Wednesday, 22 October 2014

When Does 'Modern History' Start?

A few weeks ago a New York Times article announced the possible “first peaceful transition of power in Iraq’s modern history” after Nouri al-Maliki’s announced that he would be stepping down as prime minister and transferring power to Haider al-Abadi, also of the al-Dawa party.

That made me think about when history starts being modern. Iraq’s recent monarchies were full of peaceful transfers of power. From the 1920s until 1958, when the monarchy of King Faisal II was overthrown, it was common for Iraq’s parliament to transfer power without incident. There were elections, a parliament, a relatively open press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, opposition parties and opposition figures. Whilst power wasn’t entirely in the hands of parliament at the time because there was a monarchy and the British still had influence, does that period not count as peaceful transfers in the modern history of Iraq?

The phrase “in modern history” isn’t one that journalists only apply to Iraq, of course. However there is no universally agreed upon periodicisation for history. The definition of modern history depends heavily on the country or region in discussion. For example Iran’s 'early modern' era started in about 1500, whilst ‘modern European history’ beings in the 19th century-20th century (and up to the present).

I was recently having a discussion with a lawyer who told me that he thought 'history' begins when all the main protagonists are dead (making WWI 'history' but not the Cold War). In my opinion this is not a useful definition as it does not make any distinction between 'history' and 'modern history'. I also don't think that modern history is simply politics; I believe they are two very different ways of looking at past events.

In my opinion, when a historian declares something is the 'best' or most 'violent' (for example) thing in modern history, it's important to think about how far 'modern history' goes back in that particular country/area in order to see if the claim is valid, as modern history is a flexible term that means different things in different circumstances.