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

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

SIR MAX HASTINGS: It’s probably true that history never repeats itself but, on the other hand, bits of history repeat themselves. Almost everything that happens to us in modern times you can learn something about from the experience of the past. To give you one very specific example, the Neo-Conservatives who went into Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001-2002 have since said, and in particular the former Vice President Dick Cheney is on the record as saying, that they were hugely influenced by the experience of Japan and Germany in 1945. They said, look at what we achieved with the defeated nations in 1945, we empowered them and we created democracies, we were able to turn them into hugely successful economies with wonderful political systems. But they’d studied the wrong history. If instead they had looked more closely at what happened to the liberated nations in 1944-45 and the enormous problems that the Western Allies suffered in handling the liberated nations and in particular Greece, they would not have gone into Iraq.

There are real parallels between Churchill’s difficulties in handling Greece, because there’s a fundamental problem with liberated countries. In defeated countries you can tell people who make trouble that they will be shot. And you can mean it and you can take them out and shoot them. But you can’t do that with liberated people. You are facing traumatised societies, deeply mistrustful of their exiled governments that return and try and take over. You are dealing with youth who have been overwhelmingly radicalised by the experience of war, you’re dealing with all sorts of forces and, unlike with the vanquished, you can’t turn machine guns on them or, if you do, you get a terrible press in the United States.

If Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush had been made to read all this stuff back there in 2001 we might not have got into half as much trouble since. There is always something to be learnt from history, and since World War 2 was by common consent the greatest and the most terrible event in history it makes more sense to study that than most other things in the course of history.