History and Democratic Politics

History is peculiar in that, no matter how similar events may seem, previous episodes are never repeated under exactly the same circumstances. The consequences are different, making it difficult to judge a past event and rationalize it for present or future use. To look at an issue in the past and directly use its ‘format’ as a template for planning invites disaster as current discrimination, perceptions and circumstances are not taken into consideration. However, despite such complications, it is possible to judge history and then use this insight for current purposes. History can often provide warnings, and, therefore, guidance for contemporary and future actions. The Cuban Missile Crisis presents itself as an episode in which John F. Kennedy seemingly employed historical hindsight to his advantage. There is a suggestion that the failures of European politicians to avert WWII were insights that helped guide Kennedy in his bid to avoid nuclear Armageddon, namely by not ‘appeasing’ the potential aggressors. The implication is that the President of the United States wanted the world to know he had learned the lessons of history. In 2002, President George W. Bush tapped into his historical ‘education’ and decided to highlight previous historical events in order to help justify and instigate a western military conflict in the Middle East. Once again, the idea of appeasement was trotted out to justify the allies strategy of pre-emptive attack on those who were perceived as a threat to the world, or, more accurately, American interests. Adolf Hitler once claimed that, “A man who has no sense of history is like a man who has no ears or no eyes. He can live, of course, but what is that?” The Nazi dictator may have had a ‘certain’ understanding of the past, but it could be argued that he did not fully appreciate the lessons to be learned from history. Napoleon Bonaparte had set a notable precedent with his campaign to invade Russia nearly 130 years before the catastrophic German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. 

History does not just provide national leaders with selective and discriminating evidence to justify political actions.  Learning about history can also provide educational benefits at all levels of social development and caters for an instinctive human capacity for gathering information. There may well be some truth in the ‘philosophy’ that ‘ignorance is bliss,’ but faced with the potential of the human mind, and to not use it, would surely be forfeiting the very substance of the human experience itself. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that, “…enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” Historical education provides us with knowledge of episodes and developments in the past, thus, helping us to develop skills in perception, research, communication, and enables us to understand such concepts as change and continuity. The results can be far-reaching and varied. The historian, John Tosh, points out that “a historical education achieves a number of goals at once: it trains the mind, enlarges the sympathies and provides a much needed perspective on some of the most pressing problems of our time.” In short, the study of history develops our ability to think constructively and with foresight. To disregard the benefits of historical education, as well as education in general, is paying no attention to the fine threads that hold our very existence together. As Cicero suggests, “to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain a child.” To gain insight and instruction from the past does not always have to entail detailed historical study of such notable events as the decline of the Roman Empire, ‘1066,’ the Reformation or the two World Wars; although they are important, history is what happened just yesterday or even ten minutes ago. However, ‘classic’ historical episodes and recent personal experiences all have equal value.  One could argue that they are intimately connected. Most of us will use our sense of personal history to provide a guide for our behavior and as an example for moral example, positive or negative.  Indeed, what is the basic premise for the study of history, if not the observation and recording of people and their actions? 

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