Transcript of video Why History is Important

Thank you all for coming out on a lovely sunny evening when you should be sitting on your deck somewhere enjoying the last of the summer.

I was fascinated to learn about Canada’s history, I mean, you’re doing such extraordinary work and long may it last. It’s filling a need, clearly, and you could fill more needs, I think, if you’ve got even more support, which I’m sure you will get so I think it’s doing a very, very important job, indeed.

I want to talk a bit about history, not surprisingly, and I was saying to someone earlier on one of the nicest things I can do is talk to people who are themselves interested in history so I don’t have to persuade you I think that history is important and not just a boring subject.

I remember once when I was teaching at the university formerly known as Ryerson that one of my students said to me, it must be so easy to teach history because you can just say the same things every year. I said, well actually it changes, and it changes depending on you know who you are, where you’re standing, and what has also happened in the world, which of course keeps it eternally interesting, I think.

We always, all of us, are finding new parts of history that we like, and are interested in, and want to know more about, never run out of subjects, it’s impossible.

So why do I think history is so important? I think it is important because it helps us to understand others and it also I think very importantly helps us to understand ourselves. Because we are all as groups of people just as individuals are produced by our own past. What has happened to us, what worlds we’ve grown up in, what experiences we’ve had, what disappointments we’ve had, what successes we’ve had, whether we’re an individual, or a group of people, or a nation, I think have helped to shape us into what we are.

So to understand what others have come through, what it is they remember, is I think to understand a very important part of them. Of course, we need to understand the sociology, we need to understand the demographics, we need to understand what geography has mattered to different groups of people, but I think understanding the history is a way into understanding those we’re dealing with.

And so, one of the things I think we’ve all been reflecting on recently, is that we should have been paying more attention to Putin’s history and his view of history.

I was on a very interesting zoom seminar about six months ago with Fiona Hill who was, for her pains, the advisor on Russia in the Trump White House, and she had some wonderful stories about that which she said we mustn’t tell anyone else, of course, we all rushed out and told everyone else.

She was dealing with a president who didn’t have the slightest interest in learning anything about those he was dealing with, and she said they had tried to give President Trump one page of information about, for example, North Korea, which he wouldn’t read. She said it was sometimes very frustrating, and what I really remember, apart from the revelations about the ways in which President Trump behaved, was that we had to understand — she is a Russian expert and that was her career before she went to the White House and to the National Security Council — she said Trump’s vision of history is different from the Western vision. He’s thinking in different centuries, he’s thinking back further than most western statesmen are thinking back.

[Putin] is thinking back and I think she believes that he means it, and I think the evidence is, he probably does, he’s thinking back to the foundations of what became Russia. He’s thinking back to Kyev [Keev], or Kyev [Ky-ev] as the Russians would call it, where the Russian peoples sense of themselves was initially born. Kyev, in Russia, was for many Russians, the birthplace of what later on became the state of Muscovine then became the Russia of today.

And he [Putin] is comparing himself with those great leaders, of the person he’s comparing himself to and thinking constantly of, those who increased the strength of Russia, who expanded its borders. So he thinks of Ivan the Terrible, he thinks of Peter the Great, he thinks of Catherine the Great, and this is the frame of history in which he’s thinking.

So for him, what has happened to Russia since the end of the Cold War has been a falling away from the glories of the past. I think he’s very much concerned to recreate those glories, and I think none of us in the west, or very few of us, took that history seriously enough. We thought he was probably just saying it.

The summer before he invaded Ukraine he wrote a very long essay called, I think it’s called (in English), “The Spiritual Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he argues that there has always been something called the Russian people and that there’s never been something called the Ukrainian people. That Ukrainians are just Russians and those who don’t admit that they’re Russians are denying their heritage. That it is, therefore, essential that the peoples of Ukraine be part of this greater Russian grouping.

It isn’t, I would say, a very good essay and if I were grading and I probably would have given it a C- for trying. But it was, I think, a very important insight into his thinking. I think most people just thought, well he’s just doing that you know, he would say that he likes to think of himself as something of an intellectual. I think it was actually (and Fiona Hill said this and I was very impressed by this) I think it was actually a guide to what he was thinking, and how he could not accept the independent existence of Ukraine, and I think still cannot accept it, cannot accept that Ukrainians might have a different view.

What’s been interesting, you’ve probably noticed, is how the Russian official line on Ukraine has changed, but it’s still underneath that line is that Ukraine must and should be and always has been part of Russia. But the line has changed, because initially it was the helpless Ukrainians who were really Russian who had fallen into the hands of this drug and addled bunch of Nazis and anti-Semites in Kiev and that he and the Russians were going to save them. And when the Ukrainian people made it quite clear that they didn’t want to be saved, the Ukrainian people themselves have become Russians who’ve lost their way.

And one of the things he has been doing in the occupied areas, is bringing in school teachers and bringing in new textbooks, to teach the little Ukrainian children that they’re really Russian. His spokesmen are saying things like, it may take 30 years or more before we make Ukrainians understand who they really are. So to understand that history of Putin’s, I think, is to understand a very important part about him, and it is a history which has at least enough Russian support, certainly those around him support it, is a view of the world.

I think if we look at some of the great conflicts in the world, to understand how those peoples engage in them and are seeing each other, it is absolutely critical to understanding them. I think we can’t make sense of the conflict which has gone on for so long between Israelis and Palestinians without remembering how each of them see their history. They share a history of course, but they see it very differently. For the Israelis, 1948 is the foundation of the state of Israel. It’s a triumph. It’s the culmination of a long, dreadful and deeply painful struggle to preserve the Jewish nation. For the Palestinians, it’s the Naqba, it’s the catastrophe and to understand that gap, I think is to understand something of how difficult that conflict is, and how difficult it will be it be to overcome those different perceptions.

Same thing, I think, in the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. They have a different history, each of them, and again I think, we as outsiders, and they, as people involved in that conflict, will understand better if they can understand the historical roots of it.

But I think history is also useful in understanding ourselves, because every people tells itself stories about itself. Canadians tell ourselves stories about what a kindly, and gentle, and mostly nice people we are, which I think we probably are, but not always and I think we need to recognize as Bruce MacLellan was saying earlier we need to recognize the times when we haven’t been so nice. We need to recognize the failings in our past. If we have a completely rosy view of what we’re like, we’re not going to be able to deal with some of the problems which we’ve inherited from the past. So history for understanding, I think, is extremely important for understanding others, for understanding ourselves, for understanding an issue. Sometimes, you know, I think we don’t understand enough why a particular issue is a problem and sometimes we can get it very badly wrong.

Let me give you an example of this, which nearly caused a serious catastrophe in the Cold War. At the end of the 1970s when Jimmy Carter was president, things had been going fairly well between the Soviet Union and the United States. There had been several important arms deals, there had been this period known as détente, there had been more communication between the two superpowers with their vast nuclear arsenals. But things were going sour by the end of the 1970s, the Soviets were advancing in Africa, they were building a much bigger blue water navy, a navy that was capable of projecting Soviet power further around the world.

There was concern in the United States and among the Western allies about this, and then reports began to circulate in Washington in the summer of 1979 that the Soviets had moved troops with their weapons into Cuba. And you can imagine this set off alarm signals because the Cuban Missile Crisis had been set off by precisely that. Part of the deal which had ended the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and possibly spared the world from a nuclear war between the two superpowers, part of the deal was the Soviets would withdraw certain types of equipment.

They’d withdraw the rockets, for example, that were capable of carrying nuclear bombs, they’d withdraw the aircraft that were capable of carrying nuclear bombs, they would withdraw a great deal of the military, both on land and in submarines, and surface vessels that they had placed in Cuba, and that was part of the deal. The Americans in return withdrew some of their missiles in Turkey very close to the Soviet borders and that had pretty much stuck.

But reports begin to circulate in the summer of 1979, that the Soviets have suddenly started to move troops back in. What does this mean? Is this part of a general passion of Soviet aggressiveness? Are they planning something? Is the United States going to have another crisis like the Cuban Missile Crisis? After reports of this the Americans begin to send U2 planes over to get photographs of what’s going on, and yes, they see a military installation, they see troops on the ground, they see what look like tracks, they see what looks like weapons.

Some of these reports now begin to come out into the press and at that point the Soviets are getting worried too because they actually haven’t as it turns out moved troops into Cuba and they wonder why the Americans are doing this? Are the Americans planning something? And when you have two adversaries who don’t trust each other you can see the potential for catastrophe.

At that point someone has the bright idea of calling in someone who’d been in the Kennedy administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think it was Dean Rusk, I can’t remember who it was—one of the very high “ups” who’d been there in the discussions which had brought that crisis to an end. They said to him, look, we’re really concerned, there seems to be this Soviet brigade in Provincial Town in Cuba. Yeah, he said, that was always there. We told them they could allow one brigade for training purposes. It’s been there all along.

And so you see, if you don’t understand something of how things got to be where they are, you could badly misread the signals. At that point the Americans stood down on any sort of preparations they were making. They summoned the Soviet Ambassador in Washington and asked him to go to Moscow and say please tell them we didn’t mean it. And of course the Soviet Ambassador, the very experienced Anatoly Dobrynin, went back and said “the Americans didn’t mean it,” and he said he got a rather skeptical reply from people in the Kremlin who said “I’m sure they did, there is some deep plot here.”

So this is just one example, but I think it’s one that could have led to real catastrophe of how a failure to know the context and to know the history and to know how we got to a certain point, a failure to understand others who are shaped by their history can lead into very serious misunderstandings.

What I think is also important about history, and I think we need to do, and again I think the Ukrainian War has brought this home yet again, is we have to be able to challenge bad history. We like to think of history as a force for good, it’s a force of enlightenment, it’s a way of helping us to know more about the world and get a better grasp of how we got from there to here, and how our institutions and our values came to be what they are.

But it can also be used, as we know, be used for very evil purposes. It can be used to mobilize peoples against each other, a history can portray a particular people as always having been victimized by their neighbours, always having been in the right, and their neighbors is always determined to do them in. In history, as we know, can be used to portray a better world, if you follow this cause you will help to “Build a Better World,” we’ll help to recover something of the past. So often, those who try to mobilize people talk about the past, a golden past.

ISIS, Al-Qaeda did this, they talked about the Golden Age of Islam. In the first two centuries after Muhammad, when all Muslims lived in unity before the unity of the Muslim World began to be splintered and how that can be recovered. When the troubles began in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, the history became very important. The Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences produced histories which argued that Serbians had always been in the right, and that Bosnian Muslims were not truly Slavs at all, they were descendants of Turks or they were renegades who’d given up their own people in their own faith.

That helped, at least among Serbian nationalists, to demonize the Bosnian Muslims as not being truly part of their people, and therefore not being worthy of consideration, and therefore, in fact, had been killed. Bad histories, as we know, can mobilize peoples to do awful things. It can be a very powerful force and so I think part of what we all do if we care about history, and we should be doing it in the universities, we’ve been doing it in the schools, we should be doing it in our discussions, we should be challenging bad history. It’s not always easy.

Historians are not very popular sometimes when they say it didn’t actually happen like that, but I think that’s the sort of job that we have to do because history, as I say, can be such a powerful and sometimes very, very, dangerous force. It can also be powerful because it can be used as a basis for claims. I think we have to be able to challenge that history I think is becoming perhaps even more important than in the past century as a basis for claims for territory.

For example, in the 18th, 19th century you could claim territory if you conquered it, if you hung on to it long enough there’d usually be some sort of agreement that you could keep it, or territory would often be exchanged by dynastic marriages. The whole, very rich state of Bombay in India came into possession of the British because a British King married a Portuguese princess and she brought it with her as her dowry. So territory was parceled out, handed off, between one autocratic society and another, an autocratic government and another, without the locals being consulted. But as we became more aware of the rights of people as citizens, rather than subjects, as we became more aware and accepted the principle of self-determination, then it became illegitimate to take land by conquest. And certainly in the 20th century, certainly since 1945, there have been very few examples of land being taken by conquest and successfully maintained.

When Saddam Hussein took Kuwait in the first Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s, he faced a coalition of powers who were determined to make him give Kuwait back. No one recognized that. And so I think we have lived in a world in which seizing territory by force, changing borders by force, has not been accepted. I think that’s changing now and I think the potential for more war is there and more conflict is there.

Putin has been, not just in Ukraine, we should have been paying more attention. Putin has been seizing territory, that he sees as properly Russian territory, since he came to power. He has seized parts of Georgia, he seized parts of Chechnya, he seized, of course, Ukraine and he seized Crimea. He’s seized large chunks of Ukraine in 2014, and he’s attempting now to seize, possibly, we don’t entirely know what his goals are, he’s attempting to seize the whole country. And so I think we have to be able to challenge those claims and say you have no right to take that territory. Because he will use, and others, will use history. Putin uses his history to say there’s no Ukraine, it is properly Russian territory, and the Chinese made the same claim with Tibet.

I’ve always thought their claims there were actually not based on very much at all. The Chinese claim was that Tibet had, for centuries, been part of China. In fact, the relationship between Tibet which was a remote and mountainous Kingdom, very hard to get to, and Beijing (or whatever capital of China there was and there were different ones over the centuries), was a very loose and tenuous one.

There was for long periods no direct Chinese presence in Lhasa, no direct Chinese control over Tibet, but the Chinese used, when they took over Tibet in 1954, they used history as a justification, as they are using history as a justification for incorporating Taiwan into China. As they are using history as a justification for claiming that the great part of the South China Sea is their territorial water, there’s no foundation for that last claim whatsoever, but we have to know enough history to be able to challenge it.

And I think we have to understand when claims are being made on the basis of bad history, because history has a power. People seem to trust it and it’s possibly because other things we don’t trust as much. Many countries, people no longer trust organized religion. In many countries, people don’t really trust their political leaders. But somehow history seems to have this validity, and solidity, and how often have we heard people say history will judge? As if there’s some impartial figure sitting there which will judge the good and the bad and sort them all out.

It’s, in a funny way, I think it’s almost replacing among certain of us, the notion of a Supreme Being or Supreme Beings who distinguish between those who’ve been good and bad. History, it is said, will do that.

Where, finally, I think history can help, and I think we can use it, but again, like all history with care, is helping us deal with the present. Because we always have to have some way of dealing with what are often very complex situations, with many things happening at once, and I think you know all periods of history have their own complexities, but I would say 2022 is perhaps a particularly turbulent period, certainly in the context of the last few years more turbulent I think than some.

We’re facing a number of crises which are unfolding simultaneously, strains put on societies by Covid, the challenges to globalization, in some cases, de-globalization. I think globalization will never be the same after what has been happening in the last few years. Facing challenges of climate change, facing instability in Europe, the threat of the war spreading at the heart of Europe, something that very few people had expected, the possibility of a major struggle and perhaps developing into a military one between China and the United States. Very bad relations between India and China. They were fighting on their common border just a year ago and I think do not trust each other at all. The possibility of states such as Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons, imploding and disintegrating as a state and the prospect of other failed states in the world. The prospect of famine, the prospect of mass migration driven by any number of these different causes. United States, whose politics seem to be more divided than they have been for some time, and what does that mean? Both for the United States: what does it mean for the democratic West, and what does it mean for us as Canadians living next door to this very large power?

And so it seems to me we are living through a time that presents a number of overlapping and simultaneous challenges and history, I think, can help. Not in the sense of providing answers. I don’t think history will provide very clear answers. I don’t think you can go to history and say, okay, quite a bit of a problem… what is the solution? Find me a case study from the past which will tell me what to do… because every historical period is different and every historical set of circumstances are different but I think what is important is to use the past as a way of asking questions.

If we can’t even ask the questions, then we’re not going to have much hope of actually trying to do something about the present. So history as a guide to formulating questions, the what-if questions. What if we don’t deal with this particular problem what’s likely to happen? What if we don’t deal with a debt crisis? What if we don’t deal with inflated values of stocks? What happened in 1929? Is there anything there that we should be looking at that might give us some indication of what we might perhaps do now to avoid something like that.

I think it was actually quite interesting that in the crisis of 2008, Ben Bernanke, who played such a part in trying to manage it, had done his doctoral thesis on the great crash of 1929 and so he had some sense of what happens when you get a bubble in stock markets, and what happens when you get a sudden crash and what that can mean when people have overloaded themselves with debt. And so I think what history can do, is help you to ask those what-if questions and further to say, well, what if we do such and such? What is likely to happen? What would be a sensible policy? What would not be a sensible policy?

Again, it won’t give us clear answers. But if we can only begin to ask the questions we at least have some hope of looking for the answers, and we often, I think, look for analogies, we look for similar situations in the past which may at least give us some of that sort of guidance.

To take, for example, the British and American invasion and occupation of Iraq after September 11th. I mean, this was this was a massive military operation, very little preparation was done, it now becomes clear, on finding out what the Iraqi people themselves might want, might think, and how they might react to foreigners coming in. And the state department, in fact, did a massive study of Iraq and they had experts and they consulted as many people as they could. Tony Blair was obliged to talk to his Iraq experts, which he did very reluctantly.

I talked to one of them, and he said you could see that Tony Blair didn’t want to be there, he sat with his arms folded looking out the window like this the whole time. Why the state department studied Iraq and what the Iraq experts in Britain… and for historical reasons Britain has a lot of people who study Iraq, what they warned was that, first of all, that you could not expect Iraq to suddenly become a functioning democracy because the Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein had so destroyed the civic institutions of Iraq there was basically nothing left that was independent.

And that you shouldn’t, they warned, you should not get rid of the Ba’ath party because in fact they were the only people who knew how to do things like keep the water running. Anyone who got to any position of any importance in Iraq had to join the Ba’ath. It didn’t mean they were necessarily committed, although many of them were, but simply to abolish the Ba’ath party, to fire all those people, to dissolve the army, leaving a lot of people suddenly with no income and weapons, was not a sensible idea.

What these studies also said, and the experts also said, was look at what happened to the British when they created Iraq and took it over after the First World War. They immediately had rebellions; they immediately had trouble, because the Iraqis have very, very, strong regional and often tribal loyalties. [They] do not like, and as most people don’t like, foreigners coming in. Iraqis often had a deep suspicion, as they did with the British in the 1920s and 30s, and as they had with the occupation forces after 2003, a deep suspicion that foreigners want to come in and take their oil at a cut price rate. And so if you had wanted to make a mess of things in Iraq, I think you probably couldn’t have done a better job than the invasion and occupation did.

I mean they succeeded in overthrowing what was already a very weak government and a weakened army. Saddam Hussein basically had very little power left and then by dissolving the Ba’ath party they threw out of work a lot of people who actually made the country run. By dissolving the army they threw out people who could mobilize themselves, had the organization, and had the weapons, to make life very uncomfortable for them.

For the average Iraqi, the idea that they were going to welcome this change… as many of them said, you know, we loathed Saddam Hussein. He was a dictator, but we could send our children to school safely and now we can’t. We could turn on the tap, water would come out, and now it doesn’t. And so I think if those in charge had spent a bit more time looking at the history and tried to understand Iraq a bit better it wouldn’t have gone as badly wrong as it did.

What I think was too late, was once the military were in there, a number of the top generals apparently began to send back to their booksellers, presumably Amazon which I suppose delivers anywhere in the world, saying they would like copies of T.E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was written about that part of the world, before and just after the First World War. Perhaps not the best guide, but they were trying desperately to find out who it was they were dealing with.

So I think what knowing history can do is, as I say, help you formulate questions, ask what if? and also warn you where you might go badly wrong. And I think it’s the warnings that history can give that can be very important. I don’t think we should be trapped by history, but I think we are very foolish not to pay attention to it because we have very few ways of gauging the future. Unless we want to go back to doing what the Romans did and examining the entrails of geese. I think we should look at history, it’s probably more reliable than geese. Thank you.