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Why study history and WW2

LAURENCE REES: Why do you think anyone should bother to study history in general and this period in particular?

AKIRA IRIYE: I think one could have a number of answers to that, but even though I must say we are ignorant about history, we still do use historical analogies. When 9/11 happened many Americans said that this is Pearl Harbour and there are signs still outside airports in Chicago which say: “we don’t forget Pearl Harbour, we don’t forget 9/11”. So 9/11 and Pearl Harbour are equated there. When the governor of Illinois was recently arrested by the Federal Agencies because he had tried to sell the new senate seat to replace Obama to the highest bidder, he said that this is like Pearl Harbour, so anything like that that happens is Pearl Harbour. And I think it shows that people do use certain analogies and in both of these cases they are used, in my opinion, quite erroneously. So if we can use a historical analogising scheme we might as well be more accurate and might as well know what we are talking about.

More seriously it can be used in the current situation. For example, people say with the current economic crisis it’s very much like 1929 all over again, the Great Depression, the world economic crisis. That may very well be, but I think there are certain differences and I think to know something about history, similarities and differences between the past and the present is useful. Quite often I think the differences are quite important, and to realise that the world today in 2009 is not what the world was 8 years ago, even 25 years ago or 30 years ago, and to recognise that to situate ourselves in today’s world we have to also understand the difference between today’s world and our parent’s world for example, how far have we come or how far we have we regressed or whatever. I think history does have directions and is not always in one direction, but history does move and that sense of movement as a sense of historical transformation seems to me to be terribly important; that’s why even when people talk about the repeat of the global economic crisis of the 1930s today there are some significant differences, for example the degree of economic interdependence is far more extensive today that it was in the 1930s.

The 1930s was still a world in which the international economy was dominated by the Western countries; Japan has a very meagre spot in it, even though Japan is the most advanced in Asia. 80% or 90% of international trade and investments were in the hands of American and Europeans, and the colonies. Today the wealth is shared by the Indians, the Chinese, the Brazilians and the Japanese, as well as the Europeans and Americans, and so I think, whether for better or worse, it’s a very different world. It’s a much more interdependent and integrated world economy. Also, we usually say that the political crisis of the 1930’s, the rise of fascism and the coming of war had a great deal to do with the economic crisis which is quite true. But I don’t think we could say in today’s world that just because of these things there is going to be the rise of fascism or Nazism or totalitarianism in many of the democratic states in the world. We have also a greater degree of international cooperation. There was no international cooperation in the 1930s. Starting from the aggression in Manchuria the League of Nations proved to be terribly inactive, whereas the United Nations is still very much actively involved in world affairs and there’s international cooperation. There’s going to be a meeting of 28 countries pretty soon in London, and among the leaders of these countries will be intense discussion about what to do with the world economic crisis.

We do live in a very different world, but we don’t become aware of the differences between today’s world and the past unless we’ve studied the past.