Monday, 18 May 2015

Conspiracy Theories: Why we love them and why we need them

Let’s face it, everyone loves a conspiracy theory. Whether you imagine yourself back on a grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963 (the only grassy knoll in the world by the way); in a film studio in California in 1969 as Neil Armstrong rehearses his ‘one giant leap’ line written for him by a young George Lucas; back in 15th Century London as a hunchbacked King Richard plots the murder of his two young nephews at the Tower of London; or transported to 1950’s South America where all the leading figures of the Nazi Party are residing in a residential enclave. All tantalisingly within reach of our consciousness and yet just far enough away from our understanding to drive our curiosity wild. Why we engage so avidly with theories we cannot possibly confirm speaks to our love of history and also the workings of the mind.

The President and First Lady, 22nd November 1963
We love conspiracy theories because, at heart, most of us love History. Not necessarily in an academic, head in a book, stuck in library sort of way but a basic enjoyment of the stories of the past and trying to understand them. Humans like to know; we want to understand what happened and this desire for knowledge and inherent curiosity drives conspiracy theorists as much as their desire for the truth. Take the Kennedy assassination. It has to be the most analysed ‘conspiracy theory event’ in History. Everything we could know about it, we do – except of course, who definitely did it. And that is the bit that drives us crazy. Thanks to the Zapruder film, we can follow the motorcade as it travels through downtown Dallas, makes the looping right, then left turn and heads towards the freeway. Our knowledge is complete right up until the point when the first bullet hits Kennedy in the throat – then everything is up for grabs. How many shots? Where from? How many gunmen? The problem we have as humans is that SOMEONE KNOWS. Whoever did it, and any accomplices, know exactly what happened that day. And the fact we still don’t know annoys us, irritates us and makes us want to know all the more. This is a seminal moment in World history and we feel we have a right to understand it fully. Yet we feel as if we don’t. But why are we so reluctant to accept what the facts seem to point to – one gunman, one assassin, case closed. The problem is that although we love conspiracy theories, that love is outweighed by our need for them. And it is this necessity that keeps the Kennedy assassination, and many other mysteries, going long after they have seemingly been solved.

This need, it seems to me, comes from the limitations of the mind to comprehend certain things. Conspiracy theories are a reaction the facts not fitting within the boundaries of what we find believable. The human brain has a need to have historic events explained by something tangible. The Kennedy assassination is a perfect example of that ‘comfort conspiracy theory’ rationalisation that helps our brain understand the inexplicable. A brief overview of the two central characters outlines the problem. John Fitzgerald Kennedy – youngest ever president, handsome, a brilliant orator, a beautiful family, instantly recognisable across the globe, inspiration to millions, seemingly loved by all. Lee Harvey Oswald – army dropout, loner, rather dishevelled, unimportant in the grand scheme of things, a nobody. We are simply unable to accept that someone as insignificant as Oswald could cut short a life as significant as Kennedy’s. It exposes the fragility of life too clearly. It makes us scared because of the randomness of it. It makes us feel powerless if the most powerful man on earth can be killed just because someone with no real power wants to do it. The randomness of Oswald getting hold of a rifle, firing three shots and changing the world is simply not acceptable as an understanding of that day. It implies that no-one is fully in control – the conspiracy theories put someone back in control of History and that makes us feel, by implication, in control of the past ourselves. Somewhat bizarrely, conspiracy theories make us feel safer. If we think about it rationally, a group of criminal masterminds manipulating the world for their own gain is about as scary as it gets and yet in some ways we prefer that thought to the utter randomness and chance that life throws our way – we need it.

Lee Harvey Oswald in custody
In closing, it appears we love and need conspiracies in equal measure. You might infer from the tone of this piece that I have no time for any conspiracy theories and I am certain Oswald acted alone. In part, this is true. Then I pick up a magazine, or listen to a podcast or watch a TV show purporting to have new evidence and I find myself thinking about grassy knolls, puffs of smoke, changed motorcade routes and the improbability of the ‘magic bullet theory’ and I indulge my need to question the accepted wisdom. For me, the desire to know the truth and solve the mystery is the driving force but as long as that is twinned with a need to explain the past with something more enlightening than the randomness of life, conspiracy theories will continue to play a role in everyday historical study.

An interesting overview of the various conspiracy theories on the Kennedy assassination and recommending reading from journalist David Talbot can be found here

S Shergold

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Flea in the Ointment?

So, it appears that we may have been wrong about the origins of the Black Death after all. Historians and scientists have been working together, looking at tree ring samples to ascertain whether the climate conditions would have been right for rats to be the primary carriers of the fleas that would then transmit the disease to humans. Initial findings appear to suggest that any link between the outbreak of the plague and the weather is tenuous, leading some to suggest that the Asian giant gerbil was actually the source of the epidemic. Startling news if true, meaning that countless generations of teachers and students have been happily passing on incorrect information for years. Worrying? Not at all; it is this uncertainty and evolution of ideas that gives History its dynamism, its energy and stretches those who seek to understand the past.


Troubling as it may be to have something that seems so ingrained turned on its head, this process is key to the study of history, driving us on to be better historians, to always look for a fuller understanding and to make the most of the developments of the modern world to better grasp days gone by. We should not shy away from new theories and ideas - we should cautiously welcome them and then do what all great historians do; question them from every angle and see if they stand up to scrutiny. Getting it 'wrong' in History is not a crime (unless done deliberately to shape the past the way you want it) because  frequenty there is no 'wrong' answer - just a differing opinion. Whilst dates and people may stay the same, the deeper understanding of cause and consequence is always up for discussion and forms the bedrock of the discipline. Whilst this new information might send Year 7 history teachers up and down the land rushing in a panic to the library and the internet to look up 'giant gerbils', we should also be thankful that our subject often never really comes to a neat conclusion - after all we wouldn't want to waste all that curiousity. If nothing else, it might help clear the name of the much maligned Black Rat and if History does nothing else than overturn historical miscarriages of justice, it is a still a valuable tool in today's 'I want the answer now' society. Long live controversy and debate - it makes good historians of us all.

S Shergold

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Tunics for Goalposts - The Corinthians in the Great War

Firstly, two confessions.

1: The title of this blog is taken directly from the excellent BBC Five Live podcast that can be found here, about the role of footballers in the Great War. It goes beyond an investigation into whether there was a famous football match during the 1914 Christmas Truce and looks into the role professional footballers played during WW1. An excellent listen.
2. This blog post is mainly to do with my own football team, Corinthian Casuals and will therefore lack the complete objectivity that historians often strive for!

Corinthians FC were formed in 1882 by PA Jackson, then the General Secretary of the FA, primarily as a way of trying to improve the English national team and overcome the Scottish dominance of their rivalry in the preceding 7 years. For the next 7 years the Corinthians (a strictly amateur club upholding the best traditions of amateur sport) provided 52 of the 88 caps awarded to England players in games against Scotland and in 1894 the first of an astonishing list of records was set; the first (and still only) club to provide all 11 players for a full England international match. They would repeat that feat a year later against Wales.

By 1897 the role of the club was changing - they became football missionaries, taking the game outside of Europe for the first time to South Africa and then the Americas. But it was in 1910, when they accepted the invitation of Arthur Cox of the Fluminense club in Brazil to tour that country, that football history changed forever.

Corinthians FC touring team in Brazil, 1910

That tour included a 5-2 victory against Brazil's first ever national team and a 10-1 victory over their hosts Fluminense! News of their feats spread across the country and they were invited to Sao Paulo by ex-Corinthian and expatriate Charles Miller, the man who took the game to Brazil in the shape of a rule book and a passion for the game. Playing Miller's side Sao Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC) the Corinthians won 8-2, thrilling the locals and inspiring 5 railway workers in the crowd. They decided they wanted to form a club and took the name of the visiting superteam - SC Corinthins Paulista were born ... yes, that Corinthians, the former world club champions and one of the top teams of South America. The Corinthians of Socrates and the original Ronaldo.

All very interesting, you may say, but what's the link to Tunics for Goalposts? Well, after a successful 1913 tour, the club were invited back to Brazil in 1914. They boarded a boat and set sail in July 1914 but on 6th August they got word that war had been declared. Four of the players returned home immediately, being in the Reserve Officer Corps. The rest of the party docked in Rio before deciding to return back home to join the war effort. And here the story takes a tragic turn - the Corinthians would go on to lose more men during the fighting than any other club side in England, a total of 70. Five of the famous 11 that beat Brazil would lose their lives, including striker Cuthbert Brisley, considered the greatest forward in Europe at the outbreak of the war, and goalkeeper Thomas Rowlandson, who used to stand aside for penalty kicks in the unique Corinthian way, who died at the Somme. The FA presented the club with a unique memorial roll of honour, dedicated to their sacrifice and which has been restored to go on display the National Football Museum next year.

Corinthians FC disembark in Brazil, 1913

The Corinthians have continued to try and keep this missionary role alive and, after their merger with The Casuals in 1939, have also gone on to become the highest ranked club in the football pyramid that are purely amateur. The reason that this resonates so much now is that in January 2015 the current Corinthian Casuals squad are returning to Brazil to fulfill all the fixtures that the 1914 side were not able to. This will include a game against the current SC Corinthians Paulista in the new 47,000 seater stadium, purpose built for the last World Cup. It's a fitting tribute to the team of 1914 and reminds us, in an age when it is easy to sneer at sportsmen and women and question their role in society, that sport has wonderful traditions and a rich heritage that can cross boundaries and be a way for people to come together. That is the message that the Corinthian Casuals have always stood for - so keep an eye out in the media for the 2015 tour and whilst doing so, remember the team of 1914. In case you doubt the significance of this club, here are some historical facts to support the case.

  • Fielded the first black international footballer, Andrew Watson, who played for Scotland
  • The only football team to beat the Barbarians at rugby
  • Hold the record defeat of Manchester Utd, 11-3 in 1904
  • Inspired the all white kit of Real Madrid
  • Captain Charles Wreford-Brown invented the word 'Soccer' whilst at Oxford University 
  • Twice provided all 11 players for the England national team
I am grateful to Chris Watney for providing information for this post and I wish the current squad the best of luck with their upcoming tour - I know they will do Corinthians all around the world proud.

S Shergold

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Counterfactual History - An essential tool for historians or a fool's errand?

Last month the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna hosted a conference for trainee diplomats. One of the key questions posed was, 'If Franz Ferdinand was not assassinated in 1914, would World War I have happened and would the Austro-Hungarian Empire survived?' This is not an uncommon question, especially in light of the anniversary events taking place this year, but it does lead to the question whether counterfactual history, or 'what if' history, is a serious academic exercise or a fun task that sheds little light on the past.

There are many classic 'what if' questions to pose - and they normally revolve around someone dying or surviving. What if Hitler had been killed in the trenches? What if Lee Harvey Oswald (or insert your favourite conspiracy theory suspect as appropriate here) missed JFK? What if Henry VIII's older brother Arthur had not died in adolescence and become King instead? The main argument against the usefulness of these question is perhaps that it puts too much emphasis on individuals shaping history. The 'Great Man' theory of history was at its height in the 19th Century and with so much development in the field since then towards much larger, structural causal explanations it perhaps doesn't deepen our understanding of the past, despite being a provoker of fierce debate.

What appears clear is that these questions can often be very good starting points. By taking a single event, and reversing the outcome, we can gain a much better understanding of that event in isolation and, from that, begin to assess its impact on what came next. The Archduke's murder is a gripping story of intrigue, incompetence, chance and sandwiches (look it up) but it does give us a doorway to into the wider European issues of the time, which ultimately provoked the Great War. If the chauffeur doesn't get lost on the Apple Quay in Sarajevo and drives straight to the hospital as planned, we can take the accepted trigger cause out of the picture and really assess whether the war would have happened when it did and involve who it did. In this sense, the question is valid as it allows us to look more closely at the underlying factors at play.

We should also ensure not to take the fun out of History - even those with no real passion for the subject will probably find themselves eager to let their imagination run riot as they rewrite history in their own name and then try to work out what the consequences of their alternative universe would be. This is valuable in and of itself. However, the main job of the historian is to interpret the past at it actually happened and whilst counterfactual history is enjoyable and can be illuminating, it cannot be used to gloss over the hard graft of working on what actually happened. So, continue to ask yourself 'what if' but don't ever forget the 'what happened'.

For those interested in counterfactual history, try the book, 'Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-41'. Written by Ian Kershaw, leading historian on Hitler's Third Reich, it looks at ten decisions made during the early stages of World War II and considers alternative histories. Well worth a read. Link to it on Amazon is here.

S Shergold

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Dawn of a New Cold War?

In this, the month of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is perhaps prudent to look at the current geo-political crisis in Ukraine and ask if we are drifting towards the start of a new Cold War. Recent events at the G20 summit in Brisbane have brought the tensions sharply into focus, forgetting for a moment the shared experience of koala cuddling. Intransigent positions taken on all sides, tough rhetoric and no discernible nod towards compromise have increased the chances that a full blown diplomatic collapse between Russia and the West will evolve and lead to a return of the mistrust and suspicion of the 1950's and 60's. For Brisbane 2014 can we read Yalta and Potsdam 1945?

Brisbane 2014?
Potsdam 1945?

Whilst there is little doubt that the current frostiness in relations have echoes of the post war period, the extremes of those particular times are missing today, certainly from a European angle. In 1945 the continent lay exhausted from 6 years of war and the latent hostility between political ideologies created an environment that sparked the Cold War. Relatively speaking, Europe today is a more settled place, there is no fear of Communism spreading across the globe and the oft quoted 'nuclear shadow' does not take centre stage in political matters.  However, the escalation in direct armed conflict has worsened this crisis rapidly and pushed both sides to an intransigent position. The West's economic sanctions are 'biting plenty good' according to President Obama and yet commentators this weekend indicated that Putin and Russia were playing the long game and waiting for the cracks to appear in his opponents' stance, rather like West Berlin post 1945 one might argue. Even if Russian dominance was a key motive for Putin's stance on Ukraine the absence of mass numbers of Russian troops means that easy parallels with the Soviet domination of post war Eastern and Central Europe are probably best avoided, but if we replace the 'Red Army' with control of oil and gas supplies then perhaps the bargaining chips are not too dissimilar after all.

A detailed overview of the original situation can be found here by Robert Legvold, Professor in Political Science at Columbia University. In the meantime we wait to see if the blunt assessments of the situation expounded by Obama, Cameron and Merkel this weekend will become the 'Iron Curtain' moment of our times and confirms a retreat to a new Cold War, one which could leave Russia dangerously isolated 25 years to the month that the Communist experiment started to unravel.

S Shergold

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

In Our Time History Podcasts

BBC Radio's podcast archive is a rich source of expert information for teachers and students alike. A fine example of this is the series linked here, the 'In Our Time History' series. The format is simple - a significant event, individual or era is looked at and discussed in depth by expert historians and pitched in such a way as to accessible to all whilst stretching those with a particular interest. Of direct relevance to our current A Level historians might be Rana Mitter's views on the Sino-Japanese war, Saul David's analysis on the importance of Clausewitz's 'On War' or Richard Evans and Eric Hobsbawm discussing whether an understanding of history could lead to us predicting the future. The benefit of listening to such clear and concise expert evaluation should not be underestimated in a time when historical writing can sometimes become a rather tangled web.
The sister series, just called 'In Our Time', can be found here and covers a myriad of areas, history among them. For broader thinkers and cross curricular students there are also science and philosophy editions. Just one word of caution; much as presenter Melvyn Bragg may be admired for the breadth of his knowledge in chairing these discussions, his tendency to interrupt far more expert opinion and his rather pompous tone can grate after a while. Overall though, an excellent resource and an opportunity to engage with real academic debate with those UCAS forms and university interviews on the horizon.
S Shergold

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Hungarian Rising and Its Extraordinary Aftermath

The 'History in an Hour' website is well worth a few visits, and it records here the dramatic events of the 1956 Hungarian Rising, eventually brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union in a manner clearly much appreciated by modern day Russia's Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB spy (albeit a low ranking one) turned Russian president and would-be Soviet resurrector.

The Soviet action in Budapest in November had a dramatic footnote at the Melbourne Olympics, in the water polo semi-final match between none other than Hungary and its oppressors, the Soviets.  According to 'History in an Hour's' Rupert Colley, Hungary were the water-polo superpowers of the time, and having been in virtual isolation at the time their fellow Hungarians were being slaughtered in the streets by Soviet tanks, the water-polo players were determined to seek their revenge on their hated opponents.  They won the vigorous match handily, although it was a young Hungarian player who eventually ended up with blood on his face, causing the match to be known as the 'blood in the water' match.  Read about it here.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Canute the Great

King Canute - or Cnut in the spelling we should probably be seeking to avoid - is still one of the most misunderstood monarchs in English history.  And yet he should be seen as one of our greatest rulers, even if he was not, of course, English himself, but the last conqueror before William.  Schools now tend to cover him too briefly as part of the monarchical timeline before the Conquest, but the British Museum Vikings exhibition may be in the process of resurrecting his reputation.  The Guardian saw fit to write a brief and positive note on one of England's greatest kings here, and perhaps it is time that he was restored to a more prominent position in school curriculums?  Here's to Canute the Great.

Re-booting with Pop History

As a short starting post for the possible re-booting of this blog, some 3 years from the last item, I have to say that this letter from Alec Guinness - tweeted by @lettersofnote on the late actor's 100th birthday - is a gem.  Referring to his then film project, something called "Star Wars", Guinness writes disparagingly of the "rubbish dialogue" that he keeps being sent, which fails to develop his character in his view.  And who could disagree with the old master himself?  Despite his distinguished acting pedigree, Guinness found himself wafting around on screen generally uttering phrases such as "Use the Force, Luke" in different and would-be mysterious intonations.  Mind you, although he seems to like fellow actor Harrison Ford, it's clear that he can't be bothered to remember his name, which is a pity given that Ford reputedly shared Guinness' view on the execrable nature of the dialogue he was meant to be speaking.  He famously shouted at director George Lucas that "you may be able to type this shit, George, but you sure as hell can't say it". 

I doubt either of them were too fussy at the financial security the film gave them though.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The King's Speech, Hollywood History And An Unconstitutional Act

Hollywood is in love with the British monarchy again. The King’s Speech is the surprise Oscar nominee that seems to be sweeping all before it with a heart-warming tale of a reluctant king over-coming his stammer to lead his country in defiance against one of the twentieth century’s worst monsters. There’s even a cameo for Britain’s Greatest Ever Prime Minister, as he offers sage advice to the introverted future monarch. Well, quite. Just as the film is beautifully made, wonderfully directed and sublimely acted, and rightly on course for its Oscars, it also manages to show just how much history is surrendered to art in the making of historical dramas. A backlash is already beginning against its re-writing of history, and few are more trenchant than British ex-pat and enfant terrible, Christopher Hitchens, in this article for online magazine Slate.

Vigorous as ever, Hitchens’ article is worthwhile in that it allows history teachers and students - to say nothing of the general reader - to once again cull the sources in testing the veracity of a piece of filmic history. Hitchens goes to town against the film for two major historical faults - its portrayal of Winston Churchill as a sympathetic friend to the Duke of York and future George VI; and its portrayal of the same George VI as some sort of doughty fighter against Nazism. These are, he says, quite culpably inaccurate. Churchill (as any fule kno) maintained an extraordinary commitment not to the Duke of York but his embattled elder brother, ‘David’ (Edward VIII). Whilst Baldwin was brilliantly managing the abdication of the love-struck monarch, Churchill was stuck firmly in the soon-to-be-ex monarch’s crowd of loyal cheer-leaders - Hitchens even quotes one of the future PM’s purpler passages about Edward. It wasn’t his only inter-war error of judgement of course - he remained a firm opponent of any form of self-government for India, and was responsible for the not so good return to the gold standard as Chancellor.

Meanwhile, Hitchens’ other gripe is about George VI as Nazi fighter. While the King won tremendous - and well deserved - plaudits for his stolid symbolic leadership during the Blitz, he was a fervent supporter of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement towards Hitler, maintaining this stance even when Chamberlain had to resign by proposing fellow appeaser Lord Halifax as his replacement. Hitchens quotes historian Andrew Roberts on George’s invitation to Chamberlain to share the royal balcony before Parliament had even had a chance to debate the Munich proposals. Roberts describes this as:

“the most unconstitutional act by a British Sovereign in the present century.”

So a new film about history and new debates about historicity. A gift for the British historian at all levels!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

American Civil War

Interesting and helpful article - especially for A2 students - on the transformative nature of the US Civil War in this month's 'History Today'. Tracing its origins back to Waterloo, and its impact forward to the industrial wars of the twentieth century, it is well worth a read.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Vietnam videos

Two introductory videos on Vietnam from youtube have now been added to the 'History on Youtube' link bar at the left. They cover the initial US involvement, and then carry links to further episodes in the series.

Monday, 3 May 2010

New Web Page

There is a new web page with links to a number of the powerpoint presentations used in lessons. These are mainly China powerpoints for the AS students, although a couple of A2 warfare powerpoint are there as well, with more to be added.

We will also try and tidy up this blog to make it more helpful for students.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Sarajevo Terrorists - 1914

This is part of a BBC documentary on the fateful Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Why Did World War 1 Start?

The classic explanation for the origins of World War 1 as related by Blackadder to Baldrick.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Reform in Russia 1906-14

Russia 1906-14
1. Assess the impact of the economic (Stolypin, Industrialisation), social (church, education etc) and political (Duma, policies towards opposition) reforms that took place between 1906-14.
P146-165 in text books and handouts

2. In what ways did Russia progress as a society between 1906-14?

3. How stable was Tsarist Russia on the eve of WW1? More or less stable than in 1905?

To be finished for discussion in lessons on Mon 16th Nov 09

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

China 1927-34 - Chiang in Power and Recovery of the Communists

Answer the following questions in full

1/ How did Chiang Kai-shek attempt to consolidate power after the White Terror of 1927?

2/ What was the new Life Movement?

3/ How did the Communists recover after the disaster of 1927? How important was Mao in this?

Monday, 12 October 2009

Stolypin's Reforms

Stolypin's Reforms 1905-1911

1. What types of reforms was Stolypin trying to implement in this period?

2. What were his motivations in trying to achieve these reforms?

3. How successful was he in implementing them? Why?

These questions, along with the Duma questions, form the background info to attempt the 'dummy run' Interpretations question that has been set.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Age of the Dumas 1906-17

1. Summarise the attitudes/policies/leaders of the political parties involved in the 4 Dumas using the template given in Q6 on p178/9 of your text book
2. Summarise the main features of the 4 Dumas using the template given on p179 of your text books
3. Did the 'Age of the Dumas' represent significant political change in Russia? Explain your answer
4. Did the Dumas achieve any substantial change in Russia between 1906-17?
5. Did the existence of the Duma limit the power of the Tsar in any way in this period?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Apologising for My Lai - William Calley Speaks Out

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai."

The words of William Calley, speaking just a few days ago in America, and reported by a blogger who was there. Calley is the only man to have been convicted of the notorious My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and remains to this day a controversial figure. The news of his 'apology' broke more widely on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish.