The (Dis)Course of History

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4 mins read

By Eric Axner-Norrman

This is a fictional account of a conversation between two fictitious history professors. Any real-life similarity is entirely coincidental.

The setting sun of Gascony in late August has a certain warm radiance and golden glow about it. That is something both could agree upon without argument. But as they looked toward the crumbling walls of the monastery, that sat on a grassy hill just to their right, they could not help but think of work; their work being history.

For the past three weeks, they had led the investigation into uncovering the original manuscripts written by Bernard of Gascony, a 14th-century abbot and chronicler. With dogged determination and severe self-discipline, he had put many of the historical events of his day – both local and of European importance – on parchment. Now, Marigold Nadtler and Perceval Bogg, two professors of history from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Germany and the University of Oxford in England respectively, began discussing an issue close to both their hearts.

“Do you believe”, Marigold said just after having a sip of the local Syrah wine, “that the past can predict the future?”

After merely a few seconds of thought, Perceval answered, sure of his opinion:

“Yes. Absolutely. Once enough data on past human activity is amassed, the future of human history can, in its major outlines, be established. We’re not as original as we would often like to think. Both failures and successes are repeated throughout the course of human existence.”

Marigold was more skeptical. In an attempt to convince the other of their own view on the matter, both Marigold and Perceval brought forward events of the recent past and put them in correlation with events unfolding more or less as they spoke:

“World War II can be understood as an indirect result of World War I, alright, but can for example the current Russian occupation of Crimea be understood from putting it in context with the Crimea War in the mid-1800s?”, Marigold exemplified.

“It can, if we consider that Crimea is still hugely important as a strategic spot in the Black Sea and the old resentment many Russians feel toward the Western world”, Perceval replied and added, “and moreover, based on other factors, we can date the start of Russia’s great  interest in Crimea even further back in time.”

“But if we just keep placing historical events in earlier contexts like that, then every event in the world is connected in one way or the other, and that doesn’t really give us much but yet another basic account of world history, does it?”

“True, true. It might not be the best way of looking at history if we want more in-depth knowledge, you’re right. But as I said earlier, it works well if we want to predict what might happen, as history progresses. If you believe that history does progress?“

“I do, however, I’m not sure how accurately any such predictions can be made. I can see why we like to make predictions on what the future holds, as it is both interesting and rather fun, but once they are proven wrong, aren’t they then quite useless? Other than being historical anecdotes about how wrong people were, I mean.”

“That’s a good question. I’m not sure, to be honest. We historians are often asked to predict the outcome of current events and to brainstorm about what will happen in the near future, and most times we refrain from it based on the principle that we strictly deal with the past. So, back to you – what’s your take?”

Marigold sat quietly in contemplation for a while, letting her mind run free. Eventually, she snapped out of it and said, with emphasis:

“If indeed we were able to make accurate predictions of the future based on history, what would the implications be do you reckon? Fatalism on the part of political leaders? A more devil-may-care attitude toward, well, just about everything?”

“Now that’s an even better question!”, Perceval exclaimed and emptied the last drops of wine from the bottle into his glass. “If, we would say, we knew that the military dictatorship in Myanmar would not fall in the coming decades, but remain firmly in power until it collapsed from within, what would the incentive honestly be to support the democratic forces struggling to fight the junta? They would be wasting not only time and energy, but also their lives for a noble but futile cause.”

“It seems we’re getting more questions but ever fewer answers”, Marigold sighed with a bittersweet smile clinging to her lips. “There is obviously a pretty big chance”, she continued in a leisurely tone, “that plenty of people would not believe in these prophecies. That could probably cause its own concerns, new conflicts based on clashes between worldviews.“

“The world divided between those who know and accept the undeniable truth and those who believe it to be false – to an even larger extent than now. That’s a scary future. Thankfully it won’t ever come to that.”

Marigold glared at Perceval’s stern expression as he completed his sentence and said:

“I thought you believe we could predict the future from examining the past?”

“Yes, but not that accurate. I think. I hope. I mean, possible scenarios for how an event such as an armed conflict will end is one thing, but claiming to hold all the answers as to how things are going to be; that’s just madness frankly.”

“So, much like saying we know exactly what the past was like?”

“That’s right, yes. Spot on, I’d say!”

A gentle breeze from high in the sky moved an ominously grey cloud in front of the vanishing sun, blocking its last rays. A bad omen? Possibly, both Marigold and Perceval concurred. But it could just mean that it would start raining later in the evening – if even that. Sometimes, things just seem to happen, with unknown consequences for the future. Like a lot of things in history, the two concluded, before finishing their wine and heading indoors for the night.

By: Eric Axner-Norrman

Photography: Peter H

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