Understanding (and) Division

Those of us lucky enough to have lived in largely peaceful times and not obliged to go to war may naturally be shocked by recent divisions created by binary politics – notable examples being the UK and USA in the last couple of years – which not only divide society but in some cases, families.

I learned from a recent conversation with our Belgian research partner that historical divisions there mean that the exploration of family history can be fraught with difficulty.  Deeply held convictions about rights and wrongs before, during and after two world wars have fed longstanding cultural differences which still lead many people to say they ‘don’t talk about it’.

We were reminded in 2017 of the appalling suffering and loss of life during the partition of India seventy years ago.  A small number who witnessed those events and are still with us have now been recorded but I’m told that so many survivors didn’t want to discuss it and their descendants are now missing the first-hand accounts, however painful they might have been.

The reality is that the survivors of conflicts across the globe, those at the sharp end of the partisan division of war, invasion, partition, persecution and indeed those who have been social outcasts, more often than not don’t want to talk about it.  After lives have been lost and livelihoods destroyed, the understandable priority of those still standing is to get on with life. Yet inevitably it is all too easy for the memories and legacy of the past to die with those who experienced them.

Luckily for us, centuries of experiences have been recorded in books and more recently, both combatants and victims of 20th Century conflicts have been recorded on film.  Wise TV and film producers have left us with the first hand recollections of some of those who had been there at the time.  Preserved archive film and photography can help bring to life the times in which our forebears lived but how much more personal and relevant would their stories be had they been filmed at the time?

Time is often said to be a healer.  The divisions which led to conflict can heal or be put into perspective.  Past characters whose behaviour or lifestyle was unforgivable at the time, who created resentment or social embarrassment can be forgiven or rationalised in the context of the choices that faced them at the time.  

In making individual family history films our research will uncover rebels, collaborators, royalists and republicans; battles for land, rights and justice; ardent socialists and capitalists.  These aspects may now offer an explanation for modern times and offer warnings for the future. They certainly answer the old question: where do I come from?

We find it is often the of discovery a former home, jail, workhouse or the journeys associated with ancestors which create the greatest interest and these are rarely the cause of embarrassment.

Thus historical events, once the cause of division and conflict, may be understood and placed in context.  With time, sympathy and understanding tend may replace resentment and awkwardness.  The pity is that such interest and sympathy sometimes only arises years after the subjects have died.

As the cycle of life goes on how can the understanding of future generations be assured if past experiences are buried?

Well, as technology now removes one excuse for inaction we’d hope that more people will include the vital memories and historical anecdotes for the benefit and better understanding of future generations.

After all, the feature we see most often in producing family history films is that the sharing of memories and common experiences brings families together.

Jon Bell is the Commercial Director of Family History Films.