Can We Escape From Repeating our History?

Some years ago I began to dig deeper into 20th century history. I found many issues that captured my interest during this period, and WW2 was central to most of them.

Unlike many conflicts before and after it, the opposing sides of WW2 were readily cast as pure 'good' and pure 'evil' -- at least from the historical perspective that I learned as a boomer growing up in America.

As I read more, I was mystified by how it was possible for Hitler and his inner circle of Nazis to maintain support or at least acquiesce from a large portion of the German people. It seemed like madness on a national scale.

Historical resources told me about 'what' happened in Germany that led to the rise of the Third Reich and to a lesser extent 'why' it happened. But, the 'why' of facts and figures left me still wondering how people could act the way they did. I could intellectually accept the atrocities committed by ancients, and that these people were somehow vastly different than modern folk. But, the people in WW2 Germany were my parents contemporaries and I could not fathom how modern people could behave that way.

During this research, some historical fiction set in WW2 Europe came my way. At first I tended to dismiss its value in answering my questions. It bothered me that it wasn't immediately clear which content was fact and which was fiction -- and since I considered fiction to be of no value, these works seemed suited only for entertainment.

One thing that changed this opinion, was that I eventually learned how universally careful the auhors of this genre were to accurately portray the settings that their narratives took place in. This helped me to get past my initial impression and opened a door to seeing the real value in this approach.

Historians rarely have access to the inner workings of the minds of the historical figures behind the facts they report and analyze. To me, the real value of hisorical fiction lies in eliminating this constraint -- authors are free to create characters and delve deeply into their psyche and motivations.

Reading these fictional accounts began to open doors of understanding how the German people came under the sway of Hitler and the many different levels of acceptance or resignation or active or passive resistance -- I began to view the German people not as a monolith, but as a complex society.

The characters created by historical fiction writers made the history come alive in a way that was not possible for non-fiction historians to accomplish.

At the same time, a hypothesis began to take shape in my world view. It linked WW2 era events to the present. It occurred to me that a nation's ability to thrive today was connected directly to how correctly it understood its modern history and how that understanding informed its actions today.

Of course the big question is what constitutes 'correct' understanding of historical events. I have become more 'convinced' (in the Quaker concept of that term) that there is an evolutionary aspect of societal norms and values that, while nowhere near complete, is concrete enough to use in determining the 'correctness' of a nation's actions.

The common denominators of the world's religious traditions provide useful standards of conduct. Historical figures in the modern era give us personal examples of how we should be conducting ourselves as nations in a community of nations: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and to those of us to whom Hawai'i is home, Queen Lili'uokalani.

When we use these standards and evaluate our national histories, each nation will be found wanting -- WW2 Germany provides one of the most glaring examples, but each nation will have historical events that should be seen as failures and not to be repeated.

My hypothesis says that to the extent a nation 'correctly' views its past and commits to ensuring that it will not be repeated -- to that extent, it will thrive. If true, a corollary might suggest that a nation that does not correctly evaluate its history and strive to never repeat it, is destined to stagnate and fail.

It seems that at this historical juncture, both Hawai'i and America are struggling with which direction each will pursue.




Retired Deputy Attorney General -- Hawaii

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Retired Deputy Attorney General -- Hawaii

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