Can history make sense of Covid-19? Some answers to this question come from a podcast hosted by the Faculty of History here at Cambridge. I hope you’ve caught it; you can listen to it here.
In more than a dozen one-hour episodes, Professor Chris Clark has interviewed experts from Cambridge and beyond about every historical aspect of contagious disease. Their conversations range over many centuries and across the world. They aim to show the contemporary usefulness of past experierence.
There are demographic patterns to discern, common spiritual responses to understand, and even an animal-human history of Covid-19 itself to be researched. And there are other uses of history, not least the consolation of observing the recovery of a past society from a terrible epidemic.
The podcast, though, has sometimes owned up to the opposite: the limits of history. For a start, much of the work of historians during this crisis is merely negative, calling out fake parallels, untrue historical factoids, and tendentious ‘historical’ narratives about coronavirus that have been cynically created to imply blame or deflect responsibility. This historical work is necessary, but is not in itself productive.
Speaking from his ‘locked-down living room just north of the River Cam’, Chris Clark has also drawn attention to a deeper problem with how we use history. He suggests that historians struggle to conceptualize epidemic disease because their standard method for understanding the past is to describe and interpret human agency. How, then, can we make historical sense of a lethal scrap of RNA and its chaotic impact?
So while historians have endlessly debated the global consequences of the First World War, they have only nodded at the influenza pandemic that accompanied it. With the benefit of hindsight, the historiographical priorities seem preposterous, but the basic historical method and sensibility might explain why they have arisen.
It reminds me of another historiographical problem. A wide and necessary gap exists between the explanations of historians and contemporaries for the repressions of the 1930s in the Soviet Union. It is no easy task to explain the causes of these horrific events, starting with agricultural collectivization, which itself caused famine, ‘dekulakization’, and the destruction of a way of life. Connected catastrophes followed: the expansion of the Gulag, which reached two million inmates by 1950, the Great Terror of 1936-38, during which 692,000 innocent people were executed, and later the deportation of some national minorities.
Despite its self-destructive hellishness, this process was not a mere concatenation of mad events: it was the result of specific decisions, made by certain individuals, headed by Stalin, and carried out by particular persons, each of whom performed their own actions and made their own judgements. It can only be explained as a result of human agency.
Yet while the precisely calibrated human-agency explanation is the best we have, and essential for attributing personal responsibility, it looks two-dimensional. It struggles to acknowledge the chaotic swirl of time. Putting the Soviet 1930s under the microscope reveals an unlimited web of interconnecting factors that date back to the Revolution of 1917, and which at any moment could have produced countless possible futures.
Many of the peasants who lived through the catastrophe of the 1930s in the villages of the USSR seem instinctively to have grasped this truth. For some of them, the devastating impact of collectivization was precisely akin to the experience of an epidemic. It could no more be explained than plague or smallpox. Instead it had to be endured, like all the other calamitous sadnesses that had happened during the wars and revolutions of the preceding thirty years.
That takes us a long way from Covid-19. It might or might not be a comfort to contemplate the limits of how human agency explains life in the past. Yet sympathetically re-imagining past mentalities is as useful an activity as trying to explain highly complex past events. For those who draw solace from history, this engagement with our ancestors is a natural counterpart to the pandemic. It’s emotionally as well as intellectually indispenable, a blueprint for survival at a time of uncertainty.