Does history matter?
The First World War centenary is being marked in a variety of ways around the UK, but it's worth asking the question - Why? What do we gain from digging up the past? History is full of disturbing stories with modern consequences, but the way we handle stories about people in the past can affect how we deal with their modern descendants. Will this just be an exercise in patriotic flag waving, remembering another reason to hammer the Germans? Might some things be better left buried, like the unexploded shells that keep appearing in the fields of Belgium? Or, to pursue the metaphor, do we need to deal with the bad stuff in the past, unearthing and disposing of it in a responsible fashion, before it hurts someone else?
There will always be an element of selective bias when teaching history: whose history is being related and to what purpose? But, interestingly, the creation of the Christian Bible seems to have predicted this debate long ago, when its original editors decided to assemble a collection of viewpoints as Holy Writ. That's why there are four gospels and not just one 'official history' - readers then have to make up their own mind as to which viewpoint is most relevant to their own situation - or perhaps several.
You will need to perform a short 'show-and-tell', preferably using an original artefact from the First World War. If you do not have anything from this period, then you could share the story of a personal family heirloom.
- Do you like history?
- What do you find interesting about life in the past?
Get the pupils to discuss this in pairs, and then volunteer some responses from five children of different ages.
'Show-and-tell' an object, asking the pupils to describe its features, make guesses about its nature and use, then tell the story of how it was used, and how it came into your possession. Use this discussion to share your own interest in history, and the lives of people in the past.
Explain that history is often about stories, which help us to explain why things happened the way they did - it's how we make sense of things:
How did that argument start?
Well, he said this and then she said that and then... and then...
But we need to be careful when listening to stories because some can be dangerous. Here's one. Listen to it very closely because, afterwards, we are going to think about why it could be dangerous.
When war broke out in July 1914, the British army was much smaller than the German army, and the British were driven back, retreating across Belgium as the Germans advanced. It was mostly about numbers - a bigger army pushing back a smaller army. But back in the UK, some British people started saying that the reason the Germans seemed to be winning was because they had spies everywhere, sending our military secrets back to Germany, and spies who were trying to blow up our factories and poison our food. Newspapers began to fill up with reports about German spies, and authors were writing spy stories for magazines - and then everything went a bit strange.
People started to report they'd seen German spies hiding under bridges, asking too many questions at railway stations, taking photos of important places. Only they weren't, as the British Secret Service had rounded them all up - there weren't any Germans in the UK helping Germany fight the war. But, that didn't stop the stories. Somebody said they'd seen a German armoured car driving down the Great North Road to attack London. Rubbish! But in 1914, everybody had a friend of a friend who had 'heard something' about German spies.
And there was one horrible truth: lots of German people were living in the UK, getting on with making a living - or trying to. They'd been here for years, just as many British people were living and working in Germany. Many German people living in the UK ran their own businesses, owned their own shops, and worked in hotels, restaurants, hospitals and schools. Even the British Royal Family was German!
But in 1914, every German person was treated as 'suspicious' - they were the hidden enemy. One newspaper wrote: 'If your waiter sounds foreign, demand to see his passport!' Some German shopkeepers had their windows smashed while others were arrested for no reason, and many German people living in the UK were driven out of their homes by their neighbours. It wasn't fair.
In fact, it got so bad that the British Government had to put out a statement on 9 August 1914, saying: 'the great majority of Germans remaining are peaceful and innocent persons from whom no danger is to be feared.' In other words, 'Leave them alone'. But they weren't left alone, because the spy stories kept coming, all through the war. And our Royal Family even had to change their name to Windsor.
This is what happens when people tell stories that aren't fair or true. And you never know where they will stop - a story could say it's all right to be cruel, mean or nasty. That's why we should think hard when we hear stories about people being horrible to each other and ask questions like:
- Is it true?
- How do we know it's true?
- Why are you telling me this?
The Christian Bible has lots of stories about Jesus, but, interestingly, there are four sets of stories - four different collections: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But why have four instead of one? Because the people who put the Bible together were saying: 'Make up your own mind. Hear the different points of view. Build up the bigger picture in your head.' They weren't telling people what to think - rather, they were giving them lots of things to think about.
In John's Gospel, Jesus said:
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
John 8:31-32 (NIV)
Jesus spent lots of time with his friends, talking, listening, discussing and showing them new ways of thinking. They didn't find it easy, but by the end, they were ready to take on the world and change it.
History is full of stories like this - of people who asked questions and didn't just take other people's word for it because they wanted to know more. Good historians ask questions all the time, helping us to get nearer to the truth. Why? Because it sets people free from being mixed up by silly stories that make trouble. And that's why, when we study history, it's always good to keep spotting the interesting questions buried underneath - to reveal interesting discoveries and find out the truth. What did Jesus say about the truth? It can set you free.
Here is a prayer to finish with:
Lord Jesus, you said you were the way, the truth and the life. All the time in school, we're trying to find out about the truth - to find it, weigh it up and work out what the most important things are. Help us to be honest about telling the truth, even when it hurts us. And give us the courage to keep asking the hard questions that help us find out the answers we need. Amen.