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Essay: “The Relativity in History”

I ruminate a bit on one of my favorite subjects, continuing a little from yesterday’s blog post.

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History is something fairly absolute. It happened, there is evidence that certain events took place and in some places buildings and objects remain as evidence of the existence and workings of certain peoples and cultures. There will always be some uncertainty on the exact events that took place in the past as, after all, history is said to be written by the winners in every skirmish, in every battle…But there is no denying the existence of history.

Yet, despite all that, I have found that history can also be a relative term, especially when we discuss the age of some object or building.

I am a bit of a history nerd, I like to visit historical sites when I have some time to spare or when I travel somewhere and I enjoy non-fiction about as much as fiction. But being a European, from a country with a long and ponderous history I am fascinated by the weight placed on relatively recent things in other countries. Again that word: Relative.

I can understand Americans’ fascination with buildings a mere 100 years old, for a country that has only existed for a couple of hundred years that is still a big chunk of time. But to compare…In the late 1700s, when the USA was founded, Sweden’s glory days in history were all but over. When the king was murdered at the end of the 1700s it meant the death of the king as a person with absolute power. Only 100 years earlier Sweden had been a great power in Europe with colonies and patches of land all around the Baltic Sea. The very capital of Sweden is over 700 years old last time I checked.

History is a great and powerful thing, but how much it can impress you really depends on where you live and what your background is. Even Sweden with its history can seem silly and insignificant when compared to China, a country with a history stretching back for thousands of years, one of the first great powers in the world. Even the Romans had dealings with China, though they have long since vanished, leaving only their constructs to show their greatness.

Something that seems to be fairly popular in many countries are the kind of roadshows where people can bring their old items and family heirlooms to be valued and perhaps receive a little more info about them. This is another area where we can see the difference in how the age of an item is valued. In the American version something that was made as relatively recent as the early 20th century can be seen and treated as precious and special while something even older than that is rare and amazing. Meanwhile, in the British version it seems to me that 19th century items are fairly common.

History fascinates me not only on its own merits, but also in how other people view it, like the kind of value they attribute to buildings of a certain age. In America, as experience in my travels there, it was amazing and special to see buildings standing that were over a hundred years old, while the city of Prague that I visited a month ago is teeming with buildings that are hundreds, even several hundreds of years old and overlooking them all is Prague Castle, first founded over one thousand years ago, when my Viking ancestors were busy raiding and trading.

Yet I do not think one should belittle those who are impressed by things of a relatively humble age, at least from my own European viewpoint, in fact I think it should be treasured. In this world where we don’t seem to value our belongings as much, where a broken item gets tossed instead of fixed, it is admirable to want to preserve a house from the early 20th century for future generations.  In fact I encourage this behavior. Any history that gets preserved for future generations can become a potential important lesson, something they can learn from, because it is from the mistakes and triumphs of our ancestors that we have built our current society.

If not for the efforts of fairly recent historical person we would not have women in power in certain places of the world, there would not be a black president in the United States and we would not have openly gay clergymen in Sweden today. All of this, thanks to the foundations those before us laid down, though it must be added that in some respects, in some places, we seem to busy ourselves with tearing away at some of those foundations.

History is what it is because it is in the past…That is the definition. We can romanticize about the good bits and feel shudders of horror at the bad bits, but all of that doesn’t matter if we don’t learn anything from it. With a human population where not everyone has ready access to historical literature, preserving buildings, sites and objects can be one way that everyone can have access to history and the lessons we can learn from it. And we can learn things both from objects that are thousands of years old, as well as just fifty.

Though history can be relative, the things we can learn from it are not.

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