Wednesday, June 18, 2014


"History will teach us nothing"


We often speak of the lessons of history, and how, if we study the events of the past, we gain insight into the times in which we live and obtain a glimpse into our future. Theoretically, if we apply that knowledge correctly, we may avoid the mistakes of the past and create a better world for the generations to come. At least, that is the hope. But, it seems, we have not learned many lessons at all. We seem to continue to blunder from one catastrophe to another, all the while believing that, somehow, things will be better. They never seem to be better. Hence, the cynicism of Sting's song title and lyrics. He suggests that history has no lessons to offer, and that the cycle of catastrophe is doomed to be repeated.

I take another view. History is, indeed, a good teacher. We now have the ability to record almost everything that is done, said, shown or thought. The amount of stored information that is available to everyone is staggering. Even before the digital age, the amount of stored information was immense, but now, thanks to technology, it is beyond belief. And it is readily obtained by everyone. No need to make special trips to libraries or archives or historical sites to find the information. It's here literally at our finger tips.

So, the question becomes this: if there is so much historical information and knowledge at our disposal, why do we continue to make the same errors ? It is a question asked by any teacher of any subject in any part of the world and at any time in our history. Why don't our students learn ? We are good teachers, we have the resources, we know what we're doing ... why do some students fail to learn?

The eminent historian Margaret MacMillan touches on this dilemma in her latest work The War That Ended Peace. She attempts to shed light on the causes of the First World War, and it is timely that she published her book, given the fact that this month, June of 2014, marks the centennial of the start of that horrible bloodbath. MacMillan acknowledges that the topic has been examined several times in the last hundred years. Indeed, one of my favourite histories which I read about twenty years ago, covered the topic in minute detail. It was the immense work Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie, and it was excellent. Why re-visit this topic again? And what could MacMillan possibly offer to us in the way of lessons?

Briefly, MacMillan differs from Massie and the other historians who treated this topic in that she attempts to compare the events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to our own times. In that simple way, she is trying to help us to understand that the forces of history do, indeed, seem to repeat themselves, and often seem to be cyclical in nature. But the key word here is "seems": in her examination, the events of that time do not fall into a type of inevitability that we have no control over. If we finally realize this, she suggests, we can halt the events which, in the past, were thought to be inevitable and irreversible. The most tragic aspects of her book occur at the end, in the months between mid 1913 and the summer of 1914, when general war was declared. As she takes us through this time period, she shows us that, at several points, the war could have been avoided by anyone with the courage to stop the so-called "inevitable" forces at play. And she shows us that, indeed, those forces were stopped at several times before 1913-1914. There were several crises, notably at Fashoda in east Africa, at Morocco in the early 1900's, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and the two Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, where patience and genuine efforts to mediate resulted in the de-escalation of tensions. But, she argues, in 1913 and 1914, those people of wisdom or patience were either dead or retired, and the fatigue of a world gone to the brink too often resulted in the feeling of inevitability. It was heart-wrenching to read of the failures of the leaders of the major nations who allowed themselves to be swept along by events that were completely within their control, but were allowed to go out of control because of the mind sets of the leaders and their followers. And the leaders were not the only ones to blame, she contends. Professional diplomats, military figures, journalists, business people, and the common citizens all had their roles to play in this tragedy. The fact that the war broke out in one of the most exciting, intellectually progressive, and technologically innovative times in world history adds to the tragic nature of the start of the First World War, and has haunting echoes in our own time.

No one can doubt that we live in times that are equally charged with tension and pressure. Conflict abounds. Like the age before World War One, we have lived in relative peace for decades. There has been no major, general world war, although our times are littered with several small wars, no less destructive, no less tragic. Are we on a similar course to a major disaster as the world of the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries was?  MacMillan, the astute teacher of history, shows us that we are. But she ends her work on an optimistic note:

...if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.

The lessons are there before us. And MacMillan and others like her have done their best to teach us these lessons. The question remains: will we finally learn the lessons, and avoid the costly errors of the past? Or are we doomed to repeat them?

Are we good students? We need to hope so.