Have you ever felt the sensation of discovering a very old book? That you smelt the dust and that you had to blow away some little spiderwebs? That you realised that you and some other human hundreds years ago were holding the same book in your hands!
To feel impressed that these books, but also buildings and even trees are far older than us. To see this while walking in one of the old cities of Europe. Where the centers are very historic. Or could have been very historic. Because these centers were bombed away in World War II. Like my birth city: Rotterdam. In one hour those killing bombs destroyed the work of centuries. But even that horror happened already 78 years ago !!
(Rotterdam after the bombardment in 1940)
Time is like a race car
Time is – for sure now I am getting older – like a race car. When looking back, the dramatic impressions of today are fading like flat lines. And people are transformed in vague silhouettes, and mountains into small stones. Even the loud sounding, ‘all over the place’, people are changed to yearlings of quietness.
So is there some essence in history? Should we study the past? Or is that nonsense? Should our historians deserve to become themselves historic? To ‘die away’ like the dinosaurs?
When justifying their work, you can hear teachers and history scientists say that they are necessary, because we as their ‘students’ can learn ‘lessons’ from history. They seem very certain that we as humans should be informed about the wrongdoings of our ancestors. So that we should be knowing in the present what ‘good’ is and what ‘wrong’. So if that is really true it means that history is just reduced to an expression of morality.
But the question is for me: Are we humans really learning via that approach? Just looking back and saying: ‘Oops, we don’t have to do that nasty stuff’.
Probably? But I think it is otherwise. Indeed we are changing by becoming older. In physical form, but also in a maturing of our attitudes and behaviours. But still in many moments we are only changing our patterns after we have done ‘one stupid thing’ for a thousand times wrong. Sometimes we have to pay attention to the fact that we are making the same error to many times, to feel uncomfortable about it and to realise that something somewhere is not working quite at all.
It is said that the best of our inventions came after many trials and errors. Our most creative inventors were also the biggest ones in brilliant failures and mistakes.
Who writes history?
So why should we be interested in history? Is it functioning like our long term memory?
Hopely, but probably not.
Somewhere I read the true quote: ‘History is written by the conquerors’. It is assumed that Winston Churchill was the one who was speaking those words. I don’t know whether this is true or whether Churchill was just repeating the sentence of an elder person before him.
That history is written and rewritten means that the same ‘old’ stories can be exaggerated many times by just telling and changing the story. There are storytellers who are ‘reinventing’ the past just for there own aspirations of power and controll. Because they are promoting a patriotic, nationalistic tale or another expression of their identity agenda about ‘us’ versus ‘them’. About the ‘good people’ of our group and about the ‘bad persons’ who are trying to invade the beloved ‘paradise’ of our daily sorrows.
History has already a proven, ugly record of those who did manipulate history for their own ‘sakes’.
Telling a clear, consistent story
So yes, we need historians and history scientists to show what the ‘facts’ were of the past. By telling a clear, consistent story which is based at multiple sources. To confront the mendacious narratives that are misleading, blinding and binding people.
Sadly many humans are inclined to believe the stories of collusion. And to listen to the bewitching, simple ‘songs’ about the ‘black and white’, ‘good and wrong’ themes. To believe only the interpretations which are fitting in their own shape of reality. Or which are resembling their own ‘faces’ and fairy tales. Lies are accepted to fit the empty spaces in the own stories and to seal and conceal those narratives for longer times. And after a while it is even forgotten that the modern ‘truths and beliefs’ were blatant lies in the earlier days.
When the perspective of the story is suddenly changed
It was because my history teacher did not want to tell us teenagers about what happened to the jewish people in the concentration camps that I decided deep in myself to go to the library and to find it out for myself. After reading many books I knew for ever. I did read disgusting details that I won’t forget. Never! It was not pretty to get this new understanding. But finally I was knowing!
When do I like history the most?
When the perspective of the story is suddenly changed or when other, vivid details are discovered later in time which change the original story. When heroes are becoming humans, thanks to the eye witnesses who are later on daring to tell the other aspects which we were not knowing.
I most like it when my knowledge is turned upside down. This happened for me just two times, last weeks!
I read in the newspapers about a Dutch biographer who dared to study the life of SS general Rauter (who did cruel deeds during wartime in the Netherlands). But after reading these articles I don’t still know why this man choose to study the life of mister Rauter. For the Dutch readers, you can read here more: Click here
The same happened to me when I read about another controversial, historic person. This male lived in Spain during the Dutch Spanish War and he was feared by many Dutch people in that time. It was Alva, the duke of Spain and he was one of the key actors during the war which dured 80 years!
The bloody war started in 1568 and finally ended in 1648. It dured untill this time that another historian dared to make her choice to study this person, who in the Netherlands for so long was and is portrayed as a brute. For the Dutch readers you can find here more: Click here
Criticism about the choices to study Alva and Rauter
Both historians have gotten criticism about there choices to study Alva and Rauter. Their critics were saying that those two man were not at all interesting persons or that their lives were a taboo to be studied.
But I liked to read about both men. It gave me more understanding of their times. It even did give me some nuance and a little wisdom.
I did realise that even those ‘monsters’ Rauter and Alva were people like you and me. Intelligent, charismatic and having there own personal standards of ‘good’ and ‘wrong’. In their own eyes they were just doing the ‘good’ for their cause and fatherland.
So is history a story of dust? Possibly indeed about dust. Because the strong thought castles of ‘good’ and ‘wrong’ are corroding through time. After centuries the old fashioned bastions of ‘good judgements and rules’ of the past are becoming dust.
And with regard to ‘slaverny’, ‘racism’ and the ‘inequality of women’ is that after many generations really a progress, even when those old thoughts are alas still poisoning the minds of ‘some’ people world wide!
So I hope that more tragic traditions will find the ‘entry of the shredder of today and yesterday’ 🙂 .