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Beatrice de Graaf in NRC on present-day parallels with the nineteenth century

Can we understand the present better by looking into the past? In an interview with NRC Handelsblad, Beatrice de Graaf debated with two other Dutch historians (Martin Bossenbroek and Geerten Waling) on this important question. De Graaf argues – in line with the famous historian Johan Huizinga – that “for a whole generation, history has become a method to account for the present.  By doing this, the past is used to say something about the current-day. We apparently need this, to make sense of our own times.”

© Frank de Ruiter

On the question whether the past gives insights to comprehend the present, and if historical comparisons are fruitful for discussion, De Graaf states that it certainly is possible “if one does it in an artisanal way, so accurate and by avoiding simplistic connections like: ‘the 1930s are a precursor to our times’, or ‘poverty, exploitation and crisis always translate in the rise populism’. We can see big changes in our societies, and don’t always know how to handle this.”

“we are living in the nineteenth century, with trolls and drones”

The historians also discussed the shifting power relations in the present-day world. A period of bipolar strife, like the one between the United States and the USSR in the Cold War, is not likely to resurface. De Graaf much rather makes a comparison with the establishment of the Vienna order in 1815, and the subsequent Concert of Europe. “The great powers of the nineteenth century (Britain, Austria, Prussia, France and Russia) practically divided the entire world amongst themselves. This system functioned quite well up until the First World War.” Our current day is very similar ot the period before the cold war. There is also a group of mid-size powers, including Russia and the USA, who are dividing the world. De Graaf however mentions an important difference: “the vigor of military weapons has increased tremendously; it is therefore no longer possible to settle our sphere of influence with weapons. We are now living in the nineteenth century, with trolls and drones.”

The three historians further discussed the Cold War, democratic institutions and the differences of the nineteenth and twentieth century wars. The interview concludes with De Graaf’s remark that all big attempts at achieving grand-scale international cooperation did arise after major wars, like in 1815, 1914 and 1945. But, De Graaf concludes: “multilateralism in itself is not capable of preventing a war.”

The interview is available (in Dutch) on the website of NRC Handelsblad