Doing History in Public review of the year
Whatever your opinion of the developments of 2017 it was undoubtedly an interesting year for history, or at least for future historians. In January an unpredictable and somewhat controversial Twitter-wielding former businessman and television personality was inaugurated as President of the USA amidst allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct. As David Runciman pointed out in a DHP post in June, investigations into Donald Trump’s conduct took a surprising turn towards twelfth-century England in a comparison between Trump and Henry II (bizarrely, it was quite a good parallel). This has also been the year of “fake news”, or at least allegations of fake news, so much so that last week Trump announced that he was going to hold a ‘Fake News Awards’ for those he regards as ‘the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media’. We shouldn’t get carried away assuming that we live in a unique age of misinformation, however, as Alex Wakelam’s March DHP post highlighted.
Meanwhile in Europe, there was yet more political fragmentation. The UK government triggered Article 50, making 29 March the first day in the two-year process which will lead to the country’s official exit from the European Union. It was also probably the last time that Theresa May achieved a full night’s sleep for the rest of the year. Pressure on the Prime Minister increased following June’s snap general election, in which the Conservative party lost its overall majority and was forced to seek the support of the Democratic Unionist Party. My own historical guide to snap elections, published on the blog in April, utterly failed to predict this outcome, suggesting that ‘a Conservative victory is highly likely’. In my defence, I was not alone in my prediction. On the other side of the channel, pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron comfortably won France’s Presidential elections on 7 May, while in October Catalonia held a (illegal, according to the Spanish government) referendum in which its inhabitants voted to declare independence from Spain. Catalonia has had a political movement for independence since 1922, but campaigns intensified in 2010 when Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled against some of the measures established in 2006 to secure Catalonia’s autonomy.
Every year has its anniversaries, and 2017 was no exception. August marked seventy years since the partition of India. Mobeen Hussain’s blog post on representations of British India on screen highlighted how narratives of this event in media are strongly influenced by present-day concerns. October saw both the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia and the quincentenary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, which provided a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation in Europe (for future reference, these were probably not nailed to any doors). The media saw some fairly controversial parallels made between the Reformation and Brexit, but Robert Evans gave us a refreshing take on the event in his DHP post comparing Luther with a ninth-century German monk. July saw the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, an event that was marked with special exhibitions and events by a number of museums and galleries with, as Nailya Shamgunova suggested in her review for DHP, mixed results.
As always, there were many events this year that we didn’t write about, and situations that we felt it was not our place to attempt to describe historically. Although Europe’s refugee crisis was not as prominent in the news as it was in the last two years, by the end of April the UN was reporting over 1000 individuals dead or missing as a result of their attempts to cross the Mediterranean sea into Europe. August saw the beginning of a new refugee crisis as the Myanmar military launched violence against Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine, causing hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh from what the UN has denounced as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Meanwhile civil war in Syria continues to displace millions from their homes, amidst severe violence and human rights violations.
Comparisons between the past and the present are not always meaningful, and historians tend to make them with a great deal of caution. Yet as Fred Smith highlighted in his blog post on this subject, looking at the present with an historical eye can help us to put it in perspective by questioning narratives of progress and recognising the contingency of our place in the world. What, then, are the historical lessons of 2017? We’ll probably have to wait a little longer to find out.
Image: President of the United States Donald J. Trump at CPAC 2017 February 24th 2017 by Michael Vadon. (Licensed under Creative Commons via flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/80038275@N00/33132023191)