A People History of the World
A People History of the World The questions raised in Brecht’s poem are crying out for answers. Providing them should be the task of history. It should not be regarded as the preserve of a small group of specialists, or a luxury for those who can afford it. History is not ‘bunk’, as claimed by Henry Ford, pioneer of mass motor car production, a bitter enemy of trade unionism and an early admirer of Adolf Hitler.
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History is about the sequence of events that led to the lives we lead today. It is the story of how we came to be ourselves. Understanding it is the key to finding out if and how we can further change the world in which we live.
‘He who controls the past controls the future,’ is one of the slogans of the totalitarians who control the state
in George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is a slogan always taken seriously by those living in the palaces and eating the banquets described in Brecht’s ‘Questions’.
Some 22 centuries ago a Chinese emperor decreed the death penalty for those who ‘used the past to criticize the present’. The Aztecs attempted to destroy records of previous states when they conquered the Valley of Mexico in the 15th century, and the Spanish attempted to destroy all Aztec records when they, in turn, conquered the region in the 1620s.
Things have not been all that different in the last century. Challenging the official historians of Stalin or Hitler meant prison, exile or death. Only 30 years ago Spanish historians were not allowed to delve into the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, or Hungarian historians to investigate the events of 1956.
More recently, friends of mine in Greece faced trial for challenging the state’s version of how it annexed much of Macedonia before the First World War.
Overt state repression may seem relatively unusual in Western industrial countries. But subtler methods of control are ever-present. As I write a New Labour government is insisting schools must stress British history and British achievements, and that pupils must learn the name and dates of great Britons.
In higher education, the historians most in accord with establishment opinions are still the ones who receive honors, while those who challenge such opinions are kept out of key university positions. ‘Compromise, compromise’, remains ‘the way for you to rise.’
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