Podium Gordon Marsden: History settles its millennial accounts

From a speech given by the MP and former editor of `History Today' to the European Studies Conference in Portsmouth

WHY TODAY does memory of the Second World War burn more brightly than for 60 years? We need first of all to be reminded that this "trauma time lag" is not a unique product of the end of the 20th century.

The historian Elisabeth van Houts, going through the chronicles after 1066, points out that the impact of the massacres, occupation and "ethnic cleansing" of Anglo-Saxon England begins to be worked through only in second- and third-generation stories about the Norman Conquest.

She compares this process explicitly with Second World War recollections of both the guilty and the victims "slowly emerging from horror, shock and shame".

It took 100 years and the genius of Shakespeare adequately to convey to Tudor Englishmen and women the carnage of the Wars of the Roses. And even with our own century's "Great War", after the immediate coruscation of a Wilfred Owen or a Siegfried Sassoon, it took a decade before the impact of All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey's End and Testament of Youth took hold of the Peace Pledge generation.

The events of 1989 have shaken up the kaleidoscope of historical perspectives east of Berlin. The year that for Eric Hobsbawm now marks the end of "the short 20th century" that began at Sarajevo in 1914 unfroze patterns of remembering set fast by the Cold War. The historical realities then revealed in the permafrost were often disturbing ones: ethnic and communal hatreds that had cut across resistance and often assisted the Nazi oppressor, even in "mother Russia." Bitter memories from wartime Serbia and Croatia helped to fuel the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Not all this resiting of 20th-century history has proved negative. Independence for the Baltic states has helped them to re-establish a historical commonwealth of trade and culture with Scandinavia - while new appreciation of a common past in a pluralist and multinational Hapsburg Empire has assisted in reconnecting states such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia with Western Europe.

The impact of Anno Domini - a sense of "if not now, when?" has been crucial in the upsurge of remembering. Spurred by the end of the century, a conscious exercise in settling accounts for the end of the millennium has propelled an explosion of personal recollections and claims for justice - from the slave workers of the Third Reich to the Korean "comfort women" of the Imperial Japanese Army.

The events of the Nineties - genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and east Timor - have uncomfortably reminded us that though the scale of the Holocaust may have been unprecedented, its horrors are repeatable. This is where Second World War history ties in directly with today's politics and the new human rights agenda of international relations.

A recent BBC series about the Third Reich was entitled, significantly, The Nazis: a Warning from History. With the new Tribunal in the Hague consciously picking up the baton of Nuremberg, the parallels - as extreme right-wing parties in Europe feed dangerously off fears about immigrants from the East and the Islamic world "swamping" Western cultures - could not be more timely.

This use of oral history in fact returns its practitioners to a deeply traditional role - as defined by the illustrious historian of the 16th- century Garrett Mattingly: "for the living to do justice, however belatedly, should matter." Hannah Arendt tells us in her book on totalitarianism that one of its worst curses was that it attempted not only to destroy people, but to obliterate their identity and memory.

At the end of our century that curse is being rolled back - in countless personal testimonies from the gulags and the Holocaust, and through the power of films such as Schindler's List, with even more impact via their individuals' stories than the raw, numbing statistics themselves.

"He who would do good must begin in minute particulars" is not a bad motto for historians to follow, as they seek to bring life to the bones of the dispossessed.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine