History– it’s a strange thing, you think?
We study history for many reasons. To learn about events, sure. To learn about what events led to those events. And how events led to even other events.
For example– we learn about World War I. We learn about the events that led to World War I, including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, and we learn that the failures of society to adequately address the conclusion of World War I eventually led to World War II. We learn about events and trace the decisions that people made and how those decisions impacted later events.
And for this reason, history is sanitized. The actors are second-guessed. It isn’t an intended by-product of the educational process, but we cannot help it. If this hadn’t happened, then that wouldn’t have happened. If Eisenhower and Kennedy had not sent troops to Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, then the Vietnam War would never have happened 15 years later. (or so some theorists theorize)
But if we don’t study history, it is bound to repeat itself, you say. And you wouldn’t be wrong and I am not advocating for dispensing with historical study altogether. That would be ludicrous.
However, I think it sometimes needs to be studied from a different perspective. Instead of looking at events with 20/20 vision and determining what went wrong or what decisions were made that led to certain events (such as the dignitary mission to Japan orchestrated by Theodore Roosevelt which some historians contend led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor), maybe we should view history in a vacuum. Isolate and separate what came next and examine the actions of the participants at the time they took place. Try to place ourselves in the positions of the actors, use the information they had, and examine whether the decisions that were made were appropriate. You might be surprised. You might believe that the actions were right, even though they later led to catastrophe. That is how you learn from the actions of history.
How do you do that? Study the literature. Literature and history together? YES! Study the literature from the era; look at what people were writing at that time. Instead of reading historical fiction which attempts to recreate a time period and historical era, read the literature which actually came out of that era.
I recently read a collection of stories by the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, someone who many called the Jewish Mark Twain. Aleichem died in 1916 and is most remembered for his creation of the character Tevye, immortalized on stage and screen in “Fiddler on the Roof.” (cure “If I Were a Rich Man” and try to get it out of your head for the rest of the day.)
But he also wrote, among others, stories about a 9-year old boy named Motl (not like the Comfort Inn) who journeyed from Russia to America in the 1910s. During this journey, his family made a few stops in Germany along the way. Consider this:
“All three women, as I’ve told you, are not terribly pleased with Germans. I don’t know why. I kind of like them. If we weren’t going to America, I’d stay here forever and ever.”
After reading this I was struck with the impact of history. This was a statement uttered by a 9-year old character, but clearly illustrating the sentiment of its author, an individual who journeyed through Germany in the 1910s and died in 1916, merely 20 years before life for Jews in Germany became hell on earth.
We take our understanding of history and feel sad for these characters who actually thought that Germany would be a safe-haven for Jews when compared with the pogroms of Russia. How could they not have known what would befall them had they stayed, as so many of their compatriots did, intentionally or unintentionally? Take your knowledge of what came next out of the equation. Think of what these people were running from. Think of the information that was available to them at the time; the more-developed society when compared with the little village in Russia.
The sentiment about Germany isn’t so hard to understand. People did emigrate from Russia to Germany, thinking they were finding a better life. And they did… for a short time. Which is why it also isn’t that far-fetched that these same people who were rescued by Germany a mere 20 years earlier, were so slow to realize that the darkest of dark days were fast approaching.
Man, I LOVE history!