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“He permanently changed my view on politics”

“He permanently changed my view on politics”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Pieter Caljé inspired by Thucydides

He wanted his book History of the Peloponnesian War ‘to be a lasting possession’. As far as historian Pieter Caljé is concerned, the Greek historian Thucydides certainly succeeded in this. “It is 2,400 years old, but it is still very much alive.”

In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes the war that raged from 431-404 BC between Athens and Sparta. “The Greek world was a universe of its own at that time. When these two superpowers entered into war with each other, the whole of civilisation was at war. Thucydides realised immediately that this was the most important event of his time,” says Caljé.

He decided to record the developments and in doing so became the founder of chronological history, as we know it today. “It was a brilliant idea. Before that, there had only been stories about gods, myths and legends.” Thucydides obtained his information by speaking to eyewitnesses. “He wanted to do a good job, as honestly and objectively as possible. Never go by your first impression and listen to all sides of a story, he said. So he travelled all over Greece to hear people out. At the same time, he constructed the history of cities and in doing so invented chronology.”

But that is not all, what makes The History of the Peloponnesian War such an impressive achievement, according to Caljé, is the way in which Thucydides analyses the events. “He wants to know why the war unfolded the way it did. Why did people make certain decisions? With an iron will, he describes how standards decay in times of war. How people are capable of barbarity. How a civil war erupts during this war because the underdogs see a chance to overthrow those on top.”

To discover people’s motivation, Thucydides writes speeches in which rulers argue why they took certain decisions and try to convince others that they were right. “But he never becomes moralistic, he just describes. That makes the atrocities – captives being killed, the weaker ones who were massacred – even more impressive.”

Thucydides comes to the conclusion that people act in their own interest. “That makes him the trendsetter of the realistic school of international relations. They believe that every party, every person, cannot but act in their own interest. Anarchy reigns in realism, there is no overall world power.” At the same time, Thucydides sees that in times of war people do not always know what is in their best interest. They are led by passion and fear and do not know what is good for them. “That is why to this day there are fierce debates about the question whether Thucydides was in favour of realism or against it.”

Caljé read the book when he was a student in the nineteen-seventies. “It was the hippie period. We thought that the old world, the world in which people acted in their own interest, was a thing of the past. Thucydides cures you of that. He permanently changed my view on politics. I saw how fragile international relations were, how much tact and carefulness is needed to maintain a balance. This book has also deprived me of any illusions about how terrible and cruel war is.”

As a historian, Caljé - just like Thucydides - always tries to think about the insight people may gain from one’s work. “He thought: ‘I can describe how things were, but I must also record the deeper cause’. He wanted to record the human patterns, how people react when they are confronted with power and powerlessness, so that they could learn from that. He felt that everyone should know.”

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