The Past is a Foreign Country


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there…”

That is true. When we look at or study history it is often hard for us in our time to comprehend how others committed or allowed acts that we find reprehensibly criminal and evil. Since my primary areas of expertise include the American Civil War, including the ante-bellum period and Reconstruction, as Germany from about 1848 through 1945, including Weimar and the Nazi era, I find that I am confronted with these questions almost daily.

One of the hard things for any of us, even historians who want to present a relatively objective view of events, is to try to avoid the assumption that the people who made those decisions operated under our world-view; to assume that they should have known what we know now. But that is not the case.

The historian Richard Evans wrote in his book The Coming of the Third Reich, “People make their own history, as Karl Marx once memorably observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. These conditions included not only the historical context in which they lived, but also the way in which they thought, the assumptions they acted upon, and the principles and beliefs that informed their behavior.”

Such is also our contemporary problem, and future historians and lay-people alike will ask the same questions about us, just as we ask them about those who went before us. That is what makes the past so different, and why when I read, study, and write that I try to understand the world-view of those that I study, and what made them who they were; to see the good and the bad, and attempt to be as fair as possible.

Since I am still at my training conference and will be on the road home tomorrow I will wish you a good day.


Padre Steve+


1 Comment

Filed under History, Political Commentary

One response to “The Past is a Foreign Country

  1. Yes, I agree! Didn’t kow the quote but is clear in the understanding!

    In the Netherlands, were WWII is a breakpoint in our 20th history.Often you here, why did people not do this or that, choosing the correct action , resist or colaborate, go into hiding etc.

    But lookng back, knowing what we know, is very easy and even has a bit of arrogance in it towards the people that were living than.

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