History and Ignorance

The abuse of the past


In his magnificent novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about the “mutability of the past” as a key tenet of the Party that ruled Oceania, one of the three mutually antagonistic empires that controlled his dystopian future. The Party proclaimed that “he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” In other words, the past was not a set of events that had happened; the past was what the Party said it was and meant what the Party said it meant.

I’ve been musing on this idea for a few years now. History is my passion – I studied it at O-Level, A-Level, for my undergraduate degree and as a  postgraduate. I have worked in a History related job for more than a quarter of a century. I may not be able to write about the study of History like E.H. Carr or Karl Marx and I am sure some of my ideas would be disputed by fellow historians. But I am pretty sure of one thing – History is not a set of precedents to be used in political debates like cases in English common law. Unfortunately, this approach to the past has become increasingly routine in recent years.

Any politician who begins a sentence with the words “History tells us..” is basically lying. History cannot “tell” us anything; what said politician is doing is trying to support his arguments with examples he (or more likely , his speechwriter) has culled from Wikipedia.

I’m also concerned that ignorance of the past is becoming increasingly widespread in the English-speaking world. The same three examples are endlessly trotted out on social media, in the newspapers and by MPs. As far as I can tell, the average politician or political “activist” only knows three events and three interpretations of those events:

1/ The Crusades – clear evidence of Christian racism and aggression against Muslims;

2/ The Slave Trade – evil white people enslaving peaceful black people living in an Edenic paradise;

3/ The Holocaust – the Nazis (never “the Germans”) were beastly to a minority religious group. Any person who expresses the slightest qualms about any favoured “victim” group is clearly itching to reopen the camps and fire up the ovens.

The sarcastic tone above is probably clear enough to show that I dispute the Toytown spin placed on these important events. Instead I would meanly pose the following questions to any of the Twitterati tempted by these simplistic interpretations:

1/ Why did the Crusades start? Who was harassing and enslaving pilgrims to the Holy Land in the late 11th century? Who appealed for help and who preached the First Crusade? Why were Muslims happy to cede Jerusalem to the Crusaders on more than one occasion if it is their “third holiest site”?  Of more than fifty “Muslim countries” in 2017, can you name a single one that accepted Islam peacefully?

2/ Who was selling the slaves? Are you aware of the (much longer lasting) East African Trade? Which was the first major country to abolish the Atlantic slave trade (and then attempted to stamp it out with all the zeal of a convert)? Were you aware that the modern Arabic word for “black African” is the same as for “slave” and is considered to be as offensive as ‘n*****” is in English?

3/ Why were Jews persecuted in Nazi Germany? Do you know the difference between Christian anti-Semitism and racial anti-Semitism? Were you aware that Adolf Hitler boasted about the “scientific” nature of his racial beliefs? If so, where did he get such “scientific” ideas from? What is the largest genocide in history? Which European country and candidate for membership of the  EU continues to deny a genocide, a denial that is a crime in at least four EU members?

Remember any “lesson” or “example” you can pluck from History in support of your position can be negated by several other “examples” found by anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge.



4 thoughts on “History and Ignorance”

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