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The Age of Extremes

On 28 June 1992 President Mitterrand of France made a sudden, unannounced and unexpected appearance in Sarajevo, already the centre of a Balkan war that was to cost many thousands of lives during the remainder of the year. His object was to remind world opinion of the seriousness of the Bosnian crisis. Indeed, the presence of a distinguished, elderly and visibly frail statesman under small-arms and artillery fire was much remarked on and admired. However, one aspect of M Mitterrand's visit passed virtually without comment, even though it was plainly central to it: the date. Why has the president of France chosen to go to Sarajevo on that particular day? Because 28 June was the anniversary of the assassination, in Sarajevo, in 1914, of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, which led, within a matter of weeks, to the outbreak of the first world war. For any educated European of Mitterrand's age, the connection between date, place and the reminder of a historic catastrophe precipitated by political error and miscalculation leaped to the eye. How better to dramatise the potential implications of the Bosnian crisis than by choosing so symbolic a date? But hardly anyone caught the allusion, except a few professional historians and very senior citizens. The historical memory was no longer alive.

The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's comtemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century's end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in. This makes historians, whose business it is to remember what others forget, more essential at the end of the second millennium than ever before. But for that very reason they must be more than simply chroniclers, remembrancers and compilers, though this is also the historians' necessary function. In 1989 all governments and especially all foreign ministers in the world would have benefited from a seminar on the peace settlements after the two world wars, which most of them had apparently forgotten.