The long history of old families

posted in: International affairs | 0

Listening to BBC Radio Four earlier, while doing the ironing (it makes the time pass better) I heard a woman describe Iran as having a very long history. We hear similar things said about China, Egypt and other countries which had civilisations many centuries before. But this doesn’t make sense. All parts of the world are the same age and for at least a few thousand years most of the world has been inhabited. So if history means human history, all parts of the world (save Antartica and other uninhabitable zones) have the same length of history.

So what? Well when someone says how long their country’s history is, it sort of implies they think they have something to be proud of. By comparison, countries which have shorter histories are implied to be a bit less interesting or important or culturally valuable. So there is a bit of chauvinism in this expression.

It is said that Winston Churchill, when prime minister for a second time in the early 1950s (despite leading the UK to victory in the second world war, he was voted out in 1945) wept when he learned of the invention of the hydrogen bomb. In any future war Britain would be totally destroyed because of its small size. This is indeed worth weeping over but Churchill was especially sad because of Britain’s long history. Not long like China, there isn’t much before about 700 AD, or at least little is know apart from the Roman occupation. But it’s certainly true that Britain has a wonderfully entertaining story from the Norman invasion in 1066 onwards, which attracts tourists and inspires writers and film makers.

But it isn’t the length of the history that matters. How could it? Doubtless Churchill, a pretty standard nineteenth century English imperialist, thought that India and those parts of Africa which were stolen or occupied by Britain had less history or even no history, before the white man came. It is a disadvantage, if you want to show your long history, if you built your towns and castles out of wood, because it doesn’t last. Stone is pretty much forever. But the empires and kingdoms of Africa which long preceded western occupation were just as real as those of Europe or Asia, merely not known to western historians at that time.

The idea that countries with a long history are somehow superior is particularly unfair to those regions which, through geopolitical misfortune, have been subject to continual disruption and shifting boundaries. The western fringe of Russia has always been a de facto buffer zone for the Russian empire, including during its Soviet phase. Russia, lacking defensible natural borders to the west and east, is likely always to have governments which are nervous, even paranoid, about the country’s security. (The US has no such problem and finds it hard to imagine what it would be like not to have such a strong geographic position with peaceful neighbours, though the Mexicans might still harbour a grudge about the theft of Texas and California). It is therefore bad luck to be Poland, Ukraine or the Baltic states, because you know that it is unlikely you’ll get through a whole century without being annexed, invaded or occupied by the Russians. Or by the Germans, who have a similar lack of natural borders and must contemplate the challenge of defending two frontiers in the event of war (hence the disastrous Schlieffen Plan, whose clockwork timetable helped cause the first world war).

Vietnam and Korea have had, to put it gently, troublesome historical relations with their giant neighbour China, because they are small and in the way. If they are independent, they offer the possibility of a base for foreigners hostile to China. China’s occupation of Tibet is similarly a pre-emptive strike against the threat of expansion from India. So, try not to be born in a small country that sits between two larger ones.

The fact that Poland’s borders have changed frequently through the centuries and at times vanished altogether doesn’t make Poland any less important or worthy. And there are countries that can’t trace a long territorial continuity back over the centuries, such as in the Balkans. Albania has had a relatively short time as an independent nation state and even now disputes the ownership of parts of northern Greece and of course Kosovo (now uneasily independent). There have been people living in Albania for thousands of years, through the Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires, so they have just as long a history as China or Iraq (and have some fascinating historic sites to show for it). It has just been a different type of history.

This conceit of the long history is related to the idea of old families. Britain has largely thrown off its aristocratic influence, apart from the monarchy, but if you’re ever unlucky enough to meet an English aristocrat they will doubtless tell you about how old their family is. You can’t expect these numbskulls to understand this, but all families are the same age. It’s just that some have a written history and can recite a list of bloodthirsty patriarchs who have ruled the roost over the centuries. Those of us who can barely trace our family tree back before the 1861 census can nonetheless be pretty sure we have just as long a line of ancestors, though they were probably being oppressed and ripped off by the aristocrats.

So, let’s hear less about “long” histories, “old” families and “great” nations.

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