Friday, 11 July 2014

Does History Have Nothing To Teach Us?

I recently read an article by Niall Ferguson, who drew parallels between Putin today and Hitler in the 1930s. It got me thinking about whether or not we really can learn lessons from history, and if not, why? You often hear people making analogies between historical and modern events, or trying to use the build up to WWI to explain why power-blocs such as the USA, EU, Russia and China are such a bad idea. The famous quote "history is a vast early warning system", and George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" encapsulate this opinion on history; that we can look at the past and use it to help guide our future actions.

However if we look at the politicians and military leaders in Europe in the early 1900s, they all knew history well. Most had graduated university, many had studied history. I'm sure some of these leaders knew about the Peloponnesian War which began in 431 BC over a relatively insignificant event in a far off part of the Greek world, which led to an alliance of Greek states led by Athens fighting against an alliance of Greek states led by Sparta. The war could have been avoided. But it was allowed it to grow into the most destructive war in Greek history. Yet in 1914 the politicians and military leaders allowed an assassination in a far-off corner of Europe to bring the two alliances of the great powers into a war that would consume the lives of 11 million soldiers. And only twenty five years later, a new generation of politicians, just as well informed about history, would allow history to follow the same course to an even more destructive war, killing 50 million men and women.

So how can we learn lessons from history? The role historians have as window on history, and the way a historian's personality can shape their writings means that what gets written down is not necessarily 'history'; instead it is what historians are interested in or what they want the future generations to believe. But if there is a gap between 'history' (what actually happened), and historiography (what gets written down), how can we ever claim to learn from history? Should we accept that we can never really know what happened, because books may be written with an agenda, or a historian may have a political bias that clouds their judgement? If we cannot learn about history from an objective point of view, then why study history at all? 

Of course, I think the study of history is crucially important. I believe that it is necessary to understand what happened in the past and how we got to where we are today, in order to understand the present world we live in . I believe that the role of a historian is to study historiography and look at many different sources on the same topic written at different times and places, and to study primary sources and to try and decipher what really happened, from what historians may think had happened. So, we can learn lessons from history, once we actually understand what history is.

However another additional problem arises, which is that each new generation seems to think themselves to be superior from their ancestors. So the politicians of the 1930s probably looked back at the politicians of the 1910s and scoffed, declaring that they would never be so foolish. Just as we look back at people who lived in the late 20th century and think we are more knowledgeable and more unbreakable than they were. So perhaps it is not that we cannot learn lessons from the past, but rather that we choose not to. I think this does seem to ring true in many cases; history has so much to teach us, but it is our job to first understand what it is that history is teaching us, and then to actually use this to help us in our modern lives, instead of rejecting it, claiming that as no set of circumstances can ever be exactly the same, it is foolish to try and use history to guide our future actions.