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
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
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.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...