What was the biggest lie your teachers told you at school? Tough question, I know. If your experience was anything like mine you’ll have a long list to choose from.
That said, pretty close to the top has to be this little gem: that we learn history so we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
This notion is so dumb it makes me want to take a sip of coffee just so I can spit it out in disgust.
Name me one example when knowledge of the past has avoided governments, businesses or stock markets making the same mistakes over and over again?
You can’t, can you? Unless of course you cite Britain’s bloody and costly experience of invading Afghanistan in the 19th Century that made that made us think twice about invading again in the 2000s. Oh wait, yeah. No it didn’t.
In fact, let’s go further. Not only does historical knowledge not avoid the repetition of terrible events; it encourages them.
History causes violence
Hitler’s model for the Holocaust was the Armenian genocide (also known as the Armenian massacres) carried out by the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. And if he would have gone ahead with the Holocaust anyway, he certainly took comfort in the fact that it had been done before, and recently. As indeed did the ethnic cleansers of the Balkans in the 1990s.
The world is full of examples of violence we could avoid if we just banned history teaching and had everyone’s memories erased, a la Men in Black. Think of the ethnic slaughter of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the sectarian killings in Northern Ireland or the bomb-happy Basque separatists of Spain.
On a larger scale, what about the longstanding cold war between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, or between nuclear-powered bickerers Pakistan and India?
Let’s put it the other way around. Would any of these situations not improve if all the residents’ memories were wiped and the teaching of history outlawed?
Why read historical fiction?
So, why did I write a historical crime novel and why would I expect you to read it? Well, I’m not a fool. I recognise that banning history and wiping memories are unlikely to happen. Sadly, this means history will remain free to cause trouble.
Yet history teaching at every level flounders when we get to the big question of ‘why?’ Historians either shy away from giving definitive causes for events or motivations for people, or else they squeeze the facts into some kind of interpretive framework based on their own personal priorities, which could be nationalist or Marxist, feminist or free-market, racial or…well, the list is pretty much endless.
But the point is, either you get no reasons, or you get reasons that admit of only one viewpoint.
Here’s where historical fiction comes in. Good historical fiction, that is. Because subjectivity in fiction is a given. More than that, it’s a strength. Where you get to walk in someone else’s shoes, you as a reader can learn what it’s like to see things from another perspective, to understand why, even if you can’t agree with what the characters are doing.
I did say good historical fiction, because historical novels that try to push an opinion on you are just as dangerous as history teaching: that way, not only do you get just the one point of view; you don’t get the chance to come up with your own opinion.
The good novels will present characters’ opinions as their own rather than the ones the author wants you to agree with. Which allows you to make your own mind up – and also have a bit of fun along the way, with a bit of luck.
Because that’s the other great strength of historical fiction. It’s supposed to be entertaining so it’s unlikely to be used to influence government policy any time soon.
So let’s have fun with history and try not to take it so seriously. Or at the very least let’s all try not to invade another country without doing a bit of research first. It’s only polite.