Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bits of history

Came across the following statistic: in the First World War, 5% of deaths were civilians. In the Second World War, 65% of deaths were civilians. Civilian death tolls of that order of magnitude had been absent from European conflict since the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). But, after the Leninist coup of October 1917, the notion of evil-by-category was again alive and well in Europe – with (secular) inquisitions, heresy hunts (for people, ideas and publications), auto-de-fes (aka show trials) and all. The Eastern Front in the Second World War was like rival Albigensian Crusades with tanks, guns, aircraft and gas chambers (and Soviet and Nazi slave-labour instead of serfs). Or, at least on the Nazi side, steppe-nomad pest-control peasant-clearing imperialism updated. Genghis Khan with a telephone in Tolstoy’s famous (though perhaps apocryphal) fearful prediction.

Not that Anglo-America can get too superior; the Bombing Offensive was the equivalent of the medieval siege, with airborne high explosives and incendiaries rather than trebuchet-thrown stones and dead flesh, fire-arrows and arson-filled city sackings.

In The Voices of Morebath, a lovely examination of early C16th parish life by Eamon Duffy I reviewed in my previous post, he writes (p.67):
Routine, in any case, leaves few records, even though most of what is fundamental to ordinary existence is a matter of routine – undocumented, invisible and, as a consequence, far too easily discounted by the historian seeking to touch the texture of the life of the past.
We think of the medieval Church as an authoritarian and hierarchical organisation. But what has struck me about Morebath is the democratic and locally-grounded nature of parish life. It is full of elections, disputes and striving for consensus, with the poorest cottagers willing to dig their heels in and stand up for their perceived rights. Of course, England was well and truly a post-serf society by that stage.

I guess we should be careful of thinking ourselves too superior (or too different) to our ancestors. It is also why I love history so much: in revealing our past it also tells us so much about our present, not least by revealing who we are.

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