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Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

I’m at the start of a six-week stay in Bielefeld as a Gast-Professur, and I suspect that I’m going to spend much of this time being struck by the differences between German and UK academic life; of course I’ve given papers and attended conferences over here, and had long conversations with German colleagues about the state of higher education in our respective countries, but (i) on reflection, I’ve probably spent too much of that time trying to persuade them that my account of the REF really isn’t a joke, rather than listening to substantive accounts of their experiences, and (ii) in any case it’s in the day-to-day things rather than the big structural matters that the differences become manifest. Yesterday being a case in point: Where’s the photocopier so I can sort out some course materials? Just ask the Studentenhilfkraft in their room down the corridor. Yup, there’s a room full of students just waiting to do my bidding at any hour of the working day.

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The list of topics on which Thucydides is believed to have something useful to say never gets any shorter; last week, an online columnist on economic matters for the Daily Telegraph, who’s been consistently critical of the German stance towards Greece, posted a large chunk of the Melian Dialogue (what else?) with the words “I have nothing further to add. Draw your own conclusions.” (weblink; many thanks to Dan Tompkins for this).

My initial reaction to the idea that Thucydides might be a useful authority on sovereign debt and the problems of the Eurozone was faint incredulity. For all the protestations of Wilhelm Roscher, the nineteenth-century ‘Thucydides of political economy’, that he had learnt as much about economic matters from him as from any modern theorist, there is simply nothing in the History that remotely resembles economic thought; Roscher is right to claim that ‘in all eight books of his work, as far as I can see there is no error of political economy to be found’ – because nothing at all is said on the subject. It’s like the anecdote. recorded by Reinhart Koselleck, in which the Prussian minister for finance is persuaded to change his policy with this line: ‘Privy Councillor, do you not remember that Thucydides tells of the evils that followed from the circulation of too much paper money in Athens?’ Only the most deluded believer in Thucydides’ absolute authority, whose knowledge of the actual text was shaky in the extreme, would fall for it. (more…)

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Ever since Thucydides offered the apparently simple claim for the eternal usefulness of his history on the basis that, people being what they are*, events are likely to recur in more or less the same way in future, the question of whether or not history repeats itself and whether or not it can be predicted and anticipated has returned time and again to discussions of the usefulness of historical knowledge. Historians being what they are, such a claim is likely to recur in future; it’s been fairly prominent in recent debates about the 2008 economic crash and its aftermath, for example, as historians finally seize the moment to take revenge on those smug ahistorical economists who’ve been ruling the roost for so long…

Of course, the idea immediately creates paradoxes, at least for people who enjoy thinking of such things a little too much. If events do recur (and not necessarily as farce following tragedy), and history can predict them, and so people can learn from history to anticipate them, then the events won’t recur after all – and so we can never properly test the theory, unless we get lots of historians to write their predictions down in sealed envelopes and swear them to secrecy, and only open the envelopes after whatever’s supposed to happen has happened. Except that there would be at least eighteen different, more or less contradictory, predictions. And since no one listens to historians anyway, the swearing to secrecy probably isn’t necessary…

But it’s still an interesting question – and the fact that people do seek to learn from the past, albeit often in a pretty naive manner, is the starting-point for Marx’s brilliant essay on the 18th Brumaire. It’s also fodder for those who see history in terms of absurdity and irony; the alleged fact that the Russian revolutionaries knew their French revolutionary history and sought to head off the advent of another Napoleon by disposing of the person who looked most like another Napoleon (Trotsky), and passed over Stalin because he didn’t look the type.

I’ve only thought of this today because of a rather interesting variant on the theme of learning from the past in this week’s Die Zeit, on the subject of Germany’s relationship to its Nazi past and the increasing number of references to it in the context of its economic and hence political power in the current Eurocrisis. “The German past will only definitely not return so long as the Germans are never completely sure whether it might not return.” Which may be only a rewrite of Santayana (no, not the guitarist), but it makes the point nicely.

*This is just one of the ways in which the simplicity is only apparent; normally, the phrase quoted is something along the lines of “because of human nature”, a much stronger interpretation of the phrase kata to anthropinon than seems wholly warranted but a very handy claim for various of the appropriators of Thucydides…

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