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Why study history and WW2

LAURENCE REES: Why should anybody bother to study history in general and this period in particular?

DAVID CESARANI: If you suffer from insomnia many history books are a wonderful way to send yourself to sleep. If you like a good read history books are full of terrific stories, great personalities. What else do we learn about? Well, studying history is a terrific way of looking in a mirror and seeing the bits of ourselves that we don’t usually want to look at and recognise. What we do with that information is another matter, and in that sense history doesn’t teach us any lessons. History teaches us that it is possible to be good and bad at an individual level, at a societal level, but it doesn’t make people behave better, it doesn’t make them into better people. It just shows them that evil has existed, that the possibilities always exist for evil and that human beings have that capacity. The rest is up to us.

LAURENCE REES: And why study this period in particular, because there’s more evil in it than most?

DAVID CESARANI: I don’t think there is more evil in it than most periods, sadly.

LAURENCE REES: But you’ve talked about the singularity of the crime of the Holocaust within it.

DAVID CESARANI: That was cruelty on a vast scale. Human beings have been so cruel to other human beings, inflicted such pain on them and enjoyed it, revelled in it, or excused it for as long as human beings have been around, and I don’t think the era of the Second World War or the Nazi era is particularly special in that respect. What makes the Nazi era important to study is that we’ve lived with the consequences for so long and in many respects still are living with them. So if we want to understand the geopolitics of Europe, the dynamics of European societies and the origins of European politics we have to go back to the Third Reich, the Nazi era and everything that led up to it. So it’s because we’re living with the consequences that we should learn about it.

But I don’t, unfortunately, think it teaches us anything about human nature that you wouldn’t learn from looking at the Crusades, looking at the Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War or the First World War. No, I’m afraid if you want evidence of cruelty, bigotry, prejudice, what we would call racism, then the bookshelves are full of it.