Meaning / Help With History
Back in the seventh grade, a question was raised in my history class. Why do we need this, a pimpled classmate challenged the teacher, why on Earth do we need to know about Assyrians? What possible use can this information have in this day of age? To our surprise, a sad, hunchbacked lady (we called her humpy) froze upon hearing this. She was not insulted, nor she got surprised by our ignorance. Humpy simply didn't know the answer herself. None of us did.
by VILIUS PETKAUSKAS
illustrations AUSTE DZIKARAITE
This unforgiving age of progress wants us to think that anything of any importance has happened in the last couple of hundred years or even decades. After all, contrary to popular belief horses were still the dominant mean for transportation during the Second World War. And people might have used dinosaurs for transport prior to that! Not to talk about any school of thought. Your casual city dweller from as recent as a hundred years may seem completely alien.
It took me almost 30 years to realize the simple underlying truth on the importance if history. Don't worry – I love to oversimplify, so this will be brief. History matters, because if anything, it gives us context. Yep, that vague feeling that circumstance put together form something meaningful out of ideas seemingly unconnected.
To understand art
For example, what do you think of upon hearing a name "Guernica"? Since, I presume, many readers of this colourful online magazine are the artsy type, you might associate Guernica with the famous Spaniard, the one and only Pablo Picasso. And, of course, you are right. Painted in 1937, it depicts the suffering of the people (mostly woman and children) bombed in the town of the same name. Boo-hoo, one might think, the Spanish civil war was raging on the Iberian Peninsula – no wonder a Spanish painter chose to depict a gruesome scene from what was then the largest military conflict on the European continent.
But have you ever wondered why Guernica and not any other place, battle or massacre? After all there are no shortage of gruesome tragedies to commemorate in a time of brotherly war. Why would a government mid-war commission a painting to immortalize an event, which is not that uncommon in a time of conflict?
Well, this is where context comes in handy. An attack on Guernica was the first instance of an aerial bombing deliberately used on civilian population. Even though only around 1,5 thousand civilians were murdered, a very modest number compared to swaths of people that will be killed in other European cities the same way only two years later, Guernica sent shockwaves through the globe.
The Times, for example, ran the story every single day for a whole week after the attack. American congressman and British parliamentarians discussed it passionately, Australian newspapers had it on their front pages, not to talk about European media of the time. You see, for people of the 30's, Guernica symbolized the manifestation of their biggest fear – death from the sky. A horrific side effect of advancement in flight – a technology only three decades old at the time.
This practise of aerial bombing later became known as terror bombing, a strategy most recently used in Syria. Ironically enough, initial perpetrators of the Guernica tragedy, the Franco allied Nazis', will feel the deadliest wrath of this practise in the Western hemisphere only 5-6 years later (more people died during the bombings of Hamburg than in Nagasaki after the A-bomb was dropped).
To understand others
Another way these contexts help us is understanding others. Lets’ take change. What history can teach us is that the only constant in human history is change. And change is mostly violent. Murderously violent. As it is highly likely that you, dear reader, are of a liberal mindset, you might struggle to relate to more conservative-minded people who tend to see change as very dangerous. Well, there is context for that as well.
You remember that German professor who nailed 95 theses on a door of a local church, Martin Luther? Yep, that guy who, in essence, kick-started the reformation of Catholic church in the Old continent. Well, this was not the only thing he did. He is also remembered for translating the Bible to vernacular German. You see, at the Bible was written mostly in Latin and the only people who had control over what people got to know about the word of God were priests and educated folk who actually knew Latin.
Now, I do understand this might sound alien to a non-believer, but bear with me, friend. Try, just for a short moment, to get into the shoes of a person of that time. Imagine - if you really do believe that God exists as if having zero doubts about it and to you the Bible is an actual testament of God, that surely does makes people who can read that book really, REALLY powerful. After all, if the person who can read what God has to say is insisting that it's ok to pay money for your sins to be forgiven, why should you not trust him!
But here comes Martin and fucks this up completely. Not only did he translate the book, he helped to make it spread like wildfire as the monk used a revolutionary media technology of the time – the printing press. So not only he made the word of God understandable to a lot more people, he also made it a heck lot more accessible.
After his ideas started spreading, more and more people started to question whether what priests were telling them was accurate. Peasantry began to doubt whether Jesus really meant that you should just accept your predicament. People wondered that maybe the saviour meant that everyone, rich and poor, need to care for each other, share stuff and just stop being dicks. Authority was being questioned.
I do understand that this narrative play really well in a modern mind – common folk got pissed with the old establishment and fucked it up, which eventually led to where we live now! Sounds amazing, doesn't it! Well, this change thrusted Europe into 130 year-long war that killed over 10 million people.
Rough estimates of the time suggest that around 110 million people roamed on the continent in 1600. So, to reach the same level of death in 2018 you'd need a war to kill over 75 million Europeans (every single person in the UK plus Austria). So that's your price for change. It's usually life and blood. And some people do actually think that unrestricted change will lead to violence because – well, it has happened before.
To understand future
To be honest with you, I’d started writing this after learning that more and more people in the West aged 18-29 argue for a strong-hand leadership and are frustrated with democracy as a form of government. I am thoroughly convinced that history can provide a meta context that helps to act. What I mean is that seeing overall circumstances provides a picture of humans failing numerous times before. And by knowing that, it's easier to understand how frail the now we live in is.
You see, after living in relative prosperity for some time, it becomes awfully hard for me and you to imagine things really going to hell. After all, the Western hemisphere saw almost no real calamity since the end of the Second World War. This sense of inevitability may lure us into thinking that no matter our actions, we will still ride out the upward civilization curve. But to forget how rapidly can the tables of fortune turn is dangerously suicidal as both Napoleon and Adolf eventually found out.
It is important to learn about Assyrians, because there was a time, couple of hundred after they were crushed, when people were roaming around empty Assyrian cities, wondering what Gods lived in these massive palaces. Or how Europeans of early middle ages saw Roman aqueducts as creations of giants, that once lived freely in the plains of the Central Europe.
Appreciating that going down the progress curve is not only possible but likely should, in theory, help us to be more responsible. Maybe, and that's a far-fetched maybe, to even consider the possible effects of climate change to the stability of now and why this stability matters in the first place.
Naïve over-simplifier I might be, not a fool, though - no creature on this Earth has the capacity to know everything. But if you, like me, unwillingly fight the crushing feelings of indifference and emptiness, in history you might find solace and meaning. Pick a topic, get the context, try to shape it. It really doesn't matter what you are into – even if you think I make zero sense and that angers you somehow, try googling "the history of dilettantism" and find out why people like me do exist at all.
As demonstrated by the lack of depth in this rambling, for the historical context to make sense you will need to spend some time on researching it. Sadly, no online magazine will sufficiently provide you with enough thought-provoking material. So, do us all a favour – pick a topic, buy (or steal online, no one's going to check) a short book and get yourself immersed. All of us depend on it.