Living history

YOU can’t change history. You cannot change what has happened. And – in the unlikely event that you could travel back in time – you couldn’t change what is going to happen. All you – or rather the totalitarian regimes and the spin-doctors and the dictators and the fake news merchants and their lackeys in the state-controlled media – can do is manipulate, twist and deny the facts.

Holocaust deniers do just that – they deny that the Holocaust, the industrial-scale annihilation of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, mentally ill and disabled people and anyone who fell foul of their monstrous regime, took place. They are now unwittingly assisted by the frighteningly large number of people who know nothing about what was arguably the world’s greatest crime against humanity.

A 2020 US survey of young adults aged 18 to 39 found that nearly a quarter (23 per cent) believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure. Almost half (48 per cent) could not name a single second world war concentration camp or ghetto. And one in eight (12 per cent) said they had definitely not heard or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust.

Not knowing about the Holocaust is appalling ignorance, partly born out of poor history education. Denying the Holocaust is a crime against truth. It happened.

What history does is repeat itself. We are seeing that now, as we sit, helpless, listening to the news from Ukraine, watching the courageous Ukrainian defenders and the brave front-line journalists like the BBC’s Lyse Doucet and Orla Guerin and their opposite numbers on Sky and free news media from across the world. We see the film of shattered apartment buildings in Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson, burned out cars, rubbish-strewn streets, terrified people sheltering in underground carparks and crowding onto trains to reach the West. We watch and we wait, the whole world waits, and we fear for the people of Kyiv, which we have all now learned to pronounce as the Ukrainians do, “Keev.”

But the Russian people are being told that this is “a special military operation” taken, among other spurious reasons, to achieve the “denazification” of Ukraine – a claim that is egregiously, revoltingly bizarre, particularly when you remember that President Zelensky of Ukraine is Jewish. (As an aside, it was not even surprising to hear that Trump had described Putin as “a genius.” As the arch-perpetrator of lies, false information and fake news, America’s worst president keeps nasty company.)

If we could turn the clock back, where would we set it? Would the West not allow the former eastern bloc nations, freed from Soviet control, to join NATO? Would – could – NATO or western leaders have taken stronger action against Putin’s destruction of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, or annexation of Crimea? What more could the West have done to protect or save beautiful historic Aleppo?

Most of us play the “where would I go back to if I could travel through time?” I mostly opt for the Elizabethan era, because I would love to know what Shakespeare was really like, how his actors performed his plays, what London or Stratford or York looked like (perhaps also what they smelled like!) Time travelling novels and films often depict the doomed efforts of the protagonist trying to avert a disaster which they know is coming. Outlander’s 20th century nurse Claire Fraser and her 18th century Highlander husband Jamie cannot prevent the tragedy of Culloden.

Would-be time-travellers might do better to tune in to the Travels Through Time podcast presented by historian Peter Moore and broadcaster Artemis Irvine. This free podcast, which was in the top ten Apple podcasts for history in the UK within three months of its launch, is described as “a mixture of serious history and a playful parlour game.”

Each episode features an interview with a leading historian or public figure and follows a set format, beginning with the question: “If you could travel back in time, what year would you like to visit?” The guest guides the presenters and listeners through three key episodes of their chosen year, before returning to the present day. The first of these time traveller was Sir Michael Palin who headed back to the 1840s to see John Franklin and HMS Erebus. The 100-plus other interviewees include historian and broadcaster Simon Schaffer, professor of German history Mary Fulbrook, archaeologist Judith Herrin and the Mediterranean Renaissance specialist David Abulafia, and international bestsellers Ariana Neumann, who discovered the secrets of her father’s surviving the Holocaust, medieval historian Dan Jones, novelist Ken Follett, Lindsey Davis, the creator of Falco, the Roman sleuth, and ecclesiastical historian Diarmaid MacCulloch.

To give you a taste of what you may encounter, the guests have taken listeners back to Athens in 450BC, the Bay of Naples in 79AD, the Tower of London in 1483, the House of Commons in May 1940, the D-Day Beaches and the Moon in July 1969. They throw new light on an event you thought you knew or introduce a lesser known but important historical character. Artemis Irvine says it is a reminder of why “studying history is so important for understanding the present.”

Amid the gloom, there was a tiny shard of hope – hearing the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries praise the BBC first among the international news organisations for its accurate and reliable coverage (and the courage of its correspondents). Let’s hope she remembers that when she is next thinking about attacking the BBC.

Perhaps it may also encourage a few of the increasing number of people who deny history, by burying their heads in the sands of “self-protection”, to face up to what happened. You don’t condone the horrors of slavery or European imperialism in Africa by learning about it. Rather you learn from it and understand the risks of history repeating itself.

What is happening in Ukraine right now is nothing less than blatant imperialism in its most brutal form.