Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

I love history. And I love podcasts. So let me give you a tip: Check out Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. This guy it totally awsome. This is a guy who manages to bring passion and out-of-the-box thinking to history, and who evokes the scents and flavours of the past.

Let me give you an example of the stuff Dan Carlin presents in his podcasts. When discussing the Punic Wars between Carthage and the Roman Empire, he asks the question: "What does it feel like standing, with only a spear as your weapon, in front of a charging war-elephant?" How many historians have you heard asking such a question? Me, personally, I have not heard too many. But Dan Carlin does, and I love it!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Is there such a thing as European History?

Is there such a thing as European History? Considering the title of this blog, it would be nice if there were. But the case can be made that an history of Europe that does not include an appreciation of events, trends and developments outside of Europe would fail to explain certain aspects of its history.

Examples are plentiful. Take the French Revolution. Many of the immediate causes of the Revolution can be found outside of Europe. The French emptied their coffers on the 7 Years' War, much of which took place outside of Europe, and on the subsequent American War of Independence. Also the intellectuals and philosophes in the French Revolution got much of their inspiration from the American Revolution. Thus, a proper understanding of the French Revolution would include an understanding of extra-European events.

Everything has a context, and to understand something is to understand it in its proper context. Therefore, the concept of European History as I think of it with regards to this blog is pretty loose. Future topics will for that reason not exclude events taking place outside of Europe.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Borders: History and geography

A good grasp of geography is immensely helpful in reading history. But sometimes it can also obscure a proper understanding of things. Here's why.

Having a good grasp of geography no doubt makes reading history easier, as you can much easier picture where geographical locations mentioned are actually situated on the map without having to refer back to the map constantly. Also, it makes it easier to appreciate the strategic value of certain geographical locations - especially when you're dealing with power politics, wars and kings.

But looking back on history from today, I feel that it is very difficult to take into account that the idea of the nation-state and the modern man's ingrained national identity was quite foreign to people as recently as the mid 19th century, and maybe later in some parts of Europe.

When I studied for my bachelor's degree a number of years ago, the course's main book for overview was R.R.Palmer and Joel Colton's A History of the Modern World. I have kept this book, and I keep going back to it regularly. Nevertheless, I wish I had paid more attention to some chapters in the book, more specifically to a chapter called "A Few Words on Geography." Let me cite a passage from that chapter:

For most of its history Europe was in fact made up of a diversity of small local units, pockets of territory each having its own customs, way of life, manner of speech, each largely unknown to the others and looking inward upon itself, rather than the blocks called "Germany" or "France" that we take for granted on a map today.

Last year, I read something along those same lines in another book that I bought, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. Robb is really describing a France where the idea of a French nation wasn't that well rooted everywhere. According to Robb, up until "as late as 1886, over four fifths of the population were still described as 'almost stationary'", and "the sense of identity attached to [the village or regions] was more potent than any later sense of being French."

There is a book about the Italian unification coming out quite soon, The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmoure, of which I read a review of in the Economist the other day. At the time of the unification process in the 1850s and 60s, the Italians don't seem to have been more closely knit as a nation than the French, and maybe less so. Let me cite a quote I got from the review. In 1861, Massimo d'Azeglio, a pioneer of the unification is supposed to have said, “we have made Italy; now we must make Italians,” implying that the Italians as a nation did not exist.

So, rather than being the nation states made up of subjects with a clear identity of being Italian, French, German, etc, the states at this time were mere regions within where there was one sovereign power. That is, they were an expression of a power relationship. When studying power politics, as I myself tends to find interesting, that is obviously relevant. But in understanding the mentality of people, it would be grossly misleading to think of states in the mentioned period in the sense that we do today.