Friday, 9 November 2012

History doesn't repeat itself. Historians repeat one another.


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The only lesson history teaches is that history teaches no lessons. A.J.P. Taylor

AJP Taylor was very Shavian and strove to speak in paradoxes (I do too). It would certainly be true to say that the lessons drawn from history and put into practice are almost always mistaken. For example the lesson we have drawn from the Nazis is that ethnically mixed societies are ipso facto good things rather than ipso facto volatile things. 

George W. Bush drew the wrong lessons from World War II by attacking Iraq, as I used to think did Eden over Suez, but I think now that maybe Eden drew exactly the right ones. Perhaps the difference between drawing the right and wrong lessons is how things turn out after you put the lessons into practice. Taylor is more right than wrong.

As A.J.P. Taylor also said, we learn from the mistakes of the past to make new mistakes in the future.


  1. We ought not to forget Ranke's saying, however, that if history does not influence politics, politics will inevitably influence history.

    And not all lessons drawn from history and applied are wrong: for example, as libertarians love to remind us (and I hate to admit is usually correct), Augustus' attempts to legalise morality resulted in very much the opposite effect, and that historically all similar attempts also fail unless the society itself already accepts the legislated morality. Of course, very few take the next step and ask "if legislation will not cure a sick society, what will?"

    So I might argue that history does, from time to time, teach lessons and that it could - if interpreted properly - teach far more lessons. My own bias as a historian is no doubt showing, and my fear that Mr Taylor makes his colleagues and himself redundant.

  2. I completely disagree with the utilitarian and even philistine idea that historians are redundant if they fail to provide lessons or more to the point if the lessons are not received and acted on. History, like poetry, art and jokes, exists to reveal a hidden order and meaning in the world. What lessons do Wittgenstein or Proust teach?

  3. History does repeat itself. In World War I Germany achieved a huge victory over Lenin and secured vast swaithes of territory and industrial resources under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

    Germany subsequently secured the strategic city of Rostov-on Don, cutting the main line of communication between Russia and the resource rich Caucasus.
    In World War II The Germans fought three battles for control of Rostov-on-Don
    ultimately less successfully than in World War I.

    American and Allied historians have naturally tended to concentrate on the action on the Western Front in World War I. For a more complete picture one must read the great German historian, Fritz Fischer's book, 'Germany's aims in the 1st World War', which gives a compelling account of how the war began too.
    Sara Moore

  4. The claim goes that it takes twenty years for corrections and new ideas to get into history lectures. As a history teacher, I think it can take even longer. For example, the claim that Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court over Indian removal remains alive and well despite having been discredited decades ago.
    Robert Davis

  5. Sara, thanks for the book reference.

  6. I think history is slow to change ideas, however historiography of the 20th century is full of dramatic shifts from the works of people like Braudel, to Thompson's leftist writings, to the minute micro history of Ginzburg.

    In college I found that professor's lectured in the historiographical school in which they were taught, which might be why adaption can be slow. Some subjects lend themselves to new scholarship better than others.

    There are some things in history that are equatable to Krugman's "zombie myths" stories that just don't die no matter how many times they are disproven. Jackson and the Supreme Court is a great example, or Nero fiddling while Rome burned or my favorite that the Wehrmacht was the first completely mobile army.
    Matthew Kaufmann

  7. Yes, I am afraid that is more or less the case. Of all the criticisms of my Churchill book, no-one made the obvious one, which was it did not agree with the line I had taken in two previous books. But both those books took the orthodox line with which everyone agreed. Historians often find safety in numbers, I fear.

  8. History is a wonderful source of vicarious experience, but whether it has much pratical value for decision makers is another question. That's because history's main actors don't necessarily look for lessons from the past, or can draw the wrong conclusions if they do. Who will tell a man with a sense of destiny like Hitler that it's silly to invade Russia, or tell Bush Jr, who has to help heal the trauma America suffered on 9/11, that invading Iraq and Afghanistan could do more harm than good?

    Also is there a danger of judging leaders selectively about not heeding the lessons from the past. Take Tony Blair for example. He might reasonably argue that intervention in other countries could have saved 800,000 Rwandans, and ended slaughter in the Balkans and Sierra Leone. His critics could argue Blair should have learned from history and known better than to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Who is correct?

  9. Drawing parallels with the past can be useful in understanding the present.

    But in choosing a course of action, one should keep in mind that history is not an absolute; it is always someone's personal and sometimes inaccurate interpretation of past events.

    Can history provide lessons for the present?

    I believe it can but one should be careful about the lessons one draws and how one applies them in the present.

    Chaos theory suggests that similar circumstances will not lead to similar outcomes.