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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'