1 July 2016
After a gap of nearly two years I am restarting this blog.
10 years ago, in my first post, I wrote, following the great German historian Leopold von Ranke, that the role of history is not to judge the past, which has been and gone and cannot now be changed, but to try to see it ‘as it really was’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen), and understand it in its own terms. Only in this way, I suggested, can we learn lessons from history. Historical sources speak for themselves and do not need a historian to confuse the reader by over-interpreting them.
5 years later my views had started to change a little. After reading the sociologist Max Weber, I came to see history as a dialogue between the past and the present. I realised that it is not possible to understand the past without using theoretical concepts of some kind. These concepts help historians communicate what happened in the past to their readers in the present. For example the concept of ‘generation’ can help us understand why younger people, in general, at a particular time, may have thought and behaved differently from those twenty, forty, or sixty years older.
More recently, after working with the History & Policy project at Kings College London, I wrote about how studying history can help us understand and maybe help resolve, some of the problems we face in the present. In February 2014, in a post on how ‘unconscious incompetence’ can lead to unintended consequences, I suggested, taking an example from my own research, that history can help remind us of fundamental principles which may have been forgotten.
This all seems more relevant than ever, in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ referendum, in which a small majority those voting appear to have made it inevitable that Britain will leave the European Union.
For my PhD thesis ‘Winning the Peace’, I studied the years immediately after the Second World War, researching twelve important and influential British people living and working in occupied Germany between 1945 and 1948. As I wrote in my post on the ‘four stages of competence’, many of the fundamental principles which governed what they aimed to achieve, and why, and how this changed over time, now appear to have been forgotten.
‘My parents, and many others of their generation, believed that they had to do everything they could to prevent another war and another Hitler coming to power; that everyone, regardless of which country they lived in, should be able to lead a decent life free from fear of hunger, poverty, disease, or expulsion from their homes; that governments should be freely elected and should act in the interests of all those they represent; that minorities should have certain basic rights enforced by law, such as the freedom to speak their language and practice their religious beliefs.’
‘These principles were embodied in many of the institutions created during or soon after the war in Western Europe and internationally, such as, among many others, the United Nations, the European Union, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the European Convention on Human Rights and, in Britain, Oxfam and the National Health Service.’
Now, post-Brexit, it looks as if much of what my parents, and others of their generation fought for, will be carelessly thrown away by incompetent, irresponsible, or dogmatic politicians, who are steering the ship of state straight at the rocks, without even realizing what they are doing.
There has always been a rather nasty, nationalistic streak in British politics and society (as there is in the rest of Europe), but most of the time in Britain it’s been hidden and stayed in the background. Now it has come to the front. Think of Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, signs saying ‘no blacks, no Irish’, the internment of anti-Nazi Germans, many of whom were Jews, after the start of the Second World War, the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, football hooligans, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and attacks in the last few days on the Polish community in Britain.
This unpleasant nationalistic streak in British society was something that the British people I studied in occupied Germany fought against, despite or maybe because of their experiences during the Second World War. Most of them were internationalists. They valued their own traditions and tried to apply these in Germany where they could, but they also knew that British and Germans - and French and Americans and also Russians had much to learn from each other.
My father and his colleagues would be horrified to know that all they fought for then, a peaceful world and international understanding and cooperation, above all in Europe, could all be so easily thrown away. But then, it is so easy to forget the lessons of history.