Why does any History matter?
Think of the ways in which people – maybe you – justify the study of history. I expect two themes come up: relevance and ‘how we got where we are’. I’d say, though, that no history is relevant … or alternatively that all history is equally relevant.
What do people mean when they say that history is relevant?
It’s, let’s face it, usually a justification for modern history. To understand the modern world, the argument runs, we have to understand its history. So, to understand the problems, say, of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ireland, or the Balkans, we need to know the history of those regions. Sounds reasonable, but actually we don’t. It’s no more use to study the modern history of those regions than it is to study the end of the Roman world.
Why? Well, let’s look at the problem more closely. Let’s take, for example, a modern Ulster Unionist or Irish Republican, or a Serbian nationalist (or a nationalist from any other area – including Scotland). Does a knowledge of the history of Serbia or Ireland help us understand his actions (let’s assume it’s a he)? No it doesn’t. For one thing, we’ll soon discover that the ‘history’ that he uses to justify his case or actions is cock-eyed and wrong. Does it help just to know the events he makes reference to, that he keeps harping on about – the Battle of Kosovo Pole or the Battle of Boyne, say? Does it help to know that in reality King Billy’s army was paid for by the Pope, or alternatively that Cromwell’s troops killed rather more English soldiers than Irish civilians at the sacks of Drogheda and Wexford? Does it help to know that for most of their history Serbs and Croats and Bosnians rubbed along together in their communities just fine (think about it; if they hadn’t, ‘ethnic cleansing’ wouldn’t have been ‘necessary’)? Does it help, when confronted by Greek nationalism (such as there’s a lot of at the moment), to know that in the 1830s 80% of Athens spoke Albanian? That the only reason that (allegedly) Socrates could still read a Greek newspaper if he came back to life is that Greek was reinvented on more classical lines, and purged of Slavic and Turkish words in the late 19th century (as was Romanian, which is the only reason why it’s as close as Italian is to Latin)? No. It might get you punched in the face but it won’t help you understand why.
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