One of the things that always astonishes me is just how little our politicians know their history. Yet no-one can reasonably deny the critical importance of having a knowledge of our past, as it allows us to make sense of the present and prepare for the future. This was something that Churchill, for example, understood all too well, and Hitler did not. Geo-political understanding comes, in part, from knowing history and of understanding how and why different nations have different cultures shaped by their pasts. And geo-political understanding helps us make decisions about the present. So we had David Cameron in 2010, the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, announcing to the world that Britain had been ‘proud to play junior partner’ to the USA in 1940. It demonstrated a cringe-worthy lack of knowledge from a world leader, but fortunately, apart from being embarrassing no real harm was done. All too often, though, this lack of knowledge really does matter.
It is amazing, for example, how little the historical perspective has come into the EU debate, for example. All the arguments seem to be about the now – the potential economic risk of staying in or leaving, and the impact our decision will have on migrant. Few politicians or commentators have looked at the redrawing of Europe in 1919 or 1945, or again at the end of the Cold War. Studying these old national fires and simmering resentments over boundaries should help us form a view. Sadly, at the moment, they appear to be barely considered. And look at Russia and Ukraine, where there are now 800 miles of trenches, roughly the same as there were along the Western Front in the First World War. Is it surprising the two nations are at loggerheads after the collapse of the old Soviet empire? After all, Ukrainians were subjugated by the Tsars and then between 7 and 11 million were starved to death in the 1930s at Moscow’s hands and yet more killed, murdered and starved between 1941 and 1945.
Back in 2003, as Coalition forces were driving in to Baghdad and tearing down Saddam’s regime, I first read Norman Lewis’s book, Naples ’44. Back then, he was a field security officer and in the autumn of 1943 had been sent to Benevento, a town largely destroyed by Allied bombers. In September 1944, almost a year on, he was posted away, having been unable to make almost any difference at all. ‘A year ago we liberated them from the Fascist monster,’ he wrote on 23 September, ‘and they still sit doing their best to smile politely at us, as hungry as ever, more disease-ridden than ever before, in the ruins of their beautiful city where law and order have ceased to exist. And what is the prize that is to be eventually won? The rebirth of democracy. The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation. The days of Benito Mussolini must seem like a lost paradise compared with this.’
How apposite those words are when thinking about the current situation in Afghanistan or, especially, the Middle East. That recklessness with which Rumsfeld, Chaney, Bush and Blair insisted they would impose democracy while at the same time dismantling the Iraqi police and army and boasted that the Coalition did not ‘do reconstruction.’ The hundreds of thousands of deaths that have happened since, the Syrian civil war, the rise of Daesh – would any of these monstrous tragedies have happened if the Coalition had never created that woeful power vacuum after the fall of Saddam? Very possibly not and a thorough knowledge and understanding of the past would have warned them of the crassness of their unforgiveable folly.