We think of history as something that happened to other people, but we’re living through it every day

I found myself accidentally walking through an anti-Brexit protest in Trafalgar Square munching a Marks & Spencer sandwich. 

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There is a diary entry – first submitted to the Guardian’s letter desk in 2013, and intermittently shared on social media since – that delights me every time I read it. Dated 20 July 1969, it begins: “I went to arts centre (by myself!) in yellow cords and blouse.” The author – Dinah Hall of Lustleigh, Devon – continues: “Ian was there but he didn’t speak to me. Got rhyme put in my handbag from someone who’s apparently got a crush on me. It’s Nicholas I think. UGH.” The entry concludes with an afterthought: “Man landed on Moon.”

We are all always living through history. Yet there are times in our lives when we are acutely aware that we are witnessing something significant – or in my case, when I feel as though I’m living in the “Causes” chapter of a teenager’s GCSE history book, even if I don’t yet know what is going to be caused. The dates future history students will have to memorise are days many of us can’t forget – 24 June and 9 November 2016.

Yet I felt like Dinah Hall of Lustleigh, Devon, when I recently found myself accidentally walking through an anti-Brexit protest in Trafalgar Square, munching a Marks & Spencer cheese and celery sandwich. I felt as though I was walking through history – worse, actually, I was walking past it. I felt a twinge of guilt, and then nothing much at all – I was in a rush and my sandwich was really good. In our era of rapid political upheaval, it is easy to forget that we live in significant times – to make the extraordinary our new ordinary.

On 27 September, the historian, author and journalist Jennifer Wright posted a tweet that went viral. “I never thought living through history would be so fucking stupid,” she wrote. It is true that we live in dark times – race-related hate crime has increased significantly in both the US and the UK since 2016 – and yet we simultaneously live in ridiculous ones. The president tweeted a Photoshopped picture of himself awarding a medal to an army dog! “Donald Trump lays candy on a Minion child’s head,” is an entirely accurate (and painfully hilarious) headline I recently read. (If you haven’t seen the accompanying video, you must – in it, Trump taps on the head of a child dressed in an inflatable cartoon suit for Halloween with a chocolate bar, before allowing the candy to slide off the child’s head and dismissing them.)

Does this ridiculousness counteract the darkness? Not at all. Yet I think our national curriculum fails in the way it teaches history, as do our films and TV shows. Each creates a sense that extraordinary times announce themselves via a blaring siren, and that dark times are clearly marked by descending clouds. In reality, ordinary life carries on – as the world crumbles for some, it remains mundane for many others and even excellent for a select few.

Our personal histories coincide with global ones, and we can hardly be blamed for not living in a constant state of awe or fear (particularly when Ian doesn’t speak to us in the arts centre). Yet we should also realise that fascism doesn’t politely announce its arrival, and that ordinary life coexists  alongside unimaginable evil. This summer, after President Trump began separating migrant families and locking them in dirty, crowded detention camps, debate raged about whether the facilities could be called “concentration camps”. Writing in the New Yorker at the time, the author Masha Gessen argued “the argument is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history”.

“We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison,” Gessen wrote. She went on to argue that historical atrocities become mythologised and caricatured, “making them, essentially, unimaginable”. This leads to a fallacy: because our leaders are “not the monsters of our collective historical imagination”, they therefore are not monstrous. Because our atrocities are not those atrocities, they are not atrocious.

“The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders is a fascinating – and horrifying – 1991 book, named after the title that Treblinka commandant Kurt Franz gave to his personal photo album. The book includes extracts from the diary of Dr Johannes Paul Kremer, a university professor and camp doctor at Auschwitz, who intersperses talk of gassings with musings about his “excellent luncheon: tomato soup, half a chicken with potatoes and red cabbage, dessert and wonderful vanilla ice cream”.

The Third Reich was a holiday destination, too. The historian Julia Boyd’s 2018 book Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People is another eye-opening work that exposes the reality behind our mythologised version of history. If the idea of honeymooners visiting Nazi Germany surprises you, it shows where our understanding of history has failed.

It seems fairly obvious why we don’t dedicate textbooks or TV dramas to the privileged people who carried on as normal while the world burned, but a failure to do so means we see neither the reality of history nor that of our own present. The privileged are a minority, but so too are the persecuted. People have always walked down the street with their sandwiches as the world changed. The Good Old Days doesn’t just share the memories of evil camp doctors, but of ordinary Germans who continued to live their lives as millions lost theirs.

This is not a call to feel guilty, or even a call to arms. Instead, it’s a call to acknowledge that even when life is mundane, or “fucking stupid”, or ridiculous, the times we live in are no less significant.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong