History Is Being Used (and Abused) Now More than Ever

Roundup: Media's Take

Ben Macintyre, writing in the London Times (Jan. 3, 2004):

Michael Howard's credo, published in The Times yesterday, included this little self-revelatory nugget: "I believe," declared the Tories' answer to Martin Luther King, "that these islands are home to a great people with a noble past." This statement might seem as straightforward as some of his other platitudes ("injustice makes us angry": well I never) but it hints at a broader truth.

History is the new politics, and the politician who can wield history effectively is worth any number of prepackaged beliefs.

Once history was mostly a matter of commemoration, damp remembrance ceremonies and dry scholarship. Increasingly it is about control and interpretation, preservation and national self-image.

I counted eight different "history" stories in the newspapers yesterday, each of which said at least as much about the political present as the historical past.

In Iraq , a monument to British troops killed in the horrible 1914-21 Mesopotamian campaign has been vandalised. Before the latest Gulf conflict, most Britons (and practically all Iraqis) were entirely ignorant of this small but bloody footnote in British imperial history. Today the image of a defaced memorial to 40,000 British dead in the desert west of al-Zubayr is freighted with modern symbolic relevance.

Colonel Tim Collins anticipated this when, in his now-famous peroration before battle, he declared: "Your deeds will follow you down history. Iraq is steeped in history." The deeds of the soldiers who fought in Mesopotamia in the First World War have indeed followed their latter-day counterparts to Iraq , and the vandalism of the monument is inevitably linked with the continuing effort to subdue Iraqi resistance, and with national pride on both sides. Preserving the monument is partly a matter of defending, not what was done there in 1914, but what is being done there now.

Britain is not alone in conflating past events with present politics. France has just invited Germany to attend the D-Day anniversary celebrations for the first time. The invitation is couched as reconciliation, but the move is clearly intended to reinforce the drive for a European defence force. In Japan, the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, made a point of offering new year prayers at the country's most notorious militarist shrine, to the fury of China, at a time when Japan is about to send troops to Iraq in the largest military deployment since 1945. Switzerland , meanwhile, has finally passed a law pardoning citizens who were prosecuted for helping refugees in the Second World War. It is no accident that the law, intended to demonstrate awareness of the darker side of Swiss neutrality, came into force on the day that the head of the far-right anti-immigration Swiss People's Party took office as Justice Minister.

Politicians have always used (and often abused) history, for better and worse, the most recent examples being Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein. Blair's prewar oratory echoed with Churchillian gravity and clumping references to our martial past; conversely, Saddam liked to depict himself in the ancient role of Islamic hero, defending his homeland against infidel crusaders.

Perhaps because the future is so uncertain, the world is fascinated by history as never before. History journals, books and television programmes have undergone a huge renaissance, and historians enjoy a role once reserved for novelists and poets, as the imaginative story-tellers who interpret our own time by explaining an earlier era. The downside, however, is to make the past ever more vulnerable to those who have a political point to make.

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