The Week That Was…

24 10 2009

There were two notable news stories this week. Except that the first wasn’t really that notable unless you’re a history geek like myself. I don’t want to really discuss this story in much detail except to say that it seems that it is much easier now to be a public fool than it ever was in the past. The Internet, which Menzies credits for revolutionising history (which, undoubtedly is true – check out one of the best First World War sites written by one of my own course predecessors for evidence of this), also makes it easier to be made to look very, very stupid, as Menzies himself has done. Of course Menzies has attempted a disclaimer by admitting he knows nothing, but he seems to show a fundamental understanding of what history is. It is not, in any way, about simply about writing down a few soundbite statements and then hoping there will be a few documents somewhere which will support you. It is, instead, about the whole process of investigation, exploration and interpretation. It is about going into an investigation with an open mind, not a pre-conceived idea of what you expect to find. The end product is incidental to the process of exploring history.

Anyway, moving swiftly onto the next big idiot of the week, Nick Griffin. Whilst the newspapers have been splashed cover to cover with his sloped-gaze of general bigotry and ignorance, Griffin has finally proved himself publically to be the racist, stupid prat we had all known he was. He has come out of the Question Time debacle, and all he has got to show for it is a complaint to the BBC that there were people protesting against him.

Well, not quite all, because apparently, according to a YouGov poll, some 22% of the population would now consider voting BNP. However, if pushed, only 3% would do so tomorrow. Just for the sake of the maths, 3% of the 1,314 people who were surveyed is just over 39 people. Which, in all fairness, is somewhere near what they were polling prior to the programme.

Now Peter Hain can get all worked up that the BBC has given exposure to a party which it shouldn’t be doing. However, I’m guessing that if the majority of the eight million people who watched the programme (plus those of us who watched it on IPlayer later) actually listened to Griffin, then we all know that (a) the BNP have very little in the way of policy beyond racial cleansing, and (b) Griffin was made to look like a complete idiot by everyone in that studio. Especially by Bonnie Greer. Plus, can someone please tell me how his history of the English people seems to ignore the fact that as a people we were colonised by Germans?

Griffin was not given the opportunity to vent his soundbites which he had obviously rigorously prepared beforehand, nor was he allowed to look like his words had an ounce of rationality to them. He was hopelessly out of his depth, and was shown to be nothing more than the voice for a racist few. Which, incidently, are still going to be present regardless of whether Griffin was here or not. If nothing else the programme shows that the BNP do not have supporters as much as the other parties have people who will not vote for them. I’ve said it before, but it is the job of these parties to demonstrate just what they can do for these people who feel so disillusioned that they vote BNP in protest rather than anything else. Once these people have been convinced, the BNP will struggle along with the few people who still think it is right that colour, race or ethnicity should have anything to do with anything.

I’ve championed free speech and a platform policy before and I will continue to do so as it provides ample opportunity to show people the ‘truth’ about those up on the stage. The ‘truth’ is that following Thursday’s events, the BNP are nothing more than a confused racist organisation fronted by a strange little man with a warped version of history, and an even more warped understanding of what the Ku Klux Klan actually is. Don’t fear him, he has nothing which we should be afraid of. Continue showing him up, making him look stupid, and continue working out how to win back voters.

Finally on this, Britain is not like Germany in the 1930’s for the simple reason that we have a monarch. Just a thought for the few doom-mongers who seem paralysed by the fear of the BNP.


The Relevance of It All…

15 06 2009

Last Saturday was the final meeting of my MA class for this year. This time next year I will be in the midst of writing a dissertation on some element of the First World War. Naturally therefore, I have spent some time thinking about what topic I will do this on. Whilst thinking about this, I somehow stumbled upon the thought of discussing the relevance of the war to a modern society. I’m not entirely sure that this would make a disseration though, so have decided to scribble some thoughts down here.

So, is the First World War still relevant to society in the Twenty-First century? Obviously there can be no simple answer to this. It would depend entirely upon what criteria you judge it upon. And indeed, how you determine ‘relevance’.

It was the dicussion about the recent death of the first swine-flu victim which led me down this road. A lot has been made of this death, and the potential threat of swine-flu, although, as has been pointed out, ‘normal’ flu kills a fair few people yearly, and there is no media coverage of this. The Spanish-flu in 1918 spread worldwide killed anywhere between 40 and 100 million people, depending on what you read. That’s quite a lot of people. At its peak, roughly one-third of the world had the flu. So, could lessons learnt in 1918 help people appreciate the scale of the current situation? I’m not so sure, simply because the nature of the media is different now. It is a 24 hour thing, with access from papers, television and internet to anything, anytime. There needs to be something to fill this insatiable appetite for news, and, at the moment, that is swine-flu. If there is something there, the news will use it. They have to, simply to stay afloat. Experiences of the soldiers in the war of the spanish-flu vary, but, generally, the troops seemed to have suffered badly from the flu, due to a variety of things, of which malnourishment was certainly one. Indeed, some have argued that this helped the allied cause, and proved to be the tipping point. I’m very much not convinced by this argument as it ignores all the rest of the stuff that was going on at the time (ie Britain finally developing a decent arms system, sorting out the logistics, and Germany shooting her bolt too early in 1918), but that this has been argued at all shows the impact the Spanish-flu had in 1918.

Experiences of the flu tend not to vary over time. Either you get ill, suffer for a period of time, and then get better; or you get ill, suffer for a period of time and then die. The only experience we will really know about is the former. Solutions to the illness have developed, medicine has progressed (although it should never be assumed that the medical care in WW1 was poor, certainly for the British, it wasn’t). People learnt from the lessons of 1918. They learned how to deal with large scale pandemics. So much so that come 2009 we know the need to have a standing stock of vaccine for such outbreaks.

However, does this make the experience of 1918 relevant to today’s society? Possibly, although it would be easier to argue the other side. How can you really compare a nation coming out of the industrial revolution threatened by other countries around her to Britain today, in the midst of a digital era, moving away from her industrial past, and threatened by countries on the other side of the world? There is call to say that a comparison is impossible. However, I’m inclined to disagree. Pre-war Britain was not this unified harmony that was abruptly shattered by a war started in the east. Far from it, at least half the population were concerned with the suffrage, and a percentage of that were demonstrating their concerns through violent activity. There was some unrest in the waning, although not yet dead, industries which had for so long provided Britain with a platform in the world. Compare that to 2009 and the collapsing British car industy and the impact that this is having on the world car market. People in Britain are concerned with the political system and how it is working. It might not be the top-hats of 1914, but there is a distinct alienation of the politicians from the people in 2009.

However, this is but a digression from the original question. Does the war still have a relevance to today’s digitised society? Flu aside, I think there is cause to think that it does. As bands such as Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs (although their name was taken from a South African football team, this is evidence of the stretch of empires and the lasting memory of the Kaiser) march their way up and down the pop charts, this is evidence that the war has a wider ranging impact upon society than perhaps first realised. There is further musical evidence too, take the well-played Christmas song “Stop the Cavalry”, deliberately a critique of war, but holding further historical connotations. The most famous line “I wish I was at home for Christmas”, can be read in light of the famous thought of Kitcheners volunteers presuming the war would be over by Christmas. Even the title of the song has implications relating to the First World War, with the use of the cavalry in an industrialised war being one of the main bones of contention amongst historians. The misinformed suggestion that Douglas Haig was intent on using the cavalry at every opportunity appears evident is one which the main detractors of the war manfully stick to. Even the video for the song has Jona Lewie appearing in khaki as if on the front line. There is obvious connection to the famously “futile” war that remains today.

Blackadder perhaps has much to do with this. You can barely escape the sitcom in any discussion of the war. Most take it as read that Curtis and Elton were playing with the truth of the war, and whilst there was ‘artistic licence’, there was also a sense of reality to the plight of Captain Blackadder and crew. Rowan Atkinson’s titular character is an obvious critique of what a Captain was, or at least, the perception of what a Captain was. Obviously at odds with the concept of war, he has obviously been promoted earlier than he should have been, and it is only the men around him which make him appear good enough to lead. There are other comparisons too, General Melchett is the archetypal “donkey” general: mad, traditional, and out of touch with the reality of the situation. Even the representation of Haig is of him ‘playing soldier’ with plastic characters and a dustpan, indicative of his apparent scant regard for human life. The fact that he was a devout religious man perhaps detracts slightly from that particular myth. Naturally, it gets left out of the detractors thoughts.

There are other forms of entertainment derived from the war, various films in recent times have played upon a continuing fascination with the conflict. This is obviously part of a larger whole however, with war films as a genre growing in number. Indeed, in comparison to later conflicts, the First World War has got away without the ‘Hollywood’ treatment which has perhaps ruined public knowledge of the Second World War.

Moving away from entertainment, the war still resonates with the public at least once a year. I have, in the past, complained about a startling naivity in relation to the war, and the acts of remembrance that are performed every year on 11 November. However, there is clearly a large part of society which understands the significance of the emblematic poppy, and appreciates its pre-WW2 origins. The acts of remembrance still centre on WW1, which then encompasses the following conflicts.

The reason for this is simple enough to explain, WW1 was the first global war, and the first on the path towards total war. It was the original conflict for the industrial age. For this reason alone it will always have a certain resonance. However, whether this is enough to claim that it still bears relevance to today’s society is less clear.

There are other things which must inevitably must be considered (I haven’t mentioned the role of books, or indeed the middle east conflicts which could easily be claimed to be a product of the First World War), but this was only intended to be a few notes on the issue. Obviously there is plenty more to say, but I am not going to go into them now. Perhaps in the future. It is, for the time being, sufficient to suggest that the First World War is a remarkable period of history which perhaps shaped the course of the entire 20th Century, and indeed, the early period of the 21st.

Ejucashun, Ejucation, Twitter…

25 03 2009

Whilst on my daily trawl through the BBC’s webpages, I found this story and was instantly dismayed. As a history scholar, I firmly believe more should be done to encourage people to question their pasts, and to connect the present with what has gone on before. The suggestions mooted in this report indicate that this is no longer a concern for governmental officials. Instead, it seems, we should be encouraging the ‘life skills’ of how to use Twitter, or how to blog.

Lets deal with this in three parts:

1. The suggestions seem to point to the idea that using Twitter is an important thing for children to learn. It is almost certainly not just Twitter but every social networking site going, but for the sake of convenience, Twitter will be used. I have a huge problem with this. The childhood stage of life is an important one in terms of building relationships with people, or at least learning how to do so. Kids learn moral and social things, you don’t pull people’s hair, you don’t hit people, you don’t bully people etc etc. They learn this through experiencing things, through doing, and through the repercussions of their actions. Kids learn how to talk to people, how to interact with others and communicate themselves. Again, they do this through actions. If we add Twitter into this, how much of a negative effect will this have on how they learn to build relationships with other people? I would suggest it would be a massive effect. No longer would it be necessary for children to talk to each other, when they can type instead. No longer would it be fun to go and play in the park with their mates because they could be interacting online instead. Twitter would begin to destroy how kids learn, rather than giving them the skills necesary. So yes, while they may learn to type, they will stop learning how to talk.

2. The report also mentions blogging. It seems to want to encourage more children to want to use blogs as a source of information, and to take up writing their own stuff. Why? Not all people are comfortable writing in the first place, never mind in a public access site. Why exacerbate things for those who do not want to write or use blogs?

Also, I’m going to throw into this Wikipedia, which is also mentioned in the report. Apparently, according to this write up of the story, “Children [are] to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information“. Great. This though assumes one very important thing. That Wikipedia is right. Which, as we all know, it is not necessarily. Indeed we have been told on countless occasions not to use Wikipedia as a credible source for work as accuracy cannot be guarenteed.

3. It was though the final point of the BBC’s first paragraph which irked me the most though. All this is come come at the expense of history. At least, that’s the impression it gave. Further reading indicates that this is not the case, although schools will have the ability to choose which periods should be taught with the goal to be:

By the end of the primary phase, children should have gained an overview which enables them to place the periods, events and changes they have studied within a chronological framework, and to understand some of the links between them.

Great. They will not be taught about possibly two of the three most important parts of modern British history, but instead whatever takes the teachers fancy at the start of the year. Now I get that the Second World War is still part of later academic life, and, to some extent, so is the Victorian era. But what else is there of significance that can be taught? The First World War? No-one understands that, let alone primary school kids. At least the Second World War had the ‘bad guy’ in Hitler. What does World War One have? Nothing, it was fighting for the sake of fighting. I would suggest it is better to sow the seeds of curiosity when children are more receptive to ideas. They can then follow this up and develop an interest later on in their academic lives.

I really do not think that further use of Twitter, Wikipedia et al should be encouraged. Many people are already moaning that there is too much exposure to the internet and computers, so surely encouraging further exposure should be frowned upon? At a period where we are frequently told of the growing obesity problem, surely placing kids in front of another screen cannot help? I’m still not sure what was wrong with classrooms and books personally.

Just as a note, reading some of the comments about this story, this one has to be my favourite:

Im sure its just a coincidence the second world war where we fought against fascism is removed from the curriculum as our government becomes more fascist and controlling,

To cynical for my own good sometimes

The writer later admits that the Second World War is not being removed at all, but the point still made me chuckle.


8 02 2009

Just thought I would post a link to an article on the Golden Strawberry. It makes for interesting reading, and is certainly a point of thinking that is worth considering. The article is here. Give it a read.

“So Your Doctor’s a Racist?”

20 11 2008

The title of my self-help pamphlet (coming soon in some doctor’s surgeries) aimed at those who feel disturbed at the list of BNP members in Britain now doing the rounds on the internet. Having not seen the list, I am unwilling to speculate about the build-up of the members of the party in various communities.

There are, however, those who have seen the list, and are more than a little concerned that a trusted member of their community is actually siding with the increasingly abhorrent BNP. Be it a doctor, fireman, policeman, plumber, builder or anybody else, the list’s circulation has suddenly put most people on alert. For those who are attacked by the BNP, this is all the more worrying.

As a white male, I can say that it wouldn’t bother me what the political alliegences were, say, of a doctor who was treating me, as long as he got the job done (as these people who are members have been doing for some time). But my limitations are in my ethnicity. I am proudly British, but not to the levels of the BNP. I am obviously not the person who has something to fear in the BNP’s rhetoric (which is different to having something to fear from the BNP’s aims). There are plenty of people who do have a lot to be wary of. The BNP is still a racist party, it still has dubious morals based around fancy rhetoric aimed at disguising the true ideals. It still is growing and recruiting members. It has a hollow message that appears to be striking a chord with the population somewhere. More scary, I would suggest, than those already on the list, would be the likelihood of more people adding themselves to it.

As a neat after-thought, I was in the centre of Birmingham on Monday, wandering through the German market. There were unusually high numbers of police for a Monday morning, but all became apparent as I rounded the corner to see roughly 50 BNP members holding a protest at something. There were at least the same amount of police as protesters. I was wondering why the police were there, was it to calm the protesters, or protect them? I can only speculate…

Also, I’ve been thinking more recently about Germany, and not just because of the football. It seems, to my mind, that Britain currently has some of the same attributes as Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Economic troubles? Check. Small, but growing nationalist party? Check. Resentment over a war? Check.

There is obviously a long way to go before anything like Nazism and Hitler could happen in this country, but the conditions are interestingly falling into place…and, as I’ve said before, history is cyclical…


14 10 2008

During the first of many lectures on my new post-grad course last weekend, I sat and listened to one of my lecturers explain how sources, so long considered friends of the historian, are actually the bitter bitter enemies of those seeking an explanation or understanding.

Since GCSE I have had the value of sources plugged into me. “Use sources” we were told, “but watch out for bias“. As I have come through the system I have become naturally more and more cautious about source material. Everything, everyone has another agenda. Apparently. It is, therefore, the job of the historian to weed out the information from the bias.  Easy peasy. Except that it isn’t .

Apart from starting with a suspicious mind, and assuming everything is bad in some way, trying to work out what the hidden values are in a diary kept by a young, frightened solider on the front line in 1915 is bloody hard work. There may be bitter resentment at the authorities (although most soliders, certainly in early 1915, were volunteers, most members of the famous pals battalions). There may be a hatred of the Germans which shines through, although some soldiers didn’t want to kill the Germans any more than they wished to die themselves. Or, they were just documenting their experience. Put simply, there was no hidden agenda, they were writing to pass the time.

Except that the cynical historian would not believe that for a minute. For the historian, everything has another motive. The value of the source therefore lies in this ulterior motive, rather than the actual content.

The source therefore, due to this hidden agenda, serves to mask history in its purest sense. We cannot truly comprehend what happened because all the information we have actually hides the ‘truth’ with layers of rhetoric about another problem, be it a veiled criticism of someone, or something. Be it a subtle suggestion of a different opinion. Be it simply propaganda. The source complicates everything.

The paradox in historical terms is that the source is the only thing we can learn from. Source material is the only way we can access the past. Be it an old newspaper, or a document from 1300, or someone talking about 1945.  These are the only ways we can access the past, seeing as how, despite technological advances, no-one yet has mastered the art of time-travel (which is another problem that is infathomable, but is another issue for another time). We can only learn about the past from various sources. But all are biased in some way.

The formula is simple in this regard. The outcome is even simpler. We, as historians and indeed people, cannot ever understand the past simply because it is impossible to given the nature of what we have to work from.

If therefore we take away the idea of ‘trying to understand the past’ from the historians motives, what else do we have? What else does the historian do?

The obvious answer is that they try to understand the past. And then write about it. Having just decided that it is impossible to achieve such an aim, surely this is counter intuitive? I would argue not, simply because historians do not work in the principle that there is a definitive answer: “the past was like this. Full stop.” Rather they understand that the level of complexity in relation to the past is huge. The reason for this is also simple. The human.

The trouble with the past is that it is full of people. I mean there are millions and millions of them throughout the course of time. Think for a moment of your life. Of the hundreds and hundreds of people you have met at some stage. Think of your story, the various things you’ve done, places you’ve been, things you’ve seen. Think of your opinions, think then of how many people disagree with you. Then multiply that by millions and millions. That is history. Every single one of them has a story, has thoughts, opinions, feelings, just like you. The world may have been different, the people aren’t.

It is this multitude of stories which means we cannot understand the past. They vary so much. The understanding of a single event varies from person to person, depending on a whole range of factors. Historians therefore can only document the way they see things. They can only comment on what they know or understand. They cannot ever really understand history though.

If they cannot understand it, the question returns, why study it? My answer would be pure fascination. Here we have something 5000+ years big, that we cannot ever really understand. And this is fascinating. Why study anything at all if you know what you are going to get out when you start? It is similar to studying space. Here you have something so infinitely big that it is almost impossible to truly understand it. Yet scientists keep on looking, just in the hope that they find something, anything, that can progress their understanding just a tiny bit. I think it is the same for history.

War Laws?

14 05 2008

Whilst rather aimlessly meandering my way through another book relating to the war, I was struck by the notion of “the laws of war”. To me, this seems something of a oddity. Is it possible to suggest that you can only kill or injure your opponent via a certain method? In 1915 the German army used Chlorine gas for the first time in combat. The British were outraged as this form of attack was seen as most barbaric and indicative of the lowest form of human which the Germans were perceived to be. The outcrys harped on about the unspoken, unwritten, but very much existing, laws of war.

Now perhaps this scepticism for such a concept comes from the Second World War. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki irreparably changed the nature of war forever. Whilst the wartime revolution had begun in 1914, I think 1945 was the time when this nature changed into something more sinister. Wars were no longer about soldiers, engaging in a tactical battle of intelligence and brute force. Wars were now about civilians. In the poker table of war, normal people became the chips. Ultimately, in 1945, the USA called Japan’s bluff to devastating consequences. The following Cold War saw this game played out between the Americans and the Russians. No-one called the other, despite, or perhaps because of, the stakes.

This returns me then to the original point, how can a concept as brutally savage as war have laws? The simple answer is that it can’t. When your objective is as simple as to cause as much damage to your enemy as possible in order to do one of two things (wipe them out entirely or force a surrender) there is scant regard for the methods used. This, it seems, is another one of those ‘means/ends’ questions. If using a ‘dirty’ (which, in effect, means ungentlemanly) tactic helps ensure a victory, is it reasonable to push ahead with such a method. In war the answer is always ‘yes’. In war there are no morals to be offended. After all, how can one have morals about killing, right? It isn’t as black and white as that suggests though. What of the conscipts to the army, forced to join up because they were of suitable age? Do they abandon morals once they hit that front line? Again, the answer is in the affirmative. However, one must sympathise with them, there is no choice, the primative problem is one of ‘kill or be killed’. As the human is born to survive, there is only ever one choice for those in the line, especially those who engaged with the enemy in the First World War.

The fact that a war is occurring means that the laws governing on an international stage have failed. These rules, kept in force (to a greater or lesser extent) by the United Nations in today’s society; did not though exist in World War One. Whilst there were numerous treaties allying various countries (hence why the war started in the first place), there was no overall body. The League of Nations was set up in the aftermath of the Great War, and even it was unable to prevent the Second from erupting.

Wars have little regard for rules. The fact that they are occurring in the first place is indicative of the point that somewhere, the rules have been broken. Once the first law is broken, the rest simply follow like a row of neatly arranged dominos until you arrive at the precipice of war where there is but one option. A criminal, having already robbed, will have little compunction in robbing again. Once this CV of rule breaking has been built upon and expanded, it becomes irrelevant how many more laws get broken.

My point then is that there can be no such concept as “war laws” simply because the time and the place for such modes of discipline have long since passed by the time war erupts. War laws are a nice concept created by the side which feels they have been the victim of a new type of attack. In 1915 it was the British. They were so offended, they made large scale plans for the use of gas attacks later in the conflict. Apparently, it is alright to break the rules if the other side has broken them in the first place. Either that, or, as is more realistic, we accept that there are no more rules which can be broken when you are in the midst of war.