The Case for History
Hitler tried to invade Russia in 1941 only to be defeated by the same Russian winter and same scorched-earth tactic that defeated Napoleon’s similar plan over a century prior. It is hard to know how and why Hitler did not learn from Napoleon’s failure. It is unlikely that he did not know history or about Napoleon’s very similar yet ill-fated campaign. Perhaps he arrogantly thought his powerful troops and advanced technology could not possibly be met with Napoleon’s defeat. But in any case he did not learn from history, while the Russians did. History rarely repeats itself as impeccably as the Napoleon-Hitler-Russia example. Even if that example were to repeat itself today and a European madman set his eyes on Russia, the self-destructive solution of starving your enemy by evacuating your citizens and destroying your land would be problematic by today’s humanitarian and sustainable standards. But there is still much to learn by turning to history.
Top Hollywood actor Will Smith has shared in several interviews that he instills in his children the pursuit of knowledge because “there are no new problems.” Everything you are going through, Smith argues, someone else has gone through. That lesson, I believe, is applicable not only to personal issues, but to national and global issues as well. Though we are blessed with rapidly evolving morals, we can still look to history for solutions to modern problems. Even outdated responses to equivalent issues can be adapted into responses better fit for the times. The guillotine is widely condemned as a savage method of enacting revenge at the expense of justice, but even if it is not still physically used as punishment, it remains a symbol of people power. Two centuries ago, America’s revolutionary founding fathers looked on France’s revolution with concern and thought it was too radical. To this day, even without a guillotine and without a Reign of Terror, French populist movements are still more radical than American “resistance” movements, more willing to exercise people power in disruptive yet decidedly effective protest.
By studying the patterns of the past, we can even predict the future. In what he calls “cliodynamics”, after Clio the Muse of history, Russian historian Peter Turchin successfully predicted internal strife for 2020 almost a decade ago, even predicting it would be racially motivated. He even used that prediction to dismiss and push back against any apocalypse panic about 2012. Turchin charts two cycles on two different scales to make his projections that he claims apply to most of history even ancient history: one long term and one short term. The long term cycle relates to class dynamics, is referred to as a “secular cycle”, and spans two to three centuries. Over the course of a secular cycle, a relatively egalitarian society experiences growing inequality and imbalance of power that end in political instability that restarts the cycle. The other cycle is what he refers to as a “father-and-son cycle”. It spans 50 years, or two generations, where the first generation fights against an injustice and the second generation struggles with the aftermath of that fight and maintains peace until the next generation restarts the cycle. Turchin can even be seen in the comments section of his articles interacting with fans saying they hoped he was wrong, himself saying, "I hope I am wrong too," but the fact that recent developments proved him right shows our failure as a society and leadership to avoid them.
A thorough dive into history would also reveal the roots of current issues and would help diagnose and hopefully heal them. That the status quo survives for so long with little reform is not for the lack of attempts at reform, but for attempts that do not adequately address the problems. The attempts at eradicating racism have ranged from symbolic bans on the Confederate flag to the unenforced Voting Rights Act, without meaningful education reform and without disrupting the history of KKK ties to police departments. The attempts at implementing universal healthcare never progressed past election promises or opposition party demands, without abolishing the threat of opposed lobbyists and the power of money in politics as a whole. In order to break Turchin’s cycles out of perpetuity, we must both study the true historical roots of current issues and take lessons from past successes and failures, otherwise we are doomed to repeat history.
P.S. The notion to look to history for guidance in current choices is a major component of my upcoming book The Alternative History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I derive lessons from history by drawing parallels between modern struggles and ancient struggles, as well as examining an alternate world that is already far more advanced than our own because they made different choices along history. The book is coming soon, and will be available on this page.