An internet diary
And why you should always keep learning about it
Published on December 7, 2006 By IanTyger In History

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 shoudl be the study of the why. Otherwise, we have always been at war with Eurasia...

on Dec 07, 2006

The assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand was the match.  But Europe had been spoling for a war for a century as you note.  They just did not realize what they were asking for.  WWI was a comedy of errors that dragged that continent, and eventually ours, into a war.  Lots of lessons were learned from that war, some not in time.

WWII is actually 2 wars.  Both of agression, one in Asia and one in Europe.  The Axis was a meeting of convience, and not really one of common goals or politics.  Italy was merely Hitler's puppet through Mussolini.

on Dec 07, 2006
Interesting reading. Doc mentioned Mussolini. He was a fascist (blackshirt) and was regarded as scum by the Italian aristocracy. His leanings as a power hungry madman naturally led him to Hitler. (There's more than that but I'm being succinct). They hanged him upside down after they caught him ---this was the Italian way of dealing with "scum".
on Dec 07, 2006

His leanings as a power hungry madman naturally led him to Hitler.

They had to.  He bungled Ethiopia and that led to Germany getting involved with North Africa (they did not want to be there as it drained resources from the Eastern Front) and then Greece.  If not for Hitler, Mussolini would have been hanged years earlier as the buffoon he was.

on Dec 07, 2006
I agree that history is very important. I just which they taught enough of it in elementary and middle schools. There is so much to learn about of what has gone on in our world, and not just American history but world history should be taught in the early years.
on Dec 22, 2006
Great Britian France and Germany as countries suck, their cultures suck, not one of these three countries has any thing positive to
show for human rights or civil rights. People in all three countries until recently treated each other like garbage and exploited
each other to the maximun. For the average person in England their lives were worth two cent to the racist, selfish, greedy,
British ruling class. The scum bag British ruling class profited the most from the slave trade and genocide of african blacks
in the 18th century. What do the mass murdering Germans have to brag about they hate everyone on the planet even themselves.
They pick freaks for leaders like willy the second they world war one Kaiser and the other degenerate freak hitler. For the
Germans to promote human rights and civil rights is like expecting a horse to talk. The Germans, French and English are racist
ethnocentric societies that start stupid brain dead wars between each other that wipe out whole generations of their healthy
young males for nothing. Maybe the younger peoples in all three countries have seen how stupid their ancestors were and have
decided not to make their countries one big grave yard with millions of rotten corpses laying in the streets.
on Dec 24, 2006
Have some issues, American? Way to pick on the negatives. Slanted negativves, too. I shouldn't be feeding the troll, I know, but if that's your view of non-american nations, I feel a certain amount of pity for you. Or do you have the same kind of slanted hate for America as well. (Note that I am american as well, here).