Recently reading the Financial Times, I came across this comment in an old column by Martin Wolf, their leader writer:
I have recently been thinking a great deal about my long-dead father. I have been writing a memoir of his life for an exhibition being organised by Vienna’s Exilbibliothek (“Exile Library”) in honour of what would have been his hundredth birthday. But I have also been thinking about him because he would have fully understood what is at stake today. Born in what was then Austrian Poland on April 23 1910, my father’s life began just after the end of the “noughties” of the 20th century, of which I wrote last week. Moved by his parents to Vienna in 1914, he lived through the first world war, the hyperinflation of the early 1920s and the Great Depression, before leaving for London, just ahead of Hitler’s arrival, in 1937. There he survived internment as an enemy alien and the second world war. Nearly all his relatives, apart from his immediate family, were killed in the Holocaust. The same was true of my mother’s family. While she and her immediate relatives escaped by trawler from the Netherlands in May 1940, her wider family was destroyed.As a central European intellectual born in 1910 – he was a playwright, journalist, broadcaster, documentary filmmaker and writer of television dramas, in his native language, German – my father lived in historic times....
At an emotional level, these views shaped how I have responded to the financial catastrophe of the past few years.
What I find interesting about this passage is not neccessarily the views- I'm sure plenty agree and plenty oppose Mr Wolf's specific cures for the financial crisis- but the influence of Mr Wolf's father on those views. The reason I quoted the passage at length is that here we have a very cerebral commentator on current events talking in very emotional language- talking with pride about his father and to a lesser extent mother- and with sadness about their fate and affirming that it has influenced him on a deeper than rational, an 'emotional' level in his response to the present crisis. I think what this shows is something I am preoccupied with, which is the length of history. The crisis of today is 60 years on from that of the forties- I never knew my grandfather who fought in the war, I never knew my other grandfather too who tried to fight but was told he could not. But it is still in living memory 60 years on- to put that in context it means that the English Revolution was fought in the context of the Armada, the French in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Reunification of Italy in the context of the French Revolutionary War and the Reunification of Germany in the context of Napoleon. Living memories like Mr Wolf's today stretched back that far: Bismark might talk of Napoleon and his father like Mr Wolf does of Hitler and his.
I don't mean to labour the point but it is that we have a sense of history as discrete moments: in the future if we get that far the Presidency of Barack Obama and the current crisis will be one of those but what Mr Wolf's account shows is that for our times and for previous times, you can't understand the discrete without seeing it in a landscape of events. Obviously there are many stories that can be made out of these events: there are several ways of interpreting the thirties today and there were several ways of interpreting the past in the past, but you have to understand that people do not see events in a singularity but in the stream of their own lives if you are to capture those events. Mr Wolf's column may be brilliant or awful economics or politics, but what it does, whichever it is, is teach a very good history lesson: in order to understand history we cannot forget the histories of the people we study.