Tuesday, March 9, 2021

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 02-12-2017 10:59

The unbearable weight of history

Beyond these reminders of what is rapidly forgotten, the passing months of 2017 have been dotted with significant milestones which do not slip easily from people’s minds and recollections.

With the start of December yesterday journalism has entered the month of year-end jumbo fillers, generously padded chronologies and comment for the 12 months we still hope to survive. The yearly search through newsroom files is necessary to make up for the slow news season. There are exceptions, of course. My colleague Michael Soltys has turned the annual exercise into an essay filled with knowledge and fine detail.

Beyond these reminders of what is rapidly forgotten, the passing months of 2017 have been dotted with significant milestones which do not slip easily from people’s minds and recollection. They have become historical landmarks that cannot be easily forgotten – first, because of the lesson they left, second, because of the devastating effects on several generations. So the chronologies of any one year can go further into the past and thus retain a sense of the big anniversaries that accumulate through the decades.

One of the big anniversaries given a fresh recentness in this year was the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the third Battle of Ypres, in West Flanders, Belgium, which stretched from July to November 1917. The savage clash between Allied forces and the German armies saw its centenary this year. For many the century-old battle for Europe, the First World War (or World War I, or the Great War, as it was first called), is still an essential landmark in any chronology. The first day of battle was on July 31, 1917. This was an anniversary marked in several European cities this year. The battle was fought over possession of vital supply systems, which the German Army needed to control. Three months later, by early November the Allies had taken the high ground, but the battle cost 475,000 casualties, killed, wounded or missing; 275,000 British and Commonwealth troops and 200,000 Germans. The Allied casualties included 38,000 Australians, 15,654 Canadians and 5,300 New Zealanders.

In spite of the summer start to the battle, it was fought mostly in rain and mud, which made the fighting all the more miserable. Both sides tried to advance under machinegun fire, shellfire, crossing through barbed wire.

There is good reason to agree that the memory of that single battle (along with others, taken separately but equally awful) will remain in the minds of a European public for a long time to come. Every year the remains of bodies are found. The British War Graves Commission is still digging up bones and, in some cases, deciding on new burials.

A 70th anniversary for that imagined historical chronology of events that continues to shake the world was the Independence of India, celebrated on August 15, 1947. That was after centuries of British rule, as the old Empire began to break up for good. There was not much fun to follow the celebration of independence. Just a few days later, Britain handed India the plan for partition of India into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. A lawyer, Cyril John Radcliffe (1899-1977) was appointed to write the document that would split Pakistan from India.

Radcliffe took five sleepless weeks to draw up the maps, rules and recommendations for the partition. The result was over a million people killed and many more millions displaced in that surreal traffic north by Muslims escaping India to their new home, in Pakistan, which also included East Pakistan, later Bangladesh with independence on March 26, 1971. And as this took place, the Hindus fled south, to India. On the way, slaughter was a common daily element.

It is easy to wonder here why look back to India’s 70th. It was vital for several reasons. India’s leader, Nehru, sought commercial and ideological support from the Soviet Union. Pakistan would eventually choose the China that Mao Zedong declared independent in 1949. But India’s partition and its influence are still salient points in this imaginary chronology for the end of 2017.

Nisid Hajari, an Indian-American born in Mumbai and now a foreign affairs analyst in the United States, lashes out at both sides, Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Jinnah, and India’s leader Jawarhalal Nehru. The channel for taking both national heroes to the cleaners is Hajari’s book, Midnight’s Furies, The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, recently published in the US. His style has been described in the New Yorker as a fastpaced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath.

“Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.” Yes, fastpaced it is, in a total absence of humanity. According to Hajari, in 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. Accepted or not, it was part of the major historical dates marked this year.

After this dose of history gone wild, not a few might prefer to look back on the life of Diana Spencer, Prin- cess of Wales, born in 1961, she died in August 1997.

That is 20 years ago this year. As the anniversary arrived and went this year, there were people in no small number in Britain who thought she represented a better kind of England, a past of beauty and charm and romance. Maybe. It is certain she wished to represent, at least that is what comes out of her biographies, a more peaceful and orderly nation. It is not easy to imagine. But the feeling was reflected in articles in the big dailies in London.

Among many other topics, these few points alone make it quite a year for anniversaries.

(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007)

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Andrew Graham-Yooll

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).


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