How Stuff Happens – An Introduction to the Twentieth Century

Most people would not call themselves ‘historians’. Just as people who can wire a plug don’t see themselves as electricians, and not everyone who can kick a ball believes they are a footballer, so those of us with some knowledge of the past are not necessarily historians. But just as wiring a plug can be useful or kicking a ball can be fun, so knowing some history can add a bit of colour and meaning to our lives. In fact, most people tend to love something about the past, be it Vikings or dinosaurs, their favourite art or music, or their own family tree or national heritage. History plays a huge part in our lives whether we like it or not: as a key part of our schooling; in the shaping of laws; in the tensions between countries; as a justification for terrorism; in the places we visit on holiday; in the languages we speak, the sports we play and the food we share. The shaping of history education is a subject for intense and sometimes bitter political debate: does it exist to glorify a nation’s successes, or apologise for its failings?  Is it merely a tool for developing analytical skills?  How are minorities to be represented when the relevant historical records are threadbare?  How can the values of past ages be interpreted with sensitivity and credibility today?  For me, history is the study of how we have been human – courageous, misguided, selfish, inventive, cruel, exceptional, ordinary – in the past. Knowledge of the past can profoundly influence our understanding of the world today, challenging and shaping our views, values and goals. At its starkest, history gives us the chance to say ‘never again’.

This blog is about events and people from the Twentieth Century. It is a series which aims to introduce people of all ages to some of the extraordinary happenings in a century which saw such remarkable change: the population rising from less than 2 billion to nearly 7 billion; both the first flight and the first man on the moon; two world wars and a thousand other conflicts; ideological tension between East and West; the break-up of Empires, the rise and fall of dictators and the spread of democracy; revolutions in food production, medicine, communication and industry; global sporting events and mass migration. There is so much to consider in those ten decades that it can be overwhelming. With so many books, films, documentaries, and TV channels available, where do you start? And as for the internet: so much information, so many websites, so many opinions mean that it is hard to see the wood for the trees.

I aim to offer a basic introduction for people who know a little bit about history rather than for those who already know a lot. This blog is for people who want to know more, whatever their situation: students who are keen to learn, teachers looking for stories to enrich their teaching, adults who never studied history or who did but forgot it later. I’d like to open windows onto the century, each one giving you a glimpse which might make you want to look further. Starting from scratch on, say, the Great Depression or the Cold War by picking up an 800-page scholarly tome might well be off-putting. How can you choose your areas of interest without a little more information – or motivation? And anyway, why should you bother in the first place? This blog wants to provide that starting point, opening up some of the characters and stories that might grab your interest and encourage you to find out more.  Each post aims to give you plenty to chew on without giving you indigestion from too many facts.

History is a huge topic. I remember being shouted at by a waitress in Cape Town for being a history teacher who did not have a comprehensive knowledge of South African history. I knew the basics but not enough. I am reminded of the words of Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defence (1975-76 under Gerald Ford and 2001-06 under George W. Bush). In 2002, when talking about links between Iraq and terrorist organisations, he said:

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

While Mr. Rumsfeld was roundly attacked for what some saw as an incoherent ramble, he was actually making a hugely important point. We know we know some things and we know we don’t know some others – but we also have to accept that there is some important stuff we are not even aware of. Lots of history falls into that final category for many people – and this blog is a simple attempt to help with that situation.

The working title of this blog, ‘How Stuff Happens’, is also taken from a quotation by Mr. Rumsfeld*. When speaking about looting that had taken place in Iraq, the Secretary of Defense for the most powerful country in the world said: “Stuff happens and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” This blog considers just some of the untidiness, mistakes, crimes and other stuff that happened in the Twentieth Century.

*I am not a fan of Mr. Rumsfeld or his policies; he just happens to be rather quotable.

One Thought on “Introduction

  1. I am impressed!

    Have a great holiday and be good (or be careful!)

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