Friday, August 23, 2013

Why read history?

"I am skeptical about the idea that we can learn much from history, at least in the sense that knowledge of past follies will prevent us from making similar blunders in the future...  And yet it is important to know what happened before, and to try and make sense of it.  For if we don't, we cannot understand our own times."

I was surprised to see such a statement at the beginning of a book about history.  We often think 'those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,' and yet it seems pretty obvious we're not learning the lessons history teaches.  To see it put so profoundly in writing was a pleasant affirmation, for me at least.  And making some sense of what happened seems to be a recurrent theme in Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma (which I received from Amazon Vine).

The world was a very different place after the Second World War.  Not only had the conflict touched so many places around the globe, but news of the atrocities committed deeply shocked and embarrassed people.  Some had cause to celebrate and others to fear and mourn.  Cities lay in ruins and people were starving.  Governments were changed – not just in Germany and Japan – but all of Continental Europe and most of Asia, colonies teetered on the brink of collapse, and the United Nations was created.  Buruma looks around the world and catalogs what happened by topic: hunger, revenge, displaced persons, what became of collaborators, reeducation, and sex (not just rape but also prostitution, which was sometimes engaged in for profit and sometimes to feed starving children at home).  It's not always a celebratory view with the victors, but often a detailing of the suffering and uncertainty of those whose lives had been upended by such a world-wide calamity.

And yet, in spite of the often dismal history it recounts, Buruma does a fascinating job of telling the story and showing all sides such that you gain a better understanding of the time and place.  His judgments are always tempered by an explanation of the conditions and why things happened the way they did – right or wrong – and is a more balanced and global view than The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe (which I should review soon).  And while this is ostensibly “a history of 1945,” Buruma expands his scope where appropriate and necessary.  The narrative is replete with individual stories of those who lived it, as well as that of his Dutch father who was forced into labor by the Germans, and serves to personalize the tragedy in small ways.  I found it to be a sobering yet worthwhile account, and yet it not only helps to make sense of the world that was built on the ruins, but sometimes I think I see even more modern parallels.

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