History is not just about what happened. It is equally about what we recall and how we choose to record it. And it’s also about what we ignore. Our retrospect on times past is thus informed by different understandings of historical events and what stories have been recorded about those events.
The Old Scandinavian term saga captures the duality of that concept of history very well. The word saga means both “story” and “history”. That historical narratives and thus our view of history can change has been at the heart of contemporary debates across Europe and more widely about the validity of commemorating and celebrating those whose fame was built on the exploitation of others.
Our home city of Berlin always comes up trumps when probing matters of history and its reception. Berlin has a number of districts with themed street names. There is an English Quarter ( Englisches Viertel in German), and not far away an African Quarter with road names recalling African countries and Germany’s unfortunate colonial adventures on that continent.
The English Quarter lies right under the flight path of planes making their final approach to Berlin’s Tegel Airport. With the closure of Tegel, the birds and humans of the English Quarter no longer have to endure a busy stream of jet aircraft overhead. But there’s still a whiff of controversy over street names.
Dive into the English Quarter and you’ll find pleasing reminders of London and English university cities. The visitor might, however, be surprised to stumble on Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Many Germans, you’ll understand, can never quite get it that England alludes to a mere fraction of the United Kingdom. At the time that the roads were laid out in the 1920s, Ireland had just secured its independence, so it’s especially hard to fathom quite how Cork and Dublin sneaked into the street names of Berlin’s Englisches Viertel.