By Ereira, Alan
History Today , Vol. 54, No. 7
ACCORDING TO HEGEL, history teaches that history teaches us nothing. Which means we learn nothing from experience.
It certainly didn't teach me very much.
In the 1950s I saw television crews at my school or the railway marshalling yard facing our house. It was clear that of all the lousy jobs you could end up with, directing documentaries was obviously one of the worst. Standing all day in the wind and rain huddled inside a camel-hair duffle-coat was obviously a mug's game.
I have now spent twenty-five years directing historical documentaries for television.
To be fair to Hegel, he was not really talking about what we fail to learn from our own personal observation but from 'the dead Past', the huge virtual landscape in which we see 'the destinies of peoples and states, their interests, relations, and the complicated issue of their affairs'. Exactly the stuff of historical documentaries, of course, and that's where I've been putting my efforts. TV producers like myself are constantly trying to gather audiences in just the way Hegel saw his contemporaries around 1830 trying to sell their books and lectures, as 'lessons from history'; and that, he observed, is just plain silly. The war in Iraq is not like the Trojan War in any meaningful way. The British and Roman Empires were utterly different from each other and their history is no help at all in understanding modern America. The Crusades are not a lesson in modern Middle Eastern conflict.
So why am I wasting my time with this stuff?
Of course, working conditions have improved. Cheap air fares mean that fewer days are spent standing around in British weather, and soggy duffel coats have given way to Gortex anoraks. But that doesn't really explain what made me think that this was passionately interesting and important work, or what still binds me to it.
As a student, I thought Hegel must be wrong. Surely understanding the past helps to make a better future? I grew up in a city and a tribe smashed to pieces by Hitler's Germany. I read William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and was struck by an introductory quote from Santayana: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'
Who was right, Hegel or Santayana?
That's when I discovered 'Pascal's wager'. With no way of knowing whether Cod exists or not, the inventor of probability theory realised that it must be a safer bet to gamble that He's up there watching. Similarly, if Santayana is right, then there's a big downside to not knowing about the past, whereas if Hegel is right it makes no difference. At seventeen I felt I should put my money on Santayana.
So I felt I really ought to work at telling people what has happened. I believe, in retrospect, this may have made me a bit of a loudmouth, but what can you do? And as soon as I left university the BBC agreed to let me make history programmes for Schools Radio.
I spent the next fifteen years doing my bit to train up a new generation who would be able to remember the past and therefore would not be condemned to re-live the Black Death, the Roman invasion of Britain, the Seven Years War or the Battle of the Somme. So far, I am proud to report, it seems to have worked.
But the more I came to understand the stories I was telling, the more impressed I was by their unrepeatable uniqueness. In fact I began to lose all confidence in the idea that my radio programmes were of any use in warding off the repetition of Bad Days in History. I also noticed that my audience, once they left school, began increasingly to run up their own hessian smocks and Puritan millinery and set out to consciously re-enact the stories. It turns out that it is those who can remember the past who are condemned to repeat it--as pantomime. (And therefore as cheap extras in TV history documentaries, teaching the public about the past and engaged in circular logic. …