“What are the perils of not learning from history?”


‘What are the perils of not learning from history?’.  This question, asked by students and academics alike, assumes two things: (a) society or individuals should learn from history and (b) the failure to learn leads to some sort of peril.  This article will highlight that society and individuals should be wary of repeatedly looking towards the past as this can do more harm than good.

Winston Churchill stated that “history is written by the victors”.  This suggests that historical events are not grounded in objective fact but are the victor’s interpretation of such events.  The interpretation of events is biased by the political leanings and socio-economic status of the writer.  The victors will focus on and promote such writers whose views align most closely with theirs.  Indeed, what would the history books have taught us if Nazi Germany had won World War II?  It is likely that Churchill would have been painted as the villain rather than Hitler.  Nazi Germany would have been the saviours of Europe rather than being a tyrannical invader.  Thinking from this alternative view of history, the lessons learnt would be rather different from the current lessons we take from World War II, for example: (a) a dictatorship is preferable to a democracy, (b) forceful expansions are beneficial for a country’s development and (c) ethnic cleansing is essential which would result in certain groups, including Jews and Communists, being exterminated.  The majority of individuals today would think that learning such lessons would be a grave mistake and devastating for the human race.  Therefore, it is important to note that learning from the past could, in certain circumstances, cause more harm than good.

Furthermore, some of history’s greatest villains have taken inspiration from previous leaders. Historians widely regard Hitler as taking inspiration from Napoleon and Napoleon taking inspiration from Julius Caesar. All these leaders were inspired by a dictatorship ideology and each leader learnt from the previous mistakes of past leaders.  Therefore, learning from history could be seen as dangerous if used by, what society deems as the ‘wrong’ types of individuals.  In this way, it could be argued that learning from history might result in a bigger catastrophe than not learning from history.

Our final thoughts turn to whether learning from history has informed our current society. Many scholars would argue that Brexit has been the result of dwelling on and learning from Britain’s lessons from World War II.  Boris Johnson, a vigorous supporter of Brexit, has argued that the European Union is mirroring a version of Europe envisaged by Nazi Germany. 

In an interview in 2016, Boris stated that the British people will be the “heroes of Europe” and that the European Union member states have allowed Germany to grow in power to create a Superstate.  Supporters of this argument believe that Germany has been a threat to Europe throughout history and encourage lessons to be learned from that perspective.  Indeed, some scholars suggest that those opposed to Brexit are not learning the lessons from the appeasers in the 1930s; the appeasers gave Hitler what he wanted in order to maintain peace, which, according to these scholars, mirrors those who are allowing the European Union to gain more power.   Conversely, critics of this view, such as Peter Ammon, highlight that these ‘lessons’ are a mistake and the real lesson to learn is that the past should remain in the past.  Therefore, the lessons to learn from history vary between individuals and are dependent on an individual’s political views and historical perspective.

Overall, the lessons learnt from history vary depending on the individual.  In the wrong hands, learning from history could be a powerful tool leading to a catastrophe.  In essence, learning from history should be approached with caution…

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Jacob Klimaszewski

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