The Fat Lady Never Sings

Staatsoper, Wien

On two separate occasions in the last week, I have heard people attempt to bring an end to a conversation by saying, “But that’s all about the past.” In the context they meant to say that we should forget the past, and that it’s more important to look to the future. But you only have to look around to see that the past is never over.

For example: as I write, the so-called “Akademiker Ball” has taken place in Vienna. There’s nothing academic about this ball, which is staged by the right-wing, quasi national-socialist members of the Burschenschaften – many of whose members agree with Nazi aims, which were in themselves based on a nostalgia for a mythical golden age of German greatness and racial purity. it was the Third Reich, after the previous Empires of Rome and Charlemagne. Their aim was to make Germany great again. Great again.

It’s easy to feel superior to faraway Austria, but people who live in glass houses should be careful what they reveal. How different are the populist movements in other countries – including the USA and Britain? The one thing they all have in common is surely that they hanker after that Golden Age when life was good and {insert name of country} held its rightful place in the world. A supposed time of independence and prosperity. And in every case the populist cry is led by a quite small, but very loud far-right group, who are not seeking to lead their nation triumphant into the future, but to return to that comfort blanket of the past.

In the case of Britain, the movement hankers after the days of the British Empire, when Britannia ruled the waves (and was also, as it happens, a time when a very few people made astonishing fortunes for themselves while millions starved).

And the USA? Well, if the British Empire was at its height before the first world war, the American Empire largely rose and fell in the second half of the twentieth century. That time has passed, too, which is maybe why America wants to be great again.

And for all the iconoclasm, the year-zero-ness of ISIS destroying monuments and ancient relics across the middle east, you only have to say “crusades” to them, and they begin frothing at the mouth – crusades that finished for Western Europe more than 700 years ago. And what is it that ISIS have been attempting to establish? A new Caliphate to restore the power that the Muslim world had at its peak in the fourteenth century (of the western calendar).

So don’t tell me that history is irrelevant. None of the upheavals of today’s news make sense without the knowledge of things that happened decades or centuries ago. Of course we should live in the present and look to the future, but it can’t be done by ignoring the past.