What should they know
of the present who only the present know?
- Blair Worden
Our ignorance of history
makes us slander our own times.
- Gustave Flaubert
"History ought never
to be confused with nostalgia. It's written not to revere the dead, but
to inspire the living. It is part of our cultural bloodstream, the secret
of who we are. And it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honour
it; to lament what ought to be lamented; and to celebrate what should be
- Simon Schama, "A History of Britain"
In the end, history,
especially British history with its succession of thrilling illuminations,
should be, as all her most accomplished narrators have promised, not just
instruction but pleasure.
- Simon Schama, " History of Britain"
In its Greek origins,
historia meant inquiry, and from Thucydides onwards, the past has been
studied to understand its connections with the present.
- Simon Schama
says, is a debatable land. It lies on the margin of two disputed territories;
those of poetry and those of philosophy; that of reason and that of the
- Simon Schama, introducing Thomas Macauley, "Historians of Genius"
"If a man were permitted
to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a
- Andrew Fletcher (1653-1716), Scottish patriot
"We do not live in
the past, but the past in us."
- Ulrich Phillips, "The Slave Economy of the Old South"
A generation which
ignores history has no past: and no future.
- Lazarus Long, from the works of Robert Heinlein
To know nothing of
what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.
There is no present
or future, only the past happening over and over again - now.
- Eugene O'Neill
The present contains
nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect is already
in the cause.
- Henri Louis Bergson
Animals are molded
by natural forces they do not comprehend. To their minds there is no past
and no future. There is only the everlasting present of a single generation,
its trails in the forest, its hidden pathways in the the air and in the
sea. There is nothing in the Universe more alone than Man. He has entered
into the strange world of history.
- Loren Eiseley
Without history we
are infants. Ask what binds the British Isles more closely to America than
to Europe and only history gives a reply. Of all intellectual pursuits,
history is the most supremely useful. That is why people crave it and need
ever more of it.
- Simon Jenkins, "The London Times"
The disadvantage of
men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History
is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in
which they live or the age in which they are living.
- GK Chesterton
A person with no sense
of the past is a person who is a stranger both to his or her own roots
and to the human condition more generally. For human beings are not creatures
of nature; we are inheritors of the history that has made us what we are.
Not to know our history is not to know ourselves, and that is the condition
not of human beings, but of animals. And even from a practical point of
view, to be ignorant of the past is to make us impotent and unprepared
before the present. How can someone without a sense of medieval history
have the slightest inkling of the meaning of the current impasse the West
finds itself in in its dealings with Islam? The Crusades were not, as is
often implied by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a unique moment of anti-Islamic
aggression. They were actually but one blip in the astonishing growth of
Islamic empires in Europe and elsewhere, from the time of Mohammed onwards,
right up to 1683 when the Turks were turned back from the gates of Vienna
and 1686 when they were expelled from Budapest. But who now remembers any
of this, or ponders its consequences? It is not, needless to say, taught
in National Curriculum history, which prefers to dwell on the Aztecs, about
whom we have only the vaguest knowledge in comparison, and (endlessly)
on the rise of Fascism (not communism) in Europe, studied by pupils who
know nothing of the history of Italy and Germany before the 20th century.
Is it any wonder that, with no sense of our past or identity — as, in other moods, politicians increasingly complain — we are a culture obsessed with celebrity, football, and reality television? Most of our population know nothing else, and they have no yardstick from either history or culture with which to judge.
- Anthony O'Hear, "The Telegraph"
The Crusaders have
been regarded — and not only by Muslims — as an advance force of western
imperialism. This is an odd judgment, given that they were responding to
expansionist Islam. Still, the intensity of their faith, and the brutality
of some of their actions, have sat ill with liberal anti-colonialist attitudes.
There are many more eager to offer understanding to Islamic jihadists today
than to the crusaders, who had more in common with these jihadists than
either had or have with western liberals. History, however, is not a matter
of passing judgment, and real historians don't put past ages in the dock.
Their business is to show what happened and, if possible, why it happened,
to open our eyes and so enlarge our understanding. Jonathan Phillips does
this admirably. The past may be another country where they do things differently,
as L P Hartley suggested; but it is a country open for exploration, and
the voyage Phillips takes us on is fascinating.
- Allan Massie, reviewing "The Second Crusade", "The Telegraph"
When Cromwell instructed
his portraitist to paint him ‘warts and all’, he meant both halves of that
equation. To teach the warts alone is morbid and unhealthy.
- Mark Steyn,"The Spectator"
The historian ought
to be an educated person, writing for other educated people about something
which they don't know about, but wish to know about in a way that they
- Sir John Keegan
The older I get the
more I'm convinced that it's the purpose of politicians and journalists
to say the world is very simple, whereas it's the purpose of historians
to say, 'No! It's very complicated.'
The job of the historian is to help give people a sense of existence in time, without which we are really not fully human.
- David Cannadine
The historian must
have some conception of how men who are not historians behave.
- from a review of the work of Edward Gibbon
"Historians of every
generation, I believe, unless they are pure antiquarians, see history against
the background — the controlling background — of current events. They call
upon it to explain the problems of their own time, to give to those problems
a philosophical context, a continuum in which they may be reduced to proportion
and perhaps made intelligible."
- Hugh Trevor Roper, valedictory address to Oxford University (1980)
The poetry of history
lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that Once, on this earth, on this familiar
spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today,
thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all
are gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we
ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cockcrow.
- G.M. Trevelyan
Time's glory is to calm contending kings, to unmask falsehood, and to bring truth to light.
- Will Durant, "The Lessons of History"
Civilization is the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.
- Adam Ferguson, "A History of Civil Society", 1767.
History is a record
of exploded ideas.
- Admiral Fisher
History is an argument
- Pieter Geyl
One can shape history
as much through the facts one omits as through the facts one includes.
- David Frum
History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten. ...What is interesting is brought forward as if it had been central and efficacious in the march of events, and harmonies are turned into causes. Kings and generals are endowed with motives appropriate to what the historian values in their actions; plans are imputed to them prophetic of their actual achievements, while the thoughts that really preoccupied them remain buried in absolute oblivion.
- George Santayana
That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
- Aldous Huxley
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
History is tangled,
messy, contradictory. But is where we are.
- Eamon Duffy, "Faith of our Fathers"
We need open minds
and open hearts when we wrestle with the past and ask questions of it,
and the answers it will provide are in nobody's pocket... We should let
nobody tell us that they know all that it contains, or try to prescribe
or constrain in advance what it has to tell us.
- Eamon Duffy, "Faith of our Fathers"
If history offers no
obvious solutions, however, it does at least provide the comfort of knowing
that failure is nothing new.
- Eamon Duffy, from "Scandals in the Church"
of the past is of course an unavoidable aspect of all human attempts to
make sense of the present.
- Eamon Duffy
History is merely a
list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.
- Kurt Vonnegut
Getting its history
wrong is part of being a nation.
- Ernest Renan
History is a lie agreed
- Napoleon Bonaparte
People will not look
forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.
- Edmund Burke, "Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790)
History is the torch
that is meant to illuminate the past, to guard us against the repetition
of our mistakes of other days. We cannot join in the rewriting of history
to make it conform to our comfort and convenience.
- Claude G. Bowers, "The U.S. and the Spanish Civil War"
History is what we
read, write and think about the past.
- Sir Michael Howard
I make no apologies for any inconsistencies or contradictions in my essays. Those who do not change their minds in the course of a decade have probably stopped thinking all together.
The true use of history, whether civil or military, is not to make man clever for the next time, it is to make him wise forever.
"History is philosophy
teaching by examples."
- Lord Bolingbroke, 18th century political philosopher
Tragedy is a tool for
the living to gain wisdom — not a guide by which to live.
- Robert Kennedy
History is either a
moral argument with lessons for the here-and-now, or it is merely an accumulation
of pointless facts.
- Andrew Marr
"The strife of the
election is but human nature practically applied to the facts of the case.
What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human
nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with
the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise,
as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this, as philosophy
to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged."
- Abraham Lincoln, looking forwards after re-election in 1864
The best use of history
is as an inoculation against radical expectations, and hence against embittering
- George Will, "The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts"
History is a tragegy,
not a morality tale.
- Isidor F Stone
History is what the
evidence compels us to believe.
- Michael Oakshot
Every new generation
must rewrite history in its own way.
- RG Collingwood
What interests us about
the past is at least partly a function of what bothers us or makes us curious
in the present.
- Adam Garfinkle
History is past politics,
and politics is present history.
- Edward Freeman
History is the projection
of ideology into the past.
Historians are not
just dispassionate chroniclers. By their selection, ordering, highlighting,
attribution and analysis of facts they fashion a particular version of
the past. And they also play a part in the disputes of the present, by
legitimising or undermining the rationales, heroes and myths which influence
current debates. Historical figures are forever being conscripted for fresh
- The Times, "Truth, trust and rewriting history" 4/4/02
Western elites — the
beneficiaries of 60 years of peace and prosperity achieved by the sacrifices
to defeat fascism and Communism — are unhappy in their late middle age,
and show little gratitude for, or any idea about, what gave them such latitude.
If they cannot find perfection in history, they see no good at all.
- Victor Davis Hanson, "Remembering World War Two", "National Review"
"The great tragedies
of history occur not when right confronts wrong but when two rights confront
- Henry Kissinger
"History is a conversation
with the dead."
- Keith Hopkins
"Every piece of history
is a piece of human nature."
- Joss Whedon
Peter Jones's is a
vital public service. He reminds us that while we shouldn't live in the
past, we are wiser and stronger when we live with it.
- Bettany Hughes, reviewing "Vote For Caesar" by Peter Jones
History does not eliminate
grievances. It lays them down like landmines.
- AN Wilson, "The Victorians"
The past is dead, and
nothing that we can choose to believe about it can harm or benefit those
alive in it. On the other hand, it has the power to harm us.
- ATQ Stewart, "The Shape of Irish History"
If we are to understand
anything of the human mind we must approach the people of the past with
humility rather than an overconfident superiority.
- ATQ Stewart, "The Shape of Irish History"
History is a dead thing
brought to new life. It is fragments of a past, dead and gone, resurrected
by historians. It is in this sense like Frankenstein's monster. It threatens
our versions of ourselves.
- Richard White, "Remembering Ahanagran"
Any good history begins
in strangeness. The past should not be comfortable. The past should not
be a familiar echo of the present, for if it is familiar why revisit it?
The past should be so strange that you wonder how you and people you know
and love could come from such a time.
- Richard White, "Remembering Ahanagran"
What any of us know
of our births, we learn from others. It is a beginning we ourselves cannot
recall, so we commit the story to memory. We claim it and incorporate it
into our story of ourselves. We thus begin the story of our lives with
an intimate event that we can only know second hand. And so the confusion
of history and memory begins.
- Richard White, "Remembering Ahanagran"
History is not the
story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had
we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what
it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even — if we dare,
and we should dare — a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy
- Stephen Fry, "History Matters"
History is not made,
or lived, in hindsight.
- Eoghan Harris
History does not usually
make real sense until long afterward.
- Bruce Catton
One might say that
history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived
in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries
didn't walk about saying, "Isn't this fascinating living in the past! Aren't
we picturesque in our funny clothes!" They lived in the present. The difference
is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment
exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn
out than we have. History is — or should be — a lesson in appreciation.
History helps us keep a sense of proportion. Is life not infinitely more
interesting and enjoyable when one can stand in a great historic place
or walk historic ground, and know something of what happened there and
in whose footsteps you walk? Why would anyone wish to be provincial in
time, any more than being tied down to one place through life, when the
whole reach of the human drama is there to experience in some of the greatest
books ever written. History is a larger way of looking at life.
- David McCullough, from the 2003 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities
No harm's done to history
by making it something someone would want to read.
- David McCullough
By and large "history",
when taken to a mass audience by a television documentary or a newspaper,
is usually only a kind of fraud, in which viewers and readers are induced
to take an interest by the promise that people in the past were "just like
us", comforted all the while by an unspoken assumption of their own innate
superiority. Most contemporary values and nearly everything trading under
the banner of modern liberalism, it seems fair to say, are built on the
notion of the past's inferiority to our own arrangements. Queerly enough,
being honest about modern life involves acknowledging that television sets
and share-option schemes are not an instant guarantee of spiritual worth.
Patronising your ancestors is simply a form of moral cheating. Whatever
we may feel about Dickens's Mr Gradgrind, he was a product of the environment
which created him. Our first duty, consequently, is to examine him on his
terms, not ours.
- DJ Taylor reviews Matthew Sweet's "Inventing The Victorians" for The Times
More and more, we are
projecting our own values on to those who lived in the past as though there
can be no other way to live, or to think, than the way we live and think
now... All ages have their prejudices. We're no different. We are different
in one respect, though. Ours is the only one ever to think that it has
nothing at all to learn from the past. One result of this is that it has
become all but impossible for us to make a drama set in the past in which
a credible character doesn't think exactly like us. The writer CS Lewis
called this kind of attitude 'chronological snobbery', meaning the belief
that the latest thing is always the best. We're all chronological snobs
- David Quinn, "The Irish Independent"
We must not look at
the past with the enormous condescension of posterity.
- EP Thompson
"Pearl Harbor" is strenuously
respectful of contemporary sensitivities, sometimes at the cost of accuracy.
- A.O. Scott, film critic for "The New York Times"
man prefers, like Chairman Mao, to let the past serve the present. If he
stopped making jejune moral judgments about his ancestors and tried to
understand what made them tick instead, he might make less of a mess of
his own times.
- Robert Salisbury, "The Spectator"
The 20th century is
already slipping into the "obscurity of mis-memory", writes Tony Judt in
the introduction to this superb collection of essays. Global capitalism
has dissolved most of the old national and ideological hatreds, leaving
those under 40 puzzled as to what all the fuss was about. History has become
either a source of nostalgic reminiscence ("heritage") or a chronicle of
victimhood. Politicians raid it for "lessons"; fashion designers for styles.
Gone is the sense of carrying forward some great project, be it of national
glory or social liberation.
- Edward Skidelsky, reviewing "Reflections on the Forgotten 20th Century", "The Telegraph"
One of the rules of
history is that people do not write about what is too obvious to mention.
And so the information, having never been recorded, is now lost for ever.
- Michael Bywater, "Lost Worlds"
Knowing what not to learn from the past is more important than knowing what to learn.The fly sat upon the axle-tree of the chariot wheel and said "What a dust do I raise"
Perhaps the most tantalising
sort of history is the kind that is just out of reach — the stories of
peoples whose deeds and style of living helped to form our own world, but
of whom we know almost nothing, because they left no written records.
- Jane Shilling, "The Times"
All my life I’ve been
aware of the Second World War humming in the background. I was born 10
years after it was finished, and without ever seeing it. It formed my generation
and the world we lived in. I played Hurricanes and Spitfires in the playground,
and war films still form the basis of all my moral philosophy. All the
men I’ve ever got to my feet for or called sir had been in the war.
- AA Gill, "The Times"
Those who would repeat
the past must control the teaching of history.
- Frank Herbert
I had nothing but sympathy
for the reporter who, after listening in court to David Irving's insistence
that the elevator to the ovens simply couldn't have carried as many bodies
as the defence expert had claimed, confessed: 'On the way home in the train
that night, to my shame, I took out a pocket calculator and began to do
some sums. Ten minutes for each batch of 25. I tapped in. That makes 150
an hour. Which gives 3,600 for each 24-hour period. Which gives 1,314,000
in a year. So that's fine. It could be done. Thank God, the numbers add
- DD Guttenplan, "The Holocaust On Trial"
Journalism is merely
history's first draft.
- Geoffrey C. Ward
History, it used to
be said, is written in four drafts. The first is the account of a big event
in the next day's newspapers. The second is the hot-on-the-heels analysis
of that event in the weekly columns. The third becomes possible when fresh
detail emerges from the memoirs and diaries of key players. Eventually,
decades later, the fourth and final draft of history is etched in stone
after all the earlier versions have been graded and revised by learned
academics with access to the archives.
In reality, this courtly ritual was never the whole story. But it barely constitutes a sub plot today. Television has transformed the rules that govern how history is made and recorded.
The judgment of posterity is no longer left to historians, or indeed the future. Today, it's the prestigious television documentary series that settles the score and sets the record straight, often while the ink is still wet on the peace treaty and the blood still visible on the combatants' hands. History is no longer written by the victors alone; even the losers can get a look in as long as they win the sympathy of the prime-time viewer.
- Liam Fay, "The Times"
For many of us, history
class is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Evocatively conveyed,
history can be a superior form of infotainment: a thrill-ride through the
follies, triumphs and misfortunes of our ancestors. All too often, however,
the subject is reduced, by uninspiring teachers, to tedious dates, facts
and figures — the navigational co-ordinates of a forgotten world.
- Liam Fay, "The Times"
The book begins by
pointing out that history can offer simplicity and support to just about
anybody who is willing to twist and distort its lessons. If you believe
that Man is acting out God's purpose, or progressing towards liberal democracy,
or moving towards the inevitable dictatorship of the proletariat, you will
always be able to find examples from the experience of the past to confirm
such a prejudice. Equally, if you think that history has largely been responsible
for most of the world's recent woes - and anyone living in Ireland, Bosnia,
Kashmir or the Holy Land could be forgiven for suspecting as much - you
might yearn for Man to unlearn the past. This has in fact been tried on
occasion: the Emperor Qin of China destroyed all history books and the
scholars who wrote them, vowing to start history over again - the same
nirvana that was later offered by Robespierre's new calendar, Pol Pot's
Year Zero and Chairman Mao's cultural revolution. Yet none of these attempts
worked, and Clio wreaked her own revenge on the reputation of all four
dictators. Trotsky has now been digitally restored to the photographs from
which Stalin had him airbrushed in the 1920s. Whether we like the idea
of history and its capacity for inflaming conflict or not, we are nonetheless
stuck with it.
- Andrew Roberts, reviewing Margaret McMillan's "The Uses and Abuses of History", "Standpoint"
The Somme (BBC1) was
more fashionable push-me-pull-you, contrarian TV history. Except that the
belief that the battle was not so much a desperate disaster as a postponed
and expensive triumph is really more revisionist and much closer to the
official view in 1919. The Great War was the defining tragedy of
Britain, France, Germany and Russia, and a new beginning for much of the
rest of Europe. But, at the time, most of those who had been through it
saw it as a great victory; The current received wisdom of the conflict
sounds like having the history of the past 50 years recorded solely by
Harold Pinter. We are reaching the end of living contact with the Great
War and it’s not a question of “lest we forget” so much as “what we choose
- AA Gill, reviewing a documentary in "The Times"
In history a great
volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials for future
wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the
perversion, serve for a magazine... supplying the means of keeping alive,
or reviving, dissesions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury.
History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the
world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy,
ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake
the public. These vices are the causes... religion, morals, laws, perogatives...
are the pretexts... Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to
names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional
organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear...
whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same
vice assumes a new body... it walks abroad, it continues its ravages, whilst
you are gibbeting the carcase, or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying
yourself with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of
- Edmund Burke, "Reflections on the Revolution in France"
Continue to instruct
the world; and — whilst we carry on a poor unequal conflict with the passions
and prejudices of our day, perhaps with no better weapons than other passions
and prejudices of our own — convey wisdom to future generations.
- Edmund Burke, in a letter to historian William Robertson
It is not a sin to
introduce a personal bias that can be recognized and discounted. The sin
in historical composition is the organization of the story in such a way
that bias cannot be recognized.
- Herbert Butterfield, "The Whig Interpretation of History" (1931)
It is AD 5000, and
Professor Ostrich, hard at work in his study-pod on Mars, has just made
a stunning discovery. Up to that time, it had been assumed that Ian Fleming's
books about the hero James Bond, published some 3,000 years earlier, had
been fiction. But idly perusing some of the archive material that had been
saved from 'Planet' Earth, he found that the old Japanese for 'foreigner'
had been 'gaijin'. This rang a bell, and on downloading You Only Live Twice
from his ear-piece into his brain, he found this was the very word Bond
had used for it too. Curious, he looked up Mount Fuji, also referred to
in that book. It existed! Becoming more and more excited, he found that
'Dunhill', 'Martini', 'White's', 'Boodles' - obviously silly names, made
up for the occasion - and even 'St James' Street' could all be attested
from those long-lost times. Incredible! Surely this must mean that the
Bond stories, far from being works of fiction, were history! And Bond,
therefore, a real person! An analogous process of reasoning has led a number
of businessmen and academics, Professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University
among them, to believe that the story Homer tells in his Iliad c 700 BC
offers an accurate account of a real war fought between Greeks and Trojans
over a woman in Mycenaean times, around 1200 BC... He solemnly adduces
political reasons for Paris' abduction of Helen (Homer gives none), dissects
the military tactics of the Greeks and Trojans (no such thing), discusses
the economics and domestic politics of Troy (non-existent) and compares
it with the Hanseatic League of the late Middle Ages (sounds of helpless
laughter). Probingly, he wonders whether Achilles was a war criminal. 'A
new history', Strauss calls it, and it certainly is that. No history ever
paid so little attention to evidence or argument or any of the usual historiographical
constraints. No history has ever been so replete with 'would haves' and
'mights'. Was the Trojan king Priam able to look his soldiers in the eye
when the Greeks landed? Or would he have been too ashamed of 'his family's
- Peter Jones, reviewing "The Trojan War" by Barry Strauss, "The Telegraph"
"Was there a war fought
- BBC Horizon asks the essential question of the Trojan War
THEORIES OF HISTORY
If the history of mankind
were to begin over, without any change in the world's surface, it would
broadly repeat itself.
- Edmond Demolins
History followed different
courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments,
not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.
- Jared Diamond, "Guns, Germs and Steel"
Any study of mankind
is incomplete which ignores the predominant influence exerted on all human
development, be it physical, political or social, by man's geographic environment,
and it is therefore necessary to know something of the land in which he
- Joseph Raftery, "Prehistoric Ireland"
People make their own
history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make
it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly
encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.
- Karl Marx
Athens built the Acropolis.
Corinth was a commercial city, interested in purely materialistic things.
Today we admire Athens, visit it, preserve the old temples, yet we hardly
ever set foot in Corinth.
- Harold Urey
At the bidding of a
Peter the Hermit millions of men hurled themselves against the East; the
words of an hallucinated enthusiast such as Mahomet created a force capable
of triumphing over the Graeco-Roman world; an obscure monk like Luther
bathed Europe in blood. The voice of a Galileo or a Newton will never have
the least echo among the masses. The inventors of genius hasten the march
of civilization. The fanatics and the hallucinated create history.
- Gustave Le Bon
In Italy under the
Borgias, they had 30 years of warfare,terror,murder & bloodshed, but
they produced Michelangelo, DaVinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland,
they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what
did that produce? The Cuckoo Clock.
- Orson Welles as Harry Lime in "The Third Man"
"A great man represents
a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness
consists of his being there."
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
in history should always include two limitations: the 'minimal rewrite
rule' (only small and plausible changes should be made to the actual sequence
of events) and 'second order counterfactuals' (after a certain time, the
previous pattern may reassert itself).
- Geoffrey Parker, in "What If?"
France would pay huge
reparations, enough to keep it underarmed and angry for another generation.
Anti-Semitism, ever the bane of defeated European nations, would become
a problem for it and not Germany.
- Robert Cowley, "Germany Wins The Marne" from "What If?"
QUOTATIONS FROM HISTORICAL WORKS & REVIEWS
In the second century
of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part
of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers
of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined
valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually
cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed
and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution
was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess
the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive
powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than
fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue
and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the
design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous
condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus,
to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution
which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the
- Edward Gibbons, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", 1776.
The various modes of
worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the
people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the
magistrate, as equally useful.
- Edward Gibbons, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"
Who knows but that
hereafter some traveller like myself will sit down upon the banks of the
Seine, the Thames, or the Zuyder Zee, where now, in the tumult of enjoyment,
the heart and the eyes are too slow to take in the multitude of sensations?
Who knows but he will sit down solitary amid silent ruins, and weep a people
inurned and their greatness changed into an empty name?
- Volney, "Ruins"
She [the Roman Catholic
Church] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from
New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a
broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.
- Thomas Macauley, on Ranke's "History of the Popes"
The Spartan, smiting
and spurning the wretched Helot, moves our disgust. But the same Spartan,
calmly dressing his hair, and uttering his concise jests, on what the well
knows to be his last day, in the pass of Thermopylae, is not to be contemplated
- Thomas Macauley, from "The History of England"
"For Leonidas and for
the 300 Spartan warriors who had accompanied him, Thermopylae was more
than a strategic strongpoint, it was the place where they intended to show
the world what it meant to be a Spartan. As a whole the Greeks made a great
deal of noise about the nobility of dying for your country. But for the
Spartans, it was far more than just a platitude. In battle they were ordered
to see out a beautiful death... embracing death like a lover. The beautiful
death was a sacrifice in the true sense of the word. Turning something
mortal into something sacred."
- Bettany Hughes, "The Spartans"
increased his powers, taking over those of the senate, the executives and
the laws. The aristocracy received wealth and position in proportion to
their willingness to accept slavery. The state had been transformed, and
the old Roman character gone for ever. Equality among citizens was completely
abandoned. All now waited on the imperial command.
- Tactitus, on the transition from Republic to Empire
In Europe, the Enlightenment
of the 18th century was seen as a battle against the desire of the Church
to limit intellectual freedom, a battle against the Inquisition, a battle
against religious censorship. And the victory of the Enlightenment in Europe
was seen as pushing religion away from the center of power. In America,
at the same time, the Enlightenment meant coming to a country where people
were not going to persecute you by reason of your religion. So it meant
a liberation into religion. In Europe, it was liberation out of religion.
- Salman Rushdie, interviewed in "Reason" magazine
Michael Burleigh is
not the first of them to trace the antecedents of 20th century totalitarianism
to the well-documented aspiration of Jacobinism to enclose all French people
within its intellectual compass by a ruthless stamping out of dissent in
the name of progress, liberty and equality. Jacobinism triumphant was an
unedifying spectacle, and Burleigh attributes its bloody excesses to the
fanaticism of politics as religion. It is true that in their messianic
zeal for the regeneration of the French nation the Jacobins sought to remould
the minds and manners of the French people in ways that foreshadowed Mao’s
Cultural Revolution. The enduring legacy of the 18th century and the French
revolution was the demise of the assumption that had so long prevailed
in Europe that successful government required the ethical foundation that
only religion could provide. The most potent offspring of the revolution
was nationalism. Just as religion did, nationalism offered, in Burleigh’s
words, 'to fulfil a human need for intense belonging'. The instrument of
that fulfilment was no longer to be the church, but the nation-state.
- Robin Stewart, reviewing "Earthly Powers" in "The Spectator"
The Dutch must be understood
as they really are, the Middle Persons in Trade, the Factors and Brokers
of Europe... they buy to sell again, take in to send out again, and the
greatest Part of their vast Commerce consists in being supply'd from All
Parts of the World, that they may supply All th World Again.
- Daniel Defoe, commenting on the success of the 17th century Dutch Republic
The wars of kings were
over; the wars of peoples had begun.
- RR Palmer, describing the events of 1793
The history of Napoleon
now becomes, for 12 momentous years, the history of mankind.
- John Holland Rose, on the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803
By the summer of 1807,
Napoleon ran a one-man European Union with more efficiency and less argument
than achieved by Brussels 186 years later. France, Benelux, Italy, Spain,
Portugal and Germany were ruled by directives from Napoleon's quill.
- Richard Gordon
What finally scuppered
Napoleon's Europe was of course the fatal combination of the English Channel
and the Russian winter; the same unlikely partnership that also did for
- Andrew Roberts, "The Telegraph"
Napoleon could never
imagine that some people loved their country as much as he loved his own.
- David McCullough
A healthy nation is
as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if
you break a person's nationality it will think of nothing else but getting
it set again.
- George Bernard Shaw
Freedom does not always
win. This is one of the bitterest lessons of history.
- A.J.P. Taylor
Rather an end in horror, than horror without end.
He could not condemn principles he might need to invoke and apply later.
The wolf cannot help having been created by God as he is, but we shoot him all the same if we have to.
The great player in diplomacy, as in chess, asks the question,"Does this improve me?", not look at the possible fringe benefits
If you can't have what you like, you must like what you have.
Many years ago, AJP
Taylor pointed out that too much attention is paid to how wars start, rather
than the equally important question of how they end.
- Brendan Simms reviews "Poisoned Peace" by Gregor Dallas in "The Times"
A Peace to End All
- David Fromkin, on the post WW1 settlement
It is hard to think of anything which more
tragically and clearly exemplifies the phenomenon of good political intentions
achieving the precise opposite of their aim.
- AN Wilson, on Versailles, "After The Victorians"
of the map of Europe at Versailles did not solve anything except maybe
sowing the seeds of the next war. To give justice to those who wanted to
redraw the European borders for them to be more consistent to the ethnic
picture, it should be added here that it was an impossible task.
There was no possibility of creating viable states without incorporating
ethnic minorities within them. In all of Europe, but especially in the
eastern half, the ethnic communities were so intertwined that there was
no logical way to disentangle them.
- EG Ban
One consequence of
the continuing and unhealthy fascination in this country with the Third
Reich has been an ignoring of the Second, whose Faustian story had yet
more terrible consequences. At the beginning of the last century Germany
could claim to lead the world; not only in industry, science and technology,
but in what she proudly termed Kultur: philosophy, poetry, music, philology,
historiography, law. As a welfare state Bismarck had provided a model that
Britain was only beginning to follow a generation later. Germany’s constitution
may have given too little power to the legislature to suit Anglo-Saxon
tastes, but few people complained: the French, after all, gave rather too
much. Yet 40 years later the German nation was in the grip of a psychopath
who led her to utter disaster. So what went wrong? What went wrong, of
course, was that Germany lost the first world war — a war, most historians
agree, that, if she did not provoke, she did nothing to prevent, and which
she fought in a manner that ultimately left her friendless.
- Michael Howard, from his review of "The War Lords" in "The Spectator"
It is a strange irony
that the war-winning weapons that emerged from the First World War were
subsequently neglected by the states that had invented them - but were
seized on and developed by the opposition. Thus Britain's secret weapon,
the tank, was enthusiastically taken up by the Wehrmacht, leading to the
Nazi Blitzkrieg; while the heavy four-engined bomber - unleashed against
London in 1917 - was forgotten as Germany's Luftwaffe concentrated on light,
short-range planes such as the Stuka. Instead it was left to the RAF to
develop such heavy-lifting blockbusters as the Lancaster which so devastated
Germany's cities in 1943-45. By comparison, the 1940-41 London Blitz was
a flesh wound. Both the Blitz and Bomber Command's answering offensive
- the wind and the whirlwind in Arthur 'Bomber' Harris's evocative phrase
- grew out of the first sustained attempt to destroy a city from the air:
the raids by the aptly named Giant and Gotha bombers of Germany's England
Squadron that are the subject of Neil Hanson's engrossing and eye-opening
The first sorties were mounted over eight successive nights in 1917. The following summer, as the war on the Western Front reached its climax, the bombers were back - this time armed with a fearsome new weapon - the Elektron bomb, an incendiary deliberately designed to create a city-consuming firestorm to rival Pepys's conflagration in 1666. Fortunately for London, the bombs were too unreliable, the bombers too few in number, and the London air defences - belatedly set up after the Zeppelin raids of 1916 - too effective, for the 'Fire Plan', as the Germans called their raid, to have the desired effect. The dead totalled 835, and the damage was similarly limited. However, both sides drew lessons from the brief campaign, even if they were the wrong ones. The British, paralysed by fear of what devastation future raids might bring, backed Chamberlain's craven appeasement policy and sank resources into both Bomber Command and co-ordinated air defences - guns, gas masks, searchlights, balloons, shelters and, above all, radar, the Spitfire and the Hurricane. The Germans, concluding after 1918 that the big bomber could not deliver the desired total destruction, failed to build the sort of planes that would reduce their own cities to ashes. They were hoist by their own petard.
- Nigel Jones, reviewing "First Blitz" by Neil Hanson, "The Telegraph"
"How would the British
and American publics have responded, if early in 1945 they had been told
that the bomber forces had been stood down, while German and Japanese troops
were still fighting furiously to kill Allied soldiers?"
- Michael Howard
"A simple survey of
the records show that between twenty and twenty-five million people perished
in World War II and more of them in the later years than in the earlier
years. Every month by which the war was shortened would have meant saving
of the order of half a million to a million lives. Among those granted
life would have been my brother Joe, killed in October 1944 in the Battle
for Italy. What a difference it would have made if the critical date (of
the atomic bomb's first use in the war) had been not August 6, 1945, but
August 5, 1943."
- John Archibald Wheeler
The kamikazes... exacted
a terrible cost. Some 2800 kamikaze attacks killed nearly 5000 Americans
and wounded 4800 more. Ominously, Japan had reserved more than 5000 suicide
aircraft to be used against the expected invasion of the home islands.
A gruesome scenario that would have magnified the immense human toll of
- from "The History Channel: Dogfights"
The book uses personal
accounts to illuminate the effects of policy decisions. It includes a generous
number of Asian voices, Filipino and Chinese as well as Japanese, which
provide a sense of overwhelming American technological and industrial superiority
– "assault by abundance" – and the ultimate futility of Japanese resistance.
In describing systematic Japanese brutality towards both Allied prisoners
and fellow Asians, Hastings is also careful to shade the coin, showing
that not all Japanese were sadists. But if today some of them suggest such
inhumanity was no worse than the Allied bombing, he notes that having started
the war, they "waged it with such savagery towards the innocent and impotent
that it is easy to understand the rage which filled Allied hearts in 1945".
He makes clear the scale and horror of Japanese atrocities, their strategic
myopia and military ineptitude – and the effects of these on Allied decision-making.
Of the invasion of Okinawa, Hastings notes that the Japanese reasoned that
if the US could be made to pay dearly enough for winning a single offshore
island, America's leaders would be put off attacking the main ones. "They
were correct in their analysis, but utterly deluded about its implications."
The horror of the atomic bombs is put in context by the description of
the firebomb raid on Tokyo of March 9, 1945, in which as many as 100,000
people died. And the significance of aerial bombardment is put in context
with the submarine campaign that effectively crippled Japan's economy.
He does not dwell on the effects of the bombs themselves, but describes
the inevitability of their use in balanced terms.
- Jon Latimer, reviewing "Nemesis: The Battle for Japan" by Max Hastings, "Telegraph"
Ian Kershaw makes the
point that, of Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, Konoe, Tojo, Stalin and Roosevelt,
the last was the only one constrained and guided by public opinion. His
eye was constantly on the polls, and his decisions were weighted, trimmed
and timed in accordance with them. By contrast, Britain’s decision to fight
on was taken by five men — Churchill, Chamberlain, Halifax, Attlee and
Greenwood; they did not pause to consult public opinion even if, perhaps,
they did think they reflected it. On the other hand, Roosevelt was surprised
that Churchill found it necessary to keep his Cabinet informed and seek
its approval of what was going on in the discussions at Placentia Bay in
1941. Roosevelt’s Cabinet probably did not even know where the president
was at the time.
- Noble Frankland, reviewing Kershaw's "Fateful Choices", "The Spectator"
It was a crucial victory
for liberal democracy, the very system that had seemed to be on the brink
of destruction four years earlier. It was that system that Hitler and others
had blamed for plunging the world into the Great Depression, and which
he promised to crush by defeating the liberal democracies and their "Jewish
capitalist warmonger" allies. To Hitler, Britain and America represented
a way of life that was decadent, corrupt, and grossly self-serving — precisely
the same complaints voiced by Osama bin Laden and today's Islamic terrorists.
And it was a way of life that in the fall of 1940 seemed about to pass
It is important to remember how many people, especially Europeans, wanted democracy to lose and hoped Hitler would win. They included the world's Communist parties, who followed the directions of their leader Josef Stalin in enthusiastically embracing his alliance with Nazi Germany. They included politicians and intellectuals who, after Hitler's lightning victories in Poland and France, saw a new world order arising and wanted to be part of it. Today, it is sobering to contemplate how close Hitler came in the early summer of 1941 to achieving that new order.
- Arthur Herman, commenting on World War Two for America's "National Review"
The Nazi occupation
of Europe is not often considered in imperial terms - probably because
it was so short-lived, but also because it does not correspond to our usual
concept of empires, in that it sought to dominate and reshape continental
Europe rather than exploit overseas territories.
By the end of 1942, the Nazis controlled approximately one-third of the European land mass and half its inhabitants, and Hitler personally appointed the officials who ran these territories. Nobody since Napoleon ever held such sway. But it was also a product of the imperialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and for that reason bears scrutiny as such... The overriding impression created by Mark Mazower's overview of the political and economic basis of their imperial plans is one of monumental stupidity. Germany faced a severe manpower crisis during the war but, blinded by their racial prejudices, they implemented measures that only made things worse... Germany was so short of workers to replace men conscripted to fight that the Nazis had to resort to impressment of hundreds of thousands of foreigners, making a mockery of their racial attitudes and ultimately proving counter-productive. Between 1939 and 1944 they shrunk the German labour force from 39 to 29 million... In the end, Germany could have racial purity or imperial dominion, but it could not have both.
- Jon Latimer reviews "Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe", "The Telegraph"
One single Anne Frank
moves us more than countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose
faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we
were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would
not be able to live.
- Primo Levi
World War II proved
a hypothesis that Alexis de Tocqueville advanced a century before: the
war-fighting potential of a democracy is at its greatest when war is most
intense; at its weakest when war is most limited. This is a lesson with
enduring relevance to our own times — and our own wars.
- David Frum, "National Review"
They fought on with
a devotion which would puzzle the generation of the 1980s. More surprising,
in many instances it would have baffled the men they themselves were before
Pearl Harbor. Among MacArthur's ardent infantrymen were cooks, mechanics,
pilots whose planes had been shot down, seamen whose ships had been sunk,
and some civilian volunteers.
- William Manchester, on the US defence in Bataan against the Japanese
Vichy proves one thing:
if you don’t want to know how low your fellow citizens can fall, and crawl,
don’t lose a war.
- Frederic Raphael reviews "Verdict on Vichy" by Michael Curtis for The Times
The victory of liberalism
enables them to sue their victors.
- Hugh Trevor Roper, commenting on the Nazis
Six years ago Michael
Burleigh, with a magisterial study of the Third Reich, placed the theme
of 'political religion' at its heart. The flummery of Nazism – its cult
of martyrs, invented ceremonies, and of course Führer-worship – was,
for all its tawdriness, no side-show; rather, it was an expression of the
fundamental cultic character of the movement, without which it could not
have bound so many hearts and minds together. Political religion could
seldom break completely free of the traditional religion that preceded
it; much of its energy was devoted either to demolishing the old structure
of Christianity, or to taking it over and feeding off it, as a parasite
feeds off its host. Both Hitler and Stalin had dual strategies towards
the Christian Churches – manipulating them when it was convenient to do
so, but humiliating and persecuting them whenever they looked like a rival
authority or power.
- Noel Malcolm, reviewing "Sacred Causes", "The Telegraph"
Though Hitler was indeed
racist and anti-Semitic to the core, a man who without compunction could
commit murder and genocide, he was also an individual of great courage,
a soldier's soldier in the Great War, a political organizer of the first
rank, a leader steeped in the history of Europe, who possessed oratorical
powers that could awe even those who despised him... Hitler's success was
not based on his extraordinary gifts alone. His genius was an intuitive
sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading
as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path.
- Pat Buchanan, from a 1977 column
At its best, the book
gives fascinating little glimpses into the poverty and backwardness of
the country Mussolini ruled. Four years after the March on Rome, the headquarters
of the Italian secret police contained only one working phone line. Even
by 1940, there were only half a million telephones in the whole country.
There were just 1 million radios - a shortfall that deeply irritated Mussolini,
because it meant almost nobody could hear his speeches. It was the Italian
fascists who coined the term "totalitarian," but their state never approached
this perverse ideal. Bosworth nicely says that Mussolini's Italy combined
the theory of a strong state with the practice of a weak one. Bosworth
argues strongly that most Italians experienced fascist rule only very remotely...
Mussolini's great vice, though, was his rhetorical ferocity - a ferocity that could only be redeemed from absurdity by launching actual wars. In 1935 he embarked on the conquest of Ethiopia, a war that left who knows how many tens of thousands of Ethiopians dead, dismembered, and starving. Wars in the Balkans and Greece came next, plus the bankrolling of the vicious Croatian Ustasha - and then of course the calamity of his entry into World War II... The war ended in 1945 with the communist party, the Catholic church, and the Mafia as the country's only functioning organizations.
- David Frum, reviewing RJB Bosworth's "Mussolini's Italy", "National Review"
Britain entered the
main European theatre only when the (Napoleonic) war had reached its final
and decisive stage. Its direct military presence acted to inhibit any other
continental power from attempting to take France’s place in the continental
power structure and reinforced the legitimacy of Britain’s claim to a dominant
say in peace negotiations. In parallel fashion, the United States entered
the European theatre only in the last and determinant phase of World War
II. Operation Overlord, its invasion of France in June 1944, and its push
eastward into Germany similarly restrained potential Russian ambitions
in the west and assured America’s seat at the head of the peace table.
- Thomas McCormick, "America’s Half-Century"
The Anglo-Saxon powers
have been triumphant in every major global conflict for the past 300 years.
This is the kind of statement that is so sweeping that you desperately
want it to be wrong. But it is right. Either Britain or America — or both
— emerged victorious from the war of the Spanish succession, the war of
the Austrian succession, the Seven Years’ war, the French revolutionary
and Napoleonic wars, the first world war, the second world war and the
Cold War. Explaining why is the task that Walter Russell Mead, the Henry
A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has set
himself in his new book God and Gold.
- James Forsyth, "The Spectator"
This (Vietnam) was
a land of rebellious barons. It was like Europe in the Middle Ages. But
what were the Americans doing here? Columbus had not yet discovered their
- Graham Greene, on historical and chronological time, "The Quiet American"
Only on the surface has the strategic missile race reflected competition between the United States and the Soviet Union; the real struggle is between the US Air Force and its archrival the US Navy.
- George Santayana
NIALL FERGUSON & THE WAR OF THE WORLD
The Armenian genocide
showed what could happen when empires were beaten into nations.
- on the collapse of empires following Versailles
In Stalin's Russia racial persecution was often disguised as class warfare. More than 1.5 million members of ethnic minorities died as a result of forced resettlement.
In the old days it would have been a relatively simple matter to have checked Hitler's territorial ambitions. All you'd have needed would have been the 1914 combination of Britain, France and Russia. Indeed, if such an alliance had acted decisively to defend Czechoslovakia in 1938, Hitler might even have been overthrown by his own military. But it was not to be.
Even as late as 1939
Hitler had still done nothing to compare with the campaign of violence
unleashed by Stalin against the peoples of the Soviet Union. Appeasers
turned one blind eye to the realities of Nazi rule, but many more people
on the British Left shut both eyes to the horrors of Stalinism, and they
took much longer to open their eyes.
- On why Britain appeased Germany at Munich
To make a living space, there first had to be a killing space.
Why did the Germans and Japanese keep fighting after 1943 when every rational hope of victory had disappeared?
The Japanese Co-Prosperity Zone began as a racist utopia and ended as a cross between an abbatoir, a plantation and a brothel.
[The Lethal Century]
Three things seem to me necessary to explain the extreme violence of the 20th century, and in particular why so much of it happened at certain times, notably the early 1940s, and in certain places, specifically Central and Eastern Europe, Manchuria and Korea. These may be summarised as: ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline. By ethnic conflict, I mean major discontinuities in the social relations between certain ethnic groups – specifically, the breakdown of sometimes quite far-advanced processes of assimilation. This was greatly stimulated in the 20th century by the dissemination of the hereditary principle in theories of racial difference (even as that principle was waning in the realm of politics) and by the political fragmentation of ‘borderland’ regions of ethnically mixed settlement. By economic volatility, I mean the frequency and amplitude of changes in the rate of economic growth, prices, interest rates and employment, with all the associated social stresses and strains. And by empires in decline, I mean the decomposition of the multinational European empires that had dominated the world at the beginning of the century and the challenge posed to them by the emergence of new empire-states in Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany. This is also what I have in mind when I identify the ‘descent of the West’ as the most important development of the 20th century. Powerful though the United States was at the end of the Second World War – the apogee of its unspoken empire – it was still much less powerful than the European empires had been 45 years before.
The question the historian must address is why race has been such a powerful and violent preoccupation of modern times. An answer that suggests itself is that racism, in the sense of a strongly articulated sense of racial differentiation, is one of those ‘memes’ characterised by Richard Dawkins as behaving in the realm of ideas the way genes behave in the natural world. The idea of biologically distinct races, ironically, has been able to reproduce itself and retain its integrity far more successfully than the races it claims to identify. The notion of immutable racial identity came late to human history. The Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492 was very unusual in defining Jewishness according to blood rather than belief. A central paradox of the modern era (is that) even as the hereditary principle ceased to govern the allocation of office and ownership, so it gained ground as a presumed determinant of capability and conduct. Men ceased to be able to inherit their fathers’ jobs; in some countries during the 20th century, they even ceased to be able to inherit their estates. But they could inherit their traits, as legacies of their parents’ racial origins.
[Empires in Decline]
Empires matter, first, because of the economies of scale that they make possible. There is a demographic limit to the number of people most nation-states can put under arms. An empire, however, is far less constrained; among its core functions are the mobilisation and equipping of large military forces recruited from multiple peoples and the levying of taxes or raising of loans to pay for them, again drawing on the resources of more than one nationality. Thus, many of the greatest battles of the 20th century were fought by multi-ethnic forces under imperial banners; Stalingrad and El Alamein are only two of many examples. Second, the points of contact between empires – the borderlands and buffer zones between them, or the zones of strategic rivalry they compete to control – are likely to witness more violence than the imperial heartlands. The fatal triangle of territory between the Baltic, the Balkans and the Black Sea was a zone of conflict not just because it was ethnically mixed, but also because it was the junction where the realms of the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans met, the fault line between the tectonic plates of four great empires. Manchuria and Korea occupied a similar position in the Far East. With the rise of oil as the 20th century’s principal fuel, so too did the Gulf in the Near East.
The new empires of the 20th century were not content with the somewhat haphazard administrative arrangements that had characterised the old – the messy mixtures of imperial and local law, the delegation of powers as well as status to certain indigenous groups. They inherited from the 19th-century nation-builders an insatiable appetite for uniformity; in that sense, they were more like empire-states than empires in the old sense. The new empires repudiated traditional religious and legal constraints on the use of force. They insisted on the creation of new hierarchies in place of existing social structures. They delighted in sweeping away old political institutions. Above all, they made a virtue of ruthlessness. In pursuit of their objectives, they were willing to make war on whole categories of people, at home and abroad, rather than on merely the armed and trained representatives of an identified enemy state.
[Descent of the West]
In 1900, the West really did rule the world. From the Bosphorus to the Bering Strait and beyond, nearly all of what was then known as the Orient was under some form or another of Western imperial rule. The British had long ruled India, the Dutch the East Indies, the French Indo-China. The Americans had just seized the Philippines; the Russians aspired to control Manchuria. All the imperial powers had established parasitical outposts in China. The East, in short, had been subjugated, even if that process involved far more complex negotiations and compromises between rulers and ruled than used to be acknowledged. What enabled the West to rule the East was not so much scientific knowledge in its own right as it was its systematic application to both production and destruction.
It is only when the extent of Western dominance in 1900 is appreciated that the true narrative arc of the 20th century reveals itself. This was not the ‘triumph of the West’, but rather the crisis of the European empires, the ultimate result of which was the inexorable revival of Asian power and the descent of the West. Gradually, beginning in Japan, Asian societies modernised themselves or were modernised by European rule. The relative decline of the West became unstoppable. This was nothing less than the reorientation of the world, redressing a balance between West and East that had been lost in the four centuries after 1500.
At the centre of this
story are the events we know as the Second World War. But only as I tried
to write an adequate sequel to my earlier book about the First World War
did I come to appreciate just how unilluminating it would be to write yet
another book within the chronological straitjacket of 1939 to 1945 – yet
another book focused on the now familiar collisions of armies, navies and
air forces. Was there, I began to ask myself, really such a thing as the
Second World War? Might it not be more correct to speak of multiple Second
After all, what began in 1939 was only a European war between Poland and, on the other side, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with Britain and France siding with the underdog more in word than in deed. Poland’s Western allies did not really enter the fray until 1940, whereupon Germany won a short continental war in Western Europe.
In 1941, even as the war between Germany and Britain was in its infancy, Hitler began a quite different war against his former ally Stalin. Meanwhile, Mussolini pursued his vain dreams of an Italian empire in East and North Africa and the Balkans. All of this was more or less entirely unrelated to the wars that were launched by Japan in Asia: the one against China, which had begun in 1937, if not in 1931; the one against the British, Dutch and French empires, which had been won by the middle of 1942; and the one against the United States, which was unwinnable. Meanwhile, civil wars raged before, during and after these interstate wars, notably in China, Spain, the Balkans, the Ukraine and Poland.
>> Read more extracts from the book\series at Channel 4
You do wonder if historians
don’t all sign a secret make-work pact, agreeing that, whenever writing
a new book, they’ll weave a few errors into their tapestry. This creates
the opportunity for another historian to saunter along a few years later,
shake his head with affectionate incredulity that a colleague could have
been so wrong-footed by the facts, proceed to unravel his predecessor’s
tapestry, and re-weave it to reflect his own reading of events. It’s a
clever way of ensuring that there is always work for historians in a world
in which any rational person might easily assume that, for instance, the
16th century happened so long ago that historians would, by now, have nailed
down everything that happened in it.
- Joe Joseph, reviewing Niall Ferguson's "War of the World", "The Times"
It is interesting but
perhaps not surprising that, as this conflict-torn century nears its end,
the shadows cast over it by the Great War of 1914-1918 seem in some ways
longer, darker, and more daunting than ever before. For what that struggle
meant and did changed the course of history more than any other in modern
times, including its great successor war of 1939-1945. Consider only a
few of the consequences of the Great War, offered here in no particular
order. It brought the end of the Romanovs, the rise of the Bolsheviks,
and the emergence of a Communist system that blighted so much of humanity
for the rest of the century. The war also made possible the growth of Fascism
and its peculiar German variant, anti-Semitic National Socialism. This
ghastly and expensive struggle shattered a Eurocentric world order, shifted
the financial center of gravity to New York, nurtured Japanese expansionism
in East Asia, and, at the same time, stimulated anticolonial movements
from West Africa to Indonesia.
The aerial bomber, the U-boat, and poison gas brought mechanization to the art of killing, making the latter less personal and yet also more far-reaching in its effects. Industrialized labor, trade unions, and socialist parties gained in power, while the landed interest declined. The social and political position of women was transformed in various aspects, despite predictable resistance. The war produced a cultural crisis, in the arts, in ideas, religion, literature, and life styles. It also exacerbated ethnic and religious hatreds, in Ireland, the Balkans, and Armenia, that scar the European landscape today. The Great War is therefore not some distant problem about dead white males on and off the battlefields. Its origins, course, and consequences are central to an understanding of the twentieth century.
- Paul Kennedy, reviewing Niall Ferguson's "The Pity of War", "NY Review of Books"
EARLY MODERN EUROPE
The events of 1588
would show that, once they got their Armada to sea, the Spaniards experienced
little difficulty in moving 60,000 tons of shipping from one end of the
Channel to the other, despite repeated assaults upon it. The Armada's undoing
was caused, ultimately, by the decision to unite the fleet from Spain with
army from the Netherlands as the obligatory prelude to launching the invasion."
- Geoffrey Parker, the Spanish Armada, "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"
News of the sack of
Drogheda swiftly produced the surrender of other neighbouring garrisons.
Its fate, like Mechelan and Magdeburg, was thus no sectarian massacre —
let us recall once more that many of the defenders and townsfolk were Protestant
— but an action carried out for strategic (not religious) reasons, and
as such, largely sanctioned by the contemporary Laws of War.
- Geoffrey Parker, Cromwell in Ireland, "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"
The 'war of the three
kingdoms' in the 1640s, far more than the 'war of the three kings' in 1688-91,
decided the fate of Ireland for over two centuries. Between 1641 and 1649,
an independent Catholic Irish government in Kilkenny conducted its own
foreign policy, layed host to several foreign ambassadors, and maintained
its own armies and navy, for the first time - and the last until 1922.
The success of this confederacy in importing the 'Military Revolution'
enabled it to hold the Irish Protestants at bay, but not to defeat the
English veterans led by Oliver Cromwell. Nevertheless, the failings were
not all, and perhaps not primarily military: Cromwell did not face a united
Irish opposition. Catholic Ireland's defeat and subjugation by England
stemmed essentially from political factors.
- Geoffrey Parker, 17th century Ireland, "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"
Four key developments,
sometimes termed the 'Military Revolution', are at issue: the artillery
fortress, the naval broadside, the reliance on firepower in combat, and
the application of strategies that deployed several armies in concert.
All four appeared in Ireland during the 1640s, and transformed the nature
of the conflict.
- Geoffrey Parker, 17th century Ireland, "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"
particularly on shipboard, and fortresses, which they could make virtually
impregnable, and local allies."
- Anthony Reid, explaining the success of Western armies around the globe
The resistance of even
a solitary artillery fortress could waste a powerful army, because it could
only be starved out and few non-European states could maintain their forces
in the field beyond a single campaigning season.
- Geoffrey Parker, the Artillery Fortess, "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"
enemies requires neither rationality (for if it works, it will continue),
nor trust (thanks to the penalties of defection), nor mutual communication
(deeds speak louder than words). Only durability is essential: some recognition
of adversaries from earlier encounters and some certainty that the two
sides will meet again. The absence of this vital precondition helps to
explain not only the brutality of colonial wars but also the hard war policies
followed by Sherman's army on its march through Georgia during the American
Civil War, by the German army against Soviet soldiers and civilians during
WW2, and by the Red Army during its conquest of Germany, just as it had
played its part in the destruction of native America. There was no time
for reciprocity to develop.
- Geoffrey Parker, the 'Etiquette of Atrocity', "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"
Through a combination
of education and discipline, most Scots came to accept that intercourse
would only take place between married partners (and the practice of handfasting,
whereby parties cohabited as soon as they were bethrothed, entirely died
out); that insults should be swallowed rather than expresses; that one
should be sober in food, drink and apparel; and that everyone should go
to church on Sunday. Scotland was not alone in its attempts to inculate
godly discipline and inward piety, but where Scotland excelled them all
was in the intensity of control exercised by her church courts... the ecclesiastical
tribunals of Scotland remained supreme until the mid 18th century, when
first a serious schism in the church, then spectacular improvements in
transport, and finally industrial growth began to erode traditional society
and its values.
- Geoffrey Parker, the 'Taming of Scotland', "Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe"
For generation after
generation, the Spanish Habsburgs married close relatives. Philip II's
oldest son Don Carlos, arrested and imprisoned because of his dangerously
unstable behaviour, could boast only four grandparents instead of eight,
and only six great-grandparents instead of sixteen. This endogamy - or
as Spain's enemies termed it, incest - arose from the desire to join territories
together. Don Carlos descended from three generations of intermarriage
between the ruling dynasties of Portugal and Spain. This policy, although
technically successful (the kindgoms were united in 1580), literally carried
within itself the seeds of its own destruction. No wonder the Spanish Habsburgs
died out out after only two more generations of endogamy.
- Geoffrey Parker, "The Repulse of the English Fireships" from "What If?"
From a Renaissance
state very similar to her neighbours the country [France] developed into
a distinctive 'absolute' monarchy which was widely admired and copied...
By the last decades of Louis XIV's reign, however, many of his subjects
were coming to feel that the king's power had not only grown excessive,
but was being seriously misused. A few daring spirits looked further still,
seeing the need to check, and preferably to reverse, the trend towards
increasing social inequality of France were to fulfil her economic potential.
The monarchy's inability to satisfy either set of critics would eventually
prove to be its downfall... all the power the monarchy had amassed apparently
enabled it to do no more than fight wars and repress internal disorder.
Traditional monarchy had perhaps reached its ultimate form in the state
of Louis XIV, exposing its own contradictions in the process.
- Robin Briggs, "Early Modern France: 1560-1715"
The French crown had
succeeded in establishing the classic extortion-coercion situation, with
heavy taxes supporting a repressive force capable of meeting any likely
challenge, and of compelling payment of those same taxes. Once a regime
has reached this point, it takes a massive convulsion to bring it down,
or even to shake its hold on power.
The maintenane of a level of tax revenue previously only seen in wartime enormously enhaned royal power. The money made possible the building of Versailles, the creation of a navy and the remodelling of the army.
- Robin Briggs, "Early Modern France: 1560-1715"
in his outlook, Louis XIV grossly underestimated the power of the United
Provinces and England, whose enmity he so casually incurred. The king saw
only the apparent instability and political fragility of states built on
a different model, which combined a weak executive with a strong civil
society. Even in defeat there is little sign that he or his ministers appreciated
the extraordinary economic and military vitality of these untidy, irritating
neighbours. French policy towards them was so inept precisely because of
this fundamental incomprehension, whose consequences were very serious.
The great wars between 1689 and 1713 not only pushed back France's frontiers,
and wrecked her primitive system of public finance; they also confirmed
her opponents in their domination of the wide world beyond the seas.
- Robin Briggs, "Early Modern France: 1560-1715"
"Louis 14, King of
France and Navarre, died on September 1st of this year , scarcely
regretted by his whole kingdom, on account of the exorbitant sums and heavy
taxes he levied on all his subjects. He is said to have died 1,700,000
livres in debt. These debts were so great that the Regent has not been
able to lift those taxes which the King promised to remove three months
after the peace... It is not permissible to repeat all the verses, all
the songs, or all the unfavourable comments which have been written or
said against his memory. During his life he was so absolute, that he passed
above all the laws to do his will. The princes and the nobility were oppressed,
the parlements had no more power. The clergy were shamefully servile in
doing the King's will... only the moneylenders and tax-collectors were
at peace, living joyfully with all the money of the kingdom in their possession."
- Epitaph by unnamed French Parish Priest, quoted in "Early Modern France" by Robin Briggs
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