History goes around, comes around
On the day that I wrote this, 9th May 2014, the early news told us of a parade in Moscow to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Crimea remained annexed, and the Russia/Ukraine crisis was not resolved. At around half-eight in the morning, the BBC’s reporter in Moscow was cut off in mid-sentence as he summarised the military hardware on display; the Today programme on Radio 4 cut to the sports news.
Sentenced to a year’s “community service” for tax fraud, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi turned up at a care home to work with dementia patients. Because he escaped prison, Berlusconi would still be able to lead his party in the then-forthcoming European elections.
Because he was an elderly politician who didn’t know a lot about mental health, Berlusconi was to be accompanied at all times by a medical worker who specialised in Alzheimer’s (to help with care of the patients, duh).
In other news, the UK tax authorities came under fire for (revived) plans to deduct money from taxpayers’ bank accounts without prior judicial authorisation. The central criticism was that tax officials at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs “have a history of making mistakes” (reported the BBC).
Oh, and new research by Danish scientists told us that too much arguing can lead to early death.
On the day that you read this, which, as I sit here adding these bits in italics, will be 5th April 2022 at the earliest, the real events of 9th May 2014 will be history.
If we remember them at all, hindsight will give them that patina of inevitability — and to some degree, irony — that coats the reported past.
Just as you can’t watch the Archduke being driven through Sarajevo without knowing what happens next, or the Titanic leave Southampton (both on YouTube), so you might find it quaint that I once inhabited a world where “what happens next” wasn’t part of the story.
On the day that I write this paragraph, the war crimes in Bucha are beginning to be revealed. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has just given an interview on BBC Radio’s Hardtalk programme. Dot Cotton (June Brown) died yesterday. News broke that Charles Darwin’s lost notebooks had been returned to Cambridge University Library.
One of the ancient news-reels on YouTube tells us that the Archduke came to Sarajevo to “reassure his people”. The Titanic, as we all know, was unsinkable.
9th May 2014 was an ordinary day. Stuff happened. Time passed. What happened 100 years earlier was that the Titanic sank and then the First World War started. Or so we might assume, given that we have “what happened next” as part of the story.
History cuts out the boring bits. The ship went down (in 2012) and then everybody stood around waiting for the guns to start firing, the tank to be invented and the War Poets to open their notebooks and start writing.
As successive historians edit the story (pronoun: his), the big events get bigger and the little events get forgotten. Themes are added. When we watch history we know which events were important because the background music tips us off. We know the conclusions that we’re supposed to draw from them.
Ships need to have lots of lifeboats. Wars don’t end by Christmas.
But wisdom after the event isn’t wisdom. The obvious quote to put in here is “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,” which was approximately used by Winston Churchill in 1935, written by George Santayana in 1905 and probably first said by Edmund Burke in 1729.
One version (thanks, Google) suggests that the problem is a simple failure “to remember the past”. Santayana also said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
By one of those strangely satisfying conjunctions that it would take a scientist to dismiss as coincidence, the BBC aired the first episode of its drama 37 Days, about the run-up to the First World War, on 6th March 2014.
The drama was intended to get across the idea that the war was caused by Western political leaders’ inadequate responses to a crisis in eastern Europe.
6th March 2014 was also the date on which Russia moved into Crimea.
There’s a future generation watching us, wondering how we can be so relaxed in the face of whatever’s coming next. They can’t un-know what we can’t know.
Ah, these warm Spring days, the flowers coming early.