Sunday, February 17, 2008

Stunde Null: The Beginning of History

Many observers used to talk about a (West) German ethos in the postwar decades whereby German history was re-started after WWII, so that May 1945 was Zero Hour, (Stunde Null); nothing that came earlier had any relevance. As regular readers know, I actually think the Germans have done a reasonable job at confronting their past, but that's not the theme of this post. I mention the concept because upon reflection, there's nothing particularly German about it - the the folks I'm thinking of use the opposite dynamic for the same concept.

Eliyahu M'tzion recently left a comment on this post:
The condition that Cole describes as being that of the palestinian Arabs --prolonged statelessness-- was in fact that of the Jews since the Arabs conquered the Land of Israel in the 7th century, then part of the Byzantine Empire where the Jews did have certain rights, although less to be sure than they had before the rise of Christianity when the Emperor Caracalla made Jews and others citizens of the Empire. In the West, after Christianization and after the fall of the Empire, Jews were very subjects deprived of rights although their situation fluctuated by time and place. In the Islamic domain, after the Arab conquest, Jews were very much exploited, oppressed, and humiliated subjects. Indeed, Christians too were dhimmis, like Jews, in the Muslim domain [dar al-Islam] but I believe that the Jews' status was even lower, even worse than that of the Christians. So, if statelessness is akin to slavery, as Cole says, then his poor Arabs were enslaving Jews for more than a thousand years.
Elijahu is basically right, of course, though I'm not convinced how useful his observation is. To my mind, however, it points to a significant phenomenon, in which many pundits, politicians, and even historians assign a meta-historical significance to a rather recent moment in history at which the evil westerners first intervene in events, and from then on they are responsible for everything bad that happens. For Juan Cole, for example, the thousands of years of history in Egypt are all subordinate to the French invasion under Napoleon. Until then things had been OK, but now suddenly the bad Europeans had arrived to derail the locals' history. Or think of the assumption that borders drawn as recently as 80 years ago are inviolate and etched in marble.

A very common phenomenon.


Lydia McGrew said...

There was a rather funny Dry Bones cartoon along these lines. I wish I had time to find the link to it. One of the characters said something about how some politico had mentioned "giving back Jerusalem," and the other character said something like, "Does that mean the way Jerusalem was returned to us nearly two thousand years after the Romans took it in A.D. 70?" And the first guy says, "No, I don't think that was what he meant."

Richard F. said...

What historians refer to as "presentism" is a temptation for them but a disease of politics. Cole is not a historian, but a political figure, now verging on cult status for his "regulars." Thus, his perpetual search for a "useful past."

And he will find such a past, always, for as it was said in graduate school, "Torture the evidence and it will confess."