Sunday, September 5, 2010

But what was it like at the time?

At university I studied the causes of the First World War, and at one time I could have itemised all the telegrams that bounced back and forth between the various embassies and foreign ministries in August 1914.  But forget the telegrams, the First World War was “inevitable” because of imperialist rivalry, mutually antagonistic European alliances, war by timetable, French politics and all that.  But what was it like at the time? To what extent did people (both the élites and others) see it coming? I don’t remember studying this. Or maybe this aspect of the matter didn’t engage my interest then. But it does now.  
Insofar as people did see it coming, WHAT did they see coming?  Something like the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, I suppose.  Imagine the First World War had been over by the Spring of 1915, which I'm sure in August 1914 was a widespread supposition. It wouldn't have been the First World War. The 20th century wouldn't have happened. No Russian Revolution, no Irish War of Independence, no sudden break-up of the Austrian and Ottoman empires, no Hitler, no Second World War, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima, no State of Israel, no 9/11.  Some of those no’s are questionable but you get the point. It was the war’s unforeseen military history that made it into a cataclysmic event. 
But what about "the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime "?  British foreign secretary Edward Grey is supposed to have said this staring out upon St James Park as lights were being extinguished on the dawn of August 4, 1914.  So maybe here’s at least one key player who actually foresaw the First World War’s dreadful consequences.  I should be interested to know if he really did utter these immortal words, and really was that prescient.
Left: British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in 1914. Did he really say the lamps were going out ?  Right: The sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 AD, Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890.  The naked savages are probably unhistorical. Both images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So that’s one sort of what-was-it-like-at-the-time question, “did they see it coming?”  Here's another sort of what-was-it-like-at-the-time question.  “Did they realise it was happening?”  What was it like when the Western Roman Empire ended?  In the first place, did anyone know that it had ended? In the second place, did they care?  When you investigate history’s turning points closely, they always disappoint. (But I said the First World War was a turning point … so I’ve contradicted myself!)

Talking of turning points that weren’t, when I was at school the Renaissance was meant to have occurred in the 15th century. Now historians talk of the 12th century Renaissance.  Last year I heard of an 11th century Renaissance, and I think I may even have come across a 10th century Renaissance.  Just take it back a century or two, and there won't be any need for a Renaissance at all.  And at the time? Did anyone know the Renaissance was happening?  The OED says that in English the word was used first in 1845.

These musings began 10 days ago when I heard the historian Philipp von Rummel interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme. He suggested that the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 may not have been the cataclysmic event that is usually portrayed, or that Saints Jerome and Augustine took it to be (neither of whom were there).  No naked savages as in the Sylvester painting.  In this interview von Rummel didn’t call it a turning point; though since it was viewed as one at time, and we still think of it as one, does that make it one?  Does thinking make it so? 

An historical conference will be held in Rome 4-6 November 2010, dealing with the event, its context and its impact.

As to the Visigoths, in 2006 I went looking for them in Spain and found that far from barbarians who had destroyed the Roman Empire, as I learnt at school, modern historians regard them as “late Romans”. Another turning point which wasn’t. See a note I made at the time