How Major Events of History Can Be Affected by Seemingly Small Decisions
John Schwartz, writing in the NYT (Dec. 28, 2003):
History is the story of the mighty oaks; the acorns get little ink. There are too many seeds, and their existence is too transient. So historians, in professional retrospect, tell us which of the acorns got lucky.
We go forward armed with the lessons of the past: it's not always the obvious things that change the course of the world. Sometimes they are small, or overlooked. The best sellers of pre-Revolutionary France were largely ignored by literati of the time and by literary tradition since. They tended to be roughly drawn and raw, even pornographic. But those works have been rediscovered by historians like Robert Darnton of Princeton University who see the possible causes of social movements in the bawdy tales," certain books that were never reviewed, that appeared and were ignored by the media of the time, but that made a tremendous difference," he says.
In Professor Darnton's 1995 book,"The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France," he writes about racy works like"Anecdotes About Mme. la Comtesse du Barry," the story of the courtesan to King Louis XV. It was, he says,"a book that presented the king as a very flawed human being" - in fact,"a dirty old man, incompetent and decadent." Thus a book overlooked by the elite helped to strip the monarchy of its sacred aura and may have ultimately helped to open the royal path to the guillotine.
Revolutions have come from less.
Sometimes big changes start with something as simple as drawing a line. The statesmen and bureaucrats who devised the modern Middle East from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and just after did not foresee the decades of bitter conflict that would ensue along every border. What the historian David Fromkin called"a line drawn on an empty map by a British civil servant in the early 1920's" between the nations now known as Iraq and Kuwait was disregarded by Saddam Hussein when he invaded in 1990. The attempt to rebuild Iraq depends on the meshing of three provinces of the Ottoman empire, sewn together as part of the same effort to divvy up the region and create British and French spheres of interest that eventually defined the outlines of Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
comments powered by Disqus
Robert John - 1/14/2004
Kuwait was part of Mesopotamia,and should have been art of Iraq. the British wished to maintain a base, as the USA now continues to do.
Kuwait is a province of Iraq.you do not have to be "the brutal dictator who gassed his own people"!!! (repeated)
to know that.
- Rutgers historian Rudy Bell leads protest against Condoleezza Rice speaking at commencement
- Islamic history scholar Michael Cook wins Holberg Prize
- Prolific Alaskan Historian, Author, UAF Professor Claus-M. Naske Passes at Age 78
- Historian Fernando Prado on quest to find remains of Cervantes
- Historian shines a light on the dark heart of Australia's nationhood