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The abuses of history

So, we went forward, not back. Blair has been re-elected, to what he and everyone else are calling an “historic” third term. It is true that it is the first time a British political party with the word “Labour” in its name has been re-elected twice. It is also true that Blair got the lowest-ever share of the vote. 64% of voters indicated a preference for a different prime minister . . .

This is all “historic”, in the sense that it has happened, in the sense that I just smoked an historic cigarette. But to use the word “historic” too frequently in political discourse is to betray a sort of narcissism, the egotism of power that thinks everything it does is unprecedented, and, perforce, that everything novel is good. It is just a form of political shouting.

The most extreme version of this phenomenon was well anatomised by the writer Victor Klemperer, who documented the linguistic abuses of the Nazi party at first hand in his book Lingua Tertii Imperii (The Language of the Third Reich):

[Historic is] the word that National Socialism used from beginning to end with inordinate profligacy. It takes itself so seriously, it is so convinced of the permanence of its institutions, or at least is so keen to persuade others of that permanence, that every trifle, however insignificant, and everything that it comes into contact with, has a historical significance. Every speech delivered by the Führer is historical {historisch}, even if he says the same thing a hundred times over, every meeting the Führer has with the Duce is historical, even if it doesn’t make the slightest difference to the existing state of things; the victory of a German racing car is historical, as is the official opening of a new motorway, and every single road, and every single section of every single road, is officially inaugurated; every harvest festival is historical, every Party Rally, every feast day of any kind; and since the Third Reich seems to know nothing but feast days – you could say that it suffered, indeed was mortally ill, from a lack of the everyday, just as the human body can be mortally ill from a lack of salt – it views every single day of its life as historical.

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