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  1. The Weekend Essay
2 March 2024updated 04 Mar 2024 10:37am

The wrong side of history

Rishi Sunak has rejected the idea that Britain will be censured by posterity. Yet history is not a moral court

By Richard J Evans

Speaking in the House of Commons Gaza debate on 21 February, the Scottish National Party foreign affairs spokesperson Brendan O’Hara urged members to support his demand for an immediate and in effect unconditional ceasefire between Hamas and Israel so that the House “can put itself on the right side of history”. A failure of the British parliament to do everything possible to bring the slaughter to an end would not be lightly forgiven by future generations, he said.

Later that day, amid chaotic parliamentary scenes culminating in the withdrawal of Tory and SNP members, the House voted for a Labour motion urging “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, which means an immediate stop to the fighting and a ceasefire that lasts and is observed by all sides”. Since the beginning of the war, the military campaign ordered by the right-wing extremist Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and encouraged the murderous criminality of Israeli settlers on the West Bank. In January the International Court of Justice warned that Israel’s actions risk falling within the genocide convention passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1951. The arguments continue.

O’Hara is far from being the only British politician to have appealed to history in this way. Over the past few months, politicians including Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf and the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas have also employed the language of the “right” and “wrong” side of history to advocate a full ceasefire in Gaza. In November 2023, when Keir Starmer mandated his MPs to withhold their support from this demand, Lucas declared: “Labour is on the wrong side of history on this.” A month after the Hamas atrocities of 7 October, Yousaf took the same line: “I want Scotland to be on the right side of history on this.” As opinion in Britain and Europe shifts gradually against Israel, politicians seem to be increasingly concerned about how posterity will judge them.

The accusation of being on the “wrong side of history” is one that leaders fear. On the evening of 1 March, Rishi Sunak stood outside 10 Downing Street and delivered a speech warning of the evils of the “divisive, hateful agenda” being promoted by “Islamist extremism and far-right groups” in Britain since the outbreak of war in the Middle East. Such extremists wish not only to undermine democracy, he said, but to “destroy our confidence… When these groups claim that Britain is and has been on the wrong side of history, we should reject it and reject it again.”

What is the right side of history on this issue? On 19 October 2023, soon after the Hamas invasion of southern Israel in which hundreds of Israelis were killed, tortured, raped or kidnapped, the Jerusalem Post asked its readers: “On which side of history do you stand? Will you be a partner in breathing life and kindness into humanity, or will you be a helpmate to the forces of evil and barbarism? Will you help us fight the world’s ills, or will you work to drag all of humanity back to the Stone Age?” The newspaper regarded Hamas – whose founding Covenant in 1988, which it never repudiated, breathed a ferocious spirit of Islamist extremism and universally genocidal anti-Semitism – as a retrogressive force. It considered this view of Hamas – as opposed to the revised version of the Covenant, issued in 2017, which presented the organisation in narrower and less extremist terms as fighting for the rights of Palestinians – to have been borne out by the 7 October attacks.

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Politicians caught in a present from which there seems no way out, or facing the prospect of defeat, have long taken refuge in an imagined future as the ultimate vindication of their conduct. A century ago the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, put on trial in Munich for his violent but unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government in the “beer-hall putsch” the previous autumn, said to the judge: “You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times but the goddess who presides over the eternal court of history will, with a smile, tear in pieces the charge of the public prosecutor and the verdict of this court. For she acquits us.”

This was far from the only appeal a politician who found himself in a difficult situation made to the ultimate verdict of history. At the end of his characteristically prolix, four-hour speech, delivered from the dock in 1953, the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, accused of taking part in a failed attempt to storm an army barracks, famously declared: “History will absolve me.” Speaking to the US Congress in 2003, British prime minister Tony Blair echoed Castro’s words in defending his claim, on which doubt had been rightly cast, that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that this justified the Anglo-American invasion of the country some weeks before: “Let us say one thing. If we are wrong we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.” The more he came under criticism for his participation in the invasion of Iraq, the more he attempted to relativise, even divert, the criticism by appealing to the judgment of  future history: “Let the day-to-day judgments come and go,” he said in March 2003: “be prepared to be judged by history.”

This kind of claim continues to be applied in a wide variety of situations. In 2012, for example, Demetris Christofias, president of Cyprus, who had declared he would not stand in elections due early the following year having failed to prevent a financial collapse caused by the 2008 international banking crisis, defended his decision to accept a European bailout for the Cypriot economy with the prediction: “history will vindicate us”. More recently, Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the USA, declared after the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “We are on the right side of history, and time will put everything in its place.” His puppetmaster, Vladimir Putin, believed Ukraine was historically part of Russia and Ukrainians were Russians misled by a clique of neo-Nazis – they would be Russian once more once the country had been “denazified”.

Appealing to the verdict of history, for people such as Hitler, Castro, Blair or Putin, is a way of asserting their rightness sub specie aeternitate, in the perspective of eternity, in the face of failure or overwhelming criticism of their actions in the present. Underlying it is almost always a view of history – past and future – as the embodiment of ethical principles that will eventually be realised. Such a view is central to the ideology of socialists and Marxists, as well as liberals and humanitarians, who believe in the idea that history over the long-term consists in an inexorable, if often interrupted, progress towards the recognition of human rights, democracy, peace and equality. That is why, for example, former US president Barack Obama talked so frequently about being on the right side of history, whether praising the then German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her welcoming attitude to refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war in 2015 or damning Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

But it’s also, as the example of Putin shows, central to the ideology of nationalists. “It is never too late to get on the right side of history,” the Ukrainian spokesman Oleg Nikolenko told the Hungarian government in 2022 as Viktor Orbán refused to toe the EU line over Russia. In this case, what was on the right side of history was Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination, even existence, as an independent democratic nation, a point also made by German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who in underlining his solidarity with the Ukrainians in February 2022, immediately after Russia’s invasion, declared: “As democrats, as Europeans, we stand by their side – on the right side of history!”

The general belief that history embodied values of humanitarianism and the supremacy of law and morality, in particular Christian morality, at least in Europe, was recognised by Heinrich Himmler, the head of Hitler’s SS and architect of the Holocaust. Speaking to his officers on 4 October 1943 about what he openly referred to as “the extermination of the Jews”, Himmler called it “an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory in our history”. The mass murder of six million Jews was, the Nazis believed, a historical necessity. That was why the SS men who carried it out, shooting Jews into pits or gassing them in extermination camps, remained, as Himmler declared admiringly, by and large  “decent” people behaving “correctly” as they slaughtered millions.

But the world at large, as Himmler also recognised, would simply regard this as a crime, perhaps even the greatest crime in human history, as indeed it did and continues to do. The great mass of ordinary Germans recognised this after the war was over, falsely denying that they had known anything about the Holocaust; that is why Albert Speer, one of Hitler’s top ministers and also one of his few personal friends, said at his trial at Nuremberg that he had remained ignorant of Auschwitz, although in fact he had not. And that is also why Himmler again openly discussed the Nazi extermination of the Jews in front of an audience of senior officers in the armed forces, aiming to commit them to fighting as hard as they could in defence of the Reich by binding them into complicity in what they all knew was a terrible crime.


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Who, then, in the light of all these claims and counter-claims, is on the “right side of history”? There are several reasons why there is, in the end, no such thing. If the 20th and 21st centuries have taught us anything, it must surely be that any notion that human history is progressing towards a world of greater tolerance, humanitarianism, peace and democracy is wholly illusory. Of course, this is no reason to stop fighting for these things. From time to time, indeed, the fight can even meet with a degree of success. But as the French philosopher Albert Camus recognised long ago, humanity’s struggles for these things are best viewed in the light of the myth of Sisyphus, condemned forever to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to see the rock tumble to the bottom as soon as it nears the top, forcing him to start the struggle once more.

If history has no clear direction, therefore, it is absurd to expect it to vindicate one side of a dispute or the other. Certainly, there is a high degree of consensus about the morality of human behaviour, as Himmler recognised: that murder, still more mass murder, is wrong, for example. The fact that dictators will always deny allegations that they are torturing and killing their opponents, or justify themselves by claiming, usually wrongly, that their opponents are doing, or want to do, the same thing, testifies to the widespread support for such principles. The Nazis, for example, believed that all Jews, everywhere, were driven by a racially determined urge to destroy and subvert German, and more generally Western civilisation – which is why, as Himmler said in his speech, it was necessary to kill Jewish children, to prevent them from growing into adulthood in the same spirit. At the same time, he had to keep this paranoid, racist delusion secret because he was aware of the horrified disapproval it would elicit in the world more generally. The verdict of history on his actions would inevitably be a negative one. That was why the “glorious” page of history on which the Holocaust was described could never be written.

In invoking the verdict or judgment of history, politicians are, as so often, demonstrating their own ignorance and misunderstanding of how historians work. Perhaps they are harking back to the history they learned, or think they learned, at primary school, imbibing it from the kind of textbook remorselessly lampooned in Sellar and Yeatman’s imperishable satire 1066 and All That, in which kings and rulers are labelled morally “good”, “bad” or sometimes, like Henry VI, “a good man but a bad king”.

This kind of simplistic moral judgment, so characteristic of schoolbooks in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, is now almost universally avoided, even by historians writing on subjects such as the Nazis. The eminent medievalist David Knowles once declared that “the historian is not a judge, still less a hanging judge”. Of course, as a Catholic priest and Benedictine monk, Knowles was criticising the dominant Protestant historiography of his day (the mid-20th century), which took an overwhelmingly positive stance towards the English Reformation, condemning the life and work of the English monastic orders to which Knowles devoted his life’s work. Still, he did have a point. The purpose of history is surely to understand, not to judge. What purpose would there be in condemning Genghis Khan or indeed even Stalin or Hitler as evil men? It would not get us much further in trying to work out why they did what they did.

But when they embark on their effort to understand and explain, historians differ from one another in the results they produce. The verdict of “history” is never simple or unified. History seldom speaks with one voice. When Tony Blair or Fidel Castro – or Israel’s critics or supporters today – claim that the verdict of history will be in their favour, they are simply misunderstanding how history and historians work.  As the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl – author of Napoleon: For and Against, an illuminating study of the diverging assessments historians have made of the French emperor Napoleon I, published shortly after the end of the Second World War – remarked, “History is indeed argument without end.” History will never absolve or forgive them because history never reaches a final verdict.

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