Democracy depends on history to sustain it

JUST about now, 100 years ago, the scale of the carnage of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme was becoming apparent.

Though the families of those swept away or just broken forever could still hope that their loved ones had not fallen in front of the scythe that terrible July day in France was the start of a battle in which over one million men were killed.

It was a catastrophic, epoch-defining event and became a catalyst for the great social changes demanded after WWI.

Nearly everyone touched by it was determined that such an affront to humanity should never be repeated.

In the intervening century, the memory of that terrible battle has been moulded to serve many causes.

On this island, it was first seen as a pound-of-flesh expression of the loyalty of Protestant Ireland to the British monarchy — Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is how Frank McGuinness told that powerful strand of the story over 30 years ago.

Later still the belated remembrance of all Irishmen killed on the Somme or in other British wars, irrespective of their background, was embraced and used a conduit to new relationships and trust on this island.

Their loss, their sacrifice on a foreign field, was recognised as a common tragedy and used to build bridges between divided communities. It was as if dusting off those long-ignored, long-disrespected memories showed how much we had in common, how little really divided us.

Historians remain divided. Some, the Blackadder School of History as Max Hastings describes it, cling to the lions-led-by-donkeys theory.

Others challenge that as populist oversimplification and argue that the great mystery of WWI is not that so many were killed by that so few were.

A single tragedy has spawned myriad interpretations and the past reaches into our world, shaping and dividing, building and sustaining. It was ever thus and always will be.

The past sang loudly last week when Britain voted to quit the EU. Many “Leave” voters had an eye on the future but as many had an eye on a past when tennis clubs teas could be shared with Miss Joan Hunter Dunn in the days before globalisation hollowed out communities and industries.

Though it assuages the incomprehension felt by those opposed to Britexit to suggest that, as Paul Brady wrote in another context, the decision was made “To feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday” the feeling that the vote was, partially at least, an expression of a longing for another time cannot be denied.

In recent months we celebrated the centenary of 1916.

Most events and most analysis was rooted in something close enough to actuality but even the most ardent spin doctors for violent nationalism — which is what was being celebrated — could not pretend that poetic licence and myth-making embellishment did not play an influential part too.

The lesson from all of this? It is essential to teach history to the majority of schoolgoers if they are to be equipped with the knowledge and instincts needed to sustain democracy.

Otherwise, you get people who imagine that the odious Donald Trump — Make America Great Again — is a solution to all their woes rather than a crisis waiting to happen.


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