I am not a gambling man – but I know a pretty sure thing when I see one. David Engels has written a substantial rejoinder to the critique of his ‘The EU Is Doomed, Because Rome’ argument written by Roland Steinacher and me, characterising it as an Althistorikerstreit, and concludes with the suggestion that time will show whether he’s right or not. Fair enough; if over the next 20-30 years Europe collapses into civil war – and it’s worth stressing that this is not about a return to warring nation states, according to Engels’ model, but about conflict between suburbs and districts within different regions of Europe – and then willingly surrenders in toto to a single charismatic autocrat, then he wins, and as the prophet of the new regime will presumably be in a position to have me locked up and my property confiscated. We win if it doesn’t. My real problem is deciding what the stakes should be; let’s say 10 litres of fresh water, as that will be worth its weight in gold in any post-apocalyptical wasteland you care to imagine, and will be perfectly serviceable in any case.
Now, Engels is not actually daft enough to propose such a bet; his proposition actually represents a substantial rowing-back on his original claims:
Wenn wir in 20 oder 30 Jahren keine verheerenden zivilen Unruhen erlebt haben und zudem in einer nicht nur dem Namen, sondern auch der Sache nach wahrhaft offenen, demokratischen, bürgernahen und vielfältigen Gesellschaft leben werden, dann wird es erlaubt sein, meine Vorhersagen (und somit auch meine Methode) getrost auf das Verlustkonto der Geschichtswissenschaft zu verbuchen…
No, I don’t think so. We’ve suddenly shifted from “the history of the late Roman Republic shows the path that Europe is destined to follow” to the much vaguer assertion that “there will be civil unrest, and a range of problems with the legitimacy of European democracies and multicultural societies” – which is a wager more along the lines of “I bet I know what the weather was like yesterday”.
If the only solid, testable components of the theory are things that are already true, then it’s difficult to see what Roman history adds to the discussion beyond a veneer of scholarship and a claim of Historical Inevitability. Roland and I are not idiots; we’re not claiming that there are no issues with contemporary Europe or the EU, let alone claiming to predict that everything is guaranteed to be wonderful. Rather, we simply reject the claim that history – any history – can tell us what will happen in future. We find Engels’ particular claims especially problematic – I mean, seriously, a pan-European autocrat? – but this is about the general principle of what we can and can’t learn from the past, not about proposing a rival vision of future events. Maybe that was a mistake; clearly there’s more money and publicity in making prophecies than debunking them.
The original Historikerstreit was focused on the interpretation of Germany’s recent past, with only one side emphasising the contemporary political resonances of this while the other tried to insist on history as an apolitical, objective search for truth. Insofar as the current debate can be labelled an Althistorikerstreit – that really does seem much too grandiose, though I promise to change my mind on this if Habermas weighs in – then it is one in which the interpretation of the past is a secondary matter, even if I do have serious doubts about many aspects of Engels’ account of the Roman Republic. Rather, we both accept that past and present are intertwined, that the present inevitably influences our understanding of the past and that it is not merely reasonable but actually essential for historians to think about how their knowledge and understanding might help us in our present circumstances. The question is: how do we best go about this, and what do we historians actually have to offer?
A recent UK survey suggests that historians are among the most trusted professions – at least when they are talking about their own area of expertise – ranking miles above economists, let alone politicians. There’s no indication of why this view is held; my guess would be some combination of acceptance of our claims to research integrity and basing everything in the evidence, a belief that the past is something about which one can have reliable knowledge rather than just opinion, and recognition of the low-stakes nature of the subject matter, so that it’s neither in our interests to lie about the past nor in the interests of the media to rubbish our expertise on a regular basis.
The existence of such trust places a responsibility on us: not to undermine it by abandoning the principles of historical research and argument, and not to abuse it by drawing on historical authority to push a different agenda. That isn’t to say that historians cannot express political opinions or produce simplified popular accounts, but in both cases this needs to be done with responsibility: the simplification as a necessary compromise for the sake of accessibility, with the aim of moving the reader/viewer towards a more complex understanding, rather than peddling any old rubbish for the money with contempt for the audience; political opinions either clearly presented as personal rather than professional, acknowledging that we’re now speaking beyond our area of expertise simply as well-informed citizens, or presented in a professional manner, caveats and all.
Engels has regularly stressed that he is not promoting a political agenda, but simply reflecting on what he, as a historian, sees when he compares the present with the Roman Republic. It’s the Buffy defence, effectively: “I didn’t jump to conclusions. I took a tiny step, and there conclusions were.” I confess I find it a little hard to believe that someone would write, and energetically promote, an entire book about the comparison between Rome’s decline and the present state of Europe without the slightest hint of a political agenda, but let’s take this at face value. I still think there’s a problem.
When we put ideas out into the wider world, we cannot fully control what other people may make of them – but that doesn’t relieve us of responsibility; on the contrary, especially in a context where classical ideas and models have suddenly acquired contemporary salience, we need to write in full consciousness that our ideas may be used and abused by others. If we can’t stop them, we can at least protest and try to push back. If I feel my ideas have been taken out of context or misinterpreted, or simply used to support an agenda about which I feel deeply uncomfortable, I would certainly want to object.
“History shows” that the EU is doomed to failure? Good lord, never imagined that this might be taken up by right-wing nationalists and the stooges of hostile powers who are actively seeking to bring down the European project. “History shows” that European culture is a unified body of values that’s intrinsically incompatible with Islam or other foreign stuff? I am shocked, shocked that this would be seized upon by racists and Islamophobes…
My disagreement with Engels is not because I believe all is well in Europe, but because the present state of affairs frightens me. We can argue about the EU’s democratic deficit, disastrous austerity policies and so forth: fine, that’s all part of political debate. Claiming that “History shows” the entire enterprise is doomed, however, is an attempt at circumventing and terminating discussion, at presenting an individual political opinion about the EU as an objective feature of reality.
Yes, in a couple of decades we can see what’s happened – but that, in its simple form, implies that ideas have no power to shape events. On the contrary, claims about What History Shows can become self-fulfilling if they persuade enough people. “The EU is doomed, Because Rome” thesis is either a conscious contribution to efforts to bring that about, or an abdication of responsibility for how others might make use of such ideas.