The Past is a Foreign Country: they do Things Differently There”

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.”

Yet the fact is that these contexts don’t make their history correct. Quite a few people, especially those who subordinate history to ideology and thus pretend to have a key to understanding history. Hannah Arendt noted:

“Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.” 

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.

Dr. Timothy Snyder discusses how mythologized history leads to dangerous understandings of politics, which posit theories of inevitability or eternity. According to Snyder inevitability assumes “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” Such was the view of many Americans and Western Europeans when Communism fell.

Snyder wrote:

“Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”

That is what makes the past so different, and it is why that when I read, study, and write that I try to understand the world-view of those that I study. I try to discover what made them who they were; to see the good and the bad, and attempt to be as fair as possible without falling into the trap of writing history as either inevitable or eternal. I try to emulate Barbara Tuchman who noted:

“What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. His exercise of judgment comes in their selection, his art in their arrangement.”

Even so I exercise a fair amount of caution when researching and writing about the past, because it truly is a different country.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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1 Comment

Filed under History, philosophy, Political Commentary

One response to “The Past is a Foreign Country: they do Things Differently There”

  1. Don McCollor

    …well said, Padre. As a modest reader of history, I see that many historians show the past in a mirror of their own (I can’t think of a better term) present worldview…it gets worse with history closer to the present…I find myself reading more old books…not to judge but accepting what they thought, what they did…that was the way it was…and visiting places back in time that I can never return to today…

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