6 February 2014
History and Policy is a project, based at Kings College London and Cambridge University, which aims to create opportunities for historians, policy-makers and journalists to connect with each other. Over the past eight years working on my PhD as a mature student, I have been amazed by how much knowledge there is in the academic world that has not percolated through to the general public, or to the officials, journalists and politicians, who make or influence the decisions which affect our everyday lives.
A few months ago I joined the project’s network of 400 historians, willing to comment on UK and international policy issues and to contribute to the project’s web site. Around 150 ‘policy papers’, written by academic historians, have been published on the web site, and the project also arranges seminars and briefings for government departments. A policy paper I wrote on Germany 1945-1949: a case study in post-conflict reconstruction was published on the web site a few days ago. It aims to draw some lessons for contemporary operations, such as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, from a better understanding of British experiences in post-war Germany – a subject I have spent the last six or more years studying, writing about some of the results of my research on this blog.
History never repeats itself exactly and the situation British troops faced in Germany after the Second World War was very different from modern Iraq or Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we can learn from what our predecessors did then: for example that ‘winning the war’ is not the same as ‘winning the peace’; that the inhabitants of a defeated country need to be given ‘hope for the future’, if they are to be expected to rebuild their country after the demoralisation and destruction of war; that ‘regime change’ and new political structures cannot be imposed by force, against the wishes of the inhabitants, as they can always be reversed once the occupying forces have left; and that personal reconciliation between victors and defeated is essential, to rebuild trust, if they are to work together on the task of reconstruction; but reconciliation does not happen automatically, it requires a conscious effort on both sides.
History is not a simple matter of cause and effect. If one set of events in the past were followed by a particular set of outcomes, this does not mean that an apparently similar later set of events will be followed by the same outcomes. Historical events are unique. Detailed circumstances are always different; often in ways we do not, and may never, fully understand.
But we can still benefit through studying what our predecessors did in the past, in two ways. Firstly, the past provides the historical background and context, to help us understand why people acted the way they did, the pressures they had to respond to, the limitations and constraints on their scope for action, and also, perhaps, some misconceptions which led them to act in ways we would no longer consider appropriate. Secondly, studying the past can help us think of options we may not have considered before. It can remove the blinkers of the present, and open our eyes to other possibilities.
Through analysing what people did then, and why, we can understand better the opportunities, and the constraints, within which we have to work in the present.