Yes, long time since I had time to post anything here, for which I can only apologise to anyone who’s actually interested. It hasn’t all been the usual mid-term weight of teaching and admin, nor can I entirely blame the kittens, their various ailments and the way they’ve been behaving since they got better, that have made uninterrupted sleep a rare and precious commodity. No, there was also a trip to the First International Conference on Anticipation in Trento last week, plus writing the paper for that beforehand, a fascinating and stimulating event that I shall be blogging on in due course – but you’re going to have to wait a bit until I’ve caught up on the emails.
In the meantime, if you’re feeling bereft of history-related reading, I’d like to point you in the direction of Ned Richardson-Little’s latest blog post (he’s also well worth following on Twitter, @HistoryNed, for pictures and stories from the DDR), on The Long Fall of the Berlin Wall. On 9th November 1989, thanks to a press conference cock-up by the East Berlin party boss and then the decision of outnumbered border guards to let everyone through without checks (see the rather entertaining film Bornholmer Strasse), the wall opened and the DDR collapsed, followed by the rest of the Warsaw Pact. Well, no; as Ned explains, it looks like that in retrospect, but that was hardly obvious at the time. The system was cracking, but few anticipated that it would crumble so quickly, let alone that the transition would be peaceful – it could have turned into another Tiananmen Square instead, and certainly there was no guarantee at the time that it wouldn’t.
It’s an excellent illustration of the human tendency to simplify the past, compress it, rearrange or distort it, tidy up the jagged edges and loose ends – in brief, to turn it into story, and most often a certain sort of story. A lengthy, complicated process involving the interaction of different institutions and individuals in the East German state, dissidents and protesters, and ordinary East Berliners, both before and after 9th November, becomes in retrospect either a story of heroic struggle or a story of the disintegration of a system, in both cases culminating and concluding on 9th November. As Ned notes, this occludes the continuing activities of protesters who helped ensure that this opening was widened, rather than forcibly closed again. We’re offered a single explanation of all that happened, and a process is reduced to a single moment, figured from our perspective as an irrevocable turning point.
As I say, it’s what we do; and it’s not that we professional historians don’t do it at all, we just tend to prefer relatively complex (but still simplified and streamlined) accounts to really simple reductionist ones. Some of us more than others, perhaps; I was contacted the other week by another journalist writing about the ‘Richard III found under car park’ thing, which is clearly a substantial theme in my web presence (or, anyone Googling ‘cynical historian being sceptical of Richard III find’ quickly encounters my name), and that was another opportunity to explain that I actually regard Yorkist kings as pretty well irrelevant to any significant historical processes and changes – but it’s a nice story, and I do appreciate that lots of people do like that sort of thing. Good King, Bad Man, Wall Comes Down and Freedom Triumphs.
Indeed, I caught myself doing it half-unconsciously this week, in a sense; falling into the pat explanation of why students should care about the economic structures of the later Roman Empire by emphasising the possible causal chain from poor harvest to falling tax yields to inadequately resourced state agents to the Roman defeat at Adrianople. Understandable, given that I’m well aware most students are much more interested in battles and hordes of hairy barbarians than in agri deserti and legislation restricting the rights of coloni, but part of me wanted to slap myself and yell at the class “Look, forget the bloody battles! That sort of defeat was becoming increasingly inevitable sooner or later, and was largely irrelevant anyway!” But since lectures are now recorded and such things might be held against me in future, I restrained myself.
Late Antiquity, the ‘decline and fall’ period, offers reminders time and again of this human tendency to find a decent story to tell about complex, world-shaping events. There are so many competing theories on offer, that we often feel driven to pick one and champion it against the others – it’s really down to the Huns, or really about cultural fragmentation, or whatever – rather than trying to think through their complex interaction. But it is also about timescale, and how comfortable we feel in thinking through complex processes over a longer period of time. One of the reasons I was at a conference on Anticipation in the first place (the main reason was of course Thucydides-related) is that the ancient world offers a way of exploring social responses to environmental change, and the limits of human institutions in dealing with large-scale processes (TL;DR: they’re not very good at it). Again, what strikes me is the tendency to turn this sort of longue duree into l’histoire evenementielle wherever possible: climate change is recuperated into the history of the barbarian migrations and thence into the history of Adrianople and the collapse of the frontiers, erosion and harvest failure becomes a story of taxation, debasement and imperial legislation, disease is conceived in terms of short-term devastating plagues rather than the far more devastating changes in the penumbra of ‘normal’ diseases affecting much of the population in the long term. We have, to be fair, moved away from the idea of 476 and the deposition of Romulus Augustulus as the Berlin Wall moment for the Roman Empire – but there is a certain tendency to try to set up Adrianople or a similar event as an alternative Berlin Wall moment, rather than recognising that they can only ever be misleading.