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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?

RICHARD OVERY: I think that the history of the Second World War - the things which led to it and the consequences of that conflict - represents a historical drama of extraordinary power and intensity, and it holds up to the light human behaviour in ways which are much more difficult to understand when you look at other more benign periods or lower levels of conflict or issues that are less dramatic. And I always come away from this period, first of all, glad I didn’t have to live through it or to take part in it, but also humbled by the extraordinary things which it shows you about the nature of the human spirit or, indeed, of the capacity of human beings to treat each other abominably. And I suppose, to an extent, history is about that. It is about creating a sense of humility and it is about asking people questions about human activity, questions which have a strong moral core to them. Then, in this sense, the history of the Second World War keeps those sorts of issues alive and keeps them at the forefront.

It means that historians have a public responsibility they often fail to acknowledge which is to ask these very big questions about the human condition. The larger question, of course, of why history in itself is valuable or interesting, is a question I think to which one could give obviously rather platitudinous answers. You know, the kind of thing that you might read in student university application forms. But in the end, of course, it is the human mind, it is how we have behaved, how we have treated each other, how we have thought about things and how we’ve idealised things over the course of the last five or six thousand years. And actually being, if you like, a curator of the human mind, is a very large responsibility.

It’s also the one thing, I think, that we need to make people aware of. That we are not just simply forward looking, because as individuals we don’t just simply think, what am I doing tomorrow? As individuals we’re shaped by all the things we’ve done in the past and we think about it. We learn lessons from it, and sometimes we don’t learn lessons from it, but we view history in a sense as a collective mind.