How important is the knowledge of history, anyway?

Kerry Knudsen
Kerry Knudsen

The video age has brought recent history into the present, it seems, and, while everybody has seen the public-domain newsreel footage of frozen corpses on Germany’s Eastern Front, the attitude I get from viewers is that they’re no more impressed than if seeing a new special effect. However, unlike a hockey game or action movie, the heroes did not live to fight another day. They are dead. Ended. Their grandchildren have, at best, a hand-written line in a log somewhere as their heritage.

Those men and the civilians that got in the way died because of politics. People on both sides had a political position, acquired political power, and either convinced or conscripted their armies.

Much of the politics that triggered World War II came from the politics that ended World War I. The war officially ended at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, but the treaty that formally set out the conditions was not signed until the next June.

When I was a student, one of my history professors said the history of mankind is written in the history of war. I was offended. I remember thinking that was the history they chose to read, but that I would read, instead, the history of peace. Frankly, there is none. The professor was right. The “history of peace” I was seeking ended up being the daydreams of self-acclaimed smart people.

I thought Mahatma Gandhi was an icon of peace. He was not. He chose nonviolent revolution because he was irked that the Brits had taken away his guns: “Spiritually, compulsory disarmament has made us unmanly, and the presence of an alien army of occupation, employed with deadly effect to crush in us the spirit of resistance, has made us think we cannot look after ourselves or put up a defense against foreign aggression, or even defend our homes and families.” – Mahatma Gandhi, Declaration of Independence, January 26, 1930.

I was not as smart as I thought I was. The history of mankind is what it is.

I found the Gandhi quote by accident. I was reading Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, and he uses Gandhi to justify violent protests for unions. Alinsky was a Chicago community organizer and political activist. His works were influential on political activists of the U.S. ‘60s and the current U.S. president.

Politics matters, and I wonder at the old adage that says one should never discuss politics or religion. It seems to me the only party to benefit by silencing those discussions would be the losers.

Following the ends of World Wars I and II, people had a deep belief their losses were caused by a conflict between two great forces, one good and one bad. Those that had contact with enemy forces after a battle almost universally report that they were humans, and not evil, but the tools of a greater power. That, of course, brings in the aspect of religion – at least as big a driver of human history as politics, and at least as much the subject of pressure against discussion.

As we approach the end of 2011, world forces are again starting to define themselves. The Treaty of Versailles, we are told, was too restrictive, and it forced Germany to acts it would not otherwise have contemplated. That is arguable. Germany did not stop at its originally stated goal of lebensraum, or room to live. Rather, it got excited about changing human history.

I noticed along the way that many accomplished people had put Winston Churchill’s Nobel Prize-winning The Second World War in six volumes on their life-list of books to read. I read it, and agree a hundred times. If you read just Volume 1: The Gathering Storm, you will be hooked.

Why talk about history of war in a wood magazine? Look at Greece. The country has hardly had a stable year since they killed Socrates. Oh. Pardon me. They didn’t kill him. He killed himself by drinking poison he had to drink or they would kill him. It was politics.

If you read the recent history of Greece, you will see they went giddy over American graciousness after WW II. The program was called the Marshall Plan, and it was devised to rebuild the devastation the war had caused in Europe and Asia. There is hardly an Italian or German younger than 60 that did not benefit from the efforts of the Americans and Canada, who also had its own aid-to-Europe plan. They, and we, provided money and technology for industry, education, training in marketing and business, relief of debt and open immigration. Not a bad deal, if you think about it.

Unfortunately, history offers no absolute cures, and the Greek and other damaged cultures soon rode the boom as if it was their own making. Fair enough. The human mind, blissfully, soon forgets pain.

Today, the world has its military threats, but the political ones seem more important to me. Across Europe and North America, there is a political movement demanding its own version of lebensraum. They insist on a “right” to food, shelter, work and property based on nothing more than the fact somebody else worked for it. You can read the basics in Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

In the meanwhile, those that experienced the pain, and buried the corpses of their friends with frozen hands or had to walk away without the honour of doing that duty, those voices plead with history never to forget the pain. Here is another short read. Take a minute on the 11th to remember. It matters:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– Lt. Col. (Canadian) John McCrae*

*Composed at the battlefront on May 3, 1915 during the second battle of Ypres, Belgium

Best regards,
Kerry Knudsen


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