The knowledge-toolkit of a historically and politically aware citizen of this century will have several essential compartments – you won’t leave home without them. These may differ widely among us, depending on many personal and collective factors of our respective cultures and origins. In my tool kit, for example, there are five essential compartments, and they are: the American Revolution; the Napoleonic Wars; the American Civil War; World War I and the Russian Revolution; and the Holocaust – how it started, and what it took to stop it. So my world, perhaps like yours, has been largely shaped by wars. That is perhaps less true of those younger than I, unless you found the Cold War a lot hotter than I – many Europeans certainly did. But there is for me a sixth compartment which I suspect we nearly all share, and that one contains the creation and the workings of the United Nations, and the revolutionary effect the Organization has had on the conduct of international affairs.
History is a map, a map of our times and of those events which have shaped our journey. It is like navigation: know where you started and how you have gone, and you will know where you are and, most important, you will have a good idea where you are going – or else. As George Santyana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Hence my view that certain events will be so vital to our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live, that these stories need to be retold afresh in each generation, and there is no redundancy in the retelling.
History, if rigorously studied, can be a form of indirect experience. As Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, one of the foremost military historians of the 20th Century, described it,
… there are two forms of practical experience, direct and indirect – and, … of the two, indirect experience may be the more valuable because infinitely wider. Even in the most active career, … the scope and possibilities of direct experience are extremely limited. Direct experience is inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation either for theory or for application. … The greater value of indirect experience lies in its greater variety and extant. “History is universal experience” – the experience not of another, but of many others under manifold conditions.(1)
So we need to study history as a form of indirect experience, in nature far broader than our own direct experience, which is so limited by our own perceptions and memory. Too often our direct experience is unduly influenced by fortuitous outcomes which may seem to favour us, but which in fact have done so almost by accident, as in a football game where the final score nowhere nearly accurately reflects the state of the play. And we need to hold what we have learned in an institutional, collective memory, otherwise it will be as Hegel said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
But we need to be careful with our history. The Duke of Wellington had little use for it: asked to assist in a history of the Battle of Waterloo, which would of course have cast him in an heroic mold, he declined contemptuously, saying. “One may as well write the history of a ball as of a battle.” (We’ve been to some balls like that.)
History is often willfully distorted, to establish and to support a position in a conflict, or to promote a cause. This is done by those wishing to initiate or to promote conflict, or to interfere in a peace process where they perceive conflict as more profitable to their side. We call this apocryphal history, and it has been the graveyard of peace in the Balkans for hundreds of years, and especially now in Kosovo, and perhaps yet again in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Legend has it that, late in the 14th Century, the Serbs fought the Ottoman soldiers on the Field of Blackbirds, which is in Kosovo. On that field the Serbs, under their prince, Lazar, were defeated,
And his army was destroyed with him, Of seven and seventy thousand soldiers.
All was holy, all was honourable And the goodness of God was fulfilled.
Rebecca West accepted this pretty much at face value, muddled the record still further with her own romanticism and concluded wearily that nobody, least of all herself, could “cast off this infatuation with sacrifice which had caused Kosovo,…”(2). So the die was cast, and 600 years later the Serbs could no more give up Kosovo than Texas could give up the Alamo. The big problem with this is that it didn’t quite happen that way, those six centuries ago.
The battle took place on 28 June 1389. While it is true that Lazar was killed in the battle, so was the Ottoman field commander. The Serb losses were enormous, and could not be replaced, while the equally grievous Ottoman losses probably could. However the outcome was so uncertain that the Orthodox Patriarch congratulated the Serbs on a victory. This was thought to have been because the Ottoman forces withdrew at the end of the day, even though the Serb survivors who remained on the field were no longer an effective force. “In fact”, as Misha Glenny points out, “Serbian power splintered and collapsed gradually over the next sixty years. The fortress of Belgrade did not fall under Ottoman control until the early sixteenth century”,(3) over a century after the battle.
But the romanticizing of the legend was not to be stayed. The epic poem, “sung or recited by itinerant performers, … dwelt on the great themes of Serbia’s pre-Ottoman history. The stories about the Serbian defeat at the Battle of Kosovo Polje of 1389 became the cornerstone of modern Serbia’s national mythology”. The legends were resurrected to support the Serbs’ revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th Century, which were portrayed as “a revival” of an unending struggle,(4) as they were again at the end of the 20th Century. In 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds, Slobodan Milosevic infamously invoked the now-legendary Apocrypha deliberately to re-ignite conflict in Kosovo. Thus Susan Woodward would write (in 1995):
Kosovo, the center of medieval Serbia and Serbia’s historical identity as a nation, was a litmus test for Serbian nationalists. … domestic critics of Milosevic argued that he could not survive politically if he gave up Kosovo because the had built his career since 1987 defending Serbian rights to a Serbian state in the contest with Albanians over Kosovo.(5)
We need to be very careful with our histories.
So this essay is intended to set the stage for our upcoming review of another life of Dag Hammarskjoeld, which we will be posting in the next few days. That will in turn be followed by a review of the situation in Congo since the apparent defeat of M 23, which is a continuum of a situation which in fact, in its modern form, arose during the Secretary-Generalship of Dag Hammarskjoeld (and which claimed his life), and which conflict has continued for over 50 years and unto this day.
Think of these three postings as our triptych, with the other two panels coming soon …
1. Liddell Hart, B.H., Strategy, 2nd Revised Edition, Praeger, New York, 1967, pp 23-4
2. West, Rebecca, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Penguin, 1982, pages 911 and 917.
3. Glenny, Misha, The Ballkans 1804-1999, Granta Books, London, 1999, page 11.
4. Glenny, op.cit.
5. Woodward, Susan L., Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War, The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C, 1995, p 341.