The call of history

Recently, I finished reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster, and a book which I can wholeheartedly recommend) when I was struck by the realisation that a lot of history is really bloody depressing. Admittedly, this might be the greatest understatement in the history of, well, history, when we consider that in just the last century and a bit we’ve seen two World Wars, the latter of which also gave us the nuclear bomb and the Holocaust; the Vietnam War; the campaigns of ethnic cleansing which followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia; and countless other cases of genocide and mass crimes against humanity, but even ignoring these major geo-political events there are plenty of examples where history can leave you feeling pretty down in the dumps.

 

Take, for example, my home town of Northwich. A few years ago, for the final project of my Master’s degree, I set up an oral history project about Winnington Park Recreation Club, a social club which used to be owned by, and run for, the workers at I.C.I.’s plant in Winnington. I had originally intended for the project to be a case study on how the transition from one form of business (members’ club) to another (private business) has affected the business as seen by those who were directly affected, but as the project developed it became (for me anyway) far more than that, and started to become an exploration of the damaging effects of de-industrialisation on a small town.

 

After all, at its peak I.C.I. employed thousands of people in Northwich: nowadays it employs a few hundred, if that. The more the project went on the more I began to realise how much my home town had lost in the past few decades, not just in economic terms, but in the fact that Northwich had lost something integral to its communal identity. Walk through Northwich and you will see plaques informing you that Northwich was built on two industries: salt and chemicals. Today, both of these industries are virtually extinct, and when you think about it that’s a pretty depressing thought, particularly when we see the parallels in communities like Port Talbot.

 

Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post: if history is so depressing, why bother studying it? The clichéd answer is that, by reading about our past mistakes we can learn from them and avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Such an idea is, in simple terms, bollocks. Ignoring the obvious fact that we have arguably never had more history books from which to learn but do, in fact, keep making the same mistakes cough the Iraq War cough, such an idea conflates ‘similarity’ with ‘being the same’.

 

Even if two events, one contemporary and one historical, share some similarities on the surface, the fact is that if you dig even slightly deeper you’ll find that, whilst you may be able to apply some very broad lessons from the past to the present, history does not give you a blue print from which to operate. This is not to say that politicians should be completely historically ignorant, and I do believe understanding how you got somewhere can give you an idea as to the best way forward, but rather that we shouldn’t see the past as something which we can turn to for direct advice on how to deal with any present situations we may be facing.

 

What I do believe history can be used for, however, is as a stimulus for social action. As I’ve harped on about in many, many posts before this one, one of the greatest historiographical developments of the past fifty or so years has been the rise of social, cultural and oral history, as it disabused the shit out of the notion that history was all about Great White Men. Thanks to pioneering historians such as E.P. Thompson, people from traditionally disenfranchised groups (i.e. anyone who wasn’t white, Western, male, heterosexual and rich) realised not only that history could be about them, but that their history might be more important than what had traditionally been considered “history”, and that is a powerful tool for any social movement to have. After all, history is a matter of perspectives, and once someone believes that their perspective on the past is important, who is to say that their perspectives on the present aren’t either? Whilst we may not consider history to be a potentially radical discipline, when harnessed properly these debates about our past can be used to positively affect the debates about our present, and what can be seen as an initially depressing conversation, for example the damage de-industrialisation has caused a local community, can be turned on its head, into one about how said town can move forward.

 

This optimistic point of view does, of course, ignore the elephant in the room, namely that fascists and other totalitarian groups can use their own distorted versions of history for their own ends. However, I believe that, in the end, people will see through such histories, for the simple fact that they are consciously inauthentic, as whilst such histories can be used to manipulate people’s base impulses in the short term, such as a fear of outsiders or economic troubles, in the long term people will start to question it, as it isn’t a perspective which they can relate to.

 

So, yes, on the face of it the past can be a pretty depressing place, and even worse history has shown that it can be manipulated, and used to make people commit acts of outright barbarity. But at the same time, even the darkest moments of our history can be a stimulus for action and real, positive change in the present, and that is something I believe historians should always bear in mind.

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E-harmony? Digital media and the practice of history

As I mentioned in a previous blog about Studs Terkel, one of my main areas of interest is oral history. I could easily write an entire blog on that topic alone, but for now it is suffice to say that, in my opinion, oral history is the most interesting and rewarding area of history available to us as historians, and so you can imagine my reaction late last year when I was asked if I wanted to help organise an oral history project. During one of the training sessions, myself and the training supervisor, Sean, started talking about some of the other projects he was working on, one of which was teaching people how to publish ebooks; and our conversation got me thinking about the pros and cons of ebooks.

 

After all, it seems that, at least once a year, The Times, The Guardian and every other self-appointed weathercock of modern culture boldly asks whether this is the year “the novel as we know it dies out?”, without ever really contextualising the question (coincidentally, every year the answer is a resounding no, but that’s a different post for a different day). Whilst ebooks and the internet have made it far easier to self-publish, one also has to ask the question of what exactly this ‘democratisation of publishing’ will produce in the long term, particularly in terms of the effect it will have on the quality of history writing.

 

When it comes to fiction I believe the increased popularity of ebooks is, overall, a positive development. Yes, there is an awful lot of dreck published via digital platforms, and you only have to look at the slew of BDSM related titles which were released in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, or the amount of Twilight knockoffs that hit the Amazon Kindle store when that series was at its peak, to see that ebooks are to quality control as a kryptonite chez longue is to Superman. However, as the saying goes the high tide floats all boats, and even if they produce a million Half a Hundred Tones of Silver, I’d argue ebooks would still have provided a net benefit for the world of literature if it means it’s easier for someone to publish the next 1984, Grapes of Wrath, or War and Peace.

 

The same applies to autobiographies. One of the sad things about history writing is that it is just as prone to following the latest trends as fiction, and as a result certain areas of history are woefully under-represented in the popular historical discourse. However, with ebooks this isn’t so much of an issue, and as a result there is a far more diverse range of autobiographies available on the Kindle Store (or any e-book store for that matter) than in Waterstone’s or a similar chain book store. As someone who believes very strongly that diaries, letters and autobiographies are the cornerstones of engaging history, this can only be a good thing, as it means first hands accounts of those areas of history which are usually ignored by mainstream publishers can be widely distributed with very little effort and at relatively little cost, which can only aid us in our appreciation of history as an interconnected whole.

 

However, what is good for autobiography is not necessarily good for history writing as a whole, as what ebooks and digital publishing have allowed for is the unchecked promulgation of half-baked conspiracy theories masquerading as respectable academia. It goes without saying that I have no issue with revisionist history, or history that challenges the accepted view point: as I’ve said in previous blog posts, history as an academic discipline needs debate to survive. What history doesn’t need is bullshit dressed in a Chanel suit; and there’s a huge difference between revisionist historians who argue whether the Final Solution was always Hitler’s end goal, and Holocaust denying dickheads who say that it didn’t happen at all, and that we’ve all been conned by the ‘Zionist Conspiracy’, or whatever they’re calling it this week.

 

But why do I have a particular problem with ebooks when it comes to this issue? After all, there are plenty of blogs, vlogs and similar media which spout ill-informed and poorly researched opinions (assuming they’re researched at all) on a regular basis. I think it’s because, to most people, books still have a degree of authority which blogs and the like do not. If you ask most people what a blog is, they’ll likely say that it’s someone’s opinion: yes, they may feel some blogs are better articulated and more trustworthy than others, but at the end of the day it is clear they are still the author’s opinions, and as such people treat them with a fair amount of scepticism.

 

When it comes to  a book, however, I believe there’s still a general assumption that, even if it’s been published on a digital store, it has been subject to some level of editorial oversight, and that at the very least the book has been checked to make sure it isn’t completely made up. This is why digital publishing is so potentially toxic for the writing of history, in that it allows idiots to publish utter tripe and bile without having to worry about peer review, or even the most basic fact checking process, through a medium to which the general public still attaches a great deal of authority and respect. Yes, ebooks have allowed for the democratisation of publishing, and have made it far easier for people who may not have been able to publish their material through traditional channels to gain access to a wide audience; but I’d argue that, in the case of history writing at least, academic standards are far more important, as once they’ve gone, it’s very difficult to get them back.

 

There is also the interesting topic of the benefits and dangers digital media have for the preservation of historical material, and in all likelihood I’ll do a post on it sometime in the future. Despite what I’ve said, I do still think ebooks are a good thing, not just for authors but also for readers. Thanks to digital publishing and tablet devices it has never been cheaper or easier to find a good book, and maybe this is the real issue: that we, as readers, have to learn to be more critical of the books we read, and more willing to challenge those authors who try and pass off their lies and falsehoods as ‘challenging the accepted historical narrative’. After all, the Amazon store has a user review section for a reason: why not use it?

Just another case of his-story?

It used to be the case that history was the story of upper class white men, written by upper class white men, for upper class white men. Whilst that might be a bit of a generalisation, the fundamental point remains that until fairly recently (by which I mean the 1960s, ish) if you were a woman, of an ethnic minority, or from a working class background, chances are slim that you’d be represented in any historical narrative at all, much less represented in a fair way. Today the situation is somewhat different, or at least I thought it was until the other day, when I read an article which said that of the previous year’s ten bestselling history books, only two were written by women.

At first, I thought that this couldn’t possibly be right: after all, at university the gender balance of my lecturers was more or less 50/50. However, just one glance at my bookshelf was enough for me to conclude that the article might have had a point, and the SJW inside me couldn’t help but wince when I came to the realisation that the number of male authors clearly outweighed the number of females. Admittedly, this evidence is anecdotal and entirely unrepresentative, but it did make me wonder whether the fact history books are so predominantly written by men poses a problem for the study of history in both an academic and general sense.

I don’t think it does for two reasons, the first of which is that the article assumes that books are the main way in which most people engage with history. Certainly, it would be churlish to ignore the fact that a lot of people do read history books. But in terms of the general public’s day to day engagement with history, I’m willing to bet that television is by far and away their preferred medium, and when it comes to television historians, the ratio between men and women is far more balanced.

Before writing this, I tried to name as many television historians as I could off the top of my head. Names such as Lucy Worsley, Suzannah Lipscombe, Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes sprung to mind almost immediately, but I had to think a while before I could come up with a relevant male television historian. Obviously, this is not to say that there aren’t any relevant male television historians, and like my bookshelf survey, it is purely conjecture. However, what my experiment does demonstrate is that the fact more history books are written by men than women does not necessarily translate into female historians receiving less representation in other public media; and if anything, it suggests the opposite is true.

However, even if we assume that books, and not television, are the primary way the public engage with history, I don’t believe that the disparity between the number of books written by men and the number written by women will last for long. According to a report published by UCAS in January 2015, women are 36% more likely to apply to go to university than men, and whilst it is true that the number of people applying does not necessarily correspond to the number of people who are admitted, a UCAS report for university admissions in 2014 showed that 58,000 more women went to university than men. Even if after university most of these students pursue careers outside academia, the chances are that female lecturers and professors will be far more prominent in university history departments of the future; and whilst it may take a few years before the effects fully kick in, the increasing prominence of women within university history departments will, in turn, lead to more best-selling history books being written by women.

All of this is to say nothing of the increasing prominence of women within museums and schools, two media which I would argue engage far more people with history than books do. I guess the main question left to answer is why this is an issue I felt needed addressing in the first place, and the simple answer is that I believe diversity can only be good for history as a discipline. As I said at the beginning of this post, for too long the study of history was restricted to study of rich, white men, which is such a tiny slither of human existence it’d be like trying to appreciate the Bayeux Tapestry through a keyhole. The more history is written by people of different genders, of different ethnicities, and of different social backgrounds, the more varied and nuanced our understanding of history becomes, not just in the sense that we get to learn about new topics or themes, but also in that we gain new perspectives on stories we thought had nothing new to say. The fact is that everyone with a professional or personal interest in history gains from having more books written by women, and the fact that female historians are prominent in other public media is a promising sign for the future.

All things fade?

Recently, I started reading Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’m only forty-odd pages into it, but from even the slim amount of the book I’ve read so far I can say that anyone with an interest in that period, or modern world history in general, should read it. It was whilst reading Black Earth that I began to reflect on my visit to Poland a few months ago, and a question that struck me during my visit to Auschwitz, and which has stuck with me ever since.

 

It goes without saying that my visit to Auschwitz was an incredibly harrowing experience, and it’s a place that I think everyone should visit at some point in their lives. Just, and permit me a tangent here, if you do go to Auschwitz, or Dachau, or any other site where millions of people were killed, do me a favour: don’t barge people out of the way to take photographs of the crematoria, or pose in front of the buildings, or take selfies, or any act of similarly twattish behaviour. Show some basic respect to the memories of those who were killed, and don’t treat a visit to Auschwitz like you would a trip to the park.

 

Ironically, it was whilst watching this behaviour that I started to think about the question which will form the basis of the blog, and the more I thought about it, the more it started to worry me. My question is this: one day, will people see the Holocaust as just another part of history? I should probably explain what I mean by that, lest I come across as flippant. I don’t mean that people will stop visiting Auschwitz or other former concentration camps, nor do I mean that school pupils will no longer be taught about the Holocaust. What I mean is that I began to fear that the Holocaust would lose the direct emotional resonance, and universal moral significance, which it has today; and furthermore, if people feel comfortable taking selfies in front of gas chambers, could it be argued that it already has?

 

After all, there are plenty of examples of genocide and mass crimes against humanity which have occurred in the past, but which do not evoke the same universal outrage as the Holocaust. Take, for example, the United States’ policy towards Native American Indians in the nineteenth century. Even if you don’t consider it genocide, by any modern standards the policy of the ‘Indian Removal’ was morally repugnant, involving the mass slaughter of thousands of Native American Indians, and the forced migration of thousands, more, whose land was stolen from them and who were then forced to live on reservations, often thousands of miles away from their homeland.

 

We don’t even have to look that far into European history to see an example of genocide. During the Bosnian War of 1992- 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces carried out a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing, including the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995; and in this case, those responsible were found guilty of genocide. However, whenever a politician arises who argues for extreme solutions to the (and I hate to use this word) ‘issue’ of immigration, we don’t call them a mini-Milosevic, or say that we can’t let another Indian Removal happen again. We usually refer to Hitler and the Holocaust. This is what I mean when I say the Holocaust has a universal moral relevance and emotional resonance: we only have to mention it, and people instantly understand the immorality and inhumanity of what is being proposed.

 

So, will the Holocaust ever lose this impact? I don’t think so, and I think this for a few reasons. The first is that, in Britain at least, World War Two is so deeply embedded in our national culture as the time Britain ‘stood up for what’s right’, that any discussion of World War Two will involve the discussion of why we went to war, and as such the Holocaust. Even if you think this interpretation of history is bunkum (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this perspective is an oversimplification at best) I still feel it is a relevant point. World War Two is arguably the last (and, depending on your point of view, only) time that Britain acted as a definitive force for good, and as long as this remains the popular narrative for Britain’s involvement in World War Two, I still feel the Holocaust will retain its emotive resonance.

 

Secondly, and to bring this post back to where we started, the fact that people can still go and visit concentration camps is another reason why I feel the direct moral relevance of the Holocaust will not be lost on future generations. The realisation when you visit places such as Auschwitz or Dachau that this is actually the place where millions of people were killed gives you some sense of a connection to the past, and a greater understanding of the scale of the horrors that occurred there. Admittedly, the fact that people do clearly see visits to sites such as Auschwitz as an opportunity for selfies is somewhat troubling, but as long as places such as Auschwitz remain I believe they will still allow people to fully appreciate the cruelty and savagery of the Holocaust.

 

Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, is the fact that so much first hand testimony has been produced by Holocaust survivors. As I argued in a post last year, figures can only tell you so much about the horrors of events such as the Holocaust, and no matter how skilled a historian is at constructing a narrative, theirs can never have the same emotional impact as the stories of those who experienced the Holocaust first hand. The works of people like Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl convey the real human cost of the Holocaust, not just in the sense of the men and women who were killed, or the nature of the suffering they endured, but also the long term impact the memory of the Holocaust had on those who survived. It’s for the same reason I believe oral history projects such as Gideon Greif’s interviews with former Sonderkommandos, are so important, as without these sources, we would lose sight of the true cost of the Holocaust.

 

It’s for similar reasons I feel that World War One will never lose its emotional resonance. Even though we in the twenty first century have devised even more horrific ways to kill each other since then, reading Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front is still a harrowing experience, not just because of the stark portrayal of the brutalities of trench warfare, but also because these books captured that profound sense of loss that permeated throughout the later stages of the war: not just loss in terms of physical loss, but loss in the sense that, no matter what the outcome, the world would never be the same again.

 

I guess the final question would be, why did this idea worry me in the first place? Perhaps it has something to do with the issue I myself raised at the beginning, namely that if we can let the memory of a genocide as horrific as the Holocaust fade away, then more recent genocides, such as those in Rwanda or Bosnia, will lose their moral resonance as well, and we will be unable to learn from the lessons of history. Whatever the reason, I felt it was an issue worth addressing, as I believe the emotional and moral resonance of the Holocaust is something we cannot afford to lose.

How to videogame history

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Rather than launch into a long winded explanation about why I haven’t written one of these blogs since May last year, followed by some vague promise to write them more regularly, I’m just going to jump right back in at the deep end and write a blog which I meant to write as part of the ‘History and videogame’ series of posts I started last year, but never got round to continuing, let alone finishing. So without further ado, here we go.

 

As I’m sure you’ll all be surprised to hear, I watch a lot of stuff on YouTube. I say a lot of stuff, but in truth I usually end up watching the same sorts of videos, and one well to which I regularly return is the YouTube channel of videogame critic/journalist, Jim Sterling. One of his regular features are his ‘Squirty Plays’, where Jim will play the first half an hour or so of a game and give you his first impressions of said game, and one of his ‘Squirty Plays’ which will stick in my mind from now until the day I shuffle off my mortal coil, is his play through of Playing History 2: Slave Trade.

 

The video can be watched here, and it really does have to be seen to be believed. I have to assume that the game was made in good faith by game developers who really did just want to make a video game teaching children about the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, but I don’t think I’ve seen a more inadvertently offensive… anything in my life. From the awful, hideous chariacatures of African tribesmen, to the weird time travelling mouse that follows you around, the game is a masterclass in how not to teach sensitive subject matter to children. This is, of course, to say nothing of the piece de resistance of the play through: the slave Tetris mini-game. Seriously, I’m not making this up. Watch the video if you don’t believe me.

 

Admittedly, I haven’t played the game. Perhaps after you’ve played slave Tetris the game turns into Spec Ops: The Line meets Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead, but somehow I highly doubt it. From watching Jim’s ‘Squirty Play’, however, I have come up with a list of things to do, or perhaps more pertinently not to do, when trying to make a history-related video game, so here it is.

 

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, do your research. When we’re first introduced to our protagonist, Tim, we are informed that he was bought by the captain who (and I quote) “shipped me to England to serve as his slave”. Judging by the clothes and the general aesthetics, I am presuming that the game is set in the eighteenth century. If this is the case, there is one slight issue with the game’s initial premise: slavery was never ‘legal’ in England and Wales.

 

Up until that point, the issue of slavery in England had been decided by common law, and whilst in some cases judges had come to the conclusion that you could legally hold someone as a slave in England, there was no Parliamentary law supporting it. Furthermore, in Somersett’s case of 1772 the judge, Lord Mansfield, declared that no one could legally be held as a slave whilst on English soil, so if the game is set in the late 1700s, or early 1800s, this further complicates the situation.

 

Now, some of you might think I’m being pedantic, and trying to pick holes for the sake of it, or even worse trying to down play the horrors of slavery, but I’m not. To tell, or even to imply to children that slavery was just as common at home as it was in the colonies is not only historically inaccurate, but also ignores what was, to me, one of the most reprehensible elements of the Transatlantic slave trade: namely, the fact that the same MPs and public figures who proudly talked of English liberty and freedom, were often the same people who reduced millions and millions of Africans to a life of backbreaking servitude. There has arguably never been a more glaring moral double standard in the history of Britain than our stance on slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and to me this is just as important for a lesson for children to learn as the fact that slavery was cruel, unjust and inhumane.

 

Secondly, maintain a consistent tone. I’d go into more detail on this, but I don’t have the time or the energy to list all the examples of where the game gets the tone so wrong it’s awful, but I’ll start with the mouse. As Jim himself points out, the mouse (whose name I don’t care to look up) seems to find a weird sense of joy in the situation, making comments such as “Our journey [to Africa to BUY SLAVES!!] is going to be an exciting one!”. Indeed, the dialogue as a whole seems to consistently miss the tone of the subject matter, veering from dribbling inanity to humour which is both not funny and completely out of place, leaving you confused as to exactly what the developers were trying to achieve.

 

This is to say nothing of the mini-games. At one point the mouse gives you a pair of goggles which allow you to see people/objects which have fallen through the time-space continuum, prompting a mini-game where you spot the differences between modern day and eighteenth century slavery. Again, this is done with what I presume are good intentions, but the goggles are so out of place, and mesh so poorly with the world the developers are trying to create, that they actively distract from the message they’re trying to impart. It also goes without saying that the mini-game is utter dreck, but that’s beside the point. There are more examples of this which I could discuss (again, slave Tetris) but to be honest Jim does a pretty good job of covering them, so I don’t want to repeat him.

 

However, I think there is one thing the game does well, and that is the use of dialogue choice to create an emotional connection. As I’ve said in a lot of my previous blog posts, whilst we can never know what it was like to have lived in the past, to me all good history should try and create a sense of empathy with the people involved; and in my opinion the best way to do this in video games is through choice in dialogue.

 

Why? Because it gives the story you’re playing through a sense of meaning and importance. You get some idea would have meant to have to make that decision in real life, even if your understanding is somewhat artificial in nature as you get to walk away from it. However, if the game is done right, when you do walk away from the game you come to an ever greater level of understanding, namely the realisation that, unlike you, the people who made those decisions had to live with them. For an absolutely excellent example of this, play Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead, a video game which creates, through dialogue, such a strong connection between you and the two protagonists (Lee and Clementine) that it damn near made me cry when I played it. Admittedly, Playing History is not The Walking Dead, but I at least appreciate the idea the developers had.

 

So there we are, three key points on how to make a kind of OK history video game: do your research; know your tone and stick to it; and focus on dialogue not action. Some of you might think I’m being harsh on this game, considering it’s for kids, but to me the fact it’s for kids isn’t an excuse. Most adults know when they’re being told something that isn’t 100% accurate, and have the ability to remedy that fault: children, on the other hand, do not; and if anything, the fact that a game is for children is all the more reason to make sure you make the best video game you possibly can.

The politics of memory

Unless you’ve been living in a hermetically sealed room for the past few weeks, you’ll know that last Friday marked the 70th Anniversary of VE Day. Truth be told, I didn’t get to see much of the coverage of the commemoration parade itself, but from what I did manage to see of it, it seemed pretty well done, although I do empathise with those who argued it sometimes crossed the line into outright jingoism.

Anyway, whilst I was reflecting on the VE Day commemorations that I began to think about a related issue, but one which is rarely discussed outside academic circles: why do we choose to remember and commemorate certain events, but entirely neglect to commemorate others? To me, the question of what we choose to, if not forget, gloss over and ignore is just as important an issue of what and how we do choose to remember and commemorate, as more often than not, the former can reveal far more about a nation’s psyche and culture than the latter.

Sticking with the general World War Two theme, the Depression of the 1930s is a particularly pertinent example of this issue, as it’s a topic which is rarely discussed in its own right when it really deserves to be. Yes, we hear a lot about the Depression in the context of World War Two, and the Depression is frequently used by the media as a stick with which to measure our own economic situation. But beyond this? Nothing, and as I said mere sentences ago there really should be.

After all, the Depression was arguably one of the most devastating events of the twentieth century, not just in the sense that it acted as a precursor to World War Two, but devastating in the sense of the social and economic gulf it created between those areas whose economy relied on heavy industries. including the North of England, Scotland and Wales; and regions such as the south east, whose economy was geared towards light industries, the last of which were better equipped to react to the economic downturn. Furthermore, the Depression was arguably the death knell for classic liberal economics, and as such the event which triggered the formation of the post-war welfare state, and the fact it is not more widely discussed in popular history circles is rather bemusing.

Quite why this is, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because any programme about the Depression would have to address the uncomfortable fact that the economic disparities the Depression caused between the south-east and other regions of the United Kingdom were never really tackled, and as such could lead to calls for action to be taken in the present; or it could simply be that the Depression is generally classified as ‘economic history’, and the Beeb and other television networks believe the general public consider economic history too dull and dry to watch any programmes about it. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there is much, much more to be said about, and that we can learn from, the history of the Depression, and the longer we continue to ignore it the worse off we will be as a nation.

However, for me the most fascinating example of this issue is the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. On the face of it, the abolition of the slave trade should be one of the events which define any popular narrative of British history. Not only is it one of the few times in history where Britain served as a definitive force for good in the world, it is possibly the only time where it enacted positive change despite the fact it was acting against its own interests.

By this measure, the abolition of slavery is an event which should be commemorated annually. So why isn’t it? It may have something to do with the fact that to do so would draw attention to the fact that more people are currently enslaved than at any other point in human history, and serve to highlight the fact that, for all its good intentions, in reality Britain never managed to put an end to the slave trade.

However, I think the answer lies in the fact that any commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade would also have to discuss the fact that, whilst Britain did eventually try and put an end to the slave trade, in the two hundred years before its abolition British merchants made a pretty handsome profit from trading in the misery and exploitation of others. Whilst Britain may have been the first nation to outlaw the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it was also the one which was responsible for developing and expanding it in the first place.

Furthermore, whilst the slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery itself remained legal in British colonies until 1833; and even when slavery was later abolished the slaves themselves received no compensation or reparations whatsoever. As such, when looked at in its proper historical context, the abolition of the slave trade becomes more morally ambiguous, and it is this ambiguity which explains why it doesn’t occupy a more prominent role in our national consciousness.

These are just two examples, and certainly Britain is not unique in glossing over certain historical events. As Adam Hoschschild argues in his superlative King Leopold’s Ghost, there is rarely any public discussion in Belgium about the slave state established in the Congo by King Leopold II; and in France, the issue of Nazi collaboration is still a highly sensitive, if not taboo, topic.

However, it is still an issue we need to address, as whilst I would argue Britain is, overall, pretty good at having open and honest discussions about our past, in some areas we are still unwilling to do so. Why this is the case, I’m not sure, but I think it is largely due to the two issues I raised in the cases of both the Depression and the abolition of the slave trade, namely that certain topics can act as an uncomfortable mirror to contemporary society, or that by commemorating these events, we are often forced to deal with the more morally ambiguous elements of our past.

Whatever the reasons, to me what this issue highlights most is the importance of community focused history. Any commemorative events aimed at a national audience and planned at a national level will, by their very nature, be selective, both in the events it chooses to focus on, and the perspectives it chooses to incorporate, as they have to convey a narrative which will appeal to a broad audience, leading to one which prioritises simplicity over historical nuance.

Community focused history, however, doesn’t have to worry about these issues, and as such is free to produce historical accounts which focus on niche topics, and incorporate voices and perspectives which are ignored by national historical narratives. Yes, local history can be rather myopic, but at the same time it keeps alive events and issues that would have otherwise been forgotten, and if used correctly, these local accounts can be woven together to form a narrative which presents an issue in its full historical context.

The virtue of industry

As a former student, I’ve watched my fair share of crap day time television. Whether it’s Doctors, A Home in the Country, or any of the myriad customer advocacy shows featuring Dom Littlewood, you name it, at some point during my university years I’ve probably watched it. Mainly I watched these shows as a means of procrastination, pure and simple: trust me when I say that when you have to read a forty page article about farming in the fourteenth century, literally anything else is a more appealing prospect. At the same time, however, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find some of them, if not good, at the very least interesting, and one show which sticks out in that regard is Flog It!

Overall, the show isn’t exactly amazing: once you’ve watched three or four episodes, you’ve essentially watched them all. What was interesting about the show, however, were the segments where presenter Paul Martin visited a site of local interest. Often these would be a stately home or castle, or another equally extravagant location, but fairly often Martin would visit a museum which focused on the history of a local craft, trade or industry. I mention this because a few weeks ago an episode of Flog It! came on, and whilst watching it I began to ponder the question of what makes a good local industry museum.

Generally speaking, local trade museum’s don’t have it easy. Over the years, they have had to fend off criticism not just from academic circles, but also from people who would argue that (for the sake of argument) converting an old cotton mill into a cotton mill museum is a waste of resources, as it takes up land and space which could be used to house businesses which would help the local economy grow.

I’ll return to the first point in a minute, but my response to the second is pretty straight forward: local trade museums do help expand the economy. Not only do they bring in tourists, but they create jobs both directly and indirectly: directly in the sense that you need staff to run the building on a day to day basis; and indirectly in the sense that, at the very least, you’ll need tradesmen to carry out any maintenance or repair work, to say nothing of issues such as catering or stocking the museum shop.

Back to my main point, however: what makes a good local trade museum? The first thing to say is that a good craft museum should emphasise live demonstrations and living history. On a purely aesthetic level, these displays can provide an interesting, and in some cases therapeutic, experience, and whilst that might just be my own personal opinion, I’d argue the popularity of open restaurants show a lot of people enjoy watching craftsman in action.

More than this, however, live demonstrations are one of the best explanatory tools available to museums, especially if the craft in question uses machinery. Not only do live demonstrations show visitors how a product was made in an easy to understand fashion, they also give them an insight into the lives of the people who worked in that industry. No information panel or diagram can ever truly impress on a visitor how it must have felt to use a nineteenth century power loom: live demonstrations can. A live demonstration of a power loom allows visitors to get an idea of the sheer size of the thing, the thunderous noise they generated, and the dangers they posed to inexperienced operatives, and whilst it may be an obvious point to make, it’s one which is easily overlooked.

Secondly, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph a good local trade museum focuses on the lives of workers, and not just the mechanics of their craft. To use my example from above, obviously a cotton mill museum would need to talk about how cotton was produced e.g. what type of machinery the workers used, how it worked, and how it changed over time; and craft museums should address wider economic issues relating to the trade, in this case issues such as where the cotton went, and what it was used for.

However, this information should form the context, and not the focus, of the experience. Having set the scene, a local trade museum should go on to explore what it was like to work in that industry on a day to day basis e.g. what the working conditions were like, how long a working day was, what the workers ate; and how their job affected their wider lives. For example, how did their working environment affect their health? Did working in a cotton mill affect their social status, and if so was it a positive or negative effect? How did working in a cotton mill affect the family structure? Not only are these important questions, more to the point they are issues which visitors can directly relate to; and as such are more likely to increase a visitor’s engagement with, and enjoyment of, the museum.

Most importantly, however, the museum should frame the history of that local trade in its wider political, social and cultural context. To return to my hypothetical cotton mill museum one last time, the history of the Lancashire cotton trade ties into several important historical topics, not least the rise radical left wing movements such as Luddism and Chartism, and the agitation for Parliamentary reform; but the Cotton Famine of 1861-65 was partly the result of the U.S. Civil War. These are just a few examples, but you get my point. Even the most unassuming trades and industries tie into far larger issues, and craft museums should not be afraid to show their role in the wider historical picture; as by showing visitors to see how the history of their local area has affected, and was affected by, events of national, or even international significance, local trade museums can engage them with a range of topics and themes in a way that is relatable and accessible.

So there we go, those are my ideas on what makes for a good local trade museum: emphasise living history; focus on the lives of the workers; and frame the history of the trade in its wider historical context. Local trade museums are valuable institutions, and that’s why it’s vital they provide an engaging, informative and accessible experience: not only can they inspire people’s interest in areas of history they may not have considered before, and provide them with a truly unique historical experience, but they are perhaps the best way to demonstrate the principle that is at the heart of history: everything is connected.

Why you should read … Studs Terkel

As I’ve said in many previous blogs, one of the things I love about history is that there is no one objectively “true” version of history. Yes, it can get annoying when someone tries to argue that Thatcher was the greatest PM in British history, and the less said about Holocaust deniers and their moronic ilk the better; but overall, the fact that everyone has their own opinion about “what actually happened” is what makes history, in my opinion, the most interesting subject there is.

As such, for me one of the most interesting ways to learn about history is to listen to or read the stories of the people who lived through it, and to my mind no historian was better at capturing those memories than Studs Terkel, the Chicagoan (?) broadcaster and oral historian who died in 2008. I don’t have room to list all the reasons I think Terkel is one of, if not the, best historians of the twentieth century, and I think it’s a travesty that his work isn’t far, far more well-known than it is, especially considering the prominence afforded to historians such as David Starkey. That said, I’ll try and sum up exactly why I think you should all read at least one of Terkel’s books, but before we begin, I’ll give you an overview of a typical Studs Terkel book.

Admittedly, I haven’t read all of his work, so I can only hope the books I haven’t read don’t differ too radically from the ones I have. Each of Terkel’s books concern a broad theme or topic, be they historical, such as The Good War (World War Two) or Hard Times (the Great Depression); social, such as Coming of Age (how America has changed during the twentieth century); or philosophical, such as Working (the value and meaning of work) or Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (reflections on death). These general topics are then broken down into a series of chapters each covering a theme within it (for example, the ‘Big Money’ chapter in Hard Times covers the Great Depression from the perspective of bankers and their like); and within each chapter are a series of interviews, some a paragraph long, some several pages long, with a brief introduction about the interviewee.

As you may have guessed, the first thing to say about Terkel is that the scope of his work is simply staggering. I can’t think of any other historian who has covered the range of subjects, and moreover in a manner which does them justice, than Terkel has. For me, his best books are those which focus on a philosophical or social theme rather than a specific period of history, as they allow his interviewees to draw on their entire life’s experience, rather than on a specific period of time, resulting in a more free flowing and far reaching interview.

Furthermore, all of Terkel’s books incorporate a wide variety of perspectives on each topic. Whilst Terkel himself was pretty liberal, his books contain interviews with people from a range of political, social, cultural and economic backgrounds. As a result, at no point do you ever feel that Terkel has deliberately ignored a point of view; tried to portray people with conservative, or even bigoted, views in a negative light; or manipulate the interviews to promote a certain historical narrative.

As such, not only do his books reveal some unique perspectives on the past, they also demonstrate what I argued at the beginning of this post is true, namely that everyone has their own take on history. Indeed, Terkel’s work goes one further than this, as by demonstrating the variety of perspectives, ideas and opinions about the past, it suggests not only that we will never come to a final conclusion about “what happened”, but arguably that we shouldn’t.

That third point should be elaborated upon. Obviously, all of Terkel’s books present a historical narrative to a degree. Simply by arranging the interviews into chapters and deciding what order to put them in, Terkel has created a narrative, and this is to say nothing of whether the interviews have been edited.

However, aside from this and the brief introductions at the beginning of each interview, Terkel doesn’t impose his own interpretations or perspectives on the interviews. Instead, each interview is presented in its fullest and without comment, thus allowing the interviewees to speak for themselves. The result is a narrative which is far more engaging, entertaining and honest than if Terkel had used extracts from the interviews to back up one of his own, and is a narrative structure which allows the unique voice of each interviewee to be heard.

The greatest strength of Terkel’s work, however, is that it promotes the concept of history as social justice. Not justice in an Internationale, ‘Oh comrades, come rally!” sense of the word ‘justice’, but justice in the sense that good history gives people a voice. As I’ve said in several posts, too much history focuses on the words and actions of a narrow elite, and excludes the perspectives and experiences of anyone who falls outside those narrow parameters of what constitutes a “great man”, resulting in a version of history which is both overly simplistic, and which disenfranchises huge portions of society.

As such, by giving his interviewees equal billing regardless of their backgrounds, not only does Terkel create a far richer and more nuanced historical account, but it gives many of them the opportunity to speak and to be heard where before they were ignored. As a result, Terkel’s approach to history not only inspires in people a pride in their own history, but more importantly the belief that their opinion matters, and it is this belief which forms the foundation of all successful political, social and cultural change.

So that’s why I think you should all read Studs Terkel. He was a historian who not only understood that everyone has an opinion about the past, but that allowing people the opportunity simply to talk about it gives them a sense of worth and value that, when used properly, can be the driving force of positive change in the present. I should also say that this post only covers his written material: he also conducted hundreds of interviews for radio, which can be found online at the WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive. With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Terkel himself, which I think neatly encapsulates his philosophy.

 

“What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re listening, they feel good about talking to you. When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It’s for the person who reads it to have the feeling . . . In most cases the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person. “Ordinary” is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.”

(Studs Terkel, Touch and Go: A Memoir)

Judgment Day

A few weeks ago, I watched Here Come the UKIPers. I know what you’re thinking, but bear with me. To be honest, the show was pretty unremarkable, and didn’t actually tell us much about UKIP as a political entity besides the fact that, SHOCK HORROR, there are some out of touch racists in it. I should say now that, no, I don’t buy the whole “I’m from a different generation” excuse. If you grew up during or after the sixties and seventies, you should know why you can’t use the term “negro” to describe a black person, or say that all Jewish people have “hooked noses”, so stop. Doing. It.

Anyway, whilst the show itself was (to paraphrase AA Gill) little more than an excuse to point and laugh at UKIP, it did get me thinking about another issue, namely the question of whether we should judge the past according to our modern moral and cultural sensibilities. It goes without saying that there are some things which are morally unjustifiable, no matter the time period. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the first or the twenty first century, things such as slavery or genocide can never be justified, and anyone who tries to do so is a prick. An obvious statement, perhaps, but I felt it needed to be said. However, there are plenty of examples where people have advocated or done things which were perfectly acceptable, or even progressive, by their contemporary standards, but which seem less so when viewed from a modern perspective, and as historians it’s important that we reflect on how we can judge and assess these events without inadvertently straying into the realms of anachronism.

A good example of this dilemma is the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, otherwise known as the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was formed in 1816 in order to promote racial equality between whites and non-whites, more specifically freed black slaves, a laudable aim by anyone’s standards. However, their solution  to the problem was to establish a colony for free blacks in Africa (Liberia), a solution which, with the power of hindsight, we can say was over simplistic and culturally insensitive at best, and outright racist at worst.

There were several flaws with the ACS’ plan, the most fundamental of which was their assumption that all black Americans wanted to return to Africa, an assumption which meant the ACS ignored the crucial fact that many freed slaves saw themselves as Americans, and not as Africans. Were they unhappy with their social and political status in America? Of course they were, but they still saw themselves as Americans, and wanted to improve their lot in their own country, rather than being sent to a foreign continent which they had never lived on.

Indeed, the fact that the ACS believed all black Americans instinctively wanted to return to Africa meant they ignored another blindingly obvious issue, namely that the colonists had no practical knowledge of their new surroundings. On the most basic level, they didn’t know what crops they could grow or when they should be planted, and the poor housing conditions and a lack of medical supplies meant diseases such as yellow fever were rife.

These issues were exacerbated by the fact that the colony was regularly attacked by neighbouring tribes. Going back to my first point, the ACS established Liberia on the flawed premise that all “Africans” belonged to one homogenous culture, an idea as absurd as assuming all “Europeans” belong to one homogenous culture. As a result, the ACS established Liberia without properly reflecting on the political and cultural tensions it could cause in the area, and since the colony was established on such a flawed understanding of both Africa and black Americans, it’s fair to argue that the ACS’ plans were, fundamentally, racist.

However, at the same time for anyone in the twenty first century to dismiss the ACS’ plans as ‘racist’ is to ignore the historical context in which the organisation was established. The fact is that the ACS was established during a time period when a large percentage of the American populace believed black people were inherently inferior to white people, and as such the idea that they could ever hope to reach the level of ‘civilisation’ achieved by white people was simply beyond the Pale. When placed in this context, you begin to understand how radical the ACS’ plans for a colony which would be populated, and more importantly governed, exclusively by freed-black people really were.

The same historical context also partially explains the reason why the ACS chose to establish their colony in Africa, rather than in an uninhabited area in the Mid-West. Was their decision based on a fundamental misunderstanding of black identity? Yes, of course it was. But it was also a decision made on the grounds that the ACS wanted their colony to succeed so as to prove to white supremacists that black people could achieve the same level of ‘civilisation’ as white people if given the opportunity. In the minds of those who ran the ACS, the only place where a free black colony could succeed was in Africa, not in America, as it was the place where they would be most free from the racial prejudice which had held them back for so long.

Which brings me back to my opening question: how do we reconcile the fact that whilst the ACS’ plans were progressive for their time, by twenty first century standards they were overly simplistic, bordering on racist? I think the answer is fairly simple, and that is that we need to make relative, rather than absolute, judgments about the past when talking about ethical and moral issues. To me, to argue that X was enlightened and justifiable for its time but isn’t by modern standards is a logically consistent and perfectly reasonable conclusion to come to, and in my opinion we seem to have lost sight of this.

Admittedly, this might just my personal experience, but browse the comments section of any internet article or YouTube video, and you’ll see what I mean. People seem unwilling, or worse still unable, to talk about a whole host of issues, both contemporary and historical, in anything other than absolute terms, even if doing so means they have to manipulate facts to support their viewpoint, or ignore evidence which contradicts it, and we cannot afford to let this happen to the practice of history.

To ask the question of whether, for example, the ACS was or wasn’t racist is to ignore the most fundamental aspect of history, namely that our attitudes regarding discrimination, war, human rights, labour relations, religion and, well, anything with a moral or ethical dimension have evolved drastically over time. As historians, it is our job to explain (or at least try to explain) how and why our attitudes towards these issues have changed, and whilst this task does involve a degree of judgment, at the same time we need to make sure that in judging the past we do not reduce complex debates down to a simple yes/no dichotomy.

As the example of the ACS shows, what we consider enlightened today will likely be seen as reactionary tomorrow, and any conclusions we reach about the past must reflect this. We will always judge past events by our modern standards, but whilst we should never ignore the faults of organisations such as the American Colonisation Society, or attempt to make excuses for them, we should also ensure we consider them in their proper historical context and remember any good that they did do, so as to come to a conclusion which properly reflects their historical legacy and impact, and is not simply a reflection of our contemporary attitudes and opinions.

Note

I should add that the ACS promoted the idea of a free black colony on the grounds that it would solve the issue of racial inequality without having to address the abolition question. I was going to include it in the main body of the post, but decided against it on the basis that I didn’t feel it related to the central premise of the post i.e. can we judge the past according to our current ethical standards? That, and the post was already far too long. Still, it’s an important point to make, as it raises the question of whether Liberia should be seen as a true experiment in promoting racial equality or simply as a political compromise, so I put it in as a post-script.   

The Dresden Bombings, and the concept of the ‘lesser evil’

Because I apparently have more in common with Anastasia Steele than I’d care to admit, every once in a while I decide to read The Daily Mail; and by “every once in a while”, I of course mean regularly. To this day, I’m still not entirely sure why I do it. I think my decision to plunge routinely into that pool of scaremongering bigotry is motivated mainly by the truism that you should make sure to read something you know you’ll disagree with, the idea being that by exposing yourself to a viewpoint different to your own you’ll be forced to evaluate and reflect on your own position. That, or I just enjoy deliberately winding myself up for no good reason.

Anyway, this last Friday I was perusing the pages of the Mail when I came across a piece written by Simon Heffer regarding the Dresden bombings, and to protect myself in advance from any allegations of misrepresentation or “bias”, I’ve provided a link to the full article here. Generally speaking, Heffer’s article is pretty standard fair for a Mail op-ed piece, including the obligatory warnings about how “the Left” are trying to “denigrate and diminish Britain” (both of which are direct quotes), even though Heffer never really explains to whom “the Left” actually refers.

Back to my main point. In his article, Heffer’s main argument is that the Dresden bombings were strategically justified, and even if they weren’t, the fact that the people of Dresden did nothing to stop the persecution of Germany’s Jewish population meant that the some twenty five thousand civilian casualties incurred during the bombings were morally justifiable. I’m not going to argue about whether Heffer’s assessment of the strategic merits of the Dresden bombings were correct, as I don’t feel I’ve studied the bombing campaigns in enough detail to come to a fair conclusion on the issue.

What I am going to do is use Heffer’s article is to discuss the ‘lesser of two evils’ principle as it relates to history, as to me the idea that an atrocity is justifiable if it is committed against a regime or nation which has committed demonstrably worse atrocities is a dangerous ethical position. This is mainly due to the fact that (as demonstrated by Heffer’s article) people assume that the passive acceptance of a regime is morally and ethically equivalent to actively supporting it, when the two should not, and cannot, be compared.

I say this for several reasons, the first of which is that it fails to take historical circumstances into account. To return to the example presented in Heffer’s article, it’s very easy for us in the twenty first century to criticise the inaction, and wilful ignorance, of the German populace during the Nazi era. However, the fact is that dissenting against the Nazi government on any level carried risks that we can never hope to understand, not just for the dissenter but also for their family, friends and anyone associated with them; and whilst this doesn’t justify the inaction on the part of a large part of the German populace, it does at the very least explain it.

Such a view also ignores the fact that not all resistance is active. According to Heffer’s logic, all (or at the very least most) of the civilians killed during the Dresden bombings were passive accepters of Nazi rule, but I’m willing to bet that at least some of those casualties had done something which hindered the Nazis, even it was something as small as failing to inform on a friend or family member who had expressed an anti-Nazi sentiment, or refusing to hand over a Jewish colleague or neighbour to the authorities. As such, to condemn the people of Dresden for failing to rebel against the Nazis simply because there was no visible and overt resistance movement is simplistic at best.

Most importantly, however, this argument is dangerous due to the fact that the definition of ‘passive acceptance’ is so broad that it can be used to describe almost anything, and as such almost any action can be justified. Indeed, this is the general problem with framing an evil as the lesser of two evils is that there is no absolute definition of what constitutes ‘evil’. Heffer’s argument seems reasonable because no one except a complete sociopath would argue that the Nazis weren’t the greater evil during World War Two, and as such almost any tactics used against them are seemingly justifiable.

However, one only has to look at history to see how the concept of the ‘lesser evil’ has been used to justify the unjustifiable. For example, the indiscriminate use of napalm and Agent Orange by the U.S.A. during the Vietnam War was justified on the basis that they were suppressing the ‘greater evil’, i.e. the spread of communism. Whilst it’s true the North Vietnamese were guilty of some truly barbaric acts during that war, neither these nor the perceived threat of global communism can ever justify the tens of thousands of civilian casualties, and the long lasting damage caused by Agent Orange.

This, then, is the real problem of the ‘lesser evil’ concept. Whilst it is very occasionally possible to identify something approaching an ‘absolute’ evil, more often than not what constitutes ‘evil’ is relative, and as such, as soon as you justify one act on the grounds it was a lesser evil than the one you were fighting, you start to find you can justify almost anything, so long as the enemy fits into what you personally see as ‘evil’.

Certainly, it is fair to debate the strategic merits of campaigns such as the Dresden bombings, and hell, topics such as the Dresden bombings do raise some interesting moral and ethical issues regarding the limits and nature of warfare. But to try and defend events like the Dresden bombings simply by virtue of the fact that they weren’t as bad as something the enemy did, or even worse that it was just punishment for the atrocities committed by the enemy, is wrong on both an historical and ethical level.

Before I conclude, I feel there is another point worth considering, and that is that in the battle of two evils, the victors often find that have to commit further injustices in order to justify the initial act. Ironically, Heffer himself draws attention to this when he highlights the way in which successive post-war British governments effectively wrote Bomber Command out of the history books, since they didn’t fit into the established historical narrative. Put simply, this is a massive injustice to the bravery they displayed during the war, which raises a pretty important question: if the lesser of two evils means we have to destroy something of ourselves, can it really be considered a lesser evil at all?