August 2017Weaving Pages: August 2017

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Is History Made by the Powerful? [ESSAY HELP + EXAMPLE]

If you've been wondering exactly what I've been up to the past year, a lot of it included writing essays for a few competitions I came across. This is one of them, discussing the statement "History is made by the powerful." Guidance for this kind of 2,500 word essay can be hard to find, especially when you're a sixth-former used to answering questions with (25 Marks) stuck on the end, so before the actual essay I've included three things I did or would do differently if I was writing this again.

1) Choose a topic that really interests you. Call me a nerd, but I love history, mainly because -as this blog shows- I love stories, and the ones that happened in the past are just as captivating as the meticulously planned ones you find in fiction books. I took the opportunity in this essay to talks about different areas of history that I hadn't had the chance to study before; two of these areas were somewhat personal to me, being part of Portugal's history, whilst the rest (the beginning of the Mormon faith and the rise of Communism in 20th century Europe) gave me the opportunity to explore and engage with new arguments. It's also a given that when you're writing 2,500 words (even more or less) you will not make it through the entire piece if your subject makes you want to fall asleep, so make your time and effort worthwhile!

2) Start with an argument, end with an argument. Essays like this one are meant to take on a clear line of argument which you sustain throughout. Make this evident in your introduction, and once again in your conclusion. Use detail and specific knowledge to supplement your argument, not the other way round. I think that this, especially when you're excited about the topic you're writing about, can be the hardest thing to get right, but with good focus and critical editing once you've finished your first draft, you'll be fine.

3) Stick to a structure. So I probably sound like your teacher here, but it's possibly one of the most crucial parts of your essay, and one that I would try to do better if I re wrote this. As someone who adores creative writing, I'm a fan of just letting myself write naturally, but when it comes to argumentative pieces of writing, it's often a lot more coherent and effective to follow through one argument or point per paragraph, developing it as you go. This keeps your various arguments distinct and allows you to create links between them more effectively instead of getting carried away and scattering points throughout the essay. 

“Dos fracos não reza a História.”

“The weak do not make history.”

Foregoing not speaking the language, the greatest barrier to understanding this age-old Portuguese proverb is a misunderstanding of what power actually constitutes. A crude analysis attributes it to bullets, banknotes and beliefs. Such an approach places power on a spectrum that defines it by the state in which it is found, thus ignoring its reliance upon the distinct places it may be found to derive from. In essence, power is the processes through which it is obtained. It is the factors that create it, that fester into military victories and harden into political ideologies. Thus, the question of what makes history is not answerable with the simple suggestion of ‘power’ itself, but instead with another question that remains: what provides power?
            Immediate thought seems to attempt to physically embody the course of power, but in defining it as the number of weapons amassed, territories exploited or men conscripted, it becomes too easy to erase the lone wolves of history. A significant portrayal of this remains Anibal Milhais, a Portuguese soldier in World War One, nicknamed ‘Soldado Milhões’ (Soldier Millions) for he was said to be as good a soldier as a million others.
Remembered for his performance at the Battle of La Lys, Milhais single-handedly defeated two German assaults by firing upon them with his Lewis machine gun and refusing to leave his post until he ran out of ammunition. Thus he allowed the retreat of the allied forces, convincing the Germans that they were attacking a heavily fortified unit instead of a lone soldier with a machine gun. Upon the German division deciding to go around his post, he became lost for three days and nights with nothing to eat or drink except the sweet almonds his family had sent him from Portugal, and yet was able to save a drowning Scottish Major who later ensured Milhais’ feats were known.
This example of empowerment is a vital portrayal of the fact power by definition is not limited to military strength. Despite there being 20,000 Portuguese men fighting at the Battle of La Lys, it was the bravery of a single man that allowed for allied retreat, and in that moment that single man was more powerful that the two German Regiments attacking him. Power in this situation is shown to not simply correlate with strength by numbers, but instead strength by character or in this case Milhais’ persistent bravery at a battle where the Portuguese division was demoralised and heavily depleted in both numbers and leadership. What was a severe moment of weakness for the forces ultimately became a moment of empowerment due to the actions of Anibal Milhais; that has made history.
Yet the story of Soldier Millions keenly ignores a pivotal detail.  Milhais was still physically empowered; he had a gun, he had bullets, and these gave him the power he needed to defeat his opponents. Such an example thus ignores the other courses through which power can manifest itself, in particular the kind that channels itself through a person’s essence.
Moving a little further into the history of 20th century Portugal provides the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, another sole man who without the help of bullets or machine guns aided a vast number of refugees in escaping Nazi Germany during World War Two. Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese Consul under the fascist regime of Salazar, which at the time had issued Circular 10 and Circular 14. These were two immigration policies that made it very difficult for refugees to attempt to enter Portugal by making consuls unable to pass them visas without approval in advance from the Foreign Ministry’s head office. Sousa Mendes resisted such policies throughout the course of the war, and is thought to have issued around 30,000 visas to refugees, 10,000 of them Jewish. Even at the cost of directly disobeying the orders of a fascist regime, he dared to use his status to help those he knew were being abandoned by laws aiming to restrict immigration to Portugal.
However, if we classify power by the processes that generate it, then the question of where Sousa Mendes gained the power to motivate his actions still remains. Discriminately, his power must not be interpreted by his position of authority but by that which actually drove his actions, whatever was necessary to spur him into action. For Mendes, this was his religion. He spoke of his actions coherently and confidently, stating "I would rather stand with God and against man than with man and against God”[1] a testament to the way his Catholicism convinced him of his duty to save the lives of those he had the ability to help.
 The only sure conclusion to be taken from both the historical accounts of Anibal Milhais and Aristides de Sousa Mendes is that power is as much physical as it is ideological. Milhais may have derived his power from his bullets, just as Sousa Mendes used his visas as a weapon for good, but ultimately the physical consequences that resulted from their empowerment came from coherent ideas and ideologies. For Sousa Mendes, it has been identified as his religion but for Milhais it is more complicated. Overwhelmingly, if we consider the dire morale Portuguese forces experienced as they died for a conflict they knew nothing about, one would admit Milhais’ ideology to be born not from an inherent duty to the war, but to his role as a soldier. In fact, his behaviour correlates strongly with the motto of the Portuguese Armed Forces as it stands and stood then: “Em Perigos e Guerras Esforçado[2] or “Diligent in Danger and War,” a fitting description of Milhais’ conduct on the battlefield.
There are still reverberations of the power of ideology seen today, particularly so in the ever continual development of faith. This occurs even whilst religion classifies itself as separate from ideology, the two entities converging in their abilities to shape and provide power. Moving across the Atlantic, Joseph Smith and his followers are perhaps an excellent illustration of the ability of religious belief to drive the beginnings of a faith. Specifically, the Mormon faith was rooted in no archaeological evidence, but was instead founded on the allegations of Smith that he was led by an angel by the name of Moroni to find the Book of Mormon inscribed in sheets of solid gold, which was then translated from the original Egyptian through angelic machinery Smith claimed to be provided with. Successfully, he provided the faith that the new, illiterate inhabitants of the New World needed to believe in; the Old World was enriched with its role as a historical epicentre, and by convincing his followers that they were inheriting the very land which had been the Garden of Eden, he provided the exact kind of authority they needed to believe in to give them purpose in the world. In return for following Smith as the Prophet of the World, the new Mormons were given explanations for the world around them: they were provided with a new origin to secret mounds scattered in Ohio country, which dated back to the Pre-Columbian era; they were offered a renewed emphasis on faith-healing, a lifeline in a time where only crude medical knowledge was available, but also the universalization of polygamy was a defection from the rigorous puritanism which plagued social culture.  As Brigham Young immortalised in 1855, “ We have taken the poor and the ignorant from the dens and caves of the earth and brought them here.”[3]
Consequently, the power of ideology within religion was just as important in the persecution of the Mormons too. The same whole hearted acceptance of religion, polygamy and alternative history which enthralled the Mormon converts repulsed the general American population, who deemed them nothing but delusional individuals trying to impose their outrageous theories on others. In Missouri there was bloodshed, Smith prophesying the destruction of Jackson County, whilst in Illinois the growing political and socio-economic influence of the Mormons led to Smith and his brother Hyrum being thrown into jail and lynched upon their destruction of the printing press of a disbelieving newspaper. Effectively, the early beginnings of the religion were dominated by a battle of ideologies, or in other words, a battle of power.
The Mormons fought for their faith through a need for empowerment, yet for history to find its roots in this there must surely be a motivation which incentivises one to seek power. One theory would pertain that the aforementioned motivation derives from an experience of weakness prior to the moment of empowerment. The incentive therefore emerges from individuals revolting against their own weakness, and it is collective action in its various forms, be it a collective group who have all felt this same weakness or a nation of determined supporters. Therefore, arguably it was this crucial moment of utter weakness in the midst of persecution which provided the Mormon faith with the resilience to grow into the influence it holds today.
Enduring the burning of their houses, the extrajudicial killings of their leaders, and the loss of their place in society, around 16,000 Mormons under the determined will of Young made the journey westwards in freezing conditions and with little money or property, many dying along the way until in 1847 they finally settled in what would later become known as Salt Lake City. Effectively, the persecution of the Mormons brought on the manifestation of their power; the brute force of displacement manifesting a pool of self-reliance, which brought collective empowerment. Despite the questionable claims of Smith which the Mormon faith had been built on, effectively it was the imminent promise in their own beliefs which fuelled the need to succeed as a collective religion, creating an intense investment through the means of fund-raising, teaching their own children and essentially creating their own travelling but fully-functioning society.
The powerful are therefore those who gain and thus possess power, the use of the noun indicating reason to believe power is provided or gained. The verb ‘empowerment’ contains in itself the general consensus that power fluctuates and shifts; the very notion that one can gain power would suggest that one could lose it as well. The rise of Communism in early 20th century Eastern Europe is a prime paradigm of fluctuating power, characterised by the February and October revolutions that saw power shift from the autocratic rule of the Tsars to a liberal provisional government and finally a Bolshevik government. The February revolution was a product of bread riots that coagulated into mutiny and saw the social elite force the abdication of Nicholas II in an attempt to curb the mass insurgence of the lower classes, thus resulting in the monarchy’s loss of power as the Tsar’s brother refused to accept the throne. Consequently, the October revolution saw a coup led by the Bolsheviks further disturb the balance of power, upending the provisional government and forming the Soviet Union, a communist state. In the space of nine months, Russia had seen command drastically shift from one extreme ideology to another, moving from monarchs to comrades and perfectly exposing the sheer volatility of power.
Assuming that power is in constant motion thus leads to the supposition that power is distributed inconsistently at one time. Following the October revolution, the state established was in theory communist, based on the principles that all citizens are equal and work only for common advancement of the people, extracting what is necessary from a central pool and then repaying this by whatever means they have of contributing to society. However, whether lots of people may have the same degree of power at the same point is disputable; there maintains the problem that surely for one to be defined as powerful, the weak must exist in order to be comparable. In practice, this is the exact problem communism encountered. Lenin effectively established a rule of terror in order to maintain power, encouraging class warfare in order to force the compliance of the middle classes through intimidation so that a person accused of being a burzhui (bourgeois) could be arrested. At the same time, the secret police (the Cheka) eliminated any opposition to the communist state, ensuring Lenin established a dictatorship under the guise of ensuring the success of communism. The Russian population was left to watch silently as their fellow comrades blurred into the dictators they had once revolted against. Clearly, these very failings of a political ideology based on the maxim of equality amongst all suggest that equality of power is in practice inconceivable. Power, as an unstable entity, requires that its fluctuation must be defined by fluidity in its types and intensities, but in order to fluctuate it requires the strong and the weak to coexist in a dance of control during which power is just as easily forged as it is broken.
            There is no doubt that in establishing the need for comparison within the concept of power and the fact that it must constantly shift indicates that if history is power it is therefore also the power struggle. The shifts in power over the course of our human history express that what provides power, or ‘empowerment’, is what defines our history, both on a physical and ideological level. Such a suggestion inevitably leads to the conclusion that history is made by people wanting to exercise their power, which consequently signifies that it is overly simplistic to decide that history is either made by the powerful or the weak. This essay has considered several possibilities; those which are physically powerful, those which are ideologically powerful, those whose power has come out of weakness and those whose power has been taken and lost.
            Surely, however, there is one thing that over the course of the essay has been overlooked, and that is the fluidity of the statement itself. History is born, made and multiplied. However, perhaps the subtle difference is that history is not made but simply written by the powerful. The weak make history through their search for empowerment, much like the Mormons did whilst persecuted, but it is ultimately the powerful who write it, whether their power is existent or also born out of a search. Infinitely, this is the conclusion that must be reached, because at the end of their lives or at some point during them, Milhais, Sousa Mendes, the Mormons and the Bolsheviks were powerful in their own diverse ways. This power was crucial in order for observers to immortalise such influence in their writing. However, in the physical process of manufacturing history itself, they were not required to be powerful. History is not made by the powerful; it is the powerful who are a by-product of history.

[1] Aristides de Sousa Mendes,
[2] Heraldica do Exercito (Forces Coat of Arms),
[3] Brogan, Hugh, 2001: The Penguin History of the USA, Book 3, Chapter 12, Pg 235

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