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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