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Why History Matters

By James Ryan

Last August, I went to Krakow on holiday. It was the perfect city-break: a beautiful old city, bustling but small enough to walk around comfortably; welcoming but foreign enough to realize that you’re away from home; hot and sunny in summer; and cheap Ryanair flights. I didn’t deliberate for long when choosing a holiday destination, and the deciding factor wasn’t just a long-held desire to visit Poland. It was Auschwitz. Located about fifty kilometres from the city centre, or an hour’s bus journey, lies the town of Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by its German occupiers during the Second World War. It is the most infamous place on earth.

I work as an academic historian, researching state violence in Soviet Russia/the Soviet Union. I have spent almost a decade attempting to understand why and how highly idealist political activists come to practice and justify violence on an enormous scale. It makes sense that I had a strong desire to visit Auschwitz (even on my holidays). History for me – as for probably every historian in the world – isn’t just work, it’s a passion. I realized this when I was in school and wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up. For some reason, I really liked learning all those dates from the Renaissance period, and thought it would be a lot of fun to teach history myself. Then I thought it would be even better if I could continue studying it as well as teaching, and become a lecturer. When I mentioned this to my teacher, he told me that I would need to do a PhD. I didn’t know what a PhD was, but quickly found out that it came with a title and decided that I wanted one!

The reason I mention this is not narcissism, but because within a few months of having my professional life planned out in my head, I began to have serious doubts. I liked history, but I wasn’t sure what the point of it was. Why not try to become a ‘real’ doctor, or a psychologist, or something more practical? Or, if I did want a more academic route, why not study something more intellectually stimulating, like philosophy? I’m glad now that I stuck with my original instinct, but those doubts have had an important effect on me. They have ensured that I have always approached the discipline of history with the belief that it should be more than just fun (and anyway I’d rather watch a film or sport for fun), that it should yield important information and understanding, that it does actually matter.

So, does history really matter, and if so, why? There is, unfortunately, a particular need for historians to address this question today. In a climate of financial cut-backs, disciplines in the humanities are more likely to be targeted than the salaries and bonuses of university presidents/vice-chancellors and their retinue. In Ireland, the Department of Education is considering the removal of history as a compulsory subject up to junior cycle (GCSE equivalent) in secondary school, which would likely mean that a majority of Irish students would enter adulthood without any meaningful understanding of national, or global, history. In this context, on the pages of Ireland’s leading broadsheet in recent months appeared an article that argued not only that history is nothing more than mythology, but that it’s actually harmful (The Irish Times, 9 June 2012 ).

It might sometimes be thought that historians live in the past, desperate to work out the details of events long since completed. This would be a mistake, for history as an academic discipline has meaning through the present and its effects on the future. Each of us is an historical being. We can only live in the present, we can only envisage the future, and we can only draw on the past for experience and guidance. We are narrative beings, constructing stories about ourselves in an effort to create a sense of individual identity, with our sense of ‘who we are’ derived from who and where we have come from, what we have done, and what we would like to do. Most of us like to think that life isn’t just a series of random events, that there is some sense of ‘destiny’ or purpose to the universe and our individual lives. What is true of us individually is also true of us collectively, however the collective is defined.

History is certainly potentially dangerous, and one can argue intelligently that historical awareness is perhaps more dangerous than historical ignorance. The poet and philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945) once observed: ‘History is the most dangerous product the chemistry of the intellect has ever concoted…It sets people dreaming, it intoxicates them, spawns in them false memories…keeps old wounds open’. History is often, and has often been, used and abused by those in positions of political power.

However, we cannot avoid the past and should not attempt to do so, for it has formed us in ways that we might not even realize. Our cultures, our political institutions, our political attitudes, our political ideologies, and our individual identities are all bound up with the past. For example, our cherished ‘Western’ institutions and concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ are historically conditioned, and it is useful for us to understand their origins. If modern democracy owes its origins to the French Revolution, then it arose with ‘the despotism of freedom against tyranny’, to use Robespierre’s words, the same words that one Bolshevik deliberately chose as the title of a newspaper article in 1918 when justifying the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia. Perhaps the most striking and disturbing reality of post-Second World War global history is the willingness of the self-conscious champions of freedom, led by the ‘land of the free’ itself, to risk global annihilation in pursuit of this ‘freedom’. They should have learned their history.

What does it mean to learn from the past? The famous expression of the historian George Santayana, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, is frequently cited in defence of History. It is, in itself, inadequate.

First, historians don’t just remember the past, they interrogate it. We all remember the past, but it is how we remember it that matters. It is a natural instinct to suppress bad memories, and national histories are often remembered in more or less sanitized, or at least politicized, form. This is sometimes quite deliberate, as indicated by a commission that was established in Russia by President Medvedev in 2009 (and dissolved earlier this year) to combat historical ‘falsification’, but which was seen by many historians and others as a means of enforcing a whitewash of the activities of the Red Army during the Second World War. The purpose is to allow citizens to tap into a sense of national belonging, of national achievement and triumph, to generate loyalty to the state, and to further legitimize the incumbents of state power. The discipline of History, by contrast, should teach us the complexity of the past and, by extension, help us to appreciate the complexity of our own times. The greatest danger associated with history is not historical awareness itself, but the absence of a well-educated, well-trained, professional, independent, and articulate historical profession that assumes the responsibility of enlightening (and when necessary correcting) such awareness.

Second, Santayana’s expression presupposes that there are lessons to be learned from the past. However, these lessons are not always clear. For a start, the mistakes of the past are not always agreed upon, let alone the lessons to be learned. Take the figure of Lenin, for example, on whose political thought I based my PhD. For some, he was the devil incarnate, responsible for setting in motion much of the human carnage of the last century. For others, he represented the purity of the socialist revolution before its ‘betrayal’ by Stalin. This brings us back to Auschwitz. Santayana’s expression is now inscribed above the door of one of the buildings in the camp. Looking up at it last August, I had to look past dozens of young Israeli soldiers in their uniforms. I doubt the lessons that they took with them that day were the same as those felt almost instinctively by so many of us as we walked through the corridors in reverential silence, past horrific and poignant images.

History is the story of human existence. There really is little that is beyond the scope of the historian, and as a discipline it is especially well-suited to cross-disciplinary perspectives. It makes sense for the historian to read up on philosophy, sociology, political science, economics, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, linguistics, geography, etc. It is the most comprehensive of the humanities disciplines, and there is no reason why it should not be as intellectually stimulating as any other. It is crucially important to study history, to engage with it deeply, precisely because its significance is rarely fully understood and its lessons are not always agreed upon – nor necessarily should they be. History is contestable. Historians are entrusted with interpreting the past as well as recording it, and these interpretations are then contested and debated by others. History is like a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, individually and collectively. It is intended to encourage reflection, especially on the things we don’t like to see. Those who study it gain a great depth of perspective on what it is to be human, and how societies function. Whether or not students of history (or of any other discipline) are able to change the world for the good of others, knowledge and depth of understanding are inherently good things to have: they enrich our lives. It is unfortunate that all too often historians are content with an ‘ivory-tower’ existence, or brief appearances on TV documentaries as means of ‘reaching out’ beyond the confines of academia. We, as historians, have an enormous amount to contribute to contemporary debates, on a wide variety of issues, and I think we should be a lot more assertive in this regard.


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