Published January 10, 2018
In Brussels, they have just opened a museum of European History. But is it really possible to tell the unified history of a continent shaped by various groups usually at war with one another? Isn’t it, in some ways, manufacturing history to fit your needs—in this case the need for a united Europe?
Then again, that’s just what history is. It is the telling of a story of a particular group, be it national, ethnic, religious or even continental, at the exclusion of others. This year, Iceland will be celebrating 100 years of independence. Well, half-independence. Sovereignty. Whatever. The celebrations started on the TV and radio on the first day of the year, and will no doubt peak on December 1st, the actual date independence was established.
But what actually took place on that day? It’s traditionally seen as the date when the brave Icelanders finally won their freedom from the wicked Danes, largely by exhausting them with petitions. Hating the Danes might not be as in-vogue today. The nationalist narrative has receded somewhat. And we’ve even gotten better at football than them. I went to Jón Sigurðsson’s grave last year, and found two students and a photographer from Morgunblaðið. Everyone still knows Jón—he is on the 500 króna bill—but people will be hard pressed to tell you what he actually did. He petitioned the Danes, yes, but he died in 1879 when independence was still a far-off dream.
So what did happen in 1918? Well, you may have heard of another incident that will be commemorated this year, 100 years since the end of World War I. It was this event that made declarations of independence acceptable, and even fashionable. The Danes wanted Slesvig back from the Germans; they got it, but they had to let go of Iceland instead. It was a small price to pay for the 200,000 Danish speakers returning to the fold.
Perhaps all history is continental, or even global, rather than national. The European History Museum is at least an attempt to explore the big picture. Perhaps in this year of anniversaries, we should do the same.