History: a lesson from history

We’re pretty much in the last generation of people who knew someone who fought in the Second World War. I never had the chance to talk to my grandparents about the war, but I’ve had the opportunity to learn about what they did. One of my grandfathers was at the second battle of El Alamein — his war ended there after an injury. My other grandfather was captured, and thereafter held as a PoW, in the St. Nazaire Raid, about which there have been books, films, and, weirdly, a level in a video game. But despite the amount written on those parts of WWII, and others, the only first hand accounts I can get about their experiences are through the few things they told my parents, and more and more I wish I could have some time with them to understand their experiences.

As time passes, we rely more and more on people’s interpretation of primary sources and soon this is all we’ll have for this period of history. Some things which we hold to be inalienable truths will be increasingly subject to challenge, and the history lived by our grandparents may be very different when studied by our grandchildren.

The further we progress, the more people there are writing about history. This doesn’t mean leave things unchallenged, but it also doesn’t mean tying yourself up in in the knots of a contrarian. There obviously is not one single truth, but some things are facts, some are interpretations. More papers are released, more documents come to light. Information is shared across borders. We have the opportunity to develop a global understanding of history, challenging our own orthodoxies. Because of this we have a duty to encourage debate, but also to respect established truths where they do exist.

As is so often mentioned, we have access through the computers in our pockets to a wealth of the world’s knowledge than at any other time. We can become more informed in our views than we ever have been before. Instead we’re shrinking back, cherry picking small snippets to back up our views rather than using that knowledge to challenge our views. In a rush to react immediately nuance and understanding are lost. Facts are ignored.

When Ken Livingstone says “Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism — this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” he isn’t debating history. He’s rewriting it, either willfully or through clumsy use of language. To break it down:

“Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932…” Hitler didn’t win either of the German elections in 1932. His failure to obtain a majority is a matter of record. The only election he won was the second held in 1933 after all other parties had been banned.

“Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel…” Again, no it wasn’t, and not just because Israel didn’t exist yet. Underneath articles and tweets across the internet people were pointing at a Wikipedia article on the Haavara Agreement like a child showing off it’s first poo in potty. The article itself states “ Initially, Hitler criticized the agreement, but reversed his opinion and supported it in the period 1937–1939.” So in 1932 it wasn’t his policy. It is, obviously far more complicated, and actual historians go into proper detail here.

“He was supporting Zionism…” There are over two decades worth of his writing, speeches and ultimately actions that would give lie to any suggestion that Hitler was in favour of an autonomous, independent Jewish state. An excellent rebuttal of that is here.

“He was supporting Zionism — this before he went mad…” This suggests that the known decade of virulent antisemitism before the 1932 election were a work of sanity.

“…this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” It’s easy to call the Holocaust the act of a madman. It’s easy to call Hitler evil. It’s much harder to think of him as a human being who rationally planned and executed the industrial slaughter of millions of people. For me, one of the most powerful parts of Yad Vashem is the section where you see pictures of Nazi soldiers, and you can lift up their pictures and read a little about them, maybe their family too. They weren’t some kind of other. That is a far stronger lesson to take from this in my view.

As people shared the link to the Wikipedia article on the Haavara Agreement it showed the importance of historical debate, and why we’ve lost the ability to have one. People didn’t go off and research some new piece of information. It was more that someone else dug up a Wikipedia link, they saw it, copied it, and moved on. Instead of thinking “Oh, that’s interesting, maybe I’ll read up more on it”, it was used a single source to prove a non-existent point. Even more impressive was the simple reply of “Google Haavara” by people who clearly hadn’t done so themselves. For many people being directed to this, the Haavara Agreement was not new information, including historians who had written widely on the subject.

However, this doesn’t mean that the Haavara Agreement can’t be shared, debated and more effort made to understand the motivations from both sides behind it. In fact it should be.

But the context of why things are debated is also important.

This was true of Benjamin Netanyahu when he made similar comments in order to blame the Holocaust on Muslims at the height of tensions in Israel last October. He was roundly criticised for making comments that would give comfort to holocaust deniers, and for bringing the holocaust into the Palestinian conflict. That is just as dubious as stating it as an uncontested fact in a debate about antisemitism.

This isn’t restricted to one side or other of the political divide. Because so much of on-line debate is restricted to 140 characters things are either right or wrong. And once that view has been succinctly expressed with a single link, that is the debate over, and the next one moved on to. The desire for knowledge is now longer to learn more, it’s to only gain enough to prove a minor point. It’s also this that perpetuates conspiracy theories, such as holocaust denial. The historical work that Ken references is a book cited by neo-Nazis and holocaust deniers, a group most prefer to be on the other side of the argument to. Other troublesome aspects of this are covered in bitesize chunks in this thread and the responses below.

As we lock ourselves into online echo chambers, we risk isolating ourselves from a wider history. Half-viewed debates become facts become memes become a GIF. When people do learn something new, but also can’t comprehend the idea that it wasn’t news to anyone else.

As a result of Ken Livingstone’s comments there are many now that have a new truth about the policies of the Nazi party regarding the transportation of Jews. Some people now have a new truth about Zionist and Nazis colluding over this, regardless of the connotations of this view and those this view gives comfort to. And they have a Wikipedia article saved to their bookmarks ready to deploy whenever anyone challenges them on it.

The truth is that I find that quite depressing.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.