Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Lottery of History?

In a couple of months, the Scottish people hold a referendum to decide whether they want to continue being a part of the United Kingdom or revert to being an independent country. I'm not going to discuss the pros and cons of the arguments here. That's for the people of Scotland to decide, which doesn't include me.

It strikes me, though, that an event like this throws up a whole slew of opinions about what history really says. Does it show that Scotland is a discrete nation and should never be anything else, invoking national heroes like Robert Bruce (left)? Or does it show that the absorption of Scotland (and Wales) into a united Britain was part of an inevitable process that began with the unification of small kingdoms like Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria? Both are plausible interpretations.

It's essentially the same dispute (though I trust a lot less violent) as the war that broke up Yugoslavia (and the current conflict in Ukraine, for that matter). There, some believed in the ideal of a single nation for all southern Slavs. Others considered that the constituent parts had a historical right to self-determination. Both sides were convinced that history was on their side.

History isn't what happened, it's what we believe happened — or, as Sellar and Yeatman put it, it's what you remember. On the whole, what we remember is what fits with the world as it is now, or even with the world as we'd like it to be, but the reality is that many events that seem inevitable now happened largely by chance.

Take Portugal, for instance. We're used to the map of Europe that shows Spain taking up most of the Iberian Peninsula, with Portugal along the coast. That's just how it is — they have different languages, after all.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Iberia was divided into a number of kingdoms, principally Aragon in the east, Castile in the middle and Portugal in the west. To the north lay the small kingdom of Navarre, while the remains of Moorish Al-Andalus hung on in the south. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile (right) effectively united their kingdoms, although they continued to rule separately in name till both were dead. The new kingdom of Spain absorbed both Navarre and Al-Andalus, and in 1580 Phillip II of Spain also acquired Portugal by marriage. The peninsula was united.

In some ways, there was no more reason why Portugal should remain independent of Spain (effectively Castile) than that Aragon should. Portugal had been a separate kingdom for centuries — so had Aragon. Portugal had its own language — so did Aragon (Catalan). On the other hand, in the last 150 years of its independence, Portugal had become a unique world power. It led the voyages of discovery to Africa, India and the unknown islands of the Atlantic, and established new trade routes which Spain, England and the Netherlands largely followed. Maybe that was what made Portugal reassert its identity and seize its independence again in 1640.

Spain and Portugal have a great deal in common in terms of history, culture and heritage, but you'd think two very different countries like France and Germany were always going to be separate. Maybe they were, but it wasn't as simple as you might think, and it's never been entirely settled where the border lies.

Both had essentially been part of the Frankish kingdom. The Franks were a Germanic people (the modern descendent of their language is Dutch) who conquered large swathes of western Europe. When their greatest king Charlemagne (left) died, his empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Elbe, and the North Sea to Rome. He left the lot to his son Louis, but Louis was unfortunate enough to have three surviving sons. It was a continuing curse of the Franks that every surviving king's son expected an inheritance. Sometimes this was settled by the venerable institution of fratricide, but at times the kingdom had to be divided.

At the Treaty of Verdun in 843, three of Louis's sons carved the empire up between them. Charles had the western portion, which formed the basis of France, although it didn't include the whole modern nation. Louis* got the east, which included a good deal of present-day Germany and Austria. The eldest son, Lothair, however, received a kingdom that included northern Italy, Switzerland, the Rhineland, Alsace-Lorraine and the Low Countries. An insanely impractical realm, even though it contained the empire's two capitals (Aachen and Rome) and the most important trade artery in western Europe (the Rhine).

During these struggles, Charles and Louis had made an alliance against Lothair, binding themselves by oaths at Strasbourg. They made the oaths in the traditional way to each other's armies, which meant they were in that army's vernacular, and some unknown scribe of blessed memory copied them down verbatim. As a consequence, Louis's oath to Charles's army is the earliest surviving text in Old French (a development of Gaulish Latin) while Charles's oath to Louis's army is likewise the earliest surviving text in Old High German.

OK, that seems to be arguing against what I'm saying. Although it took centuries for France to coalesce into a nation and longer for Germany, the Partition of Verdun essentially created to two countries we know today, and it seems a natural division, given the linguistic difference. To some extent that's true, but it could easily have happened otherwise. What if they'd chosen to divide on a north-south basis, instead of east-west? What if Louis only had one surviving son? What if the Franks had a sane law of succession? France and Germany might never have existed separately.

There's another twist in this tale, though. Remember Lothair, with his bizarre Middle Kingdom? He too divided his lands between his three surviving sons** and much of it fell apart into small provinces whose fealty was batted between French and German kings***. This included the Rhineland, Alsace and Lorraine, which remained the leading bones of contention between France and Germany right down to Hitler's territorial claims in the 1930s. That was all Lothair's fault.

The existence of many present-day nations is by no means inevitable. It was far from certain, for instance, that the American colonies would stick together once the euphoria of winning their freedom had settled down. Several alternative suggestions had considerable backing, including a loose federation (perhaps a little like the modern European Union) and an arrangement with several smaller unions. It seems unthinkable now, but the Federalists like Washington (right) won because they were better organised, not because they had wider support.

The situation is perhaps seen at its most extreme in Africa, where most modern nations (with a few notable exceptions) are purely the result of the Berlin Conference in 1885, where European politicians drew random lines over the map of Africa. Most of the larger nations and a good many of the smaller ones have no internal reason to exist and are struggling, with varying degrees of success, to maintain an identity as modern nations against the forces of history, not with it.

So what does any of this prove? Well, perhaps that the weight of history does play an important role in determining national identities, but it's not always obvious which way history is pushing. Perhaps no nation has a destiny to exist or to have the borders it does, and it should depend entirely which solution suits most people best at the time. Or perhaps a sense of national identity should come into it.

One thing is certain, though. Whatever you might think history determines as inevitable, someone is going to believe the exact opposite just as fervently. Until we learn to respect that fact, the same wars and conflicts are going to carry on.

* The Carolingian dynasty apparently only knew four or five male names. It can get very confusing.

** Louis, Lothair and Charles. Of course.

*** For most of the following thousand years, the King of the Germans went under the guise of Holy Roman Emperor, but the title did exist.