Dispatches from Hamburg: The End of History?

By David Peace

It’s early Summer 2021 and a time before words like lockdown, mutation, and vaccination became commonplace seems to belong to another era. Some months ago, back during the short respite to social restrictions in the UK, sitting in a small Turkish restaurant in Canterbury, a few of us fellow “Eat-Out-To-Help-Outers” talked of how for the first time we felt as though history was overtaking us.

It’s a strange thing for young British historians of our generation born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR to feel the heavy weight of history. For all our lives we’ve been living under the shadow of what felt like the end of history, as events of the past presented themselves to us as something entirely distant – confined to a library shelf. Events which had overtaken the generations before us – wars, authoritarianism, and plagues – we consigned either to distant places or to the archive and the memories of a fast-fading generation born long ago.

We witnessed 9/11 as children through a TV screen in the hours before the school run, the wars that followed were glimpsed at from daily news broadcasts, and the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and its fallout came over us like a wave before many of us had even finished school. These moments came at an age when we were too young to make any change at the ballot box yet old enough for a decade after to feel its effects spread insidiously into our lives. But these events, dissipated through either TV screens, 24-hour journalism, or social media, became almost like mundane horrors, relegated to places far removed from our everyday habits of life.

Yet, in the wake of Brexit and COVID-19, both our underlying beliefs about the world and our place in it, and the ways in which we live have been so ruptured that the unfolding historical events of today are unnervingly close to the touch in ways utterly new for our generation of historians. As recent events in the UK and the US have shown, the generation prior to us who echoed the famous statement of Francis Fukuyama and hailed the end of history following the collapse of the USSR now scrambles to throw up walls and borders to protect this very same ideal.

I’m writing this blog from the little office I’ve been able to carve out of my home in Canterbury, locked up and shut away, glimpsing at events through a computer screen like so many others across the world. I’ve found myself questioning, as many others are, about how to find comfort during these last few months when across the globe countless others are sharing in this uniquely absurd space between the dread of a pandemic and the mundane monotony of life under lockdown. In this moment, as history feels as though it is once more starting its engine, I’ve found it helpful to think that in our common struggles, each shaded by the colours of our own unique places. Whether we sit in solitary home offices in lockdown, are on the frontline services tackling the day-to-day realities of the pandemic, or on the street raising awareness through protest action at the injustices faced by so many, there is a sense that we are aware of being called to acknowledge our shared responsibilities to each other.

However, we cannot allow the images of history to trick us and become easy tools to reassure ourselves of the ideas about equality that we use as comfort. The old medieval image of the Danse Macabre often depicted merchants, kings, and peasants standing shoulder-to-shoulder, locked in a dance with skeletons at their side, sharing in the equality of their own mortality. We too may feel a desire to assert some sense of shared equality between all people in the face of this pandemic – in our own modern and absurd re-enactment of the Danse Macabre – that we share in the pandemic together.  Yet, this image is deceptive – as we have seen unfold in the face of the COVID-19, the inequalities in health and access to health services during this pandemic have compounded the already existing socio-economic inequalities between peoples across the globe.

As a generation of historians, we too are called to this recognition of shared responsibility, we too are now sharing the events of history together, no longer confined to the dusty textbook or to a lonely carrel desk. We must recognise our responsibilities in the ways in which we will later contextualise this pandemic. In stark contrast to the Danse Macabre, we must highlight the inequalities in access to healthcare and the importance of historical context in understanding why this is the case. Now more so than before we young historians have a choice as to how we will orient ourselves towards our work and our social and political obligations when the lockdowns begin to end. We will emerge into a new unfolding history, but will we silo in silence in the face of ever more fractious enclaves behind rising walls, closed borders, and economic enclaves, or acknowledge the shared challenges we face and help to build bridges and connections to overcome them?

Though it may be too easy to fall into despair when facing the realities of COVID-19 and Brexit, as the countless news reports will daily induce in their readership, there is also cause for optimism – as the public discussions now happening in the UK, the US, and Europe in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement are forcing us to face the reality of history, its consequences, and its legacies – we can perhaps look with hope that as a generation we may acknowledge our shared responsibilities and hope that we can join others in an attempt to rise from behind the boundaries and barricades which had been put up by those before us who had put their faith in the end of history.

Dispatches from Hamburg is a short blog series authored by members of the Centre for the Study of Health, Society and Ethics. Each month it highlights thoughts and stories from members of the Centre which focuses on everyday life and thoughts beyond our projects and research.

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