Today, January 31st, 2020, is Brexit Day. As I am sitting here, behind my desk (which doubles as the kitchen table) in my flat in Whitechapel, East London, I cannot help but feel a bit bewildered: history is taking place right here and now, and yet, in my immediate, everyday experience, nothing seems to be happening at all.
I recognise this feeling from reading a book called In Europe, in which Dutch historian Geert Mak reports on the journey he made through Europe in 1999, to try to take stock of what had happened to the continent in the 20th century. The book is filled with personal accounts of people who lived through significant moments in history. For example, he cites some passages from the diary of Käthe Kollwitz, who he aptly describes as “sculptress and cartoonist for the satirical weekly Simplicissimus; wife of the social democrat general practitioner Karl Kollwitz; mother of two sons, Hans and Peter”, who lived in Berlin during the first world war. Mak describes the circumstances in which both her sons left for war:
Hans was already in the army, Peter volunteered for duty after seeing a company march away while bystanders sang a ‘rousing popular chorus’ of ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ It was hard for her, but her husband Karl said: ‘These wonderful children – we shall have to work hard to deserve them.’ In the evening, after dinner, the family read aloud a war novella about a man who had been summoned to his dying friend. After that there was singing in the living room, ‘old country ballads and war songs’. Käthe went to the barracks to visit her sons. ‘In the courtyard, Hans. In uniform. His baby face.’
Of course, I do not mean to imply that Britain leaving the EU today is as grave an event as Käthe Kollwitz sending her sons off to war in 1914. All I want to point out is that I feel equally connected, and yet detached from both events. Which is odd, given that I would not be born for another 77 years when world war one started, but I am living through Brexit right here and now. This feeling seems to point to some fundamental quality of history. Living through it is a weird thing. It is supposed to be happening all around you, tying you to other people and giving you a sense of meaning and understanding about this world you are a part of. And yet it feels oddly fake – somehow hypothetical. Like something that does not feel different when you are reading about it in a book or living through it right now.
What comes to mind when I sit with this feeling of bewilderment, is the difference between the natural and the social sciences, such as history (and for that matter economics). There is no way to test your understanding of history in the way that you can test your understanding of the natural world. Scientists can experiment to determine whether they have correctly understood certain phenomena; they can repeat their experiments and – most importantly – change them, to see whether changing different parts actually gives you different results, or whether they have no effect on the thing you are trying to study. With history, this simply is not possible: you cannot rerun the last ten years, and change certain aspects of it, to see whether Brexit would not have happened had the remain campaign been run differently, had the EU negotiated differently or had the opposition party in the UK had a different leader.
I had originally planned to write an analysis of Brexit. In effect to answer the question Guy Verhofstadt asked in the European Parliament, during the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement on Wednesday: “how could this happen?” And actually, I still want to write one. Having lived in three different countries – the Netherlands, the UK and Germany, and following politics in each, I feel I have quite a unique experience, which allows me to contrast UK politics with its Dutch and German counterparts, and in doing so show that it is not just the politicians that have shaped Brexit, but that there are more fundamental cultural, historical and constitutional factors that play an equally important role. And yet, despite all this experience and knowledge, I still feel a sense of unease about trying to answer the question: “how could this happen?” Because I cannot go back and see whether the things that I think are decisive really are decisive. I cannot rerun the experiment, to see whether my theory holds. So I am left with this bewildered feeling that even though I am here, now, on Brexit day, I might as well be in 2100, reading about it in a book about the 21st century by some Dutch historian.
Krijn van Eeden is editor of Libel. He grew up in the Netherlands, but moved out of the country at the age of 18. Currently, he is studying for an MA in Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, Germany. Before that he lived in London, where he did his BA and subsequently worked for the Liberal Democrats.
 Geert Mak. In Europe. London: Vintage, 2008, p. 38
 In Europe, p. 77