Two Sides to Every History?

For the publication of A People’s History of Modern Europe, William Pelz considers how the Brexit debate will be viewed once it becomes part of our history, and whose voices will be forgotten.

‘Recently I was paging through the weekend edition of the Financial Times, not that I have any Pelz PHOME
investments to worry about. But since a Swedish scholar called FT the ‘voice of the enlightened bourgeoisie’ I thought it might be worth a look. Jumping out at me, amidst the adverts flogging country houses in the south of France, was an article discussing historians lining up on different sides of the Brexit debate.

It is no surprise to find history scholars staking out positions in a contentious debate. Still, some of the comments were striking. One outfit called ‘Historians for Britain’, led by a Cambridge Professor, appears to think that the UK has had a ‘largely uninterrupted history since the Middle Ages’. What? No peasant uprisings? What about the enclosure movement creating an England, in the words of Thomas More, where ‘sheep devour men’? Was King Charles I neither overthrown nor executed? Was there no commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell? Not a Leveler, Ranter or Digger in sight?

What of the industrial revolution — was this not a disruption, not least for the women, men and children caught up in it? Could the transformation from a relatively isolated island kingdom to the leading imperialist power amassing colonial possessions via great levels of violence not count as ‘disruption’? One could compile a list long enough to fill volumes and many solid historians have made serious response to the “Historians for Britain” group. The problem runs far deeper than the Brexit debate or any other particular dispute for which a vote will settle the issue (at least in the short run).

The crucial defect of this can be gleaned from the article’s title — ‘Two Sides to Every History’. Two sides? Only two? In my experience, there are always many more ways of looking at history.  Amid the myriad of viewpoints possible, the one most often overlooked, if not consciously ignored, is that of the common people. Look at the way history is presented to students. The Reformation, for example, is reduced to a theological wrestling match between Martin Luther and the Pope (with Calvin thrown in on occasion to give us some theological diversity). Were those the only sides? What of the people? Were they passive subjects as the great men (and I do mean men as this was a very sexist age), decided the fate of nations?  The German Peasants revolt of 1525, whose suppression claimed 100,000 lives, suggests otherwise.

Was the industrial revolution the genius of the few or the toil of the many? Did every European march off merrily to war in 1914? Of course not. Even those who may have drank the nationalist Cool Aid later learned what war was really about. The people were not docile pawns of their rulers as many history books may lead students to believe. Did fascist demagogues, like Mussolini and Hitler, really hypnotise entire nations or were they handed power by rulers fearful of leftist revolution? Was it really a speech by Winston Churchill that caused the British to fight fascism? Did DeGaulle conjure up the French resistance by some well-chosen words broadcast over BBC? Across Europe, from within the Third Reich to the mountains of Yugoslavia, many people resisted fascism. Could that have been caused by something deeper than a few clever leaders?

History is typically presented as the story of a few men who changed the world. Of late, a small number of important women have been thrown into the mix as a sap to diversity. Even still, history is presented as ‘facts’ without social, political or even much historical context.

For example, in the same issue of the FT, there was an obituary of Margot Honecker. As wife of the last East German ruler, not to mention a power in her own right, one would expect some history. The obituary was cleverly written, not overly biased and fun to read. It was also the mental equivalent to junk food. Mentioning her father was a shoemaker was as close as the story came to mentioning class. We learn that Margot could be ‘flirty’ despite having a reputation for being ice-cold. What isn’t mentioned is how fascism or growing up in Nazi Germany influenced her. It certainly must have had an impact on her husband Erich since he spent the war in a concentration camp in reward for his anti-fascist activities. Were there a complex set of forces, pressures or power relations that caused the Berlin Wall to be built? No, it seems Margot demanded it be built as their legacy.

When future historians discuss the UK’s relation with the European Union will they discuss the complex, sometimes contradictory, feelings of the average citizen? Or, will we just hear David Cameron’s assertion, ‘From Caesar’s legions… Britain has always been a European power’.  I fear people like the current Prime Minister will have the last word… they always have.  Yet, it need not be so.’

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William A. Pelz is Director of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago and a Professor of History at Elgin Community College. His recent works include Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy (Greenwood Press, 2015), and Against Capitalism: The European Left on the March (Peter Lang Publishing, 2007).

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A People’s History of Modern Europe is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

2 thoughts on “Two Sides to Every History?

  1. The idea of never-ending progress, of continuity and the national narrative is a powerful, elegant device. It is simple, can be outlined in chapters as the recurring theme in the history textbooks of the national curriculum. The more thoughtful student will find this thread, and in essay form, provide relevant examples defending this very syste. Imagine, 10000 years of “history” neatly packed between hard cover bindings into 350 pages, one third of which are full page, full color pictures, and after every dozen or so pages, two sides of short-answer search-and-find questions and homework tasks. To get an A in history, we do not need to think for ourselves. To the contrary. We find the answer, write it down and hand it in.

    As Bill outlines here, the sanding, polishing and gloss we apply to our history, our past, our struggles and our present leaves us, and our students, our children, friends and neighbors particularly unprepared to protect and fight for ourselves. We are disarmed, waiting for de Gaulle. Waiting and wanting for More, Luther, for Kings, Junior and otherwise.

  2. As a lifelong fan of the artist Pieter Bruegel the elder, I am often the grateful recipient of many coffee-table style art-books about him. But I am always and without fail appalled at the difference between art histories of Bruegel written by American art historians and European ones. American art historians concentrate on composition, colour, shape and tone. Were we to rely on them alone, we would think in terms of how pretty were Bruegel’s pictures, and how faithfully (or not) he rendered the landscape and human form.
    But when I have the pleasure of receiving a book written by a European art historian, a different view appears altogether. We learn the Bruegel was one of the world’s first political cartoonists. That his often crowded canvases (sic) depicted the political upheaval outside his door in biblical metaphor. His country was a protestant one caught up in the reformation mentioned above. But through royal succession (marriage) it was ruled by Catholic Spanish Hapsburgs. A biblical scene depicting the massacre of the innocent infants in Jersusalem at the birth of christ featured mounted soldiers in the obvious dress of Spanish Cavalry impaling innocent babes ripped from the arms of distraught Netherlands natives. Or another painting memorialized, via clever metaphor, a statement by guild leaders of their stubborn resistance to Spanish rule and religious persecution.
    This ‘silence’ from one quarter about the riotous explosion of history mirrors closely the dissonant exclusion and excision of the history of ordinary people that Dr. Pelz points out above in high relief. Context is everything, and platitudes along the line of “largely uninterrupted history” should be treated with the utmost suspicion, despite their otherwise laughable absurdity.

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