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The Greeks in the History of the Black Sea

Meeting of Experts within the Black Sea Initiative

Thessaloniki, 2-4 December 1999

Introductory remarks by James Wimberley, Head of Technical Cooperation and Assistance Section, Directorate of Education and Higher Education

On behalf of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, I welcome the participants at this second meeting of professionals within our Black Sea Initiative on the reform of history teaching. I also bring the greetings of the project's initiator, Alison Cardwell, who is detained in Strasbourg by a meeting of ministers on South-east Europe. Her colleague Tatiana Milko is however here, and will speak to you after me on the place of this meeting in the Initiative and what we hope to achieve here.

Since April this year, with the accession of Georgia, the entire littoral of the Black Sea has belonged to states that are full members of the Council of Europe: it is now a European lake. This is a historic choice. For the first time the whole Black Sea region sees itself, and demands to be seen, as fully European: accepting the obligations of the ECHR and the Cultural Convention, and expecting the rest of Europe to reciprocate. The Council of Europe does not set the whole agenda and cannot speak for other institutions, but our own commitment to support you is authentic and has been demonstrated in action in this project and in many others.

It is also my pleasant duty to thank our hosts, the Greek Ministry of Education and the University and city of Thessaloniki, for inviting us here today to review together the remarkable story of the Greeks in the Black Sea. Now the Council is aware that modern Greece does not actually have a Black Sea coastline. Some of you may have wondered why we have encouraged and accepted this invitation, other than the fact that Thessaloniki is warmer than Strasbourg. The first reason is very simple: we did not have enough money in the budget, and by generously agreeing to pay the whole costs, Greece has allowed us all to move the project forward. The second reason is more profound. The key political aspiration of your countries is to be accepted as full partners in Europe. That is exactly the Council's position also. For my Organisation, the wider European goal always has primacy; regional cooperation is a valuable means to it, and should therefore be porous, open to contributions and ideas from other member states.

If I had a time machine, one of the places I would like to go would be the Bosphorus about 8,000 years ago when a natural dam broke, and the Mediterranean roared into the then freshwater Black Sea. There are no records of this cataclysm, except possibly the legends of Noah and Gilgamesh. But it is a good symbol of a certain view of history, in which men are helpless flotsam, driven this way and that by vast impersonal forces. There is clearly some truth in this; but I don't think that it's the whole story. For a different perspective, I would set my time machine to the palace of King Philip of Macedon in Pella in 342 BC, when the teenage prince Alexander met his new tutor, Aristoteles of Stagira. Neither was exactly a powerless victim of circumstances. It is a consoling thought for educators that even with such a teacher, the pupil only took what he wanted - the doctrine of magnanimity, but scarcely that of moderation.

I am not a specialist - indeed you are about to find out exactly how little I know about the subject - so following a sound academic tradition for the underqualified, I will base my remaining remarks on those of Aristotle1. Like many natural scientists, he did not consider history to be science at all, but a rather inferior species of literature dealing not with universals but with the particular; in a famous phrase, "what Alcibiades did and suffered". We are forced to admit that there is a great deal of truth in this low-key approach. The nineteenth-century vision of predictive scientific history, preached by Comte, Marx, and many others, turned out to be infeasible2. This was not just a failure of technique or data, of lacunae to be filled in the course of time, in the way that we confidently expect a future cure for AIDS. It reflected a misconception of natural science, little of which is predictive in the strict sense they supposed. The great algorithmic cathedral of celestial mechanics erected by Newton and Laplace has not proved a general model for science; most natural systems are too complex, too subject to random variables, and too chaotic to be practically computable in the wild, even where the laws are fully understood3. Solid predictions are usually statistical. If we could set the clock back a million or a billion years and run the universe again, we have no reason to suppose we would see the same environment, suite of species, or human history the second time round.

Cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology, are now rich and powerful sciences, but like history, if rather better, they explain rather than predict. Seismology, to take a bitter example, explains why earthquakes occur along the North Anatolian fault between two tectonic plates, but as yet it does not offer humanly useful predictions about where and when. (May I depart from my theme to say how impressed observers elsewhere in Europe have been by the spontaneous solidarity of the Turkish and Greek peoples in facing their recent dreadful trials. The Council of Europe does in fact operate a programme, unrelated to this one, to help member states prevent and manage such disasters4.)

Aristotle is I suggest right to stress the particular in history: it is in the particular that we live our lives, and that is what we want to understand, drawing of course on such general laws and patterns as we have. Take this city of Thessaloniki. General laws and trends explain why there is a trading city here, and why it's prosperous, not I suggest why it's Greek. Still less do they account for the doings of the remarkable men and women who have trod this very street: Paul of Tarsus, founder of the Christian church in Thessalonia; the Sephardic Jewish exiles driven out of Spain after the Reconquest, who flourished here until overwhelmed in the Holocaust in 1943; those great adversaries Kemal Atatürk and Eleftherios Venizelos, who separately launched revolutions here in 1908 and 1916. A similar tale could no doubt be told of any of the cities of the Black Sea, of Varna and Constanta, Odessa and Batumi, Sevastopol and Istanbul.

History of course, unlike literature, seeks to understand particular human destinies by putting character and choice in their full context, the opportunities and constraints thrown in our paths by other people and the environment. I gladly admit that its real techniques for doing so, as opposed to its propagandist claims, have advanced enormously. Population genetics and historical linguistics shed a clear light on human migrations from the very earliest times. The scope of historical studies has expanded to every aspect of life: Zeldin writes on the history of happiness, and why not? Indeed, it would be misguided to deny to historical research and synthesis the privilege of any true science, as the fallible but only legitimate guardian of the truth, with its halting progress tested through critical, international peer review by fellow professionals. Politicians, and bureaucrats such as myself, have no status in the basic process of finding out what actually happened, and why.

But while history is in good company as an explanatory not predictive science, it is unlike others in one very important sense: its diverse branches are not, so far as know, held together by any one paradigm or common thread. This creates a huge problem for history as education: in this ocean of learning, which small part shall be chosen for the school curriculum? When the Board of Education in Kansas decides that biology must be taught without evolution by natural selection, we smile, because that is precisely the organising principle of biological explanation. I find it hard to imagine any comparable omission in history that would be instantly rejected as educationally absurd. But if historical education cannot rely on historical science to highlight the essential on its own internal grounds, how can the selection be made? Not, and the Council of Europe has underlined the point ever since it started work on history education in the 1950s, not to meet manipulative political agendas. Our position is rather that the history curriculum must be chosen on educational grounds. Now the principal educational goal of history must surely be citizenship. Schools seek to prepare young people to be good citizens of their community, their country, of Europe, and of the world; and to be a good citizen you need an understanding of how your standpoint came about, and the kinds of things that other men and women are liable to do to you

This civic perspective points to certain requirements of the historical curriculum. If citizenship is concentric, so should history be. Specifically, I venture to suggest three circles. The first, plainly, is the story of your own country, including - the Council also has clear views on this - the story of its minorities. Children who grow up in minority communities with a distinct cultural identity are also entitled to the teaching of their community's story from its own viewpoint. This teaching carries, quite properly, a great deal of the charge of moral education, the encounter with interesting individuals - though it should not be the only source of them. Its aim is to nurture the critical solidarity we call true patriotism.

The outer circle is simply the story of all of us, of the human kind. Our common origin is ever more clear, and the long-derided universal human nature is re-emerging as plain fact from under the rubble of racist ideology and the scientific blind alleys of behaviourism and relativism5. At this level, there is scarcely room for anything but the broad sweep, and indeed it may be that history's regularities are more evident on the large scale than the small: the spread of agriculture, of monotheism, modern states, science, and technology, the growth of population, the rise and fall of class and national ideologies, the emergence of the democratic ideal of equal rights, the contemporary triumph of capitalism. Our common fate, the prospect of the overcrowded, environmentally stressed, information-ruled global society ahead, provides a compelling rationale for education in global awareness and responsibility.

The middle circle, the most interesting for us here, is that of the neighbours. I mean this elastically; the whole of Europe is your neighbour, and so are the countries which share a land border, or - as here – a maritime one like the Black Sea. Neighbours are difficult; but they are the people your ancestors have interacted with most, in war, in trade, by cultural diffusion, and in sex. (The last is not a joke. Think of the factual story of trade and piracy behind the legend of the Argonauts. The first thing Jason does on reaching Colchis is to take a woman, Medea; no differently from Cortez with Doña Aña, or John Rolfe with Pocahontas. Piracy, trade, slavery, and war have all been accompanied, and sometimes driven, by men's need for women. Our ancestors slept with each other.) Now the civic purpose of historical education about neighbours is mutual understanding. Pursuing this is in fact an international legal obligation, that the states represented here accepted when they signed the European Cultural Convention6. Compared to the 50,000 pages of regulations that the European Union presents to applicants, the Cultural Convention looks trivial, but in truth it's the one that is really hard: just get on with the neighbours. The Council's work on history teaching, and its regional projects in the Caucasus, here round the Black Sea, and in future in the Balkans are central to this enormously important goal.

The methods recommended by the Council are well known to you and might seem no more than the ordinary values of your profession: objectivity, looking at events from multiple perspectives, paying attention to the good things - trade, cultural diffusion, science, liberty - as well the evil ones - wars, tyrannies, plagues, massacres, and slavery. European cooperation, especially professional exchanges and peer review among history teachers as well as researchers, has been systematically encouraged as good practice. I will only say that I am here as the representative of an organisation dedicated to a revolutionary historical principle, the equal fundamental rights of all men and women. Now I ask myself how this recent idea should affect the way we approach the men and women of the past. It is clearly stupid to apply the standard of human rights that holds between Europeans today, because it has explicitly been accepted by all our governments, as a scoresheet to people who had never heard of them. St Paul didn't believe in the full equality of women, or Lincoln in that of black Americans; of course not, and in our moral encounter with them we must come to terms with the range of values of their times without being untrue to our own.

But I think there is a sense in which the doctrine of fundamental human rights does apply to the past. Just as between the living it limits the moral gradient we place between ourselves and our friends and kin, and strangers, enemies, and those unknown to us, it also requires us to treat the dead with respect. We are called on to see them as people both like and unlike ourselves, with lives to live, who, with Alcibiades, "did and suffered". The way things were, and in many places not far from here still are, the scale of the human tragedy, of blighted lives and pointless deaths, leaves anyone of normal sensibility with a sense of deep but powerless sorrow - sunt lacrimae rerum. There is however one small thing we can do for the dead, and that is to remember; and we can only do this with the aid of historians and history teachers. It is still your task to heed on a wider scale the plea that Simonides placed on the epitaph of the Spartan soldiers who died at Thermopylae:

Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their commands7.

ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

1Poetics, IX. The whole passage reads: "[History] relates what has happened, [poetry] what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speaks or acts, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is - for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered."

2Isaiah Berlin, The Concept of Scientific History, collected in The Proper Study of Mankind, London 1997

3On the computability of a classical billiard-ball universe, see Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind, Oxford 1994, §1.7

4The Open Partial Agreement on the prevention and management of man-made and natural disasters.

5See for example D.E. Brown, Human Universals, New York 1991

6“…a greater understanding of one another among the peoples of Europe”: Preamble to the European Cultural Convention, ETS No. 18, 1954. Article 6 lists history specifically as a priority for cultural cooperation.

7Simonides of Keos, epitaph of the Lacedaemonians at Marathon, in Herodotus, Histories 7.228