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 do you think people should bother to study history in general and this period in particular?

OMER BARTOV: I think people who don’t know history live only in the present. They do not live like human beings. They have no notion of where they come from and therefore they have no notion of where they’re going. They have no depth of perspective, they live without any understanding of why things are the way they are today. And so history for me has always been the most fundamental human endeavour: to understand where you come from and why you got to be where you are now. And being deprived of that, and this is not only in Britain it’s also, of course, in the United States where history is very poorly taught, to be deprived of that knowledge is to be deprived of culture, to be deprived of a true, deep sense of identity of who you are, and therefore to be deprived of the ability to know anything about your future. Because how can you think about a future, how can you plan anything in advance without knowing where you came from and what the mistakes and what the accomplishments were of the past.

LAURENCE REES: And why this period in particular?

OMER BARTOV: Well, you know, this is a slightly different question because this period has to be known and has to be studied, but I myself am a bit conflicted about this period. I think there’s a fascination with this period, you know, the media. If you put a Swastika or a picture of Hitler  on a book or on some promotion then people stand up and might open it. There’s a kind of morbid fascination with this period that worries me, and, of course, I myself am part of it so I can’t blame others, but I do think that to some extent this period has to be learnt but it has to be learnt within a context. The relentless focus on atrocity, on genocide, on war, on destruction and on the glorification of evil is troubling. And so at least from my perspective what I’m trying to do now is to look at this from the human side, to look at communities and what people were and how they lived and how they interacted before someone came either from their own community or from the outside, usually both, and destroyed that, rather than simply focusing on the destruction. Because there is a limited amount of learning you can derive from only looking at horror, you need to contextualise that. Again, if you want to have a deeper understanding of human culture and human civilization, it is not only about genocide, it’s mostly about something else, and I sometimes worry that we focus too much on that.