We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Why study history and WW2 in particular

LAURENCE REES: Why should anyone bother to study history and WW2 in particular?

DAVID REYNOLDS: I think the Second World War is what makes the 20th Century. It’s the fulcrum of the 20th Century in many ways. It brings together a whole series of major ideological, geopolitical and technological issues. The ideological is the fundamental clash between democracy, fascism and communism, three of the great ideologies of the 20th Century. Geopolitically, it is what shapes the future of Europe, the war divides Europe for two generations, and those divisions have not entirely healed. Technologically it produces the kind of technologies that are still shaping our modern world, not just nuclear energy, though that’s enormously significant, but one of the biggest things that comes out of the war is radar.

The spin off from radar in terms of microwaves and things like that, all that has continued to shape our world. So it seems to me that it’s a period that is essential to understand, particularly if we don’t fixate on one or two things, we see it as a whole, and we’re not just preoccupied with one country, one man, Hitler, but we look at all the leaders, we look at the whole complex interaction of these countries, then I think we get a broader and more accurate understanding of what this epic and awful conflict is about.

LAURENCE REES: But any number of people don’t know about the conflict, and seem to live perfectly happy and productive lives, so why spend your time doing it?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, ultimately you’re asking me why know about anything, why bother, I mean ignorance is quite comfortable and…

LAURENCE REES: Why history as opposed to anything else? What’s the benefit of studying history?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, in a general sense, because we live as human beings in the dimension of time. Every day we tell stories about time, about what has happened today, and the problem with much of our news analysis is that it is fixated on literally what has happened in the last 24 hours and that to get historical perspective on recent events is enormously important. You can’t understand Putin’s Russia without understanding the experiences of a country that was nearly ruined in the Second World War, rebuilt itself, and believed in the heroic myths about the war and so on, then was pulled apart again at the end of the Cold War and is trying to rebuild itself.

This is a seamless story that takes you back way into the 20th Century. So I would say that getting a perspective on where we are now and where we live now is essential for intelligent human beings. There are other things we need to know, we need to understand science, we need to understand the ecology of the world we live in, but we certainly need to understand its history. And I would also say that if you want to make sense of the 21st Century you need to understand the 20th, and at the centre of the 20th Century is this epic conflict in which 50 million people died which we still don’t know that much about. You say there’s 10 or 15 million Chinese who died in this war, and that’s still very much an unknown as far as most of the people in the West are concerned. Yet you won’t understand a lot about the pride and anger of modern China if you don’t appreciate the way that country has struggled and fought to create its unity and hold its unity together against external aggressors and Western imperialists. The heart of that story is in the 1930s and 1940s. So I would say that these are issues that are part of what it is be an intelligent and reasonably aware human being in 2009.