WW2 Relevance

|   24 June 2012

Optimism and History

Should knowledge of history make us optimistic or pessimistic?

I was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 this week, and the closing words I spoke seem to have troubled a few of my friends. I was asked by the presenter, John Humphrys, whether I felt knowing history should make us optimistic or pessimistic about events in Greece. I replied that I did not think there was a lot of optimism in history.

Some of my friends were shocked at this. They see a huge amount to be optimistic about in history. ‘History is a catalogue of progress,’ one of them said to me. ‘From cancer drugs to computers to smart phones – things get better all the time.’

Really? What about the fact that there is example after example in history that demonstrates that the human race can go backwards as easily as it can go forwards. After the fall of Rome there came the accurately named ‘Dark Ages’. What about the Black Death in the fourteenth century? It took hundreds of years for Britain to recover from that catastrophic and sudden population loss. What about the civilizations that vanished in South America – even today no one really knows why the Mayans disappeared.

I actually think we only exist at all today because of one piece of extraordinary luck. If the Nazis had waited say fifteen years or so to release their aggression on the world then they would most likely have possessed powerful nuclear weapons. And having studied the mentality of this regime I believe that given the smallest provocation the Nazis would have chosen to let loose the nukes indiscriminately and at whatever cost.

Nihilism was deep, deep within Hitler – witness his ‘nero’ destruction order at the end of the war – and his solipsism was such that as he contemplated suicide, on 30 April 1945, if he could have blown up the world along with him, I believe he would have.

Where is the optimism in that? If one Hitler can be born into the world – why not other much like him?

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12 Responses to “Optimism and History”

  1. Frank says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. I think you have been just made like this because of studying ‘dark’ stuff. History is progress!

  2. Cam says:

    but surely it is not luck that the Nazis became powerful in the 1930s as opposed to the 1940s or the 1920s, because it was due to external and internal factors, like the global depression and weimar republic, which made them popular?
    although history may not be a catalogue of progress, and it can move backwards faster than forwards, what happens is not because of coincidence, and we do not exist because of coincidence, as everything happens at a certain time due events causing it. therefore it is unfair to say that it was luck that humans exist because the nazi regime could not have existed anywhere out of the specific time period in which it occurred in.

  3. Arnold Howard says:

    I believe an Adolf Hitler could once again be elected–in an advanced western country. It could happen, because people ignore history.

  4. Zim says:

    It’s an interesting topic to think about. As a 20th Century historian it’s hard for me to keep an optimistic outlook on the future when you’re submerged in example upon example of the horrors humanity is capable of. And that’s just the 20th Century. The small optimistic side of me wants to argue that we are a more informed and progressive society and that history could not possibly repeat itself. However, my internal pessimist states that can’t being more informed be a downside? We are flooded with information and told to take a side. The information we are given is often skewed or biased. Genocides and atrocities are still happening and as a society we are becoming to immune to violence and war. Sure we have progressed, but have we enough? Sure it can be a bit depressing thinking about it but, nevertheless, it is important to keep the conversation going.
    If history has taught us anything it’s that people are capable of doing remarkable things that are either virtuous or horrific.

  5. François P. says:

    Hitler indeed was a “megalomaniac”. The aftermath of WW1 gave him the perfect opportunity to project his mind towards the construction of the Third Reich.

    Yes, if the Nazis had waited just ten years, they would have had the time to develop nuclear weapons. In 1939, they already had drawings on the table for ballistic missiles (V-2) and cruise missiles (V-1 or Buzzbomb). Towards the end of the war, these weapons of mass destruction as we call them today, were already in use against Britain. Then we can only imagine the outcome WW2.

    Can this happen again ? Yes, it can … if we don’t play our cards right.

    “Knowledge of history” is a gauge. We can use it intelligently to compare political and economic conditions and calculate the probabilities of a given dangerous situation in a particular area of the world. If we don’t take advantage of this “knowledge of history”, then we have reason to be pessimistic about an optimistic prediction for the future of the human race.

    Yes, we must play our cards right. Let’s consider ourselves lucky that in this modern era “high technology and communication” has become a major trump card in our hands. It can be used against deadly threats to people of good will.

  6. Glenn P. Willeford says:

    None of the above responses are “bad.” Frank, I do wish I had your optimism. George Santayana’s famous quote (“… are bound to repeat itself”)does, nonetheless, strike home — even though it was taken out of context from a speech he made.

    I just finished Sir Ian Kershaw’s 2008 work on Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution. Also recently read Solzhenitsyn’s Archipelago and Poliakov’s Harvest of Hate, as well as Mee’s book on Potsdam.

    What I see developing today is a repeat of history with the U.S. playing the fascist role right down to Evangelical religion assisting the dictatorship. (I’m an American and I can still voice this. For how much longer, who knows?)

    Must say, Kershaw does include a (much needed) jolly notation now and then. His ending of the 2008 book is hilarious.

    I’m looking an answer to a conundrum posed in Gulag. Solzhenitsyn says that just after the European war ended the U.S. and Great Britain sent 2,000,000 “Kulaks” back into Siberia and almost certain extinction. Has anyone researched and written on this?

    I want to know who, what, where, when and esp. WHY that happened. If indeed it did. Any help out there?

    Glenn Willeford

  7. Interested says:

    I think pessimism about humanity is probably the correct view to have, speaking as a history person myself.

    That’s not just from looking at WW2 and WW1 history, but before that – atrocities were comitted in the Napoleonic Wars (the true first world war?) in Spain, Russia and elsewhere; and that was during the time of the enlightenment. People obviously didn’t learn from that history in the early 20th century, so new world wars happened.

    The history that we’ve all seen over the past decade certainly doesn’t make me optimistic. This economic crisis, for example; you’d think we would have learned from 1929, but we didn’t. Let’s also not forget the invasion of Iraq…

  8. Nick says:

    I agree that there isn’t a lot of optimism in history. It seems to be a constant struggle of tyranny trying to submerge the forces of freedom. The 20th Century witnessed the worst genocides in human history. Even with relatively rudimentary methods, but with cold determination, the Nazis and Communists were able to liquidate tens of millions of lives.

    If there is one thing to be optimistic about it is the ability of humanity to persevere and rebuild, even after the most devastating trials. With the advent of nuclear weapons though, it seems like just a matter of time before a city of millions is attacked with such a device, whether the perpetrators be terrorists or leaders of countries, they’ll be the heirs to Hitler’s nihilistic solipsism.

  9. George Boucher says:

    To Glenn Willeford: forcible return of Soviet POWs-you could start with Count Nikolai Tolstoy and follow links from there.GB.

  10. Jefferey Cawlay says:

    I agree, history is progress, and some good came from WWII. Such as Winston Churchill showing the determination of the human spirit to never give in, and of course his sheer brilliance. You can find a great interview with Mr. Churchill, and other historical luminaries, at this blog: http://psychicthinkers.tumblr.com/. It’s one of my favorites, check it out!

  11. David Thompson says:

    The Hitler story continues to draw attention. However even Laurence Rees glosses over the deeper issue of Hitler’s popularity and the true nature of Fascism. To Germans in the 1920s Hitler was a war hero, the Iron Cross celebrity who though a mere corporal had people like Field Marshal Ludendorf happy to have their photo taken beside. Certainly by any measure Hitler was later a more popular national leader than any current in the West today. One BBC commentator recently suggested that the same is true of the Chinese being far happier under their system than ourselves. He suggested that the Chinese have a different system of beliefs from the West.
    So what was the “system of belief” that Hitler was offering? Before we call Hitler a Nihilist should we not be calling him the opposite. A romantic and dangerous fool. The Nazi contrast to modern Jewish thought as expounded by people like Buber is total. Hitler could not contend with chaos and disorder, he wore the straightjacket of responsibility order and duty to the ridiculous lengths we still see new generation of Germans and Japanese slaving for. The horrible truth is that Hitler went beyond this simple national life ethic belief system originated by Mussolini and codified German Fascism into a moral belief system with tenants not unlike an orthodox religion. Thomas Mann and modern humanists sought to reject the burden of shame and responsibilities put on the individual by institutions. They saw humanity at the center of human progress. Hitler only saw the universe. His ideas were anchored in the soil not the soul.
    So intellectuals were slow to accept this idea of “a Nazi belief system” as not being unlike Communism. It was a false dogma they contended and so later they could not accept that someone at the head of such a complex machine as the German state would endeavor to wipe out it’s most intelligent and productive elements. It never made sense to it’s victims either and was therefore never expected. Hitler though an atheist misunderstood his own place in History. He remained tied to the rigid beliefs of his own Great War generation. Their reasons for fighting and dying little understood or forgotten or rejected by subsequent generations.
    Truly I ask of any soldier of any country on the frontline in Afghanistan today; is your belief system worth giving up you precious life for? – Who will care in 50 years time when the Taliban like the Hitlers and Stalins before are gone once more. and what I ask of the 20 million Russians that laid down their lives in the defense of The Soviet Union. Is their folly any less than that of the Nazi soldier? I am the Nihilist, I believe in nothing anymore.

  12. Bill Greene says:

    Certainly would like to be optimistic about History and the increased knowledge of it. The illumination of the conduct of left and right dictators will hopefully stop them in the future. Unfortunately there are many examples of dictators throughout the world right now but they do not have the resources like a Hitler or Stalin had to make global war. Hopefully it will never happen.