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Marshall Myths

Britain received more Marshall aid than Germany, but spent much of it propping up a delusion. 

George Marshall defends his European Recovery Programme before the Senate.Perhaps the most persistent and enduring myth in modern British history is that the country did badly, in comparison with its European neighbours, out of the Marshall Plan, the scheme of American largesse that funded the reconstruction of war-ravaged western Europe. But it is simply not true.

West Germany received $1.7 billion of postwar aid from the United States, which it invested primarily in capital and infrastructure, paving the way for the Wirtschaftswunder, the postwar economic miracle that turned the country into a manufacturing powerhouse, which, even after the considerable cost of reunification in 1990, it remains.

Britain, as victor, had an understandable sense of entitlement – and let us not forget the nature of the regime that it and its Empire had helped defeat – but, as an indication of the sacrifice it had made, it ended the conflict with an economy more like that of a defeated or occupied nation.

It had already borrowed $4 billion to maintain its global status, following the withdrawal of its Lend-Lease arrangement with the US. That vast loan had all but run out by 1947, the year that George Marshall, the US Secretary of State, put forward his European Recovery Programme.

Kafka: The Trial Continues

Devorah Baum | Published 01 March 2019
When Franz Kafka claimed ‘I am made of literature’ it wasn’t a metaphor, it was a metaphysical proposition. In his own case, he was suggesting, nothing distinguished between literature and life. Kafka’s case, however, was always much more than just his own: ‘Had one to name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs’, wrote Auden, ‘Kafka is the first one would think of.’ For many, Kafka is not only representative of the modern age, but its foremost prophet. His life in letters has had...Read more »
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Waste Not, Want Not

A medieval masterpiece has much to say about the modern preoccupation with greed.

Word up: the demon Titivillus, medieval wall painting, St Mary, Melbourne, Derbyshire.William Langland’s 14th-century poem Piers Plowman opens with a vision, witnessed by a dreamer as he slumbers on the Malvern Hills. He sees before him a ‘fair field full of folk’, of many classes and professions, ‘working and wandering as the world asketh’ – a vision of the whole of human society. But almost the first thing he realises is that this labour is not fairly distributed: some people work hard yet barely have enough to eat, while others selfishly squander what the labourers toil for.

A wise teacher appears and explains to the dreamer that the root of this injustice is greed. Over-consumption by some people means there isn’t enough to go around, she says; the bountiful resources of the earth can provide enough for everyone, but only if people do not consume more than they need. Her solution is to remember that ‘measure is medicine’: moderation is healthy for the soul and the body, for the individual and for society at large.

In a time when famine was a real danger, this poem’s anger about immoderate consumption and waste of food was a challenging response to a pressing social problem. But Langland’s radical poem is concerned with injustice of all kinds and greed forms part of its diagnosis for many contemporary social ills, including corruption in the law, government and church. Over-consumption and excessive desire for anything, even things good in themselves, can cause problems – not only food but money, power and pleasure, too.

Brexit Forever

History suggests that Britain’s relationship with Europe may never truly be resolved.

Illustration by Ben Jones.Brexit is a historical reckoning for the United Kingdom, not least because of the country’s frequent aversion to engaging with its past. That Brexit is rooted in the evasions, divisions and contradictions of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) has played remarkably little part in the last two years of national political discourse. But the issue also reaches back deep into episodes of English history: when a political elite in London, preoccupied with European affairs, provoked domestic rebellion, as in the Peasants’ Revolt; or found itself helpless, as Henry VIII’s court was, to influence the centres of continental power. These histories show that there can be no resolution of Britain’s relationship to continental Europe, nor any escape from the problems of the British political order that the European question has long amplified; there can be only temporary respite.

Weight of the World

Lucy Inglis | Published 22 February 2019
The word ‘fat’ carries burdens of social, cultural and visual expectation, but also a historical one. Size is usually described in terms of bigger equating to better: from America, where the ‘Great Nation’ conveys both vast and peerless, to the Indian subcontinent, where ‘big people’ and ‘little people’ refer not necessarily to physical attributes but to wealth and social class. Our history with this nutrient, which, along with proteins and carbohydrates, represents one of the three basic elements of our diet, has evolved alongside agriculture, religion, culture, medicine and now the modern media, as Christopher E. Forth tells us in...Read more »
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Travels Through Time #5 – Matthew Biggs, 1905


For centuries plant hunters had been drawn to nature's unexplored margins in search of prize new specimens, often travelling at significant personal risk through hostile environments and contested political spaces. George Forrest's 1905 expedition was one of the most fraught of them all.

History Today | Published in
History Today | Published 20 February 2019
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Do historical objects belong in their country of origin?

Four historians consider one of the most contentious questions facing the West’s museums and galleries.

A portrait depicting the Elgin Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by museum staff, a trustee and visitors, 1819

Artefacts do not need to be ‘returned’

Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – and Why They Should Stay There (Oxford, 2016)

When, 3,000 years ago, sculptors in the Assyrian Empire chiselled into being winged, human-headed bulls for King Ashurnasirpal II, they could not have dreamt that their creations would end up centuries later in museums thousands of miles away. The five-legged, alabaster beasts were not made for brightly-lit galleries. Even if we wanted to, it would not be possible to return them to their place of origin. 

The ancient Assyria of 883 BC is very different from modern northern Iraq; fifth century BC Athens, which produced the much fought-over Parthenon Marbles, is unrecognisable compared to modern Greece. The court of Benin, which commissioned the Benin Bronzes, hardly resembles contemporary Nigeria.

All of the artefacts we gaze upon today were made for someone else and for some other purpose: to celebrate the powerful; for worship; or for ordinary household use. Regardless of intent, soon after any object is made, it passes out of the hands of the creator into those of others – patrons, family, friends, thieves – new owners, crossing continents and centuries and changing use as it does.

On the Spot: Moudhy Al-Rashid

‘Humans change very little over time. We love, worry and hope today in much the same way as we did 5,000 years ago.’

Moudhy Al-Rashid.Why are you a historian of the ancient Near East?
To study the ancient past is to learn what connects us to the people that populate its texts and left behind its fragments, to learn what makes us human.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
Humans change very little over time. We love, worry and hope today in much the same way as we did 5,000 years ago.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia.

What book in your field should everyone read?
The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture edited by Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
It’s mythical, but the moment that Gilgamesh returned to Uruk after his journey.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Eleanor Robson, a trailblazer in our field, whose work and example remind me that the study of history extends far beyond texts and artefacts.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Enheduanna, the first non-anonymous author in history.

How many languages do you have?
Seven. English, Arabic, French, Akkadian, Sumerian, Achaemenid Aramaic and enough German to read it very slowly.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Assyriology, of course.

Bad Blood?

Stark warning: AIDS poster, UK, c.1980s.
Stark warning: AIDS poster, UK, c.1980s.

They never saw it coming. In January 1985 the Irish Haemophilia Society (IHS) carried out an HIV screening for 133 of its members. It was a precautionary measure, as a haemophiliac child had been admitted to the National Children’s Hospital with AIDS-like symptoms. Of the 133 members, 54 were found to be HIV positive. More tests were held and the infections reached 112 – a third of the society’s membership.

We know the old phrase that ‘History is written by the winners’. In some cases, this is true. But when it comes to HIV/AIDS, a story which offers no winners, the historical narrative has been shaped by the affected group that shouted loudest. In Ireland, this was the gay community, as activist organisations like Gay Health Action played a prominent role in educating the public about HIV/AIDS. This is, however, only a small fraction of a much messier narrative.

David Kilgannon | Published 14 February 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 2 February 2019

The Sons of Mars

The struggle for control of the straits dividing Sicily from southern Italy brought the two great empires of the Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome, head to head. It was a world in which ruthless mercenaries prospered.

Pyrrhus abandons his fight in Tarentum against the Romans to aid the Sicilian Greeks, 19th-century engraving. Mary Evans Picture Library.

Hiero II, the ruling general of the Greek city-state of Syracuse, led a campaign in 265 BC north towards a coastal Sicilian city, Messana, held by a group of Campanian mercenaries known as the Mamertines. The Campanians were part of a vast Oscan tribal group originally from the Apennine mountains, who had now settled in the southern Italian region of Campania. By the end of the fifth century BC the hill tribes had invaded the nearby plains, displacing the Etruscan and Greek inhabitants of the region, taking control of nearly all of the land between Salerno and Cumae. As the decades passed, the mountain dwellers gradually let go of their old way of life and adopted the civic lifestyle of the people they had conquered. The newly sedentary Campanians appealed to the Romans for their help against their aggressive neighbours, the Samnites. In 343 BC Rome came to their aid and, in turn, the Campanians became subjects of the Republic. From then on the Campanians were considered civites sine suffragio, meaning they had all of the privileges of Roman citizens but without the right to vote in Rome.