Jesse A. Heitz considers the issue of African security in a unique way by answering the question of “Which of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Conquest, War, Famine, or Pestilence - has most affected African security in the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century?”  He argues that of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, war has posed the greatest threat to African security. But the other horsemen have had significant roles to play – and are often closely linked to war…

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse  by Viktor Vasnetsov. 1887.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vasnetsov. 1887.

Pestilence – Libya & Kenya

War has a great effect on the horseman known as Pestilence. The term pestilence will extend beyond its biblical connotation.  It will be comprised of both its traditional identity of disease, as well as what can be described as a political disease, that being political instability.

In 1969, Libyan King Idris was deposed in a military coup by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.  The freshly-minted dictator quickly introduced state socialism and nationalized virtually all of the country’s industry, including the all-important oil industry.[1]  Over the next several decades Gaddafi’s Libya militarily intervened in neighboring states and its nationals engaged in terrorist acts around the globe, most notably the 1988 Lockerbie Bombing.[2]  In early 2011, violent protests broke out in Benghazi following the arrest of a human rights campaigner.[3]  Gaddafi’s security forces quickly retaliated, leading to a full-scale civil war.[4]  With help from allied airstrikes, Gaddafi was expelled from Tripoli in August of that year.  Within two months he had been captured and killed.[5] 

While Gaddafi had maintained his rule for four decades through the use of exceptional cunning and political mastery, the Libyan public had grown tired of the rampant corruption within his regime, whose officials often demanded millions of dollars in consultancy fees from foreign firms.[6]  He was documented to have extorted $1.5 billion from oil companies to pay for the Lockerbie settlement, and was said to have siphoned off tens of billions of dollars in state revenue into his own personal coffers.[7]  With Gaddafi’s corrupt, but relatively stable, government gone the post-Gaddafi Libya has been in a veritable state of violent flux ever since.

In Kenya, the course of events has been considerably different insofar as its government never experienced a period of state failure.  However, that is not to say that it did not fluctuate between efficient and ineffective.[8]  The swansong of the British Empire in Kenya, the Kenyan Emergency, lasted from 1952 to 1960.  With the level of conflict and tension so fierce, Britain opted to hasten granting Kenya its independence.[9]  For the following forty years, Kenya was marked by tribal animosity, political assassinations, and human rights violations.[10]  In recent years Kenya has stabilized, but the U.S. State Department has warned that regional instability in the Horn of Africa is the greatest threat to its security.[11]  Kenya has thus far extracted itself from its tradition of political pestilence born out of years of armed conflict and opposition, only to have its newfound stability threatened by the wars taking place in neighboring lands.

The nations of Africa are not the sole actors in the creation of political instability.  Foreign actors continue to jeopardize the political stability of developing nations in Africa.  Once it was perpetrated by the colonial powers, then dueling superpowers at the height of the Cold War, now it is nations that seek to service their own national interests.  For example, Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, which waged war against Robert Mugabe’s forces throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and the oppressive South Africa, found commercial partners in the United States.  The U.S. and its firms purchased large sums of manganese, platinum, and chromium from South Africa[12], while it bought chromium from Rhodesia[13] as well.  It cannot be doubted that such transactions did well to fund and prolong the conflicts raging in those states.


Pestilence & Disease

The final manifestation of pestilence heavily influenced by war is disease itself.  The Darfur Conflict illustrates this well.  Since fighting broke out in 2003 between the Sudanese government, its allied rebel groups and militias, and its enemies in the southern reaches of the country, some 2.7 million have been displaced[14], with an estimated 300,000 deaths.  Of those 300,000 deaths, it is reported that 80% were due to disease.[15]  While humanitarian organizations have made strides in caring for refugees, the threat of violence and attacks on convoys diminishes the ability of aid groups to combat disease by providing medical care and immunizations, clean water, and the rations necessary to stave off malnutrition-related illness.[16]

During and in the wake of war, numerous endemic diseases have surfaced, plaguing civilian populations.  The massive migrations of refugees have allowed a disease such as malaria to infect millions, and as of 1998 Africa accounted for some 90% of the world’s cases of malaria.[17]  Additionally, sub-Saharan Africa is horribly afflicted with varying types of infectious illness ranging from cholera and tuberculosis to dysentery.  Authorities estimate that 70% of the deaths in this massive portion of Africa are due to infectious disease.[18]

Another disease which is decimating many African nations is HIV/AIDS.  According to the U.N., in 2011 there were 1.8 million new cases of HIV for a total of 23.5 million people living with the disease, with some 1.2 million people dying from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.[19]  Stable and relatively conflict free states such as Botswana have achieved an 80% treatment level for its citizens suffering from HIV/AIDS.[20]  For war-torn and recovering states such as South Sudan and Somalia, the treatment rate falls to below 20%.[21]  Perhaps the most horrific correlation between HIV transmission and war is the widespread occurrence of sexual assault in war zones.  For example, scholars have alleged that there was a “willful transmission” of HIV, or the use of HIV as a weapon, during the Rwandan genocide when an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 women were raped.[22] 

One of the forgotten health concerns stemming from war is mental health.  Some sources have stated that the population of Uganda, which has been battling an insurrection in its northern territory for two decades, may have an incidence of PTSD in excess of 50%, and an incidence of clinical depression that sits above 70%.[23]  As shown, war can create and exacerbate the physical and psychological manifestations of pestilence.


Conquest – Troubles in Congo and Rwanda

The second horseman, Conquest, has been showcased in a series of intertwined wars that marred the Congo and its neighbors for decades and continue to define its security.  In the early 1950s, the native peoples of the Belgian colony of Congo achieved citizenship, which placed them on a more even footing with the Europeans that occupied their land.[24]  By 1958, the Congolese people began their march towards independence in earnest with the rise of Kasa-Vubu.[25]  Despite the tangible signs of progress, the call for immediate independence grew louder.  The Belgians had hoped to ever so slowly transition into releasing the reins on the Congo, but after riots in 1959, it was clear that such lofty aspirations were unrealistic.  By June the following year, the Belgians abruptly left their prized colony.[26]  Revolts and rioting quickly ensued, leading to several years of government instability, external interventions, and bloody conflict.[27] 

By November, Joseph Mobutu had seized power in a coup and wasted little time in tightening his grip on the infrastructure barren state, going so far as to rename it Zaire.  He cemented his control over the military, nationalized the industry within the state, and racked up the favor of Western governments who saw him as an opponent of the Communist Sphere.[28]  Throughout the 1970s, he engorged himself on the industry he had absorbed and brutally crushed any opposition to his rule.[29]  By the 1980s, an opposition party under the leadership of Etienne Tshisekedi emerged and kick-started the process of eroding Mobutu’s position.  As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the West found decreasing utility from the murderous dictator and began applying diplomatic pressure on his regime.  Mobutu’s control continued to fade as his military began voicing their displeasure.[30]

Events in neighboring Rwanda in 1994 sealed Mobutu’s fate.  At that point Rwanda had a population of approximately seven million people, ripe with ethnic tension between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis.[31]  In April of that year, Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and violence erupted almost immediately.[32]  Officials capable of stemming the bloodshed were quickly dispatched.[33]  By the end of the 100-day genocide, nearly three-quarters of the Tutsi population had been wiped out.[34]  Refugees and Tutsi rebel forces flooded into Zaire, eventually launching a counterattack and regaining control of Rwanda.  Then it was the turn of the perpetrators of the genocide to flee to Zaire.[35]

Congolese rebel forces under Laurent Kabila, a longtime Mobutu opponent, which had been growing in strength for years, led the charge against the Hutu rebels operating in Zaire.  With the support of Rwanda and Uganda, Kabila’s AFDL soon marched on Mobutu.  The First Congo War was well underway.  Kabila quickly overthrew Mobutu, who fled into exile, and renamed the nation the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).[36]  Yet, Kabila ruled with a firm hand.  Such a governing style was not in the best interests of his backers, who had hoped to plunder the DRC’s vast resources.[37]  Rwanda and Uganda then began funding the rebel groups fighting to unseat him.  Soon, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad, all sent troops in support of Kabila, with the intent of serving their own economic interests.[38]

War continued to ravage the DRC for the years that followed.  By 1999, the United Nations had stepped in levying the Lusaka Peace Accord.[39]  All signatories except Rwanda and Uganda withdrew their troops.  With violence still raging, the U.N. grossly increased its peacekeeping force.[40]  In 2006, Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, stated that all of his troops had been removed from the DRC’s Kivu provinces.[41]  Later that year, Joseph Kabila, Laurent Kabila’s son and successor following his 2001 assassination, signed a new constitution which ushered in sweeping reforms.[42] 

In 2008, Rwanda and the DRC, which had been steadily rebuilding the foundations of its government[43], joined forces to fight a rebel group named Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which had been operating in the DRC’s Kivu provinces.[44]  Unfortunately, by 2012, relations between the two rival states had broken down once more, with the DRC accusing Rwanda and Uganda of arming the M23 band of rebels.[45]  By the close of 2012, the U.N. was forced to maintain a 20,000 man strong peacekeeping force in the DRC.[46]  This seemingly endless string of war has devastated the DRC, with some four million people, nearly all of whom were civilians, perishing.[47]  The recent Kivu Conflict alone has displaced a reported three million people.[48]


Famine – From Ethiopia to Nigeria and beyond

The third horseman to be discussed is Famine.  Again, here we will extend beyond the word’s strict definition.  It will deal with both food shortages and economic difficulties, or hunger and poverty.  War is commonly attributed as a factor capable of causing famine.  In times of war and targeted violence, fields and food production facilities are often damaged or destroyed, efficient transportation is often impaired, and large populations of people are relocated to sometimes barren refugee camps where rations may be substandard.

A prominent example of war impacting or even causing famine could be witnessed through an examination of a portion of the Ethiopian Civil War during the 1970s and 1980s, when Ethiopia’s dictator, Mengistu, withheld food assistance to the Tigray peasantry, of whom his opponents were comprised.[49]  In the Democratic Republic of Congo, war has worsened food shortages.  During the never-ending sequence of war in that country, farmers in certain regions have lost up to 50% of their tools and 75% of their livestock.[50]  The 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia resulted in approximately one million deaths alone.[51]  The Nigerian Civil War, which took place from 1967 to 1970, witnessed 3,000 to 5,000 people lose their lives each day due to starvation.[52]  Famine, while complicated by numerous factors, can most certainly be both a cause and effect of war.

The second form of famine takes the shape of economics.  War has the ability to directly affect the properties that can drive economic decline and stagnation.  War can, and often does, cripple infrastructure, displace civilians including laborers, and foster the growth and extension of disease that can greatly tax healthcare systems.  One only needs to look at Libyan GDP per capita from the years 2010 to 2012 to view the economic impacts war can cause.  In 2010 Libyan GDP per capita was $15,900.  In 2011, the year of the civil war that ousted Gaddafi, it was reduced by over half to a paltry $6,100.  The following year it had rebounded to $12,300.[53] 

As mentioned above, the African continent had long been pilfered by colonial occupiers, self-indulging dictators, and opportunistic states.  There may be no better example of such a situation than that of Sierra Leone during the 1990s.  Rich with diamonds, ominously nicknamed “blood diamonds”, Sierra Leone was once besieged by rebels so brutal that their hallmark was amputating the hands and arms of civilians, including children, yet its neighbors such as Liberia, as well as nations and companies hailing from several different continents, have coldly picked sides based on who promised to auction off diamonds for the lowest price.[54]


War – The ultimate horseman?

In several African nations, economic growth is underway.  The mining and oil industries in particular are rushing into the “Dark Continent” with an almost unprecedented fervor[55], and the resultant influx of revenue for many once perpetually impoverished nations will only serve to bolster their security.  However, Malawian Vice President, Justin Mawelezi, warned in 2002 that armed conflict in southern Africa was a threat to attracting meaningful direct foreign investment.[56]  In other words, war could jeopardize economic growth.

In terms of African security, war has proven itself to be the bringer of pestilence, famine, and conquest.  War can cripple entire institutions such as education[57], it can create armies of child soldiers, and it can propel itself through attracting arms traffickers[58].  What makes the case for war’s supremacy amongst its fellow horsemen is that it is quantifiable and visible, its barbarism and resultant chaos are in plain view.  In biblical terms, war is fully capable of being, and often is, the proverbial “Alpha and Omega”, the beginning and the end of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.


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[1] "Libya Profile." BBC News. BBC, 26 June 2013. Web. 12 July 2013. <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid

[6] Lichtblau, Eric, David Rohde, and James Risen. "Shady Dealings Helped Qaddafi Build Fortune and Regime." New York Times, 24 Mar. 2011. Web. 13 July 2013. <>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Charles Hornsby, Kenya: A History Since Independence, (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012), p.3

[9] Duncan Hill, World at War: 1945 to the Present Day, (Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK: Transatlantic, 2011), p.22

[10] "Kenya: A Political History." BBC News. BBC, 24 Dec. 1997. Web. 10 July 2013. <>.

[11] "U.S. Relations With Kenya." U.S. Department of State, 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 July 2013. <>.

[12] Thomas G. Paterson, John Garry Clifford, and Kenneth J. . Hagan, American Foreign Relations: Volume 2, Since 1895, (Boston Mass: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p.424

[13] Paterson, p.384

[14] "Darfur--Overview." UNICEF, Oct. 2008. Web. 18 July 2013. <>.

[15] Associated Press. "Study: Most Deaths in Darfur War from Disease." NBC News, 23 Jan. 2010. Web. 12 July 2013.

[16] "Darfur--Overview.”.

[17] Thomas C. Nchinda, "Malaria: A Reemerging Disease in Africa." Emerging Infectious Diseases 4.3 (1998): 398-403. World Health Organization. Web. 15 July 2013.

[18] Maire A. Connolly, and David L. Heymann. "Deadly Comrades: War and Infectious Diseases." The Lancet Supplement 360 (2002): 23-24. Rice University. Web. 11 July 2013.

[19] "Regional Fact Sheet 2012: Sub-Saharan Africa." United Nations, n.d. Web. 9 July 2013. <>.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid

[22] Obijiofor Aginam, "Rape and HIV as Weapons of War." United Nations University, 27 June 2012. Web. 13 July 2013.

[23] Stephen Leahy, "Africa: Untreated Mental Illness the Invisible Fallout of War and Poverty." All Africa, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 19 July 2013.

[24] Sean Rorison, Congo: Democratic Republic and Republic, (Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides, 2008), p. 65

[25] Rorison, p. 66

[26] Rorison, p. 66

[27] Rorison, p. 67

[28] Rorison, p. 68

[29] Rorison, p. 69

[30] Rorison, p. 69

[31] "Genocide in Rwanda." United Human Rights Council, n.d. Web. 16 July 2013. <>.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Rorison, p. 70

[36] Rorison, p. 70

[37] "DR Congo." Refugees International, n.d. Web. 17 July 2013.

[38] Rorison, p. 71

[39] Rorison, p. 72

[40] Rorison, p. 73

[41] Rorison, p. 74

[42] Rorison, p. 74

[43] "Q&A: DR Congo Conflict." BBC News. BBC, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 July 2013. <>.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Rorison, p. 71

[48] "DR Congo.”.

[49] "Ethiopian Famine 25th Anniversary - Questions and Answers." One, n.d. Web. 16 July 2013. <>.

[50] "Congo: Grappling with Malnutrition and Post-Conflict Woes." IRIN Africa, 9 Aug. 2007. Web. 11 July 2013.

[51] "Ethiopian Famine 25th Anniversary - Questions and Answers.".

[52] Hurst, Ryan. "Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970)." The Black Past, n.d. Web. 18 July 2013. <>.

[53] "Libya." The Central Intelligence Agency, 10 July 2013. Web. 16 July 2013.


[54] James Rupert, "Diamond Hunters Fuel Africa's Brutal Wars." The Washington Post, 16 Oct. 1999. Web. 14 July 2013. <>.

[55] Leka, Acha, Susan Lund, Charles Roxburgh, and Arend Van Wamelen. "What's Driving Africa's Growth?" McKinsey & Company, June 2010.

[56] "Instability Scares Off Investment, Malawi Official Warns." Panapress, 12 Jan. 2002. Web. 15 July 2013.

[57] "Conflict Makes Millions Miss School." Al Jazeera English, 1 Mar. 2011. Web. 15 July 2013. <>.

[58] Kester Kenn Klomegah, "Russia Eyes Africa to Boost Arms Sales." Guardian News and Media, 04 Apr. 2013. Web. 18 July 2013. <>.

In this article, we step back and take a broad-based look at history. We particularly like this article as it covers part of the reason we originally started up the site.


History is the study of mankind and its development through the ages. An awareness of the past is essential in order to provide a perspective on the problems of the present, and to understand people and societies which have been built on the foundations of our history. However, man does not always apply this knowledge to situations, condemning himself to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. George Bernard Shaw said ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history’; there is much truth to be found in this statement. History is saturated with bloody wars and struggles for power, many of which could have been avoided had the instigators considered the past.

Cartoon from 1878 on the Great Game in Afghanistan. Have recent Western governments learned from that war?

Cartoon from 1878 on the Great Game in Afghanistan. Have recent Western governments learned from that war?

In contrast to that view, Lord Macaulay declared that ‘The history of England is emphatically the history of progress’: our country has evolved and grown, advancing in all areas of civilization, and such developments could not have been made without considering mistakes made along the way.  There are countless instances where people have reflected on past errors and resolved that they will not occur again. For example, shipbuilders will never again assume that a boat is unsinkable after the infamous disaster of the Titanic in 1912, where 1514 people died due to a lack of lifeboats.


War – what is it good for?

Perhaps the most frequently-repeated occurrence throughout history is war. Despite the devastating consequences, man’s greed for power and inability to live harmoniously with his fellows has led to countless conflicts. Ironically, World War I was known as ‘the war to end all wars’, as it was one of the most shattering conflicts ever recorded, triggering the collapse of three major empires. However, World War II broke out just twenty-one years later. This was the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history, with around 60 million fatalities and the only use of nuclear weapons in a war. Nuclear warfare was threatened in the Cold War between America and Russia, and there are many lessons to be gained from these periods, which should be studied carefully to prevent future generations from making the same errors.  One hopes that the implications of deploying nuclear weapons, and the devastation wreaked by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will leave a long-lasting legacy, deterring countries from considering nuclear warfare as an acceptable weapon. North Korea and Iran in particular should pay heed to this.

Religious genocides have occurred since antiquity, and are a common theme throughout history. Overall, more than 6 million Jews were believed to have died in the Holocaust, of which approximately 1.5 million were children. Despite the atrocities committed against the Jews during this time, after they had endured centuries of persecution from people such as the Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, and French, it did not end mass killings under the pretext of religion. For example, there is the ongoing violence in Sudan and Tibet, and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the late 20th century. It could be said that being human is the potential to do good and evil, and therefore, although most look back and vow never to repeat the brutalities of the past, there will always be those who disregard this with a warped view on the moral way in which to treat others.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, religious violence escalated between the Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam to the point of a civil war that continues to this day. Iraq comprises 65% Shi’as, although dispute first arose when the Sunnis disagreed over their status as a minority. The Shi’as have suffered direct persecution at the hands of a Sunni government since 1932, especially under the reign of Saddam Hussein. The two sects have now fallen into a cycle of revenge killings, with the Sunni’s preferred methods being car bombs and suicide bombers in contrast to the Shi’as’ death squads. There is a colorful historical backdrop to the relations between Sunnis and Shi’as: since Mohammed’s death there have been many clashes between the two, often influenced by the political landscape of the time. Instead of accepting that such conflict between branches of religions ends only in bloodshed, these dissidents create renewed terror and violence, and do not embrace their theological differences, but inflict terrorism on the rest of the population. They are so blind to the error of their prejudices that they do not see the mistakes of past generations and try to make amends; instead they pursue their desire for superiority.



The French were beaten in the first Indochina conflict, ending in 1954, but this did not prevent the US Army from being defeated by North Vietnamese troops and their Communist allies in the following years. America did not recognize that attempting to beat the enemy on its home soil was futile, and again, this crucial factor has been overlooked in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his latest book, ‘Playing the Great Game: Britain, War and Politics in Afghanistan since 1839’, Dr. Edmund Yorke explores the tension between the political and military forces. Yorke argues that unnecessary political interference or negligence of military operations has consistently contributed to serious failures in Britain’s policy towards Afghanistan over the past 170 years. He highlights the same political and military errors that have occurred throughout the four major Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-42, 1878-80, 1919 and the continuing conflict today. Brigadier Ed Butler, Commander of the British Forces wrote, ‘If only his book had been available in 2001 and was required reading for all government ministers, officials and senior officers’. This is a reflection of how invading armies are often doomed to repeat the same mistakes, due to the incompetence and ignorance of their leaders. There are many parallels to be found in today’s conflict in Afghanistan and previous wars, and it may be time to find a political solution to avoid any more fatalities.

Proposing that all men should share the same opinions and live peacefully together is an unrealistic demand. Wars have shaped the world in which we live, and will continue to do so: by nature, man is a belligerent species. Seeing bloodshed may teach people that fighting each other is wrong, but it will not stop them from going to war to fight for their beliefs.  It is therefore unrealistic to expect mankind always to learn from its mistakes, as conflict between people is inevitable. It is the evolution of warfare that demonstrates whether man has actually learned from his past.


Church and monarch

Conflict between the Church and monarchy is also a recurrent theme. In 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by the knights of his former friend, King Henry II, in a culmination to a bitter quarrel that had been raging for several years. To pay penance for Becket’s murder, Henry dropped his plans for greater control over the Church and in 1174 walked barefoot through Canterbury and was whipped for his sins. Unfortunately, Henry’s son John did not learn from his father’s experience, and argued with the Pope, causing him to be excommunicated. It is not surprising that the Magna Carta of 1215 contained a clause stating that the Church should be free to obey the Pope above the monarch.

The Church was certainly one of the most powerful and influential forces in Medieval England. When the Pope forbade Henry VIII from divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer held divine authority in England, and founded his own church, the Church of England. This led to the dissolution of the monasteries, which had significant social impacts. Although the consequences are not as severe, the Church and the state still clash, most recently with the Anglican and Roman Christian Churches in Britain rejecting the government’s plans to legalese same sex marriage.

King John was a notoriously bad king. One monk wrote of him, ‘Hell is defiled by the fouler presence of John’. He plotted the downfall of his own brother, Richard I, betrayed his father, and quarreled so bitterly with the Pope over the next Archbishop of Canterbury that he was excommunicated, and an interdict was passed over England and Wales. During his 17-year reign, he lost most of the land his country held in France. Determined to regain this, he taxed and fined his subjects heavily, imprisoning them when they could not pay their debts. When he invaded France in 1214, his army was crushed by Phillip II at the Battle of Bouvines, meaning that all his taxes had been wasted in an unsuccessful war effort. This angered his barons so greatly that they forced him to agree to a set of rules, the Magna Carta, decreeing how the country should be governed. This was a cornerstone of democracy, and the start of a monarch’s power being limited. His subjects had seen the consequences of power corrupting a king, and to this day, there are checks and balances in place to ensure no power becomes too great in Britain.

King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215.


Democracy has evolved from the Ancient Greeks, coming from two Greek words: ‘demos’, meaning people, and ‘kratia’, meaning rule. Many modern democracies have come into being after the population of a country rose up against its leaders with a common aim of altering the way in which its country is governed. After the English Revolution, Parliament became gradually more important, although this power still changed over the years, allowing middle-class, then working-class men to vote, and eventually permitting women to vote on equal terms with men in 1928. After the American Revolution, when thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent of Britain, a constitution ensured that no part of their new federal and state system could become too powerful. Although in the short term the French Revolution did not work, the French managed to establish a democratic republic in 1871. These revolutions demonstrate to mankind that ultimately the population of a country must be content, as they are the foundations of the nation. The Arab Spring is a recent series of uprisings in the Arab world. These have led to the deposing of the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, with civil uprisings in Syria and Bahrain. The subsequent violence these rebellions and protests have triggered could have been avoided if a more tolerable regime had been used in the countries.

Countries could learn from Britain’s mistakes in the 20th Century: many democratic systems were set up in ex-colonies, with Parliaments responsible to the Queen. These systems have not always fared so well, and many British Commonwealth countries have become dictatorships. The governing of a country is a precarious task, as people will always have conflicting views. By taking into account the successes and failings of past methods, disquiet can be limited to a minimum. For example, ex-British leader Margaret Thatcher would have done well to pay heed to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. There was excessive taxation to pay for the Hundred Years’ War, which was not of common concern, and a poll tax was introduced. This was one of the main factors that contributed to the rebelling of up to 100,000 people who marched on London and demanded audiences with Richard II. Although the revolt was a failure in the short term, in the long term many of its aims were achieved. This included the abolition of poll taxes. If Mrs. Thatcher had paid more attention to this period in history, she might not have faced riots after introducing the controversial Community Charge in 1990.


Perspectives on the past

The hypothesis of eternal recurrence, developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, theorizes history as being beyond our control.  It says that since the probability of our existence occurring is finite, and time and space are infinite, then our existence will repeat an endless amount of times. If this is the case, it suggests that all patterns and similar events through history will recur repeatedly, despite attempts to prevent this.  If this theory were true, then even if mankind were to learn from every error that has happened, any improvements would be in vain as all events will inevitably happen again.

I believe that the statement ‘Mankind has learned nothing from history’ is too indistinct a generalization of mankind to represent the billions of individual opinions and wills of people: there will be those who strive to extract all the lessons they can from history and there will also be those who follow their own beliefs, irrespective of those before them.  People’s perspective on life is also constantly changing, molded by their environment, and it is therefore unrealistic to apply the standards of the present to events in the past.  History cannot predict what will happen in the future. Historians can try to find patterns that correspond with historical evidence, but, unlike the certainty and precision of scientific laws, these can be used only as guidelines.

Isaiah Berlin’s August Compte Lecture, later published under the title ‘Historical Inevitability’, argues that human beings’ capacity to make moral decisions makes them unique. However, the historian, E.H. Carr, believed that impersonal forces such as greed defined human behavior. To assert the inevitability of past events, as Carr did, was to forsake moral obligation for our own present actions. However, the two were united in the fact that historians always look for meaning and pattern in the past: they investigate causes in order to explain what happened. Carr argued that ‘what distinguishes the historian is the proposition that one thing led to another. Secondly, while historical events were of course set in motion by the individual wills, whether of ‘great men’ or ordinary people, the historian must go behind the individual wills and inquire into the reasons which made the individuals will and act as they did, and study the ‘factors’ or ‘forces’ which explain individual behavior.’ This compelling case suggests that if we perhaps paid more attention to the work of historians, devastating historic recurrence could be avoided.  As the German scholar and philosopher, Friedrich von Schlegel observed, ‘The historian is a prophet looking backwards.’

What are your views on humans and history? Have we adequately learned the lessons of history? Comments welcome below...


By Julia Routledge

For more entertaining thoughts, Julia’s blog is here. This post originally appeared on Julia’s blog last year.

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones