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A Soupcon of Sin

I have nothing against history or its study. For its devotees, it is a field full of intrigue and insight. Still, I sometimes feel a modicum of doubt at the pedestrian repetition of the claim that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them, and my skepticism grows when the parrots suggest that this maxim necessitates a universal awareness of historical minutiae.

First, one rarely needs to know the details to see the mistakes. For instance, a cursory knowledge of the Second World War is enough to show all but the most stubborn of cretins what went wrong. Some fool had an extraordinary bit of ambition and put its pursuit above the weal of everyone outside a fairly arbitrary group he selected to serve him. Strife ensued. It didn’t end well.

At the very least, that gives one enough information to understand that such actions are not to be imitated. One doesn’t need to know about the paintings. One doesn’t need to know about the boots. One doesn’t even need to know the dates. Hitler doesn’t really need to be the example either, but he works well because he was arguably the last in a long line of similar figures, and he certainly stands out because he was one of the first to prove that the schemes of such men are even less advisable in the modern world than they were in any other era. Basically, a brief recapitulation of any atrocity is enough to dissuade a sane audience from that kind of course. If you know Hitler, you don’t need to hear about Napoleon to realise that world domination probably isn’t going to work for you.

Admittedly, this is a rather extreme example, but most of history’s great mistakes fit into a fairly small number of categories. A mere taste of each is enough to learn the relevant lessons.

Furthermore, the merit of such lessons can generally be grasped by the simple exercise of reason. Perhaps this sounds odd from one to whom unreason comes so naturally, but I think that the point still stands. Any intelligent being who can’t see the folly in a thing like genocide for himself isn’t going to be convinced by hearing about examples. That’s why Hitler still has fans. In fairness, many of his modern supporters wilfully excise the bits that don’t fit with their personal ideals, but this is not commonly attributable to a lack of education on the man and his actions. The only salient effect of this self-imposed ignorance seems to be a kind of diversity among neo-Nazis that wouldn’t have appealed to their forbears. At least they can take solace in the fact that the Nazis of old did that stuff too.

If any Nazis happen to be listening to this from the Thirties through sheer chance or diligent application of your crazy Nazi science, I’d just like to say that Great Freddy detested your language, Bismarck wouldn’t have let you kiss his boots, and Nietzsche hated all of you.

Copyright © 2011, Jaymes Buckman and David Aaron Cohen. All rights reserved. In a good way.