ECON 4400 Lecture Notes - Bertolt Brecht, Trivial Pursuit, Class Conflict
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Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will ﬁnd the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was ﬁnished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
‘Questions from a Worker who Reads’ by Bertolt Brecht
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The questions raised in Brecht’s poem are crying out for answers. Pro-
viding them should be the task of history. It should not be regarded
as the preserve of a small group of specialists, or a luxury for those who
can afford it. History is not ‘bunk’, as claimed by Henry Ford, pioneer
of mass motor car production, bitter enemy of trade unionism and early
admirer of Adolf Hitler.
History is about the sequence of events that led to the lives we
lead today. It is the story of how we came to be ourselves. Under-
standing it is the key to ﬁnding out if and how we can further change
the world in which we live. ‘He who controls the past controls the
future,’ is one of the slogans of the totalitarians who control the state
in George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is a slogan always taken seriously by
those living in the palaces and eating the banquets described in Brecht’s
Some 22 centuries ago a Chinese emperor decreed the death
penalty for those who ‘used the past to criticise the present’. The
Aztecs attempted to destroy records of previous states when they con-
quered the Valley of Mexico in the 15th century, and the Spanish at-
tempted to destroy all Aztec records when they in turn conquered the
region in the 1620s.
Things have not been all that different in the last century. Chal-
lenging the ofﬁcial historians of Stalin or Hitler meant prison, exile
or death. Only 30 years ago Spanish historians were not allowed to
delve into the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, or Hungar-
ian historians to investigate the events of 1956. More recently, friends
of mine in Greece faced trial for challenging the state’s version of
how it annexed much of Macedonia before the First World War.
Overt state repression may seem relatively unusual in Western in-
dustrial countries. But subtler methods of control are ever-present. As
I write, a New Labour government is insisting schools must stress
British history and British achievements, and that pupils must learn
the name and dates of great Britons. In higher education, the histo-
rians most in accord with establishment opinions are still the ones who
receive honours, while those who challenge such opinions are kept
out of key university positions. ‘Compromise, compromise’, remains
‘the way for you to rise.’
Since the time of the ﬁrst Pharaohs (5,000 years ago) rulers have
presented history as being a list of ‘achievements’ by themselves and
their forebears. Such ‘Great Men’ are supposed to have built cities
A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD
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