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History and Understanding the Past

Duration:
30 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 30 March 2000

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what can be learnt from history. Many of us were taught that an understanding of the past was essential to a knowledge of the present and, more excitingly, to a view of the future. Dig deep into the pockets of Greece and Rome, the Medievals and the Enlightened, drink deep at the well of history and from that sacred study, as from the Oracle at Delphi, would come prophecies, predictions, a sense of what is to come, based on a belief in the continuity of history. But in the 1980s reputable historians predicted the end of the American empire and the rise and rise of the Russian empire. And Lord Metroland, the old booby in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Put Out More Flags, was forever reading history wrongly. But the way we read history is a matter of key intellectual significance.

The eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm’s book The New Century came out when the 21st century was but a few months old. Is it really possible for history to tell us something about an era which has hardly begun? Can we ever predict the future by understanding the past? Should we seek to understand the past because it holds important lessons for the future - or is history, as Henry Ford would have it, “more or less bunk”?

With Richard J Evans, Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge; Eric Hobsbawm, eminent historian and author of The New Century.

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    Historical themes, events and key individuals from Akhenaten to Xenophon.

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