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history lessons




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‘...when we act, we create our own reality.’

poster c.1934
The Hendon RAF air pageant - bombing a native stronghold


1. Rulers and ruled
As the man said, the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Is that true? We learn from the history of our own individual lives. Children discover from experience that both ice and fire can burn. They grow up finding out what’s dangerous and what’s beneficial. But yes, they learn more from what happens to them than from the warnings of anxious adults.

The man thus gloomy about history was the German philosopher Hegel. His actual words (in translation): ‘What experience and history teach is this – that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.’

To this day, commentators on world affairs continue to take that misleading short cut: referring to ‘nations’, ‘states’, ‘governments’ as if they were individuals. It’s as misleading as speaking of a nation’s population – ‘the French’, ‘the Chinese’ – as though they all behaved and thought alike. Is this a clue to the failure to learn from history? Are national groups in some sense like individual human beings, experiencing life as off-the-cuff crisis management? Like children, do they find warnings from history less compelling than the immediate demands of the present? What part do their leaders play in this?

‘When they construct their narratives of the recent past, most people take more account of their own experiences – births, marriages and deaths – than of eras and events in public life,’ says an historian of the Second World War. ‘Germans who lived through the mid-20th century ordered their memories according to family occasions and personal rites of passage, interpreting the collapse of the economy, the establishment of dictatorship, war and defeat, through their own experience of unemployment, military service and homelessness. But all these private experiences were shaped for several generations by the public experience of war and defeat, from the arms race at the beginning of the century to the humiliation in 1945.’

If you haven’t seen ‘Heimat’, Edgar Reitz’s compelling saga of a German village family after the First World War, get hold of a recording: it shows clearly how ‘ordinary’ people are touched by larger events, but have little opportunity to see how politics and power bring them about – or to exert any influence themselves. In the 1930s, Nazism seemed to offer a hopeful new order after the post-war misery of the 1920s. Most people didn’t question how or why Germany had begun to prosper. (How? Unscrupulous practices. Why? To keep the nation’s citizens on side.)

Our memories of what’s unpleasant are programmed to fade: it’s one of our survival mechanisms. It equips us well for impromptu living, but hamstrings creative planning for the future. Conflicts have recognisable patterns, experts have worked out what they are, but still our governments fail to see them until it’s too late – or see them and prefer to look away. The warnings of history become, well, history.

Ill feeling, however, lives on. We forget our own war crimes, but are quick to denounce those of others. ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Japanese’, to the British, mean the brutal treatment of Allied soldiers in the Second World War. But the Allies took prisoners too. A Pacific war correspondent described what happened to them: ‘We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments.’

Within a decade of the liberation of Belsen, the British were running their own concentration camps (invented by them during the Boer War) while crushing the Mau Mau in Kenya. The Gestapo’s torture techniques were used by the French in Algeria and later (with US help) by Latin American dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. Their shadow falls across the internment camps of present-day wars.
Appalling atrocities are caused and driven by the infectious brutality of warfare. The leaders of nations sometimes acknowledge and bewail this, on occasions such as this year’s high-profile World War 2 anniversaries – moments we should seize to press history’s warnings home.

2. Teachers and taught
Modern ignorance of the past is deplored by academics everywhere. Here is one lament: ‘Children aren’t taught about the struggles of ordinary peoples for land, for rights, for representation. They aren’t taught about the state’s response: the military called out to deal with demonstrators, the gun-boat with guns pointed ashore up the Mersey during the 1911 strikes, or the “quietening sirops” laced with opium and fed to babies to keep them quiet while their mothers worked 14-hour days in the mills.’

Another commentator is angered by praise of Britain’s former empire, in reality ‘built on genocide, vast ethnic cleansing, slavery, rigorously enforced racial hierarchy and merciless exploitation’. You don’t find the empire and its crimes in the present-day school curriculum, he points out. ‘The standard world history textbook for 16-year-olds has chapter after chapter on the world wars, Stalin’s terror and the monstrosities of Nazism – but scarcely a word about the British and other European empires which carved up most of the world, or the horrors they perpetrated. What’s needed: education, reparation, and an understanding that barbarity is the inevitable consequence of attempts to impose foreign rule on subject peoples.’ As true now as it was then.

At this year’s degree ceremony at Berkeley, California, graduates were addressed by a professor who knew well that history is complicated, hard to unravel, and has many points of view. He had been a journalist in El Salvador during its savage civil war. ‘Chat with a Salvadorean general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered: he will tell you that it was military necessity, these people had put themselves in harm’s way by supporting the guerrillas, and “such things happen in war”. Speak to the young conscript who wielded the machete: he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, had nightmares about it still, but he was following orders and if he’d refused he would have been killed. Talk to the State Department official who helped deny the massacre had happened: and he will tell you that there was no definite proof and in any case he did it to protect and promote the vital interests of the United States. None of them is lying.’

But the professor had another message. ‘Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life.’ He cited the lies and evasions that have surrounded the invasion of Iraq. He referred to the words recorded in the leaked Downing Street minutes of July 2002: that before the war ‘the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’. He spoke of the scandal of Abu Ghraib. What interested him was that ‘the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. What we don’t have is any clear admission or adjudication of guilt.’ It’s as though guilt itself, since it is the government’s guilt, simply doesn’t carry any significant meaning. As a US government adviser told a reporter in 2004, ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’

‘And so,’ asked the professor, ‘what are YOU going to do with that?’ Are young people like the Berkeley students learning how to doubt, how to question, how to handle ‘the yawning difference between what we are told and what we see’?

3. Questions and answers
Of course there will seldom be complete agreement about what is historically true, not least because perception varies according to one’s relationship to events. But that doesn’t mean no lessons can be learned. It does mean that the right questions must be asked persistently, both about the past and about the history being made right now.
Are young people being fully taught about, say, the Cold War and its effects? Do they realise that this war took place over three continents? Do they know what the USA really did in Latin America, starting in 1954 with the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically-elected president? Have they been told about the Cold War in Africa, where the US bankrolled and armed corrupt dictatorships because they were prepared to suppress Soviet-backed African aspirations to socialism? Oh, and do they know the real facts about nuclear weapons, nuclear treaties, and present-day nuclear policies?

Have they grasped how much damage was done by colonisation, and by the later handover of administration to people ill-prepared to do it? Do they discuss how social democracy – fairness, justice, peace, security, some sort of equality – today is threatened by the lust for profitable trade, which means putting the markets well above humanitarian concerns? Do they trust claims about ‘the rule of law’, ‘incorruptible government’ and ‘economic progress’, when the reality has so often been tyranny, oppression, poverty, and countless unnecessary deaths?

Getting history right could be said to be a duty. We have reason to be grateful to historians who carefully unpick the myths and falsehoods people find it so hard to abandon. And where war is concerned ignorance and untruths are widespread. So is what one writer called the ‘deeper nastiness that is still very much with us in the form of the military-industrial complex.’ The PPU among others is working hard on asking the right questions about that.

Getting history right means more than getting as close to the truth of events as possible. It means doing something to put things right, whether it’s large-scale – helping disadvantaged communities to gain independence and respect – or acting as a private individual to right wrongs. Albert Speer’s daughter, using money from paintings her father owned which almost certainly once belonged to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, has set up a foundation to support Jewish women artists and scientists. She wants other Germans to think hard about whether they have property that might have been stolen from Jews by the Nazi regime. ‘We who survived the war are not guilty. But we inherited the consequences of past wrongdoing. To that we have to try to act with responsibility, and, in one way or another, give something back.’

UK diplomat and negotiator Carne Ross knew that the evidence put forward to show that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was false and implausible. He gave evidence saying so to the Butler enquiry, and resigned from government work. He is now a freelance adviser aiming to create a global network of diplomats and lawyers who can help emerging governments or political groups trying to get their case heard, and whose hands aren’t tied by enforced loyalties. ‘At the Foreign Office you are taught to think that trade and market share and security are the most important things, and that human suffering is not important if it’s nothing to do with Britain. I disagree. The best way to a safer and more peaceful world is through alleviating suffering. Simplicity is the only thing that works in a complex world.’

Margaret Melicharova




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