Not Everything Is Munich and Hitler

tags: Hitler

David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton University. Thumbnail Image -  Hitler poses for the camera, By Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10460 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Is our culture suffering from an excess of historical awareness? At first glance, it seems like an absurd question. Surveys have repeatedly revealed that when it comes to history, the American population is anything but well informed. According to a 2008 Common Core survey, more than half of American teenagers had no idea when the Civil War was fought, while a quarter believed Columbus came to the New World after 1750. In a video that deservedly went viral, Texas Tech undergraduates, interviewed at random in 2014, were unable to say which side won the Civil War, or from which country the United States gained its independence.

Besides, is it even possible to have too much historical awareness? Surely we can better face the challenges of our own time if we know as much as possible about the historical roots of these challenges, and about similar challenges in the past. For a professional historian like me, you would expect these propositions to be articles of faith.

In recent years, though, I have grown increasingly dispirited at the way certain historical references continue to dominate American political discourse, particularly on foreign affairs. The problem is not that the people who invoke these references get the history wrong (although they often do). It is that they get the present wrong, seeing it insistently through the prism of a history that has less and less relevance to the early twenty-first century. Indeed, even the vocabulary used to discuss foreign affairs—first and foremost the words “war” and “peace” themselves—comes freighted with historical meanings that are increasingly outdated and distracting. References that were already misleading a generation ago have become dangerously absurd. The putative lessons of history have become imprisoning, rather than enabling. In this sense, we really do suffer from an excess of it.

The history in question is, almost entirely, that of the World War II era, and this fact is hardly surprising. In these years the world experienced a spasm of violence and cruelty whose magnitude remains almost impossible to grasp. It included the Holocaust, the horrific aerial bombing of cities (including the atomic bombings), the cataclysmic losses suffered throughout Eurasia in World War II (as many as twenty-eight million victims in the Soviet Union alone) and an almost endless catalogue of other horrors. The United States faced one of the gravest threats in its history, and mobilized a greater percentage of its population for military service than in any conflict since the Civil War. While many scholars have described the Holocaust as a kind of collective trauma that still scars modern consciousness, the idea applies just as plausibly to the war years as a whole.

For Americans, this history also provides a singularly clear and attractive moral lesson, despite such blemishes as the internment of Japanese Americans (or, more controversially, the bombings of enemy cities, up to and including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Secular Americans today may have trouble putting a face on absolute goodness, but they have no trouble doing so for absolute evil: it is Adolf Hitler, the uncontested devil of modern times. Those who risked their lives to defeat Hitler and his allies quite rightly have the status of unalloyed heroes—the “greatest generation,” in Tom Brokaw’s cloying phrase. Meanwhile, those who tried to appease Hitler enjoy nothing but scorn, a phenomenon that took off as early as the publication of the indictment Guilty Men in England in 1940. Americans today also have no trouble putting a face on foolishness and weakness in international affairs: it is that of the umbrella-toting Neville Chamberlain, as he waved a piece of paper in the air upon his return from Munich in 1938 and proclaimed “peace in our time.” ...

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