I don’t often write about modern history and definitely not about current affairs unless it involves kings under carparks. History tells us who we are and where we came from. We listen to stories and arrange facts and ideas in an order. Its why historians are constantly revising their understanding of the past – they start listening to new voices and assimilating new ideas. Even if we’re not that keen on history we are all the products of learning about our past from family, friends, education and the media. Its probably one of the reasons the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are is so popular. Unless we remember what our societies have experienced we cannot progress because we cannot answer current challenges by looking at the patterns of our previous experiences so that we at least try to avoid making the same mistakes.
A German nationalist movement developed in western Czechoslovakia following the end of World War One – It became known as the Sudetenland. A list of unacceptable demands were placed before the Czech government which fanned a crisis that was then exploited by the Nazi regime in Germany. In May 1938, German army units took part in “military exercises” near the border with Czechoslovakia resulting in the Czech government mobilising its own army – sound familiar? What followed was Neville Chamberlain going to Munich and the Czechs ceding the Sudetenland to Germany – Chamberlain returned home and gave his ‘peace in our time speech’. And we all know how successful that proved to be.
At the end of August 1939 Nazi Germany signed a pact with Stalin – or if you want to be fussy the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Soviets invaded on the 17th and the country was torn apart. France and the United Kingdom both had a pact with Poland. War with Germany was declared on the 3 September 1939.
On the 1st September, Polish Cavalry charged and dispersed a Nazi Infantry battalion supported by machine guns and armoured cars. The charge at Krojanty became the blueprint for the story of the cavalry charging panzers. The cavalry charge against tanks never actually happened despite the fact that for years it featured in history books – perhaps the heroism of the Poles in the face of the adversity has something to do with the longevity of the legend. The world war that followed was long and bloody and it was fought, in part at least, so that free peoples would not be suppressed by tyrants in the future – our present. In seeking to understand the mistakes made in the aftermath of World War One the leaders of the post-war world sought to create a better future where a war in Europe was unthinkable. it had its ups and downs – the Cold War wasn’t a bundle of laughs but largely speaking the desire to avoid a physical war worked.
Unfortunately as Abraham Lincoln stated in a speech discussing the American Civil War ‘human nature will not change.’ He was echoing the words of Machiavelli. Inevitably Churchill also had something to say on the subject in 1948 – ‘Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it’ – he wasn’t the only one, Edmund Burke said something very similar in the eighteenth century and the American philosopher George Santayana said much the same thing in 1905.
So here we are in February 2022 – at the end of an era when, largely speaking for the better part of a century, peaceful European countries did not find themselves being invaded by their neighbours. History is, as they say, the winners version – a handy saying for anyone looking at primary sources. What will history make of the events of Zmiinyi Island near Odessa in the Black Sea? The first casualty of war is the truth -another handy saying- so there are two versions of events of what happened. The official Russian version is that 80 or so guards on the island all surrendered peacefully on Thursday 24 February when a Russian warship requested that they should do so. The Ukrainian version supported by unverified audio clips, that are widely available (let’s not get into media manipulation and fake news at this point), tells a rather different tale. The tiny garrison 13 border guards elected to tell a Russian warship to go do something unmentionable to itself rather than surrender. The Ukrainians knew what the end result would be – they were told what they were facing and the consequences of refusal. I know who from this human tragedy I would describe as heroic.
After the Fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 Churchill gave his ‘finest hour’ speech. In it, he said, ‘If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’ Until this week I believed that despite its problems I was blessed to live in a period of history where largely speaking European leaders had learned from the past and if not the sunlit uplands that Churchill eulogised about, at least we had progressed as a civilisation to uplands with sunshine and occasional showers. Events of the last week suggest otherwise. Mark Twain said rather more optimistically than Burke and Santayana that history does not repeat itself but that it ‘does rhyme’ – history is not an irrelevance. Carr’s What is History which was required reading many moons ago more or less saw history as a problem solving mechanism for the present and future; that historians didn’t stand on the outside looking in but that inevitably their own culture and society would impact not only on how they saw history but in the way that it could be used. We all see history differently and use different language to describe those narratives.