of jobs in demand in 10 years time don’t exist today. Well, maybe they don’t, but history doesn’t support this proposition: what job known to you now didn’t exist 10 years ago? Jobs may change in what they demand of those doing them, but that is a natural process of evolution.

This blog post is not an invitation to go into denial about the pace of change today. There is of course a huge technological, digital, fast-paced evolution taking place. Google, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla – even the possibly departed Cambridge Analytica – are changing all sorts of things in our lives. But how adapt to that, and how we reform society to contain the risks, are issues to be debated and decided in a sober frame of mind. In that process, we do well to look at some of the social fundamentals, such as how we can protect the integrity of truth in the face of all-out assaults by those wanting to manipulate us, and perhaps worry a little less about what our toaster might get up to. Even if the latter is more fun, in a Hitchcockian sort of way.

Icon of another age

May 2, 2018

If he were still alive, Ralf Dahrendorf would have celebrated his 89th birthday yesterday.

I fear that many readers of this blog will not know who he was, but Dahrendorf was a key political and intellectual figure of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Hamburg in 1929, and in the course of a full life he was active in the anti-Nazi resistance (and was sent to a concentration camp in consequence), became a German politician (in the Free Democratic Party), was a European Commissioner, was appointed Director of the London School of Economics and later Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and was a Research Professor in Berlin. He was awarded national honours in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom; in Britain he became a life peer, taking the title Lord Dahrendorf of Clare Market. He died in Germany in 2009.

As a writer and thinker, Dahrendorf engaged strongly with different political traditions, focusing on social equality and integration in his key works. His analysis of this is contained in his seminal bookClass and Class Conflict in Industrial Society.

The political and intellectual tradition to which Dahrendorf belonged and which informed his thinking has not fared well since his death. I suspect he would have been horrified by Trump and Brexit, but also by the language and actions of those making up the opposition to both. We now have an angry society that looks everywhere for treachery and deceit, and has little time for cohesion and a common purpose.

It would be good if Ralf Dahrendorf, and others like him, were not forgotten.

The mythology of treachery – and its dangerous results

December 29, 2017

In the years after the First World War in Germany a particular view of recent history began to take hold in certain circles – the Dolchstoßlegende (or ‘stab-in-the-back myth’). This suggested that Germany was never defeated in the war, and that the punitive Versailles Treaty was only possible because German troops had been betrayed by the country’s politicians and others. It was this myth that helped to fuel the growth of rightwing fanaticism and ultimately the Nazi party and its takeover of Germany.

It was of course not the last time that some movement or other identified traitors and saboteurs in its demonology, but this has never had good results. It is one of the reasons why the current fashion for denouncing traitors in the United Kingdom needs to be watched with some considerable care. The whole Brexit conversation is full of such language, on both sides, with some quite sinister undertones. Politicians have been accused of treachery, and often threatened personally, for holding views that others disagree with. Most recently the Conservative MP Heidi Allen received an anonymous card in the post in which the writer wished her a ‘long and slow demise’, and calling her a traitor (it must be assumed that this referred to her sceptical stance regarding Brexit). The threatened violence might be abhorrent to all reasonable people, but the general tone is the logical extension of campaigns by widely-read newspapers.

But this focus on alleged treachery is not confined to extreme supporters of Brexit, it has become a common feature of internal Labour Party disputes also. Recently the alternative leftwing news blog, Skwawkbox, decided to suggest that Labour MP Stella Creasy, by attending a concert (Shed Seven, if you need to know) in the company of a Conservative MP and others, was displaying an inappropriate ‘cosiness’ with the enemy. At one level this is playground-like childishness on the part of Skwawkbox, but it also maintains the toxic narrative of treachery and betrayal.

None of this is good. It is time to recover a degree of civility within public discourse and to accept that, mostly, people do and support what they believe is right. We can argue with their views and their judgement, but we should stop making it personal. And for heaven’s sake, everyone should stop constantly being angry about everyone and everything. Lighten up.

Philosopher King

September 18, 2017

It is, I think, not so fashionable these days to consider history in terms of monarchs and leaders. To many, kings and generals have hijacked the ‘story’ that really belongs to those whose lives were more of a struggle and who paid the price for royal vanity or incompetence. Then again, the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful.

Friedrich der Große

For much of my youth I was in the presence of a copy of this rather famous painting of Frederick the Great, by the artist Anton Graff, painted in 1781 when the King was 69 years old, five years before he died.

It hung in our family home. My father was something of an admirer of the Prussian king. I probably never thought about it (or him) to any great extent at the time, except when I encountered some references to Frederick in history lessons. But a friend of mine who was a regular visitor to the house found the portrait disconcerting, and always claimed that Frederick eyed up the modern world with obvious disapproval and kept his gaze firmly on us as we did whatever we did back then.

So although I knew next to nothing about Frederick, he was a very definite presence in my youth. Then I left the parental home and, frankly, forgot all about him and Prussia and the times in which he lived. If I ever knew much about them in the first place. Recently someone gave me a book about Frederick, and I got interested.

As we sometimes wonder about the qualities (or lack of them) of our contemporary politicians, it is interesting to reflect on Friedrich der Große, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. In many ways one could describe him as the architect of the modern concept of the state. Although some will record him as a military leader who secured Prussia’s place as a growing European power, it is more interesting to note his establishment of a civil service, of his (relatively speaking) support for a free press, of his status as a patron of literature, music and art, of his championing of science and philosophy (his relationship with Voltaire in particular). In addition, he was a composer and performer of music – indeed a composer of music that is still played and recorded, his flute concertos being the most popular.

Sometimes we don’t really know what we want of our leaders. Sometimes we put up with leaders who manifestly will not give us what we need. The ‘enlightened absolutism’ offered in the 18th century by Der Alte Fritz really wouldn’t do today. But the enlightened intellectual engagement might. At least I would like to think so.

I now have the portrait that hung on my father’s wall. I don’t think I’ll take it down.

The world today: it’s all about migration

March 14, 2017

Whatever part of the world or country or region you may call your own, the population you share it with got there largely as a result of mass migration. Most of Europe is populated by those whose ancestors took part in the major movements of Völkerwanderung, and populations changed and shifted through major major migration or conquests. No significant country you have ever heard of has had a settled population through the centuries. Nor is this all ancient history – it has been a feature of all centuries, to some extent at least.

One of the consequences of migration has been the internationalisation of learning. Even when there were hardly any efficient methods of transport, scholars and students wandered between centres of education and enriched each other’s cultures. Universities became knowledge exchanges of scholarship and cultures, influencing national development (of which Scotland, from where I write, is an excellent example).

Of course large-scale migration also poses challenges and requires the adoption of sensible policies to manage it. But the desire sometimes expressed in modern times for a recognisably uniform autouchtonous ethnic culture that has uniform traits is not at all an expression of tradition: it contradicts civilised human experience and has the capacity to align itself with tyranny.

Many of our recent global developments have their roots in the fear of migration: Brexit, Donald Trump’s wall, ethnic cleansing. These are not good developments in so far as they are driven by fear and insecurity. Politicians must address this with more wisdom than many have shown; but in particular they must recognise that scholarship and learning cannot thrive within closed borders. And the higher education academy must keep making the case for the shared international experience of the educational community.