Two World Wars: The Hero Connection

Seventy years ago this past June, the armies of the Allies — young men who had grown up in the shadow of the previous war — landed on the beaches of Normandy to put an end to what had begun, in a sense, 30 Junes earlier on the streets of Sarajevo when Franz Ferdinand lost his life to an assassin’s bullet.

WW2 US heroesThe connections between the two world wars are myriad but one that most Americans never consider is this: both conflicts were fought with courage if not heroism. Americans make an immediate association between the concept of hero and the Second World War thanks, in part, to a continuous stream of related television and film productions featuring our Greatest Generation. But the First World War? Most of us know too little about it to make that connection.

And heroism requires a cause. World War II clearly had it. World War I did not, at least initially. The nationalism and related territorial claims that stirred Europe to war in 1914 hardly constituted a good vs. evil situation.

Brave Little Belgium

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Who Are You Really? The History of Identity Theft

It seems bad things always come with the good. And for many, the bad that came with the goodness of technology was identity theft. However, identity theft far predates the first online shopping experience.

Let’s take a look at how this criminal act has evolved over time.

Identity Theft in the Bible

This criminal act dates back to Biblical times. In fact, in the book of Genesis we discover the first recorded instance of identity theft.

Esau and JacobThough Esau and Jacob were twins, Esau was Dad’s favorite and Jacob was preferred by Mom. When the brothers suspected Dad was on his last leg, Esau asked for his blessing (which would impact the inheritance as well). His father consented, but asked Esau to prepare him a meal first.

Sneaky Mom wanted Jacob to get all the glory, so she whipped up a scam with her favorite boy. They both knew Dad could hardly see and would rely on touch to identify his favorite. Since Esau was a hairy fella, Jacob covered his arms with animal hair.

Jacob snuck in and presented his hairy arms to Dad while Esau was still getting dinner ready. When Dad felt the hairy arm, he believed Esau was in his presence and therefore gave Jacob the blessing.

Essentially, Jacob got all the financial and agricultural gains that were due to Esau because he lied about who he was. Thusly, identity theft began…

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English – A Brief Look at the History of the English Language

English is the third most commonly spoken language in the world today with upwards of 360 million first language speakers, a further 375 million for whom English is a second language and many non-native speakers worldwide.  It is the language of international business now, but how did the English language develop?


Early inhabitants of Great Britain spoke a form of Celtic, but with the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55 BCE came the introduction of Latin.  As trade routes were established with Rome, many Latin words were adopted into the language.  The subsequent Roman invasion in 43 CE under Emperor Claudius left its stamp clearly on the language and landscape of Britain and you can see evidence of this in the names of our towns: place names ending in “chester” are thought to derive from the Roman castra and indicate the site of a Roman fort.

Old English

Old EnglishAfter the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 CE, the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain.  These Germanic peoples established their own small, rural communities and integrated bit by bit with the local population across much of England and South East Scotland over the next four centuries.  The emerging language of Old English was highly complex and fully inflected with a five-case system similar to that of modern German.  The word English itself derives from the word Angle / Anglisc / Englisc and, although you would have difficulty recognising the spoken language of the time where every one of our modern “silent” letters would have been pronounced, you would probably be able to pick out some familiar words, such as woman, man and drink. (Pictured: first page of the Old English poem, Beowulf, dated from between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Click to enlarge).

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On Raffles and the danger of traditional biographies

The statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles stands before the creamy columns of the Victoria Theatre in a quiet corner of central Singapore.  Double life-size, he cuts a magnificent figure, with shoulders squared and best foot forward.  At the base of the statue is an inscription to his “Foresight and Genius”.

There is much that is remarkable about this monument – not least that it is still standing.  While his contemporaries have been toppled from their perches in post-colonial cities across the globe, Raffles, a 19th century British imperialist, is still there at the heart of a modern, independent Asian nation.  But the most remarkable thing of all is that the statue was erected in 1919.  Raffles himself died in 1826 with a moth-eaten reputation, a litany of blunders and insubordinations fresh in official memory, and no great epitaphs to his name.  This, then, is not a monument to a man, but to a legend of a later century.

But for me the Raffles statue in Singapore symbolises something more: the great and often egregious power of biography, and the critical inadequacy at the core of the traditional biographer’s craft.

I never planned to write a biography of Raffles.  I wanted to write a book about the British occupation of Java – the five-year interregnum between 1811 and 1816 during which Britain ousted Holland from Indonesia and took control of their nascent empire.  I had been reading and writing about Indonesia’s past for several years; I had the cultural and historical contexts already on file, and now I wanted a story that would draw on them.

I knew that Raffles had headed the British administration in Java, and I thought that I already knew his story – a lowly clerk who rose rapidly through the East India Company ranks, ran Java, oversaw a Sumatran outpost, and ultimately founded Singapore.  Somewhere along the line, I thought, I had read a book about him.  But the vague vision that flickered in the back of my imagination – of scholarship, liberalism and decency – seemed to have been formed mainly by osmosis.  So when I made my first forays to the wellspring – the mass of archive material from the British Interregnum now held in the British Library – I was baffled.

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What is history?

What is History?

An easy answer would be: everything that has gone before each moment in time. But this simply is not true. History is not the past itself, but the study of a past that, especially going back to our earliest histories, remains dynamic and changing. The old adage: ‘History is written by the victors’ has always seemed an exclusive view of our written sources and the further back we go, the less weight this idea holds.

Who wrote History?

The two canonical histories of the Classical Greek World were written in two very different styles. Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), was a politically active member of his community and only after being exiled to Thurii in south Italy did he begin travelling, collecting information and writing his great work. He explored the culture and geography of the Middle East, Egypt and the Aegean in an attempt to uncover the cause of the Graeco-Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.). Themes of justice, luxury, pride and the influence of Gods and oracles abound.

Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.), an aristocratic Athenian, was likewise prominent in politics; he served as a general in Thrace and was subsequently exiled for his failure there. Thucydides sought the causation of The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) through human action and politicking exclusively. His staid prose describes events as they happen and is coloured with no Herodotean digressions into subsidiary matters.

The victors?

By no means would we describe either historian as a victor. Herodotus’ Halicarnassus fought on the losing Persian side and Thucydides’ Athens was defeated by the Spartans. All we may infer is that the writing of History was of secondary interest. Contemporary politics was their bread and butter; it is only removal from this environment that allowed them the time and energy to compile their vast works.

History and Pre-History

Unlike many other disciplines we are almost certain of the start date of the concept of history. Herodotus is our first exponent of the style; specifically referring to his monumental study as a historia; this word meaning inquiry. This idea is the basis for all historical investigation and writing.

Pre-history describes human events from the dawn of mankind up to Herodotus. Though this terminology is technically correct the use of Herodotus’ History only functions as an intellectual year one. Through modern investigation we can discover far more about the development of civilisation; rendering a before and after Herodotus dateline inadequate. The written text, which was thought to be the canonical method by which to decipher the past, is now being moved to its correct position as one of many types of evidence, along with artistic, material (buildings, inscriptions etc.) and scientifically analysable data such as carbon dating or surveying. It is from these techniques that we seek to build up a picture of life and events from the remote past.

The Classical World and History

The technique applied by Herodotus in his inquiry was similar; though not as scientifically wide ranged. He travelled the Greek and Barbarian worlds seeking the stories of the locals. He weighed such stories up himself and decided upon their relative factual merits. The analysis and comparison of evidence and arguments forms the backbone of all historical investigations proceeding Herodotus. It is the attempt to answer the ‘why?’ that informs Herodotus’ work.

It is this search for causation that separates classical intellectual history from the archaic. A move away from the older idea of the gods as the ultimate perpetrators was occurring and Herodotus managed to define it in his introduction stating that he is seeking to uncover thereasons. In the same way philosophers used such questioning and weighing of evidence to explain the origin and forms of such ideas as justice and good. Likewise medical writers used close observation to try to better understand and treat disease. Thucydides description of the plague (book 2.7) at Athens during the Peloponnesian War is a masterly example of such clinical thinking. Thucydides, more so than Herodotus, expounds this classical idea in his removal of the gods from human affairs.

What is History II?

If the past and history are two different things then we return to our original question. Though the study of history has moved on, as its originator, Herodotus is very useful in deciphering a definition of the concept. I would suggest the closest we can get to specifying would be to view history as each successive epoch’s attempt to uncover and define the events of the past through interpretation of the surviving evidence, be it oral, literary or material. This evidence alone only informs us at face value. Like Herodotus we must analyse and compare it to come to any conclusion of interpretation.

John B. Knight
See also Biography – a very short history

Biography: A Very Short History

Biography: A Very Short History from the Classical World to the Early Medieval period .

The Lives of Great Men

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Roger Lewis’ 1995 investigation into the great actor and comedian, is, at over 1,100 pages, a mammoth volume. Lewis studies not only the events of Sellers’ life, but each of his films in phenomenal detail, attempting to uncover what made his subject tick and why he should achieve the emotional appeal and impact Lewis’ credits him with retaining to this day. While the book itself is an excellent and worthwhile investigation into the life of one of Britain’s great actors, it is worth asking oneself the extent to which such a thorough examination of, say; the film The Waltz of the Toreadors (1962) can enlighten us on Sellers the man, rather than the actor.


As a form of narrative storytelling, biography’s earliest extant exponent was the Greek scholar Plutarch (46 – 129 BCE) who wrote a series of parallel lives, in which he compared great figures from Greek history and mythology with those Romans whose achievements he felt mirrored them. As with some modern biographers Plutarch sought to gain an insight into each character and uncover the reasons for their later greatness through examining the tales told of their childhoods and early lives, onto their later successful (or otherwise) careers. It was character rather than narrative history that interested Plutarch and it was these traits with which he attempted to illuminate the actions of his subjects.

The Vitae

Another little known example of classical biography comes in the form of the Vitae (Latin for Life). We have a number of these anonymous works centering on the great Athenian dramatists; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. To create a work elucidating the life and character of these individuals, of whom very little personal detail otherwise exists, the author extrapolated recurring ideas and comments from their own works and, in the case of Euripides, those of the Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes; in whose work Euripides is often a central, and much satirised, character. The effect of this is much the same as if one attempted to write a life of James Joyce with only his poetry and prose as source material.


With the age of the Emperors in full swing a type of biography emerged, around the imperial court, with the Roman historian Suetonius (69? – 130 BCE) its principle exponent. These tales of court life and drama centred around an Emperor whose life and deeds are told using certain stories and occurrences to illustrate facets of character. Suetonius’ voice can be heard in his assessments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Emperors. Nero, for example is shown to be kind and generous as a youth, but when corrupted by power and his own insanity because a typical example of a despot. Augustus on the other hand is treated more reverentially.

Hagiography and Charlemagne

After the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, lives of saints and other martyrs, named Hagiographies (the study of saints) became the popular form of the style. Through these, miraculous deeds and heavenly intervention could be recorded and embellished, and their name has since been associated with partisan or biased factual writings. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire Charlemagne’s (742 – 814 BCE) Franks were the classical world’s intellectual successors and it was around the figure of the great Emperor that Einhard, a trusted courtier, wrote a life aping the style of Suetonius and thus attempting to place Charlemagne as a new Roman Emperor.

Still the Lives of Great Men

From its genesis, biography has typically been used to mark out the lives of great men, whether good or evil, and attempts to gain an insight into the individual characteristics possessed by such men that lead them to committing the deeds that they did, and achieving the glory or infamy that resulted from these actions. Pick up any modern biography, and though the content and analysis has changed; the search for what makes a man rise above his contemporaries and achieve great things remains.

John B Knight

See also John’s article on What Is History?

Thucydides’ Concept of Past and Present

The Greatest war?

“I have found it impossible, because of its remoteness in time, to acquire a really precise knowledge of the distant past or even of the history preceding our own period, yet, after looking back into it as far as I can, all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods were not great periods in warfare or anything else”. – Thucydides; 1.1

So Thucydides (460-395 B.C.E) opens his narrative of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E). In terms of historical method his technique for studying the distant past, in a time where archaeology did not exist and history was but an infant branch of literature, appears sound. However this declaration is not all it seems. Thucydides’ criticisms of past culture and warfare are not exclusively based on a lack of available source material, but a more complex double edged sword. His declaration that “it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those in the past” (1.1) seems directly aimed at his predecessor Herodotus (484-425 B.C.E).

Thucydides is aware that it is against the chronicler of the Persian Wars (499-449 B.C.E) that he and his work will be compared and thus sets out the greatness of the task which he has undertaken. Furthermore in claiming his own period to be vastly superior he is propounding the idea that Athens was at its cultural and social peak (what we now call “The Golden Age of Athens” [448-429 B.C.E]) particularly under the guidance of the statesman Pericles (495-429 B.C.E).

The Archaeologia

The vast majority of what we now view as the introduction to Thucydides’ work consists of the Archaeologia, an account of the development of Greece from its earliest inhabitants to the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was motivated to justify claims of superiority of subject and to place the war in its historical and Hellenic (Greek) context. The available evidence for this period would likely have consisted of the Homeric Epics (The Iliad andOdyssey), lyric poetry, tradition, and anecdotal evidence. Thucydides rejects the heroic tradition that fuelled the majority of Greek thought on pre-historic events and instead concentrates on the distribution and development of power that is to provide the fulcrum for events in his own day.

His analysis of the Kingdoms and political entities of this past focuses on their power, stability, wealth, and naval capability. Through these factors he traces the birth of the great conflict of his own time. Observation of contemporary politics and behaviour is used to rationalise the heroic and legendary accounts of the past. From a modern perspective Thucydides’ Archaeologia is a good example of a theoretical framework on which the traditions and stories of the distant past can be hung, shorn of their unbelievable, supernatural, and self-contradictory detritus.

What uses does the Archaeologia have?

As a tool with which to study the events of prehistoric Greece, theArchaeologia offers very little. Thucydides’ analysis of this period is based on contemporary observation, not intensive research which, in any case, would be almost impossible given his resources. However, that it functions as a microcosm for the growth and interactions of contemporary states, the Archaeologia gives us an insight into Thucydides as a Historian; we are offered a shortened version of his theories behind the rise and fall of great powers. Furthermore he holds to the traditions and myths of his time and in doing so attempts to rationalise them (as he does contemporary events) primarily through the removal of divine explanation. The body of his great work is reflected and his methods summarised in this fascinating introduction.

John B Knight