What is History?
What’s true and what isn’t?
How might we find out?
Published author Hugh Nicklin sets about answering these questions like a world-class sleuth…
Now to start, why don’t we look to the beginning?
Let’s zoom out to see the world as a whole…
“All history classes should start with a summary of the History of the World, as geography should start with a globe.”
~ Hugh Nicklin
The World in 26 Minutes
Historians upset everything. At 13.8 billion years ago, our entire observable universe was the size of a peach and had a temperature of over a trillion degrees. In saying that I’ve already upset some members of all three of the Abrahamic religions, because according to them the world began only 6022 years ago. As a result of the Big Bang the various stars, planets and other heavenly bodies were thrown out across the universe.
Some of them had chemical compositions consistent with the beginning of life. On at least one of them (the one we’re currently occupying) life did indeed begin. Beginning with single celled organisms in the sea we progressed to multicellular ones and in the end to creatures with backbones. Competition for sources of food drove some of them out of the water on to the land, where the struggle to survive continued. Bromyard, which had started off near the South Pole, gradually moved north by the operation of plate tectonics, gathering with it fossils of tropical animals and plants.
You would have thought that the competition for food would have favoured the big fast fierce creatures like dinosaurs, but their onward march was halted by various extinction events like super volcano eruptions, asteroid impacts and ice ages. In the Plough we’re sitting here on the St Maughan’s plateau, on the edge of a valley carved out by a glacier coming down off the Welsh mountains about 450,000 years ago. For the creatures inhabiting the earth this period was a bit like the Grand National of 1967: the favourites all fell over, and through the confusion came an unfancied 30-1 outsider to win the race. Homo Sapiens was the Foinavon of species, but with its big brain and opposable thumb it could conceive of strategies to keep warm and outwit its competitors. Humans could make stone tools and weapons to compensate for their basic weaknesses. By hunting animals and collecting fruits they managed to survive. This was Prehistory. I’ll just place this letter ‘P’ here to remind you.
For 2 to 3 million years (which we call the old Stone Age), the humans survived by following animals and living off them, until, about 8-10,000 years ago, someone had a bright idea. “What if”, he said “We shoo the herd into that valley? We can close off the end, and then they’ll be there all the time.” He was probably executed as a dangerous radical, but in the end the idea was tried and worked. For the first time tribes were liberated from eternally traipsing after herds of animals, and could occupy one particular place. People could better understand plant growth, and control it. We left our nomadic life behind and developed a pastoral, and finally an agricultural economy. We became residential, for which this letter ‘R’ stands. This period is known as the New Stone Age ‘agricultural revolution’. A recent village in north eastern Turkey has been estimated as being about 9000 years old.
When agriculture was practised in fertile, warm river valleys such as those in Iraq, Egypt, China and India it went well, particularly because, at the critical moment, a new strain of wheat evolved, with better food value. Instead of the whole tribe having to work non-stop to eke out an existence, surpluses of grain now allowed some people to be freed to specialise in other things.
We find architects building houses and priests keeping the seasons turning. Trade between specialists gave rise to writing, so that history, in its narrower sense of a written record, became possible.
Metallurgy was discovered. Metal workers discovered bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, which was the earliest useful alternative to stone for tools and weapons. Although copper was relatively plentiful, tin took some finding. Expeditions went out to find and secure sources of tin, which led in turn to wars. Wars provoked the organisation of states and armies, and the formation of Empires.
The earliest emperor, and indeed the earliest human whose name we know was Menes, a pharaoh of Egypt. Menes had no good poems written about him, so for my letter ‘O’ (what’s he on about letters for?) I select another Egyptian pharaoh called Ozymandias. Ozymandias was the stage name of Rameses II of Egypt. [010 Rameses] With his palaces, statues, chariots, 200 wives and concubines, and 156 children, Rameses was a bog-standard Emperor. Egypt had 31 dynasties of Pharaohs, and I couldn’t fit this talk into 26 minutes if I mentioned all the other emperors in all the other countries, but I can’t ignore China.
Emperors like Ozymandias ruled in China, too. The 5000 years of the History of China up to 1911 consists of the rise and fall of eight such dynasties: Shang, Chin, Han, Tang, Sung, Yuan, Ming and Manchu. During the brief Chin dynasty the Great Wall and the terracotta army were made. Wheelbarrows and fireworks were invented, and for most of the 5000 years the Chinese people enjoyed a standard of civilization ahead of the rest of the world.
I sum up this section by observing that all these grand empires had one thing in common. None of them was global, and only one of them had involved Bromyard.
The only empire Bromyard had seen was the Roman, as the legionaries hurried through on their way to subdue the tribes of Wales during the First Century AD. Bromyard was not of much interest after that, so no Roman roads went there. When the Romans went home, they left behind a British population. Some of these Britons had converted to Christianity, and throughout what is generally regarded as the Dark Ages, Bromyard was never further than 30 miles north of a school in a Celtic monastery where you could learn Latin and become a Christian monk. Thanks to King Arthur, the Saxons never got to Bromyard: we got the Angles from Mercia instead. The first actual mention of Bromyard is in the 800s, when it was a settlement round a Christian ‘minster’.
In the 900s, while Herefordshire was fighting off the Vikings, the Popes in Rome were fighting their corner against the various barbarian leaders who were swirling around them. This required them to have military force or have sand kicked in their faces. They were also having water kicked in their faces, as the Mediterranean had become the playground of Muslim pirates. In the 1090s a pope had a good idea. If he could persuade the Christians to start a Holy War against the Muslims he could recruit an army which would both prevent his local hooligans kicking sand in his face, and also, by conquering Jerusalem, make a start on preventing the Muslim pirates kicking water in his face. Hence the Crusades. No-one from Bromyard went on the first one, as the new Norman kings did not trust the English enough at that early stage, but they probably went on some of the others.
The Crusades went badly. By 1289 the Crusaders had been kicked out of the Middle East, and in 1396 there was a devastating defeat on the banks of the Danube which threatened Europe with Muslim conquest.
From meeting the Muslims in the Middle East the Christians found out about several useful things, such as washing. They were curious about other wonders which might lie in the world beyond that of the Muslims who penned them in. They were about to learn more. For centuries Central Asia had been bandit country, and few made the journey across it safely. In 1200 a brutal new power built an empire stretching from Beijing to Belarus. This was the Mongol empire of Genghiz Khan.
When the central Asian bandits heard what it was like having molten silver poured in your ears, they became disinclined to upset their Mongol rulers, and peace broke out. For the first time for centuries you could travel from China to Europe in complete safety. Marco Polo made the trip, and his stories whetted the appetite of the Europeans still further. Speaking of appetites, it was spices which the Europeans most wanted, but the latest edition of the Muslims, the Ottoman Turks, sat across the Middle East and charged heavy duties on the spices on their way to Europe. From Ozymandias to the Ottomans is arranged in my talk under the letter O (Do you see what it is, yet?)
The Europeans had come a long way since they had blundered off on the First Crusade. By 1450 they were in possession of firearms, and could navigate their ships out of sight of land.
Europe’s scholars rediscovered Greek versions of texts which contradicted the Latin texts approved by the Catholic Church, and disseminated their findings in printed books. A new mood of enquiry had replaced the gloom and resignation of medieval times. Bromyard had a school. With Bullets and Books and Boats the Europeans were about to make their mark, which is why our next letter is B (Do you see what it is yet?)
The Europeans sent out their armed sailing ships with astrolabes, sternpost rudders and adjustable sails, in search of Christians (officially) and spices (actually). Columbus returned from America convinced that he had found China but with little in the way of things to sell. When Vasco da Gama returned from India he sold spices which he had bought there at a profit at a twentieth of the price the Venetians were charging. He had by-passed the Ottomans via the Cape of Good Hope. A feeding frenzy of trading, conquering and pillaging followed, financed by capitalism. This was Imperialism. Britain joined in in about 1500 after having been ignominiously smashed in the Hundred Years’ War in 1453. Men from Herefordshire sailed to foreign parts and returned enriched by Imperial enterprise.
The appearance of the Europeans in the far corners of the earth provoked different reactions. Primitives like Montezuma, Atahualpa and Cetewayo were duped and conquered. In India Mongols became ‘Moguls’. Akbar was too strong to be conquered: he admired the knowledge of the newcomers but criticised their religious intolerance. His Mogul Empire soon went in to a decline because of the intolerance of his eventual successor Aurungzeb. The Ruler of Japan detested the Europeans so much that he shut them out of Japan altogether, cocooning Japan in its medieval state for three centuries, long enough for Gilbert and Sullivan to mock it in the Mikado. By contrast Czar Peter the Great of Russia was an enthusiastic convert. He built a navy and bullied his nobles into cutting their beards off and speaking French.
But whatever the people they encountered thought of them, the Europeans almost always won, and more and more easily. The monopoly of knowledge claimed by the Catholic Church was undermined by scientists like Galileo armed with Dutch telescopes: they based their knowledge on replicable experiments rather than ancient authority. Steam powered machine technology marched with science, so that the Europeans could eventually comfort themselves with the thought that “Whatever happens, we have got The Gatling Gun, and they have not.”
By 1914 the Europeans, including by now the North Americans, owned or were exploiting the whole of the rest of the world. Their supremacy was Unchallenged, so it was ‘Europe Über Alles’, so I used the letter U for this section of my talk. [027 PROBU] (Do you see what it is yet?) Such was their overwhelming superiority that they convinced themselves and many of their opponents that there was a pecking order of merit of the races in the world, with themselves at the top, the yellow and brown in the middle and the black at the bottom. In 1914, however, the white Europeans joyfully fell to fighting each other in the First World War. When the war was over there was a Conference to decide what to do. The US President was Woodrow Wilson, the only President ever to have had a PhD.
Wilson disapproved of Imperialism on politically correct grounds taken from the French Revolution, which had proclaimed equal political rights: Imperialism, spectacularly, was based squarely on unequal political rights. Wilson arrived at the Conference of Versailles in 1919 determined to chastise his allies Britain and France as much as his enemy, Germany. Russia was not at the Conference, as it had been convulsed by a communist revolution, proposing a new Jerusalem with equal economic rights. This went too far even for Wilson, but when he had finished putting his naughty allies under the disapproving gaze of a super nanny in the form of a world government called the League of Nations, he went home to find that he had gone too far for his own people. The United States declined the role of world nanny, and Wilson had a stroke.
For twenty years Britain and France tried to juggle restoring their empires, paying back what they owed the Americans and nannying the world through the League of Nations, but fierce new animals now roamed the peaceful garden which had once been theirs. Communist Russia, Japan and Germany pursued their own interests and exposed the League of Nations as a paper tiger. It was just a ‘League of Notions’. Britain and France lacked money and the will to fight. They adopted a policy of appeasement: neither wanted to take on either Germany or Russia, so they gave way to several of Hitler’s demands in the hope that he would fight the Russians first and so weaken himself that he could be dealt with afterwards.
This plan failed. War with Germany came first, and when the shooting began in 1940, Britain and France lasted only a couple of months before being comprehensively out generalled. Britain was saved by the English Channel, her radar technologists, her fighter pilots and Hitler’s conviction that we were finished and would soon see the sense of cooperating with him against Russia. In a sense Hitler was right: by the Spring of 1941 Britain was bankrupt and dependent again on American money.
The real European high noon was on the Eastern front, with a million men engaged in battle. Hitler inherited the racism of Old Europe, and despised the Russians as inferiors. He was convinced that the claims of the Communist leader Stalin were bogus, as indeed many of them were. At Stalingrad he found that some of them were not, and Germany started down the road to defeat.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the United States had important interests and a navy to protect them. The Japanese had conducted an astonishing modernisation project which had taken them from the medieval world of the Mikado to being a modern industrial state in 30 years. They had been hit hard by the Slump of 1929 and needed resources. They decided to take Siberia off the Russians, for whom they had a contempt equal to Hitler’s. To their surprise they were comprehensively defeated by the Russian general Zhukov at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol a week before the Nazi Soviet Pact. They were forced to rethink, and decided to head into the American dominated Pacific, as their contempt for the Americans was only marginally less than their contempt for the Russians. The Americans saw them coming and cut off their oil supplies. Without bothering to declare war, the Japanese sank the American navy in Pearl Harbor.
The American people, who had voted consistently against joining the war in opinion polls, were outraged and the European War became a World War. Hitler, full of confidence in the moments before the disaster at Stalingrad had become apparent, did the West a very good turn by declaring war on the USA. This enabled Roosevelt to declare war on Germany as well as Japan.
In the east the old European imperial masters proved spectacularly and rapidly unequal to the task of resisting Japan. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the French and Dutch empires fell at the first attacks. America, the standard bearer of capitalism in the world, was now bizarrely allied with communist Russia against capitalist Germany and Japan. Pearl Harbor had, however, ‘awakened a sleeping Giant’. The vast power of US industry produced forces equal to the tasks. Gradually the Pacific was regained.
After an interval during which the Russians took losses but succeeded in driving the Germans back, Britain and the USA invaded occupied France on D-Day, and the war in the west came to an end with Russian and American soldiers cheerfully saluting each other in the middle of Germany, and soldiers from Bromyard capturing Hitler’s successor in their ancestral homeland near Flensburg in North Germany.
Even though America and Russia fought together against Germany, many people could foresee that once Germany and Japan were laid low, there would have to be a deciding conflict between capitalist America and Communist Russia. The Russian leader Stalin seemed to have decided to prepare for this by having the Americans wear themselves out against the Japanese while Russia recovered its strength. No Russian soldiers came east to help the Americans in the war against Japan. To Stalin’s surprise the Japanese were suddenly knocked out of the war by two American atom bombs.
The stunned silence lasted long enough for Churchill’s declaration that an Iron Curtain had fallen across Europe to inaugurate the ‘Cold War’. Europe was divided into two vassal states, the East the pawn of Moscow, and the West the more querulous subject of Washington to which it still owed vast sums of money from the two world wars.
By turning their great war machines against each other the Europeans had inflicted appalling damage on themselves. They had lost the best of their young men and the fortunes they had made from imperialism. They were bankrupt, and had had to be bailed out by the Americans. Worst of all, they had lost their good name. Poison gas and barbed wire put paid to the notion that they were a ‘higher civilization’ which turned the other cheek and gave no man evil for evil. The European empires faded away. Fifty years after the Europeans went to war in 1914 their house of cards had fallen down. By 1964 there was hardly anywhere outside Europe ruled by Europeans, unless you counted the Americans, who seemed, with their nuclear weapons, to be now in complete control of the world’s destiny. Old Europe had Subsided, which gives me my letter S. (See what it is now?)
But America did not enjoy complete control for long. The idea of economic equality had been too much for Woodrow Wilson, but it had inspired the communists in Russia, and impressed some bright young men in the West. At Cambridge University several public school educated students decided that communism was the way to paradise, and capitalism the way to hell. They became Russian spies and, emerging from Cambridge, found work as British spies. Discovering the secrets of the atom bomb, they gave them to the Russians.
America’s ‘complete control’ had lasted a very short time, and there now followed forty years of Cold War, during which the Communist side was augmented by the addition of Communist China. By 1973, when I first wrote this History, the Americans had just failed to save Vietnam from communism, and it seemed possible that Communism would sweep the whole world. I was completely wrong. We were not then in a position to understand how inefficient communist economics was proving in Russia and China. To my astonishment communism was abandoned by both Russia and China within 20 years. China’s recovery from communism has been spectacular, and it is now colonising parts of Africa and constructing a new high speed railway along the old Silk Road to better sell its goods in Asia and Europe.
The Europeans had reflected on their reduced state. They decided to pool their resources to assist economic recovery and prevent war. They began with a Common Market in which tariffs would disappear and trade flourish. Enthusiasts for the ‘European Project’ looking at Europe’s embarrassing track record of internal and imperial wars, looked further into the future and hoped to destroy the nationalistic and competitive instincts which they thought had caused them. A single European state, with free internal movement of people and an admixture of peoples previously regarded as ‘inferior’ would, they were sure, make the old warlike states fade away and form a new European identity. Remembering the mood of 1914, in which great crowds greeted the news of war with enthusiasm, the planners of the new Europe arranged that their new European Union would be run by professional bureaucrats rather than Kaisers or directly elected demagogues. Some even looked forward to the creation of a European army.
Jews had been expelled from their homeland by the Romans in the first century, and had suffered with the Europeans among whom they had been scattered. In the midst of Christians, Jews were blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus. They were attacked at the beginning of every crusade because Europeans could not tell the difference between them and Muslims. They were blamed for causing the Black Death 500 years before microbiology had suggested how that might be done. Jews then shared in the blossoming of Europe. We have noted that Imperialism was financed by capitalism. Capitalism depends on the taking of interest, but Christians were forbidden to do this by the Pope. Jews were not forbidden, and some stepped into the banking role, thus attracting to themselves the additional dislike of ‘banksters’ which we often hear about. Hitler had used hatred of Jews to spice up his anti-communist policies, and sent millions to the gas chambers.
In the horror provoked by the discovery of the death camps like Auschwitz, Israel was created by the United Nations to give Jews somewhere where they would be safe from persecution. This brand new country was situated in lands from which the Jews had been expelled nearly 2000 years before. They had been inhabited by Muslims for more than a thousand years since then, but the Muslim Arabs were close to the bottom of the racist pecking order which still influenced decision making, and their protests, though understandable, were ignored, so they made war on Israel. They were defeated. After 20 years they turned to terrorism instead, hi-jacking airliners and blowing them up. In 1972 the whole world became aware of the issue when Arab terrorists shot nineteen members of the Israeli athletics team at the Munich Olympics in an incident much of which appeared on the world’s television screens. In 1973 another war seemed to be heading towards another Arab defeat when Arab oil producers decided to withhold their oil from world markets. The Western world ran on oil, and many Muslims were opposed to the way in which the West had managed the politics of the Muslim world to the profit of their multinational oil companies, and the disadvantage of the people of the region. Within a short time the Israelis were forced to give up their conquests. When oil came back on to the market it was much more expensive. Europeans now pay 20 times more for petrol than they paid in 1962. This was as significant an indicator of the Europeans’ fall from power as their loss of empire.
Israel had not fallen, and terrorism continued. The technical knowledge which had once been the possession of the Europeans alone had now become international. “Whatever happens, come what may, we’ve got computers but so have they…” Lockerbie and 9/11 are fresh in the memory.
The founders of the European Union hoped that an admixture of non-Europeans would make the Europeans less bellicose and nationalistic. Many arrived, often as refugees from wars or economic migrants. Some Muslims have a mission to bring their grievances to the notice of the Europeans: they have brought terrorism with them. Bombings, shootings, knifings and beheadings have occurred on European territory. This is partly due to the old grievance against Israel, but partly also due to the last of several puritanical movements which have swept over Islam during its history. The word ‘Assassin’ came into English during the 12th Century to describe a member of one such movement. Puritanical Muslims are highly critical of Western cultural practices, including particularly those relating to women and homosexuals.
You see now what I was on about with the letters. Using the mnemonic PROBUS you can now go back to your wives or partners and sum up what I have said.
P was Prehistory, with the emergence of Homo Sapiens from Evolution.
R was the Revolution in the New Stone Age, making humans Residential
O was the empires from Ozymandias to the Ottoman Turks, all ruling over just part of the world, but then came the Europeans with their
B Bullets, Boats and Books by which over 400 years they achieved the
U Unprecedented Universal Rule of European Imperialism: Europe Über Alles
S stood for the Subsiding of Europe from its 1914 peak until today.