Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Learning from history: “there was a chance to work things out in a different direction and it wasn’t taken…”

Wed 12 February 2014, 10:18am

Michael Portillo’s two part radio work on the first world war is well worth grabbing for a listen. Part two is fascinating not least because it looks at the effects of interwar propaganda the widespread acceptance of the idea that the second great war was a general rather than a particular failing: a view brought under particular stress by source material which formed the basis of Griff nach der Weltmacht (Germany’s Aims in the First World War), published by the German historian Franz Fischer in 1961.

But the contribution which most intrigued me was this from Associate Professor Heather Jones of LSE (33.05):

What we see in the interwar period is the danger of myth making about a conflict, and particularly myth making to younger generations who were not a part of that conflict who then fed off the propaganda in the interwar years from the German right about the idea of Versailles as a shameful peace, about the idea of the German army being stabbed in the back.

And that’s where the danger lies. The interwar period is a moment when there was a chance to work things out in a different direction and it wasn’t taken. [emphasis added]

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that there’s a direct parallel with post conflict Northern Ireland, but there is definitely a battle ongoing over the basic facts of recent history, currently doing the rounds as the ‘two narratives’ model.

We might be advised to take better care that we are not just arming the next generations with their own sense of grievance rather than building a sustained and sustainable peace?

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Comments (32)

  1. DC (profile) says:

    ‘there is definitely a battle ongoing over the basic facts of recent history, currently doing the rounds as the ‘two narratives’ model.’

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe6GXhYbPIw

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  2. sergiogiorgio (profile) says:

    Mick – first post on the site so bear with me. Have to agree the rewriting of history is a common theme here and in the UK. Just look at Labour’s “blame the bankers” re-write for the financial crisis – nothing to do with the sitting government of the time. Unionism has to be particularly careful with its interpretation of the “facts” as any independent (Patton, Haas, Mitchell) tends to be rejected by unionists as they don’t like the “facts” being pointed out to them. To borrow a BBC title its a blame game and, frankly, gets us nowhere. The future is in the future, not in the past.

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  3. looneygas (profile) says:

    Mick,
    Do you think there is a “One Narrative” model that better describes recent history? Many Narratives? String Narratives?

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  4. Greenflag (profile) says:

    “there was a chance to work things out in a different direction and it wasn’t taken…”

    Ditto for Home Rule -it was’nt taken .

    Sunningdale – Was’nt taken .

    First power sharing Trimble /Mallon – got nowhere .

    And today ? who knows .

    Two tribal narratives much of it mythology and suspect history are built in to the State’s (NI ) very foundation so trying to reduce to one narrative is never going to work , The best that can be hoped for is that both narratives ‘transcend ‘ themselves so that they can look at the ‘other’s narrative ‘ as being just as valid as their own . They can also try to be a bit more sympathetic for the other’s narrative and respect their perspective even if they can’t agree with it .

    “We might be advised to take better care that we are not just arming the next generations with their own sense of grievance rather than building a sustained and sustainable peace?’

    Indeed Mick but that does seem to be raison d’etre for some who can’t come to terms with the new dispensation.

    The subject of DC’s link above will remain oblivious to any notion of more than one narrative -i.e his .

    While everybody can sympathise with his personal tragedy in the ‘Troubles ‘ -there comes a point when diminishing returns set in for all bar the person affected .That stage was probably reached a decade ago in this instance .

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  5. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Interesting questions, but take this as my sicknote? Lying for a day or two. Do try and make time to listen to the whole thing. I’ll be back to test you on it!! ;-)

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  6. Greenflag (profile) says:

    Lying for a day or two ?

    And I always thought you was for truth -justice and etc etc ; ) I’m sure everybody will wish you a speedy recovery .

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  7. A single narrative would only have been possible if one side in our conflict had crushed the other.
    Creative Ambiguity and “we all won, we all lost” inevitably leads to two narratives.
    And going for an “agreed” narrative is interpreted as Victory and Defeat.
    We have wasted the post-Conflict period.
    We have signed agreements, allowed amendments, appeased everyone.
    We have ignored the obvious in the name of Peace.
    We have compromised ourselves far too much to do “Truth”.
    And tonight….theres a gathering Storm….and politically there is a gathering Storm.
    This is pre-Conflict.

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  8. tmitch57 (profile) says:

    “Sunningdale – Was’nt taken .”

    @Greenflag,

    And the main parties that did in Sunningdale were the main beneficiaries of the continued conflict.

    “First power sharing Trimble /Mallon – got nowhere .”

    This isn’t really true. The power sharing lasted–with interruptions–from Dec 1999 until Oct 2002 or 34 months, which is 30 months longer than the Sunningdale power-sharing experiment lasted. And during that time the RUC was converted into the PSNI. And unlike Sunningdale there was an inter-community cease-fire that was for the most part observed although loyalist feuds continued.

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  9. Gopher (profile) says:

    Apparently everyone died for social justice now, if that is what you need to tell yourself to get some sleep fine but it is quite contrary to an avalanche of documentary evidence.

    The campaign was pointless, Stormont today is the living proof.

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  10. DC (profile) says:

    Allow me to take a different view, the IRA weren’t terrorists or freedom fighters they were instead an armed Subsidy Removal Squad that wanted to impoverish the people of Ireland through unification, who then left the stage after enriching themselves by robbing £25 million off the Northern Bank.

    The end.

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  11. aquifer (profile) says:

    The DUP are doing a great job of losing the peace for sure.

    Their bad behaviour suggesting that Unionism was all about misrule and crushing catholic croppies, making the Provos’ preferred narrative appear true in retrospect, dangerously for the young who are spared memory.

    Prickly Paisleyites don’t seem to do statesmanship, and instead rise to dangle on Sinn Fein hooks, or chase sectarian sprats into the shallows.

    Are they now stuck in the mud with the sun coming up?

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  12. DC (profile) says:

    Speaking of the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth, here’s Willie’s ‘stabbed in the back’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2ZVLCFdbmk#t=58

    It’s a myth I’m prepared to buy into, “to the core” ;)

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  13. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    A narrative is a comforting bedtime. Story.

    There is only one truth and historians not politicians write that

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  14. tmitch57 (profile) says:

    “There is only one truth and historians not politicians write that”

    @Charles,

    Historians rarely agree on a single narrative either. History is the past recreated through documentary evidence. It is also filtered through the prejudices and interests of those writing it–which tend to be diverse.

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  15. Ulick (profile) says:

    The fact that Versailles WAS a shameful peace with no propagandising about it visibly cuts across any comparison based on the contrary.

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  16. Greenflag (profile) says:

    @ Charles Gould ,

    ‘There is only one truth and historians not politicians write that’

    Very naive Charles G. While many historians try to be objective the reality is that many see objectivity through a one way mirror -i.e their own -imbued /embedded even from their own cultural/ethnic /religious /class backgrounds .

    It’s been like that since Heredotus and Gerald Cambrensis and it’s no different today. TJ Mitch is closer to the truth above.

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  17. Greenflag (profile) says:

    @ tjmitch57

    ‘This isn’t really true. The power sharing lasted–with interruptions–from Dec 1999 until Oct 2002 or 34 months, which is 30 months longer than the Sunningdale power-sharing experiment lasted.’

    Those 30 months are still a lot shorter than the 60 months i.e 5 years 2002 to 2007 in which the Assembly was again suspended and only resurrected when Paisley thought it was time and McGuinness agreed .

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  18. Greenflag (profile) says:

    @ fitzjameshorse ,

    ‘This is pre-Conflict.’

    Perhaps but I’d rather think not .What could any side in NI hope to benefit from another conflict at this time ?

    In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons. Heredotus .

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  19. looneygas (profile) says:

    I always saw the difference between subjects like History and English Lit. and a subject like Math(s) as being that questions regarding History require you to exercise judgement and form an opinion based on the available data, rather than simply follow an agreed set of rules to perform a series of calculations.
    When doing Math homework , if you’re not sure if your answer is correct, you can turn the back of the text and check your answer.
    You can’t do this with questions like “What is the main theme of this story?” or “Did the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles inevitably lead to a second great war?” or “Were so and so freedom fighters or criminals?”
    Two historians can be as objective and free from bias as possible and still arrive at different conclusions.
    Truth is not so easy as 2+2=4.

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  20. tmitch57 (profile) says:

    “When doing Math homework , if you’re not sure if your answer is correct, you can turn the back of the text and check your answer.”

    @looneygas,

    In America that is only true if you have the teacher’s edition of the math textbook. And there are no textbooks written about the future. All we can ask of our leaders and their advisers is that they are sufficiently educated about the past and can draw lessons from it.

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  21. tmitch57 (profile) says:

    “Those 30 months are still a lot shorter than the 60 months i.e 5 years 2002 to 2007 in which the Assembly was again suspended and only resurrected when Paisley thought it was time and McGuinness agreed.”

    @Greenflag,

    But compare those 60 months–actually it’s more like 49 as a settlement was worked out at St. Andrew’s about 4 years after the last collapse of the GFA settlement–with the over 25 years between the collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing executive and the GFA power-sharing executive going into power. I think the much shorter gap is due to the longer time period that power sharing was in place and that the paramilitaries were on ceasefire. And I think you should reverse the two people in the statement: it was the IRA’s finally decommissioning that made Paisley’s assent possible.

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  22. looneygas (profile) says:

    tmitch,
    The point is that in math, there is 1 correct answer.
    In the Humanities, there is not.
    On a History exam, Johnny could argue persuasively and logically that the WW2 was inevitable and receive the same mark as Jimmy, who argues persuasively and logically that WW2 was anything but inevitable.
    One person can decide that it’s perfectly okay to vote for a certain candidate and another person can decide that said person is not worth saying hello to.
    There is no right answer.

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  23. Expat (profile) says:

    Looneygas

    ‘There is no right answer’

    I think there is a right answer – it is the one that reflects the truth. The real question is how can we know which answer this is. The truth exists independently of our ability to discern it – much of natural science rests upon the acceptance by scientists of assumptions regarded as most nearly reflecting the real world. We can only strive to get closer to the reality, and in the course of such striving certain propositions are revealed as false.

    ‘No right answer’ implies that any answer or account of events is as valid and as truthful as any other, which is not the case.

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  24. looneygas (profile) says:

    You have a point Expat, but I think the good people of NI have a lot of questions on which they cannot possibly come to agreement, so I humbly suggest that they find some way in which to agree to disagree.
    That is, even if I don’t agree with the other side’s narrative, maybe I can acknowledge the sincerity of the other’s position.

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  25. Expat (profile) says:

    Looneygas

    I agree that we should each acknowledge the sincerity of the other’s position and go to some lengths to understand it, particularly in the sense of both sides having been the victims of a wider historical process. However, the permanent exclusion of the minority community from the exercise of power and the many other abuses they were forced to endure were bound to lead to calls for the bringing down the state – the UK government itself eventually intervening to abolish the local parliament.

    The minority community had suffered catastrophically in the course of a calculated process of discrimination. This is the reality the truth of which is acknowledged by all but many in the PUL community in NI, in spite of the enormity of what had taken place. If we cannot acknowledge the truth of the past we are then at odds fundamentally and can hardly begin to move forward.

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  26. looneygas (profile) says:

    Some growl when happy and swish their tail when angry.
    Others growl when angry and swish their tail when happy.

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  27. Seamuscamp (profile) says:

    I struggle to think of any armed struggle/uprising/revolution/war where there are only two narratives.Currently there’s a piece on the BBC website about “whose fault was WW1?”. It gives ten opinions by notable historians, all of which disagree in substance or nuance – Serbia, Germany, Russia, Austria, permutations of these, and everybody (including Britain). When we don’t have access to all the relevant facts, we rely on myth; when we think we have enough relevant facts, we rely on personal value judgements. Historians are no different from the rest of mankind – they look at chaos to seek pattern – and they find it. Are there many (any!) books by historians which say “I can’t make head nor tail of this”?

    Personally, I think there are many truths; or perhaps none. The past is a book written in ambiguous language. To shape the future we need to accept the past.

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  28. Expat (profile) says:

    Seamuscamp

    We can never know every single fact of history and its precise effect, nor do we need to in order to discern the courses of events and their driving forces. The essential nature of the Orange state is known and there is plenty of evidence of it, undisputed by historians of note or serious commentators. It was this essential nature which was unacceptable and which brought it down.

    You suggest that to shape the future we need to accept the past. I agree, but we can hardly do so unless we acknowledge the past fundamentally for what it was.

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  29. Reader (profile) says:

    Expat: It was this essential nature which was unacceptable and which brought it down.
    If you only mean that Northern Ireland could not have preserved its 1966 form until the present, then of course you are right. If you are suggesting that we had to come through the troubles, then no – there were many paths from the old Stormont to a new Northern Ireland, a great many crossroads, a great many people – leaders or followers – who chose one road or the other.
    Historians will firstly concern themselves with the facts, but in deciding which of those facts were significant, they have to start thinking about the what-ifs.

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  30. Expat (profile) says:

    Reader: I had been referring to the period prior to the civil rights and the onset of the troubles. Thereafter we know that the many alternative paths that might have been followed were rejected and violent conflict allowed to run its full course before the parties could be brought to some sort of tenuous political resolution. This tells us how ingrained were the differences and throws some light on the likelihood of alternative paths actually delivering a settlement.

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  31. looneygas (profile) says:

    I think that a disinterested historian, looking at the last 400 or so years of Irish history, would say that it’s a small miracle that more people were not killed and that conflict didn’t erupt on a larger scale in the northeastern counties, and conclude that the people there must be very steady.
    I’ll bet that any historian who cared to make a forecast, in say 1650, would have figured that one side would either wipe out or assimilate the other.
    Here we are all these years later and both sides are still thriving.
    Congratulations.

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  32. Barney (profile) says:

    CG wrote
    “There is only one truth and historians not politicians write that”
    It was Churchill who said “I intend to write it”

    Missed opportunity? I don’t think so, there was always going to be another war. The German empire couldn’t take the rebirth of Poland or the Poles stopping the Bolshevik hoards at Warsaw nor the real politick of selling ( literally) the Ukraine to the Soviets.

    How could these people come back? One minute the table was set the next the table cloth was pulled away and the Germans couldn’t understand how this could happen. That was the key to the myth making, an inferior people infused with Jewish blood ( which must equal communism) had reasserted their nationhood.

    Versailles was not an unfair peace that is just the cliche.

    There are many lessons for this place but none of them will be learned when basic historical events are denied.

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