Podium Gordon Marsden: History settles its millennial accounts

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The Independent Culture
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.