Tag Archives: Twentieth Century

Permeable Parameters


I learned, just the other day, that for archaeologists ‘the present’ began in 1950. Which is a very odd idea, considering how we usually think of the ‘present’ being now, now, now (not then), now (you get the idea), and 1950 as the past. The reasoning behind this is that, since radio-carbon dating is rather important to the field, such a method of dating is useless after 1950 because of the amount of radiation we have ejected into the atmosphere through nuclear testing and accidents. It would be as if we could somehow calculate the age of the posts in a wooden house from the specific type of water contained within, only to turn around and find out someone went and threw them in a lake. Not very helpful. So, the past ends, and the present begins for archaeology in 1950. Which makes me wonder…

When Did It Begin?

History, as an academic field, has a quality which is often overlooked; it has a beginning. Strange as it may seem, the History of Ireland began on a specific year, as did the History of Britain, some of the Americas, all Australia, and large swathes of Asia and Africa. The other swathes of Africa and Asia, and big chunks of Europe and America are harder to define historically for reasons that I am about to tell you very soon, possibly in the present, though it may be history when you read it… Anyway, moving on.

The "Tusculum portrait", possibly th...

Julius Caesar, brought History to Gaul and Britain, got stabbed for his troubles (Image via Wikipedia)

So, the History of Ireland began in 431AD, when Prosper of Aquitaine reported that a certain Palladius was dispatched by the papacy to Ireland.  The History of Britain began around 55BC when Julius Caesar invaded, but it didn’t take, and they had to start again in 43AD; it was a real success, and soon the British were wandering all over the world introducing History (and Flags) to everyone they met, whether they liked it or not. The beginning of the History of Rome, or Egypt, or any such ancient empire, is slightly more difficult to pinpoint. Why is this? Well, for something to be History it must first be written text, and it must be authenticated, verified, and rigorously investigated. ‘Things’ are material, and material is archaeology, and archaeology goes way farther back in time than History, but History relies on the written word, on documents, manuscripts, letters, books. By this very simple fact the History of a nation can have a beginning, the moment someone mentions somewhere in a letter our interest is piqued, the second we find an alternative view the heart begins to race, and when we find controversy, dissent, disagreement in texts, oh how the angry ink does flow!

Prosper of Aquitaine was not the first to write of Ireland, but he was the first to give us a name, a date, and an event that could be corroborated: the dispatch of a bishop from Rome. With Christianity came writing, and with writing came the recording of events, of history. The History of Rome begins with murky myths, hyperbolic propaganda, and, well, lies, so we have to be very careful. In fact when dealing with Romans, if History has taught us nothing else, it would be very wise to be cautious and suspicious. While the History of Central and South America was recorded by such peoples as the Maya and Inca, North American History began with Columbus, simply by virtue of the fact that the Native Americans didn’t write anything down. Hopefully some of you are sitting there shocked, how can this be true? Well, it isn’t completely true; oral history is a valuable resource, but it is highly prone to alteration so it is often judged very harshly. We who have lived in a culture that has worshipped the written word for millennia sometimes forget that our earliest histories are oral, that our nations’ foundations are often hidden in myth. Which is where archaeology comes in; history, literature, and archaeology working in harmony create a far more vibrant image of the past than any could alone.


The Book Of Durrow (Image via Wikipedia)

But then you might wonder, how can we trust these ancient writers and chroniclers? Caesar was a propagandist, the Crusaders believed in angelic manifestations, and the British love Marmite, how can we rely on any of them to give us an honest account of history? The answer is quite simple: we don’t. This is a crucial fact, this is what divides breathless myth-hunting Scotsmen from real historians: we don’t actually believe a source until we have thoroughly investigated it.  Some historians have spent their entire lives working on specific texts or individuals, let alone periods of history. Manuscripts are poured over, analysed for every little scrap of information; we can garner an astonishing amount of data from what the words were written on and with, in what script and style, how the language is used and constructed, from the mistakes and omissions, and that’s before we even bother to read the text! You’d be surprised how much you can tell from a manuscript from the way the letters are formed, let alone the texture of the page. Just looking at the image above, an expert could immediately tell that the script is Insular, most likely from a wealthy Irish or Irish-influenced monastery, sometime in the 7th century just from the way it is written (it also helps that this book is rather well-known, sadly it’s rather difficult to find images of the more fun obscure texts, but if I could find them online they wouldn’t be obscure). Real historians, when faced with a difficulty or conundrum, don’t resort to aliens or Templar Knights (unless of course you are investigating the Crusades) to provide a quick and easy solution; no, they go back to the text, they start again, and again, and examine more texts, and yet more again. And then they die of old age.

History, or Historical?

Where then does history end and the present begin? I study the early medieval period, so anything after 1100 seems terrifically new to me, in some respects (Printed books? Lame. Manuscripts are what all the cool kids examine!), but I enjoy reading about pretty much any historical period, so at this point (and things may change later) I am at a bit of a loss as to say where history ends. A historian I know once declared to me that anyone who studies the 20th Century isn’t a historian, they are just a news-reporter who’s running a bit late. I thought him a bit harsh, but it made me wonder, is the Second World War history? It must be, right? It happened ages ago, before either I or my father was born. My grandparents lived through it, so I am only one generation removed from the most destructive and violent conflict in history. But at the same time, there are still quite a few people living who either fought in, or lived through, the war; if there is somebody still living who remembers the events first hand, is it history? And we are still living through its consequences, but then aren’t we living with the consequences of all of history? Iraq and Libya have both lost their dictators in narrow sewers, discovered them, and then executed them in my lifetime, but I don’t think that I am living in history. The terrorist attacks on London or the US don’t feel like history to me, they are part of my life, but only in a minute fashion; they hold a far greater and lamentable grasp on the lives of so many others. Even the first Iraq war, or the Falklands, hardly seems like history, they only just happened. But they may be historical. Could that be a way to skip around the issue? These are historical events, we are living through historical moments in time, which will become history once everyone who has witnessed them is dead.

Does History begin with the written word, and end when the last survivor of a specific event dies? Or does it begin with the first witness, and end when the consequences of an act have passed? Or from the earliest memory to roughly a week ago? What you may consider as History is (or indeed, was) somebody else’s life, their present, their memories. And for me, that is what makes the study of History so fascinating; it’s not the examination of dry facts, of mulling over great battles, it’s the recreation of a life. In my work, I get to read the private letters and thoughts of people who died over a thousand years ago, I try to tease out what facts I can to see how they lived and died, what they hoped and worked for. I work with comparably little information when you consider the tsunami of sources available to a historian of the Modern Period (newspapers, diaries, letters, government documents, written accounts, news broadcasts, films, radio, novels, comics, art, laws, the list go on…). It may be easier for them, but I, at least, expect more of them.

History is a tremendous puzzle, especially the further back you go, which is what makes it so bloody interesting. So I don’t really care when it ends, only that it doesn’t. And if you don’t find the investigation of the past at the very least interesting, there is something very, very wrong with your world perspective.

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” – Oscar Wilde

(The quote is somewhat tangential to the essay, but the man is not wrong)

Integrity in Conflict, or, You Meet the Most Interesting People at Conferences…

The Opening Teaser.

So. I was at this conference on medieval stuff, and, afterwards at the pub, my friends and I happened to start talking to this white-haired fellow. I mentioned that the finger-food at the conference lunch had been rather good, far superior to any such nibbles found at events that I had previously attended. The man before us casually noted that the food offered by the German Ambassador to Ireland did not achieve such delicious heights. Off he goes for a pint, leaving me and my friends rather puzzled as to who our suddenly esteemed guest might be.

The plot thickens…

Upon his return, me being me, I quite bluntly asked, how on earth did he manage to get to meet the German Ambassador? He replied that he organised a small event, to which he invited the Ambassador, and in return he was granted access to the halcyon inner-chambers of international relations. We had to know; what had he organised that attracted the attention of the Teutonic plenipotentiary. It turned out that our new friend had researched a rather interesting event, and organised a memorial for it.

German U-boat U-25.

Image via Wikipedia

The opposite of Peace.

Not long after that great butchering of men known as the Second World War began, a German U-boat caught sight of a Greek ship carrying iron-ore to the UK. Identifying it as a legitimate target, the captain of the U-boat informed the Greeks that he was going to sink their ship, gave them time to abandon, and then blew the vessel to smithereens.  Some of the Greek sailors fell in to the grasp of the sea, so the captain of U35, being a decent human-being, gathered them up.  A spotter-plane launched from Land’s End forced him to order the ship to dive. Now he was stuck with a bunch of Greek soldiers his claustrophobic domain. What ever was he to do with them?

To The Kingdom They Go.

Off they head to Ireland, where they drop the Greek sailors off at Ventry Bay, to the great surprise of the locals, who alert the police. By the time the illustrious officials, owners of inconceivable boxes of ever decreasing dimensions, arrived on their bicycles, all that they could do was watch as the U35 sailed away into the Atlantic. The Greeks were cared for in Ireland, and eventually made their way home. The German captain, in return for his good deed, was demoted by his less than noble superiors.

Unforeseen Plot Twist.

Some time later, Lord Mountbatten was sailing about the North Atlantic when he came upon a U-boat, and dropped some depth-charges to encourage it to the surface so he could have a chat with it occupants. Rising to the surface, the men abandoned their ship, and the captain, being the captain, was the last to leave. After a brief dip in the ocean, they climbed up a rope onto the British ship; the German captain couldn’t hold the rope as his hands were by this time crippled by the cold, since he had allowed his men to ascend before him and had to be hauled out of the water. Carried off to England, they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. The officers were a bit miffed that they were being treated as rank and file (war has rules, strangely), but their guards did not care. They demanded to see a Naval officer, and one eventually appeared. He said that he would take their grievances to his superior. And he did. It just so happened that his superior was Lord Mountbatten, who remembered the German captain that he had plucked from the sea. He sent a limousine to collect them from their prison, convey them to the fanciest restaurant in town for some decent food, and return them to prison. The guards, having seen this treatment, recognised that these were important men, or at the very least were clever enough to grasp the simple fact that to irk one of the most senior officers in the British military would not have been the wisest of career choices, treated the German officers with all due deference. Sometime later the war ended and the Germans were let go home.

Meanwhile, in the 21st Century…

There we sat listening to this remarkable story. The man who was telling it remembered the Greeks, but was not there on the day of their arrival, though his father was. The local community decided to memorialise the occurrence, and he invited representatives of Germany, Greece, and Ireland to attend. Our new friend managed to track down descendants of the Greek sailors, and they came to the unveiling. Sometime after that, the German Ambassador proffered second-rate finger-food. Later this remarkable man told us of the time he was in Moscow during the meeting of the Supreme Soviet, where he got to chatting with one of the representatives…

Some of the story can be found here, but it really is all in the telling. In a pub. By the man who did all the work. And who, with humility, didn’t seem to think that his efforts were extraordinary, but simply appropriate.

War. War Never Changes.

The Compression of Time

As events in the past become more remote and removed from the present, we have a tendency to compress them. The Roman Empire came about one weekend when Julius Caesar decided he should rule the world, and few can name his successors, save a few luminaries, and a several villains. After the fall of Rome, general knowledge of history becomes vague and obscure, lost in the mire of what is called the ‘Dark Ages’, an era promptly followed by knights in shining armour, King Arthur and other fictions. A series of wars were fought about religion, and someone invented science, an Italian in the employ of Spain found the New World, and before long the modern world was born with the industrial revolution. At this point most people can add more detail; two world wars were fought, one was caused by the folly of generals and empires, the other was a ‘good’ war to end tyranny. Then there was a Cold War, Vietnam, and now, the War on Terror. Wars are an interesting example of this trend. The Hundred Years War was a series of three separate wars between France and England between 1337 and 1453, which included several periods of peace, but are lumped together because they shared the common theme of Englishmen killing French. In a similar fashion some use the term the ‘2nd Hundred Years War’ to describe a series of wars between France and Great Britain from 1688 to 1815. It is easy for us to define the past, agglomerate vast periods of history into catchy titles, dilute the trials and tribulations of entire generations of people into pithy epithets, and categorise decades of suffering with bland appellations.

The First Classic Blunder

There have been many more ‘world wars’ other than the two most recent ones. The Mongols, you could say, tried to be the first to start a world war in the 1200’s by invading everywhere they could, but were mostly confined to Asia and Europe, mostly because the Old World had not found the New World, which was hiding in the middle of the ocean because Asians and Europeans seemed terribly fond of conquering things. Luckily for the Mongols they never went up against a Sicilian when death was on the line, only getting as far as Austria. The Mongolian Empire quickly fragmented, though the various bit and pieces survived for quite some time in many parts of the world.

In the late 16th- and early 17th-centuries the Dutch and the Portuguese went to war all over the world, fighting for the colonies they had been busy building in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. This was also part of a larger war between the Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic, known as the 80 Years War. But that wasn’t really a ‘world war’, it was just a war between several kingdoms, principalities, and empires that happened to take place everywhere from South America to the Philippines, and mostly at sea. The participants in that war also fought in the 30 Years War, one of the most destructive wars in European history, in which nearly a third of all Germans were killed. The first true world war began in 1688, not in 1914, which was when a world war which we call ‘First’ began.

Bella, horida bella!

There were several other global conflicts before the War to End All Wars didn’t. The Nine Years War (a.k.a. the War of English Succession), the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the North American Wars, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars all involved various world powers of the time and were fought on several continents. ‘Succession’ was clearly all the rage at the beginning, but soon went out of style as its market was limited to the nobility, and was replaced by a new brand called ‘Revolution’, something the common man and woman could rally behind. These wars were fought across the Americas, Europe, and parts of Africa and Asia. You could say that they were all ‘world wars’ but, like the First and Second World Wars, they involved all the same protagonists fighting for the same goals and so could all be lumped together into one big war, the 2nd Hundred Years War (1688-1815). In theory, we might alternatively refer to this as the first world war.

The Name is the Thing

The First World War was not called that by the people who fought it, it was only called ‘First’ after the second one happened. At the time it was known as The Great War, or The War to End Wars. How would they have known it was first, that another would follow it, and so soon? No European war before it had been so destructive, or killed so many people, or been fought in so many places and involved so many nations. And then the second one happened, which was even worse. So it made sense to call them the First and Second World Wars. But now there is the idea that they were really one big war, so it could be called ‘The Great War’, or ‘The Second 30 Years War’. It began in 1914 when an Archduke took an ill-informed drive in Bosnia, and ended when the fury of the sun was unleashed on the land in which it rose. There was a bit of a pause in the middle, from 1918 to 1939, allowing everyone to take a little break and build more weapons and bombs, but the Spanish and Russians provided some interval entertainment in the form of civil wars in which many other European nations were involved, making them international events. The Japanese, feeling left out, went to war with China and Russia, and later joined in on the World War fun and games as an ally of the Axis powers. It can even be said that the resolution of the Great War was one of the causes of the Second World War. So, if these wars were really one big war, can refer to the whole episode as ‘the Great War’? Or the second world war. Might we include the Cold War in this period? In another few decades the compression of time will be so great that the entire 20th Century might be view as one continuous period of conflict, followed immediately by the Century of Terror. We can only hope for a future where we define eras by successive periods of peace.

Nine Years War
War of Spanish Succession*
War of Austrian Succession
French and Indian Wars The Second Hundred Years War 1689-1815
Seven Years War*
American Revolutionary Wars
French Revolutionary Wars*
Napoleonic Wars*
Russo-Japanese War
The First World War (The Great War)*
Spanish Civil War The Great War 1899-1945
Russian Civil War
2nd Sino-Japanese War
Chinese Civil War
The Second World War*
The Long War 1899-1990
First Indochina War
Korean War
Vietnam War Cold War 1945-1990
Cambodian Civil War
Afgan War
Angolan Civil War

*  ‘World wars’