Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

17. ‘Cops and robbers’

And so to the tortured history of the 20th Century, surely the most violent in the history of humanity: ninety years of conflict in what Niall Ferguson has called the ‘War of the World’. In my experience it is almost always taught as a game of ‘cops and robbers’ with the dictators – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Franco – playing the part of the ‘bad’ guys, and the democracies – principally Britain and the United States – as the heroes. In the greatest struggle of the second half of the century - the Cold War - the hero is free market capitalism, which defeats old-fashioned communism because private enterprise can achieve far greater productivity than any planned or state-run economy. Victory is marked by the overthrow of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. Only now do we realise that these events were the start of a new phase in history and not, as Naom Chomsky famously predicted, its ‘end’.

In Niall Ferguson’s much more pessimistic view the first two world wars were essentially European civil wars. Thus the First World War destroys the old multi-ethnic empires like Austria-Hungary and the second destroys the colonial empires of Britain and France, Holland and Belgium. The United States might be the inheritor of Europe’s predominant place in the world but its attempts to play the role of global policeman have made its citizens the targets of terrorism at home and abroad and left it with a mountain of debt. Ferguson regards the emerging states of the Far East, principally China, as the real victors of the ‘War of the World’.

When the Chinese statesman, Chou-en-Lai was asked whether the French Revolution was a success, he is said to have replied ‘it is too early to tell’. Such a warning has to be applied to all aspects of modern history. In the ‘History Boys’ the young teacher Irwin – a follower of Ferguson’s ‘counter-factual approach to history – describes the immediate past as ‘dead ground’, too near at hand for its true nature to be discerned properly. And yet, for those who have lived through it, certain underlying trends seem crystal clear.

The first is the transforming effects of modernity. On the good side, science and technology have given us better health, speedier travel, warmer and more comfortable homes. In the developed world the standard of living of the average citizen has risen steadily despite the huge sums spent on weapons of destruction. On the bad side the same science and technology has vastly increased humanity’s capacity to do itself harm and - through over exploitation of natural resources – to harm the planet also. An atmosphere heating up through the accumulation of greenhouse gases and oceans which are polluted from top to bottom are hardly good legacies to leave to our children and grandchildren.

The second is summed up by the old saying that the ‘road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. Paradoxically, all the villains of the 20th Century were trying to achieve something better for their people – the grander the vision, the more evil the means to bring it about. A racially pure German volk demanded the liquidation of the Jews; a new society composed of genuinely unselfish people, free of old attitudes, demanded the deportation and death of millions in Stalin’s purges. Some Islamic fundamentalists want to return to what they believe was the moral purity of the prophet’s own time and are prepared to do battle with modernity itself in order to achieve this. All these ideologies reject a definition of human rights based upon the individual.

Ranged against them is the concept of democracy, by which I mean the ‘one-man, one vote’ variety which it is assumed will guarantee freedom from tyranny. Such has not been the experience of the last hundred years. As is well known Hitler came to power through the ballot box (though he never had an absolute majority of the votes); other dictators have proved very adept at manipulating the forms of democracy to suit their purposes, not least of them Saddam Hussein. If democracy is to work it must be limited in some way, otherwise minorities are liable feel deeply threatened, especially if they are of a different ethnic origin or religion. Irrational as it may seem to base the possession of power upon the accident of birth, a constitutional monarchy provides just such a brake.

Those countries that possess monarchies are fortunate in that they also possess a symbol of national unity above political or ethnic divisions. What happens when a large section of a nation’s population feels a greater sense of loyalty to a neighbouring state? The new countries created in 1919 from the ruins of the old empires were far from the ethnically homogenous entities that the principle of self-determination should have brought about. Millions of Germans found themselves living in Poland; Catholic Croatians and Muslim Bosnians were forced into the polyglot state of Jugoslavia, dominated by Orthodox Serbs; Czechs, Slovaks and Germans were thrown together in an equally unstable Czechoslovakia. Decolonisation after World War Two left a similar situation in Africa, whilst the break up of the Soviet Union revealed what Stalin had tried so brutally to suppress – a vast region in which there were multitudes of different racial and religious identities. Most, if not all of the wars in the 20th Century, have their origins in these historic problems. It is why the election of Barack Obama has been a source of such hope. An African-American, who has known poverty as well as comparative affluence, he seems to represent the things that all human beings have in common rather than the things that divide them.