“History always repeats itself,” is a common statement going around quite a bit lately… usually accompanied with declarations of “…never again,” or some other trivialization of a historic figure, event, or circumstance.
Even in this blog, I have wrestled with what the past can teach us about who we are and where we are headed:
To most people, I think the pre-Second World War events in Germany involve Hitler magically appearing and subsequently invading Poland, when the truth of how Germany descended into the post-First World War political and social chaos is a lot more complicated.
There are times when, during my studies in this class and others that have touched on the causes of the First World War where I find myself on tangential research trying to correlate or disprove the idea that we never truly seem to learn from history. I have to force myself to remember that the variables will never be quite the same, but the pattern of poor alliance choices does seem to be there when one looks at the shifting aspects of power and influence in the world today.
We never seem to learn that lesson. While history is never perfect in repeating itself, certain patterns seem to emerge that are only obvious to historians, cynics, and realists. As time goes on, the conflicts of the past are either diluted to protect the progressively delicate sensibilities, distorted to fit a particular narrative or justification, or just plain forgotten for the next neat holder of attention.
However, one quote from “Getting” It… Or Not stands out:
We do not learn from history because our studies are brief and prejudiced.
It is convenient to make simple comparisons to stoke the fires of emotion for political points; this is also not a new phenomenon – fiery rhetoric has been part of psychological and political warfare for far longer than is commonly appreciated.
However, I think that history being truly cyclic is problematic on several points:
Society changes. It is difficult and somewhat amusing for me to ponder how the social norms and practices of days long since passed would play out in modern society and vice versa. What fundamental building blocks our great-great-great grandparents took for granted as “routine” and “acceptable” generations ago would more than likely be foreign, distasteful, and even downright offensive to us today. Even technology which allows for my words to be translated (with great speculation as to the accuracy of syntax) and shared with readers far across the other side of the globe lends itself to the possible dilution of possible stereotypes and an increased transfer of understanding.
Laws change. In theory, society dictates the formation and implementation of the laws which govern it. Changes in culture necessitate the adjustment of the rules and guidelines accordingly. What may have been legal three generations ago is often reprehensible and illegal in the present. In terms of international law, the justifications for treaties and agreements are often based upon historical precedents with the goal of preventing or promoting similar events and/or patterns in the future.
Alliances are never the same in both strength and formation. A comparison of modern participation in the various large international alliances or organizations against the adversarial histories within the last century offers an incredible example of how societies, their laws, and the level of cooperation have shifted over time.
History is shaped not by mere words in a book, text on a screen, or the whims of a famous director. It is shaped by people and the context they lend to the past.
Do we make similar mistakes over and over, only to be surprised by results which are eerily similar to what happened a long time ago in a land far away? Sure.
Interestingly enough, however, is the fact that we tend to overlook the differences of the societal, legal, and geo-political structures which were the basic contributing factors for those events to happen the way that they are recorded. Modern-day socialists will be the first to defend the failings of previous socialist governments due to poor execution of the theory but will also be the first to ignore the pitfalls which doomed those exact examples. Self-proclaimed anti-fascists will rail against consolidated governmental power; yet they will readily and aggressively unite and apply the very same practices employed by fascistic leaders and groups in the past. National leaders may assertively pursue personal and/or national goals in a manner which offers critics a path of least resistance which manifests itself as casual comparison; at the same time, their roles and actions take place in the shadow of public opinion against the extremes which have defined some nations and undone others.
Society changes… and as a natural result, so do the laws which regulate the people within any given society… which, in turn, fosters cooperation or contention between the various internal and external subsets of nations.
All of these elements are dynamic and evolving elements of history as it is made. Though patterns may be familiar, history is never truly cyclic – for it to be so would imply that any or all of the aforementioned components would become static.
“History repeats itself…”
If it does, then where would the fault lie? After all, history is the culmination of the actions of individuals within a nation, within a certain of norms, and part of a larger network of interconnected and varying pasts. If this is were to be the case, then it would reflect on a poor education in history itself and a tragic level of civic apathy on the part of the people involved.
History – in all its complexities and nuances – can be a series of patterns, which are aided and/or validated by our “brief and prejudiced” studies, but history is never truly cyclic.