As historians, and as students of history, it is all too easy for us to become somewhat myopic, examining the events that occur to the people or peoples of interest and forgetting the larger context of what happened around. For example, we may be students who love reading about the American Civil War, but show no interest whatsoever in the fact that at the same time that Americans were slaughtering each other on fields like Gettysburg, the Russians were advancing in Central Asia, the Manchu dynasty was winning (with the help of European troops) over Taiping Rebellion, the Prussians and Austrians were cooperating in a successful war against Denmark before turning on each other in the Austro-Prussian War, and Paraguay was fighting against the combined armies of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, and losing 90% of its male population as a result of the hopeless struggle.
Knowing that all of these events (and many others—including the attempt by France to set a puppet emperor of the Hapsburg House over Mexico, and of Spain to regain control of Santo Domingo) occurred at the same time provides a sense of context to historical events. People and nations do not live and act in a vacuum. There is always interaction with others, and often a similar sense of crisis occurs in multiple countries. For example, the fact that the United States was engaged in a civil war in the 1860’s emboldened those European powers like Spain and France that sought to further their empire in the Americas and were taking advantage of America’s distraction to oppress peoples who otherwise would have had their independence protected by a nation distinctly unfriendly to empires on its borders.
This means that if we are truly to understand history, we must start with some basis in chronology. To fully understand the behavior of nations, we must know the activities of other nations that affected and influenced their actions, either through their direction action or through their distraction in other affairs. A timeline of history helps us to understand these matters. Understanding how the Europeans were able to hold on to the Outremer for so long (almost 200 years) requires us to understand the conflicts between Turk and Arab, as well as between different Arab houses, as well as the ability of Europeans (however disunited) to make alliances with nations like the Byzantines, the Armenians, and the Mongols at key junctures. Knowing agendas, knowing historical and cultural fault lines, and knowing friends and allies helps us understand why decisive events tend to happen in groups. In long and evenly balanced conflicts the sudden weakness or decline of one group often leads to a “decisive” resolution of a wide variety of interrelated struggles.
As students of history we often fail at the task of understanding particular historical events (like the Second World War, or the Civil War) as part of a system of interrelated events. We treat issues in isolation, occasionally commenting on the connections between the First World War and the Second World War, but often not in a way that sufficiently explains the motivations of the actors involved. To give but one example, Japan’s willingness to join Nazi Germany in the Axis sprang both out of militaristic domestic politics and a racist theory of the Japanese master race (which mirrored the pathology of Nazism) as well as a sense that Japan had been denied equality and respect as a Pacific power by the United States and Great Britain. Likewise, Italy had felt betrayed by its meager gains as a result of World War I (and the massive slaughter it suffered as a turncoat from the Central Alliance in fighting Austria and Germany), and found common cause with other nations with longings to recover lands lost in World War I and the interwar period (Finland, Bulgaria, and Hungary among them).
Without understanding the Treaty of Triannon or the Winter War of 1940, it is difficult to understand the motivations of nations in World War II, if one wishes to focus on the bigger picture outside of Nazi Germany. Sometimes this bigger picture is important—one of the reasons for the German defeat at Stalingrad was the fact that Bulgarian and Romanian armies did not cooperate with each other, in large part due to a history of conflict going back at least to the Second Balkan War, where Bulgaria faced off against Serbia, Greece, Romania, and Turkey, in the process causing it to lose half of its land (including what is now the country of Macedonia) and giving it a nearly permanent grievance against most of its neighbors, along with a proclivity to support revisionist powers in both World War I and World War II, leading it to lose more land as a result of defeats in both conflicts.
The importance of understanding chronology (whether relative or absolute) is to understand the importance of context. Big or important nations are not the only actors in the drama of history. Smaller nations and even the citizens of nations are actors themselves, and are often influenced by similar trends at the same time, meaning that crises tend to spread rapidly around the world. (The crises of 2011 spring from a similar sense of malaise around the world, a sense that political leaders are corrupt and tottering.) It is not that nations are dominoes that fall if their neighbors fall. It is more that a win in one theater or one nation gives one “momentum” along with new allies to engage further ones, even as it emboldens enemies even harder and to fight even more desperately. The end result of such shifts is difficult to predict in advance, but impossible to understand without understanding the greater whole of which a nation is only a part.
Even a nation as large and powerful (for now) as the United States has its own internal and external political contexts to examine as it decides its action. For example, right now the United States, as a result of its periodic frustration with longstanding foreign quagmires, its debt crisis, and its own sense of internal malaise (even with the threat of grave internal conflict as a result of its longstanding “culture war”) seems to be entering a period of isolationism, where it seeks to forget or ignore what is wrong with the rest of the world. These longstanding attempts to bury its head in the sand usually end in nasty crises (see Pearl Harbor, 1941, or the War of 1812), because no nation (not even Great Britain or Japan) is truly an island. Understanding the context is vital to understanding the reasons and motivations for actions. When we have some idea of the influences and motivations and reasons for the behavior of others (and other nations), those people and nations become actors and not merely villains.
And that is the true reason to combine a study of history with one of chronology, as it makes people into genuine actors. Seeing how one is influenced by surroundings give some idea of the pulls on people. Instead of attacking people, we can work on an indirect approach that allows people and nations to be dealt with in context. Likewise ignoring context means failing to understand the real reasons and motivations behind actions and attitudes, and that leaves us unable to meaningfully interact with others, as we lack the knowledge to do so. As students of history, and as actors in it, we ought to be wise enough to realize that we need to understand those we deal with as much as possible, and as sympathetically as possible, and hope that those we deal with are willing to do the same with us. Only then do we have a chance at overcoming the influences around us. We must know our enemy before we can defeat it, and the enemy is seldom the person we are dealing with.