Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why is history important - And why you should always keep learning about it

It is important to be aware of history, not only in the sense of "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it", but also in the 1984 sense of "Those who control the past control the present". The meaning of the present is shaped by what happened in the past. World War II has a huge effect on the present, and perceptions of the present. People tell us that we should heed the lessons of Munich, 1938 and be wary of negotiating with megalomaniacs. People tell us how the occupations of Germany and Japan contain lessons on how we should handle the occupation of Iraq. We are told that the Ba'athist parties of Syria and Iraq are offshoots of the Nazi party, fascist seeds that fell close to the tree. We are told that the roots of the present conflicts are anchored in the stripping of empires at the end of WWII. We are told all this and more by people who want to influence our thinking today.

But sound bites are not history. History is immensely complicated. I am reading Robert K Massey's Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War. The book explores why the Great War (known as World War I generally) started. The preface opens with the Battle of Trafalgar. This battle took place in 1805, more than a century before the Great War, between two powers that were allied in the later conflict. But Trafalgar sits under the surface of the rest of the book, which is a detailed treatment of the major prime driver of the Great War. The "World History" view of WWI is of a war started because a Serbian anarchist/patriot shot the heir to the throne of Austria. But without knowing the past half-century (at least) history of interaction between Germany, Austria, France, England and Russia, you don't know how an assassination in Serbia that was a major diplomatic incident between Austria and Serbia in June leads to the declarations of war in August between Germany and England. And without knowing the importance of Trafalgar, you can't understand why the very existence of the Kaiserliche Marine leads England to an alliance with France, her historic enemy. Nor why that alliance leads England into a land war on the Continent against a country whose leader is the cousin of the King of England.

Terry Pratchett typically opens his Discworld books with a warning to the effect that "we can't say where the story begins", and then proceeds to begin the story. But he often points out that it could easily have started at a different place, depending on your point of view. Terry Pratchett has the luxury of working in fiction, however. So he really can determine where the best place to start is. History is a lot more complicated; large events rarely happen for a single reason. If you want to understand current events, you have to understand what has gone before.

The "World History" of World War II is that it happened because Germany wanted revenge for World War I. This is closer to the truth than the "World History" view of WWI, to be sure. But it has difficulty explaining why Italy (a member of the victorious Alliance in WWI) fought on the side of the Axis in WWII. It holds no explanation for the Japanese membership in the Axis, or even the pacific war in general. It can't explain why an attack on the US Navy's primary fleet base in the pacific in December 1941 leads the US Army Air Force to bomb Germany in 1942.

I'm pulling examples from World War I and World War II because those are the periods I am most familiar with right now - but the same kind of history lessons need to be applied to the current mess in the Middle East.If you don't know the background of events, the events themselves can be spun to mean whatever the spinner wants.

It all boils down to being able to think for yourself. Without knowing the history behind an event, and preferably knowing the history of that history, you can't understand the current event. The why matters, and the why causes the what. And history should be more than the study of the what, it should be the study of the why. Otherwise, we have always been at war with Eurasia...

(originally posted December 7, 2006)

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