Every government should fire one advisor and appoint one historian. I have remarked on this before, especially when reviewing Christopher Clark's study of the origins of the First World War, 'Sleepwalkers', and noting how Angela Merkel's cabinet famously read it and took a day out to discuss it with the historian directly. It is no wonder that history repeats itself so regularly when decision-makers fail to be reminded of history – that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' is the book I have been waiting for. Unforgivably ignorant of the broad sweep of Roman history, the narrative drives on dramatically, and the book is hard to put down – even at the beach. Now I have the five Caesars in some semblance of order in my head: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, with bits of others thrown in. It is a wonderful read of a horrendous story.

But, what it evokes is the sense that some things never change. If Blair and Bush launched a war in Iraq before considering how to win the peace when the big guns stopped firing, they clearly didn't look back to the Caesars. If we take for granted in Europe the seventy years of peaceful coexistence, a reading of history would remind us that empires come and go, that people get bored of peace, that memories are shorter than a couple of generations, that hubris-fuelled violence is never far away. Civilisation is thin – fragile. A century of hard-won pax under Augustus can quickly subside into the cataclysm of a Nero.

So, it is the resonance with the contemporary that makes Tom Holland's book go deep. It is a brilliant read, its funniest line being the observation on the post-matricidal Nero that “Comet or not, there could be no doubting who was the real star” of the subsequent mass crowd-pleasing festivities (p.363).

(I will also remember the recorded wisdom of Claudius to the Senators: “Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition was a novelty once.” (p.371))

 

I remember reading a paper once in which the writer kept using the word 'insulation' when he meant 'isolation'. And now I wonder if I am seeing the same thing when I listen to Western political leaders claiming that Putin and Russia will be 'isolated' because of the annexation of Crimea.

Will western threats turn out to be, in fact, the very moves that insulate Putin within his own 'bloc' and cement his position? And will such insulation/isolation actually render any possible negotiation or policy amendment impossible?

These are questions more eloquently put by Dr Charles Reed in his good and clear post today.

They are also the sort of questions lurking behind my original post on Ukraine and subsequent linking in to this of reflections on the events behind the sleepwalking into World War One in 1914. Some intended actions turn out to have unintended consequences – but it is not the politicians who pay the price (unless in terms of the loss of a job later).

Running under all this stuff is also the question of memory – and whose narrative is allowed to become 'official'. As this article in today's Observer illustrates tragically and seriously, attempts to rewrite 1990s history in Serbia and Bosnia is not just of academic interest … especially to those who see the physical world around them being shaped to tell a lie.

And where did World War One begin…?

 

One of the reasons I wanted to read Christopher Clark's epic book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 was its rampant popularity in Germany. Why, when Germany is keeping the 2014 centenary fairly low key, is a detailed history book such as this so popular there?

Well, one reason is that the book explains the complexity of events, relationships, myths, commitments and errors that led to the bloodbath, and makes it clear what Germany's role actually was. To put it really simply: how did Austria's need for revenge against Serbia for the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife turn into a wider conflict that killed millions and ended up with the blame being pinned solely on Germany. This is Clark's question, too. The Treaty of Versailles reads differently in the light of this treatment. Clark says:

We need to distinguish between the objective factors acting on the decision-makers and the stories they told themselves and each other about what they thought they were doing and why they were doing it. All the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections and interests masquerading as maxims. (p.558)

He then concludes:

… the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

The 'they' he refers to are the politicians. But, there are, of course, others. And of particular interest are the media. Newspapers were used by the political classes to propagate the myths the politicians wanted developed, and they also propagated the myths they themselves wanted to believe in – a greater Serbdom, the German monster, etc. Nothing new here, then. But, this reinforces a point I have made many times – one that irritates the hell out of some journalists – which is that the media do not only hold the powerful to account, but need to be held to account themselves because they are also a 'power'. Which is why the Daily Mail's myth-building about immigrants (for example) is not somehow neutral, but shapes myths that lead to preferences and actions that take on a self-justifying life of their own. (Clark refers at one point to how 'the public interest' actually means 'published interest'.)

The other element of Clark's book that disturbs is one I mentioned earlier: blame. In his narrative – which is so detailed it can give you a headache – it is clear that the essential conflict was between Serbia (which lied through its teeth and was supported in its fantasy by Russia) and Austria-Hungary. Caught between Russia and France, Germany had to sort out its own alignments and see where the alliance bloc axes might fall in the event of conflict between Serbia and the Habsburgs. Until very late on, the conflict was not about Germany, and Germany was trying not to get involved.

But, we need someone to blame. Germany got nailed with the whole shebang, which led to its own gnawing sense of injustice, which sowed the seeds of further conflict, which just shows that the only outcome worth going for is one of justice and not simply triumph. So, what happened to the guilt of the French, the Russians and the British? Or, which was where the whole thing began, of the Serbs?

There is much that could be said, but Clark's book is essential reading in 2014 as we begin to remember the events of 1914. Selective remembering in a way that simply accords with the particular myths we want to preserve (usually in order to address current realities) is tempting, but ultimately inadequate. If Europe's great powers, blinded by the assumed demands of their complex alliances, sleepwalked a world into its bloodiest war (using the latest technology to devise ever better ways of killing people – and laying waste to the Myth of Progress tied in with assumptions about the triumph of science… divorced, of course, from the base realities of human failure), shouldn't any commemoration do justice to the facts and be shaped around penitence?

Perhaps each act of commemoration should include politicians admitting their limitations and failings and asking for understanding and forgiveness from the people? Perhaps those who shape our worldview by their representation in the media should admit their place as 'powers' and myth-builders and confess to their limitations and weaknesses? And then the rest of us should ask forgiveness for believing the stuff that is poured upon us and for denying our responsibility to understand the interplay of politics, media and myth?

This isn't a gripe. It is a real concern arising from a reading of history that cannot but leave anyone with their brain engaged and conscience alive feeling disturbed. As I wrote in my last post, how does this bear on our understanding of Russia's resurgence and its machinations in the Crimea and other parts of its old empire?

These questions do not go away. The forms might change (1914 did not have television or the Internet), but the substance doesn't. Human beings are collective myth-builders and responsibility-deniers, shapers of events and re-shapers of the stories of those events. That is how we are. I guess I am asking that we just publicly admit it.

[Addendum: A crucial sentence got lost when I posted this earlier. It reads: “And religious leaders should renounce the 'God on our side' game that gives violence a rationale that cannot be justified.”]

Maybe it's because I have just read Ruth Tzeko's excellent A Tale for the Time Being (time, culture, language, philosophy, suicide, Zen, quantum physics, the self, and an intriguing story beautifully written), but watching events unfurl in the Ukraine appears familiar.

Familiar not just because Russian media discussion reflects the rhetoric of the old Soviet years, but also because the impotent moral vacuity of western protestation conjures up spectres of the national trade-offs that were going on in Europe in the run up to what became the First World War. Maybe it's because I am reading Christopher Clark's excellent account of this period in his best-selling The Sleepwalkers

Listening to Russian apologists for Putin's imperial ambitions certainly raises the western hackles, but, getting beyond the intuitive distrust of Russian political integrity, we have to ask why they are doing what they are doing in Ukraine – and why are they doing it now?

The west has just fought two very unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and it is clear that neither politicians nor people have the stomach for further military interventions on our own continent. Secondly, we can't afford another military intervention. Thirdly, we don't have enough conviction to fight for anything anyway. And Putin knows this. European and US exhaustion (both military and economic) mean that we won't stop him taking the Crimea and anywhere else he fancies just now.

Economic sanctions against Russian individuals? Well, they worked in Zimbabwe, didn't they? (that was meant to be ironic.) So, why is it that when I am watching Russians defending Russia's actions in relation to the Ukraine I feel doubly uncomfortable? The answer, I fear, is that, as Clark puts it (in relation to relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in 1913): “There was a clash here not just of interests, but also of policy styles.” (p.288) In other words, we speak different languages.

An interesting exercise to go through, if opportunity ever arises, is to examine the language used by the Soviet Union to justify its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and then the language/rhetoric used by the west to oppose it. Then compare these with the language/rhetoric used by Britain and the USA for their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and then the language of Russian opposition to it. (I had to do this professionally.) It's all a bit Alice in Wonderland.

What characterises the story told by Christopher Clark about the run up to the First World War is the short-termism of political alliances forged for limited ends – trade-offs by the Powers in order to maximise their own security by (a) securing territory and (b) balancing the negatives of multiple alliances. The latter became complex, if not sometimes even contradictory. The issue, however, has to do with political and military powers that lose sight of the big picture and, heads and eyes focused down to the bit of grass in front of their noses, nibble their way to destruction.

Back to the Ukraine, it is easy to see why Putin is not terribly bothered by the west's indignant rhetoric. Perhaps he has a longer view of history than we do – or at least broader one. Perhaps he has come up with a different answer to the question about when does history begin? Maybe. But, what is clear is that twenty five years of post-Soviet humiliation is a powerful motivator in current behaviour – a humiliation welcomed in the west after the collapse of Communism, but without any idea – other than the assumed victorious western free-market capitalist democracy – of what might emerge from the ruins. 'The end of history' indeed!

And twenty five years is not a long time in the grand sweep of history. The Crimea was handed by the old USSR to Ukraine just over half a century ago – and now the Russians have decided to restore the ethnic and territorial status quo. And if a popular revolution in Kiev was deemed legitimate to bring down a government, why should a partial referendum in Crimea not be legitimate in giving the democratic majority in this region what they want?

Of course, it is not as simple as this. But, there are some simple questions that are being brushed over in the coverage and interpretation of events in Ukraine. And it is clear that western celebration a quarter of a century ago at the demise of the Soviet Empire has not created a unipolar world – and was certainly premature. Clearly, it is unclear what will happen next and what Putin has in mind for Russia: what we might call expansion he might call restoration.

I don't quite know how to express this, but spending time in Switzerland, France and Germany recently (sabbatical) brought it home to me just how geographical liminality is alien to English experience. We don't cross borders other than Wales and Scotland, which aren't – yet – borders in the sense that Germany and France have them. Living on an island shapes a particular perception of national identity, but it is very different one grown on mainland Europe where borders of land, language, culture, history and ethnicity are so pronounced, delicate, vulnerable and steeped in blood. Reading about the First World War outside of Britain is very different from reading about it in Britain – just as reading about concentration camps in the Second World War feels different depending on whether you are doing the reading in Bristol or Berlin.

Every government needs to read history – although history tells us that each one will read the history that suits them according to the myths they need to reinforce (regardless of whether the myths are backed up by facts). Every teenager in Britain should be required to spend a week in Berlin, walking along 'borders' that introduce them – in curriculum terms – to geography, history, language, religion, theology, politics, philosophy, art, literature, science, economics, culture, etc. That way we might just begin to grow a generation that is able to glimpse (if not see) through the eyes of another culture with another history, and realise that our own – assumed or intuitive – way of 'seeing' is both limited and relative.

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