In 1970 the great novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was putting the finishing touches to what he called “the chief artistic design of my life”. Its title, “August 1914”, was intended to convey to readers everything they needed to know about the content, even if they had never heard of the Battle of Tannenberg, the actual focus of the narrative, or read “The Guns of August”, the Pulitzer prize-winning account of the start of the first world war. This was the book with which Solzhenitsyn hoped finally to outdo his literary nemesis, Tolstoy, by blending history and fiction in a manner so “urgent…so hectic and choppy,” wrote his translator, Michael Glenny, that, “at times it almost leaves you breathless”.
Alas, breathlessness can be tiresome over 6,000 pages, and “August 1914” never captured the public imagination. Yet Solzhenitsyn, the great inventor, was on to something. Today the market is in full bloom for what the writer Henry Grabar, tongue firmly in cheek, calls “annohistory”. The display tables are groaning with copies of Max Hastings’ “Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914”, Allan Mallinson’s “1914: Fight the Good Fight”, Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” and Mark Bostridge’s “The Fateful Year: England 1914”. Any day now, something similar will happen with 1989.
What is it about some years that they come to hold such a prominent place in our culture, decades after their passing? Are some years really that much more important than others? Was what happened in them so dramatic that the dates themselves have become a rift that lifts up out of the earth, leaving all historical activity merely sloping away — “a drama never surpassed,” as Churchill once put it?
What matters in history used to be a matter for the intellectual class to decide. For better and worse, those days are gone. Edinburgh University’s Tom Devine clearly thought he was criticising Britain’s education secretary, Michael Gove, when he said during a recent spat over the teaching of school history: “you cannot [just] pick out aspects of the past that may be pleasing to people”. But that is precisely what many history books do. And it is what readers do every time they walk into the history section of a bookshop.
The result is a growing tendency, implicit in the way we talk and write about history, to treat certain years as celebrities. There is more at work here than just the publishers’ need to milk an anniversary. The Victorians used to have what they called the Great Man school, the idea that history is shaped by wilful characters. Perhaps we are labouring today under the Great Year theory of history. The two are of not dissimilar vintage: 1066 and all that. The difference is, unlike the Great Man school, the Great Year theory is becoming more, not less, fashionable.
Seeing the past as a series of hefty dates has its uses. It arrests the flow of history and helps us take stock of the maelstrom of events whirling about the room. But handing out the trophies of public recognition to the same years, again and again, doesn’t just innocently stop up the past. It digs trenches and sets dykes right around it. It is a form of idolatry.
Never forget the lessons of a year like 1914, we are told. But those lessons are more liable than most to be wearing national blinkers, and they leave us in danger of missing the bigger picture. Screw up your eyes, focus on the detail and the texture of 1914 alone, and you might just fail to hear the creaking and cracking around it: the sound of the age of European empires beginning to break apart. And you may well miss the underlying currents of commerce and exchange that intensified those inter-imperial rivalries and continued to feed the deluge of change after the war.
Solzhenitsyn, as ever, was subverting the genre even as he flirted with it. “August 1914” was but the first volume of four, each named after a date — “November 1916”, “March 1917” and “April 1917” — so as to unsettle the meaning of the others.
Today we prefer our history to cut to the chase. Ask any adult what 1989 means to them and they will naturally mention the Berlin Wall falling and communism in Europe coming to its juddering halt. But they may well take the year to mean those two things alone — or, worse still, to assume that one led to the other. If we stand only with the crowd who gathered on the Bornholmer Strasse at the East-West German border in Berlin in 1989, then we miss the ways in which the winds of globalisation and not just the wind of democratic change, to borrow the Scorpions’ update of Harold Macmillan, were howling about the events of that year too.
It is true that some dates do seem to cleave history in two. (Those leaning to the left might point to 1789, 1848, 1917 and 1968 as well as 1989; conservatives may prefer 1812, 1914 and 1945.) But that is a call for periodisation, not compression. In the cramped room of a single year, the air soon becomes stale. The best historians recognise this. They fling open the windows onto the recent past and open the door to the future. Which leaves you wondering why they would confine themselves to such a small room in the first place.
Take 1492, another candidate for the Great Year school, given the global significance of Europe’s discovery of the Americas — and another year that pops up in book titles. For Felipe Fernández-Armesto, author of “1492: The Year the World Began”, Europe’s achievements need setting alongside those of China and Islamic west Africa. By revealing other global connections, he shows that Europe’s surge was a political choice taken by Europeans, not the product of environmental necessity or civilisational superiority. Writing against the grain of 1492’s conventional meaning, Fernández-Armesto allows us to peer inside the structure of the period, to see its joists and timbers.
This is what the great historian Fernand Braudel — a man who wrote his first major work, “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II”, in a Nazi jail — thought history should be about. Braudel’s method was both panoramic, in his range of interests, and painstaking, in his approach to archival work (forced to earn his academic stripes in Brazil, he would make short trips to Europe and microfilm entire archives). It is fair to say that he would not have lingered at the display tables in bookshops today. The actions “of a few princes and rich men”, he argued, were nothing more than the “crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs”.
Braudel is worth bearing in mind in this year of noisy anniversaries. Events are to history as fires left untended. They either die out of their own accord or else they leave us with the “rain of ash”, as Braudel put it, of competing yet residual accounts. In writing and reading history, we belay ourselves back not into the past but into a past. And since the general understanding of that past boils down over time into a singular popular sediment, a seam of collective understanding with a single line of recall, the history we need today is a history prepared to explore both above and below that line. We may even learn as we go to take pleasure in its breaks and fissures, to celebrate the multiple pasts of our own and others’ present, and to resist polishing what we find down there into the gems of our own particular fancy.