Is history useful for current events?

my view on While reading this question, many will be overwhelmed by an abundance of inspiration, and so answers will be difficult. After some meditation, however, I came to the conclusion that answering with a clear yes or no would be a crime against academic thinking. This is such a question that evokes infinite pros and cons. No one is ever really right, or everyone is right.

Curve analogies

Every day we use experiences from the past to make a judgment about an event in the present. We do this not only privately, but journalists also do that for us. When explaining a current event, references to the past often arise almost immediately. After the murder of Theo van Gogh, a line was immediately drawn with the murder of Pim Fortuyn. Both were charismatic and controversial people with an outspoken opinion, connected to the right side of the political spectrum. So you could say that this line makes perfect sense. On the other hand, you also want something useful to come out of an analysis. But if you look at the fact that the background and the motive of the perpetrators are so different, and that the social consequences are so completely different, is it still useful to compare both events with each other? In the analysis of the one, would it not be better to disregard the other, in order to arrive at a more neutral and interspersed conclusion?

Dangerous reductionism

Another striking example of how history may be misused is provided to me by The Independent. There, in March 2008, there was a report of some fuss about the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Israel. As part of her visit, she would give a speech for the Knesset. A number of members of the parliament refused to act here because of the fact that she would give her speech in German. The same thing happened when Johannes Rau gave a speech in German during a state visit in 2000, and Horst Koehler in 2005, in which they confessed guilt for the actions of Germans in World War II. Even then, a number of members of Knesset refused to be present or walked out demonstratively. They did not have to listen to a reason in the language of the murderers of their ancestors, that was their reasoning. They clearly refer to the past, but are very selective in this. They point to a terrible (and closed) period in history, but thereby completely forgetting what happened in the intervening decades. What they forget, for example, is the 'special relationship' that the two countries have, and the unconditional support that Germany has been giving to Israel for years, despite various human rights violations that would not be taken from any other random state. This is a good example of reductionism, where analogies that fit nicely into the picture of one's own ways of thinking are frequently cited, but analogies that do not do this are just as easily swept under the table. Once a reductionist interpretation of the past has been accepted as the truth, it is difficult to turn it around again and look for the missing pieces of the puzzle.

Learn from the past

On the other hand, there are of course also situations in which history is an extremely useful or even necessary addition to matters that play a role in the present. For example, many political perceptions are based on past behaviors. If, for example, we look at the good political relationship between France and Germany, it can be called remarkable. But if we note that this friendly relationship has almost exclusively had positive effects for the whole of Europe and can serve as a lubricant for the European monetary union, then we will not doubt its usefulness so quickly. Because who wants to go back to the situation where France and Germany were facing each other like two hostile blocks and war always lurked? Now that we know how things can go wrong if that bond is broken, both countries will maintain a friendly and flexible attitude towards each other, thus protecting us from past mistakes. Now this argument is very similar to that of the well-known historian Francis Fukuyama, who argues that history is almost exclusively useful in a negative sense, but this does not seem true to me.

Time for reflection

Another usefulness of history for current events is that it can lead to reflection. People who point to the problematic situation in elderly care often point back to the past. One argument in support of their statement that we should do more to ensure good care for our elderly countrymen is that these people built up our country shortly after the war, and that we should be grateful to them for that. If we go back to that time with our thoughts, and we realize that they have indeed done very important work for later generations, then this can motivate us to take action today. When we have returned to our thoughts in the present, we can hardly conclude that we are totally wrong. Looking at history in this way can lead to reflection.


Considering all this, we can conclude that history is absolutely useful, but that we must be vigilant. Every time we notice that history plays a role in our thinking process, we must carefully examine whether we are using the past in the right way. Don't we skip passages? Are we not informed too unilaterally? And didn't we just use the pieces that we found interesting enough? Only if we can answer all those questions with no can we say that we look at history in a responsible manner, and only then can history have a positive purpose.

Video: 25 Most IMPORTANT Events In History (February 2020).

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