History Wars

Saturday 22 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Barbican Library Contemporary Controversies

In Association With:

In recent months, today’s turbulent times have been endlessly compared with historical events. While teachers warn pupils to avoid ‘Godwin’s law’ by cheap invocations of Hitler or the Nazis, British politicians from Ken Livingstone to Boris Johnston seem unashamed to make such schoolboy errors. In the US, veteran feminist Gloria Steinem blithely slammed Donald Trump for his political views by reminding everyone that ‘Hitler was democratically elected’. Everything from populist parties, Islamic State violence, economic depression, the banking crisis, the rise of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other tensions in Europe has prompted endless ‘Sound familiar? Is history repeating itself? We know how that ends…’ discussions. One much cited article, Are we living through another 1930s?, captures the mood. Weimar has become the analogy of choice to tell cautionary tales of elected governments subverted from within and irrational mob rule, whether discussing the Turkish coup, the rise of Donald Trump or UK’s Brexit vote.

Ironically, there is nothing new about this plundering of the past to understand the present. Margaret Macmillan wrote her book The Uses and Abuses of History in response to the cynical way that, for example, Tony Blair invoked the Munich Conference of 1938 to justify the invasion of Iraq. But while Blair at least believed he could emulate a positive example of historical agency in confronting resurrected ‘fascism’, today’s politicised historical memory posits the return of the ‘bad old days’ in fatalistic terms. The recent Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University seems less about getting to grips with the real experience of 19th century imperialism than using it to add weight to claims of racist victimisation in the here and now.

Professor MacMillan implored historians to reclaim their territory and protect their craft from political manipulation. But how can the rest of us best understand our relationship to the past? How helpful is it to use history as a way of drawing ‘lessons’ for today?  Has moralising displaced the quest for intellectual clarity about history and the forces that shaped it? Does history haunt the present as the Rhodes Must Fall protesters seem to suggest, or does this approach lead to reading history backwards, judging every unpleasant episode by the standards of contemporary society? Is it possible or even desirable to right the wrongs of the past? How can we ensure that we understand historical events in their own terms? How has our attitude to the past changed in recent years, and why?