Lost in abbreviated history

August 7, 2014

The disturbances in Ukraine should make us rethink the policy of updating history courses at all levels by bringing the starting points progressively closer to the present. At the moment, the 16th century seems to be sliding towards oblivion. It is, in fact, particularly relevant.

Ivan IV, usually labelled “Ivan the Terrible”, spent 25 years of his reign (1533-84) asserting his claims to large portions of Eastern Europe. He claimed not only all the lands owned or demanded by his ancestors, but also those of the Grand Duchy of Kiev to the west. Three centuries earlier, the Grand Duchy had disappeared under the hooves of Mongol horsemen. On such dubious grounds Ivan asserted his “rights” to vast swathes of territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea and led his armies in. King Sigismund Augustus of Poland described him as “the enemy of all liberty under the heavens” and urged Elizabeth I not to sell him armaments. The Poles and the Swedes combined to stop the Muscovite advance.

Ivan was much admired by Peter the Great and Stalin. The fact is that the plains of Eastern Europe/Western Asia make permanent defensive frontiers around sharply defined national cores almost impossible. When circumstances permit, any core nation in the area expands as quickly and as widely as possible to provide itself with a protective belt. The resulting mixture of races, languages and loyalties baffles Western Europe. Princes, voivodes, hetmen, khans and the like have been battling for a millennium. Now Ukraine wants to be part of Europe, but where, exactly, is Ukraine in terms of nationality? Is it a historic nation such as France or a less cohesive and permanent unit? Its present problems and their effect on Europe and vice versa date back to the 16th century.

Even in 21st-century Europe, boundaries might be altered. Nigel Farage, of the UK Independence Party, has described Belgium as “a non-country”. In the 16th century the region began to undergo a series of convulsions. Until recently it was thought that its present state was its permanent state. Now there are moves to divide it along linguistic lines.

It is imperative that the process of reducing the period of history studied to the immediate past should be arrested. Britain, Russia and Belgium did not leap into their present form in 1600. If contraction continues, we could find our field of study limited to the post First World War period.

To ignore the past of our own nation and the nations and cultures with which it is inextricably, for better or for worse, entwined is to make assessments and decide policy while in a state of collective amnesia. As Sir Winston Churchill said: “the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

Margaret Brown

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