When Does History Begin?

I was thinking the other day about Francis Fukuyama and his thesis that History has ended. We are now so evolved as people that we have reached the point where we are supposed to be. The Fall of the Berlin Wall. The End of Apartheid. From a Belfast perspective in the early 1990s, it seemed a peculiar reading of History. For in Belfast in around 1993 when Fukuyama’s “End Of History” was getting attention, there was still unfinished business in Ireland.

Even in 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was being signed, I had no sense of an End to “our” History. The Soviet Union might well have collapsed and Nelson Mandela taken his last steps to Freedom but the Norn Iron Conflict has an….Integrity (yes I choose that word deliberately) ….which defies Compromise. Short of Genocide …and Protestants and Catholics are far too “civilised” to wish for that…there will never be an End. While we draw the line at Mass Murder, most Unionists would be happy at the idea of all Nationalists going over the border (even re-drawn) to the Republic. And most Nationalists would be happy with the mass migration of Unionists “back” to Scotland and England.

Problem Solved.

But the question is NOT where History “ends”. History never ends….it only begins.

When we are born, we have no memory. But getting older is the process of having fewer Dreams and More Memories. If we get to the stage, where we have no Dreams left and only a stockpile of Memories….then we are just too old.

But…yes…getting older is the process of accumulating memories. Of thinking more about the Past than the Future.

Thus, the other day, I was thinking of my mother walking down the stairs in the City Hospital in Belfast. And Nurse Gray was carrying a small pink blanket, decorated with kittens. The first glimpse of my baby sister. And Nurse Gray asked me to be good to her. I was 2 years 8 months.

In January 2015, I can only recount that story for my own amusement. My mother liked to tell it. So did Auntie Sheila. My early years seem to be marked with threats that my mother was going to take my sister back to Nurse Gray.

Actually its not my first memory. Before Christmas 1954, I was staying in my Grannys house and burned my leg badly. Auntie Sheila gathered me up and took me across the road to the Childrens Hospital and I had my leg bandaged and got a gift of a small toy racing car from a glass case in the hospital. My mother was confined to hospital (blood pressure) and wasnt supposed to be told…but my father told her and she got out of hospital to see me. I still remember the smile and her (fake) surprise at my bandage..

Of course this is NOT History. just snapshots from Pre-History….constantly re-told anecdotes from a life.

History …I am conscious that my memories are longer than my sons and grandchildren. Or indeed many of my friends. I remember Dwight D Eisenhower in that curious pre-History way. But I recall John F Kennedy in a way that is curiously both pre-History and real History (in this context History is appreciating “significance”). L B Johnson, Richard Nixon are more firmly in my memory as History.

Thus the Beatles, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, the start of the Troubles in 1969 are all part of my life. The notion that TV Documentaries tell stories about Vietnam or movies called “Selma” are released seems strange to me. Although they give texture, nuance and perspective. Yet to my sons, Martin Luther King and Selma…it is History.

Yet ….there is a point…or several points… Yuri Gagarin going into Space (I was eight)when the event seemed peripheral or Kennedy’s assassination (I was eleven) when it seemed important.

History is not about the Past. It is a realisation that there is a Past, a Present and a Future.

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6 Responses to When Does History Begin?

  1. Gareth Blood says:

    My sense is that the Fukuyama thesis – that liberal democracy is a point towards which there is necessary ultimate convergence – is facing challenges from (i) China which is successful economically without a democratic or liberal model (ii) Russia which has moved away from Democracy since the days Francis wrote that book and (iii) the Middle East countries which have not yet had much evolution toward liberal democracy if anything showing resistance to it. Wondered what your take on this as a historian would be?

  2. I am not a professional historian. I do have a History degree.
    I think this is the general view….Russia,China, Eastern Islam.
    But I would add that the “European Union” is faltering.. It over-reached itself when it expanded from 15 to 25.
    The “timing” could not have been worse…with the.collapse of tne world banks.
    Increasingly I would say USA looks vulnerable and more divided than at any time since the Civil War…it is now firmly divided along blue and red state lines…..with issues such as taxes , mimimum wage, gun control etc making people choose sides.
    Even in a small scale Ireland is very different from ten years ago. A lot of “history” happened and more to be played out.

  3. Political Tourist says:

    Didn’t Fukuyama years later say he was wrong about the end of history.

  4. Gareth Blood says:

    I think it you understand what he means by the end of history, which he explains in his book, it isn’t as drastic as it sounds. Actually I have some sympathy for the idea that we will all end up day in liberal democracy, that this is somehow the ultimate resting point of human society, though it is a long journey. I think the trend for the % of the world under democratic governments is still upwardly and some African countries are moving now in that direction.

    I have to credit him with an arresting title that stimulates discussion.

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